One of the most intimidating parts of traveling can be the language barrier. Especially if you don’t know how to communicate when traveling in a foreign country. Everything seems bigger, more urgent, and the confusion that ensues can snowball to the point that you are lost and crying in the middle of the train station being consoled by policemen who don’t understand. Not that I would know how that feels….ahem….moving on.
After a couple of decades of travel, I have put together a guide on how I have learned how to better communicate when traveling. Now I’m the one consoling and helping families, crying women, and even making locals laugh.
How to Communicate Over Wifi
While for some this can be costly, there are a lot of options for finding free Wifi in restaurants/shops, etc. I typically like to book a hotel/hostel that specifically has good wifi, so I can research questions in the local language I may need to ask before I leave.
What I Personally Use to Over Come the Language Barrier:
If you can afford a little portable Wifi device though, this will – by far – be the best investment on your trip. Personally, I use my phone, with AT&T as my carrier – they have an ‘International Passport’ option, where for $10 a day I can use my normal data, Wifi, minutes, and text messaging.
If you are going for longer than 7 days, then I recommend signing up for something a little more affordable like Tep Wireless. This pocket-sized device can be used in over 100 countries, is easily recharged (via MicroUSB Cable), you can pick the plan you want from 1GB/day for $5.95 per day all the way up to 5GB/day at $11.95/day. They also have a customer support chat available 24/7. The best part is that you can rent the Teppy Pocket, and don’t have to fork out $200 to buy it upfront.
Some other options you could consider if you are traveling for more than 8 days that are slightly more expensive but still relatively affordable; especially if you are a frequent international traveler.
Verizon Jetpack MiFi 8800L WiFi Hotspot (around $199 for device)
Verizon charges $80 per month for “unlimited” data, which includes 15 GB of 4G LTE. The battery lasts about 24 hours, is removable so you can just change it as needed. It can connect up to 16 devices at a time.
Skyroam Solis (Around $149 for device)
This one works in over 100 countries and data costs around $9 per day with a secure 4G LTE with download speeds of 500MB. It has a 16-hour battery life and can be connected to 5 devices.
Netgear Nighthawk LTE Mobile Hotspot ($199 for the device itself)
This device is more for AT&T users. It can connect up to 20 devices, has 2.4-5 GHZ Wifi. The battery lasts around 24 hours and can be used with Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0. What I really like about this one is that you can use an ethernet cord with it as well. It has a full-sized USB port, so you can share files between devices to the internet much quicker (ie/uploading videos etc..).
Coolpad SURF Mobile Hotspot (about $72 for the device)
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n connectivity to up to 15 devices by utilizing T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network. So you are limited in certain countries, I would check the coverage map to ensure the device will work. It also only provides about 5 hours of use, and there is no signal strength display.
Huaawei E5770s Mobile Hotspot – ANY PROVIDER
This supports about 10 different devices, can be used with any service provider because it comes unlocked. It provides 4G LTE globally.
Use Social Media To Communicate While Traveling
Now you have several options for WiFi while traveling, you can utilize things like Facebook, Google Hangouts, Skype, WhatsApp to talk to friends at home without using your minutes or texting. Make sure you put your phone on airplane mode and then turn on the WiFi – so you don’t incur hidden fees on your telephone plan.
I think WhatsApp is one of the biggest apps used by those around the world. I used it to communicate with friends in Morocco and to coordinate my driver when going to Lake Atitlan (A very remote area) in Guatemala. So be sure to download that before you go. It does require you to give people your real telephone number, but also has a ‘block’ function if things get uncomfortable via messaging.
How To Communicate When Traveling, and Stay CALM
Whenever I start getting nervous, especially when meeting new people – I have a mantra, “We all poop on the same pot”. For some reason, it puts a smile on my face, breaks the ice inside my head and then I can proceed. If this doesn’t work, then I try my other techniques.
Make it a Game
Making it a game is the best way, for me personally, to remain calm when trying to communicate. I’m prone to anxiety, given my history, so tapping into my creative genius and making it a game is the best way for me to stay calm.
