I just got back from almost two glorious weeks in Spain, and it made me realize even more that there are things we can do to be good travelers, which in turn gives us better travels.
1. Participate in the local economy. Spain is hurting right now. So is Italy. In fact, much of Europe is experiencing a recession.
2. Learn important local customs. Ask your hotel concierge, read the Lonely Planet guide, ask your taxi driver. It's not that hard to learn that patting an Indonesian child on the head is completely uncool. To some HIndus, touching someone or taking food with your left hand is forbidden because it is considered unclean (that's the one they wipe with). Buying local handicrafts, eating in local, non-chain restaurants, and making sure that the goods you buy don't say Made in China will all serve to support the local economy.
3. Realize you're out of your comfort zone. And that's ok. You're traveling, very often to a new country. Have some food with fat and carbs in it (I'm not kidding) on your first day to help ground you, and be easy with yourself. You can't control your new surroundings yet, so don't try.
4. Be open to new things. Our first day in Spain, we met a wonderful Ecuadorean waiter who used to be a raw food chef in Chicago and spoke fluent English. Aside from helping us learn the local area, on his day off he escorted our small group on a half-mile to the stunning local park and lake, where we enjoyed a leisurely tapas lunch in the shade of the café's umbrellas. If we had been just our own closed group, we would have missed a wonderful opportunity.
5. Learn a few local phrases and always be polite. It's not everyone's job to know English -- and in more rural areas, they won't. Knowing how to ask where the bathrooms are and how to get a taxi or train will really help. Remember, you can use sign language to ask for the bill -- everyone understands the gesture, but in many countries it's considered impolite to bring the check until you request it, so don't get frustrated.
6. Have fun!! You could be at work, like everyone else. Relax and enjoy yourself. Otherwise, why bother leaving home in the first place?