Friday, February 8, 2008

Tips for the First Time Traveler

I prepared this list of tips for my friend Judy who traveled with me Paris October 2000. It was her first trip to Paris and I wanted her to know about some of the differences she would encounter while in Europe and to give her other advise that would have helped her to have a memorable trip. I have recently updated this with additional information for today’s travels. I hope this will help you.

1. It’s not home:
Many first time travelers have the expectation that they'll find everything "American" in the country they travel to. Not so! Remember that other countries have different cultures, different foods, different languages, different ways of living, and different cultures. Some people find the French rude and uncooperative. Based on my experiences, I disagree. Plumbing is different (squat toilets! tiny bathrooms, tiny showers, “shared” bathrooms in restaurants, etc), the French meal lasting two to three hours; the well-dressed Madame. To travel is to experience new and different things. Have an open mind and enjoy these new sights, sounds, and experiences. Without this, you may be disappointed in your trip, so adapt to your new environment.

2. Don’t be the loud, rude tourist.
I did not use the word “American” in my title, because I have encountered European tourists who have been just as, or worse than Americans. The French hold their conversations quietly and find loud tourists to be rude. Keep your conversations to a low level and no obnoxious laughing!

3. Learn some French phrases; you will be appreciated.
This is so true in any country. Although you may butcher the pronunciation of a foreign word or phrase and may not learn it completely, most foreigners appreciate your efforts trying to communicate with them in their language and not yours. Even if you only learn to say in French, “Good morning” “Please” Thank you”, The bill please” and Good evening,” you open up doors to interacting with many people: The baker, the store clerk, the waiter, the ticket man at the metro station or museum. In most cases, your efforts will be rewarded with help of that person who may even talk to you in English.

4. Study up on the places you will visit.
Planning is the biggest part of traveling! Purchase one or two guidebooks and read about the places you will be visiting. You can also pick up some books at the library. Learn some of the history and culture of France. From reading, you will have a greater knowledge of what there is to see and do and can plan a well-rounded trip. Would you want to miss that great outdoor market around the corner of your hotel? How about that special museum or town festival? Watch movies that are filmed in the country of your destination. Rent travel videos such as Rick Steves Travels in Europe or other travel videos.

5. You and your travel partner
Be responsible for you own experiences! Read guidebooks on your destination. Talk with your travel partner about the things you want to see and do. Sit down together and discuss your likes and dislikes and your expectations. Do not expect your experienced traveler partner to guide you around everywhere. Come up with some itineraries that the two of you can do together and plan for some days or half days apart. It’s great to do some things on your own and later meet for dinner and talk about your own experiences. Open communication is the key to a successful trip with your travel partner. You certainly do not want to return from a trip telling your travel partner you missed something because you did not know about it or just followed the leader all the time.

6. Pack light!
Pack as light as possible! When you are traveling around Europe and have to use various modes of transportation, such as the bus, train, metro, boat, plane, or walking, you should pack as light as possible. Imagine having to carry more than one bag (or a very large suitcase) from the airport to the metro to the hotel? Some hotels do not have elevators. It is not worth carrying large, heavy suitcases. I recommend a carry-on suitcase to avoid lost luggage and the fact that you will be forced to take less. The average size of a carry-on (with pullout handle and wheels) is 9 x 14 x 22 inches, 45 inches total. Many suggest removing half of what you have packed. This seems a little scary for some who want to have fresh clothes every day of their trip, but it is doable. Bring clothes that do not wrinkle easily and are lightweight. Coordinate your cloths so that you can mix your tops with your pants or skirts. Neutral colors work best, especially in places like Paris where black is the norm. Bring fast drying socks and underwear and wash only those items. If you really need to clean your cloths, you will have to find a laundromat. All-cotton socks take a long time to dry: a mixed blend is usually a good choice. There are also other products out that are lightweight and quick drying. Check out the various travel-clothing companies. Bring no more than 2 pairs of shoes, 3 at the most!

7. Jetlag.
I find that when traveling overseas it is best to adjust mentally to the new time zone in advance. When I board my flight in the US, I immediately change my watch to the local time. I bring an eye mask, an inflatable neck cushion, and earplugs and try to sleep on the flight. It is usually difficult for me because the seats are usually cramped. I have read that it is best to avoid alcohol and heavy meals on the flights and to drink plenty of water. On my last trip, I tried Melatonin, but it did not really help me. Once I arrive in Europe, I stay awake. I do not take any naps, but try to stay up until around 9pm the first night. Everyday after that I get up around 8:00-8:30am. However, because I am so excited to be in Europe that the jetlag does not really bother me. Don’t harp on being tired. Don’t say “Gee, it’s 2am in the States…I haven’t slept in 27 hours.”

8. Bring a day bag
During the day while out sightseeing, carry what you might need for the day: camera, guidebook, city map, money for the day, journal, pen, umbrella, etc. Make sure you can close it securely. I also use my day bag as my purse on the flights as my second carry-on bag. This holds my passport, money, tickets, camera, film, journal, tourist information, and any other important documents.

