Part of visiting a foreign country is experiencing the local culture and as a solo traveller, way-finding can be daunting on the best of days. Being able to ask for things will keep you from wandering around looking for them.
An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.
Thanks to a myriad of mobile applications for translations and good ole Google Translate it is easy to find a translator in your handbag however, these are dependant on having access to decent wifi and a device that has power. (Note: Neither of these is likely to be at the ready when you need them most.)
After visiting fifty-two countries I have compiled my top list of twenty key travel phrases that every traveller should learn before they go. Should your mobile phone take a leap off a speedboat, or get stolen, you are far more likely to make your way safely with less hassle with these phrases committed to memory.
Before articulating the list, I preface that humans are humans no matter what they speak. A smile and sincere greeting is the first thing that you should do before every asking anyone for anything. It sets the scene for cooperation and engaging with someone. Consider your smile a five dollar note, everyone wants one and wishes more people were giving them away freely.
Once you have mastered the art of the sincere and genuine smile, here are those key phrases you should add to your vocabulary:
1. Hello! (There is a word for it in almost every language. Start with this instead of excuse me or I’m sorry. Save those for when you actually have to use them.)
2. Time Related Salutations (words like Good Morning, Good Afternoon and Good Evening or Good Night)
3. Excuse me (Use this for when you need to disturb someone)
4. Please (The universal preface of cooperation)
5. Thank you. (Your mother raised you properly…don’t leave this one at home. Gratitude is also universal currency.)
6. I don’t speak ______ (Insert local language). This works great with Excuse me, like in the instance of asking for help in Paris where you would never open your mouth without a preface “Excusez-moi, je ne parle pas Français.” Even if you took four years of French in high school, and know a few words if you go in on the humble and learn how to say this single phrase you unlock the listener’s attention because they understand what is about to come next in the conversation. (That you need help.)
Practice, practice, practice.
7. How do you say (insert a word in English) in (local language)?
Now you don’t necessarily need a big vocabulary of nouns to get by. In many instances, you may have something near you to point to, like the item on a menu, item in a shop, or building like a pharmacy or hotel. The person that you have graced with a smile and explained first that you have a language handicap will likely tell you what it is you want to know. ( A great hack in this situation is to use your voice recorder on your smart device and record the conversation. That way you can listen to it again in case you don’t store it in your brain’s travel RAM. A library of commonly used icons saved to your phone’s photo page is also a quick reference. Most of the world’s population save the Pygmy tribesmen know the symbol for wi-fi and restrooms.
8. “Where is the/a ___?”
Use this after defining the word that you don’t know as stated above and using it at the end of the sentence.
9. Water. (Use this Please, followed by thank you.)
10. Toilet. (Use this with “Please”. It could be the two most important words you use on the trip, especially in third world countries.)
11. I’m lost. (It is easier than ‘I need directions’ or having to explain who lost the map, took a wrong turn or whatever. Use the KISS principle!)
12. I’m hungry. (Follow this by ‘where is’. Even if you get the where is part wrong, the person you are speaking to can help you solve your problem because he/she can guess what you are going to ask next.
13. How much is _____? (If you don’t know the word, point to what you are asking about. This is an important phrase when shopping in markets and for clarity, allow the person to write it down for you. It will save confusion — you probably don’t know the number in the respective foreign language. If you are in a country that haggles, writing it down will allow you to haggle on paper instead of pay miserably for lack of language skills, just write down your price until you have reached a happy outcome.
14. What time does the ___ open/close? (This is also important and you can use the point method for clarity or the word you asked for previously. If you are no au fait on numbers, let the person write it down.)
15. How can I get there? (Use this when questioning mode of transport to determine what infrastructure is in place. You can point to an address or place on the map. This will allow the person listening to truly understand your intent instead of giving you directions.)
16. Is there a dress code? (Whilst this comes off as a moment for a foreign fashionista to become fashion police, asking this question could save you a world of cultural inappropriateness and a refusal of entry. Certain places of interest, restaurants, and shopping malls during religious observance months have dress code requirements that you may not be aware of. Venturing all the way to a temple, cultural gathering spot, or event and being refused entry will be humiliating for you. An ounce of preventer is worth a pound of social shame.)
18. What is the local expectation for giving tips? (Best to ask this up front and from an objective and neutral person like the airline flight crew on your arriving aircraft, but if you forget this will come in hand. Flight attendants hold a wealth of information and are always happy to give you some local insight.)
19. Do you serve___? (Sushi, vegan food, coffee, soup, seafood, etc. This is useful for when travelling with specific dietary concerns)
20. Is it safe for me to go? (Now that more and more women are exploring solo travel — more than 35m+ women in the US took a solo trip last year, there is also a larger number of incidents of human trafficking. Whilst we are bridging the diversity gap and now have more means, motivation and money, we are still the most vulnerable in foreign, unpredictable cities.
To help address the uncertainty of safety for women, JOZU for WOMEN has developed an online community and trust zone exclusively for women to facilitate questions and answers and bring the best information to our users, offered by validated and trusted users.