This article was created in response to an Untamed Space subscriber sharing his travel goals. Thanks, Todd, for reaching out – hopefully you and all of my other readers find value in this piece, as well as the confidence to continue pursuing your passions.
Something that many of us dream about at some point in our lives, travelling abroad often ends up staying just that: a dream. For one reason or another, we make excuses that keep us rooted in the familiar and the comfortable – sometimes they’re good excuses, most of the time…not so much.
However, it’s undeniable that it can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially if you’ve never done it before. To help you on your way, here are a few travel hacks that we’ve learned during our multiple trips abroad over the years.
Before we dig into steps you can take to prepare for international travel, I thought it would be enlightening to share some information on how Americans are actually doing. How many have actually travelled abroad? How many have even left the state they were born in? The numbers might surprise you.
These stats were accurate as of May, 2019, but considering Covid related travel restrictions through 2020 and into 2021, they likely haven’t shifted much. According to a survey of 2,000 Americans (an adequate sample size), here’s what we’re looking at:
- 11% have never left the state they were born in.
- 40% have never left the country.
- Perhaps most surprisingly, 10% say they have no interest in going anywhere!
But it’s not like Americans don’t want to travel (76% indicated that they want to travel more than they currently do). So what’s holding them back?
Two things, primarily: finances and fear.
Travelling is expensive, especially if you’re going abroad where a plane ticket is basically mandatory, car rental or other transportation costs add up, and food can really drain your bank account. We’ll talk about tips for travelling on a budget later in the article.
In terms of fear, international locations can be scary to visit because of how different they are. Many feel unprepared for the experience simply because communication can be more difficult, local customs can be hard to grasp, and it’s easy to feel like you’re floundering around without knowing what to do.
If you fall into either of these categories, hopefully what you read next will give you the confidence to take a risk and step outside of your comfort zone.
Arguably the most dreaded part of international travel (especially for those who have never left their country of origin before), the language barrier is known for creating anxiety. Trying to communicate verbally isn’t so bad…a few well placed hand gestures, a lot of pointing, and a cocktail of facial expressions will usually get the point across. At least, it did for me when I visited Nepal not too long ago.
But what happens when there isn’t a live human being in front of you? Purchases for bus and train tickets are frequently done online, and if you go to a country like Japan, even the process of ordering food is often done virtually. After staring at the unintelligible Kanji for several minutes, you’ll probably feel like stepping out of the line to let the locals have their turn.
This situation is pretty common among tourists, and can be a big source of anxiety (not to mention embarrassment). So what can you do to prevent this cultural faux pas?
Learn It Before You Need It
There’s really no better solution than some good old prior proper planning. If you know you need to take a train on your trip, take some time before you leave to research the process. Google is your best friend, and if you’re more of a visual learner, someone has probably made a YouTube video about the steps you need to take.
The same can be said about language acquisition. Chances are you’re not hopping on a spontaneous flight to Brazil tomorrow, so if you know you’ll be travelling there two months from now, brush up on your Portuguese in the meantime. A couple of months (or weeks) is plenty of time to learn the important words and phrases that will see you through the most important parts of your journey. Download an app like Duolingo to guide you through this process, and you’ll be equipped with an adequate understanding of the new language in no time.
Use Google Translate
In case you didn’t know, Google Translate has an app that can help you translate the text in front of you. Once you’ve downloaded it, there’s a button called “Camera” on the main screen. Tap it, and it’ll pull up your phone’s camera like normal, with a box in the center that will tell you to aim it at the text you want to translate. The process is very simple, and the translation is usually accurate enough where you can understand what needs to be done. Keep in mind that printed text is much easier to translate this way than handwriting.
Don’t Try to be Perfect
While not really a tip to help you communicate with others, it’s important nonetheless. If you’re a “What If” person like myself, you probably run through certain scenarios in your head…
“What if I can’t read the menu at this restaurant?”
“What if I get lost and can’t figure out how to ask for directions?”
“What if there are multiple trains going in different directions and I have 60 seconds to figure out which one is mine?”
That last one is honestly the most stressful for me. Perhaps you felt a little anxiety imagining yourself in any one of these situations (or the myriad of other possibilities), and you let doubt start to creep in. Now your “What If” statements start to shift over to: “What if I can’t really do this?” or “What if I don’t know enough to get by?”
