The Business Rusch: International Travel Tips Part Two
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I’m going to touch on a few things that people said in the comments section, but I’m not going to reiterate it for you. There’s just too much good stuff. Take a peak, not just for the advice, but for the great stories as well.
Last week, I discussed the things you should do as you’re planning your trip. I started with what you should do the moment you know you’re going out of the country (passports, etc), and I barely got past buying your plane ticket, and the considerations you should have there.
I’m still in the planning stages of our fictional trip. So bear with me. Remember, too, that I often travel alone to do research or to explore a city. That’s the perspective I’m taking here. I’m also talking from the point of view of an experienced traveler to folks who don’t travel as often, but please note that I haven’t been one of those airplane warriors depicted in the George Clooney movie Up in the Air for more than fifteen years now. I don’t travel constantly, although I know some of you do. There are some tips in the previous comments section from truly frequent travelers. Look those up. They have great advice-including how to sit on planes, shortcuts through the airports and other fun things.
I’m going to assume you have your plane tickets. Now let’s talk about the actual time you’ll spend in the country.
As I mentioned in an early blog post, “A Lawsuit Waiting To Happen,” even subtle things are different in other countries. Things as simple as the distance between stairs or the placement of a light switch.
The guidebooks I told you to buy last week will tell you some of the important things, like how to get help in an emergency, but they won’t tell you a lot of other things-such as how to hail a taxi. You heard me. It’s different from place to place.
In Paris, for example, you don’t stand with one foot in the street like you do in New York, arm raised. You wait at a designated taxi stand. You can stand in the street and you might get a taxi, but chances are you won’t. There are taxi stands on most corners in the touristy part of the city, but they’re very hard to find in residential areas. In that case, Parisians who don’t take public transport (my editor was one) has a taxi company on speed dial. And taxis in Paris, just like taxis in New York and Chicago, either don’t go to certain parts of the city (the dangerous ones) or they charge you a lot extra to do so.
My guidebook for Rome warned me that not all cabs there were sanctioned and legitimate, but I realized after I’d landed at the airport, the guidebook didn’t tell me how to tell the difference between “sanctioned” cabs and unsanctioned ones.
Fortunately, I’m a talker, and I encountered a woman during our interminable wait for baggage who was an ex-pat from the U.S. She’d lived in Italy for more than a decade. I overheard her talking to her kids on the phone (in English) telling them she would be home soon, and I watched her buttonhole someone in baggage claim to get the entire process expedited. So I asked her which cabs were safe and which weren’t.
And she told me, without hesitation, how to recognize a sanctioned cab, and complimented me for asking. It was a good thing I did, because a few days later, one of the Americans in our hotel told how his cab driver from the airport held his bags hostage and wouldn’t hand them over unless the American gave the cab driver 200 Euros. Which the American did. My travel companion and I had a discussion that day, and we both realized we would have let the damn cab driver keep the bags for that amount of money, since we had kept our important bags (with passports, etc) at our side.
Small details, but important ones. You can’t plan for all of them, but you can do a few things to help you with your stay.
Before You Leave Home, Continued
1. Plan Your Itinerary. Not to the minute, but vaguely-two days in Leipzig, four days in Nuremberg, four more days in Leipzig. Figure out how you’re going to get from one place to another.
2. Travel Away From Home. First, realize that driving isn’t always an option. In fact, in some countries, it’s not an option at all. It can be dangerous, taking you to places you don’t want to go. You might not be able to read the road signs (see below). In some places it’s easy to drive. The guidebooks will help with that. There are tips in the comments section of the previous post on how to get an international driver’s license, something you’ll want if you plan to drive while away from home.
Figure out what the public transportation is like in the city (ies) you’re going to. Most cities have some form of public transportation, even here in America where we’re not known for our public transportation, but find out if it’s amenable to tourists. You might be better off hiring a guide (through certified organizations) to drive you around.
Most European cities and towns have great public transportation. They’re also very walkable. Bring good shoes.
As I mentioned in my travel articles, the trains in Europe are spectacular. It’s easy to get from one place to another-although, because trains are trains are trains, you might not always get somewhere on time. Plan for that.
