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10 More Tips for International Travelers

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10 More Tips for International Travelers

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    A couple of days ago I listed 10 of the tools I find essential whenever I travel, along with a bunch of related tips. Today, I have more tips, this time disconnected from any particular tool or gadget.

    Because most of the traveling I’ve done as an adult has consisted of longish trips overseas, these tips are going to tend to be more useful for Americans traveling abroad over two weeks or more. (Though there are a couple that really only apply to short trips.) I can’t really change that; it’s who I am and what I know. But I’d love to see some of your best tips in the comments for people who have to take shorter, more business-oriented trips (I’ve taken only one business trip in my entire life).

    It might also be useful to know where my head is when I travel. In The Tao of Travel I expressed horror at the way most tourists travel. The target of my scorn isn’t the sight-seeing, what bothers me is the creation of little “bubbles” of people similar to one’s self that insulate us from the culture of the places we travel to. Of course you should visit the historical sites, the museums, the famous music halls, and the best restaurants (f you can afford them), but you should also spend time in a tiny street corner park, drink beer in a local pub, buy food from a street vendor, and wander the residential streets.

    And most of all, you should meet people, regardless of the language barriers. I’ve always found that the cultural wall between us is only about a foot-and-a-half high: easy to step over with just a little effort. Use as good an approximation of their language as you can, and listen intently to their broken English — share freely of yourself and take freely what they’re willing to share with you. Otherwise, it’s all just pretty pictures.

    OK, sermon time is over! It’s time to get on with the tips:

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    1. Use Your Debit Card

    Time was when traveler’s cheques were the safest way to carry money aborad, but those days are long gone. In fact, I’m really not sure how the traveler’s cheques companies keep on going — debit cards make traveler’s cheques completely useless. They always were a hassle, anyway; unless you stayed in a hotel that offered traveler’s cheque cashing as a service to guests, they were almost impossible to spend or cash. In any case, nowadays, there are very few places where you can’t find an ATM to withdraw cash, and of course you can use debit cards just like credit cards for most purchases. Yes, you’ll pay a fee, but it’s pretty much comparable to the fee you pay for traveler’s cheques.

    You can locate ATM machines in whatever countries you’re visiting at the Plus and Cirrus sites. There are three Maestro/Cirrus ATMs in Manzini, Swaziland, for example.

    2. Get Used to Local Currencies

    If you’re actually working in a country and earning local currencies, the faster you can get over the habit of converting prices to your native currency, the better. Every country has its own standard, and getting used to it is a big step towards understanding the local mindset.

    On the other hand, if you’re just visiting, you’ll need to be careful about how you spend money. It can be easy to lose track of your spending when the local currency is some odd number to the dollar. My advice is, come up with an easy formula for conversion, and round up so that your estimate is always fewer dollars than you think.

    For example, in Budapest in the mid-’90s, the local currency was around 110 Forint to the dollar (if I’m remembering properly). By assuming a Forint was equal to a US penny, I could easily decide what was worth spending my money on — and know I was actually saving a little in the bargain. If, say, the local currency was 1643 units to a dollar, I’d  call it 3000 to 2 — that is, something that was 5870 whatevers would be 4 dollars. The actual price would be around $3.50, so I’d be off, but I’d be off in a way that would save me money — which is much better than running short because you got confused by the local currency.

    3. Dress Well

    Everyone can recognize an American tourist on the street, before she or he even opens their mouth. Our standard travel uniform is jeans or shorts, a t-shirt, sneakers, and a baseball cap on men; on women, it’s a short skirt, jeans, or shorts and a sleeveless top, along with a pair of sandals.

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    The problem is, in a world where many people already think poorly of Americans, our vacation dress sends the message that we don’t respect them or their culture. What’s more, you’ll find many places — churches and cathedrals, some restaurants, and many clubs — won’t let you in the door!

    You don’t need a suit and tie, but you’d be surprised what a pair of khakis or a knee-length dress will do for the reaction you get from locals.

    4. Rip Up Your Guides

    There are some great guide books out there; I’m partial to the Lonely Planet books, myself. A good guide book gives you not only an idea of what to see and where it is, but background information about the culture, history, and language of the places you visit.

    The problem is, they’re huge. You don’t want to carry that big heavy thing all over the world with you, nor do you want to give it any more of your valuable luggage space than absolutely necessary.

    The solution: rip it up. Pull out only the parts relating to the countries or cities you’ll be visiting, staple them together, and drop them in a ziplock bag. As you leave a country, toss it or, better yet, pass it on to a less-prepared traveler without a guidebook to call their own.

