If anyone knows me, they know that I’m book smart but not exactly the best when it comes to common sense. A few people were worried when I ventured off to study abroad and travel on my own for a month after. Their worry was thoughtful, but ultimately not needed. My trip was fulfilling and I was not robbed, or kidnapped “Taken” style. In most situations, I followed my gut and read people but if you aren’t as in-tune with your instincts, keep an eye out.
Preparation and packing
Before you start your trip, you are going to want to convert money at your bank. They will likely waive some fees if you are a member of the bank. Cash is the most accepted form of money abroad.
- Small bills
Make sure that when you are converting your money, get it in smaller bills. Most places will not accept bigger bills because they can’t break them down or they suspect counterfeit money to be in circulation. If you are traveling with others, they may not have the change to give you in exchange for your big bills.
Before leaving, it is best for you calculate a budget (include unexpected emergencies). One thing you may forget to leave out of your budget is tips. It is customary to tip your tour guide, bus driver, and hotel workers that may help with your luggage. Look up tipping procedures for the specific country you are traveling in to figure out the amount to tip and who to tip. In some countries, you do not tip at restaurants because the price is already included in the bill.
- Where to carry it all
Invest in an invisible wallet that goes underneath your clothing and usually has room for your passport, cash, debit, and credit cards. In the morning, before you venture out of your hotel room, take out some money you believe you will need for the day. Put this smaller amount of cash in your wallet or purse. That way when you open your purse, people will see that you have a small amount of cash in it and may not attempt to rob you. A tourist doesn’t want to be flaunting how much cash they have.
- Talk to your credit card company
Before leaving for your trip, inform your credit card company that you will be abroad. This way they will not shut down your credit card if you need to use it abroad in order to prevent fraud. Some credit companies will allow you to give them specific dates in which you will be in each country. Be aware of the conversion and transaction fees associated with using your credit card abroad.
- Visa is the credit card most accepted abroad. MasterCard is second.
- Bring your debit card if you please. Some ATM machines may eat your debit card. Some machines may give you the wrong amount of money. Some machines may be perfectly fine.
- Travel insurance
It’s important to have travel insurance before going abroad. Check with your travel agency, study abroad company, or university to see if they have any special offers or requirements. My regular health insurance also completely covered me while abroad. The problem is that if you do get sick, you will likely pay out of pocket for treatment. Later you will be reimbursed for medical expenses as long as you keep your receipts.
- Communication abroad
- Cell phones
I would suggest getting an international plan for your current phone because it may end up cheaper in the long run. Prepaid travel phones have many specific rules you have to follow in order to not be overcharged. When may need the phone the most, it may be the most expensive with roaming charges. I racked up quite a lot of charges with my travel phone. I knew all the rules and followed them until I was an emergency situation where I couldn’t follow the rules.
Because I didn’t have internet on my phone, I depended on my laptop to look up maps and other important travel information. I packed an extra computer battery and charger so I wasn’t without a laptop. I also made sure my close friends and family members knew that they could reach me on Facebook. I let them know about the time difference and the possibility of having spotty Wi-Fi so that they didn’t completely depend on Facebook to fill them in on my travels. No news is good news, I kept on reminding some.
The type of luggage you bring depends on the duration and style of your trip. More active tours will require lighter luggage and packing.
- Durable suitcase with distinguishing feature
Make sure to invest in good luggage. Luggage that is cheap and likely to fall apart will only cause you problems in the long run. It’s a good idea to add a distinguishing feature to your luggage. My black suitcase was disguisable with a bright ID tag and floral scarf wrapped around the handle.
- Personal bag, carry on
Most airlines will allow you to have a carry on and a personal bag. As you will see, many people get away with what constitutes as both. Push the limits but don’t go overboard with size.
- Know weight limit of airlines
With that being said, be familiar with the dimension and weight limits of the airlines you will be on. As a standard, personal bags should be small enough to fit under your seat on the flight. Dimensions and weight vary airline to airline. A standard maximum weight for your main suitcase is 50 pounds.
- What to pack
- Mobile scale
This was the most useful investment I made. Once I was traveling and gaining souvenirs, it was difficult to guess if my luggage was overweight.
- Bag that goes over your shoulder
When traveling, bring along a purse that goes over the shoulder. The bag will be closer to your body and harder for pick pocketers to steal out of or take completely.
To make room for souvenirs and new clothing, consider bringing disposable underwear you purchased in a pack. You may even want to wear older clothing and throw it out after a few uses.
- Long skirts and dresses
You will find that in most countries (even westernized countries) the citizens dress more conservatively than in the US. This includes men and women dress. For women, I suggest maxi dresses and skirts.
Scarves are functional and portable. They can be used to cover your shoulders or hair depending on how conservative the area you are visiting is. Scarves can protect against sunburn or provide warmth, all while being stylish.