For some reason (which I haven’t figured out) it’s cheaper to buy a train ticket for Europe while you’re in the United States. You can save anywhere from 30-50% off your ticket, sometimes more. I was able to buy first-class tickets for the Chunnel here in the U.S. for less than the price of a cheap seat if I bought the same ticket in Europe.
The German train tickets I had allowed me to print up the tickets in advance, which was a good thing. Even though the ticketing website had an English section and even though I received a 15-page e-mail filled with instructions in English, the one thing that did not have anything in English was the ticket itself. Which told me which car I was in and what seat I had. There were numbers, but not obvious ones. And the car, seat, and train numbers were labeled with abbreviations, which didn’t allow me to take it to some translation program. Instead, I took the ticket (which I could print out) to a friend who is fluent in German and he told me the pertinent information, which I then wrote down.
I knew what I was doing and where to wait, which was helpful-except for that bewildering moment in Nuremberg when the station made an announcement about my train (in German only) and everyone except the English speakers and one other woman fled the platform. Fortunately, that woman explained that the train was late and everyone else was off to catch a local (indeed, most of them reappeared on the other side of the tracks at a different gate moments later).
Which brings us to the next thing to plan for….
3. Language. You can’t learn every language of every country you’re going to travel to (no matter how much I want to!), but you can learn how to get around. I spend the months before I travel listening to language disks (or MP3s)-mostly when I’m on the treadmill or doing dishes. Ten minutes a day really helps. Even if you’re not good at languages, you get used to the sound of the language and that helps a lot. The other nice thing the language disks do is explain some of those subtle differences I was talking about above.
That really saved me in Leipzig when the night receptionist at the front desk of my hotel spoke no English at all. I spoke enough German to make myself understood. I managed to get a wake-up call, but I would have gotten it at the wrong time if it weren’t for one of the language courses I had spent some time on. It taught me that Germans don’t say “6:30″ to indicate half past the hour. They say “half-seven.” Germans who speak English know that we count the half hours differently, but those who don’t…don’t. I also learned, via the language disks, that Germans use what we call military time. Half seven is 6:30 a.m. Half nineteen is 6:30 p.m.
Learn enough of the language to get around. Helpful phrases-greetings (not always “hello”), “I don’t speak [language] well,” “I’m sorry” “I don’t understand” “excuse me” and “Do you speak English?” Learn how to say all of those things politely. One night at dinner, I tried out my father’s favorite phrase in German and everyone laughed. The English translation isn’t rude at all, but in German, apparently, only children (badly schooled children) say that. (I tried out a bunch of family phrases and that was the only one that bombed.)
In last week’s comments, Dayle Dermatis mentioned that you should learn some phrases in the country’s language, and she included “Where is the bathroom?” A good question to ask, but make sure you understand the answer. I asked something similar on my first trip to France, when my French was rudimentary at best, and the torrent of words I received in response were utterly meaningless. My blank look led a waiter to put his arm around me and lead me out of the restaurant into a dark alley. Just when I was tensing up for a good loud scream, he opened a door. The bathroom was in a separate building at the end of that alley. He left me alone to contemplate the idea that asking the right question isn’t always as important as understanding the right answer.
It’s a lot easier to learn languages now than it was ten years ago. You can download MP3s, take language classes online, and find apps. The apps are particularly wonderful—they’ll not only speak for you, but they will show you the words that they’re speaking.
The problem with a language app is that it needs to access the internet to work. If you don’t have a data plan on your smart phone, then you must rely on wireless for this feature to work. I had back-up apps and couldn’t use any of them because the places where I needed the app didn’t have wireless and in the places that had wireless, I didn’t need the app.
Hearing the language was enough for me in countries like France and Italy because I find romance languages easy. But I had trouble in Germany because, although my parents spoke the language and I refreshed my knowledge of it before I left, I never dealt much with the written language.
I mention in the travel blogs the trouble I had with menus. I had defaulted to my old ways-learn the words for chicken, beef, pork—not realizing that German descriptions of food are very different from say, French, descriptions. A French menu will tell you that you’re getting chicken sauteed in butter with onions and carrots. A German menu will tell you what part of the chicken you’re getting with a completely different word. Not “chicken breast” but something else entirely. That ended up being confusing, and I had to do some extra work to make sure I got the food I wanted.
