Travel Tips: The Best Thing I Learned From Traveling Abroad

castle in Scotland

Glenn Allen as part of the Rotary International Group Study Exchange in Scotland | Source: Glenn Allen

Whether you’re looking to take your first trip out of the country or you’ve used every vacation as an excuse to explore the world, there’s something out there for everyone. There’s also never been a better time to choose your own adventure — travel budgets are growing among all ages of Americans. Regardless of whether you’re signing up for a cruise around the Mediterranean, taking a safari, or backpacking across the European countryside, there are some tips you’ll pick up along the way to make your next trips even better.

Don’t be scared off by international travel if you don’t have too many stamps in your passport yet. The only way to become a travel expert and appreciate the cultures the world has to offer is to actually pack your bags and get out there. In the meantime, you can prepare using tips from people who have already gone ahead of you. For some travelers like Colby Liemer, traveling might be what you choose to spend your extra savings on. “My trip to London was the most substantial self-funded traveling experience I’ve ever been on and it was beyond worth it,” he told The Cheat Sheet. “Going somewhere new and teaching yourself (for at least a short period of time) a new way of living is stimulating to the mind and leaves you eager to get back out there and travel some more.”

To jumpstart your own adventure, we’ve asked readers and respondents on LinkedIn to share with us the best lessons they’ve learned from traveling outside the United States. In most cases, travelers said their best experiences came when they got off the beaten path and simply soaked in the culture they were in. Want to know the best ways to do that yourself? Take a look at what they suggest.

1. Know what to expect

street performers with musical instruments

Musicians in Madrid, Spain | Source: Rebecca Brown

Do your research! It’s great to visit places with an understanding to the cultural customs of the place you are visiting.

Loreal Torres of New York City, who has traveled to Paris, London, Dublin, Tortola, and other locations

Hitting the books (or the web) is always a good idea when you’re traveling, but especially helpful if you’re planning an international trip. Torres also suggests reading local blogs to find tips on the best restaurants in the cities you plan to visit, and befriending the hotel concierge for additional advice while you’re there.

While your smartphone and various review websites can be helpful, try purchasing a tried and true guidebook if you’ll be staying for an extended period of time. “When it comes to getting to know a new place, whether that’s finding out about its culture, its people, or its history, there’s still nothing that beats a proper guidebook,” travel writer Steve Vickers has told The Cheat Sheet in the past.

2. Act like a native

graffiti in Dublin

Soaking in local culture can mean finding graffiti in Dublin | Source: Katie Desir

That means, using public transportation, walking around town to see the sights up close, eating where the locals do, not where the tourists do. Try your best to address folks in their native language, even though you may butcher it — it shows them respect.

Pat Highcove of Maryland, who traveled to Florence, Italy

Of all the lessons travelers shared with The Cheat Sheet, using public transportation was one of the most common. Not only will you get a more authentic view of the place you’re visiting, but you’ll also get a chance to interact with locals in a way you wouldn’t otherwise, several people said. “There is a great feeling of accomplishment when you master a new city’s bus or subway system and it will deepen your understanding of the people who live there. You get zero interaction with locals if you take a cab everywhere and waste a ton of money,” said Jessica Goldstone, who traveled to Madrid, Spain for a semester abroad a few years ago.

If you’re headed to a city like London, check online to find their transportation site for updated maps, fares, and other information you’ll want to know ahead of time. It might take you a little longer to translate key phrases on your phone or take the bus across a foreign city, but you’ll endear yourself to the locals and probably learn something along the way, too.

3. Be on your best guest behavior

Big Ben in London

Colby Liemer with girlfriend Jamie Weiss in London | Source: Colby Liemer

You do not want to be obnoxious or ill-mannered; [giving] respect to the locals and keeping a low profile is key.

Marina Polachek of Pennsylvania, who has traveled to Mexico, the Caribbean, and other locations

You might not be crashing on Greece’s or London’s couch for your trip abroad, but it’s still a good idea to think of yourself as a guest in the country. While you’re abroad, it’s best to make sure you’re avoiding any cultural taboos. Gestures and practices that are innocent in America could be offensive in other countries, so make sure you’re being as courteous as possible.

