Nobody travels perfectly, least of all the first time.
I hardly consider myself an old-timer, but available technology says otherwise. Much of what I rely on now to prepare for travel had yet to be developed back when I went on my first study abroad trip to India and Thailand almost eight years ago, while getting my undergraduate degree at Miami University. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find something some app or website doesn’t already cover.
Still, many of the mistakes I made as a first time traveler transcend technology. I was ignorant to the history of where I was traveling, made uneducated assumptions about where I was going, didn’t know a word of the languages I was surrounded by, and perhaps worst of all, I wasn’t actively engaged in the experience.
Luckily for today’s first time traveler, there is no shortage of new tech and electronic material to make overcoming these mistakes exponentially easier than just a decade ago. While the topic could surely stretch into a novel, we’ll instead look at the top six mistakes I made as a first time traveler and what I would do differently now.
Mistake 1: Made too many assumptions
No matter what, you’ll always go into a trip with some assumptions or expectations. It’s inevitable, because no matter how hard you try, you can’t completely ignore your brain’s imagination. After all, our imagination can be our worst enemy when traveling. On one side of the coin, your imagination can paint a place, like Costa Rica, as some sort of utopia. How can any trip realistically match those expectations? They can’t, and holding onto that assumption could spoil your experience abroad.
On the other hand, negative media depictions and preconceived notions of danger could make you apprehensive and less willing to engage while traveling abroad. Before traveling to India and Thailand, I heard many voices warning me to “Be careful.” There was a tone behind those words that hit my ear differently than any other time I had heard that phrase in reference to travel within the States.
(Years later, I realized the flavor behind those words was xenophobic, a generic caution that people overseas are all out to get me, “the innocent American.”)
Before India, all I heard about was the poverty I would be seeing from people who already had their mind made up about the entire country. I won’t pretend there wasn’t some gut wrenching poverty, but there was certainly more to the country than poverty, and not everyone was miserable who lived at home without an HD flatscreen.
What I do now: You may think you know what traveling to El Salvador or South Korea is like, but there’s no better experience than seeing it all firsthand. Chances are you’ll find something that surprises you or clashes with your expectations. The trick is to have the ability to compartmentalize those natural assumptions you have before any trip and know they’re just that, assumptions.
Again, it’s impossible to completely block out those voices. I’ll admit that despite all the research I did before traveling to El Salvador, I was still on higher alert because of everyone else's assumptions about the country. But, I was ultimately a more seasoned traveler by the time I went there and was able to keep those darn voices at bay. Instead, I let reality guide my experience rather than thoughts and opinions from afar.
Mistake 2: No language skills
My home country, the United States, despite being a melting pot of languages, does rather poorly when it comes to encouraging language learning. I started far too late at about 14-years-old, taking a third of French, German, and Spanish before selecting one of the three to focus on. By age 15, I was smack dab in the middle of the developmental realm of teenage self-importance. I saw no reason to learn another language, because why should I? Nobody in my circle of friends spoke another language, and I had yet to seriously look at a map and consider the possibilities out in the world. Besides, I had to get to lacrosse practice and bash my brain in.
What I do now: Wow, was I wrong about language. It couldn’t be more important in the 21st century, especially as someone who studied abroad and maintains a career in international travel. Even if you’re not interested in an international career that will have you working abroad or traveling abroad, employers still greatly value the ability to communicate in multiple languages.
What I do now is continually brush up on my Spanish, which I mostly learned while studying my master’s degree in Costa Rica at the United Nations-mandated University For Peace. Before I even landed in Costa Rica, I became interested in language learning for the first time, largely because I knew I would need to be able to communicate while abroad.
So where did I turn to start learning Spanish? My iPad. I started with MindSnacks, an app that made language learning fun for the first time. MindSnacks gave me a roster of words and some basic expressions before I moved on to DuoLingo, another app that feels more academic, but still gives you enough of a sense of accomplishment to encourage you along. By the time I reached Costa Rica, I felt confident enough just from those apps to strike up conversations.
