Have you ever chewed gum in Singapore or given a thumbs up in West Africa? If so, you probably learned quickly you were breaking the law in Singapore and offending your friends in Africa.

The customs and laws of our home country do not travel with us. And if we don’t understand the cultural differences of our destinations, we could be in for some awkward – even dangerous – moments. That’s because cultural differences often go deeper than chewing gum and hand motions (but for more on avoiding such faux pas, read some tips here).

The differences may come down to who we are: our gender, sexual orientation, race and faith. The comfort, acceptance and legal protections that exist in our own country sometimes vanish upon crossing a border. And it’s vital to be aware of how your appearance or lifestyle may fit, or not, into another country.


Solo Female Travelers

Solo female travel is booming, yet female travelers still deal with heightened vulnerability while traveling and must take extra precautions to stay safe abroad.

A young woman boards a train.

The U.S. State Department outlines key points to be aware of if you are a female traveling abroad:

Style of Dress: “Cultural differences might be reflected in expectations about women’s clothing and appearance,” the State Department cautions. Be mindful of modesty standards and think twice before you bring clothing that bares your shoulders, is tight-fitting or short. Note that ancient churches and cathedrals often require knees, midriffs and shoulders to be covered, even if it doesn’t matter elsewhere.

Freedom of Speech: While you might be tempted to discuss women’s rights with your travel companions, save those conversations for back home. If you’re overheard disparaging the local government, you could find yourself in a lot of trouble.

Women’s Health: The State Department notes that “each country has its own healthcare system and laws related to women’s health. Countries may criminalize some reproductive health services and may penalize pregnant individuals outside of marriage.”


[Related Reading: 5 Safety Trips for Solo Women Travelers]


LGBTQI+ Travelers

According to the State Department, there are approximately 70 countries around the world that “consider consensual same sex relations a crime, sometimes carrying severe punishment.”

This reality can make travel a daunting prospect for LGBTQI+ travelers. But with research and careful planning, you can plan a safe and enjoyable trip for you and your companions.

IGLTA, the world’s “leading network of LGBTQ+ welcoming tourism businesses” provides a wealth of resources for the queer travel community, including a safety guide, same sex marriage guide, trip planning help, tours and connections to supportive businesses around the world.

While on vacation, the State Department offers these tips to stay safe:

Abide by the laws of the country, keeping in mind that public displays of affection or discussing/promoting pro-LGBTQI+ materials may be illegal.

Be aware of entrapment campaigns where police may monitor specific websites, apps and physical locations for LGBTQI+ activity.

Be thoughtful in making new friends, as “criminals may target or attempt to extort LGBTQI+ foreigners.”

Keep in mind that LGBTQI+ resorts or neighborhoods may be quite segregated, and the culture of surrounding areas may be less hospitable.


Race and Ethnicity

If you’ve traveled to a country where you are a minority, you know you can feel the difference the moment you get off the plane. Especially in countries with less diversity, locals may not hold back in commenting about your appearance, touching your skin or hair, taking pictures of you and asking you questions.

The State Department highlights that race-based intrusions can take an uglier turn in some countries, where officials may profile and detain a person based on their skin color, prohibit them from accessing some hotels and restaurants and restrict their access to health care, for example.

This can be unsettling for travelers, so it’s best to be prepared. Consider if you’re ready for all of the attention you’re likely to receive. Avoid countries where race-based hate crimes are common.

Finally, seek support in your travel planning from a group like Green Book Global, the first ever black travel review website, that will help you find safe and welcoming locations and vendors for your trip.


Faith-based Travelers

Faith-based travelers, whether it be missionaries, humanitarian workers or medical volunteers, can find themselves in tricky situations if they don’t prepare in advance to learn the different cultures of their destination to avoid appearing intolerant or disrespectful.

A man prays with others in a place of worship.

Harding Bush, senior manager of operations at Global Rescue, emphasizes that preparation is everything and shares these tips:

Start with your sending organization, he says, and find out what they think are the best and worst things that could happen on the trip.

Read the local news to find out about important current events, or civil unrest in the area.

Prepare your devices. Some governments may practice surveillance, and you may put yourself and others at risk with something you post on social media.

If you’re going to a country where the government does not approve of your mission work, remember to keep a low profile.

“Focus on the least controversial parts of your mission when you share what you do and closely follow your organization’s guidelines,” Bush said.


[Related Reading: How To Travel Safely as a Missionary]


Global Rescue: Your Partner in Safe Travel

The cultural complexities of today’s world are vast, and if you’re a traveling minority, thorough preparation and awareness on the ground are vital to a safe and enjoyable trip. Part of that preparation is reviewing the Global Rescue destination report of the country to which you’re traveling. Global Rescue members can obtain detailed destination reports from more than 200 countries and territories. Non-members can get a one-time, free destination report here. These detailed reports will inform and help you prepare for potential cultural, religious or legal issues you may face.

Let Global Rescue – the world’s leader in travel protection – help you plan a safe trip and support you while you’re on the ground. Our deep-dive destination reports help you get a lay of the land before arrival, and our world class medical and evacuation services are there for you in a crisis.