Whether you are mumbling terribly mispronounced words in a new language, eating Indian food with your hands for the first time, or being herded through public transportation stations in a foreign country… I am a firm believer that travel is one of the greatest teachers in the world. It’s one of the best ways to learn a language, experience cultures firsthand, relive history through museums and tourist sights, and most importantly, grow within ourselves.
My first trip out of the US—other than brief visits to Canada and Mexico—was to Tokyo, Japan in August 2010. I was only 20 years old and had dreamed of traveling my entire life. However, I truly didn’t know the first thing about traveling well! On that trip, I made several rookie travel mistakes and learned a lot about how I handle new experiences (and a bit of culture shock).
Now, as a much more experienced traveler, I can look back and laugh… And share the lessons I learned so that you may be spared from learning them the hard way!
1. Pack light
I packed WAY too much on my first trip! It was a 10-day trip and I took a giant suitcase, a carry-on backpack, and a huge purse. (Seven years later, I realize that I could probably fit my entire wardrobe in that suitcase now!) It’s been a long process learning how to pack light, but I can happily say that I have traveled for several months with just a carry-on suitcase and a backpack and I will never go back to my old ways. Having less baggage makes all the difference in your mobility, transportation options, free space in your room (international accommodations aren’t supersized like they are in the US), AND it is easier on your budget in many ways.
Trust me: You don’t want to be the person trying to lug a large, overweight suitcase onto the subway. If you’re traveling mindfully on a budget, taking public transportation and carrying your own bags is much easier when they’re light. The US tends to have escalators and elevators everywhere, but that is not the case in most countries. You will find yourself at the foot of many flights of stairs with no other way up than to push, pull, and hustle your suitcase one step at a time.
2. Pre-plan your travel to and from the airport
When I landed in Tokyo at the Narita Airport after a 12-hour flight, I was tired and a bit discombobulated to say the least. Add in the fact that everything is in a foreign language, it’s crowded, and I am just following the masses of people through customs and baggage claim—you get the picture, it’s sensory overload! I was so grateful that I had done my research and planned how to get to my hotel ahead of time. Even finding the transportation that I already arranged was a bit overwhelming, so I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to show up with no plan and just wing it the first time. Planning ahead also helps you find the best rate and compare options because sometimes it’s actually cheaper to take a taxi with a bigger group than it is to pay the bus or public transportation fee, or vice versa. At least doing some simple research of all the transportation options and their rates will save you money and protect you from getting needlessly overcharged.
3. Make a to-do list
Not an itinerary or just an ordinary to-do list, I’m talking about a list of your must-see sights. Depending on how long your trip is, you likely won’t want to waste any time at your destination doing research and deciding what to visit. As little as an hour of research to get an idea of what you would love to do and what you can pass on goes a long way. I do my best to do this before every trip while staying flexible with my list to allow room for suggestions from locals. Personally, I never make a set itinerary. I make a prioritized list and include any tidbits I find about best times or days to see each sight (i.e. if it’s free on Fridays or fewer crowds early in the morning). Then I have a general idea, but I can wake up every day and evaluate what I feel like doing.
4. Learn the local language and customs
I spent a whole month before my trip to Japan studying the Japanese language and customs. I love learning languages and being in the know about what to expect. This is actually really easy and doesn’t have to cost you a thing! I went to my local library and borrowed language learning CDs that I listened to on my daily commute and any other time I was in the car. (Remember: this was 2010, now you can borrow language learning audiobooks online without ever having to set foot in the library.) Many consider Japanese a hard language to learn, but I didn’t have to be fluent in a month, so I took on the challenge to learn enough to get by as a tourist. It was so helpful knowing how to ask for and understand basic directions, ask where the bathroom is, introduce myself, and say hello, thank you, and other everyday phrases. Just that little bit goes a long way! People are much happier to meet you halfway when you show that you are trying to speak their language. Most of the time, my best attempt at Japanese was met with a smile and a response in their best attempt at English.
On The Trip
5. Have plenty of layover time
This is the worst lesson to learn and believe me, I learned it the hard way. My flight itinerary involved flying from Phoenix, Arizona to San Francisco, California, then from San Francisco to Tokyo. Well, my Phoenix flight was delayed and my San Fran layover was not long enough to allow for a delay. I did my best, but there simply wasn’t enough time to collect our bags, transfer to the international terminal, check in, and make the flight before take off. Unless you have a direct flight or your connector is with the same airline, you have to plan for plenty of extra time for the transition from domestic to international. In my case, Japan Airlines only had one flight per day out of San Francisco, so missing it meant I had to rebook for the next day (thankfully at no extra cost because it was due to a flight delay), stay at an airport hotel, and lose a day off my time in Japan. Sometimes this is inevitable due to circumstances out of your control, but if you can plan enough time to do your best to avoid missing a flight, it saves a lot of stress!
