After living/studying/interning abroad for a number of weeks in two different countries outside of the U.S. in about a year’s time, I’ve often been asked how I went about preparing for each trip. I’ve decided to write a blog entry with some things to consider if you are planning on living or studying outside of the U.S. for a month or more.
- Research– I can’t seem to stress this one enough. If you are planning on spending an extended period of time in a foreign country, it is definitely important to have basic knowledge of a country so that you can develop an even greater understanding of the country by the time you finish staying there. This can be as easy as reading a country/city guide online or finding one in a bookstore or your local library.
- Things to research – Try to learn some brief history about the country as well as what kind of government it is under. It’s also nice to know basic facts such as the capital city or what types of food are common to the country. Also find out if the water is safe to drink – While I was in Italy, I learned to only drink bottled water because the tap water was not safe to consume. It’s also good to know what kind of currency the country you are going to uses and what the conversion rate per U.S.D. is to help you budget effectively.
- Clothing – Not every country dresses the same way as Americans do. Although America is a diverse country, everyone dresses differently from place to place. It is good to know what the common attire is for each day. Part of this includes knowing what to expect in terms of weather. For example, in my time in Italy, there were places where you were not allowed to enter unless your shoulders were covered and your pants covered your knees. I also highly recommend having one or two comfortable pairs of shoes for your trip because you are most likely going to be doing a lot of walking.
- Packing – Most importantly, regardless of where you travel, pack light. If you can’t pick up your suitcase and carry it around the block comfortably, you packed too much. Remember, you should leave room for souvenirs you are most likely to purchase. In some countries, elevators are also not as common, so if you can’t carry your suitcase up a flight or more of stairs, you packed too much.
- Language Barriers– Both of the countries I’ve been fortunate to spend time in required me to deal with a language barrier. Remember, English is not the primary language in every country. Because you are a visitor, it is important to try to take the time and learn some key phrases before going to a country. I realize that it can often be impossible to perfect your language skills before a trip, especially if you have never had the chance to take a class or take part in a program that teaches the language.
- Learn to ask if a native speaks English – This handy phrase is great in case you get lost or just want to know general directions. But what if the person doesn’t speak English?
- Learn to ask “in what direction is”? rather than “where is…” – Although it is good to know how to ask “where” something is, if you don’t have a grasp for the native language, you may not understand the response the person you asked gives. If you ask “in what direction” something is, the native is more likely to point or give you simple “left or right” directions. I’ve found this to be a very handy way to get around my first few weeks when my language skills may not have been as strong.
- Learn key phrases – Knowing how to ask where the bathroom is as well as food terms (especially if you are allergic to something) are very beneficial. Although you may find some restaurants that have menus in both English and the native language of the country, this is definitely not always the case. It is good to know enough basic terms to be able to order something in a restaurant, for example.
- Take a quick class or use a language program – Before I went to Spain, I hadn’t taken a Spanish class in five years. To help me brush up, I bought a program called “Instant Immersion” which is like a much cheaper alternative to Rosetta Stone. I found it incredibly helpful as a way to learn many basic, key phrases in about three weeks time that I found very useful during my first few weeks in Spain before I got to take another class. Several program like these exist and many are inexpensive. There are also apps for smart phones and tablets that serve the same purpose.
- Remember, the language barrier goes both ways – Sometimes a native may not understand what you are asking simply because of the way you pronounced a word in the native language. It’s the same way we as Americans may have difficulty understanding the slang from Northern regions of America to Southern regions. Practice pronunciation!
- Maps – Maps are wonderful tools and I highly recommend acquiring one when first entering a foreign country; however, use them with caution. Unless you want to stick out as a tourist, which depending on the time of day and location you are in can be very dangerous, avoid opening maps in public where every person around you can obviously tell you are lost. In some foreign cities there are people who look to scam tourists out of money or other things and it’s a big tip off for them if you appear as an obvious and lost tourist. My suggestion is studying maps in your free time while you are in home stay, dorm or apartment and trying to memorize the streets that lead to the place you are trying to get to. This way, you won’t even have to pull out a map, though, just in case, carry it with you in your bag. If you need to pull your map out on the street, try to go inside a store or restaurant for a moment and look at it there, or ask a native for directions.
- Purses/Wallets/Bags – I highly recommend investing in a bag/purse you can wear over your shoulder and in front of you. For men, avoid putting your wallet in your back pocket because it is very easy for a pick pocket to come and snatch it when you least expect it, especially in a crowded tourist area.
- Sight Seeing – Finally, it’s great to make a to-do list of sights you want to see during your time in the foreign country of your choice. By making a to-do list, you can have time to plan out when and how you want to go about visiting the sites. Some places require reservations and others offer discounts on certain days. If you are a student, always ask if there is a student discount (take your University student card with you, or get a student card from the program you are with), you will be surprised at how much you may be able to save! In my time in Spain, I learned that some museums are free to the public on Sundays and almost every museum is free on the first Sunday of each month.
I hope these tips are helpful and wish you the best of luck on your travels! Remember, I am in no way a travel expert but these are some things I did to help me prepare and be successful in my recent travels. Visit Italy Blog and/or Spain Blog if you are interested in reading about the things I encountered on my trips abroad.
If you have any questions, leave a comment below! Best wishes!