9. Bring comfortable shoes
Your shoes need to be comfortable for all day walking. Do not buy a new pair just before a trip. Make sure you have time to break them in. The best way to see and explore a town or city is by walking. Many great views are from above, so you will want to climb the many steps of towers, Cathedrals, monuments, and other buildings.

10. Walk, do not ride.
There is so much to see in Paris (and in any city, town or village) and the best way to see everything is by walking! If a particular area is far away, you can take the metro or bus to that area and then do your walking seeing the various sights, streets, shops, museums, etc. Many people choose to go on a bus tour. That is fine for some people, but they miss out on a lot of things: a lovely courtyard, a park, a great pastry shop, and a small church. Once in Barcelona, my Mother and I had some time to spare before having to take the train to Madrid. We were staying in the Gothic quarter. Our balcony faced the back of a church, so we decided to visit it to see how it looked from the front. Well, to our surprise it faced a lovely small piazza filled with a few cafés, shops and hotels. It was quaint and charming.

11. Do not rush to see everything.
Don't think you can "do it all" on your trip. There just is not enough time to see everything in one trip. Relax and enjoy what you can see and remember that there will be opportunities to return again someday. This goes back to #4 above: Learn what there is to see and do and be selective. Pick the highlights of a city or something that really stands out to you.

12. Photography/film
Take more film than you think you will need. Film is expensive in Europe and you can always use the unused rolls at home. A general rule of thumb is 1 roll a day (I average 2 rolls per day, depending on the location), so add a few extras to your count. Take extra photos. You never know how they will come out. I know I have overdone photographing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, but they are my memories. If buying a new camera, go through at least 2 rolls of film to make sure you know how to use the camera properly. If using a point-and-shoot, I recommend Kodak or Fuji 400 speed film. Bring a spare battery for your camera, as well as a film protection bag. Keep in your travel journal a record of what you took. It does not have to be for every photo taken, but at least a few photos along with dates to help you remember when it is time to place them in an album.

I now bring a digital camera in addition to my Nikon N80. It’s great to have immediate satisfaction or to dump the Nikon in the evenings and just have a small pocket camera in my purse. I’m almost tempted to not bring my Nikon anymore, although it’s a great camera too. And I did spend a lot of money on it! With a digital camera, you can bring a couple of memory cards and take many, many photos, depending on the resolution you choose.

13. Purchase that souvenir!
I don’t know how many times I have returned from a trip and regretted not bringing home an extra souvenir or two. You will never know when you will return to Europe and spending a little money on souvenirs is well worth it. You will have wonderful memories looking back on your trip with these souvenirs. Also, if you see something you like, buy it! Don’t say, “Oh, I’ll pick one up later or in the next town.” Trust me: This doesn’t work. I had the opportunity to pick up some beautiful ceramic magnets and decided I would buy them at the next little town. Of course that next town didn’t have any and I didn’t see them during the rest of my trip. Fortunately, I had a friend who traveled to the same town and picked up several for me.
To carry your souvenirs home safely, bring a light, yet strong duffle bag along with some bubble wrap for breakables and some packing tape. If you plan to purchase prints, posters, or a pretty paper placemat from a restaurant (I have one from a restaurant in Fontainebleau), bring a mailing tube, which can be purchased for under $1. This duffle bag will be your carry-on bag and you can check your other luggage when flying home.

14. Bring a journal.
I like having a journal with me to write down my experiences. I try to write in it on a daily basis while having lunch or taking a break from sightseeing or just before bedtime. Sometimes I will sit at a café and enjoy a glass of wine or sit at a park bench while writing in my journal. This journal will bring back great memories in the future. Since I provide travel advise to many people, I like to write in detail. I include things such as hotel information (name, address, phone, directions from the nearest metro, room number, brief description of the room, and price paid), restaurants I have enjoyed (alone with name, address, location, description of meal, price paid), museums and monuments visited; photo log, shopping and museum expenses, transportation expenses, postcard mailing list, etc.

15. Safety, street crime.
Paris is a pretty safe city. I would recommend keeping expensive jewelry at home and wear something simple if you really wanted to wear jewelry. Keep your camera in your day bag. Do not advertise that you are a tourist, although most tourists stick out anyway with their guidebooks and maps in hand. Carry only the money you would need for that day and keep in your jacket or pants pocket. I have a light jacket that has inside pockets. I normally wear a money belt underneath my clothes. Inside I keep my airline tickets, passport, credit card, and the rest of my money (unless your hotel room has a room safe). If you have a day bag with you, do not place it on the floor where someone can snatch it. I usually hook the strap under the chair leg when sitting at a café or restaurant. Do not walk down any dark streets at night and keep to the main streets. Be aware of your surroundings, but do not be paranoid either. You are in Paris to have a great time. If you are careful at home, just do the same while in Paris.

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