Traveling While Abroad: Make It Easy on Yourself

I’d say, for the most part, that I’m a pretty organized, prepared person. I always have important documents in one place, I “measure twice, cut once” in every situation, and I’m the queen of “what if.” Extra socks? Check. Have I packed a reading book, music, cards, and a coloring book in case I get bored? You betcha – even though I’ll never get bored enough to get through all of those items. Usually, I’m prepared with items of actual importance too, i.e. a copy of my online visa.

Cut to mid-semester break. For the past month, I’ve been planning a two-part trip: 4 days in Cairns, Australia and 5 days in Dunedin, New Zealand. In preparation, I printed out all of my flight information, as I’m more inclined to have physical copies of things, rather than electronic copies. Although I had only printed these out to keep dates and flight times straight in my head in the days leading up to my trip, I decided to shove them in my bag as I flew out the door to catch my first flight. Technically, I didn’t actually need my flight information – these weren’t my tickets and I had my flight numbers on my phone ready for check-in.

My experience in Cairns and traveling to Cairns was delightful. No issues, lots of sunshine and warmth (finally – a day above 60 F), and a great reunion with a friend from DU. But leaving Cairns took a bit more effort and involved enough frustration for me to learn a little travel lesson.

My friend and I showed up to Cairns International Airport relatively early in the morning. Sleepy-eyed and deprived of coffee, I walked up to the Virgin Australia counter to get my ticket and check my bag. A few seconds after handing my passport to the woman at the counter, she began to ask me questions about my travels. I was a bit surprised, as I would only expect to be interrogated at customs, but nonetheless I answered. She asked me why I was in Australia, my plans for New Zealand, and other standard questions directed towards international travelers. Following this, she asked me for my flight itinerary. Perfect. My flight information will come in handy for this. But she then asked, “Ma’am, when will you be reentering Australia?” In my sleepy state, I struggled to answer.

“Um…I fly back on the 2nd”, I answered. She gave me a weird look and replied, “The 2nd of October?”. Shoot! *palm to face moment* This is when I wished I had gone to sleep earlier or bought coffee that morning.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I said that. I meant the 12th…the 12th of September. I guess I just forgot to put the 1 in front of the 2.” I smiled as my cheeks turned red in embarrassment. It was obvious she wasn’t very happy with me, and it didn’t get better when she asked for my visa and I told her it was an online visa. She then proceeded to make me pull up my visa on my computer and finally handed me my ticket.

I learned a few travel lessons from this. One, always have your flight itinerary – having that definitely made this situation better. Two, always have a copy of your visa, even if it’s an online visa. If you don’t want to carry that around, then you better be able to access it with your phone, computer, or tablet. Three, make sure your brain is awake when you go to the airport. This is especially important so you can remember the simple things, like what dates you’re reentering a country that has graciously taken you in.

In the moment, I was a bit flustered, but I know the Virgin Australia representative was just doing her job and enforcing the law. Thank you, Australia, for letting me be absent-minded every once in a while.


Safety and Security Abroad

As many of us enjoy summer travels or excitedly prepare for Study Abroad this fall, I’d like to take a moment to consider our safety. In light of recent tragic events, we’re reminded that while it’s seemingly impossible to control everything around us, it also reinforces the need to take precautions to ensure our safety and security.

On the Move

You will most likely be walking or taking a lot of public transportation while you are abroad. Even though you won’t be behind the wheel, you still need to know where you are going, and how to get there, before you set out. You might be concerned about standing out as a tourist by carrying around a map of the city or the public transportation routes. However, I doubt you’ll mind too much when you get on the wrong train and end up 40 minutes south of your flat in a part of town you’ve never seen before (I’ve done something like this too many times to count). It’s pretty easy to get directions off a smart phone, but keep in mind that your phone provider will charge you exponentially to use data while abroad, so have an alternate option available to you.

Also, use the buddy system, especially at night and early in the morning, or when you will be travelling through area’s where you know you will be a target. If you can’t help it and will be travelling alone, let someone know where you are going, preferably two people – one from the place you are leaving and one who you will meet at your destination.

If you do get lost, ask someone who looks official – a station guard, a clerk at a nearby store, a policeman, etc. – to point you in the right direction. Do not be afraid – or embarrassed – to ask for help multiple times until you get to where you need to be.

