LGBTQ international travel tips

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Jan 10, 2018

Researching destinations for your next big vacation getaway may be part of the fun, but for LGBTQ world travelers — especially those with kids — it is also a very important step to ensuring a safe and enjoyable trip.

Tolerance and legal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning community vary dramatically throughout the world. Even in countries where marriage equality laws exist, LGBTQ travelers may still face discrimination and harassment or be made to feel unwelcome — some hotels or resorts in remote overseas areas, for example, may refuse bookings from same-sex couples.

“When you travel internationally there is a lot more research that needs to go into it,” said John Tanzella, president and chief executive of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, in an interview. “It’s more precarious.”

According to the U.S. Department of State, some countries may not legally recognize same-sex marriage and more than 75 consider consensual same-sex sexual relations to be a crime, which is sometimes punished severely.

In the most homophobic foreign territories, LGBTQ public displays of affection could result in fines or jail time — in addition the wider threat of physical attack.

“Straight couples don’t necessarily have to worry about legalities in the same way that same-sex couples do when going abroad,” said Tanzella. “Something could happen and the next thing you know you’re in jail because you have no rights.”

Before you go: Laws and LGBTQ

Whether traveling solo, with a partner, or with your kids, it is important to do your homework thoroughly before you book a flight.

The State Department recommends LGBTQ travelers review important country information on travel.state.gov and the website of the U.S. embassy or consulate where they plan to travel.1

The government also advises LGBTQ travelers to bring with them copies of important documents when crossing borders, especially if they are heading to a country where they may not be afforded the same legal protections as in the United States. Such paperwork includes a living will or health care directive, contact information for your family and/or attorney back home in the United States, and parentage or custody documents for any minor children in tow (particularly if they have a different last name).

FamiliesGoTravel.com further recommends parents have an attorney draft a health care proxy for both parents, so each parent has the right to make medical decisions for each other and their kids.

Same-sex travelers should also keep handy the address and phone number of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, in both English and the local language.

Another tip? Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service for U.S. citizens traveling or living abroad. The State Department will send travel warnings, alerts and emergency messages based on your upcoming trip. It will also contact you in case of emergency when you are traveling using the email or phone number you provide.

Remember, you are subject to the laws and the justice system of whatever country you visit. As such, it’s wise to familiarize yourself with the local laws impacting LGBTQ individuals. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association, based in Geneva, Switzerland, provides a world map of sexual orientation laws.

(Related: LGBTQ couples share their story)

Top LGBTQ destinations … and not

While LGBTQ travelers need not limit themselves to destinations with a history of hospitality, of course, it may make for a better overall experience to visit places that regularly make the top 10 list of gay- and lesbian-friendly locales, including Tel Aviv, Copenhagen, and Toronto. The Lonely Planet offers more LGBTQ hotspots on its website, as does Out Traveler magazine’s global destination guide.

Similarly, it’s possible to book packages that include entertainment, hotels, and airlines that embrace LGBTQ consumers.

Many travel sites, including Expedia, provide filters for hotels that are gay/lesbian friendly. Indeed some hotels, like Hilton Hotels and Marriott, bill themselves as committed to treating gay and lesbian guests with respect. Some travel companies, including OUT Adventures and Detours, also cater to gay and lesbian travelers, with all-inclusive resorts, cruises and tours.

Importantly, “Out Traveler” also publishes a list of the top 10 destinations where LGBT travelers should not venture, including Nigeria, Uganda, Russia and Lithuania, where anti-gay laws or sentiment may encourage the persecution of LGBTQ individuals.

While traveling on vacation 

Once you get to where you’re going, the State Department advises LGBTQ travelers to avoid potentially risky situations and to be wary of entrapment campaigns when reaching out to the local community, as police in some countries monitor websites, mobile apps and meeting places.

To prevent avoidable problems, Tanzella said LGBTQ couples – and everyone else – should “be mindful” of local culture. “Even straight people should not show up in the Middle East and wear their bikinis in public,” he said. “Do a little homework on the culture and laws so you don’t get into trouble.”

In more conservative corners of the globe, where LGBTQ couples might face discrimination (or worse), lesbian blogger Jen Bauer suggests in a 2013 article for Familiesgotravel.com that same sex couples potentially avoid behavior that calls attention to their sexual orientation, including physical displays of affection. 

And Adam Groffman, a self-professed gay travel expert and blogger, added in a 2014 column for NomadicMatt.com that LGBTQ travelers should carefully consider the wisdom of “outing” themselves to strangers they meet during their travels. Be mindful of circumstances.

Same sex parents 

If safety is a concern, same-sex parents may also wish to coach their kids on how they address each other, at least temporarily while they are abroad, lest a declaration of “mommy and momma” create unwanted attention.

“LGBTQ parents need to make sure they have all their ducks in a row before leaving the country,” said Tanzella. “That is always a challenge, especially if their children are adopted.”

Travel builds bridges

The potential challenges that gay and lesbian individuals face when traveling abroad are no reason to stay home on the couch. Travel is an excellent way to broaden your horizon and shake off the cobwebs. It also fosters a more global perspective.

“International travel has huge benefits,” said Tanzella. “It builds bridges and helps us understand different cultures and ways of life. If you stay home in your bubble, you don’t experience the world.”

As Mark Twain said …

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. 

 

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1 U.S. Passports & International Travel, “LGBTI Travel Information”.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.