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Tips for Foreign Travel

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One of the perks of choosing your friends wisely is that every once in a while, when one of those friends does something amazing to further herself or her career, you get to go along for the ride. That is how I scored a trip to Germany under the guise of helping my friend “work.”

The last time I traveled out of the country was over a decade ago. Before that I had only traveled internationally once, for a two week tour of Europe during high school. My friend, who was launching a new product line for international customers, had never been outside the United States. We weren’t exactly a pair of jet setters as we set out on our transatlantic journey.

As it turns out, this worked out great for you, dear reader, since our lack of knowledge allowed us to make plenty of mistakes that I can now warn you about so that when you decide to travel abroad, you won’t be tempted to punch an airline clerk in the face or cry as you watch your flat iron short circuit.

Here are some important tips based on lessons learned on our trip to Germany:

Arrange for an International Calling Plan Before You Leave

I wasn’t planning on doing much of my own work during our trip so phone, text, and e-mail access wasn’t my primary concern when I was preparing for the trip. Still, I thought I would check with Sprint to see how much it would cost to add international service to my account for the duration of the trip just in case it was affordable since I knew it would be convenient. While the rate was quite reasonable, my phone unfortunately lacked the capability to function on an international plan. My friend, who was crazy busy preparing for the trip since she had inventory, order forms, and display components to pack, never got around to contacting her provider.

We both were naively optimistic about wifi access abroad. We thought at a minimum, we could pay for access at the hotel and probably at any number of hotspots along the route to the trade show. While the hotel was perfectly willing to take our money in exchange for access to the internet, our adorable little tablets that we had brought along as practical alternatives to our heftier laptops, refused to connect to the hotel’s server. Without the ability to connect to a mobile or wifi network, our phones couldn’t help up locate hotspots and we couldn’t seem to locate any on our own.

We finally broke down and used the computer in the business center in the hotel, hastily typing messages to our loved ones as we watched the timer tick down our diminishing available minutes in the corner of the screen. Hence, all of my internet time in Europe was spent in a state of anxiety that I equated to a TV character frantically trying to deactivate the bomb before it explodes. Unless you routinely go days on end without contacting your friends and family, don’t assume you will be able to do so without a tremendous amount of guilt and anxiety while on your vacation abroad. Save yourself the stress, and make sure you’ll have access BEFORE you leave home.

Equip Yourself Before You Leave

Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, I remembered that European outlets were different from the ones we use in the U.S. So, I trotted off to the store to buy the adaptors that would enable me to style my hair and charge all my electronic devices while away.

My friend had already envisioned our many hours of sitting on the plane, attempting to sleep during our overnight flight, and had purchased travel pillows. Although I accused her of tricking me into wearing her dog’s medical pillow (the new and improved “cones” to prevent them from licking at stitches), I was very thankful for the support that donut offered when I finally succumbed and slept on the plane.

I was also grateful to her because she had insisted that I bring along an empty water bottle that I could fill after I passed through airport security. Doing so saved us a ton of money since the going price for a bottled water at the airport is $3-4 and cost even more in Germany. If I hadn’t brought that water bottle, I would have either spent all my souvenir money on water or more likely, come home completely dehydrated.

Streamline Your Time at the Airport

Because neither I, nor my friend, travel abroad regularly, we didn’t realize that so many people do. Imagine our surprise when we arrived at the airport 2 ½ hours early only to find out that our flight was full and the only two seats that hadn’t been assigned were middle seats 4 aisles apart. Yes, my friend had bought our tickets months in advance. No, that didn’t mean our requested seat assignment had been honored. To avoid this yourself, check in online as soon as your airline allows it (typically 24 hours before the flight) and print your boarding passes even if you plan on checking bags.

Check with your airline before you pack to find out what their regulations and fees are related to baggage. Most airlines will allow one checked bag up to 50 pounds. If they allow your bag to be overweight or if they allow more than one bag, there are typically hefty fees associated. My friend’s 61 pound bag would have incurred a $200 overage fee if I hadn’t been able to fit the additional weight into my suitcase. We knew there would be a fee for an overweight bag but had assumed it would be $100. To save yourself substantial cash or last-minute repacking of your bags in the check-in line, figure out the rules and fees at home so you can pack accordingly.

