While most of our readers are experienced in international travel, all of us were newbies at some point, and barely knew an international terminal from a currency exchange booth. If you have yet to hand over your passport to a customs agent in your traveling life just yet, or if you have a friend or family member looking forward to their first international trip, we’d like to share a half-dozen important things to know before your first journey beyond the domestic terminals.
1. Learn the basics.
You don’t need to be fluent in the local language of your destination, but we do recommend looking up the four following bits of information before you leave home.
The currency exchange rate: Controlling costs is a critical part of travel for most people. Add to that the fact that a newly arrived traveler is ripe for scammers, price gougers, and tourist traps; knowing the cost of something in your own currency off the top of your head can save you from overspending simply because you don’t understand the price.
How to count to 10: Language can be extremely slippery across cultures, but numbers are mostly universal. Knowing basic numbers can help you when negotiating and keep you from having to hold your fingers up all the time, making you (again) a mark for scammers.
How to say “yes” and “no”: These two words are essential in almost any situation you might find yourself, but I have been astounded at how many travelers fail to know these before landing on foreign soil (myself included on a few trips). You might think you could get by with head and hand gestures, but the meaning of these can vary depending on where you’re traveling. Head nods or shakes are unreliable fallbacks due to cultural differences, as are the thumbs up and other hand gestures, which can get you in trouble in some places. Learn these two!
How to say “thank you”: Adding a “thank you” even to a firm “no” can go a long way toward maintaining good international relations. You can get away without knowing “please,” but might as well learn it when you look up “thank you.”
2. Until you have your bearings, you may want to do the less adventurous thing.
Upon arrival in a new country, you are vulnerable to all sorts of errors and bad choices. If you are feeling a little disoriented when you emerge from customs, you might consider using more conventional and less adventurous services than you might otherwise.
A good example is transported from the airport; taking an official but slow hotel shuttle, booking a taxi at the accredited (and often overpriced) “middleman” taxi booth or heading for an information desk that you would never even notice back home can sometimes help you avoid a really messy start to your trip. Once you’ve gotten your bearings (and perhaps slept off some jet lag), you can go back to being your normal, adventurous self.
The boom in “hop on, hop off” bus tours is another good option here, offering a combination of freedom and guidance that appeals to many travelers looking to familiarize themselves with a new city.
3. The visa process may be completely unreasonable.
The visa application process may be more complicated and time-consuming than you’d expect, but think of it this way: As complicated as getting a passport in your own country can be, take that imposingly bureaucratic process and add in another country with a completely different set of laws, with limited staff working from a single embassy office. Given these circumstances, it’s a wonder that it isn’t harder to get a visa.
4. Many international airports are massive and complex; plan accordingly.
You may think your own home airport is a pretty busy place, but the world’s biggest international hubs — including Dubai International, London Heathrow, Hong Kong International and Paris Charles de Gaulle — take it to another level, with thickets of terminals, customs checkpoints, re-check-ins and more.
For example, international airports in Europe often serve as routine connecting or layover airports for people coming and going from all over the world. People from Russia flying to the United States might connect in Amsterdam; people from the U.S. flying to Hamburg might connect in London; people from Argentina flying to Sicily might connect in Barcelona.
Or sometimes you’ll find yourself flying into a country’s major airport and then connecting to a smaller airport in the same country; this often requires that you arrive at an international terminal, then get yourself to the domestic terminal to catch the shorter flight.
Arriving at and specifically connecting at busy international hubs could require collecting bags and rechecking them, going through security, standing in line for passport control, and/or taking a train or a bus between terminals. Plan accordingly — and make sure you allow at least two hours for international connections.
5. The hotel manager is often truly running the hotel.
While most U.S. hotels are chains or franchises for which pricing, amenities, availability and discounts are centrally determined and administered, many international hotels are run much more like independent businesses where the manager is really in charge. This is especially the case at smaller hotels, but even at some chains, you will find you are doing all your business directly with the hotel manager. He or she can often haggle over price, throw in extras like breakfast and more. Emails to the hotel, calls to the front desk, reservation extensions, complaints — these are often all handled by one person.
You might also find that if the manager is not available or if you encounter a “be right back” message at the front desk, your issue or concerns might have to wait.
6. U.S. airport security is a special case.
Whether you’re a U.S. citizen returning home or someone visiting the States from overseas, the security process for entering the United States may be trickier than you expect. American airport security is always changing (sometimes frustratingly so). On one flight back to the U.S. a couple of years ago, I went through a security check three times: once to get into the gate area, once to get into my specific gate and once more immediately before boarding.
This isn’t that unusual, and it actually has its benefits sometimes; the second security checkpoint is often run by the United States, so if you’re lucky, you may not need to go through further security checks once you touch down in the U.S., as you are technically already “on U.S. soil” once you go through that second checkpoint.
This can also mean, however, that you can’t leave your gate area once you go through that second checkpoint; you’ll want to be prepared for this.