I will typically bring a pad of paper with me and if I don’t know how to pronounce the words, then I draw pictures. Most of the time, showing a picture does the trick. What if you can’t draw though?
There are cards or pre-made quick point cards that people use to communicate things they want. We use these cards all the time when we have a patient on a ventilator. There are certain human functions and needs that are very common and widely recognized. On one side of the card, there can be phrases or even an alphabet; while on the other side, there are photos of what the person needs/wants. So browse on Pinterest for quick point communication cards and I’m sure you will find exactly what you are looking for.
If you say the wrong thing, and they giggle – don’t be offended. For example, there are some languages like Portuguese, where ‘pickup’ can also mean ‘kill’ in a different country. So, anyone, this could be funny, or scary – and could elicit a giggle no matter what country it happened in. So take it in stride, make fun of yourself and thank them for being patient with you.
If they are not patient with you, I still thank them and politely tell them I will ask someone else, and sorry to bother them. I always try to remember that just because I am on vacation, with loads of time, the people I ask for help are taking time our of their day/vacation to help you. I have had people completely ignore me & I still offer a smile and wish them good-day. I have other locals, who walk with me from place to place, stand in line with me and get me on the right train – taking more than 45 minutes out of their day to help.
There are times you won’t be able to find help though. For my fellow Americans, DO NOT GET ANGRY NO ONE SPEAKS ENGLISH!!! There is nothing that will drive away help more, than standing at the hotel, restaurant or ticket line like an American putting their hands on their hips and loudly exclaiming, “Well this is just ridiculous, doesn’t anyone here speak English?” – no one will want to help you if you do. Saying things like this is what gives Americans a bad reputation as being, loud, rude, and snooty. Don’t be like them, please….
Don’t Be Embarrassed
There are so many other things that you could be embarrassed about – like when you think you need to fart, but it is actually a shart. If you don’t know what a shart is, consider yourself blessed – if you’re curious, use urban dictionary to look it up.
The point is, everyone expects you to not be fluent – so if you don’t get the words exactly right, don’t panic. Take a deep breath, laugh at yourself, know how to say sorry in their language. If you get too flustered, or your brain is fried from all the touring or the red-eye – revert to the Kwikpoint card (explained below) or drawing a picture.
Research Common Phrases
The number one thing to remember when beginning to learn a language is to not use big words or long phrases. Start small and use flashcards to memorize them so you aren’t fumbling and it comes second nature. If you aren’t sure how to pronounce something, Google and YouTube are going to work wonders for you. Here are a few phrases you will likely need to know when traveling, shopping, eating, meeting people, and if you run into an emergency.
How long (duration)?
What time does it leave?
I lost my…
I am going to…
I came from…
I leave on…
Bus / train station
I am allergic to…
Where is a doctor?
Where is the pharmacy
Tampons / sanitary pads
Can I drink the tap water?
Bed bugs – or other words for dangerous bugs common to the area
I lost my key
Where is the bathroom?
Do I pay here, or can I have the bill?
Do you take credit cards or cash?
I’m not interested / No, thank you
Do you have change?
Can I try?
Hello, my name is…
Do you speak English?
I don’t understand
Thank you and Thank You so much
Can I help you?
Where is the Embassy?
Use your Resources To Communicate While Traveling
We live in a world full of technology, and advanced communication devices. So it is so much easier to get past the language barrier than ever before. Here are a few resources I personally use to communicate in a different country.
My number one resource is Google Translate that I use on my phone, with the AT&T passport. The reason I like this so much is that you can do a voice to text with it. It also has a conversational function on it, where you can easily switch back and forth between languages and have them just speak into your phone. They check the text to make sure it is what they mean to say, edit what needs to be edited, and then you go back and forth.
This became very useful when I was trying to figure out what the safest way to get my friend to the airport was. It was in Santiago, I speak enough Spanish to get around, but when it comes to safety – you need details. So I was able to use Google translate, to understand how and who would take my friend to the airport. If you use Uber in the city, and the police catch you – you can get a $1000 fine. There were also reports of an unregistered Uber driver pick you up, and then take you to an obscure place in town – where they then rob you. S
I was also warned that I shouldn’t have bought the strawberries from the street vendors, because there was a big problem with diarrhea with travelers there. Apparently, turtles had invaded some of the water sources, and put Salmonella in the water systems – the locals were used to it, but travelers coming in – it was creating a big problem.