Languages that don’t use the same alphabet we do are even harder. This is why I say that you can’t learn every single one. In some places, it’s really better to go on a guided tour or hire a guide—from a company that’s certified, not just the recommendation of a friend.
One final thing on language. If you have allergies, like I do, write them down in the language of the country and keep that information in your purse/wallet. I am allergic to seafood and iodine and a few other things, but the one that catches me the most is nutmeg. I learned how say “allergic” and point. Pointing works well. Point to the item on the menu, point to the thing you’re allergic to, and then use the word “allergic.” Waiters will help by shaking their head or shrugging. If they shrug, order something else.
And if you’re allergic to medical things, consider a medic alert bracelet just for your trip. Doctors all over the world are taught to look at them.
Finally, one last thing on language, and that has to do with…
4. Hotels. Hotels with a three-star rating and above in most countries have multilingual staff. Multilingual staff means that someone on the payroll speaks English. In the larger cities, most everyone speaks English. In smaller cities, sometimes only the day manager does.
If you’re at a four- or five-star hotel, most people speak English. So book accordingly.
In the past, you used to have to rely on your guidebook to find hotels. Now you can cross-research them all over the internet. The last four hotels that I stayed in and loved, I found on the internet and none of them were listed in my trusty guidebook.
Here’s what I do. I look only at three-star and above (making sure the ratings are what I expect for the country I’m going to). Then I go to various places like Expedia.com or Hotels.com, and read about the hotel from people who stayed there recently. Read the good and bad reviews. Sometimes the good reviews tell me to stay away.
For example, I like my privacy. So a good review about a hotel that says it’s just like a B&B and you’re expected to socialize, is not the hotel for me.
Remember, though, that some people get disgruntled by everything, so take a few of the negative reviews in stride.
Once I’ve finished looking on those sites, I go to the hotel’s website and read about the hotel from its own point of view. I also look at where it’s located. Sometimes you can actually see the hotel on Google Earth and that helps a lot, particularly if you’re walking, like I do. I wanted a hotel right in the center of Nuremberg’s old city on this last trip, and I found a good one (which I ended up recommending).
Doing all that work has led me to three hotels I would return to if I return to those cities-one in Paris (which I will go back to because I love Paris), one in Rome (which turned into a real haven for me during a heat wave), and the one in Nuremberg which was utterly pleasant.
The hotel becomes your home base and if you’re in a good one, you’ll be reluctant to leave when the time comes.
One thing I look for now with any hotel that I book in Europe (and in the U.S.) is wireless capability. Many charge for it in Europe or have it as part of the room price. (Breakfast is often part of the room price as well-and European breakfasts have not disappointed me at all, even in cruddy hotels.)
Since I’m online a lot when I travel, wireless is important to me. Also right now (I’m sure this will change), a hotel with wireless is a hotel that caters to business customers and that usually means the hotel is used to people from different cultures coming through.
The mention of wireless brings us to something else you need to prepare before you leave which is…
5. Your electronics. You’ll need adapters for every country you go to. Now you can buy adapters at the airport if you need to, but don’t do that. Buy them before you leave. You can get an adapter kit that will take you to every country in the world for about $30. I special-ordered one that’s custom made for my laptop a few years ago and that turned into an amazing purchase. Even if I can’t plug in my phone because the adapter’s wonky, I can plug in my laptop-and then plug the phone into the laptop.
Download Skype before you go and learn how to use it. Put your loved ones on Skype. There are other internet phone services as well. I’m not sure which is the best, but practice with a bunch of them. If you have a good wireless connection, you’ll be able to use that instead of your phone much of the time.
Because the hotel in Leipzig was old Soviet-era concrete, the wireless there only worked in the lobby and hallways near the office. I spent a lot of time in the hallway using wireless and talking to my husband (as one of the other convention-goers said) “like a lovesick college girl.” But it was nice to have the connection.
Figure out how important an internet connection is to you and plan accordingly. For example, a friend of mine whose entire business is on the internet took a cruise a year ago and discovered that their “connectivity” was both expensive and unreliable. She hadn’t researched it and wished that she had.
