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Important Words, Phrases, and Gestures to Know When Traveling


A short list on what I think are the most important words to know in the language of the country you will travel to.

Excuse Me/Pardon/Sorry

This is a multi-functional phrase that is extremely essential to know. When you are about to inquire about something, saying “excuse me” is like saying “hello” and “please” at the same time, alerting the other person of your presence while at the same time showing that you need something. When you inevitably make a mistake while abroad, like bumping into someone or walking into the wrong restroom, a quick “excuse me” will defuse the situation and the tension before it gets a chance to build up. When ambling through a crowd or squeezing yourself into packed public transportation, this phrase allows others to acknowledge your presence and provide you with the necessary room to maneuver, hopefully. Saying sorry is a good way to get a price lowered; if you don’t like a price that was offered to you, you can walk away and say “sorry”, and chances are the clerk, driver, or vendor will ask you to come back and offer you a lower price, as well.

My Name Is….

Knowing how to incorporate your name into this phrase tells someone that they are in for a conversation, not just the standard “Hi, howarya?” Unless the person who you aim this at has an obvious repulsion about speaking with you, telling them your name will usually prompt the “nice to meet you” followed by their name. Once you reach that more intimate connection where you use real names, doors will seem to open all around you. The country you are in will now look much different, not so alien anymore.

How Do You Say….?

Asking someone how to say a particular thing you might be referring to or pointing at is quite useful. In that moment of vulnerability when you are trying to convey a complete thought, your mind is more capable of storing that information for future use. Next time you need to recall that same word, you will be more likely to remember it, as there was a bit of a story behind it.

Nice to Meet You

Though you may hear it and be able to remember it if you initiated the name exchange, you don’t want to be caught unawares if someone beats you to saying it. Knowing the proper response is essential to not causing an awkward silence as they wait for your reply.

My _______ (language) Is Poor

As if they couldn’t tell, at least it’s a good way to get a little sympathy out of someone. Follow this phrase, or precede it, with “excuse me”, which seems to be the most appropriate way of letting them know, universally. It conveys the message that you wish that you could communicate with them more effectively. It gains respect, usually, and warms hearts toward your cause.

How Much?

There is no getting around this question while on a trip, and it would be helpful if you could say it in the local tongue. The tourists that appear to not speak any of the local language when inquiring on a product or service are the most likely ones to get ripped off, as many vendors will take advantage of the naive tourists. Asking this same question sends a message that you are more in the loop than the vendor may have initially thought; they will probably think twice before jacking the price up.


Though you may wonder why I included such an irrelevant and worthless word, there is a good reason. This simple word, when added to a phrase, is a great way of turning a greeting back around. If a local says, “Nice to meet you”, you can reply with the same phrase and add “also”. “Also” can act as a quick way to agree with a statement just expressed by someone else, like if they say that they feel tired or hungry; You can usually just reply with “also” to convey to them that you feel the same way.

When/What Time?

Not only will the equivalent of these words suffice when your watch stops ticking, but they also can be used when learning about events and reservations. If you see an advertisement for a local concert, let’s say, you can point to it while asking the person next to you “when?”.


A very vital question which I’m sure I don’t need to emphasize. Being in a strange place can leave you essentially lost, and there will probably come a time during your trip when you will need to ask where your hotel is, where the bathroom is, where you are currently. Definitely a must-know word.


The most likely usage of “where” is directly preceding “bathroom”. Since you may be in quite a different area, with different plumbing, perhaps, you are definitely gonna want to know this word, so that you don’t have an intense moment when the time comes. In other countries that I’ve been to, I have been caught several times unprepared, such as in coin-operated restrooms, even in restaurants you are a customer of. Then, you need to go make change to utilize it, and this requires more time. Another frequent oversight that I make is that I settle down before realizing that the toilet paper is located outside of the stall, or sometimes out of the restroom itself; quite an uncomfortable situation.


