Every four years, we look to the Olympic Games to teach us lessons about perseverance, dedication, and sportsmanship.
This year, however, thanks to the frat-house antics of Ryan Lochte and three other members of the U.S. Swimming Team, the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have taught us much more—specifically about how to be better travelers.
Let’s review the facts. We know that Lochte and teammates got drunk at a party, took a cab home, stopped at a gas station, trashed a bathroom, then tried to make the whole thing disappear. We know their first attempt at a cover-up included paying off the gas station owner. We also know that after the payoff attempt, they fabricated a story about being robbed at gunpoint—a particularly disturbing development considering locals’ fears about crime in their city.
Beyond these details, there’s much about this embarrassing story we still don’t know. But we have enough information at this point to see that our guys made a litany of bad choices—a few of which any of us could accidentally replicate while traveling abroad.
With this in mind, we thought now was a perfect time to remind ourselves of the “golden rules” of travel:
1. Obey local laws
Just because you’re holding an American passport doesn’t mean you can act abroad the same way you do at home. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the local laws of your destination country and then follow them—or accept the consequences of your actions.
2. Be respectful
No matter who you are, no matter where you’re traveling, the people with whom you interact are just that: people. And people deserve to be treated with kindness, empathy, and fairness—exactly the way you would want to be treated. (Basically, just play nice.)
3. Be mindful
One of the greatest cultural bridges is sensitivity. Take the time before you travel to educate yourself about some of the issues with which the people in your destination are grappling. Once you understand those issues, be sensitive to them.
4. Think bigger
Remember that locals in your destination country are going to see you as a representative of the United States—even if you don’t want them to. This means everything you do or say will indicate something about the rest of us back home, so do us proud.
You don’t need a degree in international relations to know that it will take a challenging few months to convince Brazilians that Ryan Lochte does not represent everyone under the “Stars and Stripes”. But the best way to overcome this embarrassment is to head down to Rio—or out into the world at large—and be better.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com