A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

9 Phrases to Commit to Memory Before You Go Abroad

Updated: Dec. 05, 2022

Being able to communicate, especially in emergency conditions, can save a trip and an experience from falling apart, super quickly.

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“Do you speak English?”

Chances are someone at the customs desk knows basic English, unless you’re traveling to a remote country. Still, “certain phrases are helpful especially for immigration and customs officials where clarity is crucial,” says Sharon Schweitzer, international protocol expert and founder of Protocol & Etiqutte Worldwide. Ones to know: “Do you speak English?” and “I have nothing to declare in my baggage, no fruit or vegetables.”

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“Does this have nuts, eggs, sugar, or gluten?”

If you have a food allergy, it’s vital that you know the specific words to describe what you’re allergic too, says Schweitzer. Simple phrases can save your life, such as: “Does this have nuts, eggs, sugar, gluten?” and “I am allergic to _________.”

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Multiethnic traveler couple using generic local map together on sunny day, man pointing toward copy space. Honeymoon trip, backpacker tourist, Asia tourism, or holiday vacation travel concept.

“Do we turn left or right, or go straight ahead?”

In a locale where you can’t rely on your iPhone for directions, these phrases will come in handy. Know how to say and understand: “Excuse me, please, where is ______?” and “Do we turn left, right, straight ahead?” Avoid these other travel mistakes tourists always make.

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“Excuse me, what time is it?”

Crossing time zones can be a bit tricky when it comes to getting over jet lag—and punctuality. Handy phrases include: “Excuse me, what time is it,” or “Do you have the time?” Plus, memorize these 10 French phrases everyone in the world should know.

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“Please!” “Thank you.” “Excuse me.” “I’m sorry!”

To avoid coming across as a rude tourist, consider learning how to say polite phrases to ensure a gracious interaction from locals. “Familiarizing yourself with how formal the culture is can save you some embarrassment,” says Schweitzer. Put these phrases on your list to learn: “Please,” “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” and “I’m sorry.” Find out which 10 “rude” American manners are actually polite in other countries.

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Ambulance van on highway

“Call an ambulance”

Knowing words like “hospital,” “medical emergency,” “heart or cardiac,”; “sickness,” and understanding a country’s EMS system can save you in an emergency situation. “Along with these phrases, make sure to save emergency numbers, copies of traveler’s insurance, and embassy information in your phone,” says Schweitzer. Commit these phrases to heart: “Where is the hospital?””Call an ambulance,” and “He/She has___”

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“Do you accept credit cards?”

In some countries, using credit or debit cards isn’t as common as it is in the United States. “Knowing how to ask if they take credit cards before being seated at a restaurant will save you the embarrassment of realizing you don’t have enough cash on hand when the check comes around,” says Schweitzer. Try these: “Do you accept credit cards?” or “Where is the Bureau de Change or Money Exchange?” Don’t miss these 12 foreign countries you didn’t realize use the U.S. dollar.

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Bathroom sign, detail of an information sign
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“Where is the nearest toilet?”

Knowing how to ask where the nearest bathroom is always useful, says Schweitzer. Since this question is often prompted by urgent needs, make sure you lean ahead of time: “Can you please lead me to the nearest toilet?”

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Metro train at the subway station

“I need to buy a ticket”

Being familiar with the pronunciation of words like train, plane, bus, automobile, ship, ferry along with station, airport, terminal, parking lot, dock, port and harbor is important when it’s time for you to bid adieu. Also familiarize yourself with major transport stations names so you can ask for them specifically. Phrases to learn include: “Is this the way to___?”, “When is the ___ arriving?”, and “I need to buy a ticket.” Before your next flight, avoid these 16 airport mistakes you need to stop making.

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There’s an app for that

Go-to app Google Translate works well with Western languages, and has a special function for Eastern languages. “The app has many features such as: translating the words by just taking a picture, allowing you to star and save commonly used phrases, and a speaking function that listens and translates voice commands,” says Schweitzer. If/when you don’t have access to Wi-Fi or data, you may want to invest in the ili. “It’s a promising instant translation device that is being released in late 2017 supporting English, Chinese, and Japanese,” says Schweitzer.