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Parlez-vous Français? Learning Languages, Calculating Currencies, and Other Tips

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.IMG_6667 (2)

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!)

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Apparently, Duolingo thinks this phrase will be useful to me during my travels!

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!

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EUR vs. USD exchange rate since the inception of the Euro in 1999. Source: ECB

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.)

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It’s not as bad as it seems!

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!

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The NYCMate app. Check the app store for similar free apps for any cities you plan to visit!

 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)!

Beauty Tips for the Female Backpacker

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Because we don’t all “wake up like this,” Beyonce!

Living out of a backpack for an extended period of time presents a special challenge for the beauty-conscious traveler. Below, I’ve listed a few tips to keep yourself looking great so you can focus on the beauty around you while exploring!

 

  1. Just mascara, lipstick, and a bronzer/blush go a long way. Depending on your destination, you may find it is easier to wear no makeup at all (I often have!). However, it is always nice to have a few staples on hand for those nights you want to doll up. When you have to pack everything you need for a few months in a backpack, space is very limited. Pick out the 2-3 essentials you truly depend on from your makeup kit, and leave the rest at home. For me, this is mascara, lipstick, and bronzer.
  2. If you straighten your hair regularly, consider getting a Brazilian keratin treatment. If you have hard to manage hair that reacts unpredictably to humidity (like me!), a Brazilian keratin treatment from a salon will do wonders. For me, the treatment completely eliminates the need for a blowdryer and straightener. Post-treatment, my hair air-dries in half the time and maintains a manageable texture, eliminating the need for a straightener! This is extremely helpful, considering space in my backpack is limited and a blowdryer and straightener would take up a good amount of room. Also, being able to shower and go without worrying about my hair saves so much time on the road, leaving more time for visiting with fellow adventurers and sightseeing! The treatment can be a bit on the pricey end (ranging from $80 to $300), but lasts for 3-6 months. Make sure you only use sulfate-free shampoo and conditioner to make it last longer. I like the Organix and Aveeno brands, often available in travel sizes at drugstores.
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    Wet hair, don’t care! Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

     

  3. If you must pack a straightener, purchase a mini-straightener. This will save a good bit of space! While I am not packing this for my summer travels, I love my trusty Mini Flat Iron from Sephora. If you absolutely cannot live without it, this tool will save a lot of room while packing.
  4. Dry shampoo and baby powder work miracles. In case you don’t have time to wash your hair between exploring all day and going out in the evening, a dry shampoo will add volume to your hair and give it a fresh look. I recommend Not Your Mother’s Clean Freak Dry Shampoo in an airline-approved travel size (pack a few cans!). This is available at most drugstores. Old-fashioned Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder applied at your roots provides the same benefits at a cheaper price.
  5. Use sunscreen with a minimum SPF 50. Even if you “don’t burn” (which is usually my case…until it isn’t!), you will when you’re exploring non-stop in the sun from dawn to dusk. I recommend Coppertone Sport in a travel size, which is waterproof (pack a few!). I prefer a lotion to a spray, as a spray can leave unsightly streaks if you are not extra careful when applying.

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    The “bushman’s soap” (found in the bush of southern Africa) will provide instant soothing and healing to a severe sunburn. All you have to do is find the Devil’s Thorn plant in the bush and apply water!
  6. Pack a hat or two, as well as a Buff. Hats are great for keeping the sun off of your face and your hair in place in all weather conditions. I always pack a trusty baseball cap, a straw brimmed hat, and a Buff. A Buff is a convertible headband/bandana piece, and it’s great because you can wear it so many different ways! They also come in a variety of colors and patterns. I always keep one tied to my backpack just in case I need to get my hair under control at any given moment.
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I also highly recommend purchasing matching hats with your friends you make while traveling when possible!

7. Just let go and embrace the natural! I am someone who enjoys consistently wearing makeup in my regular everyday life. It makes me feel ladylike and put-together. As my grandmother says, if the barn needs painting, paint it! However, part of the beauty of traveling is just going with the flow. While in Africa, I did not wear makeup at all until the very end of the trip (and only because it was Christmas night, and we celebrated by dressing up and having a braai!) Not wearing makeup was truly a liberating experience, and I feel like I grew more comfortable in my own skin as a result. Stay focused on the experience, and your inner glow will provide all the beautification you need!

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Embracing the makeup-free life while hiking in the beautiful Matopos, Zimbabwe!

 

How Affordable is Traveling Abroad?

 

10338680_10206454388371024_8528537077188326176_o“Travel is the one thing you buy that makes you richer.”

I could not agree more with this statement. Travel (along with education) is the most important investment you can make in your personal development.

But, let’s be real. Traveling is expensive. Once you decide to travel abroad, it helps to have a game plan in place to make the trip a reality. You do not have to have a trust fund or win the lottery to see the world! With some research, extra attention to spending habits, and patience, the world will be yours to see. Below are some of the tips and advice I’ve found to be helpful in the process.

