When I was kid, a lot of years back when 95% (it’s a ball-park figure) of seafarers were male, I wished upon a star that I could become a sea-woman. I wanted to be one so I could travel the world for free, and earn from it. When I grew up, I realized it wasn’t the career waiting for me. That’s when the silent yet brewing dream of one day flying out of the Philippines temporarily died. Flat-lined, along with the financial burdens we had as a family.
But now, times have changed. With my passport on hand and my luggage in tow, I am set to seeing the world with Mary, friends and hopefully, family.
I have asked my friends who are frequent international travelers, jet-setters in their own way, about the lessons they’ve learned while traveling outside of the country. I compiled them along with mine, and shared them here. You can thank us later 🙂
1. BUILD THE STRENGTH OF YOUR PASSPORT
The strength of one’s passport lies in how many countries the holder can go to without the need for a visa. Unfortunately for Philippine passport holders, our passport power rank for 2017 is 65 (https://www.passportindex.org/byRank.php) tied with Zambia and Tunisia. This means that we can only go to 62 countries, visa-free whereas Germany and Singapore are tied at #1 with 159.
That is something beyond our control. What we control though, is the strength of our individual passport. Example, because I have a B1/B2 multiple entry visa to USA, I can go to some countries in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Eastern Europe because of my US visa. Mary and I went to Taiwan because of our Japan visa. Aim to go to countries that are G7 members (Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, UK and US) or OECD (Includes Australia and most European countries, and Japan, Korea and Israel from Asia) as visas to these countries will help you get into other countries visa-free, or with a higher visa approval rate compared to those without.
2. TRAVEL TO COUNTRIES WITH LESS MONETARY VALUE THAN YOUR HOME COUNTRY
This is also why a lot of western backpackers flood South East Asia because the value of their money is high when exchanged to PhP or other SEAsian rates.
For me though, it was always a little depressing to save a month’s salary for a vacation and end up with just a few hundred dollars in conversion. I did not even expect Thailand’s Baht to be 1.55 to the Peso. But when I was in India, I was so happy because I could stretch my money where it’s 1.29 Rupees to a Peso, at least when I was there in March and April of 2017. However, it doesn’t end there. You also need to check the cost of living. Like in Japan, your peso is an equivalent of 2.22 Yen but that doesn’t mean commodities there are cheap.
Amor disagrees here. She says that when spending money abroad, we should never convert the amount to pesos, otherwise, everything else will seem expensive. Oh but I can’t help it. But take it from her, London is an expensive city to be in, but she made it look easy.
Thailand trips would generally be affordable, as is Taiwan. They said that Japan, Tokyo specifically, is expensive. And this is where your diligent frugality and researching will benefit you. Sydney, by far, is the most expensive city any of us has ever been. Mary’s decent lunch was at AUD 15 (PhP 560). Yosh of The Poor Traveler in his talk mentioned that Norway had been the most expensive, and that they had to do a lot of buying from the groceries during their Euro trip to stretch the budget.
3. OVERCOME LANGUAGE BARRIER AND CULTURAL GAPS
In the vernacular, “hindi sila ang mag-a-adjust”. Research is always the key when traveling locally, and more so, internationally. While English is the universal language, it is not the most widely-spoken language, Mandarin is. So expecting other countries to be as good as Filipinos in speaking English is going to work against our favor.
Again, unless we can teach the world to speak English in time for our travels, this is something we can’t control. What we can do includes downloading apps that translate English into the country’s native tongue. Or, do it the traditional way. Before leaving your country, learn the basic phrases like “I’m lost”, “Do you speak English?”, “Where is the toilet?” and “How much?” Better yet, don’t be scared to ask for help – when you’re stuck in a place, says April. Talk to strangers, she even urges. She even borrowed a phone at the airport once.
Another frequent traveler, often low-profile friend, also quipped “Smile. Never be afraid to ask for help. People, especially travelers/tourists like you will be more than willing to help. Always be grateful and yes, it won’t hurt to pay it forward.” Well, if only all strangers are like her.
My friend Rei says the same thing about her experience in South Korea. Never expect our neighboring countries to be as fluent in English as we are. Check her instagram account out at @_princessrei_
While we would love to show off some skin for OOTD’s, we also have to know beforehand if we are disrespecting a culture. Some temples in Thailand will not admit you if you’re wearing a sleeveless tank top and if your knees are visible. Some temples in India will require you to take your footwear off.
4. KNOW THE LAWS AND RESPECT THE BELIEFS
Again, a little bit of research. Did you know that in Australia, you can be fined anywhere $45-$76 dollars if you don’t walk opposite the traffic flow in the absence of a foot path? We Filipinos are so unmindful of that, heck we sometimes counter flow! We walk anywhere we want on whichever side of the road, don’t we? In Thailand, it is a punishable offense to throw a used chewing gum on the pavement. In some parts of India, slaughter of cows (considered sacred in Hindu) and eating of beef is prohibited.
