- Do you have a system or routine when traveling to a new country?
- What preparations do you make in advance so that you arrive and enter a country with the least amount of discomfort?
- What’s the first thing you do when the plane lands? And… what apps do you use to make things easier?
Vanessa and I are now house sitting on the tropical island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean. The island nation of St Vincent & The Grenadines is made up of 32 islands, of which only a handful are inhabited. It’s a beautiful place, relatively untouched by tourism when compared to Barbados, where we sat for three months last year.
We didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived here, yet our entry to this small country was smooth and trouble free. I realized that this was, to a large degree, due to the advance preparations we made long before we left the UK to begin our current house sitting adventure.
I’ve been an international traveler for almost 40 years, and have arrived at more new places than I care to count. Over the years I’ve developed a system that gives me the best chance of having a reasonably stress-free arrival in any new location.
I’ve honed and adjusted my arrival routine as times have changed. The internet has arrived and smartphones now connect us instantly to a world of information and useful tools.
Here are 12 tips to help you avoid hassles and pitfalls when arriving somewhere unfamiliar for the first time.
PART 1 – Accommodation & Transport
1. Book your first night of accommodation in advance
If you’re not being collected at the airport by your home owner for a house sit assignment, then it’s a good idea to have your first night of accommodation already planned in advance.
Check that wherever you book is easy and inexpensive to get to using public transport, or simple for a taxi driver to find.
2. Plan your transportation in advance
Spend a little time researching options to get from the airport to your first night’s accommodation. Often when taking a taxi from the airport you will pay a vastly inflated price. This is sometimes because the taxi companies have to pay an airport tax to pick up there, and this is obviously passed on to you, the customer. A higher price is sometimes quoted simply because you are a new arrival, and have no idea what a taxi should really cost.
So, know what the actual fare should be.
WikiTravel is a good place to start your research.
Here, for example, is their post on Panama City. Taxis will cost around $30 from the airport to the city. A local bus can be found for $1.25, but paying the fare means finding a local with a travel card and paying them the cash equivalent:
You have to make your decision based on your budget, and take into consideration your comfort level in new locations and situations.
TripAdvisor forums often have lots of advice from other travelers, but make sure it is up-to-date info, as many of the posts date back several years.
Planning ahead significantly reduces your chance of getting ripped off. Always check taxi fares with the driver in advance, of course, before you get into the taxi.
3. An airport taxi secret to save money
I discovered this little trick while in Cusco in Peru, and it has served me well many times since then.
If you join the line of people outside Airport Arrivals you will most likely pay a much higher taxi price for an official airport taxi, as the taxis usually have to pay a hefty fee to the airport.
Instead, make your way to the Departures drop-off area, and wait for a regular licensed taxi to drop off a customer heading for a flight out. The taxi will usually be happy for you to hop in, as he now has a fare for his journey back to the city.
In Cusco this meant paying around $3 US for the journey to town, instead of $20 US.
4. App – Uber
Instead of paying inflated taxi prices, try using the Uber app to pay much more reasonable rates for the comfort of door-to-door service. Uber isn’t available in all countries and cities (they’ve now withdrawn or been banned from certain cities, including London), but where Uber can be found, you’ll usually make a significant saving.
Of course, you need access to data on your phone to do this… we’ll come to this later.
5. App – download MAPS.ME for offline maps
This is one of my favorite apps. I use this ALL THE TIME and love it. It is completely free, and works offline for any areas that you have already downloaded the maps for. Plan ahead, and make sure you have got all the maps you will need on your phone or tablet before you begin your journey.
You can use the phone’s GPS to track your journey to your accommodation – perfect to check that the taxi isn’t taking you on an unwanted tour of the city, or for making sure you get off the bus at the right stop.
You can pin locations on the map too, so pin your hotel or Airbnb, so it is easy to find.
We use Maps.me to get to hidden-away beaches, and to find secluded hiking trails. The level of detail is fantastic, and in places like St Vincent, or Thailand, we have often found there are more roads and trails marked on the map than on Google Maps.
That’s because Maps.me uses OpenStreetMap.org for it’s map info. You can actually add detail to this open source resource yourself, and I often add tracks and other landmarks to maps as we discover new things.
You can download areas of Google Maps for offline access, but I’ve had trouble with this before, and you don’t want to arrive in a new city and find the downloaded offline map is no longer available.
PART 2 – Internet Connection Options
6. International roaming
Before departure to your new destination, check your current home country cell provider’s options and prices for roaming abroad. Many people are on a plan that makes it simple to use their phone abroad at a reasonable price. Make sure to check rates for all countries you plan to visit to be sure there will be no surprises.
