Two Weeks Abroad: What I Learned

Prague, a very fairy tale-esque city (in the Grimm-est sense).

Nearly six weeks ago, I boarded an airplane bound for Europe where I would spend my first time abroad, living out of two bags for two weeks. This was the fulfillment of a life goal (older people call them bucket-list items!) I had had since I started learning German in high school—to visit Germany and, more generally, Europe. Even though I was over two years out of formal German education and my language skills were not what they used to be, this trip happened at the right time, in the fullness of time.

First, a bit of a backstory: I had started monitoring airfare through a subscription-based service called Scott’s Cheap Flights, and I quickly learned that it’s always cheaper to travel during off seasons or “shoulder seasons” in your destination of choice. For Europe, this means visiting during spring or fall, not during the peak tourist seasons of summer and winter. (Why would you want to be very hot or very cold while surrounded by thousands of other tourists anyway?)

In March, I got my first taste of shoulder-season airfare: round-trip tickets to Amsterdam for the fall in the $500 range. I spent too much time debating whether to spring on the deal or not that the deal eluded me, much like how an animal eludes a hunter if the hunter hesitates. Eli Wallach said it best in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: “When you have to shoot, shoot! Don’t talk!”

Fortunately for me, another deal came around in May: $600 round-trip to Prague on American Airlines, my preferred airline. This time I sprang, and sealed the deal. I had about five months to prepare for my first trip overseas—which also happened to be my first solo trip, too.

I spent quite a bit of time reading travel books and travel blogs so I could know what to expect from wandering around alone in a foreign country. But there’s no replacement for first-hand knowledge, so even though I had equipped myself, I still had to go and experience.

I could write another travel blog post about the top ten things to do in Munich or Berlin, but that’s not very unique, and it’s not what I like to do. Instead, I want to enumerate, if possible, the big things I learned from this trip. Whether you’re planning a trip or are a seasoned traveler, I hope you enjoy this list and take something away.

A beautiful house and flower arrangement in the quaint Bavarian town of Oberammergau.

1. Look like you know where you’re at, even if you have no clue.

It’s very easy to look like a tourist. Simply buy a guidebook and stand in the middle of a city square while paging through said guidebook, looking confused as you’re trying to figure out where the heck you are.

Although I consulted Rick Steves’ excellent book, Europe Through the Back Door, I left it at home. Instead, I made notes on my phone about how to get from place to place, which busses and trains to take to get to various places, and good restaurants in each city. I loaded my phone with maps of public transportation routes for all the cities I would be in; this way, I could consult them on the fly without rummaging in my daypack for a map.

This is a really good way to look more like a local—or at least someone who’s not a tourist. Everyone has their head in their smartphone these days, and it’s a lot less conspicuous to consult your phone for information than it is to whip out a guidebook and flip through pages like a madman. If you’re using your phone, the people around you don’t know whether you’re checking a map or checking social media.

Why is this important? Because, especially in large tourist destinations, con artists and thieves prey on unwitting tourists. Someone may come up and ask if they can “help” you, only to demand money for their “services” once they’ve “helped” you. Pickpockets can take advantage of you while you’re distracted. (More on this in a minute.)

So, look like you’re not lost, even if you are. And if you are lost, approach someone for directions—don’t let them approach you. In my experience, Europeans are more to themselves than Americans are (especially here in the South and Southwest), and they don’t readily offer help to visitors. But if you ask, most are happy (or at least obliging) to assist you.

Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate at sunrise, before all the tourists flock to it.

2. Keep moving.

In a crisis, the first thing you want to do is “get off the X,” to use CIA terminology. In travel, you want to do the same.

This goes along with the previous point about looking like you know where you’re at. If you’re trying to get from Wenceslas Square to the Charles Bridge, don’t just stand around and try to figure it out. Start moving somewhere, and correct if necessary. (In Europe especially, lots of attractions are in a city’s center or old town, and are so close to each other that a slight course correction won’t ruin your day.)

Staying in one place for too long can attract attention of thieves and con artists. If you need to stay put, find a bench to sit on or go into a restaurant. Preferably, hang out in an area where police or security guards are on patrol. Keep all your belongings in sight and by your side at all times.

