For many, traveling out of the country can create a fair amount of anxiety – especially the first time you visit a new country.  Even after all the countries I’ve been to, there are some places that can make me a tad nervous.  (See my story on Moscow).

What to expect?  What if I do the wrong thing?  How do I get around?  What if I need help and no one speaks English?  Below are a list of tips that I think work well for any place you maybe traveling outside your sphere.  If you have any tips – feel free to share!

Preparing for the Trip

•   Make sure your passport is up to date and that you have the proper visas.  Working through the post office to get your pasport is less expensive but it takes quite a bit longer.

•   Be sure to find out if you need a Visa for the country you are visiting.  Russia has a complicated process that involves confirmations from hotels, a lot of paperwork, etc. but Turkey has windows in the airport where you just hand them the money and they stamp your passport. Yes, ask your travel agent but I have been burned by this a number of times.  My best tip for making sure you have what you need is to call a professional Passport and Visa Procurement place.  Ask them what is required and what they charge do to the service.  You may decide the cost is worth it (it’s the only way I get my visas) but it it’s too expensive, at least you have the information.

•   Consider the culture you are about to spend time in:  i.e. Italy is  rather conservative and the Catholic Church is the dominant force whereas Rio de Janeiro has a very cosmopolitan, sexy lifestyle . You are in their country and they are not required (or interested) in conforming to your idea of what things should be.  Respect their way of doing things.

•   Check the weather!!  Seriously – it’s not hard and worth the 4 minutes it will take.

•   Sensible shoes are a must!  Cobblestones and long walking days are not your friend in sexy high heeled boots.  Outside the US wearing “sneakers” is a tad gauche (their also not fond of Bart Simpson t-shirts).  Do what you want in order to be comfortable but know you will stick out like an “American”.  I always wear canvas flats, sandals, leather flats, etc.

•   Plan for layers according to the weather – that’s always the rule of thumb no matter what climate you are traveling in.

•   Ladies – Always bring a light wrap or scarf.  Great for a plane blanket, dressing up an outfit, when the weather gets cool or covering your head for chapels, religious sites, etc.  Tie them around your purse/bag when not wearing them. (It can make it harder for pick pockets).

•   A camera is a must and don’t be shy about taking pictures.  Everybody does it!  Tourism is most nations biggest money maker – they WANT you there – taking pictures and all.  Of course, don’t be rude.  Would you want a foreigner sticking a camera in the nose of your Grandma because she looks so “cute”?

•   Pack light.  Turn clothes in for laundry if they are getting dirty/worn.  It’s no fun dragging a crazy heavy suitcase around and besides if you like to shop you’ll need room for goodies.  Sometimes I’ve been so bad that I had to buy a second suitcase!

•   If you have prescriptions, you might want to get a note from your doctor – especially if they require syringes.  I’ve traveled with prescriptions before and have never had a problem.  For the “less traveled destinations” – i.e, Burma – it’s probably a good idea.

Money/Exchange Rate/Credit Cards

Exchange rates change all the time.  Plan on them being different from the day you book to the day you travel.  Be sure to think ahead on how this will effect you.
•    I usually only bring about $ 50 – $100 of converted money for the country I am traveling to and then exchange it when I arrive.
•    I  use my ATM card a lot as I can then take money out as I need it.  However, be aware of exchange charges and fees with your bank.  It’s always good to call ahead and be informed.
•    I’ve always been told that you get the best exchange rate on credit cards due to the amount of international money that a credit card company handles.  For me, it’s just a practical issue.  Using a credit card, I carry less cash and if there is a problem, I can complain to my credit card.
•    American Express is not as widely accepted outside the United States.  Major hotels and international restaurants accept it but you will find smaller place often do not.  Always have a Mastercard or Visa as a back up.
•    If you don’t want to use an ATM when exchanging money, find a small place near your hotel (the doorman or concierge will know where a good one is).  DO NOT exchange money at the hotel – it’s really expensive.

