Five Basic Tips for the Novice International Tourist

5 Basic Tips for the Novice International Tourist

UPDATED 4/23/19

New to international travel? Let me help you! Here are my five basic tips for the novice international tourist not to miss in planning your first-time international travel at any age, solo or not. 

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Intro to International Travel

Face it, when you fly across multiple time zones you could be jet lagged, so right there you are already not your regular self.  Add on the fact when you arrive not everything, or anything, may be in written in your language (I’ll use English as the example going forward). 

Most, but not all, airports, bus and train stations, do provide signage in the local language and in English, at minimum. Still, the surroundings are not what you’re typically used to. 

Backpackers asleep in Madrid train station
Jet lag is, well…

When you get out of the airport or station, now the real fun begins because you need to get to your hotel, and possibly exchange currency, and things may only be written in the local language (and you’re only hearing the local language, too). 

Heap on the fact that you may have a limited time in this new city and there are so many items on your bucket list to see you don’t want to miss anything so you really just want to get to your hotel to drop off your luggage…. Like I said, it can be a little disorienting.

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5 Basic Tips for the Novice International Tourist

Don’t worry.  You’ll be fine.  Take it one step at a time.  When you’re finally settled in your hotel room and ready to venture forth to see the sights, hopefully you’ll have read this and kept the following five simple tips in mind.

1 – Learn the language basics

This is #1 because I feel it is the most important in tourist etiquette, which I explain why in my tips to improve international travel, a piece I suggest every international tourist read.  I

n short, leading your conversations with the local language is common courtesy when conversing with the locals.  Yes, English may be the universal language, but I cannot fathom how many people don’t know it.

In your travel planning, hopefully you have downloaded that Babbel or Duolingo app and tried to learn the basics.  Truly, it is not very hard to at least learn:  “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me”, “How much does it cost?”, “Where is the bathroom” or, most importantly, “Do you speak English?”.

Personally, I always start a conversation with the local “Hello” and “How are you?”, and follow it up with, at minimum, “Do you speak English?”

Tourists in Munich City Center
Munich tourists

On many occasions you’ll hear the answer, “Yes, I do speak English”, or “Yes, but only a little”. Remember, you may not be approaching a local. It could be another tourist. 

I find most locals are being modest here, because their “little” English is usually pretty damn good. You may find that, by extending the goodwill of starting the conversation in their language, they will push their “little” English as far as it will go to help you. 

Do not be offended if they do not speak your language.  Thank them in their language and try another method, such as a translation app like Google Translate.  These apps are a great back-up, if not something you can lead the conversation with.  Translation apps, or pre-downloaded translated words and phrases, on your smartphone or tablet and at the ready is just best travel practice.

Solo Travel Tip

The more languages you know, even if just basic phrases, increases the chance to meet people, open up your circle of friends, and your safety factor.

2 – Always have a walking map

I know this may sound silly to state, but you have no idea how many people do not, or will not, carry a walking map (paper or otherwise) as they wander a new city as an international tourist. I always wonder how they know where they are going.  Oh, that’s right, they’re asking me for directions. 

I inevitably meet or hang out with these tourists, so sometimes I will gently inquire as to why they don’t carry a map. The most common response is, “Oh, I just feel like winging it.”  I’m thinking, “By being lost or perpetually bothering others for directions?”  Maybe.

Paris meal and walking map
Keep your map on you

Call me crazy, but I prefer to have a map in a new city. I don’t like to assume the hotel in which I’m staying will have a walking map for me when I check in – most do, but you never know. Some maps provided aren’t even readable. 

To avoid this, and to have the freedom to know you can just “get out and go”, you could opt to do as I do and download to your smartphone either Google map snapshots or the city’s PDF “walking map” from Google. 

Whether I’m walking or taking transportation just to get to my hotel, I always know in advance how to get there because my map will show the airport or station location and directions to the hotel.  It will also show the hotel’s immediate surroundings, and the path to the Visitor Information center (who always have tourist maps) if it’s not in the airport or station in which I arrived. 

Solo Travel Tip

Having a map ensures you know where you are going, which increases your safety factor as well as reduce time getting around to allow for more attractions.

