Preconceived notions of international travel are common. While individual impressions can be formed through first-hand experiences, feelings can also be influenced by other sources that are not always comprehensive, impartial or completely factual (movies, novels, news stories, etc.). When I packed up for my first holiday across the border over a decade ago, I toted with me a number of fears along with my overstuffed bags. Now, having traveled more extensively internationally, my own reflections drive my beliefs. Below are some common travel myths and truths.
Myth: International travel is cost-prohibitive.
My Reality – Travel cost is directly proportional to preferred travel style. For example, if an individual prefers a first-class airline seat, towncar transport, an exquisite all-inclusive hotel, five-star dining and elaborate tours, that package is probably going to come with a hefty price tag. However, for those who are open to economy travel, different transport options such as taxi, shuttle or bus and a variety of accommodation, meal and exploration options, travel can be quite reasonable while still maintaining some “comforts of home.” This does not mean that the only way to travel cheap is to carry a backpack, stay in hostels and eat street food. There are plenty of mid-level options if you are not quite ready to take the plunge into budget travel. You may just have to be a little creative in your planning and leverage some good travel discounts (“hacks”) such as reward/loyalty programs, coupon/promo codes, etc. If you are willing to try the backpack/hostel/street food options, though, look out – you are in for some fun and will likely be hooked on travel because you can stretch your money even further in order to see more places for less. The trips I have enjoyed the most have been those that were balanced and incorporated a little of everything.
Myth: International travel is dangerous.
My Reality – Well, so far I’m still standing. Basic common sense can carry you a long way and I do listen to my intuition. A lesson I learned quickly while traveling is to know you are not invincible. If there is something you would not normally be comfortable doing at home (e.g., walking though a dark alley by yourself at 2am), for example, you may want to avoid doing that in a foreign country. Something smart you can do in advance of your travel is to research international customs and safety suggestions – not to scare you, but rather, to inform you. Frequent travelers are comfortable sharing their experiences in blogs, traveler forums and in travel reviews, so you can learn from those who have gone before you. This may also help you to pack appropriately. For example, in some destinations you may want to carry a travel flashlight and others, you may want to bring pants to cover your knees. Nothing says “tourist target” like standing out in a crowd, so learn the cultural norms where you will be traveling before you arrive. Know that you may never blend in fully, but the less you draw attention to yourself, the better, when it comes to safety. Hint: Lower your voice when you speak. Another tip, ask the people who work at your hotel or hostel for advice – they want you to enjoy yourself and they will usually gladly help you stay safe (e.g., they can often help you find a safe taxi or bus, tell you when you might want to be inside, share where not to flash your camera, etc.).
Myth: Everyone gets robbed. Then, what?
My Reality – Again, common sense goes a long way. I have never been robbed or the victim of a pickpocket, but I have made my share of novice mistakes over the years. Perhaps my worst decision ever was when I was traveling by chicken bus between two areas and I allowed my backpack be loaded into the bus cargo area. This is routine and would not normally be a concern for me…except that I had inadvertently placed my passport in that bag. Thankfully, even after multiple stops along the way to my destination, I was reunited with my bag, having learned another valuable lesson. You really should always keep your passport near you when you are in transit. Hidden waist belts are an option to consider for extra security IF they are truly hidden – they are of no value once they are exposed in public. To keep these secure, use a restroom stall when you need to go into one, but otherwise, keep these out of sight while in transit. One of my friends recently found himself without his passport in Barcelona (he is convinced this fell out of his pocket in a taxi) and was in a very tight time crunch. However, he was able to go to his local embassy and obtain a replacement passport in record-breaking time with limited disruption to his trip. It certainly depends on the areas where you travel, but as a woman, I rarely carry a purse for several reasons. First, I don’t like to have anything to worry about forgetting or losing. Second, I never carry more than a few dollars with me at any point (that’s the beauty of budget travel!). I also wear little to no jewelry when I travel because I do not want to think about that either. Wearing expensive jewelry and flaunting signs of wealth in an impoverished country comes with other risk as well. It can make you a target for crimes more significant than pickpocketing and also be received as a type disrespect to a humble community. General rule: If something is irreplaceable, leave it at home, and whenever possible, align your attire to the communities which you will be visiting.
Myth: Traveling alone as a woman is out of the question. Plus, you will get bored.
