Ready me for international conference and travel
September 24, 2014 10:26 AM   Subscribe

My trip to Switzerland and Austria sneaked up on me. It's also my first international conference. I have hotels booked. What's left to do? What can I expect when I'm there?

I used to plan things to the smallest detail but work just got so busy. I have a week before I leave and I'm slightly panicking! I'll be in Switzerland for half the time, having my conference there, and then my friends and I will be driving from Geneva to Vienna, Austria, stopping along the way. Kind of cheating with a two-parter:

A. It my first international social science academic conference. I'm not sure what to expect?

B. What's left to do?! We have a rough itinerary with hotels along the way booked. I don't even know what to buy? To pack? Exchange some money at the bank? Buy an international phone plan?? Am I forgetting anything?
posted by inevitability to Travel & Transportation around Switzerland (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Switzerland is expen$ive - like $12 for a latte. So if you're on a budget, bring lots of snack bars.

I asked where could I get cheap food around here and they said, "Sure there's a shawarma place down the street for $16."

I was warned beforehand and it was still shocking.

Also check your route for tolls. I paid 60€ to drive from France to Italy (Turin). Ouch.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:36 AM on September 24, 2014

Also GPS comes in handy or download the maps onto your phone beforehand.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:37 AM on September 24, 2014

Austria has the Euro, but Switzerland has the Swiss Franc. Many places in Switzerland will accept the Euro - but at an exchange rate that may not be that good, and if you are paying in cash you may get change in Swiss Francs.

Your best bet is to take some Euros with you in hard cash, as well as a debit card (if you have one). Also, don't forget to tell your bank that you are using any cards abroad, so they don't get blocked as "unusual activity".

Don't get currency at European airports in particular (unsure about American ones) as the exchange rates are never good. If you come back with spare Euros in cash, then just keep them; as so many countries use the Euro now, you may find yourself going to another one in Europe in a few years that accepts them.

Both Switzerland and Austria are small but beautiful and very mountainous countries. They also both have excellent train networks. If you have the opportunity, explore - but do some pre-planning with tickets and rail times. Take a good camera (and charger). Also, when I said mountainous, I really do mean mountainous. Do you have calf muscles of steel? Because you will have after some exploration of either country...
posted by Wordshore at 10:45 AM on September 24, 2014

Best answer: Don't forget your passport. Amazing how often passport issues get normally highly intelligent people in trouble.

If you live near a big enough bank with whom you have an account they may be able to get you Swiss Francs ahead of your trip at a better exchange rate than anyone else.

Some advice on surviving academic conferences here and lots of previous AskMes under the "conference" tag like this recent one
posted by Wretch729 at 10:58 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't answer B, but I can speak to your question in A. Academic conferences are sometimes understood, especially by grad students, as primarily about the talks - keeping up with new scholarship in your field, etc. However in my experience, the most useful thing that you can get out of a conference is networking. I have spoken at a few international conferences now, and as a result of the conversations I had about my work with scholars there, I have, for instance, been contacted by someone who wants to organize a panel together at a major conference on a subject that is slightly adjacent to mine but might open up key implications of my research to another field; I also was contacted by someone I met at a different conference who wanted to invite me to Europe to give a talk; I was also emailed by a few people who had some interesting and helpful archival leads for my current research; I also met a few people who were possibly interested in soliciting a contribution from me for a potential edited collection (that may or may not actually come to fruition); I also was emailed by someone with a lead for a potential post-doc fellowship; etc. My point here is that you really should remind yourself that, contrary to what you might expect, the papers aren't the "meat" of the conference, with the small-talk afterwards being tangential - if anything, the reverse. I would recommend:

1) If you know anyone who will be at the conference - scholars whom you have wanted to meet for a while whose work is particularly relevant to yours - come up with a sort of "hit list", and make it your mission to chat with those people at some point during the conference. Maybe look up their research a bit in advance to be able to pitch the most relevant bits of yours, if they ask.

2) Be open to serendipitous things to come out of conversations at the conference. Make sure in the coffee breaks between panels that you mingle and introduce yourself to as many people as possible, and have a short conversation with each.

3) When you hear a particularly interesting paper that is relevant to your research, add that person to the list of people you're going to make sure to meet, and chat about any overlap in your research, and any possible joint projects that might emerge from it.

