Traveling is not easy. And it’s not always cute and Instagram worthy. Don’t let anyone lie to you like that. You’re in a new land whose culture and language are completely alien to you. The people can be friendly or the customs confusing. The food and smells and be disorienting. Travel is an adventure and not for the faint of heart.
To date, I have been to 42 countries, visiting a few of them more than once. I’ve traveled with the boy, solo, or with friends and in each country I visit, I’ve developed a routine of sorts to help me move about a foreign land a bit easier.
The following are some things that I come accustomed to doing to make my travels a bit lighter and help make space for the fun to happen.
Buy a SIM card (or at least try to)
Buying a local SIM (or making sure you have an international plan) is the first thing you should do when entering a new country. This gives you access to data that will help you operate time and lifesaving apps (hey, Google Maps!) and can help you stay safe in case you need to call a quick Uber or emergency services.
Depending on where you’re flying into, you can often find a kiosk in the airport of the local phone companies. You can do find one of these and have them activate your SIM at the airport before you leave. However, I strongly suggest making sure they activate it and call you on the phone to make sure it works before you walk away. This will save you loads of stress and keep you from wasting money.
While there are some places where people are selling SIM cards as you walk out of the airport, I would stay away from these. They are sometimes counterfeit and don’t work for long and you would again be wasting your time.
You should know that you have to have an unlocked phone. This can be done through your phone carrier if you’re not on a payment plan. If you are and don’t wish to pay to have it unlocked just yet, you can usually find an older model smartphone that is already unlocked on Amazon for less than $100.
Learn to say please and thank you in the local language
Learning a new language can be difficult and time-consuming. Even with all the apps out there that can help you learn a new language at light speed, it can be very arduous and, quite honestly, unnecessary for a weeklong trip to Greece.
However, learning how to say please and thank you in the native language of wherever you’re visiting can make or break your experience. Politeness is appropriate no matter the customs or culture.
You can go simple and use Google Translate, download an app that will teach you the phrases in advance, or just ask a local when you arrive. It’s easy and while it might take a little practice to say “kamsahamnida” or “ameseginalehu”, the locals will appreciate the effort even if you do mess up a few syllables and pronunciations.
No matter how you choose to learn how to say these phrases, showing gratitude for receiving help or services is always a good look.
Eat a local dish
The quickest gateway into a new country or culture is through its food. And I eat a lot when I travel. Hell, a lot of my posts on here are about the food I’ve eaten during my travels.
While I have yet to try escargot in France, I do make a point to try something local. This way I can make an informed decision (and judgment) about a country’s cuisine.
I would suggest looking at Time Out, taking a food tour with a local through Airbnb Experiences, or just finding the oldest awning or the longest line outside a restaurant. (Trust me on this one, guys) You’ll find some of the best places to eat are where they’ve been around so long the writing outside the building is faded and people are willing to wait hours for the food.
Take public transportation
Now, I know that not every place you travel has public transportation. Or what they have isn’t exactly convenient. But when you can, I would suggest buying a transit card (because it’s cheaper and more convenient) and travel the city by bus, train, or tram.
It’s a great way to see the city, connect with different parts of the country, and learn your way around.
To make things easier on yourself, I would recommend researching a bit before you go. Some countries have a transit authority that gives you all the information where you can buy cards, how much they cost, and what the packages are that will ultimately save you money. Google is your best bet here.
I would also suggest downloading the transit authority’s app (you wouldn’t believe how many have them) or using Google Maps on your phone. This will help you navigate the bus and train systems and Google will even tell you when the last train runs for the destination you’re trying to get to. This came in handy when hanging out late in Tokyo and Amsterdam.
If you’re someone who likes to party and stay out late, know what some busses and trains stop running after a certain time and you’re left either waiting it out until morning or taking a taxi or Uber home. Which can be really expensive in the late hours.
Another option is taking a City Sightseeing Bus or some other hop-on-hop-off bus. For cities like Johannesburg, where there isn’t a public transportation system, this is another way to get around the city on the cheap and you can ride around all you want for 24 hours or longer! And often, the admission to the museums and local attractions are discounted if you show your ticket.
No matter how you choose to get around the city, try to do so in a way where you can see it from a different perspective. Taking public transit might take some adjustment, but it’s worth it. Trust me.
Talk with the locals
Anthony Bourdain is quoted saying “Drink heavily with locals whenever possible.” While you may not be a heavy drinker, you can share a meal with someone and learn something about them.
I’m an introvert. I don’t like crowded spaces or large groups of people. But if I had my choice, I would rather be in the middle of a mosh pit at a rock concert than have a forced conversation with someone about the weather.
But I do, however, enjoy connecting with locals on a deep level.
This typically happens around food or drink. I sometimes spark conversations while sitting at a hotel bar or connect with wait staff at a restaurant. They will tell you what the happenings are in the city and where to find anything you’re looking for.
Talking with people in any place can help establish your grounding, give you some unedited history about the area, and you might actually have a little bit of fun.
But always be safe and aware. Use common sense always when you’re traveling, especially if you’re a woman and traveling alone. People are crazy everywhere.
These travel tips aren’t always one-size-fits-every-country. Some of these tips might apply and others may not. Do what works for you, but above always try to embrace the country and not the version you hope it would be.
If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.James A. Michener