Teaching Travel English

Summary: Tips for teaching learners who will be travelling

For many students their greatest (and sometimes only) need for English is for travelling for business and/or pleasure. There will also of course be students who don’t need English for their trip because it is in a country where the students know the language, because local people speak your students’ language, or because everything is organised for them. Even in these situations, however, there will still be plenty of English around that they can learn a lot from if they are properly prepared and pay attention while they are travelling. You can also use the topic of travel to practise the language in the textbook.

The tips below are about teaching people who are going to be travelling, but as there is a focus on understanding the people they meet and the speaking activities all involve taking on other roles most of the ideas should also be useful for people in the travel and tourism industry. They should also be relevant for people who are already in another country, e.g. people in the UK on short courses.

What students need to understand and do to use English while travelling

Perhaps the easiest way of analysing what students need to do is to think first about where they are most likely to need English and who they will most probably be communicating with. The list below is arranged in approximate order of how likely I think my students are to need English in those situations:

- Hotel/ B&B/ Youth hostel/ Other accommodation (host family, bellboy, maid, reception staff)

- Restaurant/ Café/ Pub (barman, waiter)

- Shop (shop assistant)

- Airport (check in staff, immigration, customs, security, people meeting them there, lost luggage desk staff, shop and restaurant staff)

- Aeroplane (fellow passengers, cabin staff)

- Bus station/ Coach station/ Train station/ Underground station (ticket counter staff, fellow passengers, ticket barrier staff, information desk staff)

- Taxi and taxi rank (driver, other people waiting)

- Museum/ Art gallery/ Tourist site (tour guide, ticket office staff)

- The street (passerby, police officer)

- Bus/ Coach (fellow passengers, driver, bus conductor)

- Language school (receptionist, accommodation staff, manager, classmates)

- Tourist information

- Car rental

- Train (fellow passengers, ticket inspector)

- Lost luggage

- Police station

- Petrol station/ Motorway service station

Students will also probably need to understand notices, signs and announcements, and they might also want to use English language guidebooks and recorded museum guides.

Things that students are most likely to have to say in the circumstances above include:

- Asking for information (e.g. directions, prices and times)

- Requesting

- Checking comprehension and asking for clarification

- Thanking

- Responding to offers

- Complaining

- Greeting

- Responding to apologies

- Responding to suggestions

They will also probably need to be able to understand rules and instructions.

There will also be phrases which are very specific to the situation they are in such as "Cash or credit card?" and "Window or aisle seat?", as well as related vocabulary like "single ticket" and "the bill". These two examples are different in British and American English, and the language they need might vary depending on where they are travelling. Something more general on the varieties of English they are likely to encounter, e.g. a lesson on Australian slang, can also be interesting and useful. If the students have places they will go in common you could do something on cultural differences such as tipping and/ or practical information on the places such as how to get a travel card. You can also make their visit much richer by recommending places off the beaten track and local foods they should try, and this should also force them to use more English while they are there.

Classroom activities

The first thing you will need to do is to work out which of the things above are most relevant to your students, e.g. which situations they are likely to be in and what they are likely to need to understand and do there. This can be done with a needs analysis. The things they are likely to have to deal with can then be incorporated into the activities described below. The ideas are given in the order in which they are mentioned above.

Tying travel English in with the syllabus or textbook

- Students can be asked to mime sentences containing useful travel vocabulary for their partners to guess. This can be used for Present Continuous (e.g. "You are opening your suitcase"), Past Continuous ("You were putting on suntan lotion", making sure you tell them to stop the action before their partners guess) and Going to for predictions with present evidence ("You are going to sleep on the plane", asking them to stop the mime just before the action on the worksheet would start, e.g. putting their seat back and their blanket on but not actually falling asleep).

- Travel English ties in very nicely with countable and uncountable nouns as there are good examples in this topic of the typical pattern "uncountable for general/ countable for specific" such as "accommodation/ hotel" and "luggage/ suitcase".

- A lesson on learner training could be based on or include tips on how to make the most of their travels abroad for language learning and/ or how to prepare for a trip.

