A new traveler’s guide to traveling

Thursday, November 30, 2017

I don’t claim to be any sort of seasoned traveler, though I do consider myself somewhat experienced in this matter. I’m definitely not an international traveler; I’ve only been outside of the U.S. on one occasion (so far), but I have visited places all over America. I’ve been in the following states: New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, California, and Washington. And I’ve been to Paris, France (as well as some nearby suburbs) and - very briefly - Dublin, Ireland.

The following is a little travel guide I’ve put together based solely on my own knowledge, wisdom, and experiences. It is in no way any kind of definitive thing to rely upon, but rather, something to read and consider if you plan to travel abroad - and you should! Also note that this guide is based exclusively on travel to Europe. This, at the moment, is the place I want to go to the most, and as such, it’s the place I’ve researched and read up on (as well as been to), so I can only give advice concerning European countries. If you want to visit someplace in Latin America, Asia, or elsewhere (and more power to you if you do!), I would not recommend the tips that follow, as they are not particularly relevant to those parts of the world - though there might still be helpful info here that you can use, I honestly don’t know.

For those who read and appreciate this, I hope it helps! Without further ado, here are some important things to bear in mind when traveling to our friends across the pond.

PART I - Preparations:

Pack light

It’s something of a humorous stereotype that American travelers always pack everything but the kitchen sink. It has a grain of truth to it. Throughout America alone, you’ll often see folks dragging enormous pieces of luggage and overstuffed backpacks. By contrast, most Europeans pack one backpack with a couple sets of clothes and the essentials, and that’s enough. It should be enough for you, too. After all, roughing it a little is a part of the travel experience! A friend once gave me good advice, which I will now pass on to you: after you’ve packed, reopen your backpack and review its contents. Take half of it out and leave it behind. Then open up your wallet, and double what’s in there!

Buy or bring plug adapters

Most travel advice websites I see don’t actually seem to cover this part, but it’s important, especially when you’re traveling abroad and need to plug in your laptop or charge your phone. Depending on what country you’re in, there are different types of outlets than the ones you’re used to in America. France has one with two round prongs, and accordingly, you’ll need to buy an adapter to attach to the plugs of whatever electronic device you want to use. Don’t worry if your plug has three prongs, you can usually just clip the adapter onto the two main prongs and it should work fine. And make sure you bring the specific adapters that you need. The U.K., for example, has outlets with three square-shaped holes. Try buying a universal adapter. You can get them on Amazon, and some airlines (like Aer Lingus) carry them as well, so they can be purchased on board your flight.

Don’t use a currency exchange before you go
You might hear older folks who have traveled tell you, “Make sure you go to a currency exchange and trade your dollars in for the right currency, before you leave the country!” In other words, if you’re going to Paris you’ll want to change U.S. dollars into Euros, if you’re going to Iceland you’ll want Icelandic krona, etc. Look, that advice might have been good decades ago, but it no longer applies.

Now, in many European countries, cash is king, so you likely will need that physical currency. However, just wait until you get there, and then hit up the nearest ATM. Don’t take out a ton of cash before you leave the states, because you don’t want to visit a currency exchange, even one in the country you’re visiting, and end up paying an exorbitant rate. Just use your debit/credit card and take out what you need from the ATM - you’ll get it in the local currency of whatever country you’re in. There might be a bank or ATM fee - but nowhere near what you would pay for a rip-off currency exchange in America.

Pack toilet paper

Bathrooms in Europe are a mixed bag; you never know what you’re going to get! In Dublin and Paris, I only encountered regular restrooms like the ones we have, but outside tourist areas, for example, French toilets might be accompanied by bidets instead of toilet paper. If you’re not comfortable with that, keep some TP in your pocket in case nature calls while you’re at a bar, restaurant, or cafe. And in Central and Eastern Europe, public restrooms often ration out toilet paper - and not in generous amounts - so that’s even more reason to BYOTP - Bring Your Own Toilet Paper!

PART II - Culture:

Learn some of the language

This isn’t mandatory in all countries. In Iceland and Germany, almost everyone under 30 speaks English, but in France, for example, not everyone does, and people generally appreciate it when you learn a few phrases of their language. It shows respect for their culture and a willingness to socialize a little bit on their terms. And in Poland or the Czech Republic, people have told me that some folks might not understand English words, so do yourself a favor and learn a few basic sentences of the language of whatever country you’re going to.

Don’t get offended

There are plenty of things you should pack, but please, leave your hypersensitivity at home! People in other countries have different values, and it’s rudely presumptuous to expect theirs to automatically be in line with your own. You’ll quickly learn that the “American way” is not necessarily the right way.
You may find restaurants serving the meat of exotic animals. You may find that religion isn’t very important or commonplace here. You may see sex shops and brothels. People may sit directly beside you on a train, or approach you and touch you as they introduce themselves. People may tell you there is no “vegan option.” And, as I have previously said on this site, many Europeans smoke. Take this all in stride and don’t get bothered by anything. Again, what’s different is not bad or wrong, it’s just that - different!

