Traveling internationally is one of my favorite things to do, and I’ve learned several tips over time. The following suggestions will make your international trip go more smoothly.
1.Don’t forget you’re in a different country.
This tip sounds ridiculous, but I can’t even tell you how often people complain about things that are simply cultural differences. The food will be different. Social things like how far apart people stand during a conversation are different. Some routines will be different. In the end, this has made me a more flexible, empathetic, and understanding person. Be ready for things not to go exactly like they do when you’re at home.
2. Learn a little bit of the language.
Think about all of the times you’ve been annoyed by people in the United States not speaking English, and then realize that it’s the same for people in other countries, too. Sure, over a billion people know English to some degree and most people working in the tourism industry know at least basic English, but it’s just good manners to learn some basics. See my previous post about learning just the basics for travel.
3. Pay attention to how locals behave.
American tourists are usually known for being loud. Pay attention to your surroundings. If your group is the loudest around, tone it down. I also watch for more subtle customs, such as physical space and contact. Even though there are too many subtleties that go into local behavior for you to trick people into not realizing you’re not from there, you can at least try to represent your country well and not be seen as obnoxious.
4. Try eating and doing new things.
Some people love trying new foods in new countries and others hate it. You’ll miss out on a huge part of the culture if you don’t at least try something new. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to force yourself to eat a full portion. From my experience, people who go to a new place dreading eating the food usually end up sick and miserable. While you’re at it, also try doing new things. You’ll likely never see anyone again, other than the people you’re traveling with, so get out of your comfort zone. Some of my best travel experiences are from times when I tried new things that I’d never do at home, such as singing karaoke in a park, getting naked in front of strangers at a public bath house, and being the only group dancing in a club full of people on their phones.
5. Look up whether the water is clean or not.
If you get sick on dirty tap water, you’re going to ruin your trip. At the same time, I personally think it’s a pain to always keep up with bottled water and what I can eat at restaurants that won’t be contaminated. Because of this laziness on my part, I always look up the tap water situation before leaving (and then I almost always end up drinking it).
6. Don’t have every second planned out.
There are things that need to be planned ahead of time, but having every moment of a trip planned before leaving will keep you from really experiencing a place. The balance I’ve found is to book tickets to crowded places ahead of time, and to otherwise have a list of things I’d like to do. Sometimes, buying tickets in advance will keep you from spending hours in line (or missing something altogether). On the other hand, if you don’t have any idea of what you’re doing, you’ll often waste time at your hotel looking things up before going out. A lot of this comes down to your personal preferences, but what I like the best is to have a flexible list of ideas.
7. Don’t waste your money on bank fees and don’t get your credit cards deactivated.
First, if you’re exchanging your money at a bank (or worse – at the airport), you’re losing money because of their fees. If you want to have a small amount of cash on hand when you arrive, do that, but don’t exchange too much before you leave.
Second, get a debit card without foreign transaction fees because you’ll get the best exchange rates at ATMs. Charles Schwab is my favorite. We have a separate account that’s just for travel, and we only transfer the money needed for a trip into that account. Charles Schwab never charges ATM fees and they’ll reimburse you for all of the fees other banks charge you.
Third, you don’t want to be mid-trip and have your accounts frozen or cards deactivated completely because your bank suspects fraud. Call ahead of time and they’ll make a note on your account about were you’ll be and when.
8. Check on the electrical situation.
The voltage used varies between countries. In some places, your hair straightener will be fine. In others, it’ll burn up your hair. Many newer appliances are dual-voltage and will switch as necessary, so check yours to see if it’s labeled as dual-voltage. Sometimes, your plugs will be the same shape and in some places, they won’t. Check voltages and plug types here.
Plug adapters can easily be purchased on Amazon, at airports, or at just about any place that sells luggage and are generally pretty cheap. On the other hand, a converter will change the voltage for you and will also cost a little more. Use the link above to determine what you’ll need for your particular destination.
9. Decide what you’ll do about phone service.
Check into the fees your phone carrier charges for using your phone in another country. As of right now, the major US carriers are expensive, especially if you’re staying out of the country for more than a few days. What carriers charge depends on the country (Mexico and Canada are almost always cheaper) and you can usually buy daily plans, pay-as-you-go plans, and monthly plans. Decide if it’ll be worth the added cost.
Another option is to buy a local SIM card, which is a little bit more of a hassle, but pretty cheap in most places. You’ll need to make sure your phone is unlocked to be able to do this. If you don’t want to mess with a new SIM card, you can rent pocket WiFi devices in a lot of countries, then just use that for data. Some places have free WiFi almost everywhere and other places are known for being difficult to find unlocked WiFi. Check on your specific destination before you go.
I personally usually don’t pay for phone service and look at it as a time to get a little bit of separation from my phone, but just having it and knowing I have the ability to activate it in an emergency makes me feel safer.
10. Pack light if you’re changing locations during your trip.
When I studied abroad in Costa Rica, I literally took the entire luggage set and it was a huge pain at the airport and I got lots of stares (as I perfected how to balance each piece on top of the others). On each trip since then, I’ve packed lighter and lighter as I’ve realized that having to lug suitcases around a new city as you search for your accommodation isn’t fun. Now, I can do a weekend with just a backpack or a month with a backpack and a carry on-sized suitcase. More details are posted on it here, but my number one tip for now is to remember that unless you’re going somewhere very remote, people live there too and they almost certainly use all of the same things you do, so if you don’t have something, you can just buy it when you get there.
11. Check passport and visa requirements
Even though your passport won’t have reached its expiration date by the end of your trip, that doesn’t mean that it will be accepted. Many countries require 3-6 months of remaining validity and some require blank pages in order for you to enter, so check your destination’s requirements here.
Check for visa requirements on that same website as well. Sometimes, you don’t need a visa at all, sometimes you can get a visa upon arrival at the airport, and sometimes you need to get a visa before leaving, so be sure to look this up well before your trip.
One tip when it comes to passport and visa requirements: Don’t go to Facebook or other social media to ask friends what you need. Use an official website, like the U.S. Passport Service I have linked above, to make sure your information is accurate and up-to-date.
12. Don’t be afraid!
This is something that I get asked about all of the time because unfortunately, a lot of what we know about other countries is what we see on the news, which is rarely positive. Of course there are specific precautions you should exercise in particular countries, but in most places, the usual awareness of your surroundings will suffice.
One thing that I’ve been surprised about as I’ve met people from other countries both while traveling and also while teaching English is that a lot of people outside of the United States are afraid to come here. At first, I couldn’t believe it because I feel safe at home, but then after talking to people about how they just hear about shootings on the news, I understood. Remember that this goes both ways. Most places aren’t scary, most people will be welcoming, and you usually won’t be in any more danger abroad than you are at home.
There are a variety of safety rankings for countries around the world, each taking different factors into account. The United States isn’t close to the top of any of the rankings, no matter which factors are being looked at. Here are a few examples: We’re the 49th safest country on SafeAround, 65th according to Global Finance, and 121st most peaceful on the Global Peace Index (which is looking at very different elements than the other two).
Don’t be afraid! Take that trip you’ve been wanting to take. Follow these tips and you’ll be off to a great start.
Click “Follow” under “Follow Blog via Email” in the right column to get emails when new posts are up. Check back each Saturday for new posts!
Thinking about trying out Airbnb for your next trip? Use my invite link here to get 15% off your first stay!