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Attorney Bill Gibson still remembers the ordeal of making a transatlantic phone call back in the 1970s when his wife lived in Europe. You had to put in a request at the post office or American Express office, then return hours later at an appointed time for the call to be put through. Today, he’s taken groups of lawyers to China, and has seen people call their office in the US while standing atop the Great Wall. Yes, things have changed, particularly with ease of communication, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a little preparation before hopping that plane.
Here are seven things you can do to ward off potential problems abroad so you can focus on getting the most from your trip, whether it is for business or pleasure.
1. Get your cell phone package sorted out before you leave the country. Most companies have international plans or short-term packages that can be activated before your trip. You might also check out the options at cellularabroad.com, which include cell phone rental, SIM cards, satellite phones and data services. Keep in mind that it is usually cheaper to text than to talk when abroad. Also, if you are traveling with your smartphone, turn off the roaming feature (and don’t use it to check email and the Internet) unless you are prepared to pay exorbitant fees. You might also want to figure out the basics of Skype before you leave.
2. Back up all your devices. Just as we live by the information stored in our laptops, phones and iPads, we can also die by them if they are lost or stolen. Keep backup copies at home or convert to cloud storage so that you can access the information from anywhere. If you don’t need it, don’t bring it. Instead figure out how to access your desktop remotely. If you must bring presentation or work data on your laptop, consider offloading a copy of it onto an encrypted flash drive that you keep in a separate bag (as well as all your contact information). You are password protecting and encrypting your devices, right? (The ABA has good tips here for securing your technology on the go and for what to do if your smartphone is stolen.)
3. Make several photocopies of your passport. Leave one copy at home with a family member or administrative assistant, put one in your wallet and one in a compartment of your main suitcase. That way, if your passport gets lost or stolen, you will have the information at hand to expedite the process of getting a new one. If you travel with a laptop, putting a scanned copy on it is a good idea as well.
4. If you are doing business, consider hiring a driver and interpreter. Yes global travel is more commonplace, and global business is a fact of life, but if you are traveling beyond the big cities in countries like India or China, you might want someone with you who knows the territory—and the roads, which can be treacherous, not to mention hair-raising. Also, you can’t expect everyone to speak English, so if a meeting or negotiation rests on good communication, you might want to bring in an interpreter experienced in the language and nuances of both countries.
5. Do your research. Try to understand what environment you are getting into and how you can be a respectful visitor. Learn the words for please and thank you—this alone can earn you a lot of goodwill. Find out the major taboos (everything from opposite sexes shaking hands to talking about forbidden topics to what direction you point your feet). Learn the tipping policy so you don’t alienate the very people who can help you most. And try to get a grasp of the political situation so you don’t get caught in an uprising, contentious election or a military action. (The rule of thumb that foreign correspondents live by is, “If you hear gunfire in the streets, fill your bathtub with water.”) For extensive and up-to-date information on travel conditions for every country in the world, go to the State’s Department website.
6. Plan for emergencies (and just plain human error). Get a few hundred dollars in the local currency before you leave in case a flight delay lands you after airport currency exchanges are closed, or you arrive on a national holiday that closes the banks for a day (or two or three). When you check into your hotel, immediately take several cards (or matchbooks or brochures—whatever is available) with the hotel name and address on it and put in your wallet or purse. In case you get lost, befuddled by local libations or can’t remember or pronounce the name of your hotel, you can just show this to a cab driver. Another trick of seasoned travelers, especially in developing countries, is to bring along several $100 bills–US or Euros—as a little safety net. If you get stuck in a situation where you need help fast, these can provide tremendous incentive.
7. Consider unplugging altogether. One of the great joys of travel is that it takes you out of your comfort zone and into the great unknown. If you stay connected to home the entire time, not only do you miss out on discovering new parts of both yourself and the world, but you also miss out on that deep relaxation that can only come from silence—electronic or otherwise.
Mary Ellen Sullivan is a Chicago-based freelance writer who writes frequently about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care for more than 27 years. She is the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago,” several travel guides, and has been published in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Woman’s Day, For Me, Vegetarian Times, Booklist and other publications.
Illustration © ImageZoo.
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