If you detest the security process of removing your shoes, packing your hygiene liquids in a zipper bag that has to be removed from your bag to be scanned, and taking your laptop out of its case to get through security, check into the TSA Pre-Check. For a fee, you can fill in an application and get approved to pass through a special security line that frees you from all of those burdens. Somehow, I was pre-approved for this process (I’m still not sure how). Since my friend wasn’t pre-approved and didn’t want to pay the $85 to be approved (the fee at Dulles), she accompanied me to the special Pre-Check station but was filtered into a line there that had the same security requirements as the standard security station. So, though I got through security much faster, I had to wait for her on the other side and thus, we didn’t save any time. Lesson for you: If you decide to get approved for the TSA Pre-Check, be prepared to wait for your non-approved friends or be happy traveling alone.

Build in a Time Buffer

We had a 20-hour time buffer built into our itinerary, meaning that we were schedule to arrive at our destination almost a full day before we had obligations to be somewhere. As it turned out, that wasn’t enough. After delaying our flight several times for 5 hours, United Airlines finally cancelled the flight outright and couldn’t re-book us on a new flight until 24 hours later. Unfortunately, even if we had been armed with this knowledge ahead of time, our personal schedules wouldn’t have allowed us to depart any sooner. So, build in as much as a buffer as your schedule permits but also be willing to…

Be Flexible

Since we were traveling to a trade show with a specific start date and time, we only cared about our arrival time and destination. We didn’t care how we got there. We were willing to drive to a different airport, have multiple layovers, take the red-eye, or sit separately.

United is going to get a bad rap here from me because despite what I felt was a tremendous amount of flexibility on our part, the United Airlines clerks were hopelessly incapable of getting us rescheduled on a flight that would get us to our destination on time. While I didn’t expect them to magically create flights that didn’t already exist, the entire problem could have been avoided if they didn’t have such a logistical handicap in scheduling crew. Our original flight wasn’t cancelled due to weather or mechanical difficulty or any other unforeseen difficulty that was out of the airline’s hands, it was due to the fact that not enough crew members were available to work the flight. Aside from providing the plane, isn’t this the one area where you expect the airline to have a significant responsibility and ability to control? And THAT is why I won’t fly United again if I want to be able to count on getting to my destination on time.

The flexibility will also serve you well when you get to your destination armed with the correct converter/adaptor for the country you are visiting and even after carefully reading the instructions and confirming with your travel partner that you have everything set up correctly, it short circuits your flat iron on the very first day, crushing your dreams of taking Europe by storm with your amazing hair style. You’ve got to have your Plan B (and maybe C and D) ready in these situations. For me, the solution was to rely on a series of tightly wound buns all about my head overnight to create the delicate waves I usually rely on my flat iron to generate.

Learn the Language

For the sake of America’s reputation, please learn at least a few phrases in the native language of the country you are visiting! Yes, many foreigners speak English, especially at the airports and hotels. However, everyone appreciates when you attempt to meet them halfway, even if you struggle in the process. Don’t be the ugly American who assumes the rest of the world will jump at the opportunity to bow at your feet and supply you with all the information and assistance you want. At a minimum, learn to say hello, please, and thank you and to identify yourself (in their language) as an American or English-speaker. If you have an average capacity for language, you should also be able to learn a few helpful phrases or sentence starters like “Where is…?”, “What is….?”, and “How do I…?” because the person to whom you are speaking will be more likely to work harder to understand the rest of your question (and supply you with an answer) since you have made an effort to make it easier for them to understand it.

Learn the Customs

My friend and I were thoroughly confused by restaurant procedures while we were in Germany. First of all, no matter the size of the establishment, there always seemed to be just one person waiting on tables. Consequently, service was quite slow. This was beyond frustrating on our first night since we hadn’t eaten in several hours, had gone straight from the airport to work, and were functioning on two hours of sleep on the airplane. We were not feeling relaxed and laissez-faire about our 20-30 minutes of wait time to order water, then our food, then the food’s arrival, and again for the check. If we had known our quick bite to eat in the hotel bar was going to take two hours, we would have found something in the vending machine, gone to bed, and made time for a satisfying breakfast the next morning. After the first two days, we were able to adjust our expectations so this wasn’t frustrating (we also learned to ask for the check as soon as our food arrived so that we wouldn’t have to wait for the waiter/waitress to remember us 45 minutes later).

Another thing we learned late was that Europeans, or at least Germans, don’t tip the way we do. First of all, wait staff make normal wages so they don’t rely on tips as their main income. In fact, there’s no obligation to tip at all if you don’t feel inclined to do so. If you do tip, a small token to denote your satisfaction with the service is sufficient. How I wish I still had those Euros we gave to the first, ineffective waiter as a tip!



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