How To Successfully Travel Overseas
1. Get your passport. If your current passport expires within six months of your expected departure date from the destination country, replace it now. If you have traveled extensively and your visa pages are filling up, get additional pages added now. Many countries will take up an entire page with their visa stamp or sticker.
2. Get your inoculations. Work with a travel clinic, they will know which are required for the destination you are headed to. These are expensive and may not be fully covered by your insurance. Check on the web or your Yellow Pages for travel clinics in your area. Some inoculations take as long six months for the entire regimen, so start this ASAP. You will receive a yellow international disease inoculation card that will be stamped and dated for each inoculation. This card is supposed to be required in some areas, but I've never been asked for it at any border crossing.
3. Research visa requirements. We used Travisa (www.travisa.com), a visa service company, for all of our visas. We found their service to be quick and reliable, even for visa-tough destinations such as Syria. A visa service firm will hand deliver your passport to the destination country embassy and walk it through the visa process. They work with the embassies every day, and know the ins-and-outs of each country's process. This is very much worth the service charge they add to the visa cost.
Most visas have a time limitation for both your time in the country and the time you must enter after the visa is issued. For instance, you may be limited to 90 days in the country and you must enter within 60 days after the visa is issued. Even though you have a limited window to enter the country, don't wait until the week before you leave to get the visa. Do it far enough in advance so that you can replace your passport if it gets lost. Use only a reliable courier service such as FedEx for shipping your passport to the destination country's embassy or the visa service.
4. Research your destination country. Buy a Lonely Planet or other travel guidebook. The Lonely Planet series is targeted to backpackers, and sometimes sacrifices objectivity for strident political advocacy, but it usually provides more in depth local information for off-the-beaten-track areas than the Group Tour oriented guides (Frommers, Fodors, etc.). Get at least two guidebooks for each country you are interested in, as each will have inaccuracies and gaps.
5. Do not blindly follow your guidebook. If you do, you are duplicating others' experiences. Try new destinations and be fearless in following your nose and being open to experiences and interactions. The farther you get off the beaten path generally the greater the safety and almost always the friendlier the people the more genuine the experiences.
6. Do not dress like a tourist. Avoid baseball caps, white knee socks, athletic shoes, shorts, and cameras around your neck. Wear subdued clothing. Dress conservatively, especially for women. Observe and respect local traditions and requirements for head coverings, long sleeves, dresses or outerwear, etc., especially in holy sites or religiously significant cities.
7. Be aware of and follow local customs. In conservative areas, do not make eye contact with the opposite sex and never, ever touch them. Know the local taboos on exposing the soles of your feet, using your left hand, etc.
8. Get out of your train/car/bus/truck. One of the reasons we traveled by motorcycle is that it was an instant ice-breaker and caused no end of curiosity and fascination with children and adults. If you are traveling by enclosed vehicle, you will be just another set of eyes passing by. Get out of your vehicle and interact with the local people. Visit local markets. Bargain for trinkets and mementos. Walk around and explore. Ask questions. Don't worry about language. Keep smiling, use hand signals, draw in the dirt, etc. In most places, you could buy a car not knowing a single word.
9. Learn the basics of the language. Thank you. Please. Excuse me. Good morning/afternoon/evening. The local toast. Don't worry about knowing how to ask how much the price of the train to Istanbul is. See #8 for how to handle anything beyond the basics.
10. Ask permission for photos. Always. Especially with children and women. This also applies to religious sites. Hold up your camera and point at what you want to shoot or make the universal shutter pushing hand signal. If refused, smile, thank them, and move on. No photo is worth hard feelings.
11. Leave a clean wake. No matter where you are, someone has already been there and there will be someone who follows you. Be polite, keep smiling and leave a legacy that makes it easier for the next explorer.
12. Carry at least one good, detailed, fold out paper map. Michelin makes excellent maps that cover the known world. Make daily notes directly on the map about what happened where.
13. Carry a journal and keep a dairy. Don't make this an obligation or you won't enjoy it. Some days, you are just too wiped out to write.
14. Leave your old world behind. Avoid calling home. Keep email to once a week or every other week or so. Avoid newspapers and television like the plague. It takes about a month to begin to separate yourself. If your term abroad is shorter, limit yourself to an email or phone call back home to tell everyone you made it OK and make that the end of communication with the outside world until you step onto the plane for home and pick up a paper. The amount of growth and change from the experience is inversely proportional to the contact you maintain with your normal world.
15. Take off your cultural goggles. The most challenging aspect of travel to other cultures is to experience them and their people without filtering everything through our cultural norms, expectations and standards. In some cultures, it is normal for 45 year old men to have sex with 12 year old girls. No matter what you may think of that, it is normal there. How can you share a lunch with one of those people, the man or the girl, and learn anything about them if all you can think about is the fact they may be sleeping together? In other cultures, it is normal to beat animals severely. How can you learn about that farmer or that village if all you can think about is how the animal is suffering? Steel yourself, take a deep breath, count to ten, and work hard at not judging other people by your standards. Go there to learn, not to stand in judgment.
