A Broad, Abroad, Alone
November 13, 2013 11:47 AM   Subscribe

In a month, I'll be traveling abroad for the first time, all by my lonesome. Looking for helpful tips for a first-time international traveler.

I'll be headed to Paris, but I'm not looking for Paris tips (AskMe has already provided those in spades). I'd like more general "how to avoid being a clueless dolt while outside your native land" tips, e.g. "buy a preloaded SIM card when you arrive", "don't walk around with your damned fool head buried in a map", "don't attempt to catch that vagrant woman's 'baby' when she tosses it at you!", and "greet shop owners politely rather than barging in like the big dumb American you are".

Snowflakey details: I'm a thirtysomething woman. I am the least-finicky, lowest-maintenance traveler alive. My sole mode of transport will be walkin' (I've already mink-oiled my boots for the occasion). I'll be staying in a boring chain hotel. I'll have one piece of luggage, an old reliable backpack. I do not intend to visit any tourist-centric attractions.

Thanks, my beloved Hive!
posted by julthumbscrew to Travel & Transportation around Paris, France (25 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
This website is great and will tell you pretty much all that you need to know.
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:51 AM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1. If you can somehow connect with a local, traveling makes SUCH a big difference. Ask people at home if they know anyone who happens to live in Paris that you can take out for a coffee. It might lead them to happily offering to take you around for a day with an "insider's" point of view.

2. Spend a night or two couch surfing. Again, the point is to get an insider's point of view of a city.

3. Get to know the hotel staff. Tip well. Ask questions. Questions like, "Where do YOU specifically like to go and what do you DO when you have time off on the weekends?" They may point you to a little shop that isn't in the guidebook but serves the most amazing cappuccino and chocolate croissant.

4. If I'm by myself and I see people who might need a group shot taken, I happily offer to take the photo of them if they'll take one of me. That little kind of interaction has always meant smiles and hugs with complete strangers.

5. Sometimes I send a postcard to myself at home with noting what is happening at that very minute.

6. Observe, observe, observe. Watch what local women wear and try to fit in. From what I saw in London recently, knee high leather boots and black leggings and a colorful scarf meant you were a local. Sneakers and hiking boots, jeans and a NYC hoodie screamed TOURIST.

7. On your first few days there, take a walking tour. This will give you the lay of the land. Take notes on places you glimpsed that you might want to come back and visit for a longer period of time.

8. I adore walking into mom and pop groceries and drugstores to see what's on the shelves that you might be able to take home as a cheap or unusual souvenir. For example, a glass Pepsi bottle in French.

Have a great time!
posted by HeyAllie at 12:03 PM on November 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This happened to me in Paris this summer: a gang of kids approached me with papers in hand while I was finishing dinner at a brasserie. two of the kids shoved the paper at me / in my face while the others, unseen, grabbed my wallet ( but not my credit card, which was out on the table). Le sigh. gladly, though, I carry a separate travel wallet with not very much in it, so I lost some cash and had to cancel my ATM card, but I still had my credit card and that was the extent of the damage.
posted by Dashy at 12:06 PM on November 13, 2013

Best answer: You might not run into this as an issue so much in Paris as more off-the-beaten-track locations, but one thing I learned quickly when I began traveling internationally was to ask how much something costs before you commit to buying it. Even something like a coffee. American tourists look like tourists, like it or not, and shopkeepers know we have money or we wouldn't be there.
posted by something something at 12:08 PM on November 13, 2013

Best answer: If you need any, always make sure you buy your electrical plug converter(s) in your home country. Once you're abroad, it'll be easy to find French-->American converters... but not so much the other way around.
posted by snorkmaiden at 12:47 PM on November 13, 2013

Best answer: My advice is to not avoid the tourist-centric attractions if it's your first visit. You can't go to Paris and not visit the Louvre, for one, if you've not been before.

Otherwise, learn some French phrases, and don't be afraid to visit the local street markets for food and supplies. They are held three or four times a week and have wonderful goods, so find out the details for those local to you from your hotelier (or concierge if they have one).
posted by goo at 12:50 PM on November 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Definitely try to dress like the locals. You don't need to buy a whole new wardrobe, just a couple outfits or mix and match stuff you can wear again and again.

Also, read up on local customs and manners and try to follow them.
posted by Jess the Mess at 1:10 PM on November 13, 2013

Best answer: Thought of a few moreā€¦.

If you haven't already notified your banks and credit card companies, let them know what dates you will be traveling and what countries. I've had my cc denied because I forgot to do this and the cc thought it was a fraudulent charge. While you are doing this with your bank, ask what their policy is on international withdrawals.