It is always helpful to know the generic way to address a man, woman, or groups. Just saying “hello” or “good afternoon” may linger for a while before it gets acknowledged, but adding the equivalent of “sir” or “ladies” is second-best to knowing their name(s). It’s always preferred to address the person or people who you are speaking to, and this is a fairly universal rule to keep in mind. When someone is addressed, whether by their first name or even with a “ladies and gentlemen”, it intentionally causes the listener to focus more on what is being said, which is especially useful when most of what you say in this other country will be unintelligible.

I am from……

If you learned the word for “where”, you may pick up when it’s directed at you, and the context may alert you that someone is wondering on where you are traveling from. It is good to know the phrase “I am from”, along with the name of your country, preferably the way they pronounce it. This bit of personal information opens up many friendly opportunities (usually), and may prompt them to tell a story about their time in your country. Other than as a response to the direct question, you can bring up where you hail from as a low-key way of telling them that you will struggle with their language (please be patient), and also to see if they perhaps speak your language. Many people I have come across on my travels have been quite enthusiastic at the opportunity to test out their knowledge of the English language; letting them know I was an American prompted them to try English, and added more to the vocabulary that we mutually understood.

Much/A Lot/More and Not Much/A Little/Less

These words are great in adding to the arsenal of vocabulary. They can be added to many other words and phrases, as well as in many situations. If someone asks you if you are hungry, “yes” and “no” technically answer the question, but this kind of question is not just black and white. Answering with “very” or “very, very, very” really gets the point across. Adding “more” or “less” effectively adds a new dimension to your conversations and requests.


“Again” is another one of those handy, multipurpose words. You can use it when someone said something that you didn’t quite catch, where they should understand that you are asking for them to repeat the statement. It can also be used at a bar, let’s say, when you simply want to order the same drink that you just had, or point to someone else’s drink and say “again”. Add it after “please” and you just said, quite politely, that you would like the same drink that the person sitting next to you has, in two words.

I Need Help/Can You Help Me?

Preceding these phrases with “pardon” or “excuse me” will ready the person to hear your dilemma out, and gives you time to continue. What I have learned about people’s psychology tells me that adding this phrase before you explain what the problem is will increase the chances of the person helping exponentially. For instance, if you are looking for your hotel, and stop a woman on the street with just, “Excuse me. Can you tell me where this hotel is?”, you are quite likely to get but a brief point of the finger in the general direction, if any help at all. However, phrasing it like this, “Excuse me. Can you help me? I cannot locate my hotel.”, will tug at their heart a bit harder. Just asking “Can you help me?” is seen subconsciously as a form of weakness, of submission. Human nature usually will sympathize with this scenario, and with a better attitude than without throwing this phrase in there.


These and other directional terms are quite significant, especially when riding in a taxi or recognizing the words when you ask for directions. Though the person you may ask may accompany any of these words with a hand gesture pointing towards the direction, it doesn’t hurt to be able to recognize these basic directional commands.

Numbers 0-12

Though the more you know, the better, a good rule of thumb is to know at least 0 through 10 when it comes to numbers. If you need to describe a larger number, with more digits, simply read each number separately; 199 would be one-nine-nine. This is a rudimentary way to go about it, but is effective and it will suffice on most occasions. Knowing a hundred and a thousand is quite helpful, too. I say zero through twelve because though ten, eleven, and twelve can be expressed by saying each digit separately, it is useful for reading time, perhaps, when time is written out.


Though not quite as important as many of the other words and phrases, they are useful nonetheless. You can alert the taxi driver that the temperature does not suit you, or explain how you’d like the temperature to be. It’s also great for when ordering food, for those times when you are differentiating between a cold and toasted sandwich, perhaps, or you can use them in conjunction with “more” or “less” to get the chef to cook it longer, for example. A third usage is to add to general conversation, you can comment on the weather to lengthen a conversation with someone just that much more.


