A friend recently said, “I love watching your travels. I wish I had the guts to do what you do.” I smiled and told her that I was terrified on my first journey abroad. The only thing that took that fear away? Booking the flight, packing my bags, and taking that leap.
So, I decided to put together a list of things that I have learned over my past 6 years of traveling internationally. I hope it helps her become more confident, I hope it encourages others to travel, and I hope it will remind me just how far I’ve really come.
So, in no necessary order, what I’ve learned while traveling internationally:
1- You will probably feel a bit anxious every time you land in a new country. That feeling is normal. For me, it goes away within days, sometimes hours, of landing. Never let anxiety stop you.
2- Almost everyone speaks English. I have been to places as remote as Cluj-Napoca, Romania and, even there, almost everyone spoke English. From time to time, when I do run across someone who does not know the language, a friendly game of charades ensues and communication is still very much possible. In Antwerp, I took a picture of the medication I needed to show the pharmacist, afraid she would not know the American term. She recognized the medication right away and went to the back to retrieve it. For menus, just take a picture, upload it to google translate and the app will do the rest.
3- Just because so many people speak English, do not let that be an excuse for not trying to pick up common words and phrases from the culture you are visiting. The French, for example, have a reputation for being rude to tourists. But, I did not find that to be the case at all. I noticed that if I attempted to speak in French, as miserable as I am at it, they appreciated the effort and would soon rescue me by speaking English. However, I noticed many American tourists who just plopped down, assumed English would be spoken, and started barking out food orders. Waiters who were quite kind to me, turned quite stern and abrupt in seconds.
(Pictured: my favorite cafe in Montmartre.)
4- Never judge a new place by what you see upon arrival from the airport or train station. Although some places will immediately take your breath away upon (Amsterdam via the train station for instance) others will leave you fearing the worst. When I arrived in Paris, at Charles de Gaulle, I was mortified by the trash and litter along the highway, homeless encampments everywhere, and graffiti like I had never seen. I quickly learned over my travels that, nine times out of ten, you will fear you have landed in a real shit-hole. And nine times out of ten, your fears are unfounded.
(Pictured: the view upon departing the Venice train station.)
5- Speaking of airports and train stations, never exchange money for local currency there. The exchange rate is ridiculous. Instead of exchanging money, I usually just head to an ATM and withdraw local currency. Much easier. I watch my money across the trip and try to leave with none left over in my pocket. However, if I have some left, they are most likely euros and can be used again on the next adventure. Also, always carry cash. I have been surprised a few times, after finishing a lovely dinner and drinks, to find that the restaurant does not accept credit. This usually results in some embarrassment and having to find the nearest ATM to withdraw money.
6. Embarrassment happens, by the way. It’s inevitable that you will do something that is awkward, not socially acceptable, or ignorant. Count them as learning experiences. In England, I sat in a pub for almost half of an hour before I realized that you always order food at the bar in pubs. In Italy, I walked in to tour a cathedral in a sundress, not realizing that the custom is to cover your shoulders with a shawl when entering a religious place. In Prague, and in most of Europe, I learned that they will not bring you your bill unless you ask for it. (I sat there for almost an hour before I figured that one out.) In Romania, I learned that if you do not understand road signs and go the wrong way down a one way road, the local cops will stop you immediately and demand cash. In Belgium I learned that it is not acceptable to eat pizza with your hands; one should use a knife and fork. (Actually, this is true in most of Europe.) All faux-pas, some more minor than others, and all distant memories of lessons learned. There is no way to know all of the customs and mores of a particular place. Lessons will present themselves as they will. Learn from them and move on.
(Pictured: Eating Pizza, with knife and fork, in Slovenia.)
7. On top of carrying cash, I recommend a credit card with both a chip and contactless payment. (You will know it is contactless if you see the 3 curved lines that are often used to symbolize wireless.) In England, you can simply tap your contactless card (just like you would an Oyster card) to get on and off the tube, buses, and other forms of public transportation. The one I have, via Capital One, also has no foreign transaction fees and notifies me every time a purchase is made via text.
8. Tipping is not common in most parts of the world. If a tip is left, it is most likely from rounding up. (If the bill is 48 euros, leave them 50.) Because of this, service is much different as well. It is much slower. This can be a wonderful thing if you want to sit in an outdoor cafe with a good book, or spend hours over a bottle of wine, people watching. It can be cumbersome if you have a play or event to attend. Because of the lack of tipping, some complain that service is not as good as it is in the states. I’m not sure this is accurate, as I have seen both brilliant and awful servers in both Europe and the U.S.
(Pictured: Coffee at a cafe in Cesky Krumlov.)
9. Speaking of restaurants, never eat at an empty place. It’s empty for a reason. At the same time, some of the busiest places can be overpriced tourist traps. When I am near a popular tourist destination, I wander a bit away from the main square to eat. It can be the difference of several euros. (Although, there is something to be said for ordering a $12 drink just to be able to have an amazing view of the main square.)
(Pictured: $12 Gin & Tonic in the main square- Antwerp.)
10. If you are traveling alone, and want to avoid loneliness, pick a bar or restaurant that will become your ‘local’ during your stay. In Bologna, I had a wine bar named Vineria Favalli just down the street from my place. I would start many evenings there, having the same lovely glass of red wine. Soon, the owners and wait staff began to recognize me. Before I knew it, they would just smile, walk over, and say, “the usual?” It made me feel a part of the community, if only for a bit.