Save, save, save! Once you decide upon a trip abroad as a goal, pay yourself to go. What do I mean? Take a close look at your budget (fixed costs v. discretionary spending). What can you live without? It is really as simple as deciding you can live without certain things, and setting the money you would otherwise spend aside. For example, as soon as I got back from Africa, I was so inspired to save money to travel more that I cut off my cable!

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There was no cable available in my tent in Africa, and I found out I was very happy to live without it!

Websites like Mint can even help you set savings goals for vacations, and track your contributions on a regular basis. Also, most tour companies like EF Tours and G Adventures will let you make payments on the cost of your trip starting several months in advance, instead of paying the amount in full. Once you decide to travel, treat the saving process like paying bills (except this is a fun bill that actually gives back to you!). Remember, tours are all-inclusive (sometimes even including flights to and from), so this can be helpful if you want to work with a hard figure for your savings plan.

If you’re in college, study abroad! Often, financial aid packages will cover the costs of tuition and room and board expenses for study abroad, and living in a foreign country can be equal to (if you’re careful) or less than living in the US. My one regret from college was not pursuing a study abroad opportunity. All my friends who did it says it was a life-changing experience. At least visit the travel abroad office to investigate your options. It never hurts to ask!

Be on the lookout for flight deals. Flying is not as expensive as you’d think it might be! The growth of low-cost airlines has been a boon for budget-minded travelers, especially in Europe where they’ve been around a while.

I use Kayak to search for flight deals. It is a “metasearch” engine that searches for good deals across multiple search engines, so it’s better than just using Expedia or Priceline. It also includes a lot of deals from low cost airline providers.  You are more likely to find a good deal on a flight if you can be flexible with your schedule (I recommend using the “flexible dates” function to compare prices across a range of workable departure and return dates). I also really like using Skypicker. Often, their results will show up in a Kayak search, but sometimes I like cross-checking against their website just in case (just be careful, because all Skypicker sales are final!)

For my upcoming long-term summer travel, I’ve managed to lock in my intercontinental flights (US to Asia to South America to Europe to US) for a much cheaper rate using Kayak/Skypicker than I found when searching for an around the world (“RTW”) flight ticket. However, this type of ticket may be sensible for you if you have a firm schedule for long-term travel. I highly recommend doing your research on Kayak and comparing it to RTW ticket prices you find on Airtreks.

Tip: I have no idea if it is true or if it is just me being superstitious, but I always search Kayak in “incognito mode” on Google Chrome, so as not to inflate prices on multiple searches. Maybe it is me being silly…but passing along, just in case!

Be as flexible as possible. As mentioned above, be flexible with your dates as much as you can be when searching flights by departure and return date (for example, it is often cheaper to leave on a Wednesday than a Friday). Also, be flexible with your airport of departure if you can. For example, searching a round trip ticket from Atlanta to London yields a price $910, while searching a round trip ticket from Birmingham, AL to London shows a price of $1,625…big difference!

Track “small” expenses. Something as basic as your passport will cost you $30, which is important to keep in mind as these small but critical expenses add up. Some countries will charge you for a visa to enter (anywhere from 35 USD for Zimbabwe to 80 USD for Vietnam to 135 USD for Bolivia), but many if not all European countries and some South American countries will grant US citizens a free visa for a period of time, usually less than 90 days.

Try to avoid foreign transaction fees and currency exchange rates. Keep an eye on foreign transaction fees as you book transportation and accommodation overseas in advance, as well as when you use your credit card abroad. It is best to try to open a checking account with Charles Schwab (reimburses ATM fees) or obtain a credit card with no foreign transaction fee, such as a Chase Sapphire or Capital One card. Bank of America charges a 3% foreign transaction fee for each purchase made outside of the U.S. or Mexico…ouch! Try to use ATMs instead of currency exchange kiosks once abroad, as they will charge you exorbitant rates. You can usually order currencies from your bank ahead of your departure for a much lower rate.

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Beware of foreign transaction fees and currency exchange kiosks!

Stay in hostels. This advice is especially true if you’re young and single (yeah!), but I’ve also found some family-friendly hostels in my search process. Hostels provide dorm-like conditions for the budget-minded traveler at costs as low as $8/night (this is what I am paying each night in Chiang Mai before I meet with my tour group in Bangkok). The trick is to make sure you reserve a hostel with a reputation for being clean and safe, as well as one that provides extra perks like free wifi, free breakfast, and a washing machine. I used Hostelword as well as word of mouth from friends when planning my hostel stays for this summer. Hostelworld features good, detailed reviews for each hostel. I also like their “flexible booking” system, meaning you can pay an extra $1 to receive a credit back on your deposit to use for another reservation should you cancel or change your reservation. This has proven very handy, as my plans have already fluctuated multiple times even a few months out!

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The Man in Seat 61…he’s awesome!