It is quite valuable to understand these words, so as to not waste time visiting an attraction while it’s closed, or missing it when it’s open. In conversation, look for the numbers associated with each word, to decipher when an establishment opens and closes. Passing a restaurant that you may want to come back to for dinner, you can discern what time you need to arrive with enough time to eat without rushing before it closes. Knowing the words of the days of the week would help, especially when you see a sign for an event, but is not quite as important as the rest of these, and much harder to learn, often.

I Want…./Would You Like….?

It is good to know how to say the equivalent of “I’d like….” or “I want….” because you can call upon this knowledge in numerous situations. When ordering food, just say that and the name of the food on the menu, or simply point to what it is you want. You can add almost any word after these phrases and the person should catch the gist of it. Similarly, knowing “what would you like?” or “would you like…..?” is great for recognition of when you are asked these questions, as you probably won’t find too many opportunities to ask that of someone else when you are the tourist.


Though knowing this word is not as necessary for basic knowledge of a language, I am adding it because you may need to ask it, especially when you are traveling with other people. Your lack of knowledge of the local language will have you in a constant state of doubt and hesitation, and you can use this simple question to clarify if someone is talking to you.


Another one-word question in the same realm of who, when, where, and why. I will not add “why” or “how” because these lead to longer answers that you probably will not understand at this basic level of understanding. “What?” is a great question that can be used in a variety of instances. You can use it like “repeat/again”, if you are unsure of what you just heard; It can be used before other words to ask about it. In most languages, it is interchangeable with the word “which”, which is another great word to ask when you are asking for advice or directions.


I totally support learning the language of the countries you are visiting to the greatest extent possible and feasible. However, two great words to know when knowledge is limited are “this” and “that”. These two words can take the place of almost every noun, and using them in conjunction with pointing at “this” or “that” will be fairly effective at getting your point across. Though learning one of the words in the other language is a good start, knowing both is much more powerful. For example, when pointing at a pastry in a glass case, you can say “this” to signify that you want the one that is closer to you, or “that”, which is the one perhaps closer to them.


Tantamount to “this/that”, “here” and “there” are advantageous in designating location. Use with other words and form a basic question such as “bathroom here?”. This should be easily understood, and they may point and say “no, there”.

These are all the words, phrases, and gestures that I felt are the most useful and important to learn all across the board, no matter what country you travel to. Though I know that there are many more that could be added to this list, I wanted to focus on the most crucial and keep the list as concise as possible. While knowledge of these most basic words and phrases will not allow you to hold a long conversation, it is a functional knowledge of the language, enough to suffice and get you by. I strongly recommend that you learn quite a bit more than this, as the more you learn, the greater the experience you will have. Also, this vocabulary is meant to be helpful for anyone. Most anyone traveling will have some special vices, conditions, or needs that require a custom set of words to learn. For instance, if you are allergic to shellfish, you should most definitely learn how to say that! If you smoke, you might want to learn how to ask where is a good place to smoke. Use this as a guide to get you started, and add the words and phrases that suit you, to tailor it towards your traveling style.

Updated: 2017-03-29
Reason: Migration of site from the old, long URL (www.dauntlessjaunter.com) to this long-overdue shorter one 🙂 (we may have updated some typos or metadata while we were at it)

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Christian Eilers
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Christian Eilers
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  • You are right about learning few words. I once made a trip to Mauritius and people there speak a variation of French, Creole. It got so tough for me to communicate as very few speak English. My maid spoke Creole and I spoke English, we couldn’t even talk….

  • Interesting article, but it lost my interest when the writer mistook the word “tantamount” for “paramount”. I expect better English in anyone whose profession is writing.

    • Dale, I’m also quite critical of my typos and such, but they do happen from time to time. However, in this case, I meant to use ‘tantamount,’ which means ‘equivalent in value, significance, effect, etc.’ A clue to my intention is the way I started the sentence – “Just like . . .” The word ‘paramount’ means ‘superior’ essentially, which was not the word I was going for; I meant here that their importance was equal in value.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by, as well as your compliment!

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