The article is published with the permission of the 100 LIVES project.
All kinds of wonderful travel websites can help you prepare and plan your trip, but you also might want to hear it from the source, that is, from Armenians themselves. Below you will find our answers to the most frequently asked questions about visiting Armenia, with more in this series to come. Sugarcoating free and spoken from experience!
1. IS ARMENIA A THIRD-WORLD COUNTRY?
Although Armenia is developing, it’s not a third-world country. It has a literacy rate of 99.6 percent, a life expectancy of 74.5 years and high human development, according to the UN. There are still many areas, however, especially outside Yerevan, where people live in more difficult circumstances than in the city, so don’t be surprised.
2. IS ARMENIA SAFE FOR FOREIGNERS? ARE ATTACKS OR MUGGINGS COMMON?
Armenia is one of the safest countries in the world. Armenians have a very strong sense of honor and community. To do anything dishonorable would bring shame not only upon the individual, but also upon his or her family and friends, and these ties are often the foundation of a generally safe environment throughout the country.
3. WHAT HAPPENS IF I GET SICK IN ARMENIA?
When traveling, it’s always important to be prepared for the possibility of getting sick. Firstly, if there are any medicines that you usually use, take them with you.
Secondly, if you’re experiencing an non-emergency issue, like allergies or an upset stomach, your best bet might be to visit your local pharmacy. in Armenia, pharmacists can prescribe medicine on the spot, and many remedies are readily available over the counter (much more so than in the West).
Thirdly, if you have an emergency, call 911 (yes, it’s the same number you dial in the United States). If you don’t have a phone and are around people, ask them to call for you – they will almost certainly oblige. If you’ve got no other options, call or hail a taxi and say “heevandanots” or “opital” (like “hospital” without the “h” or “s”).
General medical care, including prescription drugs, emergency care and overnight stays are cheap in Armenia. That is, don’t avoid going to the physician or pharmacist if you think something is wrong because you might have to pay an arm and a leg: no cost is too high for your health, but, thankfully, in Armenia the cost is really not that high. Medical personnel tend to be well trained and professional.
4. IS FOOD POISONING AN ISSUE IN ARMENIA?
Food storage and preparation – the lack of which leads to food poisoning – are an issue everywhere. Armenia has standards and checks in place to maintain a certain quality of food safety. Nevertheless, as with all health-related issues, caution’s the word.
Go with your gut (pun and all). If the place you’re considering looks unsanitary, avoid it. Ask for suggestions about where to go. Ask about how food is prepared at restaurants (i.e. if meat is refrigerated, if the fruits and vegetables on menu items are fresh, etc). Don’t eat raw meats (like Armenian steak tartare or sushi) in the summer heat and try to frequent places that are popular, which means they’ve got a lot of turnover and don’t keep produce on hand for long periods of time. And do avoid supermarket delis in the summer, if you can.
There are many places in Armenia that have an established reputation for serving high-quality, fresh food, and the best way of avoiding any food-related issues is by finding them and enjoying your meals there.
5. IS TAP WATER SAFE TO DRINK IN ARMENIA?
Armenia is blessed with abundant water, sourced from the impressive mountains throughout the land. As a result, there are fountains all over the country, called “pulpulaks.” Generally, you should feel free to drink from any “pulpulak” or tap: there is a water sanitation system in place that works well.
Keep in mind that you’re in a different country: every place has different bacteria in food and water. If you have an upset stomach it does not necessarily mean that there is something wrong with what you’re eating or drinking, but rather your body could be adjusting to the local bacteria. If you don’t feel well, stop by a pharmacy and ask for something to settle your stomach. Don’t let it deter you from enjoying the food and drink of the country during the rest of your trip.
6. AM I GOING TO GET SWINDLED OUT OF MONEY AS A “CLUELESS FOREIGNER"?
Everyone knows the story of the New York cab driver who takes naive tourists for longer rides to make a couple extra bucks. Some taxis see tourists the same way in Armenia, but the way to avoid it is by making sure you only use taxis that have meters – and make sure they are turned on and working before you set off.