There are also other countries that are not tolerant of the LGBT community and I am wary of visiting those countries. Guam, however, is the closest destination to the Philippines where same-sex marriage is legal, followed by Taiwan, the first Asian country to have the same provision. Russia is fairly homophobic, along with African, South Asian and Eastern/Southern European countries.
When I was in India, I wasn’t openly talking about my sexuality because I was concerned of how people around me would react, especially that I am there for work.
5. BE A TOURIST OR A TRAVELER
It is definitely up to you. There’s so much hating going on in social media about being tourists as compared to travelers. But there comes a point in your life when you just want to sit down and enjoy your vacation, be pampered, and be taken places without hassle. I have always believed in DIY-style travels but we chose to take a tour from an accredited agency when we went to Beijing. The decision to get the tour was simple. The historical sites are too far from each other; we didn’t have a VPN and so social media sites are blocked, thus, our call-a-friend option is deemed unavailable; we didn’t know a local, or a Filipino working there; and worse, we didn’t understand the language except the casual “she-she”, “ni-hao” and “chow”. Traveling with an agency was stress-free and went well with our post-anniversary and pre-birthday celebration. Do not let anyone tell you how to go.
DIY and guided tours have their respective pros and cons.
DIY allows you to spend more time in a place you like, guided tours usually have a specific time per spot especially if you’re in a group tour.
DIY can sometimes get you lost, and can cost you extra money and time whereas guided tours specialize in, well, guiding!
DIY trips can start and end anytime you want while you can get left by the van or bus if you’re in a group tour and you woke up late (this happened to us when we booked KLOOK in Taipei)
For our recommended travel agency: Oh Maria Travel and Tours
Travel Agencies we had wonderful experiences with: Japanican for Mt. Fuji-Komagatake-Ropeway-Shinkansen tour in Tokyo (March 2015), and Travel China Guide for Beijing (March 2016)
6. WEATHER AND WHAT TO WEAR
The first time I went to Japan, I brought summer clothes and 1 warm jacket thinking March is summer, because, isn’t it too hot in Manila in March? Truth is, I even experienced snow at the 5th Station of Mt. Fuji. The night before that, I had to find myself a pair of gloves – yup. Didn’t research much. When you see it’s 15 degrees in a city, don’t just think, ah that’s easily just like Baguio because you have to remember to factor in the wind which will make it more chilling.
Mary’s sister Rhoem even said that in Russia, knowing the season is not enough and likened how changeable it is to the feelings of a boy (albeit a specific boy). And I quote, “It’s not winter, spring, summer or fall in Russia. It can be raining in winter, snowing in spring or you can possibly have a year without experiencing ‘summer’ at all. Very changeable, just like his feelings. So you need to be prepared all the time.”
7. TAKE MEMORABALIA BUT CREATE MEMORIES
Once in a while, get your eyes off your cameras and watch a new part of the world unfold before your very eyes. A great deal of the time, the vivid colors are experienced best with the naked eyes. Being able to capture the scene and learning how to post-process your photos should only be second to that, unless you take photos for a living.
This way, if you lived in the moment, even if you weren’t able to capture the beauty of the place, the moment, in its entirety, you have a memory to go back to. Something no editing apps can improve, filter or manipulate.
My friend Jennifer said it best, “Your pictures will never look as good as the real thing. I’ve tried to get pictures that capture the beauty of NZ and yet I ended up with about 10+ pictures (of hills, sheep, trees, lakes, etc) that I swear were actually stunning in real life.”
My friend Cecille from Elyu who will soon be migrating to New York with her husband also said, “It’s not about the place you go to, it’s about learning the culture, meeting the people, enjoying the food and taking in the scenery.” I just love the video she took of the Niagara falls. That is where they’re moving to. Argh.
And as Mary put it, “You can’t put everything in one frame (as much as you want to). So learn when to put down your camera and seize the moment.” She loves people-watching by the way.
Seeing the Flamingos in person for the first time was a wow moment for us, they were gorgeous. After a couple of photos, I just put my camera down and watched them expand their wings, bend their neck and go about in their afternoon life.
8. BRING YOUR CASH IN THE RIGHT CURRENCIES
I have a confession to make. Since my first international trip had been to Hong Kong, where there are so many money changers and Filipinos, changing the pesos that I brought there was fairly easy. I kind of expected the same thing in Japan. And yes, you guessed it. I was very wrong, which led my tita to lecture me on why bringing USD is the best way to travel.
I am not sure about your experiences here in the Philippines, but banks can get a little stern in selling USD to their clients. This branch in Robinsons Galleria allowed me once before to buy dollars from them even if my main branch was in Valero. The next time I went there, the lady angrily told me that I can’t do that there, and demanded that I show her the transaction receipt from hello, 4 months back. If you go for money changers here, their rates are ridiculous. They were selling dollars for 50.30 pesos compared to 47.75 in Security Bank. I had to wire Mary’s money to my best friend Jons’ Security Bank account so he can have it exchanged there.
