5 Tips for First Time International Travelers (for a better overall experience)
When I was young, I used to dream about traveling the world. I was sure that I’d be traipsing from Paris to Amsterdam to Japan and Australia on the regular. Never once did I think that the fist time I’d leave Northern America would be when I was 34 years old.
At the tail end of last year I found myself buying an impromptu ticket to Paris. It was both terrifying and exhilarating, and to be quite honest, a super important moment in my life. I’ve always been a steadfast believer that stepping outside of my comfort zone is what will drive me (and anyone else) to be strong, more compassionate, and educated about the world around me. College can surely teach us lots of things we’ve never known, but seeing the world can teach us things that actually matter as human being.
Heading across the world to a different country where I didn’t speak the language for the first time was absolutely scary. But I made myself stop thinking about it terms of fear. I made myself believe that it would be fine. And let me tell you something, it was.
I walked into things as educated as I could be, knowing as much French as my one language mind was able to learn in a matter of months, with the belief that whatever happened I would face. Spoiler alert: it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken.
Here’s the top five things I think every first time international traveler should know before they take their big step into another place. Spoiler alert: You can do this. It’s not that hard.
It’s might seem impossible. Especially when you think about the chic Parisians you’ll be walking down the avenues next to. But truthfully, you don’t need much. Pack what you need for the weather, a few pairs of shoes (comfortable ones are very important because so many European cities are walking cities), and assume you’re going to outfit repeat a few times.
When I thought about my trip, I was mostly concerned with what I’d be taking home with me (hello, French wine!) but I wanted to make it cost effective. If I could buy these things at home, would I really be saving over $120 (the cost of checking bags each way) to bring it home? Did it matter to me that much?
If you’re a fashionista who really needs a bunch of clothes or just like to have a ton of options, go for it. But if you’re like me and want your vacation money to go towards wine, food, and seeing the sights; pack light and carry it on board with you.
Think about what matters most to you. Think about what you cant live without. And keep things light and easy to maneuver over old cobblestone streets.
Don’t make plans, just experience
Before I went to Paris I had a map and a list of things I desperately wanted to see. Truthfully, this list was not going to see a whole lot of action because I was only going to be there for three and a half days. But, I thought having options to choose from while we were walking around would be helpful. After all, when you tell people you’re going to a new city everyone has a million suggestions about where you should go. This map was mostly comprised of those suggestions.
Suggestions are fantastic, but experiencing a city for yourself is incredibly important. Give yourself time to wander the streets, discover unconventional sights, and live like a local will guarantee you an experience all your own. I saw a few things (mostly tourist things) that had made it onto my map, but for the most part I wandered. And I have to say, those moments where we wandered the streets and found an incredible restaurant down a random side street were some of our best experiences.
It makes sense to want to plan. Don’t forget to factor time to experience everything around you at the same time.
Learn about the culture and language
We’ve heard some of those stereotypes about the French. How they’re unaccommodating and rude to American’s who can’t speak the language.
I found this to be unequivocally false. In the months leading up to my trip I listened to the Coffee Break French podcast (they have them for other languages too!) and took class on DuoLingo. Without opportunity to practice with a real person, I was pretty much going in blind. But, I had learned enough to say hello, thank you, goodbye, and do you speak english? I’d also learned enough to have a general idea of what most people were asking me at restaurants.
All in all, I did my best to start the conversation in the native language and found that more often than not people were more than willing to speak English. The people we spent time with in France were vibrant and kind, hilarious and knowledgeable. Going to another country was a learning experience itself and getting the chance to learn about the culture and the language from people that lived there was part of the fun for me.
My advice? Learn as much as you can but don’t feel bad that you’re not fluent in the language. It’s much more important to understand the culture (What’s a sign of disrespect? Should you tip?) than it is to speak perfectly.
Live like a local
One of my biggest regrets? Staying in a hotel. One of the best ways to immerse yourself in a new place is to live as the locals do. One of our best experiences was a Montmartre food walking tour via Viator. Our guide took us through a day in the life of a Parisian. How they shop, where they go, what matters to them.
This was such an incredible experience with a fun group of people, that I was actually really sad when it came to an end. We walked through the streets exploring Montmartre together, learning about the artistic cultural history of the area, and sampling some of the best food from local boulangeries and chocolateries.
Our guide not only clued us into how the French live, but he was willing to share his knowledge around wine, food, and the language. I learned more during this experience than any online lesson or book could have taught me.
Give yourself time
Listen, I spent maybe 3 and a half days in Paris and it wasn’t enough. In the middle of the trip I took a train to London (because I figured I was already in the vicinity and why not?). But to be honest, it left me feeling a little sad. I wish I had either spent more time in each place or spent the entire time in Paris.
It’s natural to want to knock through as many places on your bucket list as possible. However, sometimes not giving yourself the opportunity to settle into a place will leave you with a serious FOMO feeling no one wants to come back from vacation with.
Plan for what you love. If you have an inkling that you’ll want to experience more of Paris, just do it and plan another trip for another city in the future. Don’t make yourself believe this is a one time thing. There are so many opportunities now for cheap vacations and if you make it a priority in your life to save up for things that matter to you… you can do it.
I’m so grateful I got the opportunity to see two places in one trip, but now that I’ve done it and survived I have no doubt I can do it and do it better a second time. The key to a successful trip? Research what you’re truly going to need, plan for what matters and give yourself time to experience the rest, and know that plans get messed up but that it’s not the end of the world. Flow with it, see something different, focus on the bright side.
My last word of advice? Travel with people you love. There’s something magical about walking home after dinner, seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up in front of you, and stopping for an impromptu glass of champagne (or three) with people that are experiencing the magic with you. It was such a simple moment but it felt like one of the most magical of our entire trip.
Trust your gut and you’re bound to have an incredible vacation. Have more advice on how to make a first timer’s international trip a hit? Leave a comment below.