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10 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Trip Abroad

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I still remember my first trip abroad like it was yesterday. The nervous energy, the anxiousness, the excitement – all those feelings are cemented in my brain … and I hope they never fade.

Since that first trip to Europe, I've been in and out of the country a few more times, and seemingly every trip I learn something new that makes me a better traveler. That isn't to say that I've got it all figured out – I definitely do not. But thankfully, I've picked up a few tricks along the way.

Whether you're a seasoned traveler or you're planning your first big get away, here are some things I learned that might help you out.
 

 

Prepare For Your Trip into Town

This is a big one and honestly, it's something I still struggle with: How do you get from the airport to wherever you're going?

My first time in Europe, I pre-arranged an airport pickup from my Airbnb host. He offered and it seemed like a good idea – but truth be told, I had no idea what else to do. Since then, Google Maps has made some big improvements to help you navigate public transit or decide to take a cab or Uber – and that's exactly where I start now.

Most major international cities have solid public transportation options that connect the airport to the city center. Whether it's a subway, tram, or bus, there's likely some way to get from the airport to your hotel or Airbnb using public transit. Familiarizing yourself with the local transit system on Day 1 is always nice. Plus, this will almost always be the cheapest option.

For example, if I was heading to Paris and staying at the Westin Paris Vendome, I'd pull up Google Maps and enter Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG) as my starting point and the Westin Paris Vendome as my destination. From there, Google spits out the available routes by car, public transit (subway, bus, or a combination), bicycle, and even by walking. After toggling to the train icon, you can see all the different options for public transit – many of which are quicker than taking a car.
 

CDG - Westin Vendome Google Maps 

If the destination you're traveling to doesn't have public transit that goes to the airport, Google Maps is still a good place to start. Sometimes it will let you know about taxi and ridesharing options and even give you an approximate price range.

At home, I typically lean on Uber and Lyft for my ridesharing needs, but it's not always an option in foreign countries. In that case, you might need to use an alternative ridesharing app like DiDi, Grab, Careem, or Ola Cab. Doing a little research and downloading any new apps before your trip can save you a lot of time and hassle.

Finally, I've often used Rome2Rio for help getting between point A and B. This site (and app) identifies the different transportation options between two places. It typically works best for getting between cities, rather than within a specific destination, but it can do both. If you're needing more help than what Google Maps is delivering, it's another good resource.

Thrifty Tip: Google Maps is great but it doesn't work everywhere. You may need to download an additional maps app for certain countries like China, South Korea, and others.

 

How to Get (& Spend) Money Wisely

Credit card points and airline miles can certainly make a big international trip more affordable. But unfortunately, all the airline miles in the world won't buy you much once you're on the ground.

Whether you're dining at a local restaurant, stocking up on souvenirs for family back home, or taking in the local attractions, you're going to be spending money … and your U.S. dollars likely won't cut it. Figuring out how much you need in that country's currency can be confusing.

Good news: There's an app for that. I've personally used the Xe Converter app for years but there are several others on the market that work just as well. If all else fails, you can always quickly Google the current exchange rate and use a calculator to figure out how much something costs.
 

Foreign Transaction Fees 

Since we're all about earning points and miles, it's no surprise that our favorite way to pay is with a travel rewards credit card – preferably one that doesn't charge a foreign transaction fees. Using your favorite credit card abroad is very similar to spending at home, although I've found “tap to pay” to be much more prevalent (and preferred) outside of the U.S. So long as your card has the sideways “Wi-Fi Symbol” on it you should be all set if you encounter this as well. Tap to pay also works great for cards stored in a digital wallet like Apple Pay or Google Pay.

While credit cards are widely accepted outside of the U.S. – yes, even American Express cards – you'll still find times when you need cash. And for that, our team swears by the Charles Schwab debit card. With the Schwab debit card, you can take out cash from any ATM anywhere in the world and you'll get refunded 100% of any withdrawal or ATM fees you pay. It's a foolproof way to avoid international ATM fees and get the best currency exchange rate possible.

Having a little of the local cash on hand is really helpful if you want to buy something from a street vendor or when shopping at other small businesses.

Read more: The Best Way to Get Cash When Traveling Abroad

 

To Tip or Not to Tip?

Speaking of money, you might be surprised to find that tipping isn't really a thing in much of the world – or at least nothing like it is here at home. In some places, leaving a tip is downright rude.

For that reason, it's a good idea to do a little research ahead of time so that you don't find yourself in an uncomfortable predicament not knowing what to do.

As an extreme generalization, you aren't expected to tip in much of Asia and Australia. In Japan, for instance, leaving any sort of gratuity is a major faux pas.

Meanwhile, you'll find that tipping is more common in South America, while Africa can be a bit of a crapshoot. In parts of Europe and the Middle East, it's a bit more nuanced: Leaving a small tip can be a nice way to say thank you for good service.

