As an American, I’ve always considered traveling to Europe to be “Travel-Lite.” That statement is in no way meant to imply some kind of elitist condescension about what denotes “real” travel or not. On the contrary, European countries, such as Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (which is a part of Europe whether it likes it or not), are some of the most fascinating sites in the world to explore for history, culture, and general atmosphere. Go on a study abroad trip there and I might be your instructor!
However, these countries benefit from the same, or greater, structural advantages as the United States: well-developed infrastructure (filtered running water, easily-accessible public transportation, healthcare), security, abundant amenities (restaurants, convenient stores, groceries, pharmacies, almost universal wi-fi, etc.), and general political/socioeconomic stability. In short, it is what has been referred to by analysts as “First World,” and more recently, the “Global North.” As an historian of the 20th century, I can write for hours on the historical factors, such as early industrialization and empire, as well as the global structure of the world-economy, a web of investment and trade, that have inordinately benefited “the West” until the most recent wave of globalization that began in 1989. Suffice it to say that Americans find it relatively easy to travel there, and aside from linguistic or cultural barriers, do not run into too much trouble. Much of the rest of the world (Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and southern Asia, i.e. the “Third World” or “Global South”) has suffered from a colonial and postcolonial legacy of subordination and underdevelopment that has led to poorer infrastructure, less security, limited amenities, and (in some cases) political/socioeconomic instability. This can make the experience far more jarring for Americans, and requires more preparation on their part for the shock of leaving the “rich countries.”
So here are 5 tips to follow when preparing for traveling outside the U.S. and Europe that vastly improve your experience (and conveniently, in the order in which you should do them!):
1. Get a Visa Pre-Approval
To cross virtually any national boundary, you will need a visa that allows you to enter that country. The United States has agreements with many countries in which tourist visas are provided on-site simply by going through customs (for example, Canada, Mexico, the European Union, and the U.K.), usually for a period of 90-120 days maximum. However, many other countries require you to apply for a tourist visa in advance. Most countries have websites that you can use to apply online and print out your visa approval to bring with you, or worst-case scenario, you will need to mail your application materials to that country’s embassy (usually in Washington, D.C.) and have your visa approval mailed back to you. In the conveniences of the digital era, a quick Google search of “[Country-name] tourist visa” will bring up what you need, but for the application, be sure to be on the legitimate site; it will usually be “.gov” for that country. The visa application will usually run you somewhere in the range of $50 USD.
2. Make Sure To Double and Triple-Check Your Itinerary
This may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many subtleties can be involved in traveling long distances, especially if you are used to flights within the United States or to Europe. Check to see how long your layovers are (and where they are). If you are laying over in a country for more than 8 hours, you might be tempted to leave the airport to see what you can for a few hours, but keep in mind that you may need to apply for a visa on-site for that country as well (for which you will be charged the associated fee, if you’re approved at all) and that you need to have your trip back to the airport planned out in advance with enough time to be sure not to miss your flight. On that note, plan out your daily transportation and save maps of the city before you go. Wi-Fi may be spotty or inaccessible, and you really don’t want to be lost because you might not be able to find someone who speaks English that can help you. Google Trips allows you to download maps of entire cities so you can easily find where you are offline, and what services are available to get you around (cabs, public transport, etc.). I would suggest using this even for traveling in Europe or the U.S.
Unfortunately, much of the world does not have access to good infrastructure for water filtration or health services, and also the tropics are breeding grounds for epidemic diseases, exacerbated even further by the lack of good infrastructure. Great strides have been made in this regard in the most recent wave of globalization, but it does not hurt to be prepared. Go to a travel & immunization center at least a month or two before your trip. Most major hospitals have them (For example, here is the website for Massachusetts General’s). Your consultation will not only provide vital information about what to do and what not to do (only eat hot, well-cooked food; don’t drink or brush your teeth with un-boiled water; don’t eat foods that need to be washed in water like lettuce), but the doctor will also get you immunizations for the most threatening diseases in the region. For my upcoming trip to Myanmar, I personally received Typhoid, Tetanus/Diphtheria, Hepatitis A, and influenza vaccines, as well as anti-malarial and dysentery medications. Only a doctor can know what you will need, and it’s better to safe than sorry, especially with completely preventable viral illnesses that would stay with you for life.
4. Take Safety Precautions
Aside from rogue or failed states that you should be avoiding anyway, most countries are safer than you would think. Merely taking simple, common-sense precautions will keep you safe: travel in a group if you can, keep your walking/movement mostly to the day-time and to well-lighted areas, and stick to the sites. That final point is not to say that you should not go “off the beaten path” once in a while to visit a local establishment, but if you’re around other tourists, odds are that you’re probably in an extremely safe place that the country in question polices heavily in order to keep those tourist dollars flowing. My primary suggestion: Bring a backpack with you that you can keep all of your things in while you travel around your destination. Pickpockets will steal the things in your pockets, especially if you look like a tourist. And please, wear it with both straps. I know it looks cool to wear your backpack over one shoulder, but that makes it super easy to snatch… And it’s bad for your shoulders.
5. Have Fun!
Sorry, fellow Americans, but we are notoriously paranoid about traveling abroad. I can’t tell you the number of times people have said to me, “Oh my goodness, you’re going to Myanmar?! Is that even safe?” At which point I remind them that the insurgency and genocide that I study is happening in an extremely isolated part of the country that tourists aren’t even allowed to go to; distance-wise, it would be the equivalent of civil strife happening in Texas and someone saying you should not visit Los Angeles because it’s not safe “in the U.S.” It might be too political to speculate about American exceptionalism and the common assumption that our country is uniquely safer, stabler, and more civilized compared to the rest of the world (it’s not), but I will say that you need not live in constant fear of being robbed or murdered abroad. If you follow these simple tips, relax, and have a great time! There are so many splendid cultures and histories in the world that it would be a waste to avoid them because of a few inconveniences.
This article will be part of a multi-part series about traveling outside the U.S. and Europe. Next, I will recount my experiences in Myanmar, and compare them with travels in Europe, in order to examine the similarities and differences. To see similar extra-European experience, see the posts of my colleague Marie Anthea’s posts about Mongolia and Mt. Fuji.