Off the Beaten Path – Tips for First-time International Travelers

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San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

I’m a bad traveler; I don’t like getting out of my comfort zone. Since I’m a plus-sized, curmudgeonly woman who doesn’t fit easily into boxes, I have to do out-of-the-box thinking to ensure my comfort and prevent meltdowns when I travel. I’m not built physically or emotionally such that I can hop into the corner store and purchase what I forget to pack.

Fortunately, my traveling experiences started in the UK, where people speak English and everything is the same as here – almost. Then I moved on to less similar locales: Netherlands, Italy, Japan, Mexico (San Miguel, not the spring break destinations). My first trips overseas remind me of the Burger Royale exchange between Jules and Vince in Pulp Fiction, particularly as I nearly got sideswiped by a smart car every time I crossed the London streets.  Jules says the funniest thing about Europe is “the little differences.”  He says, “I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it’s just…it’s just, there it’s a little bit different.” In Tokyo I found Kraft Parmesan Cheese and Louisiana’s own McIlhenny tabasco sauce, but with Kanji on the labels. And then there’s the corn, mayo, and fried eggs on the pizza. Completely.out.of.my.comfort.zone.

Here are some tips and tricks that help maximize enjoyment and minimize stress.

1. Save the suitcase zipper expansion. Most suitcases have zippers that provide additional space. Resist the urge to use this space on your outbound trip. Clothes have a natural tendency to expand once you wear them. They are like those toy sponge animals or dinosaurs in capsules that puff up when put in water. Dirty clothes will never ever fit into your suitcase again. If, by some miracle, clothes remain flat, use the space for tchotchkes.

2. Call your bank about your credit and debit cards. If banks notice charges from an unusual place, they will put a hold on your card. Generally they don’t lock cards after purchases in the US. Also, write the contact and account information for credit cards somewhere in case your cards are lost or stolen. At home, you have the luxury of surfing, digging in your bill pile, or making multiple calls to track down the correct information. If you are stuck somewhere without wifi and a limited calling or data plan, reporting missing cards can be stressful.

3. Use ATMs for currency exchange. Using an ATM at the airport is the cheapest and easiest way to get currency.  You have to order currency from a bank several days ahead of time. Exchange kiosks in or near the airport charge usurious rates. For greater distances, I’m usually too nervous to rely solely on ATMs. ATM exchange charges vary depending on the bank, so doing research ahead of time can help.

4. Duty free is not problem free. Just because it’s “duty free” doesn’t mean it’s a great deal. How often would you buy that Hermes scarf? That gigantic bottle of Amaretto? Will that Cadbury dinosaur-sized egg really travel well? On one trip, the kid bought some duty-free liquor. Unfortunately, even though we had past one TSA checkpoint, we were stopped at another to board the plane, and we couldn’t board with a bottle of liquid. I’m sure the TSA people amassed a large collection of fine liquor due to people making this mistake. I stowed the bottle in my carry-on and checked it with an extra baggage fee.

5. Learn about coinage. Prepare ahead of time to handle change. In the US, we dismiss change because quarters are the largest denomination we generally use. In other countries, coins can be worth $5 and the size does not correspond to the value. I feel oafish when looking down at a handful of change, trying to count it, and holding up a long line of grumbling customers. Also, sometimes coins stack up because it’s “just change.” Ignore the feeling that you’re running out of money just because you have coins and no paper. Don’t withdraw bills because you’re anxious or you will end up with that giant Cadbury dinosaur egg just to ditch your Euros.

6. Watch your cellphone bill. The horror stories are true. For stress-free communication, research your cellphone before you go. In Italy, people use pre-paid phone cards rather than monthly contracts and some cell phones don’t work. We bought a very cheap phone. It did the job. In Tokyo, Droids work, so we bought a pro-rated international calling plan. Depending on the phone and calling plan, you cannot make international calls without a) adjusting settings on your phone, b) paying exorbitant fees, c) using a different phone. Don’t assume your phone works and don’t use it without talking to your phone company and researching the specifics. How it all works – phone, data, texting, and costs – varies depending on the destination, provider, and phone.

7. Fly with aisle seats. If you are flying as a couple and you are persnickety about seating, get two roomy aisle seats across from each other. Two aisle seats are more comfy than an aisle and a middle. If one of you gets stuck with someone terrible sitting next to you, you can trade out easily. People are happy to trade a middle seat for an aisle and folks are generous to couples wanting to sit together.