4) To do all of the above, prepare at 30-second "elevator spiel" about your research. Most conversations, after initial introductions, start with "So, what are you working on?" Make sure you have a short but compelling response that comes out fluently.

5) If possible, get business cards to exchange. People (at least in my field) all seem to have them, and you can write yourself a little note on the back ("Possibility of putting together a panel with this person for X conference"), and then you can follow up by email in the evening, or at the end of the conference.

6) Make sure you're on your best behavior the whole time. There are often evening events at these conferences (dinners, tours, drinks), and some people switch from business mode to a more relaxed social mode. This is fine to an extent, but treat it like an office holiday party, not drinks with friends.
posted by ClaireBear at 11:04 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Call your bank to let them know you'll be using your debit and/or credit cards abroad. Photocopy or scan your passport; leave one copy with a friend. Take $100 in Swiss Francs and $100 in Euros. Plan to use a cash machine beyond that. Bring a plug converter for your electronics. Look up the weather; it will be about 10 degrees cooler in your destinations. Try to avoid plaid.

Other than that, it's not that big a deal and there's no need to panic. It's a Western country, it won't be vastly different in a disorienting way. Many if not most people will speak English if that's a concern.

I may be jaded but my personal feeling is that the modern world excels at trade and transport; there are very few things you can buy in a Western destination you can't buy in the US. I mean, 30 years ago you could barely buy a Victorinox watch outside of Geneva and that's hardly the case now. To me, the memorable things about a trip are the experiences -- the streets, the meals, the views. Candy, though, still tends to be unique!
posted by DarlingBri at 11:10 AM on September 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

And if my list makes you feel less like a high-minded cloistered academic that you thought you had signed up to become, and more like an aggressive intellectual entrepreneur (or, less politely, like a sort of used-car salesman of ideas) - well, welcome to academia today! The professors I have known who have made it in the academy in the last ten years have all been uniformly fantastic at networking, marketing their ideas to their colleagues, and keeping their fingers in (and CVs updated with) 10 pies at once.
posted by ClaireBear at 11:13 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

What DarlingBri says re. the moneys. Many places don't take all the credit cards, so always carry some cash (safely, obvsl.)
I'd read up on local cuisine and make a list of things to try in a restaurant.

Then ClaireBear writes "Make sure you're on your best behavior the whole time." That. And don't be surprised if older representatives of the field aren't. The whole pressure of networking and rubbing shoulders with selected people etc. means that everyone is prepared for this kind of spiel, and some are already really tired of it, and act out. Don't let this spoil your trip.

And Lac Leman is spectacular in October!
posted by Namlit at 11:37 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you have specific questions about Austria, feel free to PM me! Also, if you are in Vienna and have a quick question about random stuff or want to meet up.

This question may help with the sightseeing and what to wear:
posted by Omnomnom at 1:42 PM on September 24, 2014

Best answer: Austrian here.

my friends and I will be driving from Geneva to Vienna, Austria

I am not sure from this if you are driving with Swiss friends who would know this or people you meet at the conference who may not.
In case none of you have done this journey before, you need to know that this time of the year (end of September/early October) many of the mountain passes and mountain roads you will be on may well already be in winter conditions, so they will be icy and / or snowey, or it may snow heavily making driving a challenge. definitely expect snow at mountain passes 1500 meters above sea level, but ican drop quickly to 700 in Oktober in Tyrol and Salzburg.
Not in itself a problem and I think if you are renting a car the rental agency will make sure the car is suitable and has the required winter tires fitted. Do ask them about snow chains - some of the mountain passes on your route thorugh Western Austria may require snow chains.

Be sure the (rental) car has a SatNav and updated maps. If the rental agency charges extra for this I would pay for it, well worth it. Unless of yourse your friends know the route well.

For driving on the "Autobahn" in Austria, you will need to pay road toll in form of the "Vignette" a sticker to place permanently on the windshield. If you are renting, as the agent for details. Prices are
10-Day-Vignette: EUR 8,50
2-Months-Vignette: EUR 24,80
12 Months-vignette: EUR 82,70
The fine is 120 Euro and they will track you all the way home through the rental agency.
It is possible to have the SatNav give you a toll free route. For Western Austria at this time of the year I would not recommend this at all - the smaller roads are more dangerous when icy and snowed on and less often cleared and sanded / salted (to give grip and melt the snow) than the Autobahn (highway).

The toll vignettes are on sale at gas stations just after the border crossings.

