Advice for first out of country business trip
May 7, 2016 4:16 PM   Subscribe

I am going to Ontario for a week long business trip in one week. I have never traveled for work, I have never traveled out of the country, and I am terrified. Can you help me understand what I should expect?

I am flying into London, ON in a few weeks for a Monday - Friday business trip. I am super excited to be able to travel for work, as well as to visit a somewhat foreign country, but I am incredibly anxious about the travel.

Can you explain what to expect? How does Customs work, flying out of US, and back in? Is Chicago O'Hare going to swallow me whole and make me late for my flight? I am a trans woman, and I am absolutely afraid of the TSA and their body scanners, and I have no idea how to get over my fear of them.

Are their logistics I should be thinking of when I get to ON? I know I need to figure something out about my cell phone, but I'm not sure if there's anything else I am not thinking of.

I would love to start my trip with some sort of composure, instead of being a ball of pure anxiety.
posted by motioncityshakespeare to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have flown this route! You'll go through customs in London and if you bring any food on the flight (and you haven't eaten it), you have to declare it. Especially fruits but also I had a few minutes wait getting my Lunchables through. You'll have to show your passport to board and keep it handy for the customs form. Pack a pen too because they never supply them for the form.

The London airport is tiny so when you leave, you don't have to worry about the security line. You'll go through customs in Chicago on your way back (some Canadian airports have US customs you can go through before your flight) but there is a (faster) US/Canadian line so it shouldn't take that long.

Bank cards sometimes don't work in Canada just due to propitiatory issues (Interact), but try getting it run as a credit card. Canada has awesome portable card/tip/paying machines that they'll bring right to your table at restaurants. It's like living in the future.

I keep my phone on airplane mode in Canada and use Wifi when available.

Canada got rid of the penny so that's different. Also the dollar and two dollar coins. Sure you end up with more heavy change but it's more valuable.

That's all I can think of now but I'm happy to answer other questions if I can.
Have fun!
posted by hydrobatidae at 4:38 PM on May 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

would it help to have someone in London, because I can make that happen
posted by PinkMoose at 4:42 PM on May 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you're on T-Mobile, you get free international roaming, which means you don't get charged extra for being in Canada and using data on your phone. Your phone will say that it is on a Canadian network such as Rogers, that you will get a text from T-Mobile explaining that you are on free roaming. If you are not on T-Mobile , Make sure that you go into your phone settings and turn off roaming.
posted by matildaben at 4:58 PM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Security is not a big deal - if you do not want to go through the body scanner, you can opt for a pat down. My friend who's a customs officer (albeit a Canadian one) has gone through specific training for trans persons and you won't be the first trans woman the officer will have seen.

Customs is really straight forward - keep receipts for whatever you buy and are bringing back (gifts, clothes, etc.) but otherwise it's typically a couple of questions on why you are going, how long you will be staying and you're through. There's a form you'll get on the plane coming back that you'll fill out with plane #'s, purpose of trip, and anything you bought and are bringing back.

If you have a Visa or Mastercard, you're set in Canada. Call your bank to let them know that you'll be travelling before you leave. Interact cards often require a chip up here so you may be limited in that regard. Canada and the U.S. are very similar in terms of culture and customs. Canadians are typically as friendly as we get credit for and are helpful for getting you around/asking basic questions.

London's a small city and easy to find your way around in. Uber is in London if you're looking for a familiar transportation method that's linked to your existing cards. It will be delightfully spring/early summer - I'm a little bit up the road from London, but expect 50's - 70's temperature wise.
posted by scrittore at 5:28 PM on May 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Semi-frequent business traveler here, mostly international. I think hydrobatidae covered the details better than I could, but you'll be fine :)

I don't know how often/if you fly, but O'hare isn't a bad airport (not my home airport, but I fly through there several times a year). The security lines are usually long but they do tend to move quickly. Customs/immigration is generally not bad but I would heed what was said above about fresh foods (fruits, seeds, etc). I'm not familiar with Canadian immigration but the US agents do occasionally check bags. Someone else might have better suggestions regarding TSA procedures, but if you're planning to travel internationally regularly, I would definitely suggest PreCheck or Global Entry - best $100 I ever spent.

Also regarding your phone - T-Mobile does have free roaming service in Canada. If you have Verizon like me, Travel Pass is an option - it'll give you full service in Canada for $2/day. There may be other options, depending on your provider. Worst-case you can just rely on WiFi if you don't need to make calls.

Have fun! International business travel can be exhausting at times but is definitely a great way to see the world.
posted by photo guy at 5:42 PM on May 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

O'Hare is big and a bit overwhelming but it's well-organized and well-signed, and the staff are friendly and helpful.

Here is the US customs form for when you come into the US. Here's the Canadian one. You can see, it's no big, and if you're just getting a few little souvenirs, you'll be well under $800 and the agent will barely glance at it. Customs really isn't there to hassle routine business travelers and vacationers. Alcohol, tobacco, and food are the things that a normal traveler might have to deal with -- the first two have limitations; food is a concern because of diseases, but it's really meat and produce that they care about. Your prepackaged granola bars are fine. (Once I got stopped by the contraband-sniffing dog because I had a banana in my purse that I grabbed to eat on the plane and forgot about. I gave my banana to the customs agent for disposal, the dog agreed I was now boring, and I went on through, it took 30 seconds.)

The flight attendants will give you the customs form on the plane for you to fill out, and if you have questions they can help you. Gives you something to do in the last 20 minutes of the flight.