When in Rome . . .

. . . do as the Romans do. This is kind of an add-on to the above, but it’s also good advice. Don’t be a loud, obnoxious tourist. Part of embracing and respecting a culture is adapting to it. If everyone is quiet and polite on a train, don’t talk loudly or scream on your cellphone. If someone in a store says, “Bonsoir!”, don’t ignore them - engage with them! Don’t turn your nose up at a new or exotic food; try it, and you might enjoy it! Don’t complain about the values or customs of a country and say, “Well, in America, we do things this way . . . ” If you want to keep doing things the same way, go back home! But don’t be a complainer. I think you’ll find that assimilating into a place you’re visiting, and really getting to know the people and their way of life, will be the most rewarding approach you can take. So don’t make yourself stick out like a sore thumb, try something new!

PART III - Safe and smart:

Watch your things

In places like France, Italy, Germany, Slovakia, Iceland, Norway, etc., the level of crime is nowhere near that of the U.S. In terms of safety, these places are like completely different worlds. There just isn’t violence and danger there the way there is in America. That alone might shock you. And yet, all countries have their particular problems. For example, pickpocketing is much more common in places like Paris and Rome, and people are very good at it. The last thing you want to do is lose your passport or your wallet. So keep both in your front pocket(s) when in large crowds or on public transit, or else keep your hand close to your back pocket, checking periodically to make sure your stuff is there!

Avoid tourist traps

If you’re staying a few weeks in Paris, don’t buy your groceries three blocks from the Eiffel Tower. Go a little out of the way and explore the smaller neighborhoods. Not only will it give you more of a taste of the local culture, and challenge you to speak more of the language, it will also get you away from tourist traps! Just like with U.S. cities, European ones are designed to separate visitors from their money. So don’t be afraid to stray a little off the beaten path. If you lived in New York, you wouldn’t spend a lot of time in the middle of Times Square. So don’t let yourself get stuck in a tourist zone. Check out the small neighborhoods and the mom-and-pop stores. After all, you want to make sure you get the real deal; an authentic experience!

Stay smart

Remember that you’re not in America. You might not have some rights that you have here in the U.S. (and in some cases, you might have rights you don’t have back home!). So be careful what you do and say. Avoid heated arguments or political discussions if you think it might be a sensitive topic, or escalate into some sort of violent situation. 

You really don’t have much to worry about, because people across Europe tend to be so much nicer, more intelligent, and understanding than Americans, but even so, adhering to basic safety instincts never hurts. And don’t expect things like public drinking, brothels, or smoking weed to be legal everywhere! Not every place is Amsterdam! It’s true, many parts of Europe allow you to walk around with your beer anywhere, or visit red light districts, but that is not the case everywhere, so please, properly research a place before you go there and do something that could be incredibly stupid - and illegal.

PART IV - Final tips:

- Get the emergency number for whatever country you’re visiting (like 911 in the U.S., it varies depending on where you are - in France, for example, it’s 112), just in case you ever have any trouble.

- Get the address of the local U.S. embassy of the country you’re visiting. If you lose your passport or something else bad happens, where you’re stranded and can’t get home, you need to go here.

- Brush up on military time. Many countries still use it. So, for example, 15:00 = 3:00 p.m.

- Be aware of countries fraught with danger. I’m sure Ukraine is beautiful, but there’s a lot of political unrest there.
- Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw - don’t skip these cities! It doesn’t always have to be Paris or Rome!

- Going to another country just to eat at the McDonald’s is sad. Eat local and try local foods.

- Unless you’re in Germany, don’t expect trains to always be on time. DO expect random passport checks.

- Shops and places often close on Sundays and Mondays. Check times online before going to them.

- Some cities, like Berlin, are very vegan-friendly, but don’t expect it everywhere.

- If you stay a hostel or hotel and they ask you to give up your passport until the end of your stay, don’t be alarmed. This is common practice. You can ask the clerk if it’s possible to store your passport in an office safe if you’re really worried.

 - In places like France and Slavic countries, it’s customary for women to greet men and women with a kiss on each cheek (often just kind of an “air kiss”). This is not sexual, so do not take it as flirtation. It is just a greeting.

- Notify your bank before you leave for another country. Give them the dates you’ll be gone and, if possible, ask them to allow you to withdraw more money from an ATM per day, if you have a limit. These things will, a.) prevent the bank from flagging your card when it’s used in another country (a common security measure), and b.) never be stuck in a situation where you can’t get cash out when you need it. Also, I used to think this went without saying, but recent experiences have taught me otherwise: take ALL bank cards you plan to use! You must show them at a hostel or hotel where you’re staying.

I hope this has been a helpful blog post. It’s certainly been a long one. Thanks for reading!

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