- Travel English can also easily be tied in with lessons on British and American English, compound nouns, modals verbs (e.g. talking about rules and regulations), and signs and notices (e.g. for Cambridge KET and PET reading preparation).

- Travel English can also be tied in with lessons on any of the functions mentioned below, e.g. by giving travel advice to practise "If I were you" and "You should".

Travel English places and people

- The teacher or a student says things that one person could say or things that might be said in one particular place (e.g. "Please raise your arms" for airport security and "What colour is it?" for the lost luggage desk) until someone guesses what situation they chose.

- Students take part in roleplays in one typical place such as an airport or involving someone they are likely to have to speak to such as a taxi driver. This can be made more challenging and interesting by adding a problem element to each one, e.g. "You have a live snake in your suitcase" for a conversation in customs.

Other things they need to understand

- Students are given examples of signs from countries they are likely to go to and discuss what the signs mean and then whether the rules are the same in their own country or not.

- Students race to respond quickly to an airport or station announcement, e.g. all standing in front of the door in a queue when they are told to.

- There are plenty of the examples of signs and notices with amusing mistakes on the internet that you could use for error correction, but please note that the vast majority are unsuitable and very unlikely to make your students laugh, so you will need to select carefully and probably rewrite them.

Functions and other typical phrases

- Students listen to typical phrases and decide whether they are usually said by the traveller or by someone they are speaking to. This can be made into more of a game by asking them to hold up cards that say "Me" and "Someone else" depending on what they hear.

- One student is given typical travel phrases and the other student is given common responses to those things. They must match them up without showing their worksheets to each other. The same thing can also be done with matching up halves of phrases, e.g. "How long will" with "you be staying?"

- Students put halves of phrases or phrases and responses that are written on slips of paper face up on the table and work together to match them up. This can be organised with several matches for each (e.g. "Can I help you?" with "No thanks, I’m just browsing" "I hope so" "Maybe" and "Yes, please. Can you tell me..?") A more fun variation is making a set of dominoes.

Asking for information (e.g. directions, prices and times)

- One student is given a roleplay card with a problem on it, e.g. "There’s a crocodile in the swimming pool" for a hotel or "There is a civil war" for a country. The other student or students must ask questions about that place until they find out what the problem is. The person answering can’t lie about that thing, but they can try to avoid answering the question.


- Students take turns making more and more outrageous requests (e.g. "Can you massage my feet until my dessert arrives?" to a waiter) until no one can think of more or until the last request is less outrageous than the previous one.

- The person responding to requests from their partners should try to find reasons to refuse them all.

Checking comprehension and asking for clarification

- One student is given a roleplay card with details that they must pass onto their partner about a trip they are supposed to go on. The roleplay card should be designed to bring up typical comprehension problems connected to travel such as "Austria/ Australia" and "12 a.m./ 12 p.m." When they have finished dictating, their partner can ask as many questions as they like to check the information.


- Students take on roles where they might both have to thank each other, e.g. a host father and a guest, and take turns doing so until one person runs out of ideas.

- One student asks their partner to take the role of someone they really dealt with last time they were abroad, e.g. their host mother. They roleplay a long conversation thanking them for all their help and responding, then the person who took on that role tries to guess which things they were thanked for really happened while their partner was overseas.

Responding to offers

- One person has to politely decline all offers from the others.

- One person is given a roleplay card with what they want and the situation on it, e.g. "A hotel – An extra pillow". After explaining their problem in very general terms (e.g. "I couldn’t sleep well last night"), the other students should take turns offering them things until they get exactly the one written on the card. The other offers should be politely declined.

- In groups of three or four, one person is a customer and the others are competing companies, e.g. touts for different hotels or different bus companies. They should take turns making offers to persuade that customer to choose them until they run out of ideas, then the customer must choose.

- In pairs, one student is given details of a real place connected to travel that has especially good service such as a business class lounge or a five star hotel. They should offer the customer a mix of things that are on their list and other things they have made up, with the customer trying to guess which are true and only accepting those things. When they have run out ideas or things on their lists, they discuss which services were real and which weren’t, plus maybe which things they really would and wouldn’t say yes to.