16. Don't let fear rule your experiences. Crime and danger are dramatically over-rated. In traveling to 36 countries I have experienced two instances of crime. With a few simple precautions, you can nearly eliminate this concern and focus on learning about your destination. If you are in tourist areas or tourist attractions, be aware of your surroundings and of who is next to you. Keep your valuables and some U.S. cash spread out in different places. Use a money belt and keep your passport, some local and U.S. cash, travelers checks and one credit card in it. Never access your money belt in public. Avoid carrying a billfold if possible. If you do carry one, keep it in a zippered pocket. Avoid obvious camera bags. Use neutral or dark colored backpacks with no or very small logos. If you are carrying and using a valuable camera, consider yourself marked and act appropriately paranoid. Use a locking net over your camera bag whenever you leave it in your room, which should be never. You cannot make yourself thief-proof, my billfold was pickpocketed in China from a zippered pocket with a Velcro flap. Your goal is to make yourself less of a target than the next tourist. If you look like a more challenging or poorer target than the next tourist, you are less likely to be a victim. This seems callous, but it is the law of the jungle. As in the jungle, you don't have to outrun the lion, you just have to outrun the guy next to you. There will always be victims, but they don't have to be you.
17. Use ATMs. Unless you are traveling to the remote developing areas of the world where we've spent a lot of time, there will be ATMs available. Bring along a few hundred dollars of traveler's checks for emergencies and at least two Visa or Master Cards that you can draw local currency from at an ATM. Avoid debit cards, as they are often not recognized in more remote areas. Get a little cash out of the ATM when you need it and don't carry a bunch of cash unless you are headed out into the bush. Things don't cost much in developing areas, so you won't need to carry a ton of money. When my billfold was stolen, it contained about a year's earnings for a typical Chinese laborer. I was carrying way too much cash and was stupid about how I went about it. I deserved to get robbed.
18. Obtain overseas medical insurance coverage. For a nominal amount, you can buy a medical policy that will provide care anywhere in the world and even fly you home on a medical ambulance jet if required. It's a good investment.
19. Obtain an international driver's license. These are issued from your local AAA (automobile club) and are very inexpensive. They are good for a year. Be sure to include the motorcycle endorsement if you are licensed for that in your state. Even if you don't plan to drive, they make excellent supplemental documentation since there are a wide variety of languages included on the cover page. In addition, circumstance may present an opportunity for independent travel with a rental car or vehicle, and the license may be required.
20. Make copies of all documents. Before you leave, make two color copies of the photo page of your passport, inoculation card, domestic driver's license, international driver's license, the front and back of each credit card you are taking, your airline tickets and receipts (if paper tickets) or confirmation email, receipt & record locator number if an electronic ticket, any and all hotel room confirmations, rental car confirmations, tour confirmations and itineraries, local guide and contact information, travelers check stubs and the carnet, title and registration of any vehicle you are shipping to the destination country. Leave one copy of everything in a safe place or with a trusted person. Take one copy along and secret it away in a very safe place (inside the lining of a suitcase, inside a hidden zipper compartment, etc.).
21. Take along at least six extra passport photos. These are often required for special visas, passes for restricted areas, etc.
22. Leave a copy of your travel itinerary with a trusted friend or relative. Make sure it includes contact information for each hotel and any tour groups or guides that you plan to use.
23. Consider K&R for truly dangerous places. If you are going to a particularly dangerous place, i.e. one known for banditry, political unrest, kidnappings, etc. you may want to consider K & R (Kidnapping and Ransom) insurance. Rent the movie "Proof of Life" to learn how this insurance works. I've used it. It is very expensive, but can provide some peace of mind for some destinations. After what we learned in traveling to some of the world's "most dangerous places," I probably wouldn't spend the money for it again. The world is about 180 degrees different than what you'd expect from watching TV and reading Western media. Places you'd expect to be horrifying, such as Syria, turn out to be among the world's friendliest and most welcoming destinations.
24. Travel to learn. Avoid political debates. Don't try to impose your standards, beliefs, cultural norms, prejudices, etc. on the residents of your host country. You are there as a guest, not on a mission to impose your point of view. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen, watch, observe. You will be enriched by what you are taught by your hosts. If you long to change them, lead by example. Set new standards for compassion, understanding, tolerance, sympathy and patience.
25. Become a slave to habit on location of items and documents. Put everything in the same place EVERY time. Develop a habit of patting yourself down EVERY time you leave a cab, bus seat, train seat, restaurant table, etc. Confirm: local cash, credit card, money belt, passport, camera. Do it EVERY time. Put your camera battery charger, batteries, memory cards, etc. in the same place EVERY time. Put your journal in the same place EVERY time. When you take something out, put it back as soon as you are done with it in the same place EVERY time.