If you want something super affordable, can’t speak the language, and don’t draw pictures very well – then I would suggest a Kwikpoint card. This would be the bare minimum that I would take with you in order to communicate. You can get cards with small colorful photos on them, in specific groupings that visually can be easily recognized and understood throughout the world. If they don’t have it in their country, they will likely find someone who can explain it to you – or they can use their own phone/computer to use google translate to tell you.
Find A Common Ground
Let them know you are sorry you don’t speak their language but are trying to make things as easy as possible to have a good trip. This really breaks the ice and lets them know that you don’t think you are better than they are.
There are WAY too many times that I have heard people say, “Doesn’t anyone around here speaks English?” when traveling in a foreign country. This is absurd, and wouldn’t hold up in the USA if someone came and demanded someone spoke Spanish or French. So get off your high horse, realize it isn’t the USA – and so you should at least ATTEMPT to speak the primary language of the country you are visiting.
You have to remember you a VISITOR, not a foreign dignitary or some royalty that should be cow-towed to because you are an American. So check yourself, before you wreck yourself.
Now You Know How To Communicate In A Foreign Country
While you may not be fluent in the language of the country you will visit, now you have the resources to help put your mind at ease about the language barrier. Just don’t give up, be polite, stay calm and realize we are all humans. Invest in a good Kwikpoint card, Wifi, and make sure you can access Google Translate and I promise you will have no trouble navigating the world despite your language limitations.
Choosing accommodation for your travel has gotten more complicated over the years. Often leaving folks confused and worried they will make the wrong decision. Especially with reports of travelers being attacked, personal items stolen, and even the rare occasion of someone being killed. So I put together a guide on things to look for when choosing accommodation for your travels.
From beginning to end, this will be the ultimate guide on getting started when choosing your adventure accommodation and staying safe when you do. Be sure to check out my other articles on Safety while solo traveling as well. It will give a more detailed view of tips on how to stay safe, as well as what to do if you feel you landed in an unsafe situation. So let’s dive in on choosing your perfect accommodation!
Your Destination – When Choosing Accommodation
Is it a third world country or a first world country?
When your choosing accommodations, look at what the place is made of. Maybe it is a wood/grass hut on the beach with opportunities for perfect pictures, but no hot shower – or the toilet is shared and across the village. Make sure you take note of what is included in the room before you book it. There are so many wannabe YouTubers out there – that you can get a general idea from videos on the area and accommodation. Even the poorest countries have a phone and Facebook so asking for a few photos or to confirm certain amenities is in your best interest.
Is it a remote small village or a bustling city?
If it is a remote village will you have a way to get there? Is that factored into your budget? If it is in a bustling city, how easy is it to find your way there and how costly. Is traffic going to be an issue? If it is then the taxi rates are going to be sky-high unless you can get them to agree on a set price before you get into the vehicle.
What type of activities are you going to be participating in?
If you are going to be visiting Macchu Picchu you will want to stay up near the entrance to get there before the crowds. Conversely, if you are only there for a short period of time, is it worth it to hotel/hostel jump from place to place? What if you are scuba diving out in Fort Lauderdale and it would be easier to get to the shop by staying on Singer Island rather than paying for a taxi multiple days to get back and forth. Are there activities at night and places to eat close to your accommodation. When you are fighting Jet Lag, you can often awake in the middle of the night with hunger pains that can have you chewing the arm of your travel companion off or eating the bar of soap.
Is the country conservative or are their citizens heavily restricted with rules?
