What to do while travelling abroad for the first time
It's happening. You're on your first international trip! The air smells different, the sky seems brighter, the architecture and streets are so different from what you're used to. It's new and exciting, but if it's the first time you're travelling abroad, it's also sometimes a lot to take in.
In this mini series, I hope to make your first adventure outside your home country a bit smoother. The first part focuses on preparing and organising visas, flights, accommodation and your travel kit before you leave home, and the second part (this one) is all about what to do while you're on your trip.
After multiple trips on five continents (most involving visits to a number of cities or countries), I've learnt a few tips and tricks which I hope can help you when you're travelling abroad.
Survive your layover
Whether you're taking a more affordable airline with multiple stops or going nowhere near popular flight routes, chances are you'll have time to kill in an airport somewhere while waiting for your next flight.
If it's a mini layover (2-3 hours), you can use the time to explore the airport, locate some food if you're hungry, splash your face with water in the bathrooms and settle down near your boarding gate with a book or your pillow. Audiobooks, podcasts, series and movies (pre-loaded from when you were at home) can help time pass more quickly.
If you're in for a longer stint, I recommend trying to catch some shut-eye. Because you'll be around for a while, it makes more sense to check in to an airport lounge if you have a qualifying membership or money to pay their fee. Otherwise you can investigate the areas around nearby boarding gates to see if they have comfier chairs or a space you can lie down out of the way of other passengers.
Try to put your more important documents and valuables (like your passport, wallet and phone) either in a small bag under your pillow (you brought a neck pillow, yes?) or somewhere close to your body under layers of clothing, so they can't be taken without you noticing while you're sleeping. Keep your carry on luggage close by too.
Set multiple alarms on whatever devices you have - phone, iPod, watch, tablet - to go off at least 30-40 minutes before your boarding time so you definitely wake up and have time to get to the gate. Make sure you adjust their clocks if you're time-zone jumping too!
If you're sleeping with headphones to drown out the sound of passersby, set the alarms on that device (and turn on vibrate too). You're more likely to be able to relax and rest if you're certain you won't oversleep and miss your flight. Always regularly check the notice boards for your boarding gate too - if you're in the airport for a while, it's possible it may change while you're sleeping.
Ask the locals for tips
Once you've checked in to your accommodation and recovered from the journey, chances are you're going to be directing all your energies towards your itinerary. While I definitely recommend planning out the sites you want to see in advance, there will often be an afternoon or few hours you have free.
Staff at your hotel or the local tourism office can be very helpful in these times, since they're likely to know about concerts, shows or events that may not have popped up in your research, or favourite spots the locals are fond of. They can also give you advice on attractions, tours or visiting certain areas, if you have concerns or questions.
It sounds simple, but just ask. I found a great day tour of Dubai and a lovely area to explore in Nice by asking someone when I had some free time, instead of researching online or wandering around aimlessly.
Take note of the sites you see and photograph
It's all great when your tour guide points out a cathedral or tells you the quirky story behind an ancient ruin, but chances are when you're looking at your photos a few months later, you've forgotten their names and details. Sure, you'll remember the big ones like the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum, but what was that sculpture with the horse called again?
I'd suggest taking down the names of things you're photographing in a notebook or on your phone, so you can research them later and answer questions your friends or family may have when they see the lovely images you've captured.
Try new tastes... but cautiously
Yes! It's the time to try real French macarons, Moroccan couscous, Italian pasta or Peruvian quinoa! But don't over do it. If in doubt, rather don't buy food from stores that look like they may have skipped a few hygiene checks or where items have been left out and away from a fridge for a bit too long.
It's not worth being sick for the next few days of your trip - or, if you find great food, overindulging so much you skip an afternoon activity so you can sleep it off.
Be wary of water sources too, especially if you're going somewhere rural - the locals may be used to it, but your body is accustomed to drinks from another part of the world. Try to buy bottled water if you can, or refill a bottle from a good source and carry it with you.
Develop an unpacking system
This may not be needed if you'll be staying in only one place, but if you're on a multi-city journey, things can get left behind or misplaced on the way. The way around this is to always put certain items in the same place, regardless of where you're staying, so you know where to look for them when packing up.