If you're paying with a card, you can typically tell whether or not tipping is expected based on whether or not they ask you to sign the receipt and whether or not there's a line for gratuity. Watch what others are doing to get a sense of what's customary – and when in doubt, just ask.

Additionally, if the place you're traveling to does have a tipping culture, you might not need to leave as big of tip as you're used to. In my travels, I've found 5% to 10% tips to be customary in many places even where tips are encouraged. In many parts of Europe, throwing more than an extra 1 euro coin on the counter is strange.

Thrifty Tip: The price you see on a menu often includes tax and any sort of service charge.

 

The Best Way to Stay Connected

Let's face it: We've become reliant on our phones. Whether we're aimlessly scrolling social media, looking something up, or using Google Maps, we need data to get by at home and abroad.

You can simply use your phone abroad as you would at home but in most cases, doing so will be costly. Major U.S. wireless providers each have their own offerings for international roaming, typically it's an add-on of $10 per day (or more) to your normal cell phone bill.

For years, I used Google Fi to stay connected while traveling out of the country – and while it's still a solid option, it may no longer be the best way to avoid those sky-high roaming charges. Lately, I've been using an Airalo eSim when I travel and have found it to be a convenient and affordable alternative for international data. Airalo provides eSIMs for more than 200 countries around the world, allowing travelers access to mobile data without paying an arm and a leg.
 

airalo esim how it works 

With an eSIM from Airalo, you simply download and install a digital data pack for the country or region you're traveling to before your trip and you'll be connected the moment you land. There's no need to swap out physical SIM cards or pause and un-pause your service like with Google Fi.

The one hitch is that in order to use Airalo, your phone needs to be unlocked – meaning your device isn't tied to a specific mobile carrier. If yours fits the bill, there's no better way to stay connected while traveling abroad.

 

Beating Language Barriers

Not being able to speak the local language is a fear of many traveler. In my experience, it's often overblown.

Americans are blessed by the fact that English is a second language for much of the world: You'll find it on signs all over the world and shared by the locals. But even in those instances where you can't speak or decipher the language, there's another app that can help.

Google Translate works great for translating common words or phrases, but it can also be a lifesaver for translating text. You can simply open the app and use the camera feature to quickly decipher words on a sign or items on the menu at a restaurant.
 

English to French translation via Google Translate 

But more often than not, you'll find someone who knows at least a little bit of English … no matter where you are. You'll usually find that it's the language people default to whenever there's a communication gap.

Having said that, why not learn a few words or phrases in the local language before your trip? Not only will it be helpful to you, but it shows respect to those you meet. Just knowing the basics –  hello and goodbye, please and thank you – can go a long way.

One thing that doesn't help when you're having communication issues? Talking louder. Oftentimes I hear other travelers (and I'm probably guilty of it as well) talking louder and slower in English when that isn't the issue. No matter the volume of your voice, it's simply not going to do any good when the other person doesn't understand what you're saying.

 

Common Words Aren't Always So Common

While we're on the subject of communication, some really common words in America just aren't used in other parts of the world. It may be anecdotal but I've had enough trouble with it in different parts of the world to sense a theme.

Here are some of the big ones:

  • Asking for a “restroom” or “bathroom” will likely be met with a blank stare. More often than not, you're better off asking for a “toilet” to get the response you're looking for.
  • If someone asks if you're traveling for business or holiday, you might be confused. “Holiday” is used in British English in place of vacation. Much of the world defaults to “holiday” as well.
  • You'll find other English words like “lift” and “queue” used instead of “elevator” or “line” as well.
  • I often get a look of confusion when I tell locals I'm from “the U.S.” or “the United States.” But when I say “America,” it clicks immediately.

 

Most People are Happy to Help

I get it: Being in a foreign country can feel uneasy. But I've repeatedly found that the world is full of kind, helpful human beings – yes, even to tourists.

France's reputation for prickly locals who loathe American tourists is legend, so that was my expectation. But a recent trip to Paris quickly showed me it was wrong: When schelpping through a crowded metro station with luggage in tow only to encounter several flights of stairs, a kind Parisian man gladly offered to carry my wife's suitcase while another assisted with our son in a stroller.

After struggling to buy a subway ticket with my credit card in Mexico City, a woman noticed and politely stepped in, offering to buy it for me. Yes, you read that right: She simply paid for my ticket because she saw that I was in need. It was at most a couple of bucks, but that's a level of generosity I rarely experience at home.
 

Metro station ticket office in Paris, France
Photo by Clement Dellandrea via Unsplash

When you hear that a certain country is dangerous or you need to be careful traveling here or there, it's driven by negative coverage. I'm not saying that everywhere is absolutely safe: There are certain parts of the world where you need to be cautious, if not outright avoid them altogether. But unless you're a really seasoned traveler, you're probably not going to those places anyway.

