15 Traveling Lessons Learned from International Travel

Heather traveling on a plane- Traveling Lessons

Traveling overseas can be a stressful experience for some, but not for me. Over the years, I have been going to and from Europe and Asia. I have learned a few things. The lessons learned while traveling has made my travel planning and time spent in different countries easier. Here are my 15 Traveling Lessons learned from International Travel.

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You Learn How to Travel

The most important lesson learned is learning how to travel. By taking that leap of faith and jumping with both feet into the digital nomad lifestyle, it has fast-forwarded my learning process. I have learned how to navigate public transportation, find inexpensive accommodations and cheap flights, know how much you need to travel with and figure my way around an unfamiliar city. Friends I have met along my travels have shared their knowledge, and I have been a sponge. Learning from others is a great way to master traveling, but the best way to learn how to travel is just to do it!
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Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Little things can go wrong, and mistakes can be made, but the trick is not to get mad. Just learn from them not to repeat them. One of the biggest ones you can make is not to understand the currency exchange from USD to the currency where you are at. You need to make sure you take out the right amount of money at ATMs. Some machines set limits high, and if you are not paying attention, you could take out more money than you needed. This happened to me when I was in Prague. I didn’t pay attention and hit the fast cash button without realizing I could have entered a smaller amount. This mistake ended up costing me a bit when I exchanged the money. But, instead of getting mad at myself, I chalked it up to a learning opportunity. Nobody got hurt, Nothing was damaged that couldn’t be replaced. It was only money. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not rich or made of money. But, when traveling, it isn’t worth getting upset over every little thing. Save it for when something big happens if it does.

Lesson Learned – Using a currency converter has been a godsend for me ever since Prague. I use the Unit Converter app that converts temperature, weights, length, and of course, currency.

Leave Yourself Enough Time for Connections

This is an expensive lesson to learn. When scheduling flights, make sure to have enough time between connections. I messed up and scheduled a flight out of Las Vegas too close (1.5 hours) to my plane arriving from China. I didn’t realize that landing and having to go through customs in the international terminal that I would then need to take a bus to the domestic terminal to check in again. Oops! This mistake ended up with me having to pay a change fee to move my flight to a later time.

Lesson Learned – make sure that you have at least 3-4 hours when switching from international to domestic flights. And it helps to know the airport layout ahead of time, try airport terminal maps, or the GateGuru app.

Have the Correct Travel Documents

Another costly lesson to learn is not to be aware of or have the correct travel documents when traveling through different countries, especially being an American citizen traveling through China. When I arrived in Bangkok from Chiang Mai to head home through China, I was stopped by immigration control. This was a very stressful experience as I had minimal Thai language skills, and they spoke limited English. The attendants from Air Asia stopped me on my transfer because my transit through China happened to go over 24 hours. They said if I got on my next flight, I would get stuck in China, which was not something I wanted.

As I sat in what felt like Immigration jail while the officials in military uniforms held onto my passport, I was told I had to book another flight out of Thailand immediately. One lady actually stood over me while I searched for a flight that didn’t go through China. I found one that took me through the Philippines for a lot more money. I was eventually able to get a refund for the flight through China, but I lost out on my flight from California to home.

So, on my next return home flights from Asia to the States, I prepared for every contingency. I applied for a transit visa through the China Embassy. It took me a week to get it in Chiang Mai, but it was a relief not to have to worry about being stopped at the airport and have to buy a completely different flight.

Lesson Learned – review the visa and documents needed for each country you are going through ahead of time.Airport in China

Secured Bags are Essential

Having someone take your possessions without your knowledge while traveling can be devastating. And making it almost a year of constant traveling without any incident, I thought I was indestructible. I was wrong! I was not going to be the exception; I was going to be one of the statistics. It happened one evening in Riga, Latvia. We were walking through a tunnel and just turned to go up the steps back to our hotel when I noticed a lady that seemed too close behind my friend out of the corner of my eye. It was at that moment that I had the urge to turn around quickly. That was when I noticed the lady directly behind me holding my camera. Yep, she opened my backpack and took out my heavy camera without me knowing. All I did was reach out and take my camera back, and we kept walking to our hotel. My friend was so surprised that I stayed calm throughout the entire situation. I don’t know how I did that, but it’s nice to know that I can stay calm in crazy situations like these.

Lesson Learned – invest in a travel safe bag like PacSafe or if you don’t have those, turn your backpack around so the zipper is next to your body.Heather with PacSafe Backpack

You Make Instant Connections with People

One of the biggest things about travel is that you make instant connections with like-minded people. People that you meet while traveling either on tours, in hostels, at conferences, or you could be thrown together during a similar situation could become life long friends. The friends that I have met on my travels are the ones that I love meeting up in different countries. I also have experienced connections with locals where I went back six months after I first left, and they still remember me. They remember what I order and give me a massive smile like I was just there yesterday. For some, it is hard to make friends, but on your travels, it does tend to be easier to make quick and lasting friendships.