If you are on a “pay-as-you-go” plan you may find roaming costs to be prohibitively expensive, or that your data gets eaten up very quickly.
7. Airport WiFi
Obviously, the simplest way to get online when you land in a new country or city is to use the airport WiFi… if there is WiFi available, of course.
Some airports are great, and offer easy, quick, free internet access. Some require you to create an account, download an app, wade through lengthy adverts, or get a code from the information desk.
Relying on the airport for your connection is not ideal, and could potentially leave you unable to access anything online.
One of the biggest disadvantages of counting on the airport connection is that as soon as you head outside to meet your Uber driver, you’ve lost your internet connection. Surely there is a better option…?
8. Local SIM cards
If your mobile phone is unlocked, and therefore able to accept SIM cards from other cellphone networks, you’ll often find a vendor at the airport who can sell you a local network SIM card. Once set up you’ll have a local phone number, and with the right package, access to mobile data too.
Research the different cellphone companies in advance, so you know which one will suit your needs.
The major downside of relying on this method is that there may not be the option to purchase a SIM at the airport, or if arriving at an unusual hour, the shops may be closed.
You may also run into language barriers, and the initial setup of the SIM may be quite complicated.
We recently started using FlexiRoam for mobile data, and have been very impressed with the service in several countries we have tried it in so far.
FlexiRoam offers international data roaming packages which work in over 100 countries. You have to buy a Starter Pack, which has a small data chip which sticks onto any SIM card. This allows the SIM to data-roam onto a huge choice of local mobile networks.
When you enter a new country you simply switch to the FlexiRoam SIM, turn on data roaming, and connect via the FlexiRoam app. We simply switch on after clearing customs and are instantly online.
We bought a 5Gb data package, which is valid for a full year, and seems to be lasting well. We don’t use it all the time, because as soon as we get to our Airbnb, or our house sit assignment we usually then have access to WiFi.
Initial setup was a little tricky, but once resolved FlexiRoam is easy to use. Get set up well in advance of your trip, instead of trying to resolve everything when you land at the airport.
PART 3 – Money
10. Know the currency exchange rate
We use the XE.com currency app, and check exchange rates before we depart, so we know roughly what to expect when changing cash or withdrawing funds from an ATM.
This can also help if for some reason you can’t get hold of any local currency, and have to negotiate a taxi fare in Euros or US$.
11. Withdraw cash from an ATM
I don’t think we’ve passed through an airport yet which hasn’t had an ATM somewhere. Even in Cuba we found a cash point shortly after landing, and had local cash in our pockets before we exited the arrivals hall.
We usually try to withdraw the local equivalent of around $100 in cash, maybe more depending on our expectations of prices, based on our research. This should be enough to get you through the first few days, and find your feet.
We recently opened an account with Starling Bank, a UK online-only bank. They offer an amazing deal for travelers. Zero fees for foreign currency withdrawals, zero fees for MasterCard transactions in any currency, and 0.5% interest on any balance too.
The exchange rates are fantastic, usually coming in at mid-market rate, which is way better than you’ll get at a bank currency exchange booth. Occasionally you may still be charged a fee for use of the ATM by the foreign bank.
For US citizens we’ve heard great things about Charles Schwab Bank, which even refunds any ATM fees charged by the foreign ATM.
12. Currency exchange
If for some reason you can’t get cash from the ATM, then a cash backup is wise. We always try to carry some US Dollars in good condition, small denomination notes that we can change at the airport currency exchange bureau. You probably won’t get a very good rate, but having some local cash is better than none at all.
You’ll need some small local notes or coins if your travel plans from the airport involve local buses. Ask for these when you change your cash, instead of just accepting large denomination notes.
It’s all about planning ahead and being organized…
This is how a perfectly planned arrival in a new location might look:
- Once the plane touches down you pass through Passport Control and go to collect your baggage.
- While waiting you can connect to the internet, via airport WiFi if available, via FlexiRoam if not.
- After collecting your bags, clear through customs and avoid the taxi touts.
- Find an ATM and get hold of some local currency with zero fees, ideally with your Starling Bank card (UK residents) or your Charles Schwab Bank card (US residents).
- Order an Uber online, if available, or check that you are quoted the correct price by a taxi driver.
- Or head for your chosen method of transport, such as bus, train or subway.
- Make your way to your pre-booked accommodation, following along on your pre-planned route on Maps.me to make sure you don’t get lost.
- Arrive at your accommodation, settle in, then head out to explore your new location.
This is exactly how our arrival in St Vincent went, and we settled into a lovely apartment just on the outskirts of town less than two hours after touching down.
Plan ahead to make sure you arrive every time, relaxed, organized and unstressed.