Tips for the Trip of a Lifetime

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A first-timer’s guide to traveling overseas

 

Summertime inevitably brings on the travel bug. If you’re one of those who doesn’t have any big trips planned, it’s almost worse, given you’re the one stuck holding down the fort while co-workers embark on weeklong treks to exotic locales. Make the mistake of googling their destinations or just hypothetically seeing what a round-trip ticket would cost, and it’s easy to get stuck in the travel bug tailspin, wishing you could go but feeling held back by the fears, the cost, and the hundred other things that keep us all from just doing it.

This past June, my husband and I took our first trip over the Atlantic ocean for an incredible two-week tour of Italy and Austria. It was a longtime dream finally realized, and my first foray into what I hope will be a life of globetrotting and adventure.

First experiences are inherently challenging. Not just the part where you step out of your comfort zone, trusting you won’t fall flat on your face, but learning from your mistakes so next time will be even better.

Leading up to our departure, I was excited about what lay before us but also a little nervous.

Here’s a sample of my top fears:

  1. Not knowing either German or Italian, we’d get lost, miss a tour, or get stranded in a train station somewhere, never to be seen or heard from again.
  2. We wouldn’t fit in with the locals, so pickpockets would steal our passports and money, leaving us stranded and penniless, never to be seen or heard from again.
  3. I’d forget to pack something, and the whole trip would be ruined.
  4. I’d pack too many unnecessary things, and the whole trip would be ruined.
  5. We’d never be able to see everything we wanted to see.

If any of these fears are holding you back from seeing the world, I’d like to put your mind at ease. Here are my top five travel tips for first-time travelers.

 

1. Not knowing the language

Don’t let language barriers hold you back from exploring. Unless you’re going somewhere rural, chances are good you’ll find plenty of people who speak at least a little English. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to learn a few words and phrases native to the country you’re visiting — that’s just courtesy, after all. But if you don’t go in knowing anything more than “please,” “thank you,” “hello,” and “goodbye,” you’ll still make it through just fine.

Most of the people we met in Italy, at restaurants, train stations, tourist sites, and at various shops, spoke very good English, and those who were less fluent made up for the gaps with universal hand gestures or by typing their thoughts into Google Translate.

If learning the language, or at least getting an introduction to it, is important to you, I highly recommend the Babbel app. It’s cheap, so there’s no good reason not to get it, and it downloads straight your phone, so you can work on learning a new language whenever you have a little downtime. Plus, the app takes you through bite-sized lessons with everything from spelling tests to speaking tests, so you’ll be able to not only say buongiorno but write it as well!

 

2. Not fitting in with the locals

Prior to leaving, I stressed myself out with trying to better understand how Europeans dressed so I might mimic their attire. And that’s silly! Not just because I’m hardly a fashionista here in the U.S., but because no matter what you do, there’s virtually no way to hide the fact you’re a foreigner. But don’t feel bad. It’s not just the language or the clothes, it’s the subtle stuff, too. Your volume, your posture, your accessories, your body language … the list goes on.

One critical mistake I made was not packing shorts for a vacation in June. Everything I read said Europeans, and particularly Italians, cover up when they’re not at the beach. No short shorts, no short skirts. “Fine,” I thought. “I’ll just wear jeans and maxi skirts.” Wrong.

Austria was hot. Italy was hotter, and oh so humid. Combine that with walking 15,000 steps a day and a total lack of air conditioning, and I was the sweatiest, grumpiest person in paradise. To save himself, my husband ended up buying me a $40 pair of shorts in Sorrento — the cheapest shorts we could find and now the most expensive shorts I own.

The moral of the story? Wear what makes you comfortable (so long as it doesn’t keep you from exploring the attractions that adhere to a certain dress code). On your first trip out, you’ll likely be visiting lots of tourist hubs anyway, so you’ll see plenty of people in more “American” attire. Want to survive walking miles a day? Feel free to don the white tennis shoes. Just keep a hand over your purse the whole time, and make sure the top is sealed with a zipper to dissuade any sticky-fingered pickpockets.

 

3. Forgetting to pack something important

You might forget that one essential thing you need to have fun, but it’s unlikely. Chances are good you can buy whatever you need wherever you’re going (unless your destination is somewhere totally off the beaten path like Antarctica or Siberia).

Make a packing list ahead of time, detailing the items you use every day. Then list out the items you need, specific to your destination (for instance, a big down coat if you’re headed to Siberia). Add to the list as you think of things you’ve forgotten, and pick up the items you need but don’t currently own two weeks before you leave, or sooner if they’re on sale.

I used a few different packing lists online that were country-specific to help me figure out if I’d forgotten anything. I also consulted a variety of travel blogs in the hopes of finding some packing guidance. In the end, there were only a few items I hadn’t thought of that I decided to buy, though these ended up also being the things I never used (travel locks, ponchos, a power block, etc).

My advice? Trust your good judgment and keep it basic. There are always going to be those horror stories, scaring you into buying “essentials” like compression socks, but if it’s an item you’ve had no need of in the past, there’s a good chance you won’t need it now.

