One of the most exciting parts about traveling abroad is the unknown and the unfamiliar—being surrounded by people who don’t speak your language, using money you don’t know the value of, and finding your way around a brand new place where your recognize nothing. To make the unknown more exciting and less distressing, it helps to do a little homework ahead of time. Although it’s impossible to prepare for every “unknown” you will encounter along the way, doing some preparation beforehand will build confidence for the solo or first-time traveler, more than anything. Below are some of my basic tips for preparing to encounter the unfamiliar during a trip abroad.
Learn a few basics of the local language. Several readers have already asked me how I travel solo to countries where English is not spoken. The truth is, most people know some amount of English in most places you may be traveling. However, it helps to learn some language basics of the country you’re traveling to in advance, keeping in mind you will also learn a good bit once you actually arrive (thank you, Joslin, for teaching me “how to flirt” in Afrikaans!)
For my travels this summer, I have decided to focus most of my preparation on learning French, since I will be spending a relatively large amount of time in and around Paris. From what I’ve heard, the people there are less likely to choose to speak English and expect you to get on their level and speak French primarily! I recommend the Duolingo app for your smartphone (free in the App store). Duolingo will quiz you simultaneously on vocabulary, verb conjugation, and common phrases by using matching exercises, bi-directional translation exercises, and microphone recording. The app will also send you push notifications and emails to remind you to stay regular on your practice. (If you fail to practice regularly, the app will even send a very sad message that says, “We see these notifications aren’t working, so we’re going to stop sending them…” 😦 )
As for the other countries I am visiting, I plan to rely on the very basic skills I still have left from Spanish courses in college, as well as an Eastern European language phrasebook and Southeast Asia dictionary. As a last resort, I also plan to carry this picture dictionary, although I plan to avoid using it at all costs! (I feel like this screams “tourist,” but let’s be real…I am a tourist. And it is best to be prepared!). My goal is to come away from each country with at least a few solid phrases and expressions I can use the rest of my life!
Practice your mental math to calculate currencies. When planning a trip abroad, it’s important to keep an eye on exchange rates. During my time working in foreign exchange, I paid attention to exchange rates down to the pip/half-pip. However, it’s important to only know general “ballpark” rates to be able to calculate exchange rates in your head. Depending on where you are traveling, one of the most important rates you need to learn is the EUR/USD rate. For the last year, EUR/USD has been in the +/- 1.10 range, meaning 1 euro has been worth about 1.10 US dollars. This means Europe is a slightly “more expensive” place to spend money than the US. Despite this value difference, now is a great time for Americans to travel to Europe, as the US dollar is the strongest it has been since being at parity with the Euro in the early 2000s!
To calculate prices, I know that the cost of something in euros is really that plus around 10% in US dollars (just move the decimal place over once to get 10%), or the price in euros x 1.10. (For example, something that costs me 2 euros really costs me roughly $2.20, something that costs 45 euros really costs me roughly 45 + 4.5, or $49.50, etc.)
It is important to realize that the Euro is the “base” currency against USD, and the same is true for the British pound, Australian dollar, New Zealand dollar. However, for most currency crosses, the US dollar will be the base currency. This means that when my hostel reservation in Budapest costs me 4,800 Hungarian forints per night, I only owe $17 per night (1 USD is worth approximately 280 HUF, so I divide 4,800 by 280 to get ~$17/night. Very reasonable!)
(Note to my former math students who may be reading this–see how useful math can be!?)
For those of you without an FX background or who would like to simply double-check your currency conversions, I recommend the free Oanda Currency Converter smartphone app. I will be keeping this on my phone, and referencing as needed!
Use maps on apps! Living in NYC has instilled me with a deep love of and appreciation for public transportation. I have had the NYCMate app on my iPhone since day #1 of living in the city, and I am now seeking out similar apps for cities where I plan to use public transportation a good bit. So far, I’ve been able to find similar apps for the metro systems in Paris, Berlin, London, and Munich. Of course, it’s always good to have old-fashioned paper maps on hand for when/if your smartphone runs out of battery (gasp!). Most hostels provide maps of the city for free.
What do you mean it is 45 degrees?! After riding for 4 hours under the scorching African summer sun and drinking ~2 liters of water to stay hydrated, imagine my surprise when my safari guide told me it was 45 degrees! I knew he was, of course, giving the temperature in Celsius. However, measuring temperature on the Fahrenheit scale my entire life means I need to do an extra calculation in my head when discussing temperatures in every other part of the world (just 5 countries measure temperature in Fahrenheit!)
The equation for the conversion is F= C*1.8 + 32 (Former math students who are still reading–this is your standard y=mx+b equation!)
However, the shortcut is just to multiply the Celsius temperature by 2 to approximate the Fahrenheit temperature.
Until my next post, totsiens! Or goodbye (in Afrikaans)!