Like Kylie Jenner said about 2016, this year, too, has been a year for, like, realizing things. I'll be the first to admit that being alive for 22 years barely makes me an expert in anything, but still, I’d like to think that my short time of existing on this planet has led me to acquire a few golden bits of wisdom. For instance, this year I learned how to make a damn good homemade chicken soup, how to achieve a dewy glow in just a few minutes, and discovered a skin-care regimen that works really well for me. And while these small accomplishments once seemed mountainous to me (skin care is hard!), I've recently learned one of my biggest lessons yet: how to prepare for traveling overseas for the first time.
Last week, I embarked on my first-ever international trip, courtesy of U by Uniworld (it was a millennial cruise, if you must know), to France. My trip came with a lot of firsts: my first cruise, my first time outside of the U.S., and my first time traveling with a significant other. Admittedly, going into a bunch of these first-time experiences with little to no knowledge scared me, but I was ready to learn and experience it all by totally immersing myself in all that this newness had to offer.
As previously stated, I know I'm not an expert in much of anything, especially in the art of traveling, but I did learn a lot about myself during my trip overseas that I wouldn't have learned otherwise. And due to me realizing all these things, I decided to compile all my experiences into one cohesive story for all the first-time travelers out there who may not know what to expect when venturing off into an unknown land. From tips on taking care of your mental health to planning which spots to prioritize visiting, here are the five things I think everyone should know when traveling abroad for the first time.
Don't be afraid to get lost in the city
While exploring on our own, my boyfriend and I were able to experience the Eiffel Tower in a totally different way than everyone else had earlier that week. It was our last night in Paris, and we came fresh off our boat in our pajamas, running and giggling like little kids in search of a crêperie that was still open in the late night hours. We were dizzy off each other's energy (and some Champagne from a late-night party on the boat), and barreling down the streets leading to the Eiffel Tower. And despite not having found an open store, we enjoyed the thrill of truly being present in the moment and in each other's company. The Eiffel Tower excursion with the group was one we missed that week, but seeing his smile when he laughed under the tower's lights that night made it all worthwhile.
All to say: Don't ever be afraid to explore a new city on your own—without a tour guide or road map. Just walk out your door and see where the day will take you! And sure, it'll be difficult to block out the urge to see and do everything all in one trip, but it's okay to explore the city without guidance. And you never know—some of your best stories could be waiting for you to discover. You'll only know once you get there.
Plan everything for your trip as early as you can
I mean, this tip seems like common sense, but I didn't realize how much I needed to plan in advance until it was too late. I thought that as long as I organized a checklist of all the things I needed (which included a passport, a new makeup bag, suitcase lock, neck pillow, and a new sweater or two), I'd be in good standing ahead of my trip. And while it all seemed simple enough on paper, I quickly realized that it wasn't the number of things I needed but rather, the time I needed to set aside in order to get them all done that caused me the most stress. The most time-consuming—and essential!—task of all was getting my passport renewed.
Prior to this trip, I had never used my childhood passport and never bothered to look up how to renew it, because I'd never needed to, so I figured that the process wouldn't take me very long since I'd had one issued out to me already. But combine this level of ignorance, plus the time it took to salvage my old passport from the depths of my family's ancient drawer of documents, and multiply that by the hours I spent frantically looking online to see how to go about the renewal process (which totally depends on whether or not you renew it in person, online, or via mail), and you're left with one equation full of stress that ultimately, could have been avoided had I taken care of it sooner, instead of closer to my travel date. My delay also led me to pay the extra cash to have my new passport expedited.
The worst part? By the time that whole episode was all over, I still had to get the rest of the items on my list.
In short, my naiveté in making sure all my things were together caused me stress that could have been avoided had I taken the time earlier before my trip to get it done. But alas! You live and you learn and ultimately, you try to do better next time. And planning for your big trip months (instead of weeks) in advance, will not only save you stress, but also quite a bit of money in the long run.
