Essential Apps and Tips for Day 1 in a Foreign Country
International travel offers opportunities to experience things you never even thought of, but can also some present some not-so-fun challenges you might find yourself unprepared for. This article is about preparing a little better by knowing what to expect. I'm going to share some of my favorite ways of dealing with those situations.
Right after stepping off the plane, getting from the airport to the hotel is one of the easiest times to get stressed out. Stakes are a little higher than normal, because this is your first impression of the place you're visiting, and some or all of these may be true:
- It feels like you spent the night sleeping fully dressed on a stranger's kitchen floor, and twelve hours on an airplane has made your face feel like it's been delicately misted with 3-in-1 oil
- Your phone is almost dead and you have exactly zero bars of phone service
- After 20 minutes of struggling to sign in, you've conclusively determined the free airport wifi literally could not be any worse. The world's greatest network engineer intentionally trying to make it worse wouldn't change a thing: You've found the undisputed champion of bad wifi
- You have no pen and need to fill out an immigration form
- You are carrying and carefully watching 45 lbs of unwieldy luggage. Depending on your previous choices, you'll either wish your roller-bag had straps or that your backpack had wheels
- You've gone past hungry/tired and have ventured into irritable/confused
- Every taxi driver says a ride to your hotel will cost you $60 USD and you have no idea if and how you can negotiate
- The currency exchange kiosk is showing you a grade school algebra problem, and until you figure it out you'll have no idea if you're getting robbed blind or a good deal. If you ignore it and just walk away, you have no idea how you'll pay for anything. Will anyone accept your bank card? Did you remember to put a travel notice on your bank card? Is it even safe to use it?
You can't overcome all these little annoying anxiety monsters with technology, but a little preparation can go a long way. Let's dive into specifics.
Also, I recommend bringing a pen whenever flying to a foreign country. You will need to fill out paperwork, and pens will be in short supply.
"I Have No Service!"
Don't expect to have internet access until you get to your hotel. Airport wifi is a crapshoot, and jumping from cafe to cafe in search of wifi is the worst. Once you get settled, do yourself a favor and buy a prepaid SIM card. More on that later, but assume your phone will be a fancy Palm Pilot until you get to your hotel.
Before you leave home, use Google Maps (Android | iOS) to download an offline map of the route from the airport to your hotel. The app changes constantly, and even Google Support's own instructions were out of date when I wrote this, so I can't tell you exactly how to do that, but for whatever it's worth: as of right now, I can access offline maps by clicking my profile image in the upper right corner and choosing Offline Maps. I also recommend downloading offline maps of the areas you'll be visiting, just in case you have no phone service.
While you're at it, use Google Maps' Depart At feature to see an estimate for how long the trip to your hotel will take during the time you expect to leave the airport. If you like, you can also look at the map to get a general idea of how the city is laid out and where your hotel is in relation to the airport.
Finally, use the Arrive At feature (next to Depart At) again to determine when you'll need to leave your hotel to catch your return flight. Check with your hotel's staff to confirm the times look appropriate given the area's usual traffic. Double-check your ticket to make sure you've got the right airport.
Even if you're planning on taking a taxi or shuttle (since you probably won't have phone service), use Uber (Android | iOS) for fare estimates. It takes like 30 seconds and you can do it right now. Set the airport as your pickup location and your hotel as your dropoff location, then keep that option in your back pocket as an Escape This Insanity for $X.XX (If You Can Find WiFi) card when haggling with price-gouging taxi drivers or waiting for a courtesy shuttle that's teaching you about "sunk cost fallacy."
"I Have Service!"
As soon as you get to your hotel and shed your luggage, I highly recommend getting a prepaid SIM card as soon as you can. This gives you some freedom and an excuse to experience some local culture. A SIM card is a tiny chip your phone uses to identify itself on the local phone network, and changing it is about as risky as changing the batteries on your TV remote. Just remember to save the SIM card from back home for when you return.
Carry a paperclip in your wallet to help you replace your SIM card when you get back home. If you wear earrings, that can work too.
Most countries have carriers who offer inexpensive plans that'll give you enough data to cover you for your vacation. Your hotel staff may have recommendations, and a Google search can yield some information. Will you need to bring your passport? How much should you pay?
Having a SIM card gives you the ability to order rides and look things up without hunting for free wifi. "I'll just use restaurant wifi" is a really horrible long-term plan. While many restaurants outside the US offer complimentary wifi, restaurants also paradoxically provide an excellent place to be phone-free. Don't rob yourself of the experience of ruminating about how nice it is to just sit and drink a coffee while staring at the air.
Before heading to the SIM card store, take a business card from the hotel's front desk. It has the hotel's name, address, and phone number -- everything a taxi driver needs to get you back safely.
Ideally, you'll have researched carriers and prices ahead of time, so you'll know how much the SIM card ("chip") itself costs, what the prepaid options are, and what paperwork you'll need to bring. I recommend ignoring the "how many minutes" details and just focusing on how many megabytes each plan offers. I personally use about 5 GB per month while traveling.
If you refuse to buy a prepaid SIM card and are enchanted with the romanticism of being "off-the-grid," I still recommend reaching out to your domestic carrier before you leave home and ask them what they'd charge to give you service while traveling. Just in case you change your mind.
