Most of us can remember our first trip abroad: the excitement of packing, researching everything you wanted to see and do, and waiting eagerly on the plane as you neared your destination, wondering what you’d learn when you finally arrived.
And the feeling of accomplishment for making it through a long flight and breezing through customs. Leaving the arrivals terminals, taking that first step through doors, placing your feet in a new place, and then—getting mobbed by a hundred taxi drivers, luggage hawkers, and a barrage of noise like nothing you’ve ever heard before.
And suddenly, you realize that no amount of planning could have prepared you for this moment; for being in a completely new place.
With summer underway, many people will be headed out of their home countries for the first time, whether to study abroad, serve as a volunteer, start a fellowship, conduct research, or take a new job placement . And for first-time travelers, this can be a daunting prospect—one with a steep learning curve. But if you follow through with it, it will be an awesome investment in yourself and your career.
If this is your first time going abroad for the summer, you don’t need a 300-page travel guide or even one of those maps disguised as a book. Instead, I’ve put together a comprehensive list of travel tips from my experiences and the insight I wish I’d had when I first started out. A little travel wisdom goes a long way, so keep these in mind and get out there and explore!
- Don’t overpack. Pack your suitcase, then cut it by half. You’ll be surprised by what you can live without on the road—and you’ll be thankful for half the weight to lug around.
- Getting sick abroad isn’t easy —or fun. Get travel insurance or make sure you’re covered by your current policy when you’re out of the country.
- Make five color copies of your passport, stash them in different places (e.g., your suitcase, your purse, and your journal), and swap copies with your friend. Then, as an extra precaution, email a scanned copy to yourself, too.
- Create a dummy wallet with a little bit of local currency. Keep it in a place easily accessible in case you need to quick grab some cash, without revealing where your real wallet is.
- Keep some U.S. dollars or euros both on you and stashed somewhere safe during your trip. You always want to have backup cash in case of an emergency.
- Invest in a packable silk mummy sleeping liner. It will keep you protected from mosquitoes and other elements at night and serves as impromptu sheets, so you can sleep almost anywhere. (You’ll need it on the humid night train or in dingy hostels!)
- Travel guides keep you on a well-trodden tourist route, so don’t be afraid to step away from those guidebooks . Use them for basic research and understanding, but you can find even better tips through internet research and travel networks, like Couchsurfing , Matador Network , or Go Girl Travel Network .
Getting Settled In
- Blogger Vanessa Chiasson recommends, “Have a plan for day one and research it well—know where you’re going to stay and how you’re going to get there. Even super spontaneous people can gain confidence and reassurance on the first day.”
- Strive to truly get to know the place you’re visiting—and not just through the concierge or tourist junkets. Talk to locals to get recommendations for places you should see.
- Not every advertised tourist attraction is one you need to see. Use TripAdvisor , Wikitravel , Travelfish , or Yelp to determine if a site is worth your time and cash.
- Schedule regular check-ins with family back home via Skype or Google Hangout. It will keep their worries in check, but also give you a support network to share in your experiences.
- Soon after you arrive, go for a walk or bike ride around the city to begin to understand your surroundings. You will get to interact with locals and gain a sense of independence.
- Take a break from life through a lens—at least for a moment. Put down your camera and smartphone for a few minutes and be present where you are. (You’re in another country—take it in!)
Adjusting to a New Culture
- Start by learning some basic phrases . Even if you think you sound ridiculous, locals will appreciate the effort.
- Blogger Erica Laue recommends, “Say yes to all the weird food.” Even if it’s strange to you, learn how to navigate exotic food . (Yes, I’m talking about fish eyes, bamboo worms, and pork blood soup!)
- Just like you’d say yes to that glass of water or coffee in a job interview , always accept hospitality—even if it’s your third cup of tea that day.
- You won’t be familiar with all aspects of the culture right away, but you should research and learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. If you do make a cultural faux pas , admit your mistake.
- Don’t get caught in the trap of comparing your summer location to your home country. Don’t think of it as better or worse than what you know—just different. Focus on understanding each country in its own unique context.
- Once the honeymoon phase passes and you’re no longer ecstatic about everything new (yes, it will happen), don’t get discouraged! That’s exactly when you’ll really start to learn and grow.
Keep it Professional
- Would you wear fisherman pants and a halter top to a job interview? When you’re abroad, think the same way. To earn respect, dress conservatively, observe how local professionals dress, and follow their example.
- Just because you’re in a hot country doesn’t mean you need to show a lot of skin . Keep yourself covered and dress respectfully unless you’re at the beach.
- Get a business card made with your Skype handle and local cell phone number. Then, learn the local customs of giving out business cards. (In many countries, the act of giving and receiving business cards is taken very seriously.)