The items we used most:

  • Shampoo/conditioner — I tried packing “smart” with a bar of shampoo, but I didn’t like how it made my hair feel. If your hotel doesn’t provide complimentary toiletries, pick some up at the pharmacy once you get to your destination. It might not be your preferred brand name, but it’ll save you some room in that 1-quart baggie of liquids and will be more akin to what you’re used to at home.
  • Bug spray/anti-itch cream — Romantic gondola rides, the artful Italian countryside … nowhere in my imagination did I envision being eaten alive by mosquitos. But it’s not like those little blood-suckers are native only to the U.S. Luckily, we had a little warning from a friend who’d told us American bug sprays were more effective than European bug sprays. I’m still not sure if that’s true — we never bought any bug spray there to compare with ours — but I can vouch for the bugs.
  • Camera — I waffled hard on this one. We have a great camera we got for our wedding, but it’s a little heavy and requires batteries and a charger for said batteries. In the end, a friend convinced me to bring it, and I’m so glad I did. Packing it around everywhere was kind of a nuisance, but the images were clear and of a much higher quality than the few shots I got on my smartphone. My reward for my efforts? Postcard-worthy shots I can show off with pride.

 

4. Overpacking

I’d heard early on that overpacking was the biggest mistake we could make, so I made it my goal to only bring along one carry-on item and one small personal bag each. And guess what? That was spot on! Did we have to do laundry halfway through the trip? Yes. Are we wearing the same outfits in multiple pictures? Yes. But not only did we have fewer bags to transfer between planes, trains, and automobiles, but we also never had to worry about lost luggage or extra fees.

If overpacking is a habit you struggle with, take some time to create multiple outfits out of your favorite pieces. Make it your goal to pack only one pair of bottoms in various styles. So one pair of jeans, one pair of non-jean pants, one pair of shorts, and one skirt if you’d like. Then mix and match your tops with those, so one blouse or shirt can be worn with both pairs of pants or one of the pants and the skirt. I knew we’d be going out for a few nice dinners, so I packed two wrinkle-resistant sundresses as well.

Once you have your outfits paired up, take pictures of everything to remind yourself what your options are, then take a stab at packing it all up. I prefer to roll my clothes to save space, and I also make use of any cavities — for example, packing my socks in my shoes. Just a hair short on space? Try packing all your soft, casual items into a compression bag you can sit on or squish to remove air. Your suitcase might weigh a hundred pounds, but at least it’ll zip.

Bonus tip: Pack a soft duffle at the bottom of your bag that you can fill with any souvenirs you pick up along the way. Checking a bag on the way back will likely be more economical than trying to ship home those valuable mementos.

 

5. Not seeing everything there is to see

When I first started planning this trip, I had it in my head we’d visit 10 different countries in three weeks. Sure, we might just be in Paris for a night, but at least we’d get to see the Eiffel Tower, right? Luckily, I soon realized that was simply unrealistic. Europe is continent, and while moving through that quick might give me all the Facebook pictures I’d need to show I’d seen it all, spending just one day in any major city would be a massive mistake. Not to mention a logistics nightmare.

I decided, then, to narrow our overseas trip to two weeks (to stick to a budget) and split our time 60/40 between Italy and Austria. In my mind, Italy was the gem to behold. Austria was more of an obligation since that’s where my exchange sister from high school lived. I anticipated walking through the Roman Colosseum, splashing in the waves of the Amalfi Coast, and walking arm in arm in the evening down romantic cobblestone streets.

Imagine my surprise when Italy turned out to be lovely — but Austria turned out to be much lovelier. Stunning, rolling hills and farms, aquamarine lakes, castles at every turn. I’d gone to Europe thinking that the destinations my friends had visited would be the memories I’d cling to forever, but it wasn’t until we’d left the path less taken that we felt truly entranced and immersed.

The lesson here is to never let a fear of missing out hold you back from seeing even a small fraction of the world. Furthermore, don’t get too caught up in TripAdvisor. Take the time to wander, to find the less crowded spaces, and to discover the magic that’s been overlooked. Was the Colosseum incredible? You bet. Were those cobblestone streets the picture of romance? Absolutely.

But if you were to ask me what I loved best, time and time again, I’d say this: That 600-year-old church in St. Radegund, Austria, with the little red lanterns lighting every grave, surrounded by starlight and fireflies, and the quiet of a place undiscovered. The pictures don’t do it justice, but with such a beautiful image in my head, I find that I don’t mind.

 

Bonus tips:

Use public transportation. Europe has us beat when it comes to transportation. Save yourself the stress of driving, and take the train instead. It’s easier than you think.

Leave time for customs. This can take hours, depending on the airport. Better to plan on too much time than too little.

Always check your passports. I almost missed my honeymoon four years ago after I unknowingly swapped passports with a friend. Do yourself a favor and make sure your passport is current and also yours.

Shop the deals. If money is tight, be sure to check out scottscheapflights.com, a hidden gem for great deals on flights.

Take a picture of your passport and email it to yourself. In the event someone does pickpocket you, it’ll be a lot easier to get back home if you can pull up a copy at an American Embassy.