For example, perhaps you always put the lock for your bag in an inside pocket when not in use. Or your phone charger is always placed on the right hand side of your bed. Try to leave as much as possible in your bag, instead of around the room, to reduce the chance of wandering clothes and toiletries (they're sneaky things).
Try to speak the local language
What would you do if someone walked up to you and struck up a conversation in your second or third language? It's often the same for people you meet on your travels, especially if you're going somewhere that doesn't have the same home language as your own country.
Try to learn a few words and basic greetings in the local dialect - don't worry if you mispronounce them. I've found that shopkeepers, waiters, airport officials and the general person in the street are much more willing to help you out if you greet them or attempt to hold a conversation in their own language. It's fun to practice too!
Stay aware and be safety-conscious
While being pickpocketed or robbed isn't fun in any country, it's extra stressful if you lose the money or documents you need to get around in a foreign land. Even if the area seems safe and welcoming, it doesn't hurt to keep an eye out and avoid advertising the fact that you're a tourist.
Wear a cross-body bag (more difficult to snatch) or backpack with a lock when you go out, don't look at your phone too much while walking, and if you get lost, walk with a purpose so it seems like you know your way. If you're travelling in a group, set up a central meeting point for the day in case you get separated.
I'd also recommend splitting up your valuables - keep some locked up in the safe in your hotel room, others in an inside jacket pocket or close to your body, and some in your bag. That way, if something happens, you don't lose everything at once.
Take time out if you need it
When you're travelling abroad, you usually end up doing about 5000 more things in a day than you would at home. After a few days (or weeks) of jam-packed mornings, afternoons and evenings, you may get a little tired and feel like you need a break, both for your body and your mind.
This happens to everyone at some point, so don't feel like you're wasting an opportunity if you decide to have an early night, or take an afternoon off to sleep or people-watch at a park or café. Just take the time you need. Once you've had the time to rest and reflect on all the new experiences, you'll be more receptive to and appreciative of the activities to come.
Explore as much as you can on foot
My favourite way to see the world is by walking down alleys, through neighbourhoods and markets, and along interesting streets. Yes, in some countries or climates it may not work, but it's much more fun having that freedom of movement and the possibility of discovering something interesting around the next corner.
If you're moving from attraction to attraction, try to plan days where you visit some which are close together, and walk between them. Stop and grab some street food on the way, or take some time to sit on a bench or in a park and appreciate the fact that you are where you are, right at that moment.
Conquer the transport system
Depending on where you're from or where you're going, the means you use to get around on your trip could be very different from what you're used to at home. If there is a safe and reliable public transport system where you're going, learn how to master it.
If you're using a bus, metro or train, try to memorise the colour of the line you need to take and the end-points or terminals so you know you're going in the right direction. If you get on the wrong bus or train, don't panic - get off at the next stop or major station and find a route back. Some busses may not come to a halt at every predetermined stop - so check to see if you need to push a button to indicate to the driver that you want to get out at the next one.
It helps to pick up a pocket map of the metro or bus routes, and to screenshot the routes from the stop to your destination (before you leave your hotel room) on something like Google Maps, so you can refer to it later. While a new system in a new city (especially in a different language) can be overwhelming, it's a great way to build your confidence as a traveller and test your problem-solving skills.
Appreciate the differences and experiences when travelling abroad
You're going somewhere new - so no, not everything will be like it is at home. Some of the differences you spot may be interesting or refreshing, but others may surprise or disturb you.
When you're travelling abroad, it's easy to fall into the trap of comparing people, food, customs and cities to the ones back home. But remember, just because something is different to how it is in your country, doesn't mean it's always wrong. You're travelling to see a different kind of life, remember? Diversity is what makes it interesting.
Try to focus on the moments on your journey - the beautiful scenery, the delicious food, the time you found your way back to your hostel after getting horrendously lost. Sometimes, just by trying to be more present (instead of focusing on the past or what's next), we can see the value of experiences in a completely different way.
Looking for tips and advice on planning your first trip abroad? Take a look at part one in this mini series, which focuses on what to organise and plan before travelling abroad for the first time.
Featured travel kit: Neck pillow, triangle notebook, mint blue notebook, blue pen, camera luggage tag, polka dot toiletry bag, world map pin board: all Typo. Pink bag: Accessorize. Noise-cancelling headphones: Sennheiser.