10 Travel Tips for a First Time Traveler

1.  Do Not Exchange Money Before You Leave

You may think you’re being proactive by going to your local bank and “buying” some of the currency of the country you’re headed to, but this is costing you a pretty penny.  Normally, banks and the currency exchanges you see at the airport have awful exchange rates.  Instead, wait until you land at your destination and look for an ATM at the airport.  You’ll get the foreign currency at the much better interbank wholesale exchange rate.  And, if you have a debit card that reimburses international ATM fees, such as the Charles Schwab Investor Checking Debit Card, you won’t have to pay any ATM fees!

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2.  Get a Good Credit Card for International Travel & Use It Wisely

First, get a credit card that does not charge international transaction fees (which, in some cases can be as high as 3% on every foreign transaction!).  If you’re not certain whether your credit card charges these fees, look at the terms and conditions or call the number on the back of your card.  Next, when using your credit card while traveling, you’ll often be asked or prompted by the card reader machine whether you want to have the amount charged in your home currency (for example, USD for us,) or the foreign currency.  Always choose the foreign currency option because choosing your home currency involves an additional conversion and small fee.  Finally, be prepared to pay cash, as many places still do not accept credit cards.  Bonus note:  American Express is not as widely accepted as Visa and Mastercard.

3.  Buy a Good Camera & Rainproof Camera Bag

You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a Leica, but try to buy the best camera that you can reasonably afford.  You’re investing the time and money to go somewhere great, and you’ll want to capture it so that you can enjoy and remember it for years to come.  You’ll also want to buy a rainproof bag or backpack for your new camera to keep it safe from the pop-up rain shower.

4.  It Is Okay to Wear Comfortable Clothes & Tennis Shoes

We are consistently surprised by people who haven’t travelled (or haven’t travelled in a while) and assumed that you cannot wear tennis shoes in Europe or other places.  That’s not true.  While you always want to be respectful of foreign cultures, you should feel free to wear comfortable clothes and shoes, as you’ll be walking all day.  For the places and countries that are more conservative in their dress than the United States (such as Europe and Asia), we’d recommend that you forgo wearing clothes that show a lot of skin.

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Slippers Provided for Use at a Temple in Kyoto (They Didn’t Fit…)

5.  Get Up & Get Out Early

Jet lag be damned!  Even though you’re on vacation, try to set your alarm for around when you would get up for a normal work day and get going.  Pop in to a local cafe, point at the pastry you want, and get an espresso.  Enjoy the streets and sights while they are less crowded.  You don’t have to do this every day, but try it at least once for a different experience and perspective.

6.  Check For All-Inclusive Attraction & Transportation Passes

Many cities and countries offer a wide selection of passes for tourists and visitors for attractions and transportation.  For attractions, the passes normally cover all the major tourist sites at a discount versus purchasing tickets individually and normally allow you to skip the line.  For transportation, there are normally options for varying lengths of time (1, 3, 7 days, for example), and the pass will save you the time and headache of purchasing individual tickets for every journey.  Sometimes, the attraction pass includes some type of transportation pass, such as subway or bus.

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Train to Arashiyama in Kyoto, Japan

7.  Read Up On Local Customs and Culture

You don’t have to become an expert on all the local customs; however, it’s a good idea to know the basics so that you don’t look silly and don’t make others uncomfortable.  For example, in Japan, it’s disrespectful to hand things, such as money and credit cards, to people; instead, you should place the item on the table or on the tray.  These “dos” and “don’ts” can normally be found in a guidebook, or you can find it online.

8.  It’s Okay to Go to Starbucks/McDonalds/KFC/Burger King

Sometimes you just need food – food that you recognize.  We actually try to go to one McDonalds in each country we visit because we’ve found some interesting items on the menu that we don’t see back home, such as a side of fried shrimp in Prague.  We wouldn’t recommend eating at one of these establishments every night, as you should be exploring other places, but, as a fallback, don’t feel ashamed.  In fact, there are probably more locals in there than foreigners!

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Starbucks in the Rain in Yuyuan Gardens, Shanghai, China

9.  Slow Down & Take It All In

You’re finally there – gotta go see everything on your list!  We always fall victim to this mentality.  It’s a product of wanting to see everything, planning for so long, and knowing you may never get another opportunity to come back.  Every person’s stamina is different, but after days upon days of pushing yourself to the limit to see as much as possible, you’ll eventually crash and be uncomfortable.  What helps us slow down and better enjoy our time is going through all the attractions and noting which ones are “must see” versus “would like to see” and making an itinerary ahead of time.  This helps set our expectations as to what is possible on any given day.

10.  Once You Are Bitten By the Travel Bug…

The world is a huge place, and, somewhat ironically, there’s no better confirmation of this than traveling around the world.  You will realize that there are millions of people around the world going to work, going to school, partying, and living life while you are sleeping back at home.  With few exceptions, the first taste of international travel ignites a fire of curiosity in people where they want to continue traveling in an attempt to satisfy it.

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