So, you’re getting ready to take your first big international trip! Congratulations, and welcome to the world! Many people who travel say that their world is so much bigger and more interesting than they had ever imagined.
According to the Huffington Post, only 10% of Americans have passports and only about 3.5% of Americans travel abroad. Congratulations on joining this tiny club! Is it your first trip out of the country? In some ways, this is not that different from domestic travel. In other ways, it will be a festival of strange new experiences. Of course you know you need a passport…but what else separates this from more local travel? Here are some things to be aware of that you might not have considered. Several of these are taken from Smarter Travel’s article on this topic.
But travel can be scary too! If you’ve traveled to another part of the U.S., you’ve been in unfamiliar surroundings, but the types of places and people you saw were not fundamentally different than you. The buildings were similar. The people looked similar. They were probably speaking the same language(s) you heard at home. Venturing out into the world brings us face-to-face with new places, new systems, new behaviors, and diverse languages and faces. So what should novice international travelers be aware of before leaving home?
- WiFi: In today’s world isn’t connectivity everyone’s first concern? The great thing is that this concern is world-wide. WiFi connections are common across the globe in hotels, restaurants, cafes, and other public places. Finding a free connection has only gotten easier for my students since 2007 when we went to Spain with our first WiFi-enabled cell phones. Since then we’ve had luck getting connections in our host family homes as well as public places throughout Spain, France, The Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Belize. But what about cellular data? To keep your own data service abroad can be simple or complicated, depending on your carrier. With AT&T (my carrier), in most countries I can pay $10/day to keep my regular service plan while abroad. Some carriers include international service with your plan, and others charge additional monthly or daily fees for various levels of service.
- Health: The number one reason that travelers get sick is, contrary to popular believe, NOT related to unclean food. Sure, there are definite risks of food-borne illness in some places on the globe. But the stress of travel arrangement, adjustment to new time zones, the excitement of your plans, lack of sleep, and exposure to new bacteria all are the perfect storm of things to make you sick. So the most important thing to keep yourself healthy? GET. SOME. SLEEP. And if you’ll be adjusting to a new time zone, try shifting your schedule slightly toward the new time to minimize jet lag. In summer 2018 when I traveled to France, my flight left Chicago at 7pm, landing in France at 1pm local time (7am my time). I got a KILLER deal on this flight. But when I had to hit the ground running after spending a night on a coach flight, and a layover en Reykjavik interrupting that sleep, I was really glad I wasn’t already physically exhausted before I got in the air.
- Shoes: The most important thing you can have are comfortable shoes. And if you’ll be walking a lot during the trip, having 2 different pairs will be comforting. Literally. Because if one pair starts to rub your foot uncomfortably, you will be endlessly glad to have a different pair! And whatever you do, do NOT bring brand new shoes. Break them in before you go. Your little piggies will thank you. I know that you want to look great and put forward a great impression on your trip. But the locals won’t notice you that way, and you will not want to look back at photos and see a pained face due to the fancy new shoes on your feet.
- Packing: My biggest advice to all my students is to pack LIGHT. There are tons of blogs and resources about how to pack light (stay tuned for my own take on this to come!). But for now I will leave you with a compelling reason to look into it. While the US has taken many steps to provide accessibility for wheelchairs (and as a by-product, heavy wheeled items like luggage), other countries have not put focus into that. There are uneven sidewalks, some even with a step or two. Sometimes the elevators are painfully slow. Sometimes you have a very short time to jump on a train before it starts moving. Sometimes you need to “mind the gap” between the subway and the platform. Being able to lift and/or carry your bag is essential to your comfort and ease of movement.
- Money: Like WiFi, access to money has improved greatly over recent years. Now travelers can expect to find ATMs around the world. Between cash from an ATM and a credit card, you will have ready access to money in all but the most remote places. (I always do convert a little cash before I go, but I’ve rarely found myself unable to access cash.) And no, DON’T bother with traveler’s checks. They hard to cash, and a general nuisance. American dollars are accepted in many places as well, however in some places you can get a better deal with local currency, even if US dollars are accepted.
- Language: When I travel with students, I take those who have completed level 3, so they have some language experience under their belts. But what if you don’t? Don’t panic. A smile, a willing to gesture and pantomime, and an acceptance of “good enough” communication goes a LONG way. Learn a few polite phrases (hello, please, thank you) and then just take a deep breath and let it go. Be friendly, look at it as a challenge! In general, people appreciate friendliness and a smile more than precise grammar and perfect pronunciation. How have you reacted to people with limited English skill approaching you? Still feel like you want more? Well, if taking language classes is not possible due to situation, money, or time, consider using a language app like DuoLingo or 50Words to give yourself a little (more) foundation. Pro tip: Learn the phrase “My (language) is bad. Can you write it?” Reading at my own pace is easier in my weak languages than listening at the pace others speak. Just take heart that the real world is much different than a class. Nobody will mark things wrong…if you communicate your message well enough to be understood, you’ve been successful.