10 Things Students Should Know When Traveling Abroad
Written by Vivian Hughbanks
Passports are the most exciting things. They get you into strange and wild new places. They allow a smooth welcome back to the United States. The stamps and visas are like a “collect them all” for the nations of the world. Here are 10 things to know when planning your next overseas trip.
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1. Book cheap and go with the flow.
Traveling is expensive. I am poor. This is why I compare several booking search engines to find the rock-bottom-cheapest option, and book it—regardless of how many connections, how long it takes, or what airline is offering.
Ukrainian International Airlines has been ranked the third-worst airline ever—I’ve flown Ukrainian, and it’s not as bad as you might think. Any flight can be quite comfortable if you bring a neck pillow, snacks and a water bottle, and something to do in lieu of entertainment until you fall asleep.
Also, make sure you bring your student I.D. Most places in Europe offer discounts for students. Learn how to say “I’m a student,” pop that thing in the window, and enjoy the savings.
2. Don’t bring too much.
If you want to turn your travel experience into a strength training program, pack a large suitcase and duffel bag to their limit and knock yourself out.
Otherwise, think carefully about what you are able to comfortably carry for seventeen city blocks and multiple train connections. Then think about the cost of shipping things back home if you bring too much. If you fly, you have a 50 lbs. weight limit—and baggage fees are expensive.
Remember: everybody where you’re going has to survive too. If you forget something, you can probably find a substitute at your destination.
3. Know several words or phrases in whatever language they speak in your destination.
Many places on the average “to visit” list—Paris, Rome, London, Berlin—are touristy enough that you can get away with speaking only English. But if you plan on going to remote villages or seldom-visited lands—Ukraine, for example, where the only languages spoken are Ukrainian and Russian, and all the signs are in Cyrillic—not knowing key words or phrases can get really awkward, really fast. Even knowing as little as “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and the characters associated with “men” and “women” are enough to survive.
4. Try to blend in.
It’s practically impossible not to have your “American” showing sometimes. Still, labeling yourself as a loud, rich American who’s waiting to be taken advantage of just isn’t smart. People will take advantage of you if you let them. Don’t be that loud girl speaking English on the bus. And do a little research about what to wear. If you’re a woman and you don’t have your head covered in some Ukrainian churches, priests may run after you with a scarf. You don’t want a priest running after you. Wear the scarf.
Also, no one outside the U.S. except tourists wears fluffy grandpa sneakers.
Apparently, though, fanny packs are making a come-back. From frumpy to gaudy, I’ve seen them all over European department stores. So wear those babies with pride.
5. If you’re staying at a hostel (which you should), bring your own towel.
Jumping between hostels and finding yourself constantly staying among strangers can be wearying. Bring a towel to hang on your bunk bed for a little extra privacy. Since most hostels charge a fee for renting a towel, it’s convenient to have one anyway. I recommend the quick-drying microfiber ones.
6. Know your destination’s understanding of time.
If you’re ever meeting anyone on your trip, the local understanding of punctuality suddenly becomes important. For instance, if your plane lands in Nairobi at 4 a.m. and you plan to meet your host in arrivals at 4:30 a.m., he may not be there precisely when you arrive.
In many societies, “meeting” at a given time actually means “start preparing to meet” (i.e. leaving the house). Just know before you get there if you should plan on getting a cup of coffee to wait, or if you’re expected to be right on time.
7. Talk to strangers.
I’ve eaten dinner at a Berlin festival with a man from Cameroon. I’ve watched a lion eat its breakfast with a Qatar Airlines stewardess and her Polish boyfriend. I’ve cooked an ostrich egg in Kiev with a girl from Texas and a guy from the Netherlands. I’ve cooked an Italian dinner in Kenya with a medical student from Argentina. I’ve shared a room with a girl from Paris who’s making a living with her juggling skills.
Strangers are cool. Ask them where they’re from and what they’re doing.
8. The world is generally safer than people make it out to be—but don’t be stupid.
I once took a self-defense class with a former member of a Puerto Rican gang. He always said, “If they can’t get near you, they can’t hurt you.” Keep your distance from sketchy-looking strangers.
Also, keep your distance from the sketchy parts of a city (like gang territories) when you go out roaming alone. There’s nothing more stressful than accidentally walking through the red-light district of a strange city alone in the middle of the night.
9. Whatever you do, don’t loudly and publicly criticize the culture you’re visiting.
Whilst caravanning back to Nairobi after a safari, I met a loud and proud tree-hugging vegan feminist from Australia. She complained about Kenyan time and Kenyan food and Kenyan mannerisms for the entirety of the two-hour trip. Don’t be this person.
10. It’s probably not bad, just different.
The differences between America and other cultures aren’t bad changes, they’re just different. Travel is an adventure. It’s a time to grow, expand your comfort zone, and exchange cultures with people around the world.
And if you wake up one day to discover you spent the night in the same room with a spider the size of your hand, it’s cool—welcome to the world.
Vivian Hughbanks, ’16, is a politics and German major from Signal Mountain, Tennessee, and a member of the Dow Journalism Program. Fueled with coffee, she de-stresses by cooking and forcing food on anyone in close proximity. She tries not to get lost (and fails regularly), and occasionally jumps into lakes for no reason.