    5. Hand Out Calling Cards

    Hopefully you’ll meet a lot of people along the way. Carry a small stack of business-card-sized calling cards with your name, address, and email address (and whatever other information you feel like sharing) to hand out to people you want to stay in touch with. You can have them made up just like regular business cards, print them on business card stock at home, or get creative and use a service like Moo to make cards with pictures of you, your family, and your hometown on them.

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    6. Learn 10 Phrases

    One thing that contributes strongly to the poor image Americans (and to a great extent, Britons and Aussies too) have abroad is our relative ignorance of every language but English (and let’s face it, we’re no great shakes with English, either). While you can’t be expected to learn the native language of every single country you ever visit, you can at least make an effort to pick up a few pleasantries. Learn to say at least each of the following in the language of whatever country you’re visiting:

    1. Hello
    2. Goodbye
    3. Thank you
    4. Please
    5. My name is…
    6. Do you speak English?
    7. Where is the bathroom?
    8. Where is the train station?
    9. How much?
    10. The numbers 1 – 20.

    I remember a phrasebook I once had included “Will you marry me?”, which I’ve always thought funny. Just in case it comes up, maybe you should learn that one too.

    Most people will know immediately that you don’t speak their language, but that’s not the point. The point is to show that yo’re trying, and to give them a chance to laugh a little (with you, hopefully, but sometimes at you). Then they can feel comfortable about their own English (which is probably at least as good as yours, anyway).

    7. The Amazing Disposable Underwear Trick

    One way to lighten your load as you travel is to take all your worst underwear with you — the ones with holes, sagging waistbands, etc. Don’t ever throw away old underwear if it’s at all still wearable and you plan to travel ever! Instead, take it on your trip and, as it wears out completely, trash it. You were going to throw it away at home, anyway. Of course, if you get down to your last pair or two, you might want to buy more…

    8. The Canadian Flag Trick Walk Like a Canadian

    I admit, I’ve never done this, but I’ve known people who have and it works. You’ll have to sort the ethics out on your own — I’m just the messenger here.

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    The trick is, attach a Canadian flag patch to your backpack. You’d be surprised at how much better people will treat you — I’ve seen hostel managers turn Americans away saying there were no more rooms and then give a bed to a Canadian-patch bearing traveler a few minutes later. People are remarkably aware of the different cultures and politics of Canada and the US, and act accordingly.

    Note: Remember, when you fly the Canadian flag, you’re a de facto representative of the Canadian people. Always be on your best behavior. if confronted by a Canadian, you’re on your own. Nothing so enrages them as US travelers besmirching their good name through trickery and deceit.

    The Canadians I have met and traveled with overseas have been polite, courteous, and respectful of their host country’s culture and rules. Take a page from their book: speak clearly and softly, say “please” and “thank you” a lot, and forget about the patch trick.

    9. Take the bus!

    Take the bus or other public transportation whenever you can. It’s a great way to get your bearings in a strange city and to see the sights, including a lot of points of interest that might not have made it into your guidebook. To be honest, this is a pretty good idea in th US, too — I remember taking a group of friends, all New York and New Jersey natives, on a bus down the Museum Mile in New York City; none of them had ever taken a city bus in NYC, and all of them were impressed by what a lovely ride it was.

    10. [Insert Your Tip Here]

    Travel is all about creativity, so always keep your eyes open for neat ways to deal with whatever a new culture throws at you.

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    For those of you who think #10 is a cop-out, here’s a bonus tip: Follow tour groups. Whenever you happen across a tour group in museums and even on the street, adjust your path so that it just happens to coincide with the path the tour group is taking. You’ll get a little piece of history from someone who knows pretty well that they’re talking about. You don’t have to follow the entire tour, just take advantage of someone in a public space talking about whatever it is they’re showing off.

    Like I said, I’d love to hear your tips, especially for shorter trips. Leave us a note in the comments!

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    8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

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    8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

    How would you feel if you were sharing a personal story and noticed that the person to whom you were speaking wasn’t really listening? You probably wouldn’t be too thrilled.

    Unfortunately, that is the case for many people. Most individuals are not good listeners. They are good pretenders. The thing is, true listening requires work—more work than people are willing to invest. Quality conversation is about “give and take.” Most people, however, want to just give—their words, that is. Being on the receiving end as the listener may seem boring, but it’s essential.

    When you are attending to someone and paying attention to what they’re saying, it’s a sign of caring and respect. The hitch is that attending requires an act of will, which sometimes goes against what our minds naturally do—roaming around aimlessly and thinking about whatnot, instead of listening—the greatest act of thoughtfulness.

    Without active listening, people often feel unheard and unacknowledged. That’s why it’s important for everyone to learn how to be a better listener.

    What Makes People Poor Listeners?

    Good listening skills can be learned, but first, let’s take a look at some of the things that you might be doing that makes you a poor listener.

