When studying up for a trip to the Holy Land, you might come across this warning: Whatever you do, don’t take a bear to the beach.
Americans expect to experience some difference in laws when they travel the world, but some laws we found just sounded insane. In France, it’s illegal to name a pig Napoleon. In Florida, single women can’t parachute on Sundays. And in England, you may urinate anywhere in public, including inside a policeman’s helmet, providing that you’re also pregnant.
Granted, most of us can rest easy on the plane ride to our destinations knowing that we won’t run afoul of such rules. Plus, many reported laws are just urban legends, and in other cases, anomalies on the books that no one has the time or interest to enforce. (“People here don’t keep bears!” an exasperated Israeli spokeswoman told us. “Why would they take one to the beach?”)
But other laws—such as keeping your headlights on at all times while driving in Denmark—are in equal parts surprising and real. Get caught, and the resulting fine could run about $100 (and the entire EU may adopt the law).
While some laws seem ridiculous at first blush, they often carry their own logic. Pigeon-feeding is not tolerated (and fine-worthy) in Venice, because the winged troublemakers—and really, their droppings—wreak havoc on the city’s old, vulnerable buildings. Singapore is infamous for its tough laws against chewing gum and graffiti (remember the 18-year-old American who got caned in the 1990s?). In the Singaporeans’ defense, the gum laws—which have relaxed a bit—were originally enacted to fight what authorities saw as rampant gum-wad littering. Even so, don’t even think about leaving a public toilet un-flushed. It could cost you $100.
What should you do if you do break a law, crazy or otherwise, while on vacation?Dick Atkins is a Philadelphia attorney who operates an international legal hotline, helping American travelers who have run afoul of the law in other countries. “It’s always best to try to get an attorney involved,” he says. Ignoring the issue could result in problems if you make a return visit to that country.
Atkins says he commonly deals with college kids who have taken too many liberties with other countries’ lower drinking ages, or unsuspecting tourists who get arrested for trying to take home souvenirs (such as old rugs) that end up being antiquities. He says such problems raise the argument for buying travel insurance, or even buying travel assistance packages, which can offer legal help abroad. (To price varying packages, check out www.ustia.org.)
Of course, most Americans don’t bother with travel insurance. In that case, you can contact the American embassy or consulate for a list of local attorneys. Or you can handle the problem on your own. Robert Siciliano recently stayed at a Mexican resort, and when he and his family rented a car, they were almost immediately stopped by police and accused of swerving dangerously on the road. (Siciliano says he was merely driving around fallen palm braches and coconuts following the previous day’s Category 2 hurricane.)
“They started to arrest me because they said all tickets were to be paid at the police station,” Siciliano says. But when he asked if he could pay the ticket on the spot, the cops agreed. Siciliano handed them a $100 bill and they let him go. He immediately returned the car. “Total rental car time, 20 minutes. Cost, $155,” he said. “Not spending a second in a Mexican jail, priceless.”
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