When I was traveling with a Moroccan friend near southern Morocco, they are still ruled by strict social guidelines. So we had to pretend that he was my brother-in-law in order to be able to rent an apartment. Otherwise, they would have required to see a marriage document prior to renting the apartment. Several of them actually refused when they saw that he had a white American Female in the car. Given their point of view, I can see why several people refused (just in case he was kidnapping me – even though it wasn’t the case). Each place I stayed at also wanted a copy of my passport – which has ALL my personal information on it. So would you be comfortable letting them copy that information? Some places may refuse to rent to you if you are not comfortable giving that information. So these are just some things to think about, especially if you are a solo female traveler.
Are your comforts of home important to you?
It is important to remember that not every destination is going to have an air conditioner you can blast, fireplace you can light up, or even traditional heating. They may not even have a working toilet, or maybe you can sit on the toilet, shower, and brush your teeth all at the same time. We stayed in an apartment in Italy once as a family, where the smell of the sewer was so strong that we could barely shower. So be sure to read reviews and amenities of a location before going, so you can be well informed on what you will have to compromise and if you are willing to do that.
Time of Arrival or Departure – When Choosing Accommodation
Do you arrive at night or during the day?
I typically look for the best deal on Booking.com when I’m attempting to rent a place. I really like the filters you can choose from, and you can easily decide if a hotel/hostel/B&B is right for you all on the same platform.
As the years of travel have come and gone, I have gotten a lot more detailed in my approach when renting an Airbnb, Booking.com place. Sometimes it is the best deal because it is a remote part of the city that isn’t safe to lug my big suitcase and a backpack full of camera gear. So it is definitely something to consider. Another thing to consider is how accessible it is to catch a taxi, the cost of an Uber or Lyft to and from the transportation stations (airport, train, bus). There was one morning in Poland I counted on being able to catch a taxi to the train station and found that in Poland – in the center of Warsaw – no one is awake before 8 am. So I had to get access back into the building I had just deposited my room keys into, so I could get Wifi to call an Uber.
Your Budget When Choosing Accommodation
Does your budget include a fancy place to stay?
If this is going to be a relaxing vacation with lots of beach time, then maybe spending a little more on an all-inclusive resort would be worthwhile. If you are going to be out looking at historic sites in the center of the city, maybe it would be worthwhile to spend a little more of the budget to stay closer to those sites. If you are just looking to spend as little as possible, because you will be backpacking from one place to the next anyway, then maybe a hostel is your best bet.
Do you want to spend your vacation budget on your accommodation or on seeing the city?
The biggest beef I have with spending money on accommodation is that it takes away from my ability to spend money on tours, food and really experiencing the culture. So I tend to personally go for a cheaper (but comfortable) accommodation and then have loads left for tours and activities.
What type of vacation is this for you? Will you spend more time in a hotel (Honeymoon) or more time seeing the sites (on a group tour, or with a bunch of friends)?
If your vacation is going to be a romantic getaway, then I would tell you to spend a little more to have a cozy bed with a view and easy access to come back to the hotel frequently. If you will be in a tour group, they typically include the cost of the hotel, or I would get a hotel that will be close to the majority of your meeting spots.
Your Desire for Convenience When Choosing Accommodation
Does the destination have Taxies or Ubers?
Believe it or not, not every country/city has Taxies or Ubers. There are equivalents available in some countries (see my growing Worldwide Airport Transportation List) but sometimes it is just good old fashioned walking, horse and carriage or a Tuk Tuk. In certain cities in South America, if you are caught by the police taking an Uber/Lyft (like in Santiago) then you can get a $1000 fine. So I would definitely consider how you will get around the city, and to and from the airport when choosing accommodation.
Is there public transport? Is transportation able to handle your luggage?
Once you figure out your mode of transportation to and from the airport, also consider if they will be able to handle the amount of luggage you are planning on bringing. I can tell you right now, a Tuk Tuk will not be able to handle two people with their luggage. When I was in San Pedro La Laguna, near Lake Atitlan – the roads are too narrow for cars in most places, often get flooded in the rainy season. The Tuk Tuks there couldn’t hold 3 curvy women at once, so I had to squat and pray I didn’t break my ankle because my leg was hanging out of the Tuk Tuk.
