Ten Tips for Americans Who Travel Abroad for the First Time

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.

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Make sure driving really is the best option before renting a car!

 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.

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A beautiful presentation of a meal in the Canary Islands

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).

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I carried my nuun water bottle all over the Canary Islands with me so I never had to buy bottled water.

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.

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Learn from my mistakes- I had to buy that pullover I’m wearing because I didn’t pack a warm jacket for our day trip to Mount Teide, the highest point in Spain!

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?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

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What’s in my Racing (Running) Bag?

Similar to “What’s in my Family’s Luggage” post, I thought I’d write one up on what I pack for a race. Since I’m currently on my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states, and am up to 41 states, I have been packing a bag for a race for many years now. The contents of my pre-race bag have certainly changed as I’ve learned what works and doesn’t work for me.

To begin with, let me just re-iterate how much I love my packing cubes from ebags. I have the 3 piece set and love them so much I bought more for my daughter. If you are new to my blog, you may not be aware that my family and I never check a bag with an airline. Also, since I’m down to the last 9 states, there will be no more driving to a half marathon for me. I’ve already driven to all of ones that are within driving distance from my house and I’m not into cross-country driving before a half marathon.

I’ve always been able to condense all of my running gear except for my shoes, which I always wear on the airplane to the race, into a medium-sized packing cube. Almost always I’ll be running once or twice before the race as well, so I’ll also pack another running shirt, sports bra, socks, and shorts or other weather-appropriate bottoms in the cube.

So let’s get down to the nitty gritty. What exactly is in my running packing cube specifically for a half marathon?

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1. I always pack at least one sports bra and pair of socks, regardless of the weather and time of year. I learned the hard way at my half marathon in Missoula, Montana to pack a long-sleeve shirt and capris or pants even if it’s July and you think there’s no way you’ll need to wear anything but shorts and short-sleeves if you’re headed somewhere north of where you live. I consider these things my basics. I’ve been buying Ruhn sports bras lately and really like them so I’m packing one of those for my next race. For socks, I’m packing Balega blister resist socks that are made with mohair. My shirt is a short-sleeve from Arctic Cool that I reviewed and you can read that here if you’d like. My shorts are from Under Armour. The shorts and shirt obviously would be different if I was headed to a cooler race.

2. I always pack my running watch and charger. I’ve had multiple Garmins and more recently a TomTom over the years, but this is one piece of gear that’s always gone with me to my races.

3. I always pack sunglasses and a running hat. I’ll decide on the morning of the race if I actually wear the sunglasses and hat, depending on how sunny/hot/cold it is going to be.

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All my running gear neatly packed in a medium-sized packing cube

4. In more recent years I’ve started running races with my Nathan running belt. It’s got holders for two bottles, which I like better than ones that have a spot for one big bottle. I run all my races fueled by Nuun carried by me and have found that just works better for me. No surprises on what you’re going to get at aid stations, and if it’s going to settle well with you, and even better, no slowing down at aid stations to grab a cup and try to not slosh it all over yourself while still swallowing a few drops. Speaking of fuel, I also like Honey Stinger waffles. I have a finicky stomach on race day but I usually don’t have a hard time getting these down.

5. Also in more recent years, I’ve been running races with my phone and armband. After one race where the finish was an absolute mad house and I had trouble finding my husband and daughter because there were so many people (even though we agreed to meet in a specific spot ahead of time), I started just running with my phone for all races.

6. I always wear my running shoes to races where I have to fly to, so those don’t go in my packing cubes. My latest pair for long runs is the Newton Fate II, which you can buy directly from Newton here and I see currently they’re on sale. It looks like the Fate III’s are out now. Not sure if I’ll stick with Newton or switch brands. I’m debating switching brands just to mix things up.

7. I also have two things for after a race. The first one is compression socks. These are fantastic for long flights, whether or not you’re running a race. When you’re on a long flight, the blood in your legs tends to pool unless you get up and walk around the plane a lot, so compression socks help with circulation in your legs. I personally like ones from CEP and you can buy them from Amazon here. The rule of thumb when it comes to compression products is if they’re easy to put on and pull off, they’re not tight enough. These things should be difficult to put on and feel like a bit of a struggle, but in the end it’s worth it.

The second thing I have for after a race is new to me, but one I’m very excited about. I’ve just discovered Oofos sandals (thank you, Paula!) and couldn’t be more excited about a pair of sandals. If you haven’t discovered Oofos yet, they’re supposed to be great for recovery after running or just being on your feet all day. You can tell they’re supremely different than most other flip-flop type sandals the second you put them on. The support they give to your feet is incredible. I can see why they’re so popular with runners.

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I’m normally not a big fan of photos of people’s feet but I felt like my new Oofos deserved a photo!

So that’s everything. I feel like I’ve packed a bag for a half marathon so many times by now I barely even have to think about what I need to bring. It does make it a bit less stressful when packing at least.

Also, I have an affiliate link through ebags for $30 off your next order if you sign up for emails here.  I don’t often pass along links for ebags on my blog, but if you follow me on twitter @runningtotravel, I’ll sometimes post links there for discounts when they come along. I love their stuff, but I don’t want to seem like I’m too pushy (I wouldn’t be a very good salesperson).

What running gear or clothes do you all really like for half marathons or marathons? Any recommendations?

Happy running!

Donna

 

 

 

Packing List- What’s in my Family’s Luggage

If you follow my blog, you probably know that I’m a huge advocate of traveling light so I don’t have to check a bag with airlines. As a family of three, we haven’t checked a bag since our daughter was old enough to carry her own luggage, many years ago. We’ve gone on multiple 3-week vacations around the world without checking a bag. I’ve gotten asked many times how we manage to do this. The key is to only bring a week’s worth of clothes at the most and do a load of laundry mid-way on your vacation.

