Point here for "pasta", here for "chicken".
November 10, 2010 1:06 PM   Subscribe

My grandparents, who are in their 70s, will be taking their first international flight from Bulgaria to the United States (with a transfer in Amsterdam) next week. They do not speak English. How can we make this easier for them?

We're already getting wheelchair service for my grandmother, who has problems with her knees, so they will be escorted for any transfers between gates. The first leg of the flight might have Bulgarian-speaking attendants, but it's unlikely that the trans-Atlantic flight will. We'll give them instructions for how to fill out I-94 and customs forms, as well as a phrasebook so they can order dinner, beer, etc., how to get a hotel if their flight is delayed, and if necessary, how to tell staff that they aren't feeling well and need medical attention.

What else can we do to make their trip go as smoothly as possible?
posted by halogen to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you thought of a point and say book instead of a phrasebook? Point It

Also trying to find a step by step guide to what they might expect on the plane? In terms of meals/where the toilet will be - things that would make my Gran worry.
posted by Augenblick at 1:11 PM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would consider getting someone in their town to print out custom flashcards for them, so that if they get flustered they can just hold them up for someone to read. On each flashcard, put the same phrase in English, Dutch and Bulgarian. Examples:

"Can you help me find flight XXX to $AmericanCity."

"We need a room for the night."

"I need medical attention."

and most importantly:

"Please help me find someone who speaks Bulgarian."
posted by 256 at 1:14 PM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Perhaps they can try to do as my Mum does: while waiting to board the first flight she chats with other passengers and finds someone willing to let her tag along with them through the transit airport, ideally taking the same connecting flight as her. People tend to be happy to help the elderly.
posted by Dragonness at 1:22 PM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

256: that's what I meant by "phrasebook"; they'll be pointing, not trying to speak a foreign language.
posted by halogen at 1:23 PM on November 10, 2010

Will they be able to get a wheelchair on arrival in the US? Those immigration lines can be damn long. Also have you explained what immigration is like--also security procedures in Amsterdam before boarding for US, ie liquids in carry-ons, taking off shoes (if they do that at Schiphol)?

Do they have to make a connection in the US?
posted by TWinbrook8 at 1:47 PM on November 10, 2010

We'll give them instructions for how to fill out I-94 and customs forms

This is a brilliant idea. I recently found myself on an international flight between two Latin American countries where the assumption was that everyone spoke Spanish. I studied Spanish for many years and had spent months refreshing my memory in anticipation of the trip. I still had a really hard time with the customs/immigration forms.

I would not over-coach them on situations that are unlikely to happen. For instance how to get a hotel if the flight is delayed/cancelled. (Unless of course you think that is very likely to happen.) I find that dealing with a foreign language, especially one I have no advance knowledge of, it's easy to get information overload and not remember anything at all. In terms of airport layovers and such, "hello", "please", "thank you", "I'd like", and some terms for basic food and money/numbers are all they probably need to get basic sustenance in the airport between flight. "Wheelchair" or the name of the meal they've ordered in advance on the flight(s) would also be helpful, but I would keep it to specifics and even then down to the bare minimum.

If their only layover is in Amsterdam, how likely is it that they already have some knowledge of another major European language, like German or even Greek or Russian? Major European airports, in my experience, tend to be pretty good about dealing with common European languages. Depending on where they enter the US, they might have a decent chance with that, too. I've seen people coming off planes from obscure places who clearly don't speak (much) English, and they are able to communicate to a degree with the immigration officials at JFK. If they're flying directly into a smaller international airport or airports that mostly see international arrivals from only a few countries (Houston or Dallas and Latin America springs to mind), it might be harder.

Huge international airports that see a lot of traffic from all over the world, like Amsterdam, will also be very well streamlined in terms of them needing to ask for directions within the airport. I remember being worried about a transfer through Vienna, speaking no German whatsoever, not knowing terms for "gate" or "departure" or "final boarding call", and it was fine. And not because everything was multilingual: because they are set up for this sort of thing.

Things like airport security and customs that are more preparation oriented like "what liquids can you bring on board" or "what foods can be brought into the country" should be prepared for in advance via doing it right the first time, NOT by trying to teach them conversational English skills. Most aspects of airport security theatre that need to happen at the screening area can often be guessed by watching what everyone else is doing. Words like "boarding pass" or "passport" might be good to add to the vocabulary list.
posted by Sara C. at 2:46 PM on November 10, 2010

My Mother-In-Law made a similar trip last week. Her English may be a little better but she had no problems with language in Amsterdam. She flew Bulgaria Air from Sofia, connecting with Delta in Amsterdam. I believe there should be a Bulgaria Air desk somewhere in the airport in Amsterdam, so presumably there are at least a few airport employees that can translate for them there if there is a problem. You might want to verify where that desk is before their flight.

I'm sure they already have this, but they should have the name and address of where they will be staying for immigration is they ask, and also a cell number where they can reach you if there is a problem with Immigration/Customs in the US. Remind them they will likely have to temporarily pick up their baggage as they pass through customs at their fist US stop.
posted by Yorrick at 10:22 PM on November 10, 2010

I a recent transatlantic trip to the US, I recently sat next to a lady who only spoke Russian. She was able to fill out most of the I-94 simply by copying from a sample that was sent to her by her son (whom she was on her way to visit). Trouble was, the I-94 has changed, so the form didn't match exactly. So, check that you have the newest version.

Do they have a cell phone that will work in the US? Do you have time to mail them a SIM card they could pop in their cell phone once they land?
posted by copperbleu at 12:26 AM on November 11, 2010

Make contact with someone at Schiphol that can help them at the gate. They will be interviewed there about their trip to the US in addition to the I-94 form and security check (what is the purpose of your trip, how long will you be there... very similar to the questions they will get when they arrive at immigration in the US).
posted by wingless_angel at 12:39 AM on November 11, 2010

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