Lesson Learned – Don’t be afraid to smile and say Hi! That person you meet on your travels could become one of your greatest friends.

Be Patient

This is a hard lesson to learn if you have a limited supply of patience to share. Although I have learned that an endless amount of patience while traveling overseas is necessary. I have had delayed trains and buses, stops by immigration control, hit by pickpockets, missed, and canceled flights. Each one has tested my patience, but none other than the one around my birthday this year.

I left Scotland at 6 in the morning to arrive in Brussels to find out they had canceled my flight to Strasbourg, France. Strasbourg was where I was meeting my friend, Michelle, and her family to celebrate my birthday, and we had concert tickets for the next day. I went to the service desk to wait in line with the rest of the passengers that needed alternative arrangements. Let me tell you tensions were high. There were able to put me on another flight hours later to Basel, Switzerland.

At the time, I had no idea where they were sending me. They promised to get me to Strasbourg from there. When I arrived in Basel, I found another person that needed to go to Strasbourg, and we figured out together a way to get us where we needed to go. Brussels Air forgot to inform Basel airport that they were sending us and that they were supposed to provide us with bus transportation to Strasbourg. There was a total of nine of us that were eventually put in two taxis and driven to Strasbourg. I got to my destination six hours after I was supposed to. I didn’t get upset during all of this, I kept my cool and found a way to my destination.

Lesson Learned – Things don’t always go according to plan. Have plenty of patience when traveling because you are going to need it!Heather in taxi heading to Strasbourg

Leap out of Your Comfort Zone

This could be a no brainer on the lessons learned. You have to leave your comfort zone when you travel because you are entering into new territory in unfamiliar circumstances. And nothing helps push you out of your comfort zone faster than when things go wrong, being in a strange situation where nobody speaks English or bugs. The later is the one that gets me the most. I had to deal with both of these on a trip to Laos. What I thought when picking our accommodations was that I was choosing nice upper-end places. And what I got was an experience that I won’t forget in a very long time.

The first guest house had a pipe burst overnight, and we left it just closed the door until morning. It was like Niagara Falls in the bathroom and good thing the floor was lower than the main level. The second place had ants all along the bathroom door jamb, and my companion brought home an Asian centipede back from the Kuang Si waterfalls and left it for me on the bathroom floor. Nice, huh?! I had to go and get the manager to help remove it with tongs. Of course, that was after he screamed like a baby when he noticed it fall out of his hair. The last place is where a bug landed in my hair, and I did not see it until the host from the hostel knocked it out and onto the floor.

Lesson Learned – Yep, Asia has a lot of bugs, and you have not to freak out, or you will be doing that 100% time while traveling in Asia.

Appreciate and Respect Other Cultures

Being apart of another culture helps you to appreciate and respect their way of life and beliefs. It broadens your mind and enables you to see things in a different light. It might even give you insight into your feelings. During my time in Thailand, I visited over 60 temples. Visiting and exploring the Buddha temples, I didn’t understand what was going on or much about the religion. I knew enough to have my shoulders and knees covered, but I wanted to learn more to understand their belief system fully. I scheduled a tour with a personal guide that would give me more insight into their life. I was able to give alms to the monks and even participated in a monk chat. We talked about finding balance in life, among other things. It was inspirational!

Lesson Learned – Dig into a new culture, and you might learn more about yourself in the process.Giving Alms to the Monks in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Be Where History Happened

It is humbling when you realize you are walking in the same place that history was made. And when you are traveling overseas, you will find this happening quite a bit. One of the most significant places I recently explored was the Mỹ Sơn Hindu temples in Vietnam. The valley where these temples are located saw a considerable portion of the Vietnam war. The Viet Cong hid among the temples resulting in tremendous bombings during the war. There are portions of the park that you can’t even walk in because there are still mines there. You can also see the craters where the bombs went off right next to the beautiful abandoned temples (see photo below – the hole is in the foreground). Mỹ Sơn leaves quite an impact on you when you visit.

Lesson Learned – Seek out areas where significant history occurred. The emotional impact of these places can not be understated, and you can learn more than history books can ever teach you.Mỹ Sơn Temples in Vietnam

Learn to Adapt 

Learning to adapt is key to ensuring that your travels go smoothly and for your acceptance in the differences between their countries and the U.S. There will be places in Europe and most definitely in Asia where you will find situations that will astound you with the lack of rules and guidelines. You will see three, four and even five people on scooters, kids standing on the floorboards in front of parents on motorbikes, cars driving anywhere on the road, people riding in the back of pickup trucks and people sitting on bumpers, car roofs, or just hanging on to the side while it drives by you. You need to understand their traffic patterns while driving in cars or on scooters. In some places, there are no stoplights, and it seems to be a free for all, but the locals beep their horns and manage to get through the intersection without an incident. You will need to learn bus schedules that are cheaper than UBER or GRAB to get around, or you can walk everywhere, which is what I tend to do. If you choose walking, you will have to learn the way to cross the street. Each place is different in where you cross and how brave you need to be while crossing the road; cars don’t always stop at the crosswalks for pedestrians.

