I finally find myself in the position of being an American who lives abroad and can now observe my fellow American travelers more from the perspective of the locals. I’ve always aimed to be a model ambassador of America, and because I’ve traveled to South America, Europe, and Asia, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to practice the art of travel in different situations. Here are my suggestions for being an expert traveler.
- Do your research and plan ahead.
I’m not saying you have to plot out an hour-by-hour agenda for your trip (you shouldn’t), but you should read up on your forthcoming destination(s) and have a good idea of what you want to see, do, and eat while there. (Yes, eat – food is absolutely one of my motivations for traveling, and in my opinion if you’re not trying the local cuisine then there’s just no point in being there at all.) This is important even if you are visiting or staying with someone who lives in that place – it puts a lot of pressure on the host to have to come up with everything, and it’s much better for you as the traveler if you have your own ideas of what seems most interesting! Ideally, your pre-travel research should extend beyond guidebooks; for instance, if you’re going to Paris, watch a few movies set in Paris, and read some of the many memoirs written by Americans or other expats in Paris. Their perspectives on the culture, and inclusion of all sorts of random details about everyday life, will both enrich your own observations and help to minimize the number of surprises you encounter when you arrive. They can also help you to conform with important standards of politeness, such as knowing that in Paris you greet the owners of shops when you enter.
- Pack light, but with useful accessories.
You shouldn’t travel without an umbrella, period, unless you’re going to the desert. There are a few other items that I always bring, because you never know when they’ll come in handy:
- earplugs (there is always street noise, even in a five-star hotel)
- eye mask (I can sleep under a bright light, but if you’re sensitive to light, this is invaluable)
- a small sleep sack or even a sleeping bag (my sleep sack folds up into a pouch that’s about 3×5”; my sleeping bag is also very compact and makes a great pillow when in its sack. It has served me well during two nights camping out at London’s Heathrow airport.)
- travel towels (again, compact, and always useful – I like to have one in my carry-on so I can wash my face before and after long flights)
- corkscrew (I have one of those combos that also has a little knife; great for wine and cheese picnics in Paris)
- fold-up water bottle (I have one by Vapur that is completely flat when empty)
- combination lock (this is a must if you’re staying in a hostel)
- a Sharpie (you’d be surprised how often it can be helpful to have a permanent marker)
- eye drops (great for long overnight flights to help you instantly feel less tired upon arrival)
- Leave your native expectations and habits behind.
Travel is about broadening your perspectives and experiences. This means eating the local food, attempting to speak the local language, and generally engaging with locals as much as possible. If you’re on a long trip and are dying for a taste of home one night, fine, but don’t be that person who orders only familiar food at the expense of trying new (and likely incredible) things.
It is also important to be aware of differences in culture so that you are better about blending in. For example, Americans are almost always the loudest people in the room when they’re outside the United States. You don’t realize how loudly we talk until you are suddenly sitting with French people next to a table of Americans and realize that you can hear every single word of their conversation because the French all speak relatively softly in comparison. Small linguistic differences can be useful to know, too: saying “pants” in the UK means something very different from “trousers.”
Other things that are likely to surprise less-traveled Americans:
- Hotel rooms and bathrooms are TINY in comparison to the ones in any standard American hotel. This is because, particularly in Europe, each square foot of real estate is much more expensive, and thus space is at a premium. Don’t expect a full bathtub, and know that a double occupancy room is likely to have two twin beds pushed together rather than a double or queen-sized bed.
- Some Europeans tend to be less dependent on shower curtains (in my experience, Spain, Italy, and France). In such cases, the shower head most likely detaches from the wall, and with some care you should be able to avoid getting water all over the room. Think of it as a fun challenge!
- In many countries, you can’t flush paper or anything else down the toilet. You’ve just got to get over that. In some places, you may not even have an actual toilet. Again, try to see it as a fun challenge (and take a deep breath of fresh air before you go in).
- Standards of service vary from country to country. Accepting that fact is essential for the benefit of all concerned. You can’t get angry at your Parisian waiter for not coming to check on you every five minutes; that’s just now how it’s done in Paris, and lack of attention does not mean that you have a bad waiter.
- Waiting in line can be a verrrrrrry different experience in some countries. You may encounter lines that are are more wide than they are long or where people are constantly cutting or where everyone is yelling or where there is only one person dealing with the line despite its absolutely massive length. This is why it is essential to pack your patience (and maybe a flask).
It’s easy to become anxious in countries that are less developed, where for instance you can’t drink the water. Act cautiously (I’m paranoid about digestive illnesses when I travel) but don’t let this become the entire focus of your trip.
- Choose Your Travel Companions Carefully
I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in the people with whom I’ve done all of my big trips, and that’s largely down to luck because I’ve never actually evaluated potential travel partners or thought “so-and-so would be really great to see _____ with; I should see if she’s interested!” My trips have come together pretty organically. Nearly all of my international travel before the end of college was with school groups (three weeks in Italy during high school, summer in Spain during college, various Model UN trips), so not only did I have friends with me; I had a lot of friends with me. In big groups, the dynamics aren’t so important – if you don’t jive with someone, you don’t have to spend time with them. Where your companions really matter is when there’s a smaller group or just the two of you – anytime that you’re expected to spend the majority of your time exclusively with those people.
I don’t think there’s a particular rule to follow when considering whether to travel with someone. My trips to Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Romania were with a male friend of mine who is in many ways my polar opposite, and all were awesome. In such situations, it’s important to be aware before the trip of any potential sources of conflict. (I am not averse to taking risks while traveling, but I am nowhere near adopting Greg’s mantra of “live by 30 or die trying.” I adjusted the boundaries of my comfort zone, and he exercised a little more caution. Compromise is key.) Personality is a major factor, but other things matter too. Know how much money you’re willing/able to spend during the trip and how that compares to your companions. Do you like the same kind of food? How willing are you to try local cuisine? (It’s a bummer to arrive somewhere and learn that your companion has no interest whatsoever in eating like a local.) How much physical activity are you up for? (Will you want to rely on public transportation, or are you willing to walk everywhere?) Are you more interested in working from a checklist of tourist activities or just wandering around? Are you an active tourist, or are you more interested in just relaxing? Do you need some alone time every day? If you’re part of a group, are you willing to do things on your own, or do you need the reassuring presence of the others at every moment? There are no wrong answers to any of these questions, but you should know your own answers and those of your travel companion(s) before you leave, or preferably even before you book.
Having a conversation ahead of time can save some frustration during the trip. Try to get on the same page about everything so that you can manage expectations and minimize situations of diplomatic indecision. You might consider establishing a codeword for use in situations of tension. (My mom and aunt would say “bananas” to each other while in Paris if they were getting frustrated with each other.) You should not have to be someone other than who you are while you’re traveling. You should be willing to compromise, but if you think you’re going to miss out on a significant number of things because of your travel companion(s), you should rethink your trip. In all likelihood, you’ll only go to a particular place one time in your life. Make sure you can make the most of it!