Can't comment much on Switzerland except to agree that it is truly expensive. And I believe there are also tolls collected on many roads.

what to buy? To pack? Exchange some money at the bank? Buy an international phone plan?? Am I forgetting anything?

I would not pack too much but be sure you have something warm as well. Most conference facilities and hotels are overheated but this time of year in both Switzerland and Austria you will be grateful for something warm and rainproof ( like a fleece-lined rain jacket perhaps) if you spend any time sightseeing / outdoors, and some sturdy walking shoes (I am thinking of the drive - if you get stuck in snow anywhere, but also sight seeing is more comfortable in good shoes). Bring a scarf, hat and gloves if you have them, if not buy some as a Swiss souvenier (but I am sure Geneva is really truly expensive).

I think for the conference bring a uni coloured suit and some dress shirts, perhaps even a tie (it does not take up much space and is a nuisance to get if needed for a conference dinner). Or trousers /dress jeans and a nice jacket.

I arrange academic conferences (at an IAS in humanities) and mostly I see attendees dressed in smart casual or comfortable business style. If you coordinate your clothes you wont need to bring several pairs of shoes.

Money - in Austria you can pay by credit card for a lot of things, including groceries in the larger chains (Billa, Spar, Merkur) and at gas stations and of course hotels. But you need cash to buy snacks at bakeries (which is where most people buy food for the road) or cigarettes (sold at special shops called Tabak Trafik never in grocery stores).

Only upscale restaurants will accept credit cards, so definitely bring some cash to eat at more economically priced places or buy fast food and coffee.
For lunch expect to pay from 7 to 12 Euro for the main dish and 3,50 to 6 for soup or dessert. Drinks from about 3 Euro, soft drinks 2,50, coffee about 3,50.
Cheaper restaurants let you order those indiviually, higher priced ones offer set meals from about 25 for three courses.
When exchaning ask for 10 x 10 Euro notes rather than a 100 Euro note. Places that don't take credit cards wont be happy to change your 100 Euro note. Don't bring (or accept) any bigger denominations. 200 and 500 Euro bills exists but are generally not accepted outside banks. And find out how you can draw more cash, as 100 euro is not that much really

I think in Austria you will need about 60 Euros worth of gas per 600 Kilometers. It is about a 1000 kilometers from Geneva to Vienna, about 620 Kilometers from the Austrian / Swiss border.
Gas is more somewhat expensive at gas stations on the Autobahn. But it is not worth wasting gas and getting lost looking for the best price. But definitely worth getting food for the road elsewhere. The shops at the gas stations on the Autobahn are horribly expensive. Big grocery chains such as Spar or Billa have ready filled rolls etc as do bakeries.

Couldn't comment on the phone - does your provider offer a plan?

How long are you in Vienna for? I can give you some suggestions what to see if you like depending on what interests you, there is so much to see!

Enjoy the trip, good luck
posted by 15L06 at 1:48 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

General Travel
- If you have T-Mobile, you have free texting to the US, and international data.
- Use sites like wikitravel and check out their recommendations on how to get around. There are usually good tips.

Conference Specific
- Bring business cards! Any time you are at a conference, you should have a decent supply of business cards.
- Plan in time for recovery. I'm an introvert, so for conferences, I try to find half hour blocks to get coffee on my own, just go for a walk, or even to end evening activities early so that I can have some recovery time.
- Make sure you have a pen on you, and a notebook (small one works well). You never know what will come up.
posted by troytroy at 1:49 PM on September 24, 2014

Oh, and bring comfortable shoes, or a change of shoes.
posted by troytroy at 1:50 PM on September 24, 2014

I went on a trip to Zurich, Chur, and Vienna a couple of years ago. Here is my Ask with lots of good advice.
posted by forkisbetter at 2:20 PM on September 24, 2014

If you pick up a hire car in Switzerland it should include the motorway toll sticker for Switzerland, or at least all the ones I've ever had did include the sticker. 2nding the be prepared for winter weather if you're going up into the mountains.

No getting round the fact that Switzerland is very expensive, try to do any shopping in Austria but do buy some fresh chocolate in Switzerland. Fresh chocolate is what I generally bring back for people when I travel back to the UK from Switzerland.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:36 PM on September 24, 2014

Response by poster: This is so great! Thank you everyone! I feel like I have a better handle now.
posted by inevitability at 7:03 AM on September 25, 2014

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