If you're traveling with someone else, you may find yourself sharing costs. People's ideas vary when it comes to defining "being normal about money." Personally I hate it when someone I'm traveling with says "It'll work itself out, I'm not going to sweat a few pennies" and then proceeds to keep a running tally in their heads of all expenses while expecting me to do the same.
Low Tech Option: Carry an envelope of cash for shared expenses. Everyone puts the same amount of money in, and whenever the group has expenses, money comes out of the envelope.
Unless it's a particularly memorable item, I'm personally just as likely to forget a big expense as a little one, so I prefer recording each shared expense in an app when paying and then letting that app handle all the bean counting. Recently I've gotten into just tucking the receipt into my wallet and logging it later. If traveling with companions, talk about it ahead of time.
For me, Splitwise (Android | iOS) is the best app for sorting out tricky trip expenses. Like when one person pays for a group's meal where they only ordered a soup, or when two people cover a third person's concert ticket, but then the third person buys drinks at the concert for all three.
By my math, there's an approximate 0% chance I want to figure that out in my head, and a 100% chance Splitwise can make short work of it.
High Tech Option: Everyone downloads Splitwise and records expenses in it. Settle up whenever with Venmo, cash, or whatever. I personally haven't come up with a shared transaction so complicated I couldn't record it with perfect clarity and accuracy. It also supports multiple currencies natively.
WhatsApp (Android | iOS) gives you a way to keep in touch with other WhatsApp users without relying on your phone carrier's network. Especially in Latin America, you'll see WhatsApp numbers printed on the front of businesses, and WhatsApp is the default way for regular people to message each other. For whatever reason, my experience asking Americans to use WhatsApp has always felt like asking a friend's parents to buy a calendar to help pay for the annual class trip. But in many parts of the world, WhatsApp is the norm, and SMS is like a younger relative of the fax machine.
Prepare to have this conversation a lot:
Them: "Wait, so if Americans don't use WhatsApp, what do they use?"
You: "iMessage if they're normal and have an iPhone. Otherwise, SMS."
Them: "Haha, what? Really? Like old-school text messaging?"
You: "Yeah, idk, either that or maybe Facebook Messenger?"
That's not true for everywhere (China), and if you don't plan on talking to anyone (??) you may be OK. But if you're planning on meeting people and making plans with them (or even just contacting a business) you might find WhatsApp makes more things possible. Sign up before you leave home so you can verify your home phone number during registration.
If you have to log into a strange computer system while traveling (maybe to print out airplane tickets), you probably won't want to install your password manager app on it. Use LastPass (Android | iOS) to store information like passwords, passport numbers, credit card info, etc on your phone so you can bring them with you wherever you go. Avoid putting yourself in situations where you have to use someone else's computer, but if you have to, do so in a private browser window and remember to log out when you're done.
At least for your email account, enable multi-factor authentication using something that's not SMS since you might not be able to get those text messages until you get home. Also, in case you lose your phone (which will probably your "second factor" for authentication), bring a paper copy of your backup codes, and keep them someplace you won't lose them.
This might all sound like a lot of unnecessary trouble, but I promise it's a lot better than the alternative. Don't wait until you lose your phone to realize you need it to get into your email. As you're reading this, do you know where your backup codes are? Like, right this second?
Libby (Android | iOS) is a book-borrowing app that (probably) integrates with your library, allowing you to send eBooks to your preferred e-reader wherever you are. If you live in the US, take advantage of your nation's extraordinary library system and use Libby to borrow eBooks while traveling. Traveling often gives travelers a lot of downtime. Instead of filling up those hours by scrolling through Twitter, read a dang book.
The Schwab (Android | iOS) app lets Charles Schwab account holders do all their banking through their phone
Charles Schwab debit cards are the greatest for travelers because there's no minimum balance, no annual fees, and all ATM fees get reimbursed -- even overseas or in place where the ATM fees are steep (i.e., casinos, strip clubs, etc). They work internationally without fees and will default to using the posted visa exchange rate when doing transactions in other currencies. I've also had excellent luck getting someone on the phone in just a minute or two after calling. Open an account.
I opened a high yield checking account with Charles Schwab 10 years ago and haven't shut up about how great it is ever since.
Don't Watch the World Through Your iPhone
Everyone travels their own way, so if your idea of experiencing a place means spending 0 minutes looking at your phone, good for you! I've seen plenty of tourists travel half-way around the world just to stare at their phone.
But I'm not going to indulge in this fantasy that going phone-free is all benefits with no drawbacks. I learned that by looking for a place to stay after dark while lost and without any way of getting in touch with anyone who can help. I woke up the next morning with a beautiful ocean-front view realizing I'd unwittingly slept on someone's front lawn. I packed my things and left shortly after sunrise. I slept terribly, but still recognize that could've easily ended a lot worse.
With enough planning, you can completely eliminate all the fun ups and downs and spontaneity that travel brings. Don't do that. Finding the fine line between "open to adventure" and "flat-out irresponsible" isn't something this article can do for you. Be a grown-up and use technology to enrich your travel experience instead of using it as a way to never leave your comfort zone. But there's no shame in knowing how to get from the airport to your hotel and how much it should cost.