Most people don’t need a lot of connectivity. But, everyone wants to stay in touch so they should bring their phone. Which leads to…
6. Phone Issues. On Twitter this week, someone tweeted a guy’s blog post about his $1700 iPhone bill for going to Canada for a week. I read the post. The guy bitched that he couldn’t get AT&T to refund his money, even though he hadn’t used the service.
The problem is that he had. He had just assumed that Canada was like the U.S. He had left his data roaming on and AT&T had charged him.
In the guts of my iPhone (under Settings/General/Network) is a little slot to turn data roaming on and off. Beneath that, it says “Turn data roaming off when abroad to avoid substantial roaming charges when using email, web browsing and other data services.” In other words, that’s what this guy didn’t do, and that’s why he didn’t get a refund. His phone actually warned him to do so, and so AT&T wasn’t liable for his mistake.
I’m sure other smart phones have similar toggles for various data plans. Familiarize yourself with your phone before you take it out of the country.
Two months or so before you leave call or visit your cell phone provider. Dean and I went to the local AT&T store because we both have iPhones and talked to the manager there about the upcoming trip. We needed to know if we had to change our phone plan. I wondered if I needed to buy overseas data roaming and they talked me out of it (due to cost), telling me to go wireless.
The manager also explained cost-saving measure of the various plans, such as this one tip. If I wanted to reach Dean, it would be cheaper to text him (at 50 cents per text) and have him call me, because our plan made it cheaper for a call from the U.S. to Europe than the other way around.
A word of warning: back when I had Verizon as a service provider, I called and asked the same questions, getting incorrect answers. Repeatedly, even as the Verizon service provider tried to sell me more product. Eventually, I found out the truth about Verizon’s nonexistent service to the country I was traveling to, but after I had renewed my Verizon service contract. So I had to get a second phone with AT&T to actually have coverage. It was a several-hundred dollar lesson, and one that makes me insist you double-check information you receive from your service provider in the months before you leave.
Another thing you must do before you leave is…
7. Contact Your Bank and Credit Card Companies. In a laudable effort to prevent fraud, your debit/credit card providers need to know when you’re traveling or they will shut off access to your card, assuming that the charge from Romania is, indeed, fraudulent. Let your bank and credit card companies know the dates of your trip to prevent this. Talk to someone in their overseas department so that you learn the limits of your cards. (See Michael Armstrong’s point about ATMs in last week’s comment section.)
On my call in August, the bank not only wanted to know the dates of my trip, but where my layovers were for my flights in case I got stuck in one of those cities—which I did.
8. Cash. I live in a small town. If I want exchange dollars for euros, it takes my local bank at least a week to get the money. I generally change the money at the airport on my way to the other country. Not the best system, but it works for me. I know that airport currency exchanges are expensive, so I only change enough money to last me a day or two (or until banks open-that information is in your travel guides). Then I change the rest while overseas.
Money is easier now than it used to be as well. Credit cards are accepted most places, including remote places. If you have enough money for a taxi or for bus fare, you can usually get to somewhere that will take a credit card, and you’ll be fine.
There are ways to save money on the currency exchange, but they’re too elaborate to go into here. They also vary from country to country. Figure out what’s going on in your country before you go. And, um, try to figure out the coins before you go as well.
Since I live in a tourist town, I watch European tourists struggle with our money all the time. Our money is all one color. (Euros are multicolored, depending on denomination.) Most Europeans find our money very confusing. Theirs is pretty easy to learn. But when France was still on the franc, I had a heck of a time with the coins.
Be conscious of the exchange rate as well. A bargain isn’t a bargain when the currency is worth nearly two times our currency. Sometimes things are better purchased at home.
9. Buy the World’s Ugliest Suitcase. You’ll be happy you did. That way no one will walk off with your black bag thinking it’s their black bag. Mine is so distinctive, I can see it miles away.
When you pack, pack minimally. If I’m going to more than one place, like I did this last trip, I pack a duffel inside my big suitcase. I carry the duffel on the shorter excursions, leaving the big suitcase (without valuables) in the hotel that I plan to return to. If I’m not returning to a hotel, I sometimes bring cheap clothes and leave them behind, especially if I’m going to refill my suitcase with souvenirs or research material.