Make sure you grab a business card of your hotel. Just in case you're lost or need a cab, that business card will be help you get back.

See if Paris has a local transportation website that helps you get from point A to B using public transportation.
posted by HeyAllie at 1:21 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Google gypsy scams to brush up. Ring scam, sign my petition scam, oh look cute puppy where is my wallet? scam. A cute guy eyeing you? Likely a scam. (I dunno, French guys I've known are friendly-distant, not Italian-sultry if you know what I mean.)

Be very open about the type of people you'll meet. You don't have to be best friends. You don't have to think like them. Just be open. You'll have a blast.

French people generally don't get personal right away and they LOVE to debate. They are keenly aware of social order, and what is the "right and correct" way to do things. If you take a footing that you don't deserve, they will put you in your place, either simply (icily) or in jest (mess with you a little). Don't take it personally, they're just doing their part to make sure you have proper social manners.

Shop keeper / customer relationship is flipped in France. In the US, the customer is king. In France, the owner sets the rules under which s/he wishes to sell their merchandise. They have the power in the relationship (because they're not really motivated by money). So respect that power. They won't sell to you if they don't feel like it. (I saw a bartender mess with some Americans pretty good, even though their French was very good.)

Language - if you speak it, having a good accent helps.

Know what is physically around you, what other people seem to be trying to do (e.g. walking in a certain direction) and respect that space.

Learn about French movie stars and musical artists. Watch French MTV or go to a true French movie. I dated a French guy for a while and he said he felt like he grew up on a different planet, since I never knew which stars he was talking about.

French are cold, sure, but not really. In fact they're super friendly. The big difference is that they're not this "how are you" "I'm great how are you" "great!" "great!!" hyper happy all the time culture. I've met some French people who were perfectly friendly but not warm at all. So if you're used to getting by on "niceness" know that this currency isn't worth as much in France. (South of France may be an exception; people I've met there have been convivial.)

I've spent a lot of time in France and Europe in general. You just can't run on auto-pilot there. You have to pay attention. Not that it's a dangerous place (my first time there I was TERRIFIED of being pick-pocketed) but you can't float around without thinking. If the area looks dicey, it probably is. Trust your gut.

And it is always ALWAYS un verre de vin. Twice now I've thoughtlessly ordered "a cup of wine" instead of "a glass of wine" and had my ass handed to me by the waiter EVERY TIME.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:25 PM on November 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Honestly I would NOT opt to buy a sim card for your phone, if you're traveling alone and will be there for 10 days or less. You're... not going to be calling anyone.

OK, that said, here are my Sara C: International Lady Of Blending-In-Ness tips.

Wear your same clothes that you would wear at home. It's Paris, not a safari. Do not buy special travelers' clothes, and also do not pack things you normally wouldn't wear in public at home, like a fanny pack, hiking boots, a raincoat if it's not rainy, etc. That said, you may want to kick it up a notch if you typically wear boot cut jeans, hoodies, and white athletic sneakers. Pack what you would wear to a somewhat nice-ish evening out, though, not some outlandish costume you think corresponds to what Parisian Women wear.

Make an attempt at the language, even if it's just to say, "Bonjour! Parlez-vous Anglais?" That said, be prepared for people to switch to English upon hearing you speak French, and be gracious about this. People especially dislike it when you flounce up to them and start barking at them in English. THAT is the mark of the graceless tourist.

People are going to know, by looking at you, that you're not French. That doesn't so much matter, and no amount of scarves is going to make a difference. What you want to impart to people is that you're not an asshole.

Don't be afraid to hang back and observe the public transit routine before just jumping into the fray. Read up in advance how the Metro works, what kinds of tickets/tokens/cards you need, how the fares work, which line your hotel is on, etc. And then when you actually get there STAND BACK to get your bearings.

I highlight standing back because it always drove me crazy when I lived in New York and tourists would stand at the metrocard machine and not understand what to do, or stand at the turnstyle and not know what to do, or stand in the middle of a crowded stairwell to ruminate on where to go next. If you need to stop and get your bearings, do it in an out of the way spot. This probably goes equally for any crowded situation where there's a routine that locals know, but outsiders don't have down pat. Don't be afraid to stand out of the way and observe before jumping in and holding everything up because you didn't know that you had to pay for your sandwich before ordering, or whatever.

In terms of navigating, learn French words for directions, streets, bus/metro/taxi, etc. These types of words are going to serve you much better than almost anything else, because you'll be able to read signs. You don't need to know how to pronounce the French word for "northbound" or "entrance", but if you recognize them on sight you'll be ahead of most tourists.