26. Practice everything before you leave. Pack up what you plan to take and live out of it for a couple of weeks. Wear your money belt. Carry your camera. Wash your clothes in your bathroom sink and hang them from your travel dry line in the bathroom. Write in your journal. Do email in an Internet café. Does everything work? Do you have power adapters for all chargers? Will you need a cube tap or a household extension cord (both highly recommended)? Is your money belt comfortable? Do your walking shoes fit comfortably after they are broken in? Do you have clothes you can layer for different temperatures? Do you have adequate rain gear? A small umbrella? Does your internet account work seamlessly for email? How will you send pictures? Do you have a small ziplock or a variety of small pockets for collecting stamps, etc.? Do you have a dirty clothes bag? Do you have small toiletries? Do you have a small English to local language dictionary? If you haven't repacked at least twice, you haven't done enough testing.
27. Take only bags that have wheels. The only exception is a backpack, where the wheels and handle add unnecessary weight.
28. Prepare yourself to find a different world. The real world out there bears little resemblance to what you see on TV or read about in the Western media. It is very possible that you will see and experience things that will be misrepresented, skewed and filtered in news reports you may read or see in U.S. or European media. This will happen in just about all media, regardless of which end of the political spectrum it panders to. Your first reactions will probably mirror mine: anger, disgust and frustration. If you get the chance to interview working journalists, as I did, you may learn that if they want to keep their jobs, they must submit stories that align with and advance their newspaper's or network's social and political agenda. You will forever after likely cast a jaundiced and skeptical eye on TV and newspaper reporting on anything beyond sports scores.
29. Take along critical items in developing areas. If you can only use a certain soap, take enough for your trip. If you need a certain type of disposable battery, take enough for the trip. Don't assume you can find something as common as alkaline batteries, they are unknown in many developing areas.
30. Prepare for grim restrooms. If you are going to developing countries, you will experience some unspeakable restrooms. Bring your own toilet paper, as none exists there. In many countries, developed or undeveloped, toilets consist of a hole in the ground that you squat over. In developed counties it's made of porcelain.
31. Take along medications. Bring common cold remedies that you know work for you. Bring large amounts of ibuprofin or other anti-inflammatory medications. Have your travel clinic or family doctor write a prescription for a broad spectrum antibiotic. We've had great success with Ciprofloxin (Cipro) and won't travel without it. Make the prescription large enough to cover two or three extended episodes. Get prescriptions for other common needs, i.e. yeast infections, etc. Make copies of the prescriptions and bring them along. Very importantly, DO NOT remove the prescriptions from their prescription bottles. NEVER carry prescription medications outside prescription bottles that are made out to you. Drugs are taken very, very seriously overseas. You do not want to end up in a foreign prison because you wanted to save four cubic inches by mixing all your prescription meds in one aspirin bottle.
32. Obtain global inland marine property insurance. This insurance covers all of your cameras, video camcorders, etc. wherever you are in the world and is very low cost. Make sure you provide receipts, serial numbers, etc. to your insurance company and obtain, in writing, specific coverage including a list of the covered equipment.
33. Buy quality clothing, equipment and accessories. There are no stores to buy replacements for inferior products where you are headed. Buy quality goods that will endure the rigors of travel. Better to take fewer quality items than more marginal items that will fail.
34. Go fewer places, stay longer. Americans tend to travel like we live our normal lives, with way too many destinations, stops and activities crammed into each day. Plan to do no more than one thing per day. Visit only one site per day. Visit fewer cities, regions and attractions, but the ones you do visit, stay longer. Explore more, learn more and go deeper than you ever could if you were skimming along with "only an hour to see the temple because we've got to see the waterfall on our way to the sunset at the beach."
35. And most important of all: Take Less Stuff. The fun you have will be inversely proportional to how much stuff you drag along. One small to medium size duffel is enough for six months of travel. Two to three changes of travel clothes (made of material that dries overnight, see www.exofficio.com for examples) are enough. One pair of comfortable hiking shoes is all you will need. One fleece jacket. One waterproof jacket & pants. Three to four travel fabric t-shirts will be enough. Four to five pairs of socks and underwear made from travel fabric are adequate. One bag per person, plus a backpack. No bigger than a medium duffel bag. Every cubic inch of stuff beyond that reduces your fun, rewards, growth and adventure by a factor of two. Your rewards do not come from dragging bags on and off trains or up narrow staircases to upper floor rooms. They don't come from worrying about all the valuable stuff you left in the hotel room. They come from exploring your destination and interacting with the people. Less stuff = more learning, more growth and more fun.
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