A shot through one of the garden paths of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna.

3. Be suspicious of everyone (in a good way).

Most people do not want to rob you, and even fewer want to kill you. But you want to be aware that, as a foreigner and a tourist, you are automatically a high-value target for seedy individuals.

I have no problem with dropping coins in a beggar’s hat. What I do have a problem with is giving money to people who approach me—especially if they invade my personal space.

This happened to me in Bratislava in a Metro station. As I was walking through, a man came seemingly out of nowhere and nearly stood chest-to-chest with me. He muttered something in Slovak—I knew it was money he wanted—but I brushed him aside and kept moving forward. If I had stopped, even to try to understand him, he could have had a partner somewhere behind me try to pull my wallet.

Yes, it seems rude, and yes, it seems heartless, but you’ve got to look out for yourself first. If you’re going to take a guilt trip for not giving to an audacious individual, drop a few coins in a beggar’s hat.

Bratislava Castle in Bratislava, Slovakia.

4. Equip yourself with knowledge.

Do you tip or not in Germany? What about in Austria? The Czech Republic? And if you do tip, how much is appropriate?

It’s questions like these that stump a lot of foreigners and can lead to some cultural faux pas. Fortunately, there are hundreds of answers to these kinds of questions online, and any good guidebook will contain this kind of information as well.

Don’t be that guy (or gal). Brush up on cultural norms before you leave and you can be confident that you’ll be more like a local and less like a tourist. Plus, the locals will like you more, and you’ll gain a better appreciation for local customs.

(Since I’m sure you’re wondering, the answer to the tipping question is that no, you do not have to tip in these countries because the “tip” is rolled into the purchase price, so what you see on the menu is what you pay. However, it’s a courtesy and a convenience to round the price up to the nearest whole Euro, or higher if the service was exceptional. I, for one, much prefer this method to the American tipping system.)

Another shot of Prague by night, taken from the Charles Bridge.

5. Carry at least one change of socks and underwear in your personal item.

My trip started on a bit of a sour note when American Airlines forced me to check my bag on the first leg of my trip. The 757 ran out of overhead bin space, so I handed my bag off to the gate attendant at the jetway. Unfortunately, due to my bag being mislabeled and a flight delay that led to a tight connection, my bag did not get checked through to Prague, my final destination. That meant I landed in the Prague airport with only the clothes on my back and the few personal belongings in my personal item. What a way to start a trip, eh?

I bought a few articles from H&M and got by until I got my bag back—three days later—but my trip would have been a lot less hectic had I at least had a few things in my mini backpack. I’ve talked to other travelers who have run into similar situations and they all agree to carry at least extra socks and underwear, if not a complete change of clothes, in your personal item.

Sometimes you stumble across lovely views, like this one in Oberschleißheim outside of Munich.

6. Most people are helpful.

I arrived in Prague without a functioning cell phone because my international SIM card was in my lost bag. As a result, I had no way of contacting the manager of the apartment I was staying at.

Fortunately, I managed to communicate my predicament to a tenant in the apartment building. Overcoming the language barrier, I asked her to call the manager and, long story short, help me get checked in. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but a good experience in the end. The lady was very kind and genuinely wanted to help me out. I thanked her in broken Czech as best I could, and then she stayed with me and talked to me in broken English while we waited on the apartment manager to arrive.

I think that most people are willing to help those in need, even if there’s nothing in it for them. Actually, there is something in it for them—the good feeling of helping another human being. So don’t be afraid to ask for help, and pay it forward by helping a fellow traveler or a foreigner in your own town.

The Deutscher Dom and the TV tower behind it. Grand designs if I ever saw any.

7. Avoid big crowds, but also avoid being alone.

As with most things in life, a balance must be struck. In terms of travel, I found it important to strike a balance between the crowds of tourists and the lonely side-streets of major cities.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with either situation, but both have inherent risks. In a crowd, it’s easier to get jostled around and lose something or be pickpocketed. I remember one instance in Munich where a gentleman bumped into a passer-by and unknowingly dropped the glasses he was holding in his hand. I and a few other pedestrians stopped him and gave him his glasses back.

