The great thing about travel is also what makes it scary: there are so many unknowns. It can be a lot of fun to wonder about how you’ll manage the different languages and confusing currencies, but it’s also nice to know you’re well equipped to handle the many challenges of going abroad before you leave home.
Before traveling to a foreign country, it’s a good idea to inform yourself about the people, their language, and their culture. Knowing something about the food & drink, health issues, safety concerns and, ahem, facilities will also help you cope once you arrive. Destination topics covered here include permission issues (visas, passports) and activities you might undertake during your journey. The big budget busters are covered under accommodations, transportation, and packing while a discussion on our most important resources, time and money, round up the What to Expect section.
If travel was only about looking at buildings, scenery, and art museums, you could probably do it by opening a good book or watching a movie. But you’d be missing the key element of meaningful travel: people.
That’s often the reason why travelers are unsatisfied with all-inclusive resorts, tours, and cruises: They return not having had contact with local people and cultures. It’s the people you meet, the experiences you share, the local foods you taste, and the art you see them create that makes the time and money, jet lag, and all the other discomforts of travel worthwhile.
The two factors that make the biggest difference in who you meet and the type of experiences you have are your attitude and the amount of time you spend in any one place. If you don’t stay long, you’ll likely only meet other travelers. When you stick around a while longer, you might get to meet and have some interaction with the service staff (waiters, housekeeping, taxi drivers, etc.). But it’s only when you hang out for an extended period of time that you get to know the local residents and can get a feel for their culture.
Of course, if you want to get a sense of the culture beyond the superficial layer presented to tourists on souvenir t-shirts, you need to learn a few words of the local lingo. Even learning to say hello and thank you—just enough to show you’re trying to break the language barrier—is appreciated and, in some cases, enough to begin strong friendships.
Start by learning a few words and practice saying these out loud until the words no longer sound, well, foreign to you. Then create a cheat sheet with a few key phrases, such as “hello” (or variations of it), and if you’re brave, “goodbye,” “please” and “thank you” (remember your manners), and “where’s the bathroom”? Next, get yourself a good phrase book and a language dictionary.
You know you aren’t seeing the real culture of a country when you’re in a market and all the goods for sale were produced in China (unless, of course, you’re in China). Or all the arts and crafts are machine-made and are exactly the same in every shop.
Unfortunately, it’s gotten harder to find authentic cultural events and crafts in most countries—but it’s still possible. Look for organizations that work with local communities to revive indigenous cultures, as well as government-run institutions/museums, and universities that study and preserve these cultures before they’re lost. The best museums and institutions tell stories in ways that inform and entertain, and manage to do so while respecting the culture.
Tourists are generally exposed to dance and music shows that are artificially staged and put together for their pleasure—not for the community. Sales of arts and crafts focus more on salability than on what local artists want to create and, as a result, skewer the availability of goods toward cheap replicas.
Some people travel to taste the best food in the world while others just hope they’ll be able to find at least one thing they can eat.
The world has become so small with so much sharing of cuisines that it’s not unusual to have pizza in Vietnam or hamburgers in India (well, chicken or lamb burgers). And, we as boomers have grown older and have tried many more foods than we did in our youths, it’s become easier to find things we like when we travel abroad.
You can expect to find a wide variety of places to eat almost anywhere you go. Tourist areas have the biggest number of restaurants—from American fast-food joints to fine dining—and these are usually the most overpriced.
As you become braver with your years of travel, you’ll find yourself moving away from the tourist ghettos to where the locals eat. That’s where the food is better as is the value for your money. You’ll also get a much better sense of the foods typical of the culture.
It’s pretty rare that travelers end up in a region or a country where there aren’t good hospitals, clinics, and doctors. That type of traveler usually knows exactly what he’s getting himself into and is prepared to take the risk. What may surprise you is how many countries have medical care that’s superior to what we have at home—sometimes at a lower cost.
