When less than half of Americans own a passport, traveling overseas becomes a mythical lifestyle. It’s assumed to be outrageously expensive, difficult, and dangerous by far too many. The saddest part of the whole mess is that despite the countless resources proving that travel is cheaper, easier, and safer than most people think, some minds will never be swayed.
But if you’ve already taken that leap for your first jaunt abroad, here are five pieces of advice that can guide your way whatever the destination.
Your best accessories in an airport are a document organizer and a smile
No, airport security and customs aren’t going to be the most fun you have on your trip. But imagine how much worse off you’d be as an airport employee. It’s bad enough that business trips, family vacations, and life-changing RTW journeys pass you by every second. What’s truly miserable is the fact that so many of these folks are poorly prepared and downright rude.
Take pity on a weary security agent. Know the rules before you arrive at the airport. Have all your travel documents neatly organized and easily accessible. And no matter how tired you are from that 5am shuttle to the terminal, basic manners and a smile will take you a long way.
Always learn a few words of the local language
Compassion for the people you encounter on the road naturally goes beyond airport staff. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, it’s common courtesy to greet locals, even hotel and restaurant workers, in their own language.
You can pack a pocket phrasebook for on-the-go reference, but it’s not hard to memorize a few key words like “hello” and “thank you.” After all, you have to occupy yourself on that red-eye flight somehow. Isn’t learning a new language preferable to watching the 200th installment of Fast and Furious?
Put your camera away for an hour
Photos are both wonderful mementos and great ways to share your adventures with others. But only viewing your destination through a lens can wind up detracting from the overall experience.
Devote at least an hour to tech-free time and live completely in the moment.
I have some lovely pictures from my time in Eastern Europe, but some of my most treasured memories from that trip are the ones I didn’t capture on film. Wandering the gardens of Schonbrunn Palace at sunset, arriving at the expansive thermal pools at Szechenyi Baths, seeing a gluten-free friend enjoy her first beer in years at a traditional Czech restaurant… these moments aren’t any less vivid for their lack of photos.
Spend one day on, one day off
The world is a big place and it’s tempting to try and squeeze in as much as you can before you have to go back home. But jam-packing every minute of your itinerary is bad for your budget, bad for your health, and ultimately, bad for your experience. Whirlwind tours will be gone in a flash and moving too quickly on the road can mean robbing yourself of the chance to fully experience your destination.
If you find slowing down difficult, a good rule of thumb is to spend one day “on” and the next day “off.” In other words, for each day you spend pursuing something active — like sightseeing, scuba diving, or bar hopping — spend a day simply relaxing. Take a long walk through a picturesque neighborhood. Get a massage. Pick a cafe and settle in for the afternoon.
Taking time to relax is just as important overseas as it is back home. Without it, you’ll burn out and potentially come away with negative memories of travel.
If your Fear of Missing Out still nags at you, consider long-term travel as a solution to your wanderlust.
The best stories come from the things that go wrong
There are a lot of frustrated tourists in the world, but like any frustration in life, disappointment in travel all boils down to expectation management. While it’s important to be prepared, it’s even more important to roll with the punches.
During my study abroad in college, a few classmates invited me on a weekend trip to the south of France. Shortly after landing in Beziers, a small coastal town where practically no one spoke English, we caught a ride to a nearby winery. After our tasting, a private party swanned in and the place closed. It was only then we realized the buses had stopped running for the day and nobody had enough of a phone signal to call for a cab. And that’s how I wound up walking 10km back to our hostel in three-inch heels.
Much as we kicked ourselves at the time for our poor planning, that walk back into town was a tremendous bonding experience and was infinitely more memorable than the rest of the trip. It remains one of my favorite travel stories, in no small part thanks to its moral.
Knowing that things can and will deviate from the plan is just part of the solution to travel frustration. You’ll graduate from novice tourist to expert traveler when you learn that the unexpected things you encounter on the road, and even the things that seem like problems at first, are the most valuable, the most memorable, and indeed the best things you’ll experience overseas.