With about 20 countries under my belt and still counting, there are a lot of ways to prepare yourself for what might be a bit of a culture shock when crossing borders, make a new adventure run a bit more smoothly and help you gain confidence by knowing a bit about the country you’re travelling to.
Visas: When I was researching what I need to cross the Egyptian border, I read that visas are available for purchase at customs, so I didn’t bother worrying about it. However, weirdly enough, they didn’t accept British pounds and I had no other currency on me, so I embarrassingly had to be escorted to a cash machine to get out Egyptian pounds. Moral of the story: know the cost and currency of your required visa.
Vaccinations: And look into this well ahead of time as it might take a few weeks to book an appointment and another few weeks for the vaccines to become effective.
Emergency line: Someone call IX-I-I! (Hercules, anyone?) It’s different in every country so be sure you know the local emergency services line.
For U.S. travelers, all the above information and more is available on the Department of State website and a similar set of information is available on the U.K. government website as well for British travelers. For all other home countries, I literally just Googled “[home country] travelers to [destination]” and the first few results should be your government website.
General safety: My travels have been largely in Western Europe, a quite safe part of the world, so I never had to think too much about safety. It might be an idea to do a quick search for any dodgy areas at your destination, but take it with a grain of salt. For example, if you Google “dangerous areas New York,” the sum of all the results will probably leave you with not many places to go. For places you are not sure about, don’t go out at night, take a buddy or let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back and take extra care.
Currency exchange rate: I have also several times made the mistake of not getting an idea of the exchange rates before I arrived at my destination, so I had no idea how much I was paying for my first few purchases. It might also be an idea to research the average cost of a meal, pint of beer, night in a hostel, etc. so you understand when you’re being ripped off and can budget likewise.
Your phone service: Look into setting up your phone service well ahead of time and what kind of options you have if you need to top up abroad.
Attractions: Actually do a bit of research with what there is to do. Although you don’t have to decide before you go, it’s nice to know what your options are. Going to Budapest, I was unaware of the famous thermal baths, which left me desperately searching for a place selling bathing suits in the middle of winter. Consider what you want to do and if any attractions are closed any particular days or require advanced bookings.
Weather: Look at the forecast for the whole duration of your visit and pack accordingly. Another tip: if you’re going to somewhere rainy, make sure your umbrella has a sleeve you can keep dry so once you want to put your wet umbrella back in your bag, it doesn’t get your other possessions wet.
Public transport: See what kind of links are available to you between your accommodation and your attractions of choice and the airport. Also, be sure you know where to get public transport tickets. Although on a lot of metros and buses you can buy before/ while you board, that’s not always the case. In Italy, I had to buy a bus pass from an off-licence shop. It was peculiar.
Religion and customs: If you plan on visiting any religious sites, it’s important to make sure you dress appropriately. A lot of sites require you to cover your shoulders, knees and sometimes head (although there are usually scarfs for the latter).
Dress: Similarly, it might be a good idea to search what the locals are wearing so you don’t stick out as a tourist or perhaps disrespect the culture.
Language: Finally, you don’t need to become totally fluent in another language before you travel, but it’s really helpful to know a few key words. I always make sure to know friendly greetings like “hello,” “thank you” and “goodbye” as well as practical things such as “man/woman” (you don’t want to go in the wrong toilet), “enter/exit” and “one cider, please.”
I hope this helps, happy trails!
Photo by Samael Lopez.