In general, reading up about logistical things is always good, and will help you move more smoothly through the city upon arrival. When I went to Istanbul, I read in advance that there is a metro stop at the airport, where it is, how much tokens cost, etc. which made getting to my hotel a lot easier than if I'd arrived in a strange place and just seized up through lack of understanding what to do next. When I went to Milan, I googled up the correct bus to take into the city center. Most information like this is available online or in guidebooks.

In fact, this is where a guidebook is a valuable purchase to make. It's not to tell you where to eat lunch, it's to tell you basic stuff you probably can't figure out for yourself, like how to buy a bus ticket.
posted by Sara C. at 1:32 PM on November 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Don't stress about blending in or worry if people are looking at you funny because they can tell you're a tourist. Yes, do things like observe and respect local customs, dress more nicely than you would in a city in the U.S. but don't be afraid to step back/out of the way and take things in, look around and get your bearings or stop to look at something or take a picture on the street. Everyone will be able to tell you're a tourist no matter what you do, so don't miss out on things by trying to act like you know what you're doing or feeling intimidated.

Be especially vigilant at train stations. Consider clothing with breast pockets, especially interior ones or ones that zip or button for holding wallet. For instance, a nice blazer.

Jot down addresses, directions, metro stops or even simple maps on paper or in a very small notebook the night before so you don't have to tote around guidebooks or big maps. Though, if you need it, there is no shame in having some sort of map. Better than getting lost.

Develop a small routine while you're there, even if it just means visiting a particular spot two days in a row, like a shop or bakery or park bench.

Take time to rest as needed, there are lots of beautiful parks. Take a nap at the hotel if you need it. You'll enjoy/remember things more and be less prone to mishaps if you don't wear yourself out.
posted by dahliachewswell at 2:02 PM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Jot down addresses, directions, metro stops or even simple maps on paper or in a very small notebook the night before so you don't have to tote around guidebooks or big maps.

I have three good hacks for this.

1. The notebook trick, as mentioned. In the days leading up to a trip, I will buy a new notebook. This will function as a sort of "trip journal", but it's also my go-to personal guidebook. On the first few pages I jot down important things like the name of the metro station near my hotel, instructions for any complicated logistical things I might have to do while jetlagged, or a few language notes. For example on my recent trip to Istanbul, since I know zero Turkish, I made a tiny Turkish phrasebook for myself on the inner front cover of my notebook. This notebook is also a good place for tips you find here at Metafilter, off the tourist trail places you want to go, or other things not easily found in a single guidebook you can purchase in a store.

2. If you have a paper guidebook, rip out useful city map pages and carry them folded up in your pocket for easy access. This way, instead of unfolding a huge tourist map or flipping through a guidebook, you're just a person holding a slip of paper. Printed out google maps of the neighborhood around your hotel are also good for this.

3. This is why having a smartphone is amazing. On a recent-ish trip to Italy I downloaded an app that allows you to save google maps for access without the internet. Anytime I was lost I could pull out my phone and look at a zoomable map of the entire city. Which was great because then I just looked like a normal person looking at their phone rather than a tourist with a big dumb map.

If you like guidebooks and have a tablet, you might want to look into ebook travel guides. Again, this is another way to look like just a normal person with a kindle or iPad rather than a lost tourist.
posted by Sara C. at 2:13 PM on November 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I cannot favourite Sara C's posts hard enough; her advice is excellent.

An additional point: it's Paris. They get 27mn tourists per year, about 6mn of them from the USA (according to Wikipedia). So while you might stand out, you're not exactly an oddity. Merely by asking this question, you're already way ahead of other, more thoughtless tourists.

But yeah: keep out of people's way, as much as you can. If you're looking at a map, stand to the side of the street, don't just stop suddenly. The Metro can get crowded; don't stand in the middle of the carriage with your backpack on, taking up lots of space - take your pack off and find a corner. When you walk down to the platform, don't just stop and cluster round the entrance, blocking it for everyone else, move down the platform. Don't get on or off the train and then stop suddenly - there are probably people behind you. (It might sound like I'm labouring the point here, but I lived 9 years in London and these are the things that drove me crazy. I don't care what you're wearing or if you pronounce place names wrong, but poor train etiquette....)

As for language, as a general rule I've found that basic politeness covers a lot. Say hello in their language, and then ask if they speak English. Smile a lot. Say please and thank you in their language. If things get confused, remember it's not their fault that they don't understand you.

Googling French customs or French etiquette (or similar, or checking Lonely Planet or TripAdvisor) would give you useful background on basic cultural differences. See eg.

