Do As I Say, Not As I Do: 5 Tips for Traveling Abroad

Do As I Say, Not As I Do: 5 Tips for Traveling Abroad

As a person with admittedly limited wisdom, I was initially shocked and delighted at the idea of my words being featured on any type of public medium. After all, I’m only 22 and survived a day and a half of Girl Scout camp, rendering me totally unwise. How many people, disregarding relatives and my therapist, could possibly care about my tales of adventure and woe? 

With that being said, That First Year has been my first experience with blog writing and after each completed post I continue asking myself if I’m saying anything that actually matters. Although my life got reasonably more exciting once I decided to spend the year before graduate school traveling, I didn’t know if it was fodder for blogging gold. While that gold part is debatable, I realized I have a lot to say. Not just about “figuring it all out,” but about some pretty big advice. Namely: what to do (or not do) when you decide to travel. From five months abroad, let me spell out my greatest learning lessons along the way. Traveling has been wildly fun and a little glamorous in the times when I haven’t been dining at a South American KFC, but if anything, my experiences are a constant serving of humble pie.    

1. Come prepared.

My first solo travel adventure took place the month before I studied abroad in England. Maybe this story is cheating since it’s not included in my technical “post-grad life” time period, but I don’t care because this is important so sit down and listen up.

I believe that my father, an international pilot, could have prevented many of the problems I would encounter on this trip but maybe he thought experience was the best teacher. He was right, of course, even if experience is a nasty bitch. I had no idea that when I landed in Rome, about three hours away from the friend I was meeting in Sorrento, my iPhone wouldn’t work, jet lag would erase any conversational Italian I had picked up from YouTube, and I would come across a path of gypsy children so ferocious that I wound up with blood blisters from the sheer force of pulling my suitcase away from them in the Naples train station. I have never been so afraid of a pack of nine-year-olds before.

That changed in Naples, though, when strangers approached me from dark corners and images of Taken starring Liam Neeson suddenly came to mind. Please don’t leave your hometown with the idea that “everything will work out.” This is how human trafficking happens, people! If you’re staying in a foreign country for a prolonged period of time I recommend an international SIM card, a cheap option that you can purchase at an airport. If you have an iPhone, simply open the SIM card slot by inserting the back of an earring, pressing down until the slot pops out, and then trading out SIM cards. Keep the American one! You’re welcome. 

Also, research every little thing. Print out papers with reservation numbers, directions, names of hotels, etc. Sleep on the plane (or drink coffee upon landing) so you land feeling somewhat rested and jet lag doesn’t have you trapped in some sort of trippy daydream. 

2. Don’t be an au pair if you hate kids and the idea of sharing a bathroom with four strangers gives you constipation.

Some people like to live alone. Some people hypothetically enjoy the idea of childcare but actually do not want to live with strange people and spend all day mopping floors only to have kids run across them a minute later. Don’t get into any position that will make you unhappy or uncomfortable. The au pair life ain’t for everybody. Read reviews of any type of agency that you go through to find a job. If you’re working through an agency there will be legal agreements, such as binding contracts involving the period of time you’re going to work for a family. If you’re going through a website like Work Away, make sure you’re honest with the family about you want. You guys won’t have an agency’s contract to keep both sides in line so it’s important to have open communication about everyone’s expectations and the house rules. Working as an au pair can provide you with the opportunity to view foreign life from a native’s perspective, but this experience won’t be positive for anyone if you know it’s not the job for you. Be honest with yourself.  There are other ways to travel cheaply, or find work abroad, than this.

3. You get what you pay for.

You don’t need to go out and buy a thousand-dollar Tumi luggage set that Travel and Leisure insisted you need. Just because Gwyneth Paltrow has one doesn’t mean it’s a realistic option for you. However, don’t go to TJ Maxx and buy something that has frayed seams and has been marked down to $20. There’s a reason it’s so cheap! Because of this mistake, my suitcase is now down to one working wheel, and although it supports about 70 pounds of luggage, this combination does not and should not mix. I will never forget the pain of having to carry my suitcase (at maximum weight capacity, along with three other shoulder bags, in South American summer humidity) because the wheels weren’t working and I was late for a flight. For the sake of your shoulders, look at something between Tumi and TJ Maxx. I recommend Overstock.com.

4. Smile if it kills you.

Anyone who has been raised in the south probably has a family member whose insistence upon politeness borders on psychosis. Fortunately for us, the rest of the world doesn’t always work this way! German airport agents will be charmed and eager to help you after a winning smile and a few “danke’s.” The kiosk employee in central London will be downright baffled at your use of “sir” and may even throw in a Kinder chocolate bar after you ask him for directions. Smile, smile, smile. It’s amazing what can get done if you simply slow down and pull a little Emily Post inspiration out.

5. Triple check. Then check again.

A late night ride from Milan Centrale train station to Malpensa airport ended up being a four-hour road trip from hell when the bus driver incorrectly told me that I was boarding the right bus. An hour and a half into this trip, after having grown suspicious and finally deciding to pull up Google Maps, I was shocked and distraught to find out we were on our way to Venice. However, when a bus is moving at 70 miles per hour down an Italian highway there’s really no place for you to get dropped off and Uber back to Milan. At some point you must accept your fate and find a plan B to get back to the expensive airport hotel that has already been paid for, despite the fact that you are being driven in the opposite direction. Eventually, after the bus stopped at a small regional airport in a town I can only describe as Chernobyl-esque, I gathered my bearings and found a way to Malpensa airport. People mean well and will try to help you as much as possible, but ultimately you are responsible for yourself overseas. Make sure you’re getting on a bus that will go in the right direction and if all else fails refer to Google, a beautiful resource in any country (that will load anywhere if you have a SIM card).  Just buy a SIM card, okay?

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[Photo by Juliette Kibodeaux.]     


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