There are several advantages to not checking luggage with airlines, the most obvious being the money it saves you from not having to pay a baggage fee with airlines but there are other advantages as well. I’m in the process of running a half marathon in all 50 states, and over the years we’ve flown 3 or 4 times a year for races (in addition to flying to other places purely for vacations vs. racecations). By having all of my running clothes and gear on the plane with me, I don’t ever have to worry about my suitcase getting lost and not having those things for the race. The first time I flew to a race without checking luggage, I remember what peace of mind it gave me to know I would have all of my running things with me and there was no way my things were getting lost before the race.

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My family’s main carry-ons

 

Having your carry-on luggage on the plane with you also has other perks. I remember being on a flight that was the absolute coldest I’ve ever been on in my life. It felt like I was at a ski resort instead of sitting on an airplane. I was able to pull out several articles of clothing to layer-on and keep me warm, and I was so thankful to be able to do that. I’ve also pulled out sweaters from my carry-on in freezing airports on more than one occasion.

But I don’t want to lug around all of my stuff, you say! Trust me, you get used to it. I always tell myself I really just have to carry my bag through the airport and from the airport to the rental car once I get to my destination. It’s really not that bad. Besides, with the size and weight limitations on carry-ons from airlines, it’s not like you’re going to be lugging around 100 pounds or anything crazy anyway. Speaking of carry-on rules, many airlines limit carry-on luggage to 9 inches by 14 inches by 22 inches ((22 cm x 35 cm x 56 cm), including handles and wheels. Some airlines do allow slightly bigger but some have even greater restrictions, so you should always check the airline you’re flying with in advance.

Since most airlines allow one carry-on bag and one personal bag, I always have my Patagonia backpack with handles and a cross-body strap for my carry-on bag and a backpack for my personal bag. I use the cross-body strap so I can still have a backpack on my back. Since my carry-on is a soft (i.e. flexible) material instead of hard-shell, I’ve always been able to stuff it on the plane, even small planes. My daughter recently asked for her own Patagonia carry-on like mine to replace her small roller bag, so she also has that plus sometimes a backpack but sometimes she’s been able to pack everything in her carry-on and didn’t need a backpack. You can buy the Patagonia Headway MLC from eBags here.

My husband recently down-sized from an already small carry-on bag to an even smaller roller carry-on bag. He also has a backpack for his laptop and other electronics, but he’s debated several times if he should leave his laptop at home so he wouldn’t have to lug it around (I doubt he’d ever leave it behind, though).

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My husband’s little roller bag

 

One of my husband’s new favorite things for travel has been a 100% Merino wool shirt I got him from Amazon. Wool is great for travel because it absorbs odor from sweat so you can literally wear it for days without it stinking. He even wore it on multiple days in Charleston, South Carolina in August when it was hot and humid with no smell. That was definitely a test for this shirt! Find the shirt here on Amazon.

I also am a huge advocate of rolling my clothes and using packing cubes. I like the 3-piece set of packing cubes from eBags, which you can buy here.

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The large packing cube unzipped

OK. So you have your carry-on bag and your packing cubes. Now you just need to fill the packing cubes. The great thing about the 3-piece set is you can use the bigger one for shirts, pants, undies, socks, and a small pair of shoes. The medium-sized one is great for when I’m traveling to a half-marathon and I can fit all of my running clothes and gear in that cube. If I’m not going to a race, I’ll use it for my swim suit and a couple of pair of athletic clothes for runs or working out in, or I’ve used it for things like warm hats, gloves, and a fleece jacket for layering if we’re going somewhere cold. The small cube can be used for beauty products or snacks for travel days or undies and swim wear if you don’t have enough room in your larger cube. The point is, you can categorize your clothes and things so that when you reach your destination, it makes unpacking and finding things much easier.

That covers the larger carry-on. As I mentioned, my husband and I also carry a backpack, and our daughter sometimes carries one. In my backpack, I have my tablet, my camera, cell phone, a paperback book (I’m old-school), medications, my baggie of liquids each 100 ml or less, headphones, snacks, and water bottle. My husband has his laptop, cell phone, sometimes a couple of paperback books, earbuds, snacks, baggie of liquids 100 ml or less, and water bottle.

And that’s it! Nothing complicated, just your basics really with some specifics but nothing crazy.

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Here’s a simple break-down:

  1. Patagonia Headway MLC carry-on for me and one for my daughter, roller carry-on for my husband
  2. 3-piece set of packing cubes typically containing:
    1. 5-6 shirts
    2. 1 pair of pants (if cold) or 2 pair of shorts (if warm)
    3. 6 pair of undies and socks
    4. 2-3 athletic shirts, 1-2 athletic shorts, 1-2 pair athletic socks
    5. Bathing suit
    6. Tank top and shorts for sleeping
    7. Eye mask
    8. Water bottle holder & bottles, running watch & charger, cell phone arm band, Nuun, snacks for race if running a half marathon
    9. Snacks (usually nuts, dried fruit, crackers, sometimes jerky, cereal bars)
    10. Small pair of shoes (slip-ons or flip-flops)
  3. quart-size ziplock bag with liquid toiletries, each 100 ml or less
  4. hair brush
  5. camera
  6. tablet
  7. cell phone
  8. 1 or 2 paperback books
  9. medications
  10. headphones
  11. water bottle

On the plane, I’ll wear a shirt with a lightweight cardigan-type sweater or hoodie, my most comfortable jeans, and my running shoes. If I’m going somewhere cold, I’ll also wear my winter coat and have my scarf, hat, and gloves in the pockets or stuffed in my backpack. I always wear my most bulky clothes and shoes on the plane, to save room for smaller items in my bag.

What about you guys? What do you like to travel with? Anything you’d never travel without?

Happy travels!

Donna