Plane Trip Over and Back
•   Many countries require landing cards (the US does) so be prepared to provide basic information – name, address, passport number, where you are staying, the length of your stay and why you are traveling.  Don’t say you are traveling for work, to look for a job, to open a business, etc. unless you really are there for tht purposes and have the proper documentation to support it.  If you mark that box that’s the fastest way to get bounced from the country!  Just like the States, it is illegal for foreigners to work without the proper papers.  The flight attendants will know what is required for landing cards, etc. and they generally have the forms on boards for you to complete on the plane.  If you are confused – ask someone around you.  Travelers love to help travelers.

•   If you are on a connecting flight to another country, (England to Bejing) there will  be signage upon deplaning for “Connecting/Transferring Passengers”.  You will not clear customs until you arrive at your destination.

•   If you have a connecting flight within the country (or a fellow EU country)  you will most likely clear customs in the first city and then connect to a “local” flight.

•   Have your passport and Landing Card ready.  Follow everyone else off the plane and get in line!  There will be lines for  Nationals and “Other Passports”.  You will be “Other”.  Signage will most often be available in English.

•   Make sure you go to the bathroom before the plane starts to descend.  I’ve been caught in really long passport/customs lines and there generally no restrooms!!

•   When you return to the States it’s the same process.  They will definitely give you a Customs Form to be filled out.  Currently, US residents get $ 800 of purchases duty free.  If you are a few dollars over, don’t panic –  they are mostly looking for expensive jewelry, art, cheese, meat, etc.

•   When traveling long distances that move you across many timelines, your best bet is to get on local time as quickly as possible.  Whatever time you arrive (morning, afternoon or night) do the activity that matches that time.  That might mean going right to bed.  Don’t take a nap!!!!  It will mess withyour clock even more than it has.   Goto bed as close to your normal time as possible.  Don’t mess with your system  you will get through jet lag sooner.

Tipping
This always confuses people – and trust me, I still get confused!
•    The general rule of thumb is 10%.  You can leave 15% if it was an extra special meal or service.
•    Credit Cards do not have a gratuity line.  You either have to tell them to include it in the total when you ask for the bill or you can leave it in cash when you sign for the bill.  I often leave it on the table if I linger after the bill has been taken care of.
•    If you are having drinks or coffee in a café, leaving a few  coins is fine.
•    If you are doing “take away” you don’t need to tip – but, there is not a whole lot of take away!!!!

Dining

•    Meals are generally long and relaxed in other countries.  Only the US has a Drive Thru culture.  Lunch is generally a serious matter with many businesses closing down.
•    Light drinks:  generally all soft drinks, iced drinks, etc are made with different ingredients than the US and will taste differently.  For instance, lemonade is not the same as ours – it’s like a lemon bitter tonic and I have never seen iced tea served outside of an international hotel when traveling!
•    Other than London,  I have never been asked to give up a table for another dining party.  Generally, once you have been seated, the table is YOURS for the day or night.  There is always exceptions if you are eating at a tragically hip place but I’m sure they will inform you ahead of time.
•    They will not bring the bill until you ASK for it.  They think it is rude to give you the bill before you request it as that would be the same as asking you to leave.  You can make the international symbol of “signing on your hand” if you don’t know the words.  If all else fails, flash a credit card.  That always says, “I’m ready to pay”!
•    Dinner in other many countries does not start until after 8pm.   (see my notes about napping)

The most important thing to keep in mind is that most people are generally kind and want to help.  Don’t be afraid to ask and don’t get upset if someone is unable to help.  Not everyone speaks English and I have found that many are embarrassed that they cannot speak English and so shy away.  I spent 25 minutes one day lost in Istanbul looking for a museum.  As I wandered I kept asking people if they spoke English.  I had very little luck.  Finally, one guy waiting for a bus made motions to indicate “wait”.  He made a call on his cell.  His friend spoke English and translated what I was looking for.  The guy hung up the phone and then escorted me to the front door of the museum – missing his bus.  This stuff happens all the time!

Please see my other blog entry about planning your day, the importance of patience and the art of taking a nap.

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