My coworker’s husband has just left on his first international trip to London. And other than a couple of trips to Mexico, this is his first international voyage. His wife has not done a lot of traveling herself so she has been asking me a lot of questions. Based on that, I figured I would put together a list of things every first-time traveler should know or do.
(Please note that this is not a comprehensive list, but rather a collection of thoughts based on a conversation with an actual first-timer.)
10 tips for your first international trip
- Call your bank. And your credit card companies. Ask them to put a travel alert on your account. The last thing you want is for your bank to freeze your account the first time you try to get money out of the ATM.
- Speaking of ATMs, plan on using it to get cash. We try to locate one as soon as we arrive at the airport and only once have we had any trouble (I’m looking at you, Kraków). My coworker’s husband was planning on exchanging cash. Now this is certainly an option, but I personally am not comfortable carrying around that much cash. Plus, the exchange rate is not great at those airport kiosks and they sometimes run scams on tourists.
- Figure out your cellphone before you go. Find out if it even works in the country you are traveling to and how much a phone call, text message and data will cost you. Learn how to turn things off (e.g. international roaming, data, etc.). R recently learned that if she puts her phone in airplane mode, she can still use Wi-Fi. And I recently discovered that Verizon has great rates in both Mexico and Canada—which came in real handy when I traveled to both Canada and Mexico earlier this year. You just have to do a little homework. Also, if you have an iPad or an iTouch, you can use iMessage and Facetime (assuming you have Wi-Fi) with other Apple users and stay in touch without ever having to turn on your phone. Our phones are like appendages these days so figuring out the best way to operate it on your first international trip will save you a lot of angst.
- Do not wear anything with your alma mater or favorite team printed on it. No matter what you wear, you’ll never fit in completely. But there is no reason to shout, “I’M A TOURIST!”—which is exactly what you’ll do by wearing your favorite college hoodie. Instead, pick up something that has been locally made.
- Learn to say “thank you” in whatever the local language is (Google Translate can help with this). That and a smile will take you a long ways. If you can learn a few other key phrases, great! Just make sure you at least learn “thank you” and use it often. Also, don’t assume everyone speaks English. Ask first before you start yammering away.
- You don’t have to pack everything. Seriously. Unless you are headed somewhere super remote or rural, there are going to be stores similar to what you are used to (and part of the fun of traveling is shopping in them). Don’t pack that extra toothbrush just in case you need it. If you lose that first one for whatever reason, you can always buy another one. For additional tips, check out this post on the tools and gear to help you pack light and this post on the tricks to packing light.
- Figure out your electronics and buy the right converter (and adapter if necessary) before you go. It is pretty easy to find or order a converter for another country here at home. It is not so easy to find one once you are out of the U.S.
- Download your books, movies, music and travel apps before you have to turn off your cellular coverage/data. These things take time and you should plan accordingly. Also, make sure you test out any new apps before the big day. The description might have made that cool map app seem like the best thing since sliced bread, but if you don’t know how to use it or you find out it does not work offline, you might be in trouble.
- Jet lag is real. The best advice I have (given to me by a coworker who travels extensively) is to stay awake until nighttime. Even if you arrive at your destination in the early morning, try to stay awake until at least early evening. If you take a nap in the middle of the day, you are probably going to be wide awake sometime around 2 a.m. I have found that if you can make it through that first day (which can be hard—you’ll want to stay busy), you’ll crash hard that first night and then awake the next morning ready to go.
- Relax. It can be stressful visiting a foreign country for the first time…or tenth. If you find yourself getting anxious, simply stop and take a deep breath. You will have a much better time if you are not freaking out about the fact that you cannot read the menu. Do yourself a favor on your first international trip and learn to relax.
With a little research and a little preparation, your first international trip can be a little more smooth and a little less stressful.