6. Arrive early for your flight and go straight to your gate
The start of your trip is so important to the energy you create, and starting rushed or stressed on a travel day does not lend to the energy of a magical trip. With heightened security measures all over the world, everything takes way more time than it used to. When traveling abroad, there are often surprises like extra security checkpoints, not enough room for carry-on bags to make it on the plane, or flights being overbooked (that’s pretty common everywhere nowadays). Personally, I like to arrive two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight.
Grabbing a drink at the airport bar or browsing the books in the gift shop are popular airport pastimes, but you can actually earn big rewards for going to your gate right away. For my return flight from Tokyo, I happened to be at the gate early and the flight crew made an announcement asking for groups who wouldn’t mind an upgrade to business class because economy was overbooked. Free upgrade to a larger, reclining seat with more leg room for a 12-hour flight?!? Yes, please!! I jumped at the opportunity.
7. Handle jet lag like a pro
Jet lag does not have to be part of your travel experience. If you plan for it and prepare yourself, you can adjust to changing time zones very quickly. I learned a few tricks.
First, hydration is important! Drink plenty of water during your travels, especially if traveling by plane which adds to dehydration with the dry recirculated air.
Second, know when to stay awake and when to sleep. My rule of thumb is to stay awake when flying east and sleep when flying west. When flying east, it will be later when you arrive and you want to be tired and ready for a normal bedtime. When flying west, the local time may be the same or just a few hours after the time your plane departed despite having traveled for several hours so your body feels like it’s much later than it is. The extra sleep in-flight will help you make it through the rest of the day without crashing too early. **The exception to the rule is if you’re flying east on a red-eye and you’ll be arriving early in the morning local time, which means your flight is your only time to sleep before starting the day fresh at your destination.**
Third, make yourself adjust to local time right away when you get on your first plane. Don’t look at what time it is back home, just be where you are and make yourself hold off sleeping until a normal bedtime. If you give into sleep at 4 pm because you’re tired, you’ll likely find yourself wide awake in the middle of the night and not adjusted to local time at all.
8. Figure out a baseline currency conversion rate
It helps to have a currency conversion app on your phone, but I found that it wasn’t always convenient to pull my phone out and crunch the numbers every time I wanted to buy something. Instead, I figured out a baseline that was easy to estimate in my head. At the time, I believe 100 Japanese yen was equal to about 1 US dollar. I committed that to memory and was able to do easy math on the go by just moving the decimal to the left two spaces to get the approximate price in US dollars. 500 yen, $5.00 US… 1000 yen, $10.00 US… 3000 yen, $30.00 US… and so on. This can be done with any currency, just find the baseline of what is equal to $1 US and go from there.
9. Be adventurous with food
I will admit that I had very little experience with international foods before going to Japan… I had never even tried sushi!! I’m not one to shy away from a new experience though, so I embraced the adventure and tried anything that was put in front of me. Being open created so many amazing first-time experiences, from having shabu-shabu to having a feast of sushi and so many other things that I don’t even know what they were! My dad went on the trip and wasn’t as open to trying new foods, so he stuck to the fast food brands he knew from home like McDonald’s and Burger King—although he said they weren’t the same. So, why not just eat like a local? You can have the brands from the USA when you’re in the USA. On the flip side, just picking the fanciest place in town doesn’t mean you will have the best food in town; the key is to look around and see if there are any locals present. If not, you are probably not getting authentic food or the best prices.
10. Trust people
I had no idea what to expect as a first-time traveler. Is it safe? Will I be treated differently because I’m a tourist? It ended up being better than I ever could have imagined! People are welcoming and much more helpful than I thought they would be. I asked a lady for help with directions and she actually stopped what she was doing and walked me the rest of the way to my destination (at least a 15-minute detour from her day). I was shocked and amazed! I don’t think I had ever seen someone in the US do that. Here I am, a tourist in somebody else’s country and they cared enough to take that time to help me. This trip planted the seeds of my strong belief and trust in people everywhere. People are inherently good, no matter the cultural differences that we have.
When you really look at it, there are more things that make us the same than make us different. We are all human, put on our pants the same way, and deep down just want to live and love. When you bring down your walls and open up to your fellow humans, beautiful connections happen and you discover truly amazing people.