TripAdvisor is reliable for restaurant recommendations IME.
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:42 PM on November 13, 2013

In a given conversation, resist the urge to explain how a particular thing is different (or God forbid, better) in America. This is not a cultural exchange programme and nobody cares.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:10 PM on November 13, 2013

I love having the internet on my phone when travelling. It makes life so much easier. In France we got SIM cards at an Orange store in about ten minutes (needed our passports). Quite expensive, ~35E for 2 weeks I think, but it's so great to be able to google stuff you've forgotten. If not, make sure you have HARD COPIES of anything you might need. It's so irritating to realise that that thing you need is in an email, that you can't access.

If not, there are apps with maps you can download that will show your position even without internet connection. It's so reassuring to be able to check that the bus you are on is going in the direction you thought it was! See if you can find a dictionary app too, though many need internet access.

If you've got time, do the first ten episodes of Pimsluer for French. At the least, learn Bonjour and Merci with a decent accent (you need to be able to say it out loud without stumbling), and 'Do you speak English?'. Don't just barrel into a shop and speak fast English to the shopkeeper (so rude!).

Do you like cycling? The velib program is lots of fun, and pretty cheap. There's some long cycle paths along the seine, (though it disappears around the louvre, and turns into stairs and cobbles!)

And because you're travelling alone, go to the toilet before picking up your suitcase.
posted by kjs4 at 3:53 PM on November 13, 2013

Best answer: Keep a travel notebook! Write down what you did that day, little observations about people, your favorite painting in each museum. I drew a lot.

I 2nd dress nicely, even if you go about it in a low maintenance way. A cute scarf to throw on over your shirt and jeans, or some simple jewelry, will go a long way in making you not feel frumpy amidst the Parisian chic (if that sort of thing matters to you - I thought it wouldn't for me, but it did).

You don't need to buy a SIM card. If your smartphone has Wi-Fi, turn off your network and just use the free Wi-Fi at libraries, McDonalds, and cafes. Just make sure you don't accidentally call or text anyone!

When dudes give you unwanted attention, the best method (for me) is to simply ignore them. I have the added benefit of looking not American (nonwhite) so I could also feign not being able to understand French or English.

I did the poor just out of college girl on her own in Paris thing, and at the end of my trip I had less than a euro in my pocket and needed to get to the airport home. So I did what all the other young kids with no cash were doing and hopped the turnstiles at the train station. Nobody blinked an eye.

Even if you choose not to couchsurf, check out couchsurfing.com for expatriate meetups in your area. Everyone on that site is vouched for (read: not creepers / serial killers) and will likely love to take you on trips to bars and restaurants, or at least talk to you about the neighborhood and provide a friendly, trustworthy face.

Have fun!
posted by wintersonata9 at 7:36 PM on November 13, 2013

Seconding couchsurfing.com for a good entry into the local expat and/or foreign-language-learning crowd (a lot of people use couchsurfing, their site, and their infrastructure to practice English or other non-local languages). Couchsurfing meetups are a great way to do things like go out partying at night or do some large-group oriented activity that is hard to accomplish when you're traveling solo.
posted by Sara C. at 7:58 PM on November 13, 2013

Nothing much to add other than to emphasise to learn at the very least a few French phrases. I had quite a few conversations like this:

Me: Bonjour! Parlez-vous Anglais?
Parisian: No
Me: Hmmm... parlez-vous Espagnol?
Parisian: Perhaps English is better.

And the odd one where they could speak Spanish and we had our conversation in Spanish instead. I really wish I'd made much more of an effort to learn more French phrases to avoid this, but my time in other English/Spanish friendly places (Slovenia, Spain, Germany, Austria, Norway etc) lulled me into a false sense of security.

Also try the croissants. I don't know what they put in the butter in France but the croissants are truly amazing. I saw them make them in a competition for the best croissant in Paris, and there's a LOT of butter... so good.
posted by Admira at 10:20 PM on November 13, 2013

i like to gauge my ability to blend in abroad by whether or not I'm asked for directions. I was asked for directions on my first trip to Paris around 3 PM when already dressed for a nice dinner out later that evening. (That is, what my tomboyish college kid self considered "fancy" clothes made me look just like all the other women walking around at in the afternoon) The rest of the two days I was there, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, no one even bothered speaking to me in French; it was English straight away.

And I do recommend the SIM card for internet. No, you probably won't be using your phone to call anyone, but I've never NOT had not-stupidly-expensive internet access come in handy when I've been abroad.