My Reality – I travel by myself often and quite enjoy the experience. I can assure you, I have never been bored. Engaging in conversation with others is a great way to meet new friends and learn about local culture and history, too. You may find some great tips this way as well since travelers often like to share experiences. If you prefer some privacy but still crave connectivity at the same time, you could consider staying at a hostel but select a private room. This can provide the alone time you want but also some fun opportunities to connect with others through excursions, happy hours, community meals, etc. I generally try to have a balance in my travel.
Myth: You are going to get sick or catch some dreaded disease.
My Reality – Again, I’m still here and plenty healthy, nonetheless. Before I started traveling extensively, I did obtain some preventive immunizations that made me feel more comfortable. There is more information here to help you make the best decision for you. In all my trips, I have only been sick once. Sure, it was a miserable three days, but I was in good company because everyone at the timeshare was also ill (see, this stuff happens even outside of budget accommodations!). The common thread in this example was the water. I made a novice mistake of ordering lots of ice water at the pool instead of purchasing bottled water. It is impossible to predict sensitivity to local water, especially if it is toted as purified. For me, I tend to trust local purification standards and drink bottled water when purified is not available. I like to bring a folding water bottle so that I can fill up at my hotel or hostel before heading our for a day of exploration. We likely all have different levels of tolerance, though, so do what makes you most comfortable. Food, on the other hand, has never made me sick and I love street food and local options (I can’t even remember the last time I ate American food when left the country). I generally select vendors who cover their ingredients between servings, have coolers to keep perishable items cool, etc., but again, every stomach is different. I do pack a little medicine “kit” with me when I travel but I rarely have a need to dip into it.
Myth: It takes way too long to plan a trip like that.
My Reality – Planning takes as much time as you allow. I joke that I can plan a trip around the world now in 20 minutes or less, but I have yet to actually clock it (it might be even less than that!). If you compartmentalize your planning (destination, transportation, accommodations, excursions), it can really simplify your planning. Avoid planning each and every detail – leave something to spontaneity and resist the urge to micromanage your trip. If you just get the basics down, the rest is a snap and you can fill in the blanks later. When you find a helpful website, bookmark it for later so you can use it again.
Myth: My suitcase isn’t big enough.
My Reality – Really? Set out what you think you need…and then put half of it back. Works every time! No one is going to notice if you wear the same shirt more than once and laundry facilities exist around the world. It is also possible to wash your own clothes when you travel (gasp!). I have shared some tips and tricks for what to pack here. If you struggle with the actual packing process, you will find some additional tips here.
Myth: Don’t talk to strangers. Trust no one.
My Reality – In all honesty, if this is your perspective, traveling internationally may not be for you. Thinking back on my travels, my guess is that it would have been terribly frustrating, painful and lonely if I had not connected with anyone along the way. There are many times as a solo traveler, especially, where I rely on the help and direction of strangers. Sure, I am careful about where I seek guidance, but trust is a part of travel. It can actually become one of the most beautiful parts as well. I have encountered some of the kindest, most generous and helpful people through my journeys and it reminds me of the good that exists in this world when sometimes we are flooded with negativity and reports of crime and injustice. The world is full of amazing people and culture – traveling is an intimate way of experiencing this for yourself. When I travel solo, I just tend to limit the information I share with strangers until I know them well.
Myth: You need to pay for an expensive tour.
My Reality – There are indeed locations where a tour is nice. However, I would not be inclined to state that it is the only way to experience a destination. In fact, sometimes I think organized tours consume too much time and money, and guides go into more detail than my patience allows, so I prefer to explore on my own. For example, when I visited Antigua, Guatemala, there were so many costly tours available to see the ruins, but the individual admission fees by themselves were actually very reasonable (just a few USD each). I was able to see so many sites, chat with the security guards, and feel very comfortable exploring independently while other groups were only accessing certain areas and having to listen to long lectures. That said, I did opt for an organized excursion to the volcano because it included transport and introduced a social factor over a lengthy climb (and it was only ~$10 USD). You can gain a lot of knowledge of destinations online before your departure through tools like TripAdvisor. Travelers often share helpful suggestions in their reviews and common sights are ranked by visitors, so that may help you decide that which is best for you. Another creative way to see a city when you are hesitant to explore solo or when time is a factor is to consult with your accommodation to see if there is anyone there who can simply spend the afternoon with you and safely take you around. I had so much fun doing this in San Salvador, El Salvador! In exchange for teaching Jaime some English phrases that could help him in his business, I had a great time practicing my Spanish with him as we saw some cool local sights.