(Pictured: my ‘local’ in Bologna.)
11. Always eat local. In Italy, it was Italian wines and pasta. In Toulouse, French wines, cassoulets, and croissants. In Romania, it was a strong plum brandy served along hearty soups and stews. In Prague, it was goulash served with delicious bread dumplings. (Goulash in most parts of the world is absolutely nothing like goulash in the states, by the way.) In England, it’s fish and chips. Avoid chain restaurants and experience the culture. Why else are you there?
(Pictured: French cheese, wine, and Jam. Toulouse, France.)
12. If you have a sweet tooth after a meal, skip dessert and just order a coffee. Nine times out of ten your coffee will be served with a delicious little cookie or chocolate of some sort. Just the perfect amount after a hearty dinner. (Pictured: Cafe Au Lait -Montmartre in December.)
13. Never argue over customs and mores of a country that you disagree with. In Italy, I was traveling with a male companion from Sweden for part of my trip. We stopped for lunch and ordered a pizza to split. We found out, once the bill arrived, that you just don’t split pizzas in Italy. For whatever reason, it is not seen as acceptable. We were charged more for the extra plate than if we would have ordered two pizzas. My travel companion was angry and began to argue. The Italian manager began to shout, people were staring, I just walked away. Was it frustrating to be charged so much? Yes. But it is simply the way it is in Italy. And, as a visitor there, it is my responsibility to adjust. In Prague, they set lovely, appetizing pretzels out on your table. One would assume they were complimentary. Nope! I learned, after eating several, that they will charge you for each one. Annoying? Of course. Lesson learned for next time? Yep! You’re on vacation, brush it off, and enjoy. Life is too short not to eat the pretzels.
14. Something else I had to adjust to in Europe was the fact that neither milk nor eggs are refrigerated in stores. They are set out onto shelves much like colas would be in the United States. It took me a while on my first grocery visit to figure this one out. “But don’t they have to be refrigerated?” I found myself wondering. I asked a friend and her reply summed it up: “they’ve been doing it this way for centuries.” Also, be prepared to see dogs sharing patio space at bistros, browsing shelves in bookstores, and wandering grocery aisles. Dogs are allowed in quite a few places in Europe.
15. If you are on a budget, always Google when in a new place. Many cities offer Free Museum Days or Free Concerts in the Park at least once a month. Also, most churches and cathedrals are free for you to visit, and they are usually full of art. In Antwerp, for example, you can find paintings by Rubens in many of the cathedrals.
16. I walk at least 6 miles a day when traveling, sometimes I reach 9 or 10 miles. I have learned the (painful) lesson that comfortable shoes are a must. It was hard for me, in Milan for example, to walk through a square filled with polished, pristine people sporting leather shoes of finest quality. Meanwhile, in the reflections of high-end luxury stores, I saw my reflection. My simple sundress and comfy tennis shoes were glaringly obvious. But, I have learned to get over it. I would never see these people again and, as long as I was enjoying myself, no harm was done. Bring a nice pair of shoes to wear to dinner if you must, but in the day, ditch the fashion and go for function. Your feet will thank you.
Along with comfortable shoes, essentials I’ve learned to bring each day as I explore include: portable charger, sunscreen, band-aids for blisters, Chap-stick, power bar, wet wipes, sunglasses, and water.
(Pictured: Toulouse and the oh-so-fashionable French.)
17. Every once and a while, ditch the GPS and just wander. I stumbled across the Eiffel Tower in Paris this way, doing a meandering walk from Montmartre. It was so much cooler turning the corner and, ‘Bam! There she was,’ then if I would have had my GPS guiding me, draining my battery, and not working 50% of the time anyway. (In European countries with lots of narrow alleys, streets, and tunnels, you might as well forget it.)
18. Many people will mention how much they enjoy my travels and pictures that I take along the way. That, of course, brings a smile to my face every time. But, if you want to experience places to the extent that I experience them, you have to be willing to do two things: walk excessively each day and meet local people. I would have never driven up into the highlands of Scotland, camping on one of the highest peaks, if I had not met Donald, his family, and Isla the dog through an Airbnb. They invited me along on part of their August holiday, and I had the time of my life. 19. Experiencing a place with a local to guide you is key. There are different ways to do this. I’ve used everything from Meetup groups, to Airbnb hosts, to Trustedhousesitters.com. (I’ve made some wonderful friends this way!) I’ve even used online dating to meet local people. I have yet to have a bad experience.
(Pictured: having a drink (or four) in a Russian bar in Romania with my new British friends.)20. The other thing you have to be willing to do is walk. A lot. I experience all I do by starting out in the morning, choosing a direction, and walking. On most days, I average 6 miles on the low side and 10 miles on the high side. (An added benefit of this? I can eat anything I want and not gain weight.) If your plan is to come in on a bus or cruise ship, hop off and visit the city center, you will see lovely things, don’t get me wrong, but you will experience much more if you are willing to venture out and explore a bit.
So, that’s it! Twenty things I have learned by traveling internationally. I am sure there are more lessons ahead. I hope that this post will encourage my friend to book that flight. And, who knows, maybe you will feel inspired as well. As for me, I am already researching my next trip.