A Starting Point: Five Tips for International Travel

International travel. The very phrase holds connotations of adventure and excitement and respite from routine. Planning it can be overwhelming, especially if you’ve never done it before. There are the obvious things to consider, like checking into visas and shots. But after that, the list of choices you have to make turns into a web and it’s hard to know where to start first. I’m no professional traveler, but I am one of those nerdy people who likes to write down the things I’ve learned. So here’s a starting point if you’re looking for one.

Five things I’ve learned about international travel:

  1. Expect to Plan
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Street map in Antigua, Guatemala.

I would say half of your trip occurs before you go, by way of planning. The key to planning is acknowledging that you are in it for the long haul and willing to do the research. Or, go with someone who is. Because someone, whether it’s you or your travel buddies or your host, needs the information. What works for me is to create a budget and work backwards. Once I’ve settled on a max spending limit, I research airfare, transportation, and accommodations, seeing if I can realistically make the trip happen with my goal budget. If I can, it’s on to more research for things like walking tours, excursions, and must try foods. I also make sure to keep a portion of my budget as a ‘loose category’ for food and souvenirs once I’m on the trip. All this research means you’ll be facing a lot of decisions along the way. Prepare yourself emotionally for that. Things like youtube, pinterest, and travel blogs help if you are looking for personal advice. Even social media and conversations with travel savvy friends can go a long way. Take your time, because it’s going to take time, whether you do it stateside or from your hotel room each night on the trip.

  1. Pack Light
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Man navigating a cart over the streets of Venice, Italy.

For your own sake, please pack light. That’s all I can say. If you are staying in one place the whole time, this isn’t as big of an issue. But so many places have so many stairs (they were founded before America and elevators after all). So just think about how often you’ll be carrying your stuff when you make decisions about what to take. My current standard: a carry-on suitcase and a big bag that fits under the seat in front of me. To compensate for the light packing I always make sure I’ll have washer access every few days of my journey, ideally in my hotel/apartment. Apartment access laundry is the best because it allows me to optimize my time, spending daylight hours touring and evening hours unwinding and laundering. Also, the general consensus is to take things that layer and can mix and match. That way, if you are wearing the same clothes for 3 weeks, at least it isn’t the same outfit for 3 weeks.  

  1. Expect to Use Your Phone Differently
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Last wifi before a 24 hour flight to Asia.

Let’s talk phones. You don’t need an international phone plan if you are going to have wifi access every night at your hotel. It is nice though to have a backup wifi option for things like contacting airbnb hosts about arrival times and getting an uber. One thing I do to cut down on my wifi reliance while traveling is to download google maps so they can be viewed offline. I also save our destinations as favorites so they show up as little hearts on my map. This makes them findable when I don’t have a wifi dependent search option and helps keep me oriented in new places. Otherwise, some cities have city wide wifi, free wifi at coffee shops, or on public transit.  If this is the case where you’re going, you definitely don’t need the phone plan. Just do your research. Also, look into outlet adapters. Some countries need them, some don’t. But if you need one, you’ll want one, otherwise your phone will die and you’ll be stuck.

Other things I use my phone for: splitwise and google translate. Splitwise is an app that allows everyone in the group (who has the app) to keep track of their ‘tab’ and pay each other at the end. When I travel I try to have everyone put in their receipts every night. This helps me keep track of my expenses and means that we can all take turns paying for things without getting confused. Yay for technology! Google translate is a lifesaver for things like reading parking signs and translating interesting plaques. I haven’t tried it much for actual communication yet, but I know it’s helpful for that too. Just make sure you download the languages ahead of time so you can use it without wifi.

Bonus tip–don’t forget to empty your photo memory before you go.

  1. To Be Safe, Be Smart
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My sister and I with some artificial fear of Guatemalan volcanoes.

One big concern I often hear of is safety, especially as a female traveler.  The key to safety is, be smart.

Don’t

  1. Go out alone or at night if you don’t feel safe.
  2. Respond to catcalls. They aren’t the kind of greetings you want to be encouraging.  

Do

  1. Communicate with your group about expected meet up times.  
  2. Appear confident. Act like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t.  
  3. Self advocate. That means, you can ignore people who are rude or ask someone to stop bothering you if they are.  
  4. Trust your instincts. That means, if you don’t feel safe somewhere, leave. Switch train cars.  Cross to the other side of the street. Go home early. Whatever you need to do.
  5. If you think you are being followed, go into a store, make small talk with the people behind the counter, or use the reflections from windows to check your surroundings.  

It’s okay to be a little suspicious of people. But don’t let that fear ruin your travels. Just know that if you are in a questionable situation, these are some strategies you can use to get yourself out of it.  

  1. Expect Culture Shock
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Motorbikes and electric lines are sights worth seeing in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

You’ve made it! You’ve done the planning, thought through all the angles, and now you’re here.  On your trip. And you still have decisions to make. And you’re processing all the new information coming at you 100 miles an hour. Language barriers. Cultural barriers. Steps and lines and crowds and things you just didn’t think about expecting. Well, I’m here to tell you to expect it…and embrace it! Think about the culture you’re interacting with and learn from it. Are they friendly? Learn how to say hello. Are they efficient and avoid eye contact? Learn to respect space. If this is your first time out of the country, culture shock is inevitable. It’s okay to be surprised that people live efficient, productive lives in a totally different way than you’ve imagined or experienced. But it’s not very nice to talk about it in front of them. So, take along a heart of gratitude and learning. In my experience, you can barter with your fingers or by writing numbers. Bathroom/toilet seem to be pretty universal phrases, but hello and thank you are the bare minimum connectors between kind humans. Whether or not language is an obstacle for you to overcome, there will be something about that culture that’s different. That means, even when you have to pay for a toilet or people budge you in line, you can embrace that experience because, if nothing else, it’s authentic. Enjoy it!

And that’s my list. Hope this gets you one step closer to an international adventure.

five tips for International Travel

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