Myth: Everyone will laugh at me because I don’t speak their language fluently.
My Reality – You might be surprised how few locals will laugh at you or judge your lack of fluency. The truth is that your effort to speak their native language will likely come with an increased level of respect and you may even find locals complimenting you on your use of their language. Even knowing some key words and phrases can be very helpful. If you are in an area with wifi, there are some translation apps that might be helpful too. Tip: I tend to pre-translate some common phrases and then take screen prints so even if I am not in wifi or service range, I still have access to these on my phone.
Myth: No one likes Americans anymore.
My Reality – Well…that probably depends where you go. I try to keep an open mind when I travel and I have learned that my most enjoyable experiences have come when I have intently approached the trip with humility and respect. Researching simple cultural norms such as clothing is probably my first recommendation. Another novice mistake I made once (trust me, you generally only do these once) was wearing shorts in Mainland Ecuador. I have always known the importance of covering arms and legs in places of worship, but I had no idea (and clearly did no prior research) that shorts were simply not worn anywhere in Ecuador outside beaches, islands and exercise facilities. To say it was an awkward situation and I felt highly uncomfortable scurrying back to my hotel to change was an understatement. Now, I always pack a scarf, sarong, a pair of pants and a sleeved shirt wherever I travel because those tend to cover any circumstance I could run into. Generally speaking, politeness, patience and respect will go a long way when you are abroad. If you can, use local words for please and thank you. Know that the concept of time is not always the same as in your home country, so save yourself the stress of rushing around and relax, especially when you are on an island. Before you take your camera out and snap photos, be sure you are in an area where that is acceptable and approved. Many churches and museums prohibit photos or, at minimum, prohibit flash. My recommendation is to strive to be discreet as a traveler, whether that relates to clothing, behavior, etc. And in case it is not obvious, do not touch or remove ANYTHING underwater! This is not just for your safety – many reefs are protected and you can land yourself in big trouble by even innocently removing a shell so just don’t do it.
Myth: Everything I need is at an all-inclusive resort.
My Reality – Every traveler is different. For me, I need to get out and about when I travel and feel as though I have experienced some part of local culture. However, my style of travel is not for everyone. My recommendation to a traveler who is going to stay within the confines of an all-inclusive resort from touchdown to takeoff would be to find a nearby destination that meets your needs so you can enjoy as much time onsite as possible rather than consuming extensive time in transit.
Myth: After flying that far, all I am going to do is sleep.
My Reality – Good luck with that. Sometimes, it is easier said than done. If you are traveling to a destination at high altitude, for example, even your best intentions to nap upon arrival may be a long shot. I experienced this in Ecuador and barely slept a few hours over the course of several days while retaining all of my normal energy. Depending on your accommodations at any elevation, you may want to bring with you some earplugs or an eye mask to accommodate any sensitivities you may have to varying timezones, window coverings and noise levels.
Myth: I could never stay in a hostel.
My Reality – This is certainly personal preference. However, you might be surprised how wide the variation is between hostels lately. Some destinations are immaculate and modern with more technology than you could imagine, while others are definitely “rustic.” Your best bet may be to research options in advance. Keep in mind that hostels are not always the least expensive accommodation option, especially if you want a private room. I have sometimes found less expensive and more comprehensive facilities in a bed and breakfast or hotel, so if you are open to different types of accommodations, you may save some money with research. Good things to consider if you stay in a hostel are traveler reviews and any amenities you consider essential (e.g., wifi, lockers, food options, hot water, air conditioning).
Myth: I am too old to travel.
My Reality – In my travels, I have come across adventurers of every age and demographic. While I do not consider myself young anymore by any means, I do not feel as though age is restrictive. Traveling may be easier for those who are young and in good health and physical condition, but being a triathlete is certainly no prerequisite for travel. Travel according to your comfort, preferences and experience.
Myth: Oh I could never…
My Reality – Ohhhhh, you might be surprised what you can (and sometimes will) do when you travel. Some of my odd experiences and travel outtakes are shared here.