    1. You Want to Talk to Yourself

    Well, who doesn’t? We all have something to say, right? But when you are looking at someone pretending to be listening while, all along, they’re mentally planning all the amazing things they’re going to say, it is a disservice to the speaker.

    Yes, maybe what the other person is saying is not the most exciting thing in the world. Still, they deserve to be heard. You always have the ability to steer the conversation in another direction by asking questions.

    It’s okay to want to talk. It’s normal, even. Keep in mind, however, that when your turn does come around, you’ll want someone to listen to you.

    2. You Disagree With What Is Being Said

    This is another thing that makes you an inadequate listener—hearing something with which you disagree with and immediately tuning out. Then, you lie in wait so you can tell the speaker how wrong they are. You’re eager to make your point and prove the speaker wrong. You think that once you speak your “truth,” others will know how mistaken the speaker is, thank you for setting them straight, and encourage you to elaborate on what you have to say. Dream on.

    Disagreeing with your speaker, however frustrating that might be, is no reason to tune them out and ready yourself to spew your staggering rebuttal. By listening, you might actually glean an interesting nugget of information that you were previously unaware of.

    3. You Are Doing Five Other Things While You’re “Listening”

    It is impossible to listen to someone while you’re texting, reading, playing Sudoku, etc. But people do it all the time—I know I have.

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    I’ve actually tried to balance my checkbook while pretending to listen to the person on the other line. It didn’t work. I had to keep asking, “what did you say?” I can only admit this now because I rarely do it anymore. With work, I’ve succeeded in becoming a better listener. It takes a great deal of concentration, but it’s certainly worth it.

    If you’re truly going to listen, then you must: listen! M. Scott Peck, M.D., in his book The Road Less Travel, says, “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” If you are too busy to actually listen, let the speaker know, and arrange for another time to talk. It’s simple as that!

    4. You Appoint Yourself as Judge

    While you’re “listening,” you decide that the speaker doesn’t know what they’re talking about. As the “expert,” you know more. So, what’s the point of even listening?

    To you, the only sound you hear once you decide they’re wrong is, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!” But before you bang that gavel, just know you may not have all the necessary information. To do that, you’d have to really listen, wouldn’t you? Also, make sure you don’t judge someone by their accent, the way they sound, or the structure of their sentences.

    My dad is nearly 91. His English is sometimes a little broken and hard to understand. People wrongly assume that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about—they’re quite mistaken. My dad is a highly intelligent man who has English as his second language. He knows what he’s saying and understands the language perfectly.

    Keep that in mind when listening to a foreigner, or someone who perhaps has a difficult time putting their thoughts into words.

    Now, you know some of the things that make for an inferior listener. If none of the items above resonate with you, great! You’re a better listener than most.

    How To Be a Better Listener

    For conversation’s sake, though, let’s just say that maybe you need some work in the listening department, and after reading this article, you make the decision to improve. What, then, are some of the things you need to do to make that happen? How can you be a better listener?

    1. Pay Attention

    A good listener is attentive. They’re not looking at their watch, phone, or thinking about their dinner plans. They’re focused and paying attention to what the other person is saying. This is called active listening.

    According to Skills You Need, “active listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening—otherwise, the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener.”[1]

    As I mentioned, it’s normal for the mind to wander. We’re human, after all. But a good listener will rein those thoughts back in as soon as they notice their attention waning.

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    I want to note here that you can also “listen” to bodily cues. You can assume that if someone keeps looking at their watch or over their shoulder, their focus isn’t on the conversation. The key is to just pay attention.

    2. Use Positive Body Language

    You can infer a lot from a person’s body language. Are they interested, bored, or anxious?

    A good listener’s body language is open. They lean forward and express curiosity in what is being said. Their facial expression is either smiling, showing concern, conveying empathy, etc. They’re letting the speaker know that they’re being heard.

    People say things for a reason—they want some type of feedback. For example, you tell your spouse, “I had a really rough day!” and your husband continues to check his newsfeed while nodding his head. Not a good response.

    But what if your husband were to look up with questioning eyes, put his phone down, and say, “Oh, no. What happened?” How would feel, then? The answer is obvious.

    According to Alan Gurney,[2]

    “An active listener pays full attention to the speaker and ensures they understand the information being delivered. You can’t be distracted by an incoming call or a Facebook status update. You have to be present and in the moment.

    Body language is an important tool to ensure you do this. The correct body language makes you a better active listener and therefore more ‘open’ and receptive to what the speaker is saying. At the same time, it indicates that you are listening to them.”

    3. Avoid Interrupting the Speaker

    I am certain you wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a sentence only to see the other person holding up a finger or their mouth open, ready to step into your unfinished verbiage. It’s rude and causes anxiety. You would, more than likely, feel a need to rush what you’re saying just to finish your sentence.

    Interrupting is a sign of disrespect. It is essentially saying, “what I have to say is much more important than what you’re saying.” When you interrupt the speaker, they feel frustrated, hurried, and unimportant.

    Interrupting a speaker to agree, disagree, argue, etc., causes the speaker to lose track of what they are saying. It’s extremely frustrating. Whatever you have to say can wait until the other person is done.

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    Be polite and wait your turn!

    4. Ask Questions

    Asking questions is one of the best ways to show you’re interested. If someone is telling you about their ski trip to Mammoth, don’t respond with, “that’s nice.” That would show a lack of interest and disrespect. Instead, you can ask, “how long have you been skiing?” “Did you find it difficult to learn?” “What was your favorite part of the trip?” etc. The person will think highly of you and consider you a great conversationalist just by you asking a few questions.

    5. Just Listen

    This may seem counterintuitive. When you’re conversing with someone, it’s usually back and forth. On occasion, all that is required of you is to listen, smile, or nod your head, and your speaker will feel like they’re really being heard and understood.

    I once sat with a client for 45 minutes without saying a word. She came into my office in distress. I had her sit down, and then she started crying softly. I sat with her—that’s all I did. At the end of the session, she stood, told me she felt much better, and then left.

    I have to admit that 45 minutes without saying a word was tough. But she didn’t need me to say anything. She needed a safe space in which she could emote without interruption, judgment, or me trying to “fix” something.

    6. Remember and Follow Up

    Part of being a great listener is remembering what the speaker has said to you, then following up with them.

    For example, in a recent conversation you had with your co-worker Jacob, he told you that his wife had gotten a promotion and that they were contemplating moving to New York. The next time you run into Jacob, you may want to say, “Hey, Jacob! Whatever happened with your wife’s promotion?” At this point, Jacob will know you really heard what he said and that you’re interested to see how things turned out. What a gift!

    According to new research, “people who ask questions, particularly follow-up questions, may become better managers, land better jobs, and even win second dates.”[3]

    It’s so simple to show you care. Just remember a few facts and follow up on them. If you do this regularly, you will make more friends.

    7. Keep Confidential Information Confidential

    If you really want to be a better listener, listen with care. If what you’re hearing is confidential, keep it that way, no matter how tempting it might be to tell someone else, especially if you have friends in common. Being a good listener means being trustworthy and sensitive with shared information.

    Whatever is told to you in confidence is not to be revealed. Assure your speaker that their information is safe with you. They will feel relieved that they have someone with whom they can share their burden without fear of it getting out.

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    Keeping someone’s confidence helps to deepen your relationship. Also, “one of the most important elements of confidentiality is that it helps to build and develop trust. It potentially allows for the free flow of information between the client and worker and acknowledges that a client’s personal life and all the issues and problems that they have belong to them.”[4]

    Be like a therapist: listen and withhold judgment.

    NOTE: I must add here that while therapists keep everything in a session confidential, there are exceptions:

    1. If the client may be an immediate danger to himself or others.
    2. If the client is endangering a population that cannot protect itself, such as in the case of a child or elder abuse.

    8. Maintain Eye Contact

    When someone is talking, they are usually saying something they consider meaningful. They don’t want their listener reading a text, looking at their fingernails, or bending down to pet a pooch on the street. A speaker wants all eyes on them. It lets them know that what they’re saying has value.

    Eye contact is very powerful. It can relay many things without anything being said. Currently, it’s more important than ever with the Covid-19 Pandemic. People can’t see your whole face, but they can definitely read your eyes.

    By eye contact, I don’t mean a hard, creepy stare—just a gaze in the speaker’s direction will do. Make it a point the next time you’re in a conversation to maintain eye contact with your speaker. Avoid the temptation to look anywhere but at their face. I know it’s not easy, especially if you’re not interested in what they’re talking about. But as I said, you can redirect the conversation in a different direction or just let the person know you’ve got to get going.

    Final Thoughts

    Listening attentively will add to your connection with anyone in your life. Now, more than ever, when people are so disconnected due to smartphones and social media, listening skills are critical.

    You can build better, more honest, and deeper relationships by simply being there, paying attention, and asking questions that make the speaker feel like what they have to say matters.

    And isn’t that a great goal? To make people feel as if they matter? So, go out and start honing those listening skills. You’ve got two great ears. Now use them!

    More Tips on How to Be a Better Listener

    Featured photo credit: Joshua Rodriguez via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Skills You Need: Active Listening
    [2] Filtered: Body language for active listening
    [3] Forbes: People Will Like You More If You Start Asking Follow-up Questions
    [4] TAFE NSW Sydney eLearning Moodle: Confidentiality

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