Fear starts to take over because you feel underprepared, and you end up pushing off the trip you’ve been dreaming about for years. Sounds pretty tragic, doesn’t it? As hard as it might be, you have to try and stop that “What If” train of thought from taking over. You’d be surprised by how many people visit a foreign country with no understanding of the language or how local customs work. If you know anything at all about the country you’re visiting, you’re already a lot more prepared than many travelers. Don’t let perfection be your standard.
Europe is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet. Aside from the natural beauty, culture, food, history (need I say more?), people love it because it’s incredibly easy to hop from one country to another. If you’re in Austria, it’s only a few hours in any direction to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Slovenia, Czechia, Hungary, Slovakia, or Lichtenstein. Yes, all of those countries border Austria, and yes, they’re all only a few hours away, depending on where you are in the country.
To make things even easier for locals and tourists, the EU has a vast transportation network to help folks get where they want to go. Expect to board at least one train and bus, if not several, if you plan on visiting Europe. Most of the time, it is fairly intuitive, but for added help booking tickets and figuring out what to do, here are a list of apps I’ve found helpful in the past:
- DB Navigator
- Rail Planner
- OBB Scotty
Once you’ve purchased your tickets online, you can generally download them to your phone and be on your way, which is incredibly convenient. If you’ve opted to get them from a kiosk at the train station, you’ll have a physical copy to hang onto.
With ticket in hand, make your way to the correct train station. Many larger cities have more than one station, so make sure you know where you’re going!
Now for the confusing part…finding your platform. It’ll likely be busy, you’ll see a lot of trains on different tracks, and the boards that tell you where to go can be confusing and hard to understand. Try to avoid looking for your destination on the screen, as that can be misleading if there are other stops after yours. Instead, check for the train number, departing time, and company to confirm that you’re heading in the right direction.
Once you validate your ticket (if it’s paper) at one of the kiosks before you reach the platform, it’s time to locate your train car and seat number if the train has reserved seating. Otherwise, just locate the correct class (usually first or second class) and sit wherever you’d like. Remember to keep your train ticket handy for when the conductor makes a pass through the cabin, and don’t forget to enjoy the views!
Try to Avoid Tourist Traps
As you might have guessed, I’m the outdoorsy type – if I’m going to travel somewhere, I’d like for most of that time to be spent outside in some capacity. Tourist traps like the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Great Wall of China, and so on have very little appeal to me, and I’m sure many of you feel the same way.
In the two decades that I’ve been travelling internationally, there’s a very simple rule that I try to follow. Live like the locals, not like the tourists. What restaurants do you see them visiting? What do they do for fun? Ask them what they’re favorite things to do are, where they like to go, and what they think you should do or see before you leave. Usually, they won’t point you toward the well known hotspots.
Even when I’m visiting different states in the US, I like to ask these same questions. To date, I’ve never been disappointed by the recommendations, and almost always feel that it was the highlight of the entire trip.
Traveling on a Budget
Money. One of the biggest reasons why people avoid travelling abroad, despite a lifelong desire to do so. Because let’s be honest…taking an international trip can be painfully expensive, easily breaking a couple thousand dollars for only a week away from home. If you’re on a budget, going abroad can feel like an impossible dream.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that travelling to another country can be cheap, there are ways that you can make it more affordable. We’ll take a look at the areas that tend to suck out the most amount of money, and tricks you can make use of to keep expenses to a minimum.
Depending on where you’re going, it can be really easy for roundtrip plane tickets to creep into a price range that will make you slam your laptop closed as you break out in a cold sweat. We’re talking anywhere from $700-$2,000 for one ticket, and many of you probably won’t be travelling alone! For a family of 4, that’s a minimum of $2,800 on the cheap end of the spectrum, and several thousand on the more expensive side. It’s easy to understand why more folks aren’t going abroad when it costs that much just to get somewhere and back.
Travel in the Off Season
Summer is an incredibly popular time to go places. Kids are off from school, the weather can’t be beat, and the thought of taking a vacation during this time is on everyone’s mind.
Which is the problem.
Because June-August tends to be a popular time to go places, prices are often jacked up across the board. As tempting as it might be, you’ll be better off visiting during the fall or winter if your goal is saving money. But hey! That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, the famous sakura trees in Japan bloom in March and April, which is something you would miss if you went in the summer. There are plenty of other cases where this is true in other parts of the world too.