At other frequented tourist stops, like "vernisaj," a large open-air market that operates on Saturdays and Sundays, don't expect to pay what a local might. But, that shouldn’t be a big problem for visitors anyway, as the prices are generally not that high.
Most other places, prices are posted and, if they’re not, you should ask before buying. If it seems too high – or higher than what you’ve paid elsewhere – you might want to ask why they’re offering the price they are, and, if you’re not convinced, feel free to use another service or go to another place.
7. DO I NEED ANY SPECIAL VACCINATIONS TO TRAVEL?
There are no special vaccinations that are necessary to travel to Armenia.
You should nevertheless go to your doctor before visiting Armenia to make sure you’re in good health and, if you have any issues, to make sure you come prepared.
8. HOW SAFE ARE THE ROADS IN ARMENIA? HOW DO YOU GET FROM YEREVAN TO OTHER PLACES?
The quality of the roads in Armenia varies. The roads in Yerevan and other big cities like Gyumri, Vanadzor, Goris and Stepanakert are in good condition. The highways connecting these places are also generally good, with some exceptions. The most underdeveloped parts of the road system are where the roads connect villages or smaller cities.
It’s important to always be attentive when driving in Armenia. Besides the letter of the law, there are different road rules and it’s important to always be aware of other cars and drivers both behind and in front of you. Not exclusively, but especially in areas outside of big cities, driving while sleepy or under the influence happens, and anybody driving on remote roads, particularly at night, should be on the lookout for erratic driving behavior.
To get around, you can use taxis (which will generally take you wherever you want to go in the country), or minibuses called “marshrutkas.” These minibuses have varying schedules, and it’s best to ask around to find out what they are.
9. DO PEOPLE GENERALLY SPEAK ENGLISH?
You can expect people in Yerevan to speak some English, especially the youth. Young and old outside of Yerevan speak very little English, but in almost all places there are at least a few people who do. As with most things in Armenia, it’s best to ask around.
If you want to say “English” in Armenian, say “angleren,” and locals might find someone they know who speaks English to translate.
10. I HEARD ARMENIANS STARE A LOT. WHY DO THEY DO THAT?
Americans talk loudly, the British drink wildly, the Japanese smile profusely and Armenians stare a lot. Actually, although staring was more common before, it’s not so much anymore in Yerevan. In the regions, it’s quite likely. Remember that you’re in a landlocked country that was stuck in the Soviet Union for decades and didn’t have much outside interaction. If you’re from a part of the world where they dress differently, speak differently, or look different, you might expect people in Armenia to be curious. And they are. Who are you? Where are you from?
You’ll realize that most people who are staring are not doing it out of judgment or malice, but because they’re deeply curious about who you are and what you’re doing in the country. Do not feel threatened. If you’ve got the time or interest, strike up a conversation. If you don’t, just smile or nod, take it as a compliment and be on your way.
11. ARE THERE ANY CULTURAL NO-NO’S I SHOULD BE AWARE OF?
If someone offers you something, do not refuse it. Armenians see offering food, housing or gifts to strangers as a way of connecting with them, and to refuse them is to reject their gesture of friendship. It is considered rude. Think of someone offering a hand for a handshake and you refusing it in the United States or Europe. If for some reason it is something you cannot accept, say no while expressing your thanks, effusively if necessary.
Don’t be surprised if a woman is shy or refuses to shake your hand – unless she offers hers, she may not yet feel comfortable with it.
Outside of Yerevan, the country is still relatively conservative: think America’s deep south or southern Italy. So when you leave the city, make sure you keep that in mind when you’re choosing what to wear or how to comport yourself in public. It might be very different than how you might act in a more cosmopolitan place.