You should also know that in many countries pharmacists can provide you with the medications you need without you having to see a doctor. But be aware that prescription and over-the-counter medications you’re familiar with will likely have different brand names abroad, so it’s important for you to know the generic names.
There are two types of safety issues: those you can do nothing about and those you can prevent:
- Natural disasters (such as earthquakes, typhoons, tornadoes, and hurricanes) can happen anywhere, but there’s not much you can do, except maybe having an emergency kit ready and taking a first-aid course. Additionally, the odds of anything happening while you’re traveling are very slim.
- Preventable incidents (including the majority of crimes, accidents, and fights) can be avoided or, at least, lessened if they do happen. You can avoid most crimes by keeping your valuables at home and out of sight when traveling. Minimize accidents by taking care where you can not to be the cause of them. Avoid misunderstandings and arguments—or at least keep your cool—as these can easily turn into confrontations and fights.
The first strange toilet I had to use was in the bush as a kid. In fact, it wasn’t a toilet at all—just a log and some leaves. During my world travels, I often looked back wistfully at that strange toilet and wished I had that choice once again. But the truth is that for all the strange facilities in the world, if you arm yourself with a little knowledge and your own toilet paper, you’ll survive anything.
Most facilities are exactly (or close enough) to what you have at home. I classify toilets in three categories: Western World, Eastern World, and Wild World. Western World toilets—what we’re used to in the Americas, Australia, and Europe—are the kind you sit on and flush. You’ll find these almost everywhere around the world—even campgrounds have pretty nice facilities now.
Even though Western World toilets are used in much of Latin America, Asia, and in older European cities, the municipal infrastructure can’t always handle toilet paper, so it’s often disposed of in the wastepaper basket and not in the bowl. Western toilets are also used in most of modern Asia and Africa—at least in tourist hotels, restaurants, and department stores—as well as in homes.
Eastern World toilets are a porcelain bowl embedded into the floor with a foot rest on either side. You place a foot on each of the foot rests, squat on top of the bowl, and while facing the door (this isn’t always obvious), do your business.
Wild World toilets encompass the absence of any fixture on which to do your business: In other words, a hole in the ground or floor with sometimes bricks or something to stand on (sometimes not) and no plumbing whatsoever.
Here’s a very brief description of the many information sources on destinations available for you to use in your research.
- Guidebooks: Written in a very positive manner to get you to buy the book.
- Travel media: Primarily designed to sell ad space to the industry, these include magazines, newspaper sections, and television and radio programs.
- Traveler internet blogs and websites: Composed by people who aren’t necessarily good writers or professionals, blogs are simply personal trip diaries.
- Destination websites and travel brochures: Designed to get you to travel to specific destinations, these are marketing tools and should be treated as such.
- Government and non-governmental organizations: It’s always a good idea to look at both (or more) sides of any issue, and these organizations balance each other to give a more complete picture when reviewed together.
- Those who’ve been there: People bring their biases to their travels, so they’ll give you advice based on their own experiences—good or bad.
- Non-travel media: These sources need to be supplemented with other information, but they usually provide the most current and easily accessible information on a wide range of issues.
- Local residents: Inhabitants are favorite sources of info as they know stuff that isn’t listed in travel guides.
Every country has a process to check your identity and decide whether or not to allow you in. While the technology has become more sophisticated, the steps themselves haven’t changed much:
- You fill out a form: Give your name, address, date of birth, in-country destinations, port of entry (airport, border entry, etc.), and carrier (airline, etc.).
- Pay a fee: Sometimes this is included in your international airfare. Fee amounts vary based on a number of factors, including nationality, as these are reciprocal (if your country charges $150 for tourists to visit, you’ll probably be charged the same amount).
- Show your passport: The passport must be from your country of birth/citizenship, be current, have sufficient blank pages, and be signed in order to be valid.
