Seven Magic Travel Words

Speaker's Corner: These trigger terms send Jerry V. Haines into throes of wanderlust

07.08.09 | 10:31 AM ET

Photo by cowbite, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Just say “Tuscany” to some people and watch their expressions change from stressed to tranquil. The very word dissolves the scene from workaday reality to images of villas, olive trees and limoncello. With other travelers comparable things happen when you say “Paris” or “Petra” or “Penang.”

And for some of us, it’s not merely the destinations—even the very process of travel is exciting. Say “window seat” and I’m mentally in one. Here’s my personal list of trigger terms that put me on the road in my mind:


While “passport” gives me a pleasant buzz, “visa” starts the heart going pitty-pat. Particularly visas that take some work to obtain—a trip to the consulate, perhaps, and a frustrating dialogue via intercom with someone unseen who has the same response to all questions: “Is wrong entrance.” 

The best visas are pasted into your passport, initialed and, ideally, stamped several times with a cursive script. And when you present them on arrival, an official who looks like a former parochial school principal scrutinizes you through narrowed eyes that tell you he knows exactly who you are and what you’ve done.

Exchange Rate

Unless you are a currency speculator or importer/exporter, how often in ordinary life do you have to do math in your head to determine whether something is a good deal? But when you travel, every transaction is like those few instances at the Safeway where the unit prices aren’t displayed on the shelf. (“Let’s see, the baht is worth 2.8 cents, so this tuk-tuk ride really costs ...”) I like dealing in inflated currencies: paying 11,000 rupiah makes you feel like a mogul, even if it is for a Snickers bar.

A greater mental challenge is in buying gas for your rented car. Then you not only have to convert the price, you have to convert liters to gallons. In some countries it would be cheaper if the car ran on wine.

The 0 Floor

No-nonsense Americans call the first floor of a building “the first floor.” But other peoples don’t start counting until the floor above that. That means to take an elevator down to a floor where you might exit the building, you often have to press not “1,” but “0.” If I press the zero, does that sweep me into eternal nothingness? I only wanted to get a map at the front desk; why do I have to confront such existential decisions in an elevator?


That’s what Italian hoteliers call a double bed. It’s somehow comforting to know that at least at one time someone in this world thought that if you’re going to be sharing a bed, you ought to be married. Not that you have to agree.


How much thought do you give to public restrooms at home?  How much when you’re overseas? The Necessaries, as Thomas Jefferson called such facilities, take on added importance when you’re not sure how to ask for them, not sure if you’ll be allowed to use them, not sure what you’ll find once you’re inside one of them. 


This is actually the trade name for a paving material of crushed stone covered with tar. But it also means the paved surface between the airport and your airplane. And if you’re actually on it (rather than above it in a hermetically sealed Jetway), it means that you’re more likely to be in a part of the world where the airports are smaller and the travel experiences more vivid. You can feel the propwash and smell the jet fuel. Bananas grow just beyond the fence. And you can imagine yourself flying down to Rio with Fred Astaire and trashing a hotel with Orson Welles.


I don’t mean to limit this to edible stomachs (although that is a bizarre concept), but to represent all those foods that people in other countries not only tolerate but seem to relish. Duck feet, cicadas, bush tucker—not likely to find those at home.

But one of the great things about travel is discovering that no matter how we people of the world differ in complexion, clothing and creed, we still have so much in common. You eat sheep eyeballs and can’t comprehend how I can like bacon, but we both have brother-in-law problems. 

Pass the cicadas.

Jerry V. Haines is an attorney in Washington, DC who also writes about travel and dining for a variety of media and teaches writing in the Arlington, Virginia public schools.

10 Comments for Seven Magic Travel Words

Chris 07.08.09 | 10:58 AM ET

Exchange Rate and Water Closet definitely do it for me. To this day I always pronounce WC in Spanish because of a high school trip to Spain.  Overnight Train is another one for me.

Susan 07.08.09 | 12:40 PM ET

Me too, Chris - “dobleve ce”! And because of my study abroad in Florence, anything to do with Italian words, people, news, regions, vino, formaggio…

Barb 07.08.09 | 9:33 PM ET

Your post was very good, made me smile and really think what words mean to other cultures. Thanks for that. Barb

Cosmos 07.11.09 | 9:12 PM ET

The experiences that all the travelers in the world have in travel are shared here!

Peter 07.12.09 | 1:44 AM ET

I like these stories folks, keep it up please.
Peter H 07.13.09 | 10:12 AM ET

Interesting article.  I agree with the “window seat.”  Whenever I get a window seat it puts me in a very relaxed state.  It’s very peaceful to look out the window and view the scenery from a couple of thousand feet in the air!  Upgrade is another travel term that is music to a traveler’s ear.

Grizzly Bear Mom 07.14.09 | 2:16 PM ET

Seven more magic travel phrases in their native language: 

“Good Morning, Sir, Madam, Excuse Me, Please, Thank you, and Good By”. 

I learned 40 words of French before visiting Paris.  Everyone was either helpful, or went out of their way to be so.  So much for the “rude” French.  I’ve had the same expereinces in Germany and Japan. 

But then I met tourists all the time where I work in Washington DC and go out of my way to be friendly and helpful and enjoy meeting them.  Maybe I made huge deposits in travel karma.

Christy 07.15.09 | 10:41 PM ET

This is a great article! :-) I like the word “international”. Flying within the 50 states/“domestic flight” just doesn’t have the same ring as “international flight” or “international departures”! :-) It has the ring of the “other” that I think travellers everywhere are looking for…

Jane Bennett 07.16.09 | 3:06 AM ET

What a fun exercise - love it!  “Grapes”!  To pluck, to peel, (?)  to eat, to drink!!  Great countries to explore, chateaux to visit, wines and brandies to taste.  Beautiful vineyards on rolling hills, striping the landscape. Chilling out with a glass of the precious substance ....

Cynthia Morris 07.16.09 | 2:47 PM ET

Love this! These words really make my travel muse salivate: Eurostar, boarding pass, customs. Can’t wait for the next trip!

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