In your City

While everyone looks forward to feeling at home in the city where they have gone to study abroad, you don’t want to experience the rude awakening that you are still very much a foreigner in a strange place. The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs has a pretty good list of tips to stay safe on the street:

  • Don’t use short cuts, narrow alleys or poorly lit streets.
  • Try not to travel alone at night.
  • Avoid public demonstrations and other civil disturbances.
  • Keep a low profile and avoid loud conversations or arguments.
  • Do not discuss travel plans or other personal matters with strangers.
  • Avoid scam artists by being wary of strangers who approach you and offer to be your guide or sell you something at bargain prices.
  • Beware of pickpockets. They often have an accomplice who will:
    • jostle you,
    • ask you for directions or the time,
    • point to something spilled on your clothing,
    • or distract you by creating a disturbance.
  • Beware of groups of vagrant children who could create a distraction to pick your pocket.
  • Wear the shoulder strap of your bag across your chest and walk with the bag away from the curb to avoid drive-by purse-snatchers.
  • Try to seem purposeful when you move about. Even if you are lost, act as if you know where you are going. Try to ask for directions only from individuals in authority.
  • Know how to use a pay telephone and have the proper change or token on hand.
  • Learn a few phrases in the local language or have them handy in written form so that you can signal your need for police or medical help.
  • Make a note of emergency telephone numbers you may need: police, fire, your hotel, and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
  • If you are confronted, don’t fight back — give up your valuables.

Party Responsibly 

It’s tempting to drop your inhibitions when you go abroad. Have fun, go out to pubs with friends, and dance at all the discotecas if you want, just make sure to watch yourself.

The establishments you might be tempted to visit in your host city are those catered towards tourists . These, unfortunately, are not always the safest of establishments and can attract some pretty seedy clientele looking to take advantage of inebriated youth from out of town. And I’m not just talking about the girls – guys are just as vulnerable as girls in this situation.

First and foremost, watch your drinks (if you choose to drink). You know the drill: always order your drink yourself and watch the bartender pour it in front of you. For whatever reason, tourist bars tend to add more liquor to their mixed drinks than what you would get at your local spot State-side, so make sure you see exactly how much alcohol is going in to your glass.

Once you have your drink, keep it close by your body at all times, and try to keep your hand covering the top of the glass. This will hopefully prevent anyone from spiking your drink. And like I said, guys are just as vulnerable. When I was travelling in Peru three of my friends had their drinks spiked while they were out – two of them where guys. People mistakenly believe that only women are at risk of being drugged, but men are often targeted, and then robbed.

If you do feel like you have been drugged, go to a hospital. Give the doctors as much information as you can provide, then contact your in-country program coordinator to let them know about your condition.

If you and your friends frequent the same bars and clubs over and over again while you are abroad, get to know the bouncers and bartenders that work there. If they are good at what they do, once they know you (and see you as a regular customer) they will watch out for you.

What if something does go wrong while I’m abroad?

If something does happen while you are abroad, you should first contact your in-country program coordinator. Your first reaction may be to call your friends and family, but to be honest, there isn’t much that they can do (except worry) from back home. Take down all of the contact information your program coordinator gives you at your orientation. Four numbers you should definitely have are:

1)   Your study abroad program’s on-site address and phone number(s)

2)   Your host family’s address and phone number(s)

3)   The local emergency phone numbers (police, fire, medical)

4)   The closest U.S. Consulate’s address and phone number

Keep them in your phone’s contact list, and written down in a second location, in case your phone is lost or stolen. Sometimes, those numbers become your lifelines.

The U.S. State Department has a very good resource for student’s who need help in emergencies while studying abroad. See their website (below) for more information.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of safety measures to take while studying abroad. Behind every safety warning is a call to be prepared and aware. Pay attention to your surroundings, especially the people around you, and prepare yourself for a misstep or mistake that could land you in trouble. This isn’t meant to scare you, but to prepare you for a true adventure. Enjoy yourself abroad! You will have a much better experience abroad knowing that you are safe and secure in your new surroundings, prepared to tackle any unexpected circumstances that may come your way.

Good Sources

More tips on how to keep yourself, your friends, and your belongings safe abroad!

–  Emily Bowman, DUSA Blogger