Having these downloaded and at my fingertips ensures I not only not get lost, but I also don’t waste time wandering around trying to figure out where I’m going.

If you have the ability to have Wi-Fi wherever you are, then you will not have to take these steps. Personally, I don’t like to assume I’ll have Wi-Fi availability except when in my hotel.  Your arrival train station’s website says it has Wi-Fi? Umm… don’t count on it.  

Therefore, I like to err on the side of caution and do a little prep work – it has always come through for me. Plus, I don’t have to spend extra money on a taxi or shuttle service when I know I can walk or take public transportation.

Now that you have your map, know your starting and end points.  Right now you’re thinking, “Gwen, this is basic stuff.” Yes, I know. 

I suppose some people get so excited they are finally in the city they’ve been saving all of their money to get to that they venture out but forget to know from where they started.  It doesn’t happen to me, but it does happen. I have a Paris story to prove it.

So please, don’t forget to take a moment to circle your hotel, or wherever you are staying, on your map. It does help to know where “home base” is after a long day of walking.

3 – Be aware of your surroundings

Always.  Yes, you are in a new, exciting place, full of new architecture, sounds and smells. You want to take it all in.  Remember, though, you are not alone.  So, while you’re trying to navigate that map and trying to avoid asking people for help because you don’t want to look foolish speaking the three Dutch words you do know (although I say, “Go for it!”):

  • Keep an eye out for other pedestrians, bicyclists, cars, buses, etc., because you certainly don’t want to get hit while on vacation and end up in the emergency room. I almost got hit by a tram in Amsterdam on my very first day in Europe.  Yah, that would have been fun.
  • By all means, keep an eye out for others taking pictures. Yes, you may want your perfect picture, but be kind and patient.  Not all may give you this respect in turn, but at least you can make the effort.

Budget Travel Tips

Walk and/or take public transportation everywhere to eliminate the cost of taxis and rideshares.  

Don’t let using a public transportation systems intimidate you. Take advantage of the information booths, the internet, and hotel/hostel concierges for assistance, tips and tricks.

  • Keep your belongings on you at all times.  Again, in Amsterdam, on my very first day in Europe, my traveling companion and I sat down at a local, fast-food type restaurant we stopped at to review our map. She placed her day bag under her chair.  We sat at the table for 30 minutes and had no idea it was gone until we got up to leave. Thankfully, her ID and money were on her – she only lost her “Let’s Go Europe” travel guide.  It could have been a lot worse.  Depending on the location, I just keep my day bag strap over my knee.  I never place it where it’s not touching me.
  • Part of knowing your surroundings is that it’s helpful to know in advance if the city, or wherever you are, has city-wide Wi-Fi. If not, many restaurants and bars do have Wi-Fi so if you need to connect, stop in somewhere to have a drink. Read up on what the city has to offer.  See also the “Budget Traveler” tip at the bottom.

WiFi sign at Neuschwanstien Castle Germany
WiFi at the Neuschwanstein Castle? Yes!

4 – Appreciate the cultural difference

Don’t be disappointed if someone is less than friendly or not as helpful you had wished.  If you had one bad experience, don’t be afraid ask again.  People in your hometown may all know each other and speak to anyone, but that may not be the case where you now find yourself. 

Do a little reading in advance on the culture, the people, the food, and more. Most things may not be like home, but you’re there for the new experience, right?

Budget Travel Tips

Do Wi-Fi research in advance to see what cities or businesses provide free Wi-Fi and/or use the Wi-Fi Finder app.  With free Wi-Fi you can call and text on Viber and WhatsApp with no fee.

In case of no Wi-Fi, download apps and maps that don’t rely on the internet in advance of your travel as a back-up.

If need be, purchase a SIM card or a local phone, or bring portable Wi-Fi with you to avoid paying for international cellular service.

5 – Lend assistance

If you see someone who looks lost or needs assistance, offer to help!  What comes around goes around.  Heck, you might make a new friend.  Keep your personal safety in mind, of course, but someone could be completely lost (remember the South American family?) and your help could be something they may never forget – and pay forward. Traveling really can break down social barriers.

Let Me Hear From You

I would love to hear if these basic tips for the novice international tourist was helpful to you. Post me your thoughts or questions in the Comment section below. Thank you!

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