When you’re all alone, especially if you’re traveling solo or in a small group, you feel isolated and could become a target for beggars and thieves. If you’re unfamiliar with the locale, you could be walking into a seedy area that you’d best avoid. I remember turning down one desolate side-street in Prague where a guy appeared to be cat-calling both women and men. Needless to say, I doubled back and found a different route.

If possible, hang out in places where there are groups of people, but not crowds. Don’t let people get too close to you, but don’t get isolated either. And, as before, be aware of places where police and security are—and aren’t.

If you think this photo of Schönbrunn Palace is beautiful, it’s even more beautiful in person.

8. Have at least a two-hour layover between flights.

I had a two-hour layover in Philadelphia, which I thought would give me plenty of time to eat dinner and chill out before my overnight flight to Prague. And it would have, had my flight to Philly not been delayed.

A thirty-minute delay due to a lack of cabin crew turned into an hour-long delay on the Dallas tarmac, as Philly was experiencing bad weather and our flight had essentially missed its arrival window for a gate. Altogether, I had about thirty minutes to deplane and traverse two terminals to make my next flight.

It turned out that my flight to Prague got delayed due to maintenance, so I did have time to eat and decompress a bit. Lesson learned: If you have to change planes, having at least a two-hour layover allows time for flight delays and other incidents.

Just a typical street in Bratislava’s old town. Note the lack of tourists!

9. Carry a flashlight and a money belt.

A good flashlight serves as both a means of light and as a weapon. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it for the latter, but let me explain.

I own two “tactical” flashlights. One is a Nitecore that looks like something a SWAT officer would wear on his belt, and the other is a Soonfire (probably a Chinese knock-off brand) that I bought expressly for this trip. Both put out extremely bright beams (the Soonfire can illuminate at up to 1000 lumens), far more than your average flashlight does.

The Soonfire flashlight (probably a knock-off) that I bought in a pinch.

The Soonfire is smaller and looks less tactical, and I assumed (correctly) that it wouldn’t arouse any suspicion from airport security in any airport. When sightseeing, I could slip it in my pants pocket comfortably and inconspicuously. It also is rechargeable via USB, so I didn’t need to bring any special charge cables or buy batteries; I could use the same cable I use for my phone.

It came in very handy when staying at the apartment in Prague, which had no exterior or hallway lighting (until you found the hall light switch, that is). I also used it a few times to check that none of my belongings had fallen under beds, and when digging through my bag inside a darkened airplane.

The flashlight doubles as a weapon in two ways. Firstly, its beam on the highest setting can temporarily blind an assailant. All it takes is a flash in the eyes, and an attacker will be reeling backwards in disorientation, giving you enough time to fight or flee. Secondly, should you need to fight, you can use the butt of the flashlight as a blunt weapon, or similar to a kubaton. This gives even those of us who are relatively unskilled in hand-to-hand combat an advantage—a strike to the temple or sternum with this will incapacitate even the strongest neer-do-wells.

Next, the money belt. I learned this tip from Rick Steves, and it turned out to be a good one: Buy a money belt with RFID (radio-frequency identification) protection and wear it underneath your pants. Place items you don’t want to lose, such as a passport, credit cards, and cash, in the belt and leave the belt there all day.

The Venture 4th money belt with RFID-blocking design. A great buy.

The money belt is pickpocket-proof and after a while you’ll forget you have it on. Keep the cash and cards you need access to throughout the day in your normal wallet. Yes, your normal wallet is still fair game for thieves, but you don’t want to be digging into your waistband every time you need to pay for something.

For guys, you can place your wallet in the front pocket of your pants for added security. Or, you can just carry loose cash in your pocket and dispense with the wallet altogether. In this case, a money clip might be a good idea.

For gals, carry a purse or handbag by all means, but you should still have a money belt with your essentials just in case your purse gets lost, stolen, or pickpocketed. If you’re not wearing a skirt or dress, you too can slip some cash for the day into your front pants pocket, which makes it easier to retrieve.

Flowers decorating the streets in Wittenberg, Germany.

