Five Basic Tips for the Novice International Tourist
New to international travel? Here is one of my efforts to help the novice, international traveler. Actually, some of the tips below can be applied to domestic travel, but it’s with the international traveler in mind that I share this – mainly because traveling in a foreign country can be a little disorienting. So let’s dive into international travel and my five tips for the novice international tourist.
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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.
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Still, the surroundings are not what you’re typically used to. 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.
Five 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 Breaking the Language Barrier, a piece I suggest every tourist read. In 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?”
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. Now, 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.
Know the Local Language?
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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 the ones 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.
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.
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. Gwen, this is basic stuff! Yes, I know! Perhaps people get so excited they are finally in the city they’ve been saving all of their money to get to, and they venture out but forget to know 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.
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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. But remember, 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.
- 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.
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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?
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.
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Additional Tips for the Solo Traveler
- The more languages you know, the more opportunity to speak with others, right? Even knowing a little bit can increase the chance of opening up your circle of friends if you’re wanting to meet more people on your travels. It also increases your safety factor.
- By having a map, you know where you are going, right? This alone can increase your safety factor not to mention reduce time getting around (because you’re more than likely not lost!).
- If you can walk and/or take public transportation everywhere, including to and from the bus or train station, this eliminates the cost of taxis, which can be quite expensive depending on where you are. Don’t let using a public transportation system, like the Paris metro, intimidate you. There are usually information booths where people can help. The internet is always best for researching in advance. Last, hotel concierges are good at providing tips and tricks that maybe only the locals know about. Once you start taking the local, public transportation, you really do feel empowered.
- Working on free Wi-Fi is the cheapest way to go. I never purchase a SIM card, buy a local phone, or pay international service through my cellular service. I think it’s a waste of money. As soon as I’m on my departing international flight, I turn off my iPhone’s cellular service and operate on Wi-Fi only. I don’t mind doing the extra prep work of downloading apps and maps, etc. to have as my main use of information – or as back up. It helps me get acclimated early! Also, more and more places are offering free Wi-Fi so if you know where you’re going, just do a little Wi-Fi research in advance or just use an app like “Wi-Fi Finder”. When you have Wi-Fi, you can make free calls and text on Viber and WhatsApp. So why would you want to pay more than you have to? Technology is wonderful.