- Schedule some informational interviews at organizations you care about or businesses that align with your work . (If this includes a charity or NGO, leave a small donation or discuss ways you might be able to offer assistance in the short term.)
- In some cultures, being overly assertive or yelling to make a point will cause you to lose respect—but in other places, putting up a fight is the only way to get things done. Recognize which one is relevant in the country you’re in, and follow suit.
- Keep your social media posts professional and ethical. You don’t want anything to come back and haunt you later.
- It’s OK to network in unexpected places. In fact, people are often extra hospitable to guests in their country. But remember that you’re in a new place, so trust your gut and use common sense. It’s great to strike up a conversation on a train or in a cafe, but not in the middle of the street.
- Step out of the traveler bubble. Make friends who aren’t from your own country and who aren’t like you. You’ll get out of your comfort zone and have a more enriching experience.
- Build a routine in your schedule (e.g., go to the same place to get coffee each morning, frequent a particular breakfast place, or stay at a favorite hostel) to become familiar to local business owners.
- Have meaningful conversations and listen closely, even if it’s hard to communicate. Body language and simple respect can go a long way.
- Try to make meaningful and realistic connections, and be honest about whether or not you will visit again. (I’ve seen so many lofty promises made to communities that are never followed up on, which leaves the community jaded and makes it harder for the next traveler to make genuine connections.)
- Carry a notebook and pen to document meetings or phone numbers. Plus, drawing pictures to get your message across may be helpful when there is a language barrier.
- Show gratitude to your colleagues, hosts, and friends you make along the way. You never know how far someone has gone out of his or her way to help or host you.
- Danger is relative. Even when you’re abroad, you can be just as safe or unsafe as you would back at home (even when traveling in a dangerous place ). Always know where you’re going and carry yourself confidently.
- If you are headed out alone, leave a note in your room (or update your social media status) about where you are headed, what time you left, and when you plan to return.
- Find taxi or other transportation services that are vetted and that you can trust. Know what scams to look out for .
- The media can cause a lot of hype—remember that many of the protests and critical events you’ll hear about are usually confined to one place, not a whole city. Try to avoid the problem area, and make sure you fully understand the events in the local and global news context .
- There is a difference between seeking adventure and purposely heading into a dangerous situation. Talk to locals and check out embassy advisories to understand the reality on the ground.
- A crisis is only a crisis if you make it so. Consider ways to deal with big challenges in a calm and proactive way .
Gaining Relevant Experience
- Identify the skills you can gain on your trip. Consider if they’ll be marketable later on, and what you can do to hone them. Can you start something like a blog, social media account, or project that develops new and useful skills?
- If you have the opportunity to volunteer or do charity work abroad, prepare with this ultimate volunteer checklist .
- Journal about the challenges you face and overcome on a daily basis. It may be tough at first, but it will give you anecdotes to talk about in interviews and cover letters when you return home.
- Three months in a place doesn’t make you an expert, but it is great experience to illustrate your ability to learn and adapt, and those skills will be useful in any future job or internship.
- No one traveler is better than another. Although the debate rages on in the travel world, there really is no difference between a tourist and a traveler . Accept that everyone has a different style of travel; the most important thing is you are getting out there and experiencing new things.
- You will know when you are stuck in a tourist trap: random rest stops, deals to good to be true, and everyone snapping the same exact picture. (Touch a tiger lately?) But, finding yourself in a common destination doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Make the most of it! Learn from it, enjoy it, and then strive to find ways to get off the beaten path in the future.
- You will make mistakes in the field , and that’s OK. Don’t beat yourself up. Learn to laugh at yourself.
- You will get ripped off a couple times before you catch on to it. Take it in stride and learn the appropriate prices.
- Strive to support local businesses—buy directly from artisans, go to small markets instead of chain grocery stores, and stay in locally owned hotels.
- When travel gets challenging, use your support network, talk to friends, and know it will pass. All travelers get frustrated and hit plateaus.
- Writer Kerry Weber advises, “Challenge yourself to be more outgoing, more adventurous, more of whatever you want to see yourself become .”
- Let this trip be the start of something big when you come back. Launch the project you always wanted to pursue, work to transition to your dream job, or just live a little bit differently based on what you’ve learned. But no matter what, start working toward your goals .
To all the first-time travelers out there, keep in mind that even the most seasoned jetsetters have been in your shoes, and every single one of us is still learning. So whether you are headed out for the first time or just needed a refresher, remember: You can make your experience relevant to your life or career (or both!). The key is keeping a positive attitude and learning as much as possible. Consider your first experience abroad as one that isn’t just a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but the beginning of a lifetime of travel.
Photo of traveler courtesy of Steven Lewis
TopicsTools & Skills , Travel , Travel Mirror by Natalie Jesionka , Cultural Differences , Travel Tips , Business Travel
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author