Research the train system. I’m actually very excited for this tip, as I have yet to master the rail system in Europe (I’ve heard it’s great though!). While I am using low-cost airlines for some travel within Europe, I will be using the train for much of my travels. I recommend crunching the numbers to see if it is more cost-effective for you to buy a Eurail pass, or just buy tickets as you go. For me, I will just be buying tickets as I go along. The point is…don’t assume a “pass” is the cheapest option! Visit The Man in Seat 61 for awesome advice regarding train travel.

Enjoy and appreciate destinations closer to home. In the meantime, enjoy your home and the surrounding area as a destination! I’ve met plenty of people on my travels who have never visited the US, so take time to appreciate what is unique about the place around you. When it comes down to it, we all live in and are from a great travel destination…so own it!

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I love being a tourist wherever I live! This shot is from Memphis, Tennessee when I lived there a few years ago.

I hope my tips have helped you realize traveling can become a reality with some planning ahead. Do you have any additional tips or questions about saving money to travel abroad?

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A riverboat on the Zambezi in Zambia, which reminded me of Memphis!

 

To Tour or Not to Tour: Planning the First Solo Trip

 

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“Sailing ’round the world in a dirty gondola…” – The Band

Going abroad for the first time can be a daunting experience, especially when you’re traveling solo. However, if you have no one else who can travel with you at that time, it may be the only option you have. I have traveled alone on both trips to Italy and Africa. When I left the comfort and familiarity of NYC to board the flight to Italy alone almost 2 years ago, I was practically shaking with anxiety. However, as soon as I arrived in Rome, it took almost no time to realize that living independently in NYC for nearly 1 year had more than prepared me for the streets of Italy’s most fantastic cities!

If you are traveling abroad for the first time solo, meeting with a tour group may help alleviate some nervousness. However, depending on your destination, you may be able to self-plan your trip to cut costs and fit in more of what you want to see and do without having to cooperate with a strict group schedule.

For my first trip abroad to Italy, I was scheduled to meet up with a good friend I had taught high school with in Memphis, as well as one of her friends from college. My friend had arranged for the 3 of us to travel with EF Tours, with the majority of our group being from the Memphis area. I would fly solo from NYC to Rome to meet my friend and the group there. Given my lack of experience in foreign travel, I willingly agreed to this plan…at that time, I did not know the first thing about planning a trip in Italy! However, my friend had to drop out of the trip just a few days before our departure due to family circumstances, and I found myself traveling across Italy with a group of relative strangers. I grew to enjoy the company of the group, but often found myself splitting off to see more sights at my own pace.

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Climbing the Duomo in Florence, a solo feat! Not for the claustrophobic…

There were both pros and cons to using an organized tour company for my first solo trip:

Pros:

  • I knew I had a group waiting on me in Rome and expecting my arrival. This was reassuring, just in case the unforeseen happened!
  • Pre-arranged transport and accommodations between all the major cities on our agenda (Rome, Florence, Venice) as well as some less-visited towns (Assisi, Spoleto, Bologna) proved extremely convenient.
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Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi…a beautiful and moving visit I may not have made if I were traveling completely solo, since it’s a little off the beaten path! This painting spells “peace” in every language.
  • Several accommodations were outside of the main cities, meaning I was able to see a different side of Italy that was less touristy. For example, dancing with these nuns we stayed with outside of Venice was definitely a highlight of the trip! They also served very good wine. You can visit their website here.

Cons:

  • Several accommodations were outside of the main cities, so I felt like I had less time than I desired in places like Rome and Florence.
  • The tour ran on a very strict schedule! There was little time for wandering on my own (although, I sometimes created this for myself by splitting off from the group when I knew there was something else I wanted to see or do).
  • Once I got the hang of being in a foreign country after the first few days, I realized I could have planned the entire trip on my own, cut down on costs by staying in hostels and traveling by train, and seen more of the sights I wanted to see!
  • Most of the meals were pre-arranged, which was a real bummer. Although it was included in the tour price (wine was always extra though), this did not allow me the opportunity or freedom to explore as many restaurants as I wanted. I feel like I need to go back to Italy to experience more authentic dining!

All things considered, I still booked my trip to Africa last winter through a tour company. This time, I used G Adventures, based on a friend’s recommendation (thanks DJ!). Even though I was much more comfortable with the idea of solo travel at this point, G Adventures (contracted through Indaba Explorations) provided the overland vehicle for transport, camping equipment, and meals cooked over the campfire each night, making it a sensible decision. This time around, I actually thoroughly enjoyed being in a tour group—everyone was in the 23-35 age range, we had amazing local guides (shout out to Joslin and Francois!), and there was plenty of free time (when we weren’t on an organized safari of course). More on how much I loved my Africa travel group later 🙂

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On safari with new friends in Zimbabwe

This summer, I will be using G Adventures again as I travel through Southeast Asia. However, I will be backpacking in South America with a good friend from NYC, and taking on Europe completely solo for 7 weeks (I will share more on my itinerary later)!!

Have you ever used a tour group for solo travel? If so, what was your experience like?

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