Now that I’m back in the States, I occasionally watch Spanish-language programming and listen to Spanish-language podcasts to keep my ear up to speed. Sometimes I’ll even find a language buddy through iTalki or HelloTalk to practice with, just as I did in El Salvador before I traveled there last year (Bonus Points: I even met my language buddy, and she gave my wife and I a tour of her town).
Mistake 3: Historically ignorant
Similar to languages, I was originally ignorant of any history before traveling abroad. Again, India and Thailand were my first overseas experiences. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that I knew absolutely nothing about either country before traveling. I knew the Brits did some shady stuff over in India for a while and there was this Gandhi fellow who did some peaceful things. In Thailand? Well, I guess there was a city called Bangkok that made my friends and I giggle in elementary school.
What I do now: Learning the history is now one of the first steps I take in traveling to any country for the first time. Besides making the experience that much more fruitful for you, it’s just being a good traveler. Could you imagine a Brit traveling to India without an ounce of knowledge about what British imperialism did to that country? How about a Belgian traveling to their former colonies in Central Africa?
In my experience, learning about U.S. involvement in Latin American affairs (more often by force than not) greatly colored my time traveling throughout Central America. People I met, from El Salvador to Chile, where appreciative that I knew about the history and it led to some pretty interesting conversations (which were only possible because I took the time to learn Spanish).
Mistake 4: An empty bookshelf
I was never much of a reader before traveling abroad. Perhaps it was for the same reason I didn’t find an interest in languages at first, it all seemed forced on us. There was summer reading and books we had to read in class. I don’t really recall a period in which we were truly encouraged to read for enjoyment. Needless to say, checking a book out of the library was far from my mind when it came to preparing for a trip abroad. This was a mistake, because I was missing out on an easy and free opportunity to engage with my destination before even stepping foot on a plane.
What I do now: Like language learning and history, reading is high up on my preparation list before traveling anywhere new, whether it’s a new part of my home country or a new country altogether. I’ll read history, fiction by authors from those destinations, any current events that will help give me a foundation of knowledge, or travel tips from the experts at GoAbroad, before traveling anywhere for the first time. It’s as easy as going to, say, the Al Jazeera YouTube page and searching the country you’re traveling to.
Mistake 5: No playlist
What do you think of when you think of culture? Music, along with language, history and literature, is likely at the forefront of your mind. My mistake before traveling abroad for the first time was not listening to some of the local music in advance.
What I do now: Now I’ll connect with language learning buddies, forums online, or anyone with experience in the destination I’m visiting to ask about the music. Who are some of the popular bands and artists, historically and contemporarily? I’m always able to find someone who can help me fill up a playlist that I can play in the background while I’m reading about the country or help put me to sleep while I’m traveling. Best of all, it’s an easy conversation starter when meeting people abroad.
“Do you know Ana Tijoux?” I asked a Chilean in Santiago.
“Yes! I love her. You know Ana Tijoux?”
Suddenly I had someone exponentially more interested in talking to me.
Mistake 6: Unengaged
There’s no greater sin in travel than being unengaged. You’re refusing to talk with people, you’re sticking exclusively with your travel group, and you’d rather yell English than learn some pleasantries. Granted I wasn’t the worst of traveling American stereotypes before my first time traveling, but I was pretty close.
What I do now: If you haven’t noticed, there’s an overarching theme to what I do now.
It’s all about engaging with the culture before, during, and after travel.
As soon as I have my ticket purchased, I find a book related to the destination to read during breakfast and just before bed. I’ll fill up my Netflix queue with any and all films that teach me something about where I’m going. I start my language learning immediately. Then once I hit the ground, I take notes during the experience and at the end of each day, which forces me to be really engaged while I’m traveling and makes me more inquisitive (and thus, more likely to strike up a conversation with strangers!). Upon my return, I read that book I didn’t quite get to before my flight or look up something that interested me during my travels.
The sad truth is, you’ll make mistakes no matter what as a first time traveler. Traveling is like anything else, it’s impossible to be perfect the first time. But, you can learn from my mistakes (and ask other travelers, too!), and shrink the margin of error.