If you’re wondering how this all relates to getting cheap plane tickets, keep in mind that when fewer people are travelling, prices tend to go down. The same can be said about airfare. When going anywhere, the off season is your friend, likely saving you several hundred (if not thousand) dollars in transportation costs.
Use Google Flights
Google Flights is one of my favorite tools for finding cheap airfare. It allows you to plug in your home airport and see flight options and prices to places all over the world on a giant map. To get the best price, there are two things you’ll want to consider:
Be flexible with the location. If you want to go to Edinburgh, Scotland but the prices exceed what you budgeted for, consider flying into Glasgow (assuming it’s cheaper). A rental car or other form of transportation will be able to get you to your desired destination from there without breaking the bank. This holds true for wherever you want to visit – find a cheaper flight to a location close to where you want to go, and take a train, bus, or car the rest of the way.
Be flexible with your timing. We talked about this already, but the off season is going to be your best friend. Airlines are smart, and know when people tend to travel the most, so they raise prices. Summer, Christmas, New Year, and other holidays are periods that I would not recommend travelling if you’re hoping to save money.
One of what I consider the Big 3 for travel expenses (transportation, lodging, and food), finding a place to stay can create a massive financial headache. It can be really easy to spend several hundred dollars a night, especially if you’re visiting popular tourist towns. To help cut back on these expenses, consider using some of these travel hacks.
Priceline is a company partnered with Booking.com, and is known for having incredibly cheap options for lodging. Their “pricebreakers” are especially handy when you’re trying to stick to a budget, though there are pros and cons. As you can see in the image above (which I took today), you can get a 4 star hotel in Munich, Germany for a measly $62 per night! If that isn’t a steal, I don’t know what is. I’m actually tempted to book it for myself.
The downside is that you can’t actually pick which of these 3 hotels you want to stay at – Priceline will be choosing for you. But if all 3 options look good like in the example above, it’s like playing the lottery where you have no choice but to win. However, from my experience with pricebreakers, once you’ve decided to book a location, you generally aren’t able to cancel your reservation and get a refund if your plans change.
Probably not the best option if you’re travelling with your family, couchsurfing can be a great way for solo adventurers to explore the world while enjoying free lodging. Yes, I did just say free.
Here’s how it works:
- Sign up on the Couchsurfing website.
- Once you’ve created an account, use the search bar to locate the city you’ll be staying in.
- Find a host in the location, and you’ll be on your way!
While couchsurfing is free, it’s generally expected that the traveler will bring a gift with them for the host. Be polite and respectful of the space you’re allowed to live in, and don’t forget to socialize – that’s one of the reasons why there are so many hosts willing to house a stranger for free. Many of them are world travelers as well, or ex-pats looking to stay connected with the travel community and what’s going on in the world.
Hostels aren’t for everyone, but it’s worth mentioning here as a cheap way to find lodging. Depending on where you’re staying, you can find communal living options in the $50-$100 range, if not cheaper in some parts of the world. For introverts like me, who don’t like sharing living space with strangers, hostels aren’t always an ideal option. But if you’re a social person who likes to get to know the people around you, this style of lodging may be to your liking.
If you’re an outdoorsy person, camping can be an ideal, cheap lodging option. Assuming you already have a tent, and you’re able to find a dispersed camping location, sleeping under the stars is free no matter where you are in the world. Of course, you will need to check a bag at the airport if you plan on bringing your camping gear, but that’s a small price to pay for avoiding hotel costs. I opted to go with this strategy when I was in Colorado recently, and across the 8 nights I was there, I only spent about $200 on lodging! A pretty good deal, if you ask me.
International travel tends to be an adventure no matter how many times you’ve done it, or how prepared you think you are. There’s a lot to consider, and this guide is by no means comprehensive; however, I do hope that you’ve been able to tuck away a few pieces of information that will help you as you plan your next trip abroad.
Don’t let fear or finances hold you back from chasing your dreams. There are ways to travel affordably, and steps that you can take to prepare beforehand to alleviate some of that anxiety and uncertainty. You’ll never feel completely ready the first time you go abroad, but trust me… You’ve got this!