Always Have a Plan

So you decided to travel abroad huh? As a backpacker no less. Well, if you have ever travelled abroad before but in a tourist group/predetermined plans then you haven’t really experienced travelling I’m sorry to say. Back in 2003, I travelled with my family to Australia and all of our tours and attractions were predetermined and already set up. It was a great time, something that I have always cherished and possibly gave me the travel bug in the first place. When I returned to Australia in May of 2012, as a backpacker, my idea of travelling was completely flipped upside down. I arrived without a plan.

All of the sudden, the tourist traps, the sightseeing, the worry free hassle of getting from point A to point B vanished. Granted, I came a lot less prepared than most, catching a plane 12 hours after I booked my ticket then landing in Sydney and not knowing where the hell I was even sleeping that night. I realized sitting in the international arrival area just outside customs that I quite possibly made a huge mistake. Nothing was sitting there like before. I had no idea where I was going, what I was doing or how I was even going to get around. It took me 5 hours of painstakingly communicating back and forth with my friend Austin back in the states before I even had a general idea of where I was going to sleep that night. Granted, I was still in shock that I was in another country when 36 hours before, I had no idea I was even leaving my own country so it may have taken me a little longer to compose myself.

The point is, you need a plan and cannot travel on a whim. One, it’s dangerous depending on the country you are going to (Australia is rather safe so I lucked out on that one), two, you may not be able to research essentials (lucked out on this too) and three, it can be quite costly as someone is always ready to nickle and dime the lost tourist (stay away from fast food restaurants abroad, especially outside the United States, they are costly). If at all possible, have a plan together long before you even book your flight as you’ll be glad you did, after all, a long transcontinental/transoceanic flight will take a lot out of you and it’s best to have it all sorted out so you can get to your hostel and sleep!

So what do you need to plan? A lot actually. In fact, you need to do so much planning, I am only going to cover everything briefly in this post and make a new one for each planning essential at a later date.

Have your passport? Be sure you do, you won’t get into a country, out of some or back into yours without it. Be sure it’s valid long enough too!

Most countries require you to get a visa before hand otherwise at best, you get to the airport and find out you can’t board your plane, at worse, you get to your destination and turned right back around, on your own dime.

Banks are concerned about theft and fraud, as they should be (don’t get me started on fraud measures of banks, they don’t do enough). One thing banks are extremely good at is preventing you from getting to your cash overseas. Before leaving, call your bank and let them know you will be using your debit/credit card overseas and from what dates. That way they don’t flag your card the second you go to an ATM and have it sucked up into debit card purgatory.

Pack enough but not too much and be sure to pack for the right season of your destination. I learned the hard way that when it’s Summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it is Winter in the Southern Hemisphere (I was in a rush, give me a break). Going to be gone for a while? Pack for all the seasons you will encounter, not just the ones you hope to encounter.

How you cart around your belongings is a very important decision. Luggage or backpack? Both have pros and cons. You also need to make sure it is durable as international flights tend to beat the crap out of your stuff more than domestic flights.

Do you have enough money? Unlikely, you can never have enough. Calculate what you expect to spend and double it, you’ll be glad you did. On a working holiday? Still take more than you think you may need to get started, otherwise you will be phoning home (thanks mom and dad).

Insurance can be a lifesaver, figuratively and literally. Be sure your heath insurance covers you outside your home country. Just because your destination has socialized health care doesn’t mean you are entitled to it. Take out travelers insurance too in case your bag takes its own holiday (mine went missing for almost a week, traveling the opposite direction of me somehow).

What is the cheapest way to get around? By walking. But if you are lazy/out of shape like me, you’ll take the next cheapest way to get around and that usually means public transport. Research the transit system long before you need to use it.

We all need to eat, some more than others. If you are coming from America, you’re in for a shock. Fast food abroad is very expensive and should only be eaten when drunk and you found a $20 on the ground. Try the local cuisine if you must eat out, otherwise shop at a grocery store (not a convenience store, an actual grocery store). While you’re at it, buy fruit, it’s cheaper and taste better abroad than it does in the states. Oh it’s also better for you too, win win.

You like the Ritz-Carlton huh? Well unless you are filthy rich, prepare to experience what I like to call the place between a cardboard box and a college dormitory. It’s got the roaches you find in the cardboard box plus 4x as many people in a college dorm room, we call them hostels! The only place to live off the street that won’t break the bank. This can either be a great experience or a miserable one, go in with an open mind and you’ll do fine. Also bring a set of earplugs.

If you’re like me, you need to be in constant communication with the world. Either bring an international capable phone or buy one when you arrive (not at the airport). If you are bringing one with you, be sure it is unlocked and will work in the country, each country has different frequencies, if you have a “quad-band” phone, you usually are fine.

On the same line as communication, phoning home doesn’t have to be expensive. In some countries, internet is relatively cheap so use Skype on your mobile to phone home instead of minutes on your plan. Wi-Fi + Skype = perfect. Skype to Skype calls are even free, imagine that. If you’re coming from America, signup for Google Voice and use that to text back home, it won’t cost them or you any extra money (except for some data on your end but it’s minimal and worth it). Ideally, Skype on a computer is best so you can see each other too.

Humans are social creatures and contrary to popular belief, most people are welcoming of Americans, they just hate our government, like us! Don’t make assumptions about other cultures and if you do, keep them to yourself. Hitler was a long time ago so don’t heil the Germans! There are a few things about socializing however that you need to keep in mind but I will cover those in another post.

Finding Work
Finding work in another country can be easy or it can be the most difficult thing you have ever done. Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time, and other times, you need to work to find work. Start at the hostel you are staying at, they usually have leads or know people looking for day laborers. Check GumTree, Seek, Indeed and local recruiting offices. In some countries (like Australia) you need to be licensed to serve liquor, work where there are gambling machines or even to swing a hammer (I’m not kidding). Look for jobs before leaving if at all possible in your field of study/talent.

I have met my share of stinky people unfortunately so I cannot stress enough how important it is to bathe daily, brush your teeth, wash your clothes and wear deodorant. This helps your social life as well. If you notice people moving away from you or avoiding you, chances are you reek and need to take appropriate action. At a bare minimum, always pack soap, deodorant, a towel and a washcloth. However if people are still avoiding you and you know you don’t stink, stop being a jackass.

Have fun! Not everything is about finding that job, sometimes you need to let go and remember you are in a different country. Don’t get too caught up with work or partying at the hostel. Get out and see the sights, do actual tourist things once in a while. If all you have smelled in the past 24 hours is funny odors, smoke and booze, it’s time to leave the hostel.

Obviously there is more than what I have mentioned here and so much more detail as well. These are simply the basics, stuff to always keep in the back of your mind when you are preparing for your next adventure. I will be posting more about each section in greater detail soon.

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