International Travel

By: Jennifer Novotny

In this month’s travel blog, I am joined by my friend and agent Michelle, who specializes in Europe and group travel. Today we want to focus on the amazing vacations that happen on the “other side of the pond” so to speak. She has a wealth of helpful tips for overseas travel!

When it comes to traveling overseas, there are a variety of options. There are many tour operators out there with varying itineraries and methods of touring.  Talking with a travel professional about your goals for your visit abroad is a great way to maximize your time and money! Whether you travel as part of a guided group, a small “exploration” group, or just as a family with a well-thought out itinerary, there are lots of considerations that will go into your European journey.

Consider your “must-see” destinations in your country. This will help your travel professional ensure that you come home filled with amazing memories. They will also suggest other itinerary points that you perhaps didn’t know about or hadn’t considered. Read up on the culture you’re visiting- especially the dress in each country. Americans dress much differently than some countries in Europe… we are typically far more casual. If you don’t want to look “like a tourist”, a careful consideration of your wardrobe will help! But enough from me… I want Michelle to share her tips for you!

Michelle: “I will never forget the first time I went to Europe.  I was a junior in college, doing a study abroad program in Salamanca, Spain, with one of my closest friends.  My parents had driven me to Boston so we could fly to Madrid together.  We boarded the plane with suitcases we feared were overweight and so much excitement.

Flying to Europe involves an overnight flight, and, from most destinations, at least one connection.  It’s a grueling way to travel; an ability to sleep on a plane is to the traveler’s benefit.  I managed to get enough sleep that I could function when we arrived.  My first piece of advice: sleep on the plane.  I know the lure of movies is strong.  Still.  Sleep.

Upon landing, I remember the crispness of the early morning air as we stepped off the plane, the distinctive smell of Spain, the long line to go through customs, and even the Spanish woman who asked to go ahead of me.  Exhausted and reeling though I was, I can actually still remember the words she used.  The impact of this first European trip was that incredibly strong.

I truly believe the most exciting part for both of us was that our suitcases had arrived.  We had been warned repeatedly before leaving about packing extra clothes and toiletries in our carry on luggage, because bags are often lost on overseas flights.  I have taken this advice on every trip I’ve taken since – and it has saved me at least once.  This is my second piece of advice to you: pack a good carry on bag.

Our program had set up a week long tour of Spain for us before classes began.  I have never once regretted the decision to take part in the tour.  It was an amazing way to see Spain, and to acclimate ourselves to the culture, to reset our internal clocks, and probably most importantly for the courses that were to follow, to adjust to speaking and hearing the language all day, every day.

Another strong admonishment from our study abroad office had been to journal as much as possible, so we wouldn’t forget details.  Again, this is advice I have never once regretted taking.  They are absolutely right – at a time when everything is so new, so exciting, and so unfamiliar, it is easy to lose details, to lose memories, and to come home to pictures without context.  This is my third piece of advice: take a journal, and write every night, even if you’re tired and don’t feel like it.

In all honesty, Madrid did not captivate me on that first visit.  It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting of Spain – it seemed far too metropolitan.  It was not until I returned to live there, rather than just to visit, that I truly learned to love the city.  Though, as one of my friends and I have since discussed, the jet lag may have had something to do with my lack of enthusiasm.  Jet lag is a huge challenge, but it will be overcome.  My next piece of advice, and probably the most challenging to follow: don’t take a nap when you arrive in Europe.  Stay awake until a normal bedtime, and get up at a normal time the next morning.  It will help you get used to the time difference.  I promise!

Perhaps the best advice I can give about visiting Europe is to truly experience it.  Live it.  Leave your preconceived notions, both about Europe and the United States, at home.  Do the touristy things – see the palaces, the cathedrals, the museums, the shows.  But do the local things, too.  Eat in a café that doesn’t have menus in English.  Spend time in a park with good friends and a bottle of wine – in Spain, bring a bottle of red, some Fanta limón, and ice to make tinto de verano.  Go to the plaza mayor, take a table at a café, and spend the evening lingering over drinks and a meal while you people watch.  Wander the streets without a definite purpose, and go into all the interesting places you see.

And when you read your journal when you come home, even months later, you’ll be shocked by how much you learned about the country – and how much you appreciate it.

I invite you to join me on Facebook at Upon A Star Michelle, on Twitter @uponastarmichel, and on Instagram @uponastarmichelle.