For the most part, though, the positives far outweigh the negatives.

 

But Beware of Scams and Safety

Let me be perfectly clear: 99.9% of the people you meet when traveling internationally are good-hearted, kind humans. See above.

Unfortunately, you'll still be subjected to scams in some popular tourist areas. Bad actors prey on tourists because they're vulnerable: They don't know the area well and are often distracted by whatever attraction they came to see.

In most cases, these scams are physically harmless but can end up costing you time, money, or both. Something as simple as signing a petition could lead to a demand for a donation. Getting directions could mean you're on the hook for a tip. If someone is particularly pushy about helping you out – however small it may seem – it's wise to be wary of scams.

If you're in a particularly crowded area, you should also be on the lookout for pickpocket. Keep your valuables in your front pockets whenever possible – and if you're carrying a bag, it's also a good idea to flip it around and keep it in front of you.
 

Crowded market in Marrakesh Morocco
Photo by Calin Stan via Unsplash

In terms of safety, there are always areas in big cities – in the states and abroad – that you might want to avoid. Do some research online or ask your hotel (or concierge) about safety. There's always power in numbers, so stick with a travel companion or, if you're traveling solo, staying near other groups. And if you're still anxious, avoid going out late at night.

As a general rule of thumb, I try to wear nondescript, generic clothes when I'm traveling. It might be fun to get some flashy, new outfits before a big trip … but the more you stand out, the more likely you are to draw negative attention.

 

Bring a Power Adapter (But Just 1)

Around the world, outlets are not created equal.

From Europe to Asia to Australia, countries around the world use different types of outlets – and depending on where you go, you might need two different adapters even within the same region. For example, the U.K. and the rest of Europe use different types of sockets.

It's up to you to be prepared to ensure you can keep your devices charged. But long gone are the days when you needed a four-piece system to stay plugged in across the globe: There are plenty of single-unit options that allow you to charge your devices no matter where you rest your head.
 

Amazon universal power adapter screen shot 

Even if you don't think you'll need it, throwing one of these in your bag before your next trip abroad can save you from scrambling to find one when you're running low on power and have no way to get a charge.
 

Tips for Passport Control & Clearing Customs

Flying internationally isn't quite as simple as it is here within the U.S. When you get off the plane you can't just head to baggage claim and get on with your day – you first need to go through passport control and clear customs.

The first step will be going through passport control, where you'll likely see long snaking lines of travelers waiting to meet with an immigration officer. This is where you'll get your passport stamped and be permitted to enter the country. While not as common, some countries are beginning to implement an electronic immigration process where you answer some questions and take a photo at a kiosk. In this case, you may get a sticker to put in your passport or a printout to keep with you that permits you to enter the country.
 

Passport control at Chania Airport on the island of Crete, Greece 

The next part of the process is clearing customs. This happens after you collect your luggage and typically doesn't involve any extra screening – it's just like walking out a door. If you have items to declare, something you're importing to sell or high-value items that exceed duty-free limits, you'll do it here.

The whole process should be relatively painless, but it can be a little intimidating if it's your first time using your passport. Just be warned that, depending on which airport you're at and what time of day it is, you might be faced with some really long immigration lines. For that reason, it's a good idea to leave extra time in your schedule after your flight is set to arrive.

Worried about your connection times? Read our guide!

On the way home, you'll go through a similar process when you land in the U.S. Using the mobile passport app or ponying up for Global Entry can be a huge timesaver when returning to the U.S.

Read more: Cheap Credit Cards That Get You Free TSA PreCheck & Global Entry

 

Bottom Line

Every time I take an international trip I learn something new … and it almost always makes me a better traveler. Hopefully, my growing list of tips and trips can help you before your next trip abroad.

 

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

2 Responses

  • I almost never look at rideshare/taxis outside of the US, or even outside of major cities. Istanbul, Tokyo, Osaka, Paris, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, London, New York, Chicago all have excellent transit systems which are very easy/inexpensive to use, and credit cards are a cinch. It’s when you get to places that aren’t well served by local/regional rail (Marrakech, Amman, Cape Town, Orlando/Tampa…lol) where rideshare enters the chat.

    The other tricky thing when pulling out cash is finding the sweet spot where you have enough, but not excess. Be sure that you run it back down as close to zero before you head home (or are able to liquidate it). The Charles Schwab debit card is clutch for this, but so is having a Chase checking account. I pull out foreign cash onsite with the CS debit card, and most major *paper* currency is free to exchange at a Chase branch stateside. Find out from other banks, as is your case. I usually donate coin currency as tips on my way to the airport, or buy a small drink at 7-Eleven, etc like I did in Japan/Thailand….they’re universally not worth bringing back.

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