First international trips ARE a bit anxiety-provoking just because going through the bureaucracy of customs is intimidating when you've never done it before! I think everyone gets nervous doing it their first time! But after you've done it once you'll be like, "Oh, that was super-easy, I'm a pro now."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:06 PM on May 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Another telephone option is to get a Skype number and buy credits for international calling, which works over WiFi instead of your regular service. It's really cheap--I purchased $16 worth of credit to cover a six-week stay in the UK, made regular calls to the US, and still had several dollars left over.

O'Hare is really big, but as long as you've allotted yourself plenty of time to move around, you'll be fine. Plus, you can find decent food in it.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:10 PM on May 7, 2016

By the way, if you haven't travelled much lately, you may not realize that the new scanner machine just show the agent a generic outline of a human body and color coded polygon pointing any areas that need to be further checking. Obviously, the machines are capable of providing much more detailed information about your anatomy but that has all been filtered out so the agent doesn't know anything at all about what is under your clothes except where they need to do a further check. In my case, it has been things like a metal watch band or metallic threads in my shirt - things you would have been sensible enough to wear when you know you are going to go through security. Lots of airports also still use the regular x-ray machines (they are faster per person) so unless you have any piercings or implants, you can probably just avoid setting them off by emptying your pockets and thinking for a minute about what you are wearing.
posted by metahawk at 6:14 PM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I always like to get a little foreign currency before I go, in case there's a snafu with my ATM card or there's something that needs cash when I arrive and am too tired/hurried to deal with finding an exchange. If you're a AAA member you can get foreign currency pretty quickly (my place can get Canadian dollars in a few days) for a good rate.

They say that you should get to the airport 2 hours before an international flight. I hatehatehate feeling rushed at the aiport, plus I kind of like people watching, so I like to get there even earlier, at least 3-4 hours in advance. So think about giving yourself plenty of time so that you don't feel rushed, especially in the security line.

Tons of people are on their first flight every day, and even more on their first international flight! I'm a regular international flier and have always found Customs people informative and friendlier than regular TSA types. There'll be plenty of signs telling you where to go and what to do, and people ready to direct you as well if you have any questions.

Have fun!
posted by TwoStride at 6:15 PM on May 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

You probably already have this resource on traveling while trans.

I just got back from Canada yesterday. I don't bother getting Canadian money beforehand any more and just use the ATM at the airport in Canada. If it makes you feel less anxious, definitely get some cash before you go. Canadians generally live up to their reputation for being friendly and polite.
posted by gingerbeer at 6:33 PM on May 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you don't have a credit card with a chip yet, most of the retail machines do have a swipe slot on the side you can use. If you do have a card with a chip, you will have to sign the receipt (because US credit cards don't have chip + PIN), so just don't forget and start to walk away before the receipt prints out.

If you have one, use a card that doesn't charge a foreign currency fee. Otherwise you'll be paying a couple percentage extra on each purchase, which is annoying.

Sometimes, if you are withdrawing cash from a foreign ATM, it will give you the option of having the amount in USD or in the foreign currency. Always choose the latter, it's generally a better deal.

Good luck! A first international trip is exciting, but Canada really is usually a gentle introduction to the big world outside the U.S.
posted by praemunire at 7:18 PM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

So I occasionally go to Canada for work. I do consulting work for my company and go to different clients - each time I travel abroad, my HR department writes me a letter stating where I am going, why, and how long I will be in country. I have never had a customs agent ask for proof via this letter - but I have had to verbally repeat all this information to the customs agent (i.e., I am coming for work. This is the company I am working with and my contact there. I do software testing for federal regulations compliance - etc etc ". I imagine if the customs agent didn't believe me, I would have the letter as proof. Our HR department requires we report all of our non-US travel so they can get us this letter. You may want to see if your company has this policy too. It may give you some peace of mind if you're nervous to have it.

Oh - if you can, set u a VPN on your phone to your home network. Canadian Netflix is not the same. So sad.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 7:50 PM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

each time I travel abroad, my HR department writes me a letter stating where I am going, why, and how long I will be in country.

And even if you have the letter and something strikes them the wrong way you can end up in a side room for a couple hours while they go over the details and confirm everything. I'd recommend getting the letter. There's a good chance you will have to explain every detail of why you are there repeatedly and having all the information at hand helps especially if you're nervous.

Or they ask you a couple of questions and let you go. You never can tell.
posted by bongo_x at 8:43 PM on May 7, 2016

Regarding the currency exchange, I could also mention that most stores/restaurants in Canada will be happy to accept your US$ banknotes, just maybe not always with the best exchange rate. Note that all of the LLBO (province-run liquor store) outlets have signs beside the cash register: "Because of counterfeits US$50/$100 Banknotes are not accepted." So they're okay with smaller denominations.

In Canada most locals always use a bank debit card with a chip now.
posted by ovvl at 7:51 AM on May 8, 2016

Call your bank(s) in advance and let them know you're travelling outside the US. Some banks can be overzealous in their desire to prevent fraud, and will put a hold on your card if you try to use it overseas, especially at overseas ATMs. That's not a fun situation to be in.
posted by finding.perdita at 1:36 AM on May 9, 2016

Thank you all for the advice. I'm sitting at the hotel bar in London and everything went great. I did accidentally smuggle in Chex Mix though.
posted by motioncityshakespeare at 4:09 PM on May 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

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