8. Postcards! Before leaving, print out a stack of mailing labels with people’s addresses. That way you can skip writing down addresses and then copying them onto postcards. Spend time writing the “wish you were here” part instead, slap the label on, and it’s good to go. No worries about whether or not the address is legible for the mail carrier

9. There’s an app for that. (Trite but true.) The three apps I use most frequently are a world clock, a currency converter, and a translator. The translator app was especially effective in Japan where I could simply showed my phone to someone and they would help me. Make sure to install these apps before you lose data/wi-fi access, especially for the currency converter. You can also download city and transit pdfs.

10. Sightseeing. You’ve probably Googled, Wikied, and Trip Advisored the heck out of your trip by now, and so you probably have a good idea of destination-specific things you want to do. You’ve pondered the deeply philosophical question, “To tour or not to tour..” Here are some things to consider as you plot your course:

A. Audio tours are amazing. For the DIY type, audio tours are a nice compromise between full-fledged tour guide and travel books or going completely rogue. You can find audio walking tours from Audible, the library, and deep internet surfing. You can also buy or rent audio tours from tourist sites. The one at Pompeii is grand. When I go somewhere in the US, I have the historical and cultural context to understand the background of a plaque, even though I might have to dig deep into a fourth grade history lesson. Not true in distant lands, even English-speaking ones. Audio tours give a nice starting point, but fall on the DIY side.

B. Hop on hop off tours. Yes, they look stupid. Yes, you look stupid on them. Yes, the tour guide jokes are terrible. Here’s the thing: No one will ever know unless you take selfies and post them on your social networks. Why take a hop on tour? First off, you will likely see cool spots you’d skip if you weren’t trying to wring your money’s worth out of the ticket. Second, the tour guides do share interesting tidbits. Third, you will cover more ground physically than you could otherwise. Last, your inner tourist wants you to do this.

C. Day Trips. Even the worst day trip is worth it. Usually the day trips include some major highlight (Mt. Fuji, Stonehenge, Delft Factory, Loch Ness), and then a smattering of minor sites nearby. The minor sites are generally just as fascinating and typically overlooked. A trip outside the city and through the countryside breaks up a vacation nicely and provides a unique experience; it packs in a lot of bang for the buck. The most disappointing day trip I took was to Loch Ness. Loch Ness is boring. It’s a big, dark, murky lake surrounded by dreary trees. On that trip we stopped at a roadside pub and had hot tea and apples served by a red-faced waitress. The villages where little lambs ran loose in the cold spring air. Those are treasured memories.

D. Take time off from your vacation. Plan for a day of rest. Schedule a day to laze about and write postcards in a coffee shop on a square or a terrace. People watch and soak up the culture of daily life that normally gets skipped. Take some time to linger over doing nothing while on vacation. Read a book and drink hot chocolate or eat gelato and plan the rest of your trip. Don’t feel guilty about wasting precious hours that could be spent in museums. People get cranky. They get vacation pressure, feeling like they have to do everything or they will miss out on something. You cannot do it all. Taking time off gives you an opportunity to wind up for another few days of whirlwind touring and it minimizes vacation hangover.

11. Americans are big; minimize your size while maximizing your comfort. Researching cultural differences before you visit can be helpful. Rules for punctuality, eye contact, touch, and personal space vary culturally. In the US, we take up a lot of space. We are loud, expressive, vocal, aggressive, touchy, and expansive. We drive everywhere. Our grocery stores take up whole city blocks. A whole village can fit in our WalMarts. Our roads are big. Since everything is new here, the things we consider old are actually new too. Compare the Declaration of Independence to Stonehenge, for example.  Our bodily ways of behaving are generally rude when we go to geographically smaller places with physically smaller people. We unthinkingly expect everyone to move through the world the same way we do. Reflect on this truth as you pack. You will be dragging your big American luggage through the airport, on a train or bus, up narrow stairways, and through small doorways to your tiny foreign hotel room where you will be loud, needy, and tired. If you’re lucky, someone will be awake, the room will be ready, and someone will speak English. Ask yourself if you really need three pairs of shoes on this trip. Then generalize this question to the rest of your vacation. It’s a mind-expanding way of experiencing the world.

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