April, 2005: I’m running with my plethora of luggage through the largest train terminal in the world, Tokyo Station, trying to catch a train that is leaving in 12 minutes. Being 6’3” and 250 lbs at the time, I was drawing a lot of attention as the diminutive Japanese scrambled to get out of my way. Suddenly I noticed two Japanese transit police were running alongside of me. They hadn’t tried to detain or even question me, so I stopped, apologized in broken Japanese, showing them my tickets. I made the train, thanks to my police escort.
I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many great destinations around the world, and here is the best advice I can give any Laker with wanderlust.
- You know somebody, who can help: You just haven’t asked them yet. No matter where you want to go in the world, you already know someone that can help you, or better yet lives there, you just haven’t networked with them yet. My absolute best traveling experiences were with locals. Yes, going to Munich Oktoberfest alone is an adventure, but it is much more relaxing when someone else is navigating, explaining, and keeping you out of trouble. Ask everyone you know for a contact at your destination.
- Learn some language: It is always easier to get help from the locals, and feel like James Bond, when you can speak some local language. Ask a local language teacher to speak some basic phrases and record them with your phone. Listen and repeat them to yourself. When in doubt, someone on the overseas flight surely speaks the language at your destination and might even give you some travel tips. Some of the best phrases are: where is ______, how much is that, do you speak English, I’m sorry, please, thank you, what is your name, my name is _____, I’ll buy that, and check please. The goal is not fluency but being able to demonstrate to the locals that you respect their culture enough to try to speak their language. When I need help (and someone who speaks English), I look for people in their 20s wearing American clothing.
- Gather intel and make a flexible plan: From Rick Steves’ travel series https://www.ricksteves.com/ (my favorite) to apps and books, there is a lot of information about your destination out there. Having a plan of what you want to accomplish each day will save you time and money. Look up museums and theaters online and buy tickets over the internet. This will save you from huge lines and wasted time. Remember, a European vacation is costing you $60-$100 an hour (take the total cost of your trip and divide by the number of hours you will be there) get the most out of your time and money. Plan one to two sites per day max, and have a backup plan for bad weather. This doesn’t mean you have to plan every moment of your vacation, but a good plan pays dividends. I also like to plan a “down day” every 3 days for lounging, shopping, and relaxing. I’m a planner, however my uncle who loves to travel and just “show up” at sites is not. I tried this laissez-faire attitude once while stopping at Stratford-upon-Avon, England, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, only to spend 4 hours looking for a room because there was a marathon in town and everything was booked.
- Get a “burner” phone and some cash: Bring your phone for use in the airports, and to take pictures, but I don’t bother with paying the huge cost of using your phone overseas. Single use, disposable phones (called burners in street vernacular) are cheap, available everywhere, and can even be shipped to you before you leave. Having an in-country phone is useful for confirming reservations and emergencies. You can still use your phone/tablet with local WiFi for checking in with loved ones, and planning your next day’s adventure. I buy local currency from my bank before I leave. I like to have cash in pocket before I get on the ground, this saves time and exchange fees. Call your credit card/debit card company before you leave and tell them where you are traveling to, how long you will be there, and if your card will work at your destination. Otherwise they may shut down your card when they see overseas charges.
- Travel light: I remember my honeymoon in Venice, my wife and I trying to pull huge roller luggage bags over the arched bridges of the canals. It was hot, hard, terrible work. On our last trip we were down to hiking backpacks, which we carried on the plane. We don’t wait for baggage, and that saves time, especially with customs. Pack mix and match clothes, assume you will buy souvenir clothes in country, and bring some single pack laundry soap for some sink/bathtub laundry at the hotel.
- Bypass security and customs at airports: Yes, you can do this. I’ve missed many flights, (especially at Chicago’s O’hare airport) waiting for long security lines. Consider getting a Global Entry Pass http://www.cbp.gov/global-entry/about – for $100 you can get pre-screened and spend the extra time at the airport lounge.
- Be friendly but stay a little paranoid: Most people around the world are interested and curious about Americans. They realize that we are not necessarily the embodiment of our government or our pop culture. I smile a lot, joke around, and try to leave people with a good American interaction. Show pictures of your home, hobbies, and family. I do not, however, wear American flags on my clothes, and do not engage in political conversations with people I do not know. Heed any travel warnings from our government and be aware of what’s going on around you. Keep photocopies of your ID, Passport, and a list of phone numbers for family back home, in your bags. Also, email a copy of this info, or keep a Google Doc. that you can access from any internet connection. I wear a money belt in big cities, and always keep my passport with me. I have, when questioned about my nationality by people who made me nervous, claimed I am Canadian, eh! Easy enough for those of us from Michigan.
- Consider renting a car and get a GPS: Driving in Europe is pretty easy. A car is cheaper than the train and leaves on your schedule. It also goes places the train doesn’t. You can get a good current GPS with European maps for around $100. Distances in Europe are short compared to the US. You can drive across Germany in about 5 hours. I would not drive in Asia. Your state issued driver’s licence is enough to rent cars in most places in Europe, or, you can get an international driver’s license here: http://www.aaa.com/vacation/idpapplc.html
- Host and be hosted by families: Absolutely my favorite way to travel. I’ll never forget the deep hearty chuckle and homemade peach tarts made by Mrs. Herrmann from Gunzenhausen, Germany. Gunzenhausen is the sister city of Frankenmuth, Michigan and hosts guests from Michigan often. Grand Rapids Sister Cities introduced me to my host family in Omihachiman, Japan. Great host families know how to give you the space and support to travel. http://grsistercities.org/
- Plan a day off at home before you go back to work. You’ll need a day or two to unpack, do laundry, check in with family, and tell tales of your adventures. The worst thing I’ve done is tried to work after a 13 hour flight home.
For myself, travel has been the most rewarding and educational experience of my life. I wish I would have taken advantage of GVSU’s study abroad programs. Travel never gets any easier, I never seem to have more time/freedom than I do in this moment. Don’t wait till “everything is right” to take your dream trip, or you’ll never go. Be bold, book a plane ticket, the rest will work itself out.
Gerry Cooke B.B.A. ‘98 is Citizen Diplomat for Grand Rapids Sister Cities, a member of the Edelweiss Club of Grand Rapids (edelweissclubgr.com), an Adjunct Professor for GVSU, and a Customer Development Specialist at Gordon Food Service. Get in touch with Gerry: firstname.lastname@example.org.