12. I AM A MINORITY. HOW TOLERANT ARE ARMENIANS?
Even though Armenia is one of the most homogenous countries in the world, minorities are happily and generously welcomed. Armenians are very hospitable, and if you’re respectful toward them, they will be respectful and giving toward you.
In fact, because of their innate tendency to want to help, as a minority you might realize Armenians go out of their way even more to make sure you’re comfortable and have what you need as a guest in the country.
13. HOW DO I GET A WORKING PHONE IN ARMENIA?
Armenia has three main cell phone operators: Vivacell, Beeline and Orange/Ucom. You can go into any one of the many stores each of these have and pick up a phone or, if you’ve already got a GSM phone, a SIM card.
If you’re just looking for something basic that’ll allow you to make and receive phone calls and text messages, you’ll be able to find cheap phones for just this purpose at these stores.
14. WHAT IF MY MONEY OR PASSPORT GET STOLEN?
Although it’s unlikely that your passport or money will get stolen because there aren’t many pickpockets and petty thieves, it’s completely possible for either to get lost while traveling.
If your passport is lost or stolen, report straight to your embassy. Firstly, it alerts them to the possibility of someone else using it. Secondly, they can start working on getting you a new one immediately.
If your money is lost or stolen, report it to the police. You can frequently see Armenian police roaming the streets of Yerevan, and the ones in the blue berets are actually there to help tourists. So, if you see them, flag them down and tell them what happened.
If you happen to be in a village or small town and you lose something, it’s best to talk to the village mayor. Many problems can be resolved by talking to the right people in these tight-knit communities.
If you’ve got any ATM cards with you, you’ll be able to withdraw money from any one of the many ATMs in Yerevan and throughout most of the rest of the country.
15. WHO DO I TIP IN ARMENIA AND HOW MUCH?
Tips used to be uncommon in Armenia, but are gaining acceptance. Still, not everyone expects tips and many people might think you overpaid or forgot your money if you try to leave a tip. Generally, you would tip your waiter at a restaurant or cafe if they provide good service. You can also tip doormen and bellhops at hotels. If your taxi drivers are good or drive a long distance, they can also be tipped, as well as bus drivers on tours you might take.
Because tipping is discretionary, it’s up to you whether to leave a tip and how much. It should range between five and ten percent and should be dependent on the service you receive: don’t tip just because. If the service wasn’t good, then you don’t need to leave anything, but if it was, then feel free.
16. HOW DO I GET TO YEREVAN FROM THE AIRPORT? HOW MUCH SHOULD IT COST?
To get from Zvartnots International Airport to Yerevan, the easiest way is to grab a cab. It should cost between 2,000 and 2,500 Armenian drams (AMD), about $4-$5 at the current exchange rate.
Although there are many drivers who will offer to take you parked outside, they’ll offer their services at a premium. So, if you’ve already got a phone, call a taxi service and ask them to pick you up from the arrivals area.
There is also a service called AeroTaxi. Once you get to the arrivals zone, approach their booth and ask for a taxi. Although the vehicles are all new and have WiFi, the cost is a little higher.
17. HOW DO I FLAG DOWN A TAXI? HOW MUCH SHOULD I PAY?
Flagging down a taxi is as easy as pie: just put your hand up. You might also see taxi drivers parked outside, so you can approach them and ask if they’re free. “Azat ek?”
If you’ve got time, call a taxi instead: they usually show up within five minutes if you’re in the city center. Also, if you’re at a restaurant or hotel, you can ask the personnel to call a taxi for you around the time you plan on leaving. Taxi drivers are accustomed to waiting, so if you can’t make it out there immediately, you don’t have to rush.
The first four kilometers cost 600 AMD ($1.2) and every kilometer after that is 100 AMD ($0.2). Trips around the center of Yerevan should run no more than 600 AMD, but once you start approaching some areas outside the center, expect to pay between 700 AMD and 1000 AMD, depending on how far you’ve gone.