Lesson Learned – Be willing to adapt to their way of getting around their city. Once you do, you will be confident in getting around everywhere. Thailand traffic - traveling lessons

Try New Things

Be willing to try new things when you travel. Whether it is a new activity, learning a new skill, or eating new foods, the joy in trying something new and finding you enjoy it will be immeasurable. I have taken cooking classes in Florence, Thailand, and Vietnam. I have learned to make Chinese Lanterns and even learned the process of making paper out of Elephant Poo. And I have tried so many different types of food that I have never thought I would eat if I would have stayed home. Traveling overseas brings you right to the forefront of new and sometimes exotic foods.

Lesson Learned – Try to get out of your head and throw out your preconceived notions of what type of food you enjoy. Don’t expect 4-star restaurants in Asia. Some of the best food can be found in the little back garages on side alleys. You might find yourself liking foods that you never thought possible.

Learn to Communicate with People in Different Cultures

I have always loved learning new languages. I might not be able to pronounce the words correctly, but I find that attempting to speak in their language helps bridge the communication gap. Learning a few words in every country I visit allows me to say hello, thank you, and even order food. Especially in France, it is beneficial to learn a few french words to have them treat you amicably.

When I knew I was going to the Czech Republic, I practiced Czech for three months before I arrived. And if you know languages, Czech is a challenging language to learn (so many consonants and hardly any vowels). I wanted to be able to impress my hosts on the press trip with being able to order my lunch entirely in Czech. I ordered my meal, and then the waitress immediately started speaking to my host a mile a minute. I asked her later what she said, and she mentioned that the waitress asked how long I have been speaking Czech, and she told her for three months. She thought it was much longer cause I spoke it so well. Wow! What a compliment! This just made me want to learn more languages. Although I am in no way fluent, I have been learning Thai, Vietnamese, Czech, Italian, and of course, French.

Lesson Learned – Take the time to learn a few phrases for the country you are going to visit. You can learn languages on Duolingo. Don’t assume that they all speak English. They might, but don’t assume! If you can’t, a smile and pointing always work in a pinch.

You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Travel

This should probably be the first traveling lesson to be learned. Traveling should not be something that you have to save for years to take that trip. There are so many apps and websites that help you to save money while you travel. My favorite is Skyscanner. I use this site consistently when looking for flights overseas. You type in your airport and then type in Everywhere for your destination. It will list from cheapest to pricey all the destinations you can go to. This is the best way to find cheap flights and another tip is to search for the whole month. If you are free to travel on a non-specific time, you can save tons of money. I will be writing more about these travel hacks in an upcoming blog post.

Lesson Learned – Don’t wait to take that vacation. Use Skyscanner to find cheap flights to everywhere.

Develop Confidence

Traveling overseas helps you to develop confidence in all aspects of your life. I have gotten lost in more places than I can count, but I know that I can always find my way back, especially if I have my phone. Interacting with people is easier now than before. I am more confident in traveling the big cities and using public transportation. I have traveled solo to Africa to photograph animals on a safari, wandered through Italy for five weeks exploring all the narrow streets and big tourist spots, and lived in Asia for four months during 2019. All these travel experiences and others have given me the confidence and knowledge that I can handle anything that comes my way.

Lesson Learned – Break free! Traveling can instill in you a strong desire to do anything, and you will know in your heart that you have the confidence to do whatever you want.

Summary

I would have never dreamed that taking my first solo trip to Cozumel, Mexico, more than 20 years ago would have started my insatiable appetite for traveling and lead to the journey that I am embarking on now. Comprehending other cultures different from where you were raised is essential for growth as a person. The more you know about the world, the better. There are so many differences between growing up in Michigan and living in southeast Asia. It is truly an eye-opening experience to see how the other side of the world lives. They own so little compared to us in the States. They live in houses without electricity, have no refrigerator or microwave, go to the market each morning for fresh food, and laugh and smile at every person that crosses their path.

Lesson Learned –  Take a page out of their books, and appreciate what you have and not what you don’t! And don’t be afraid to travel! The world is waiting for you to see what it has to offer you by taking that first step and booking that flight!

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Further Reading

If you are planning an overseas trip, check out these posts for further travel inspiration:

4 Comments

  • Andrea Best 24June2020 at 10:11 PM Reply

    Heather, this is an awesome article. So many great lessons! I can’t wait to travel again!!!

  • Elizabeth 3January2020 at 10:34 PM Reply

    There is so much than can be learned from traveling. I agree you don’t have to be rich to travel. People think it is so expensive, but there are a lot of ways to save. It’s so nice to make instant connections with people while traveling. I find it so much easier to connect with people on the road than I do back home. Smiling and saying ‘hi’ is a simple, yet important lesson to learn!

    • Heather 3January2020 at 10:45 PM Reply

      Thank you, Elizabeth! I love connecting with people on my travels everyone seems so much happier in other places than back at home.

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