Jons brought USD with him to Sydney and realized this other thing: “Prepare your cash in advance. Although credit and debit cards are certainly convenient, foreign conversion and international fees may end up ruining your budget. Buy USD’s before leaving but looking for the local currency would be your best bet. I learned that the hard way here in Sydney where they charge absurdly high commission fees just for exchanging your dollars.”
Even if you have cards, there is an international fee when withdrawing from the ATM (around PhP 200), or using your card to buy something (in Thailand it’s 3% additional, in other countries, there was none).
9. TRAVEL LIGHT – KNOW YOUR BAGGAGE LIMIT
This is very painful for me. While I was still in India, I thought of sharing all the wonderful food I’ve had there to my family and friends back home. So I thought about bringing some (around 10 kilos) of the popular food like kalakand, golab jamon, and other cookies, teas and even the Himalayan salt.
I was so used to flying with Cebu Pacific that I can buy extra baggage when I need it, I got stuck in the airport trying to reduce the weight of my carry-on, which was 9 kilos over. Thai Airways already considered my 34-kg check in luggage when the limit was 30. Ending? I had to leave a lot of food at the airport, otherwise I would have paid $25 per kg. What a tragedy.
Mary’s practical piece of advice? “Travel light. Check the weather so you know what clothes to bring. You definitely want to make some space for the ‘pasalubong’!”
Lalaine agrees, “I ended up buying 1 luggage for the things I bought in the US. I was very happy though because I paid $100 for a Samsonite Large that costs Php17,000 here in the Philippines.”
10. TRIPLE CHECK YOUR FLIGHT DETAILS, ROOM BOOKINGS, TOUR CONFIRMATIONS AND ITINERARY
DJ, bless his heart, my Geek friend, went to Singapore for the first time to meet his Asean friends in 2013. For some reasons, he missed his flight and had to find ways to get home (his vacation leave days were numbered) immediately. I remember that he had to sleep at the airport – if it’s any consolation, the Changi Airport is a wonderful place to get stranded at, and he goes, “One simple lesson that I’ve learned? To ALWAYS check your flight details so you’ll never miss your scheduled flight and end up paying outrageously huge amount of money for your ticket. Hit me big time when I did my very first international travel. From then on, I always print 2 copies of my itinerary & save flight details on my notepad app and on the alarms /reminders.”
My mother is another classic example. She’s been left by her planes maybe 5 times or more? Either she gets confused with the military time, or you know, she just doesn’t pay attention to the flight details. She always ends up having to pay for more (or somebody else ends up paying for more).
11. PLAN YOUR BUDGET, CHOOSE YOUR ACCOMMODATION
I think the type of accommodation you select talks volumes about the type of traveler you are. For traveling couples, dorm-type accommodation and couch surfing are definitely out of the question. But if you’re a solo traveler and you want to meet new people, a hostel is the best place.
Take Lorna’s tip, for instance, in choosing her accommodation: “If you are in a tight budget and wanted to stay in a cheap, decent and fun hostel located strategically, don’t book all nights ahead. You’ll be surprised to see more/better accommodation not usually listed online. Even during peak season, most hostels have guests checking out everyday. But if you are not backpacking, pick a hotel/a b&b that’s nearest to the place you want to stay in (google map anyone?) Like city center, near famous attractions, etc… then read the reviews instead of the rating… most cheap hotels are either far, or with bad reviews…”
Budgeting. Now, if we weren’t so worried about it, everything else becomes easy, doesn’t it? Sadly, we all have budgets to stick with on trips. While you have a specific budget in mind, make sure that you also have a little extra for when you find a good watch, a tour you want to join, food you want to try, or for anything totally unexpected. My friends and I pool our “travel funds” and make sure we don’t have to take money out of our own pockets for the entire trip. This way, we can manage our finances easily and avoid loss of money (I have a friend who loses money quite often).
12. BRING THE RIGHT GADGETS WITH YOU
For a solo traveler, I guess a tripod is a must so you don’t have to flood your albums with selfies, unless that’s the actual goal. Mary and I went to China and before our flight, we found out that the GoPro stick was broken. I was devastated.
We went to Balesin (though this is local) and one of us forgot his ID (for the chartered flight), one had to return home to get the micro SD of the camera, only to find out she forgot her credit card at home too.
Power banks, chargers, plug converters, extra batteries if you have to, earphones – these are a must. Some people also prefer the neck pillow for long-haul flights. The longest flight I’ve flown on was 14 hours from Tokyo to Atlanta and yes, you can get neck pains, cramps and jet lags after you deplane. If you want to have data on the go, rent a wifi router. If it’s out of the budget, April shares, “Always go to free wifi location to use google map and update social media.”
Before going to India, Mary purchased a portable fan for me as she knew how hot it can get there. I was able to use it pretty much everywhere I went outside the office.
I know there are so many lessons to be learned from, new knowledge to be had, new friends to gain when traveling internationally, but for now, here are what I’ve gathered.
How about you? What other lessons did you learn while traveling internationally? Let us know and share your comments!