You might think keeping a low profile also includes ignoring the people who actually live there. But several travelers said talking and interacting with people in their home countries made their trips infinitely better. “The people you meet always have amazing stories to tell; all you have to do is listen and be open-minded,” said Kirstie Pena, who spent three months living on a boat along with several other trips to Croatia, The Netherlands, Bulgaria, Turkey, and more. “Their lessons always have an impact on me, whether it is learning about the culture, dancing with them to their music, talking about the struggles and the politics of the land, or even walking the streets without an agenda or a schedule.”

4. It’s OK to travel alone

cliff-jumping into the Mediterranean Sea

Kirstie Pena cliff-jumping into the Mediterranean Sea in Croatia | Source: Kirstie Pena

It’s ok to do things by yourself! You don’t always have to be a in big group of friends to enjoy the trip and have amazing experiences.

Jordyn Rosenberg of Pennsylvania, who traveled to London

If you have a best friend or significant other to travel with, it can help to build memories you’ll keep together. But don’t be afraid to strike out on your own, too. “The best way to soak up a culture is to talk to the people who live there. And the best way to open opportunities to do that is to travel alone,” said Rebecca Brown, who spent time in Madrid and Strasbourg, France.

Not only that, but some research suggests that traveling alone can boost mindfulness and decrease depression. Forbes contributor Donna Sapolin makes the case for solo travel as well. She’s not a loner during these trips, she writes, but instead is freed up to interact much more with the people she meets along the way. It might seem strange at first, but you won’t be the only one taking a trip on your own. In that same article, Sapolin reports that 11% of Americans travel alone.

5. Feel free to roam

local homes in Turkey

Cappadocia, Turkey | Source: Jessica Mottola

Don’t rush. And don’t think you need to cram everything in. Choose one or two things a day to enjoy and be willing to try new things that you didn’t plan.

Xander Gamble of the U.S. Navy, currently stationed in Yokosuka, Japan

Whether you’re alone or with someone, don’t feel tied to your itinerary. In fact, several travelers suggested getting rid of a schedule altogether. “Maps always show you ‘the way’ tourists should wander the streets, but what I like to see is how the people my age live in the area I’m visiting. No map. Just walk,” Pena said. If you’re feeling adventurous, Pena also suggests following groups of locals to see where they’re headed. “The best way to learn from a culture is to follow them around, see what they see, eat what they eat and enjoy whatever they are doing. Once, one of the crowds I followed took me into a hidden bar away from tourists in the middle of the city. I thought it was amazing,” she said.

While you’re likely to stumble upon some hidden gems, exploring more than just the iconic sights can also give you perspective on what goes on behind the scenes. “You learn what’s really important in life when you see the way other people live, when you step outside of your comfort zone and daily routine, and when you have to pack every single thing you’ll need for 3 weeks in a teeny carry-on bag,” said Jessica Mottola of New Jersey, who traveled to a number of cities with her husband including Marrakech, Morocco. “The city is experiencing a huge tourism boom and there’s a very noticeable disparity between the ‘tourist’ areas and the ‘local’ areas…it was clear we were in an area that tourists don’t typically visit and the poverty was jarring.”

No matter what their experience, travelers who spoke with The Cheat Sheet said it gave them a larger appreciation for culture — no matter which specific ones they encountered. In most cases, it also taught them universal truths you uncover once you pack your bags. “People are pretty much the same. There are cultural differences but we all want the same things,” said Glenn Allen of New York, who traveled to Scotland as part of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange. When conflicts arise overseas, it also gives him a sense of wisdom, Allen said. “When I see and hear of things occurring I know that there is more to it than what’s reported in the press. Certainly there are fanatics but most of the people just want peace, to be loved and be happy.”

Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS

More from Culture Cheat Sheet: