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10 More Tips for International Travelers

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.

    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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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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