What are you gonna do? Some people want to lie around for a few days of decompression and then party, party, party. Others go hiking, exploring, shopping—non-stop the whole time. We all have different definitions as to what constitutes activities. You can expect that:
Pretty much everything will cost more if you’re in a tourist spot (so bring extra money or make sure you have enough in your bank account). Activities in tourist ghettos are often twice as expensive as elsewhere, but these places may be better monitored for safety and some activities may not be available anywhere else.
The choice of accommodations is far greater than most travelers realize. Many limit themselves to hotels and the occasional bed and breakfast. But because this is often the most expensive item in a travel budget it pays to look a little further afield.
Hotels: From large international chains to small mom and pop operations, the choices run the gamut from grand to gross. Many are overpriced, especially considering what they offer, while others present terrific value.
Bed and breakfasts and inns: Often cozy, sometimes over-decorated, these are known for character (as much as the architecture, the hosts and guests) and can either be expensive or a good value.
Hostels: Sometimes these provide the best deal you’ll find anywhere when you can find—as we did in Iguazu Falls, Argentina—one with a swimming pool. As “My Cousin Vinny“ would say, they aren’t just for “youts.” For the most part, these are clean, fun, and inexpensive, and many offer rooms with private bathrooms.
Vacation rentals: Apartments or lofts that include a kitchen, laundry facility, and several bedrooms are great if you’re staying for a week or more.
Home exchanges: People can swap houses through online clubs, so both can enjoy a vacation at a lower cost.
Farm or home stays: Stay at a family home or farm where you get the opportunity to see how they live, farm, work, etc.
Camping/cottages: Pick up a tent, mattresses, and sleeping bags, and camp your way across a country.
Service organizations: Cultural exchanges at low or no cost can be had through groups, such as Servitas, which match individuals who stay with their hosts for a couple of days at a time.
Couch surfing: I don’t know if many boomers are getting into this (staying for free at a stranger’s house), but it has become so popular among youths that websites now exist to match host couches with surfers.
So much attention in the travel media is paid to air transportation that most people don’t even consider other forms of getting around. True, much of the cost of a trip will be allocated to getting there—and that will likely be by plane—but once you’ve arrived at the country of your destination, STOP: Consider not taking a second flight. Try a train, bus, or other way to get to your final stop. Often, these provide better alternatives in terms of price and certainly in terms of experience. You see more of the country and have more one-on-one experiences with local folks.
A few things to expect:
Air: In North America, Europe, and with large international carriers, the sooner you book, the cheaper the airfare—but not always. There’s no consistency in booking airline tickets, which is part of what creates so much confusion.
Also, keep in mind that the way airlines operate in the Western world isn’t necessarily the same in the rest of the world. For example, some airlines in South America, Africa, and Asia charge you the exact same price for a seat whether you book one day, one week, one month, or one year in advance of your flight. And smaller, regional airlines often have lower airfares and more convenient schedules.
Rail: Trains are great in developed countries with high-density populations (Europe, China) but aren’t reliable in underdeveloped or mountainous regions (much of Africa), and are expensive—if existing—in areas with small populations (western Canada).
Roads: Buses come in various classes, with first or tourist class usually having air conditioning, sometimes food and drinks, and video (with or without headphones).
Listen to your mother: Don’t leave packing to the last minute. It’s much easier if you plan and start ahead because chances are you don’t have everything you need for your travels in your closet and medicine cabinet. You need to consider more practical clothing than what’s in your closet, and all those toiletries need to be transferred to travel-sized bottles.
The advantages of travel clothing over your normal clothes are that it doesn’t soil as easily, cleans and dries much quicker, is lighter weight, and rolls up much smaller for packing. As for toiletries, though the brand names will likely be different, you’ll be able to buy almost all the same products elsewhere.
People with a lot of time on their hands find it much easier to travel because they don’t have to pay the premium time-crunched travelers do. That’s why so many retired or semi-retired boomers are finding that their money can take them so much further now. They’re free to travel during the off season, take advantage of specials as they come up, travel at a more leisurely pace rather than rush everywhere by plane, travel further away without worrying about having to be back, and even add a few extra weeks when they find a place they like.