Just act like you would in any other big city -- keep an eye on your bag, walk with purpose, don't be one of those tourists who stops suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk to gawk at buildings -- and you'll be fine.
posted by olinerd at 1:31 AM on November 14, 2013

Best answer: Just as balance for all the "people will recognize you are a tourist in Paris," this is because most people in Paris are tourists, including the French. Please do not be hard on yourself if someone asks you for directions (even Parisians ask other Parisians for directions), or if someone switches to English (they might not be French), tries to pickpocket (ditto, they've got something like an 8/10 chance of randomly falling on a tourist)... it's not you. It's Paris. The top tourist destination city in the top tourist destination country in the world.

In fact, accepting that is probably the best way to blend in. When I first visited Paris, I was a wide-eyed 19-year-old in a university t-shirt, jeans, loud Nikes (it was the mid-90s), with an REI backpack and a crappy accent. I had no issues, although it was glaringly obvious I was a foreign tourist. A few French-speaking people muttered when I herp-derped in the metro, but that was it. Accept that they will mutter. They are always muttering about something or other. It's not you. It's life in a huge city. I've been there several times since, even becoming French in the meanwhile, and still they mutter. "Ahlala !!! Enfin !!! Pas possible !!!" Say "Pardon" when and where needed, but mutterers will mutter. If you're not purposefully blocking traffic or running into people willy-nilly, it ain't you.

I do not intend to visit any tourist-centric attractions.

You're going to be in Paris in December. It is a tourist-centric attraction :) and December is one of the top months for tourism due to Christmas markets. Enjoy it! Embrace the tourist within! Go to the markets and order hot gnog and walk as if you have as much right to be there as every other tourism-enjoying tourist in the touristiest city in the touristiest country in the world. This is its own defense against the ills of any large city in which anonymity is easy: with that sort of confidence, you'll easily recognize that people shoving stuff at you are total unknowns, so why should you trust them? Flirty dudes flirting with you are total unknowns, handle as you would that sort of dude in any place or time. People bumping into you are either herp-derping about as tourists themselves, or may be looking for a weak spot. But you have embraced your inner tourist and put all your valuable papers around your neck, and you hold your backpack or purse in front of you! (Which, btw, is what most Frenchpeople do as well. Better to have a small purse you can hold in front than an inviting backpack you can't keep an eye on.)

"But what about looking like a big dumb American!?" As if there aren't dumb French people!! Paris abides.
posted by fraula at 2:08 AM on November 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you plan to use a smartphone, buy an extra battery and/or an external battery pack. Even a cheap battery pack can be a lifesaver if you're relying on your phone for directions.
posted by neushoorn at 2:46 AM on November 14, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone... you are all fantastic! I'm compiling all of these into a list, which I will study extensively (along with my Quizlet set of "French Questions and Answers For Travel"). I'll pop back into let everyone know how it goes.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:01 AM on November 14, 2013

Everyone has given all the advice I would give, but I do have to say that last time I went to Paris I took the advice of my 'French for tourists' teacher and called everyone in shops/restaurants, etc. Madame or Monsieur and said bonjour enthusiastically and I do think they were nicer to me. Or they just found me amusing.
posted by interplanetjanet at 12:41 PM on November 14, 2013

There is a book Europe Through the Back Door by Rick Steves that I read cover to cover before I went to Europe on my own the first time (it was also my first time traveling internationally). It more or less restates similar things to what the people up thread are saying, but it was a great book to read before I went for a few reasons: more detailed discussion of how to not be "the ugly tourist" and some great general and Europe specific travel tips with a bit more detail, but it also generally helped me anticipate the trip a lot more and I was less anxious beforehand and a more confident traveler during.
posted by mosessis at 11:55 PM on November 14, 2013

Response by poster: Hey, peeps: just an update. I spent last week and Paris, assiduously followed your advice, and had an absolute blast. Everyone was INCREDIBLY nice. No one knew I was American (until I opened my dopey mouth, of course). For those who stumble on this thread in the future, the list of Top Things That Made My First International Trip a Success:

1. Obsessively reading up on French social norms (how to be polite, basically) and then using them. "Bonjour, monsieur/madame" in every store, not standing in the middle of the street gawking at a map, not grabbing produce from smalls street stands, etc.

2. Dressing well: business casual, basically.

3. Buying an expensive international data plan for the month and using it. Having Google Maps at the ready made things infinitely better/easier.

4. Walking eeeeeeeeeverywhere. It's the best way to absorb a city. I walked 50+ miles in seven days and it was like frickin' mainlining Paris.

5. Pants with hidden zipper pockets = no fear of pickpockets.

6. Apologizing CONSTANTLY, like I had reverse-Tourette's - "desole, desole, desole!" I think it made people feel sorry for me - "aw, the giant dumb non-Francophone feels bad" - and thus bend over backwards to help me.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:56 AM on December 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

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