- One student is given a list of things they should offer their partner, with half of them having a hidden catch such as "It’s on a later flight" for "Free upgrade to business class". The person being offered those things should ask questions to try and find out what the potential catches are before accepting them.


- One person in each group is given a list of things to complain about that are all connected to cultural differences, e.g. "My bed was just a thin mattress on the floor" and "The bath was too short to lie down in". The other students must respond to those complaints. They can then perhaps guess the country the person is staying in and/ or where they are from.

- One student must make as many complaints as they can in one situation, e.g. finding different reasons to demand a refund at the theatre ticket window.


- In pairs, one student is a tourist or business traveller arriving in a country and their partner is all the people they meet. The two students must talk to each other at each stage without repeating any sentences from earlier, although they can make just very small changes like "How are you?" and "How are you today?". This continues until one of them repeats a sentence or they get to the end of their trip.

Responding to apologies

- Give each group of students a pack of cards that are split half and half into ones that say "Your real reaction" and "The opposite of your real reaction". One of the students apologises for something in the role of someone they are likely to meet during their travels such as a maid and the other person picks a card before they respond. If they would accept that apology in real life but pick up a "The opposite of your real reaction" card they must reject it with a sentence like "I’m afraid that really isn’t good enough", and vice versa. After the conversation finishes, the person who was apologising tries to guess whether that was their partner’s real reaction or not.

Responding to suggestions

- The "Your real reaction"/ "The opposite of your real reaction" game above can also be played for responding to suggestions, using sentences like "I can see why you might suggest that, but…" and "Thanks for your advice, but…"

- One student gives suggestions about a real place such as "Make sure you dress conservatively" and "Whatever you do, don’t swim outside the protective netting" until their partner guesses which place they are talking about. Unless their world knowledge is very good they will probably need to be given some information to base their recommendations on.


- Students work together to create a story of a (probably disastrous) holiday using typical travel vocabulary they have been given such as "refund" and "cancellation".

- Write out a series of typical travel problems with each one including some useful vocabulary, e.g. "You are on the train on the way back when you realise you only bought a single ticket and so are fare dodging". Students discuss possible solutions and/ or roleplay the situation.

- The matching exercises described in Functions and Other Typical Phrases above also work well for compound nouns and collocations.

Varieties of English

- Give students sentences that betray their origin both through language and through famous tourist sites, cultural differences, food stuffs, etc, and ask them to guess the country.

- Ask students to match up British and American English. They will probably need some help with this, e.g. by cutting the cards up into a kind of jigsaw with several cards together rather than the more typical TEFL activity of individual cards. This can also be done as dominoes.

Cultural differences

- Set up a roleplay where one person’s card asks them to do something that isn’t allowed in the country they are in now or will travel to, e.g. haggle about prices or call the waiter by clicking their fingers. When they have finished the roleplay, the other person should guess what the roleplay card said. They can then discuss why it might be unacceptable, and other similar taboos. You can also do the opposite where one person is asked to react negatively to a list of things that the other person will probably do and they then discuss where those things are taboo.

Information about the place they are going

- Use real or made up typical menus of restaurants in countries they are likely to go to.

- Ask them to imagine they are in real places such as the British Museum or Versailles when they do roleplays. They can be given real information to help them such as floor plans or leaflets.

- Play bluff. One student is a tour guide and is given a roleplay card with some real information about the place they are giving a tour of. After they finish the tour, their partners guess which information was real and which was made up.


- As you are preparing them for a journey this topic is particularly well suited to a board game, e.g. where they start on the square that says "Your house" and end up back at that square at the end of the game. To add more speaking they will need to do challenges on squares they land on such as "Name as many uncountable nouns connected to travel as you can" and "Your room has no bed in it. Phone reception". They can then progress a number of squares that depends on their performance, or they could just throw a dice or flip a coin to move.

Copyright © 2011

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

Enjoyed this article?

Please help us spread the word:

Latest from ' Teaching English for Specific Purposes'

300 Technical English abbreviations list Read More »