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How Not to Get Thrown in Jail

Travel fails come with the jetsetting territory, but some vacation destinations have local laws so weird, and occasionally wonderful, it’s hard not to put a cultural foot in the mouth. Nikki Ridgway highlights 9 to know before you go.

See recent posts by Nikki Ridgway

Always have your headlights on in Sweden
Rental cars in Sweden should come with an extra instruction manual for all of the country’s quirky traffic laws. Most important is the mandate that headlights should be on whenever you’re on the road — even in broad daylight. Once standard practice during the long, dark winter when it’s pitch black by 2 p.m., the 24-hour rule is now a must throughout the year. Also good to know: winter tires should be used from December 1 to March 31, you mustn’t let your engine idle for more than a minute, and the blood alcohol drink drive limit is 0.02%, i.e. a sniff of peach schnapps.

Ditch the flip flops in Spain
All across Spain, it’s illegal to drive in flip flops, or, more specifically, any shoe without a back strap. Spanish police can impose on-the-spot 150 euro fines for anyone caught driving in their beach thongs, so pack an extra pair a sneakers before your next Costa del Sol jaunt. Another one to avoid while on the road: cell phone headsets. There’s a zero tolerance policy, so leave the phone in your bag and keep eyes front.

Don’t forget your wife’s birthday in Samoa
Reason to visit the unspoiled Polynesian island of Samoa #4598: it’s against the law to forget your wife’s birthday. Granted, visitors are off the hook, but you have to admire a country where overlooking your wife’s big day is punishable with jail time. A night behind bars or night with an angry wife? We bet that some men would take the clink over the cold shoulder.

Take it easy on a Sunday in Switzerland
The punch-line version of this law is that men in Switzerland must not relieve themselves while standing up after 10 p.m., but more broadly, the aim is to curb excessive noise or exertion after-hours. This includes, mowing the lawn, flushing the toilet, hanging the laundry out to dry and washing the car. In short, go easy on a Sunday.

Do NOT feed the birds in St. Mark’s Square
Until 2008, feeding the birds in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square was as much a tourist attraction as paying through the nose for a gondola ride. But when the pigeon population spiked to 40 times the recommended amount in the historic center, all 19 seasoned pigeon feed vendors lost their licenses and fines were imposed on anyone selling bird feed. Tourists quickly learned to bring bread and crackers for grayscale Polly, though this is officially frowned upon by the council. Hmm… municipal frown or killer instagram pic?

Do not run out of gas in Germany
Driving the German autobahns is a rite of passage for all motorheads. Or, more specifically, blasting the 4,000 miles of derestricted superhighway where the 80-miles-per-hour speed limit is just a guideline and cars frequently race along (in the left hand passing lane only) at over 200 miles per hour. Importantly, it’s against the law to stop anywhere on the autobahn and even an empty gas tank can’t get you out of the 80 euro fines for stopping on the shoulder. Rest stops are dotted along the routes, many with serious photo ops of the German landscape.

Ditch the gum in Singapore
Singapore likes things neat. Since gaining independence in 1965, the country has been a bastion of cleanliness and efficiency, placing strict fines on everything from littering and jaywalking to spitting and urinating in public. Most famous of all is its ban on chewing gum, which was outlawed in 1992 and slightly relaxed in 2004, when carrying small amounts of sugar-free gum was permitted for personal use if distributed by a pharmacist or dentist. Just don’t start practicing your bubbles ⎯ anyone caught spitting gum on the street faces on-the-spot fines of up to $500.

Don’t mess with British swans
Trust the Brits to uphold a medieval law about swan ownership. But that they do with the decree that the Queen of England owns every single swan in the kingdom — one of her official titles is Seigneur of the Swan ⎯ and it is an act of treason to steal a swan from the Queen. Why anyone would want to stuff a British swan into their carry on is not the point. Conceived when swan meat was a delicacy reserved for the upper classes only, today the law is a good excuse for the annual boat ride and pageantry known as "swan upping," aka counting all the swans on the Thames River so m’am knows if a pesky tourist has been stealing from the pond.

Keep a breathalyzer unit on you in France
Wallet, keys, cell phone, breathalyzer. This is your checklist before getting behind the wheel in France. In a nation of committed oenophiles, French police now put the onus drivers to prove their sobriety during any traffic stop. Failure to produce a breathalyzer unit can result in an immediate €11 fine (though none have been upheld as yet), but the hope is that drivers will test their drink-drive levels before departure and anyone over the limit will find an alternative route home. One for the road? No, merci.



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