Find a convenience store as soon as you can
As a born and bred New Yorker, I hadn't realized how spoiled I was by the convenience of corner stores and bodegas open 24/7 until I went, well, outside of New York. And when you throw this in with having a weird diet (anyone else requires a nightly 1am deli sandwich?) with being in a different country for the first time and, just like that, you've got a case of the late-night munchies that cannot be tamed. So what's the solution? Scope out your area for convenience stores or pharmacies and stock up on all the goodies you may need ahead of time.
And besides the food aspect, it's always nice to be aware of your surroundings for safety purposes, as well as for little things you may need, like Band-Aids or aspirin. So upon landing or on the first day you get settled, check your area not only for the beautiful sights of a brand new country but also for where to find a good snack. You won't regret it.
If you're shy or introverted, go with a friend
After, well, a lifetime of knowing myself, I realized that I don't do very well with new social interactions, which means that, in order for me to truly enjoy my time overseas (or anywhere outside my room), I'd need to bring a friend to help me better adjust to meeting new people. When it came down to traveling to France, I asked my boyfriend of almost a year to join me on what would be both of our first trips to Paris (and only his second to Europe). Not only did we help each other when it came time to participate in group activities, we ended up learning that we are able to travel overseas without killing each other, discovered what it means to truly take care of one another while traveling, and uncovered a new connection in a totally different setting. Traveling with a significant other can often be a major deal-breaker in a relationship, but if both parties are willing to learn, leave a little room for frustration, and a lot for understanding, then the trip could end up reaffirming your love for each other.
But if you're interested in traveling alone, U by Uniworld's ships are designed to give guests tons of social opportunity—even for those who are introverted. "All of our activities give guests the opportunity to have social experiences and mingle with other travelers onboard. It’s very difficult to come off of a U by Uniworld cruise not having made a friend or two, even if you’re more introverted," says Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of U by Uniworld. "The entire layout of our ship encourages conversations among strangers—from the communal dining table to the rooftop deck and ICE BAR, and some of the excursions we offer, such as a treasure hunt through the Louvre in Paris, encourage team bonding."
Don't stretch yourself too thin
Going overseas, especially the first time, will make you feel pressured to do everything you've always been dreaming to do all at once. While in Paris, I planned to sleep as little as possible and attend all of the excursions I had set aside for myself, forgetting to account for potential jet lag and give myself time to adjust mentally to being in a new country. In turn, I ended up sleeping through some of my morning alarms and not sleeping at all during the late night-to-early morning hours during the first two days of my trip. Missing the events I had set out to do left me feeling upset and guilty for not showing up. The last thing I wanted to do was waste someone else's time—or my own—especially with that time being so limited. Luckily, U by Uniworld's itinerary allows travelers the space to do whatever they want to do, so long as they're back on board before the ship sets sail.
"As long as travelers keep in mind the time the ship sets sail for the next port, they can spend the day however they’d like! We encourage everyone to travel their own way and explore what they're passionate about in each destination," Bettridge said. She continued:
We work closely with local experts to gain insight on what’s new and trending in each destination where we operate, so we can offer our guests unique guided experiences. However, some travelers may want to take a day to go off and explore on their own, and that’s completely fine. We’ve developed our itineraries with flexibility in mind, as we know every traveler is different and may want to sleep in and enjoy a beer tasting in the afternoon, where others might get up early to explore the city on their own before joining the group for a historical clock tour in the afternoon.
This tip also applies not only to how you spend your physical time but to your mental time as well. While being away was a necessary break from my daily life and the stress that comes with it, I learned that escape isn't going to relieve you of all your stress.
I've had anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember, and sure, some part of me was aware that a vacation wouldn't be the one-size-fits-all cure to all my issues, but I surely didn't expect to have an anxiety attack when it was time to bond with the other shipmates over dinner, or that I would end up laying in bed all morning one day trying to figure out when I'd be able to muster the strength to get up. Luckily, I had the support of my boyfriend to help me get up and moving in those moments when I simply couldn't bring myself to do it alone.
Ultimately, the bottom line here is that you are on vacation. You'll thrive in the new city whether you go see all the sights or take the scenic route―just remember to be easy on yourself along the way. It is a vacation, after all.