10. Learn the basics of the local language.

Learn the basics of reading, writing, speaking, and listening to the local language. Yes, many people speak English, but not all do. In general, the more rural the locale, the fewer people that know English.

I recommend using apps like Duolingo or Mango Languages to learn the basics. I had no problem in Germany and Austria (because I know German at an intermediate level), but ran into language barriers left and right in the Czech Republic. If only I had spent more time learning some Czech words and phrases, I wouldn’t have had these problems.

My one souvenir: A Graf Zeppelin watch purchased from the Deutsches Museum. It was meant to be.

11. Pay with cash.

Other countries are not like North America—not everyone accepts credit cards! Yes, hotels and most dining establishments will, but you can’t expect the family-run trinket shop to have a card reader at the checkout counter.

My advice—and I also learned this from Rick Steves—is to pay with cash. You can either acquire foreign currency through a bank before you leave for your trip, or visit an ATM when you arrive. I went the ATM route and never had any issues.

Always use ATMs that are secure. Local banks will have ATMs inside their establishments that are monitored by CCTV cameras, whether on the street or at the train station. I avoid using ATMs that are just along the sidewalk, as you don’t know who could be surveilling you or whether the ATM has been skimmed.

If you can, use a debit card with low or zero foreign ATM fees. If you can’t, withdraw enough cash to make your ATM fee negligible. This also prevents you from having to make multiple trips to the ATM throughout your stay.

Don’t travel without a credit card and debit card, but always carry cash with you. Spend down any extra cash before you return home, as you will likely have a hard time converting it back when you arrive. Airport currency exchange kiosks are notorious for giving terrible rates.

Breakfast in England: Truffled toast at Heathrow.

12. Carry reminders of home and stay in touch.

In the olden days, soldiers off to war would carry photos of their wives, girlfriends, and families. They’d write letters when they had down time. The modern equivalent is having photos of loved ones on your phone and calling or FaceTime-ing when you’re both awake.

I found traveling alone to be an awesome experience that I think everyone should have, but it did get lonely at times. To combat this, I stayed in contact with friends and family back home through Google Hangouts, and was able to call and text this way. I’d put on my favorite music in my hotel room to remind myself of home, or check local news websites just to see what was going on back in Dallas.

Hopefully these tips equip you and inspire you to get out there and have some adventures. Benjamin Franklin noted that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and the Boy Scouts advise us to be prepared, so take these things to heart and get prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally for travel. That way, you can travel more carefree and enjoy the moment!

Yours truly at the fairy-tale castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein in Hohenschwangau, Germany.

8 Responses

  1. I am glad to see you enjoyed your time in Europe. You seem to have seen a lot of places for a two-weeks trip.
    The pictures are very nice. I visited Prague and Vienna some years ago and these are indeed very beautiful cities. Which cities did you like best in Germany?
    You are right about the need to be careful when traveling abroad. Carrying a flashlight to defend yourself in a difficult situation sounds like a great idea.
    Regarding your advice to pay with cash this is good advice too and this is particularly true for Germany, where people use cash a lot.

    1. Thank you! In Germany, I really enjoyed Munich but also Bavaria in general. I wish I had spent more time there. I visited Wittenberg partly for the history (Martin Luther and the Reformation), but also because my German ancestors came from there. Unfortunately I went on a Sunday and there wasn’t much going on. I can’t wait to visit again someday!

  2. Such a lovely and thoughtful post with lots of useful tips anyone can use while exploring the big beautiful world. Learning the basics of the local language goes a long way and keeping in touch with family and friends while being away is good for your mental health. I’m glad you finally had a chance to explore Europe!

    1. Thank you! Europe has so much to see and do in such a small space (by Texas standards 😉 ) that there’s no way to even hit the highlights and appreciate them in two weeks. I look forward to my next chance to visit.

  3. Great going, Matthew! Glad you made it “there and back again,” to quote JRR. If you were to visit some other place in the world (or rather, when you do), where would it be?

    1. Oh man, I need to make a list! 🙂 The top countries right now are Japan, Canada, the UK, France, Switzerland, and Italy—in no particular order. But I also want to explore of the US, especially the National Parks (which I know you’re very familiar with!).

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