If you’ve already seen my previous post with tips on getting ready for your first vacation overseas, you have your passport and money figured out. If you are still feeling a little nervous and unsure if you are really prepared for visiting another country for the very first time, here are a few more tips for your arrival.
Entering a Country
You’re off the plane and standing in a line with your passport clutched in your hand. You feel a little jittery. No real reason. You just aren’t quite sure what’s going to happen. Odds are, you’ll be called forward, the agent will ask why you are there and you’ll tell him or her. You’ll get a stamp on the passport and he or she will tell you to enjoy your stay. A few tips:
- Prepare ahead of time by knowing the country’s entry requirements. A great resource is the U.S. Department of State’s website, which tells you everything you need to successfully enter (and exit) a country. For example, after consulting the site, I know I will need to have a return ticket and enough money to enjoy my stay while I visit Iceland. I also know I can stay up to 90 days without having to apply for a visa unless I’ve already spent time in the last six months in another country that is part of the Schengen Agreement. (I can still visit, but need to deduct the prior stay amounts from the 90 days to figure out how long I can stay.) The site also reminded me that I need to be sure I have at least six months left before my passport expires and should be extra careful to receive both an entry and an exit stamp on my passport so any of my future travel plans to countries under the Schengen Agreement aren’t hindered by problems with my passport. I need at least two blank pages in my passport book for the entry and exit stamps.
- Have your passport and any other documents you need at the ready so you can move quickly through the line.
- If you plan on using a rental car, be aware that it may not be automatic. Many European car rental companies have cars with manual transmissions. In fact, we ordered and paid for a car with an automatic transmission in the Azores, but arrived to discover that the rental company did not have any!
- Gas stations may not be the 24 hour service stations you are used to. In many overseas countries, it is essential to have a credit card with a chip and pin if you are going to be pumping gas after hours.
- If you are in a location with decent mass transportation or other modes of travel, such as bicycles, you may want to consider skipping the rental car all together.
Hotels in Europe can be very modern and filled with amenities or they can be like staying at your grandma’s house. Check reviews beforehand if you want to be sure you have a specific type of experience. You will find, of course, that even the most modern hotel has its quirks – I spent a tense five minutes stuck in the dark in an elevator at one hotel because the elevator was under the impression it was empty and shut down to conserve electricity. However, you will also find that modern hotels tend to be more likely to have WiFi and other options that you are used to in hotels in the US.
- Bring an adapter so you can plug in and recharge electronics. Here’s the adapter I bought for use in Iceland. (Affiliate link) It does not work in the United Kingdom, Italy, or Switzerland, so I’ll have to use a different one during my next two trips to Europe.
- Ask about amenities. You may be missing out on something awesome. For example, when we talked with staff at the hotel we stayed at in the Azores, they told us they’d provide a bagged lunch at checkout because we were leaving before breakfast was served.
- If you are booking accommodations for several days or more, be extra careful about your research before booking. For example, there are hotels in the Azores that are at the bottom of terrifyingly steep roads we were thankful to never drive down again. We were really glad the hotel we did book was on a road that was easily navigated at night or on a foggy day!
Meals are one of the best ways to experience a new place. You can try regional delicacies and ask about their history. You will probably eat one or two dishes that will immediately remind you of that country for the rest of your life. So, what can you do to be sure you have the best dining experiences overseas?
- Bring cash. There are always one or two amazing little restaurants that accept only regional currency.
- Understand the basics of the language or have a translator, especially if you are not completely open to new experiences. Also, be aware that translated menus may not be translated accurately. (As we learned when one of our party ordered fried squid, only to discover he was enjoying grilled tentacles instead of calamari.)
- Ask people you meet what their favorite restaurant is. If two people mention the same place, you know you probably have a winner.
The most important thing you can do to stay safe in another country is to use common sense. For example, if you wouldn’t wander dark streets alone in your hometown, you shouldn’t do so abroad. A few things to keep in mind:
- What is legal at home isn’t always legal in Europe. For example, it is a crime to photograph police officers, the military and some buildings in Portugal. If you aren’t sure whether something is legal, you can check the U.S. Department of State’s website under local laws and special circumstances for that country and/or ask for help at the U.S. Embassy in that country.
- Keep your passports, credit cards and money secure. Pickpockets are an international problem. You may want to consider using a travel pouch that hangs around your neck or fastens around your waist or clothing with hidden pockets. Never put everything in one spot!
- Have a backup plan for if or when things go wrong. I leave a copy of my passport and other important information with someone I trust who is staying at home, as well as the local embassy’s number and an itinerary of my trip.
Soapbox Moment: People are people. No matter their culture, nationality, or religion, people are people. If you start your journey excited to meet new people and learn new things, if you remember to have empathy and tolerance toward those you meet, if you act as the guest you are in each country you visit? You won’t just have a better vacation. You’ll also have been a great ambassador for your country.
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