I was an American diplomat for 12 years, traveling and immersing myself in cultures around the world. Here’s what you can learn from diplomats when you’re traveling

Trapped in Airport Terminal
Flying home from Bogota, Colombia on American Airlines.

  • Diplomats are dispatched all over the world, engaging with different cultures and ideologies.
  • Here’s what you can learn from them if you’re traveling.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Diplomats spend their whole careers living and traveling overseas. They have to immediately immerse themselves in a wide range of places around the planet. These ambassadors and attaches deftly manage to cross borders and cultures. I had to learn a lot of these nuanced navigational skills during my 12 years as an American diplomat. So let me share a few of their tricks and tradecraft to try out on your next trip.

Be ready for the worst

The first thing a diplomat does when planning a mission is to prepare for what could go wrong. I’ve found that too few regular travelers take the time to consider this crucial step. So before you head out on a trip, explore recent risks and consider what you would do in the event of a crisis.

The State Department has a decent overall guide to the latest threats. But, honestly, you are better off reading some of the news from the country. Don’t let it overwhelm you, but even if you don’t speak the language, use an online translator to get a sense of what’s happening with security, politics, and major upcoming events. Also, make sure you set up an alert to notify you of major news stories in the countries where you will be traveling.

Always have a back up

My second piece of advice is to pack extras. It can be hard to know exactly how easy it will be to locate your essentials when you’re traveling or how difficult, expensive it is to acquire. Figure out which are the must-have items – from cables to razors – and make sure you travel with a backup. This also goes for clothes. Packing an extra day or two comes in handy when you’re delayed or need to extend the trip. An extra pair of socks made my return from Nepal substantially less stinky, after the King commandeered our plane in Kathmandu.

Ditch the guidebook and talk to locals

Even in the past, I never liked the published guidebooks and with so much information online these days, you really don’t need one. They end up sending you to a lot of places that are crowded with other tourists. To get a sense of what you’re missing out on, try reading a guide to your town. Once you’ve seen the highlights in the book, use that as a jumping off point to research, read reviews, and actually talk to people who live in the place.

Let me expand on the last point. Traveling is a great excuse to reach out to someone. It could be someone who works in your field, a local organization related to something you’re interested in, or even their embassy.

Send this connection an email, “Hey, I’m going to be traveling to your country. Appreciate any insights or recommendations you can share.” It’s amazing how many people welcome the chance to share a few suggestions about their home with visitors from other countries. You’ll also often be surprised by the opportunities that arise from those personal connections.

Look, and talk, like a local

If you don’t want to stick out as a tourist or at the very least aim to be less of a target for hawkers or unsavory opportunists, then try to blend in. One of the best ways you can project savviness is by carrying a local newspaper or magazine. It will give pickpockets and peddlers pause.

Speaking of local, it’s a good idea to learn a few phrases of the language before you go. Using a greeting when you enter a store or a taxi helps to also project a level of familiarity with your surroundings and respect for their culture.

It’s also worthwhile to spend a little time learning about some of the major linguistic differences, which tend to explain a lot about how the world can be viewed through various lenses. In Spanish, for instance, there is no word for “compromise.” While in the Niarafolo language of Northern Ivory Coast, there is no word for yesterday or tomorrow. That can be useful information to know before you go.

Keep an open mind

Too many times on our trips we are myopically focused on getting from point A to point B. One of the best parts of being in a foreign country is the chance to experience a whole different way of life. Take in the unique smells, sounds, and rhythms.

Henry David Thoreau was fond of sauntering. It’s a kind of experiential walking, where you are taking in the small, subtle elements. This is one of my favorite things to do, wandering streets and often making exceptional, unexpected discoveries.

Diplomats are undoubtedly some of the world’s best travelers. While you may not be able to spend as long or go as far on the road, there is a lot to be gained by deploying some of the same tactics. It may help keep you out of trouble and also to see less-discovered side of the country.

Perhaps the last diplomatic lesson is to remember that travel is a two-way road. You are experiencing a new place and people. But, they too are exposed to a bit of your country through your presence. So, be a good ambassador.

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