The first time you travel outside the United States will most certainly be a learning experience. Things will happen that you never even thought of before hand. Sometimes you get swindled by others taking advantage of clueless Americans. Most of the time, though, there are kind strangers who help you find your way or give you honest advice that ends up saving the day.
Over the years of traveling abroad, beginning when I was a college student, I’ve certainly learned along the way. By sharing a few things here that I’ve learned I will hopefully spare you some grief and stress, making your travels more enjoyable and save you some money while you’re at it.
1. Check out transportation options ahead of time
Depending on where you’re going, driving a rental car may be your best option or it may be a nightmare if parking is at a premium and/or you would be terrified to drive in the area because of overly aggressive drivers or roads so narrow you question whether they’re really even roads. You may want to take a taxi to get around or you may be in an area where walking really is the best option. Buses can also be a great option but can take much longer to get places if they have a lot of stops. To easily compare your options, check out Rome 2 Rio. For example, if you’re staying at the San Theodore Palace apartments in Venice you can see your options for getting there from the airport, factoring in time and cost.
2. Check Museum or Sight-Seeing Hours and Buy Tickets in Advance
Don’t make the mistake of just showing up at a place to take a tour without getting tickets or reservations in advance or you may be disappointed. Check the website hours well in advance (sometimes months in advance, depending on where you’re going and how busy it will be) and buy tickets ahead of time. This can also save you time of standing in line, by just walking up to pick up your tickets and being able to skip the line to buy tickets, plus you often get a discount by buying your tickets in advance.
3. Eat Where the Locals Eat
I’ve learned the hard way on this one. The bottom line is if you see that a restaurant has a menu in five different languages, that means they cater to tourists, not locals, and inevitably the food will not be that good and/or the food will be over-priced. There are exceptions of course, but in general, try to find a place that’s not near tourist hot spots if you can. Sometimes just walking a couple of blocks further away is all it takes to find a restaurant full of locals instead of tourists. If everyone turns and looks at you when you walk in and you feel a bit out of place, you’re in the right place. Just be sure to learn a few key food-related words before you go (or use Google translate on your phone) and you’ll be fine. I’ve found that even if your server doesn’t know much English, they’ll know enough to serve you a meal and drink, especially if you in turn know enough key words and phrases.
4. Paying for Things
Check well in advance to see if you have a credit card with no foreign transaction fees; if not, get one because otherwise you’ll end up paying a fortune in fees when you get home and get your credit card bill (that happened to me on my first trip to Mexico many years ago). Visa and MasterCard are accepted at many places around the world but less so in more remote areas so don’t rely solely on using credit cards. When you get cash from an ATM, make sure the ATM is physically attached to a bank and only make withdrawals when the bank is open in case you have a problem (your card is taken for example). Also, use your bank debit card that’s linked to your checking account (as opposed to a credit card), as the fees should be lower through your bank versus a cash withdrawal through your credit card.
5. Learn Some Local Words and Phrases
I’m not saying you have to be fluent in the language where you’re going, but learning how to say hello, goodbye, thank you, please, and some other key words and phrases can go a long way with locals. If you are at least making an attempt to speak the language, it shows you aren’t just another arrogant American who expects everyone to just speak English. A quick and easy way to pick up some language basics is with Duolingo, a free app that I often use for brushing up on my Spanish or picking up other words in other languages.
6. Check Your Cell Phone Plan then Rent a Mobile WiFi Hotspot
Check with your mobile carrier ahead of time to see if you have international roaming included in your plan and make sure you have data where you plan on going. If the fee for roaming internationally is exorbitant or nonexistent where you’ll be going, rent a mobile WiFi hotspot, or MiFi that you can use on your vacation. You can read about My First Experience with Mobile WiFi for International Travel. Since this time in Malta I’ve also used another company for MiFi abroad and was once again happy with my decision. If you’re like my family where everyone has their own phone plus a tablet or laptop and we’re all on different phone plans, it’s much easier to just rent a mobile WiFi where we all have coverage for all of our devices no matter where we are.
7. Bread and Water May Not Be Free
In the United States, most people are so accustomed to getting bread and water for free they assume that’s the case around the world, but not so. In fact, when I’m traveling, I assume the restaurant will charge for bread and/or water and decide ahead of time if I really want it. If you don’t want the bread or bottled water, by all means say so as soon as you sit down. In some areas of the world, tap water is unsafe for travelers so everyone drinks bottled water, and you can assume you’ll be paying for that, but in places where the water is safe to drink from the tap, just ask for a glass of water instead of bottled water. By all means do your research ahead of time so you don’t end up getting sick from the water (including ice cubes, fresh fruit and vegetables, and anything that might have been rinsed off).
8. Pack a Few Health Items
If you have an upset stomach, one of the last things you’re going to feel like doing is finding a pharmacy and trying to find medicine, most likely speaking to someone who doesn’t know much English. Pack some Immodium, Tylenol or Ibuprofen, Pepto Bismol, Tums, and band-aids in your carry-on and you’ll have a good start to a small first aid kit perfect for travel.
9. Don’t Pack Too Much
Do you really think you’ll wear all four pairs of shoes plus the 20 different outfits you packed for that 7 day trip to Barcelona? Maybe a better question is “Do you really need to pack all of that stuff?” Don’t fall into the “just in case” trap, packing clothing or shoes just in case you decide to wear them. When you’re packing, choose tops and pants or shorts that all match each other and pack one pair of shoes that go with everything (you’ll be wearing your second pair of shoes for your trip). Packing cubes are amazing in that I can always put way more into my bag with packing cubes than without them, plus they keep everything more organized. Finally, roll your clothes. I have a whole post on packing, Never Check a Bag with an Airline Again so please check that out for more information on packing.
10. Dress for the Weather
When you check the weather forecast before you pack, look at the daily highs and lows and chance of rain or snow for each day. This might seem like a silly thing, but I’ve traveled to places where I never thought I’d need anything more than short sleeves and shorts, only to find out the nights were much cooler than I had expected. Now I always wear a jacket or light sweater on the airplane for three reasons: 1) It’s almost always freezing cold on airplanes, 2) Even in the summer, many places get chilly at night or restaurants or other places that are indoors are often really cold to me because of air conditioning and 3) I always wear more bulky clothing on the plane like a jacket so I don’t have to pack them. If you’ll be hiking up a mountain with a big increase in elevation, you should know that even in the summer there might be snow at the top, so you’ll want proper clothing and shoes for that. Again, just do some research in advance to check the conditions.
Those are my top ten tips for Americans who travel internationally for the first time. What about you all? What tips would you pass along?