No matter how much research you do in advance, there will always be something that surprises you when you travel. This is mostly great, because that’s where delight comes in. Sometimes, though, the things you don’t know can be annoying, expensive, or even disastrous. (A lot of people get in over their heads when they try something new and seemingly innocuous like bungee jumping, snorkeling, or riding a scooter). Here, then, is a random list of things I would have liked to know in advance.
MOST IMPORTANT: A lot of public restrooms cost a coin to get in, and if it’s the wrong currency or denomination, too bad, tell it to the machine. If you are standing in front of a coin-operated restroom, there is not going to be a public toilet anywhere near you for, oh, probably a mile.
Denham’s Law: The less expensive something is, the harder it will be to pay for it and the more you will need it. 20 pence to use a public restroom, 50 cents to pump up your bike tire, $2 or less to wash a load of laundry - it’s probably easier to get a car loan at 9 PM in some cities in the world than it is to find somewhere to pee.
Denham’s Second Law: No matter how much research you do, you will accidentally violate social mores. Probably nobody will tell you.
In general, what worked at one hotel in a chain may not be true at another hotel in the same chain, including how to unlock the door, turn on the lights, use the faucet, change the water temperature in the shower, use the thermostat, open the curtains, or flush the toilet.
The same is true in public restrooms, where you will have to relearn how to lock a stall, find the soap, activate the faucets and hand dryers, or find paper towels time after time.
What floor is the “second floor” is completely arbitrary from one part of the world to another.
You will think you have left something behind, and then find it later in your luggage, and you will also forget to bring things that you were sure you had packed, and you will inevitably lose something. Just hope it isn’t your passport.
What is true at the security line in one airport may be completely different from the rules in another security line in another airport. Therefore, you might as well just expect to go barefoot and half-naked, holding your liquids in one bag and anything that uses electricity in another, while abandoning your civil rights altogether.
If you’re American, use the Mobile Passport app, but be forewarned that you will have to retake your photo at least sixteen times, and it will not be clear what you’re doing wrong, even after you finally submit one that is acceptable.
Your flight will be at a different gate and it will probably be delayed, often at least two or three times.
You will land somewhere at an airport where nothing is open, and you will not be able to buy food or that other thing you really needed, whatever it was. (Eye drops, allergy tablets, a charging cable).
HBO Go, Amazon Prime Video, and probably other apps know your location. You’ll discover that you can’t necessarily use the same apps you do at home, even though you are paying for your subscription in your country of origin.
Likewise, you may suddenly find a paywall on news sites that isn’t there at home.
Terminology will be different for everything and may work completely differently than it does in your home country, or other places you’ve been.
In some places, you pay more if you eat the food at a table instead of taking it with you.
If you buy anything to bring home, you may have to list it on a tax form at the end of your trip.
“Left Luggage” is not the same as “lost and found;” it’s a place where you can pay to drop off your bags for a few hours, aha, but only if you have cash.
Containers and food packaging can be confusing, such as when you think you’re buying juice and it’s concentrate that needs to be diluted 4:1. Surprise! Or you think you’re buying juice and it’s really pie filling. Surprise!
The good news is, a lot of travel surprises are great. Sometimes you find out that one of your favorite products is significantly cheaper where you’re visiting. Or the wifi is much faster. Or you get much more data on the plan that comes with your SIM card. Or people are better at things that annoy you, like taking turns, standing in line, and picking up their own trash.
What I’ve found in traveling is that I generally feel safer on the road than I do at home. Contrary to scare stories, I’ve never been mugged, robbed, assaulted, or scammed while traveling. (At home? Buy me a tea and we’ll talk). I haven’t had food poisoning (possibly because I’m vegan) and I’ve found that my dietary habits are often better supported overseas. People are generally warm, friendly, honest, and kind.
The real secret is that we travel in spite of the annoyances because it’s still worth it. This is a big and often amazing world, and it’s good to go out and see as much of it as possible. The more you know, the better prepared you are, the easier it is to do.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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