Whether you’re planning a two week volunteer expedition to a single destination or a Gap Year to multiple countries, it’s not just a matter of turning up at the airport and jumping on a flight. A little research into your destination(s) can go a long way to enhancing your experience while abroad. What diseases and infections are found there that are not in your home country? Is there political/social unrest that could disrupt your travel activities? What are the cultural expectations that you should follow while abroad? Here we outline some foreign travel advice for the first time traveler.
Before you book, jump online to read your government website’s travel advice and a few blogs from those in-the-know and you’ll depart much better prepared for what to expect!
Government Travel Websites
Most governments have websites run by the department of foreign affairs or similar that detail current travel warnings for each and every country across the globe. These usually explain any political or social unrest in different regions, as well as health epidemics, and advise citizens whether or not they should travel there.
You can sometimes find information on what happens if you overstay your visa, what are the requirements to drive while in the country (and which side of the road they drive on!), and some of the local laws that may differ from back home. Particularly keep an eye out for any drugs or prescription medicine which are banned from the country and the penalties for bringing them in (which can be death in some countries with strict drug laws!)
When researching government websites, keep in mind that their travel warnings are on the cautious side as they have an obligation to protect their citizens. If there are travel warnings against visiting a country, it’s always good to do your own research to find out exactly what is going on and whether it would impact where you are planning on going. Travel warnings are put out for the current situation, so if you are planning a trip six months or one year in advance, things could change considerably in that time (for the better or the worse).
Write down the contact details of local police authorities so you know who to ring in case of an emergency, and also the phone number of your country’s consulate or embassy in the destination. If your country doesn’t have one, then there will be another consulate assigned to assist you if you have any major issues while abroad or if a situation arises that you need to be evacuated from.
It’s always good to have comprehensive travel insurance in case you need to change your flights and travel plans due to political/social unrest, either before or during your travel. Before you purchase travel insurance, check exactly what you will be covered for and how much you will be reimbursed, as it can differ significantly from one policy to the next.
While travel insurance is also recommended in case you lose money or belongings while abroad, the most important reason you should take it out is for medical emergencies. If you find yourself in a life-threatening situation in a remote area and need to be airlifted to a hospital, the money you spend on travel insurance is suddenly going to be more than worth it to cover the helicopter costs!
It’s also important to research the recommended vaccinations for your destination and this can often be found on your government’s travel advice website. While for most countries the vaccinations are just “highly recommend”, some require proof of a Yellow Fever vaccination before you are allowed in the country (or will administer it at the border post).
It’s good to have an idea of the prevalence of Rabies, HIV/Aids and Zika virus in your destination at the current time, and whether you need to have Hepatis A/B and Typhoid/Cholera vaccinations. Always consult your doctor well ahead of your planned travel dates to ensure you are covered for any possible infections and make sure you have time for any vaccinations that require shots over the course of a few weeks!
You can also find information online about the standard of hospitals and medical services in your destination country and whether or not your home country has a reciprocal health agreement that will cover you in case of any emergencies.
Foreign Travel Advice for Cultural Differences
Having a basic understanding of the culture you will be immersing yourself in can be invaluable in helping you adjust, particularly in the first few weeks abroad. Religious differences can have a big effect on behavioral expectations, and whether that means dressing modestly or refraining from drinking alcohol, it’s good to be aware so that you don’t cause unnecessary offense.
Most travel guides have a section on what to expect culturally in different destinations and their websites are a good first port of call when researching. In some countries where there are conservative dress codes, they may turn a blind eye at tourist-oriented beach resorts. But that doesn’t mean you should turn up at the local market or government office in your shorts and singlet where you may receive a less than warm welcome! Observing what the locals are wearing is often a good indicator of how you should dress, and keep in mind that if you’re visiting temples or houses of worship, you will need to respect the local dress codes before entering.
In some countries, religion dictates daily life more than it would back home, with businesses closing during prayer times in some Muslim countries. In Bali, for example, the Nyepi “day of silence” is exactly that, with all activity on the island shutting down completely. Rather than seeing these as “inconveniences”, they are a great opportunity to better understand the local culture and how it influences the lives of the local community.
Having an open mind when you are traveling is the most powerful tool. You will appreciate and absorb a lot more of the world’s incredible diversity if you can observe without judgment. You may see things that shock you and confront your own beliefs, but rather than criticizing the way things are done and voicing your distaste, always try and look deeper at why things are the way they are. Chatting with locals is a great way to get a better understanding of the current political and social climate in which they live, as well as ancient customs and traditions, and will help you to see things from their perspective.