10. And Speaking of clothes, junk your jeans and tennies. Nothing says “American” like blue jeans and Nikes. And, unfortunately, “American”—to thieves and pickpockets in particular, but to many Europeans in general—means naïve and an easy mark. You’ll be targeted just by the way you’re dressed.
Yes, I know. Jeans are worn everywhere now. But most people in most countries dress up more than we do here in the States. (Or as my French editor once said to me, “Is there a reason all Americans dress like homeless people?”)
Wear business casual in places you would normally wear jeans and a t-shirt. Bring something dressy because you’ll probably need it. For women that means a suit or a dress, and for men, a suit with tie. If you dress up, you become less of a mark. And ditch the fanny pack. They’re easy to pickpocket, and they show that you’re an American tourist on vacation. Do your best to look professional and put together, and you’ll be (mostly) left alone. And you’ll be taken seriously by the locals as well.
11. Plan For Trouble. I mean serious trouble. What happens if all your money gets stolen along with your identificatin? What happens if you can’t get home for a month due to an Icelandic volcano? What happens if you end up hospitalized for two weeks like several friends of mine?
Leave a copy of your passport at home and carry another with you, just in case your passport gets stolen. Keep the emergency number for your credit and bank cards in a place other than your wallet, in case those get stolen as well.
Make sure someone knows where you’re going and when you’re due. Check in with that person, whether they’re in the States or in the country you’re traveling to. The government recommends letting the U.S. Embassy in that country know you’ll be there, although I must admit, I’ve never taken that step. It’s probably the right and practical thing to do, particularly when you’re traveling alone.
The key is for someone to know where you are and when you’re expected. This is particularly important for a person traveling alone. You need someone to blow the whistle should you not reach a destination, whether that person is in the country you’re traveling to or at home. Have a plan for that as well.
I could go on and on. Travel is supposed to be fun, but it’s better when you’re prepared. However, let me add one thing before I leave this topic, and it’s something that got mentioned in last week’s comment section.
If the planes are late, that’s part of the trip. If you miss your train, decide if you really want to take another one or if you want to stay where you are.
When I was in Leipzig, I dumped half the things I wanted to see because I had no idea how much musical history was in the city. I went to the historic Old Town Hall and looked at the exhibits there instead of doing a few other things.
Had I had the flexibility, I would have gone to all of the weekly concerts at Thomaskirche. I couldn’t go to any of them because of the convention, but that only made me want to come back to the city.
Often, on trips, I have stopped in a town I didn’t plan to go to. I had a baguette and cheese lunch in Nantes so that I could sit on a castle wall for an afternoon instead of going to various churches for sightseeing. Sometimes the moment is the most important part.
And the missed opportunities often turn into something memorable. I didn’t get into the Tower of London the last time I was in London because I arrived too late, but that enabled me and my travel companion to wander the grounds outside the Tower, something we wouldn’t have done had we had the chance to go inside. It was a lovely afternoon and we had a great time.
Those things make for good memories.
Just like talking to locals does. Don’t just answer their questions. Ask questions on your own. And then listen to the answers. You’ll be surprised at what you learn—and how much it will add to your trip.
The trip itself is what it is, from the moment you leave home to the moment you return. Things will go wrong, things will go well, and sometimes you won’t know the difference until the trip is over. The key is this: have a great attitude and you’ll enjoy yourself even if things don’t go your way. You’ll end up with marvelous stories to tell as well as an adventure you wouldn’t have otherwise had.
And that’s the point. Travel should be an adventure. Most of all, it should be fun.
I’m going to end this with the same request I made last week. If you have tips, warnings, or advice, please put them in the comments section. If you have some great stories to share, this is the place. We can all learn from each other, so I look forward to what you all have to say.
Next week, I’ll move onto other business topics. If there’s something you want covered, let me know. I’m about a month behind on various topics that I want to cover, but I’ll get to your questions eventually.
And if I’ve given you some good advice, entertained you, or helped in some way, please put a dollar or two in the tip jar below. That way, I’ll continue making the blog a priority from week to week.
“The Business Rusch: International Travel Tips Part Two” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.