If you were raised in a community with people who look, talk and act like you and you're traveling to a new country for the first time alone, this one's for you. You probably don't have that much experience feeling like an outsider. But for some reason, whether you've finally set out to meet some extended family members, scored yourself a work opportunity overseas, or just decided to travel abroad for the first time on your own, you've suddenly found yourself on a plane to someplace new. I recently found myself in a similar predicament. I was selected to participate in a travel journalism internship in Madrid, Spain and for the first time, realized that I would be traveling over 3,000 miles all by my lonesome. No parental unit or guide of any kind to give me any kind of instruction on my journey. But I made it there safely and had the time of my life. Here are some Do's and Don't's, some tips and tricks to help you be safe overseas and make the most of your experience.
1. DON'T be scared. The airport is not a haunted house.
They may seem daunting at first, but airports (international ones included) aren't that hard to navigate. A couple days before your flight, go online and search "how to navigate airport". Read through the steps a couple of times and familiarize yourself with where you need to go. Write them down and keep them with you as you venture through the airport to have as a reference point. And of course, don't be afraid to ask staff at the airport if you're ever confused or lost.
2. DO keep your wits about you. Please.
This all sounds obvious but I can't stress enough...look out for strangers, don't accept packages from people you don't know, keep your things nearby, keep checking the flight boards and stay alert. Kidnapping is more prevalent now than ever, and lost foreigners are a common target. This isn't meant to scare you off, just to keep you aware. If you look as if you know where you're going, chances are, people will leave you be. Make sure you know where you need to go in advance so you don't get lost and end up missing your flight, or worse. Also, be sure to keep your belongings in view at all times. We all know that losing things is no fun. As a part of your carry-on luggage, fanny packs to hold your phone, headphones, charger, passport, boarding pass and directions to your place of residence when you land are extremely helpful. Your belongings are on you at all times and you don't have to dig through a large messy backpack or purse to find anything.
3. DON'T do anything stupid.
Again, this should be common knowledge but some people just don't get the message.....don't you dare try to sneak that passion fruit-scented lotion in your carry on luggage at the airport. TSA Security will find it. They are all-knowing.
4. When you arrive...DON'T be afraid to be touristy.
Wear that fanny pack. Brandish that digital camera around your neck with pride and photograph EVERYTHING. Regardless of what's brought you on this journey, (work, family, etc.) you're in a new country. Embrace it. Visit the most well-known landmarks AND the lesser-known hideouts. Chances are, you'll never be here again, so be sure to get as much out of the experience as you can. Many of my friends who have travelled to foreign countries often lament that they didn't make the most of the experience because they spent too much time in their hotel or traveling back and forth between their internship. While I, myself, had downtime from my internship in Madrid, I made sure to embrace every aspect of the culture that I could. I visited as much of the city as possible, was sure to try new food every day and even took an art class. Get outside of the area you're staying in. If possible, plan trips in advance with Google Maps, so you know what means of transportation to use, what time to go and how much the trip will cost overall with transportation, food, museums, etc. included. Don't be afraid to explore. Suspend any disbelief you may have, and be as touristy as you can. But DON'T get mugged.
5. DON'T stare.
Growing up, we were all taught that it was impolite to stare, right? Well that rule comes in handy now more than ever. Of course you should feel free to take in your surroundings. But if you see natives of the country doing something that is unusual to your culture, such as wearing a unique article of clothing or jewelry that you've never seen before, try not to glare at them. They might mistake this for rudeness and, depending what country you're visiting, they may try to confront you about it. Take in whatever it is you're seeing, but don't make the locals uncomfortable for embracing their own culture. What you may perceive to be "weird" is a daily practice for someone else. If you're really curious and feeling bold, approach the local and ask them in a polite way about what they may be wearing.
6. DO try your hand at mastering the language.
If you're visiting a country with a language that is different from the one you speak, try to pick up a few words and phrases! While I was visiting Madrid, those skills I picked up many a years ago in AP Spanish came in handy for the first time since graduating high school. Per my last point about embracing culture, language is a key aspect of any country's culture. Let's say you have zero experience speaking the language. You're bound to pick up a few key words and phrases no matter what you do during your time in this new country. If you've taken some courses to learn this language and already know your way around it a little bit, now is an excellent opportunity to expand your knowledge and your vocabulary. And if you're fluent, obviously you're set and you can show off what a smartypants you are to your friends while ordering at a restaurant or asking for directions. Showoff.
7. DO take pictures, pictures and more pictures.
Photograph EVERYTHING. Take pictures of everything from the flashiest tourist attractions and landmarks to the hole-in-the-wall restaurant you find at 3am when you find yourself in need of a cheap snack. Take pictures of the sunrises, sunsets, the sunshine, the rain or the snowfall. Take pictures of the plane you're traveling in, the taxi you take on the way to your residence, the apartment you're staying in, the apartment's concierge. Yes, I said the concierge. Take pictures of the people you are traveling with and, most importantly, take pictures of yourself. You'll thank me in a few years, believe me. Years from now or even days after the trip, you'll want to have physical evidence of the memories you made. This will help you show others or remind yourself. Taking pictures on a smartphone is quick and easy, but if you have a digital camera, use that as well as the pictures will be of higher quality. Just make sure not to get mugged ;)