- Comfortable sandals and shoes
You’ll be walking nonstop for many hours, so you want to have comfortable shoes. Because you will be wearing dresses and skirts, you may not want to pair them with running shoes. I suggest investing in Clarks, Chacos, and Birkenstock sandals. You can find cuter pairs that don’t look as chunky.
- Bathing suits
Pack whatever swimwear you are comfortable in. Don’t give up the opportunity to swim in a rooftop pool or in the Mediterranean Sea because you forgot your bathing suit!
- Travel pillow
You will have to learn to sleep wherever if you have a jam packed traveling schedule. Invest in a travel pillow. They are even ones you that you can fill with a comfortable article of clothing to cut down on using space.
- Watch and alarm clock
It is not the smartest to depend on your phone to tell you the time. After using your maps, restaurant finding apps, and touring information on your phone, you can wear down your battery. Also, there may not be an outlet to charge when you are on the go. Wear a watch set to the country’s time zone so you don’t miss that Moroccan cooking class you signed up for. You may not want to rely on your phone’s alarm to wake you up for the same reason. Bring a portable alarm that runs on batteries.
If you are anything like me, your sensitive stomach may not be a fan of all the different dishes you will be trying. Keep Tums in tow so stomach issues can’t slow you down.
- Leave the straighteners, curlers, and blow dryers at home
Time to rock your all-natural hairdo. It’s easy to imagine yourself with glamorous curls or straight hair in a foreign country, but in reality you may not have hours to devote to your hair when you are traveling. All these tools have potential to take up room in your luggage and weigh it down. Even if you have a converter, some foreign outlets may not be able to handle your high powered blow dryer. Don’t be that person who blows the whole circuit board of the tiny hotel.
- A converter
Don’t escape the country without purchasing a converter. Most countries have different socket sizes for outlets than the US. All your basic electronics would be useless without one.
- Leave US flag and Americanized logos on clothing home
Because of the political climate of the world, it may not always be safe to advertise that you are from the US. It also may not be a smart idea to basically wear a sign that says you are a young American waiting to be robbed. Plus, some foreigners feel wearing your country’s flag on a shirt is just tacky.
- Bleach or waxing before hand
Do you really want to be spending a chunk of your time abroad plucking your eyebrows and shaving your legs? Although costly, consider getting waxed before leaving for your trip. If waxing makes you shudder at the thought, consider buying an at home kit for face bleaching. It takes ten minutes and last for a few weeks. Plus, bleaching doesn’t nearly cost as much as waxing.
- Dying of eyelashes
If you have blonde eyelashes, think about getting your eyelashes dyed so you won’t have to spend a lot of time doing your make up before trekking the world. Maybe even ditch the make up together. Make up can weigh your luggage down. When traveling in the summer time, make up is basically useless. It melts off your face or doesn’t mix properly with your sunscreen and the sweat you will inevitably accumulate. Being fresh faced will help your skin adjust to the tap water of the country.
- Confirm your flight
This is an important step. Most international flights you will have to confirm 72 hours in advance. This can be done by visiting the airline’s website. This ensures your seat on the plane (9 times out of 10).
- Arrange for an airport pick up
Maybe you are traveling alone and you want to make sure you get to your hotel safely. Arranging a car to pick you up at the airport can assist with any anxiety. I liked the idea of knowing at least someone would be a little concerned if I didn’t show up at the airport. After a long flight, flagging down a cab and negotiating a price may not be so pleasant. Shop around and find a service that is not an absurd price.
- Be comfortable
Depending on how long the flight is, you will want to be comfortable. Wear nice but comfy clothing on the flight. Make sure you have layers to adjust for the temperature of the airport, the plane, and the destination. Those slip on shoes will save your life waiting in the TSA lines.
On the flight
- Arrive early
International flights require you to arrive at the airport three hours before departure. I tend to get there a little earlier than that, especially if I am leaving from an airport I’m not familiar with. Most airports I entered, I headed straight to the information desk and asked for someone who spoke English. Fortunately, there was always an English speaker among the ranks. I asked them where I was headed and which part of the airport I had to be in. Knowing that I had all the information I could about where I had to be to catch my flight kept me calm.
- Be prepared
Don’t forget your passport, another form of ID, luggage, carry-on, money, phone, and your ticket. Keep snacks with you in case your flight is delayed.
- Find the bathroom
There is never a 100% guarantee that the flight you will be on will have an accessible bathroom. Relieve yourself, wash up, and get yourself on that flight!
- Take out the stuff you will be needing for that flight before sitting down. This is includes things to keep yourself occupied like a book, iPod, phone, laptop, and a journal. But maybe not all at once.
- Don’t be an asshole
For the sake of all humanity, don’t sleep on your neighbor. Don’t kick the back of someone’s chair. Help the flight crew hand food to your neighbors. Don’t take off your shoes. Don’t have your music blaring so loud that your neighbor can hear every lyric. Try not to freak out and put others on edge. It’s bad enough that everyone is being propelled to another country in a metal can, so be compassionate.
- Ryan Air
Cheap airlines are cheap for a reason. You may get a rate that seems excellent but be sure to read the fine print. Some airlines will charge you for carry on’s, luggage, and printing your boarding pass at the airport. The seats on the plane will be small and uncomfortable. There may or may not be air conditioning and you can forget about your gourmet airplane food. These flights are good for short destinations and quick trips.
Once you are there
- Never leave luggage out of sight
Even if that means rolling your large suitcase into the bathroom stall with you (been there and done that). You can get into serious trouble if you innocently leave a bag unintended. Some airports have lockers that you can rent for a bit.
- Convert money at banks, not airports
If you have just ran out of the money you converted at home, time to find a bank. A bank will give you a better conversion rate than a booth at the airport will. Places known for converting foreign currency downtown may or may not be trusted. You will see that some advertise a competitive conversion rate and stick to it. It may be a risk you are willing to take.
- Count money each day and give yourself an allowance
Counting your money gives you control and brings budgeting back to reality. Giving yourself an allowance for the day is helpful so you don’t frivolously spend.
- Use hotel safes
Hotel safes can be used to lock up large sums of money when you have an action-packed day planned. Just don’t forget the combination!
- Bottled water
Even if the water is safe to drink in the country you are in, you stocking up on bottled water is your best bet. Along with staying hydrated, bottled water can be used to brush your teeth immediately after embarking on foreign soil. Your body may not be accustomed to the water but can adapt to it later on (if it tap water is safe to drink in the country).
Though train transport is appealing to penny pinchers wishing to see more of Europe, it may not be practical. Schedules can be complicated to read and need translating. Each country has a Eurail website, which makes it more difficult to hop on a train and just go. Germany is said to have the most organized website.
- Student travel agencies
There are agencies that specialize in trips for students studying abroad. These trips are typically cheaper than most. You may want to check out these trips depending on what type of traveler you are. Because they are trips meant for students, club vouchers and a more partying vibe is included. There are more educational agencies out there too.
- Wear your bag on the opposite side of the street
This trick will prevent your bag being ripped off your shoulder by a thieving Vespa.
- Walk tall and confidently
Having an air of confidence about you makes you less of a target. People may mistake you as a wise local.
- Stay in groups at night
This clause includes men. It is in everyone’s best interest if you stay in a group at night. Walking alone can make you vulnerable to crime. If you find yourself abandoned by friends far from your hotel room, you should apt to take a cab versus walking yourself home. Make sure your group has each other’s numbers. If you are partying at a hectically crowded club, establish a nearby meet up spot beforehand.
- Don’t talk on your expensive phone out in the streets
Smart phone theft is becoming more common. It is quite easy for a phone to be pick-pocketed when it is in sight.
- Getting lost
- You may have a cell phone, but don’t rely on it for maps or translating
Something wacky happens to technology when in a different country. Your phone apps may not be the most reliable way to get you home. Translating apps can skew meaning. Both shouldn’t be your plan a.
- Learn some basic terms in the foreign language
This is a respectful way to mingle in the culture. Be polite with store keepers and locals. The basics of the language and your newfound miming skills can get you far.
- Get a physical copy of the map of the city
A physical copy of a map is so helpful when map apps fail you or your phone dies. Plus, when asking for directions, you can easily pin point a place on your map to assist in someone helping you.
- Allow some time for you to get familiar
It’s easy to get swept away in all the beauty, but be aware of your surroundings. Remind yourself of the name of the street your hotel is on. Become acquainted with the major intersection of the city. Let landmarks lead the way. Soon you’ll know the city like the back of your hand.
- Get lost
Go down a street that your never visited yet. Get a little lost. Imagine what you can find. The most magical places can be found when you stop looking for them.
- Learn how to sleep anywhere
You may be spending hours in transit on buses, vans, trains, subways, boats, and planes. Keep a travel pillow and a makeshift blanket in tow. Sleeping on the go is essential to waking up energized.
- Talk to locals
Locals will know the best restaurants, best food, best stores, and most genuine sites. They will encourage you to stray from tourist traps.
- Look out for signature scams
- Don’t let anyone sell you something
A magical pass that leads you to the front of the line at a site is too good to be true. Usually when being approached by someone who is trying to sell you something, it can’t be trusted. Don’t let strangers that you met a second ago take you anywhere. They are trying to sell something or steal something.
- If it’s too good to be true, it probably is
When looking for an authentic souvenir, steer clear from the cheap souvenir shops. Most of the trinkets on sale are made in China. (Of course if you are visiting China, you would probably want something made in China). Purchasing something in a marketplace can be a different scenario. Haggling can become your secret weapon. If inquiring about the quality of a product, give the shop owner a ridiculously low price. If he or she accepts the price without any hesitation, it’s likely a fake. The genuine thing will have a set price not up for much negotiation.