If you are being picked up in a shared ride, or transfer service (often found on the airline websites when you book your flight) – they may have luggage restrictions to two per passenger or less.
If it is a shared Uber/Lyft or Taxi – you will have to be considerate of other passengers who may not be as prepared as you are – or pack as light as you do.
Your Travel Companions – Questions to Ask Before Booking
Do your travel companions have physical limitations? ie/ Wheelchair, bad knees, chronic pain
Americans are very lucky (and some countries in Europe), in that most everything is accessible to those with disabilities. Even in Scotland, there are things I took for granted in America that they do not have there due to the way the city has grown and morphed over the years. Working in the medical field it was eerie to me to not see elderly on the street – or those in wheelchairs or on crutches – there are seldom elevators unless specifically stated; Hostels, Airbnb, and B&Bs do not typically have elevators.
If you travel with Chronic pain and are stuck on an hour train ride in between the cars because you didn’t realize you had to reserve a seat and not just purchase a ticket – this could result in major pain that could result in a ruined vacation. So be aware of who you travel with, and have frank conversations about tolerance levels and ability to treat pain while vacationing.
What about those with bad joints, or those with heart or lung issues. Can they go up stairs, do they have elevators, what is the air pollution in the city like vs in the country? These are all things to consider and ask both the accommodation and your travel companions about. When I was in Edinburgh, and even in Marrakesh – I was grateful I had my inhaler because I have reactive asthma attacks. I get extremely fatigued, and a sore throat when the air quality is bad. Going up to high elevations quickly, like in Zermatt on the Little Matterhorn, at 15,000 feet – I nearly ended up in the hospital with an oxygen level of 85% because I discovered I was extremely prone to altitude sickness.
Do your travel companions travel light, or over pack with lots of bags?
Again, everything is a little bigger in America vs other countries. If you show up in Japan or China with 2 large bags and a big backpack – you may as well just buy an additional hotel room. Everything is small and jam-packed unless you know what you are getting into and can afford the larger hotel rooms.
Your Activities When Choosing Your Accommodation
Are you going to have a car?
If you are going to have a car, is there parking available at your accommodation? If there isn’t, then you have to look at costs for parking – and if you are good enough at parallel parking. In Morocco, if you decide to drive there, the parking spaces are very very tightly packed. There are certain meanings when you flash your brights or turn on your hazard lights. They even have parking assistants that you have to tip at least a dollar every time they help you, otherwise, you can get punched (saw a legit street brawl between a parking attendant and a local – lots of blood). In Edinburgh, there are no parking areas, unless you want to pay $45-$85 a night at a very limited parking center in the city. In the center of Boston, the parking at any location can be upwards of $60 a night (minimum). So be sure you check on parking availability if you choose to rent a car, otherwise, it can eat your budget rather quickly.
Is accommodation close to affordable public transportation?
If there are no parking areas, is the accommodation close enough to (and safe enough) utilize public transportation? In Guatemala, it would have been cheaper to take the 5-hour bus ride to Lake Atitlan sure. Yet hiring a private ride for $60 for the 3-hour car ride through mountain passes where falling rocks, flooded roads is much safer and more reliable at 2 am.
Your Eating Habits When Choosing Accommodation
Is breakfast important to you?
If you like to sleep in but love your breakfast, then I would make sure you click on the filter option where breakfast is included in the cost, or there is a continental breakfast available. I could eat breakfast food all day everyday if I could. Dinner I just eat Almonds or a protein bar – but in Europe, Lunch and Dinner are some of the most important meals.
Check Local Holidays/Religious Events
This is something I discovered after dating several Muslim men, when they described their countries during Ramadan. A local religious holiday that lasts a month, where stores, and local eateries often close during the day for religious reasons. If you don’t know about Ramadan, I put together a basic guide on Ramadan, and when and why they celebrate. For the purposes of this article though, you need to know that stores will open after sunset/evening prayer, and close in the AM after morning prayer. If you are ok eating all night, and sleeping during the day, there are some special dishes that come out during Ramadan, and are only made during Ramadan that would be worthwhile to check out for all my foodies.
Do you like to eat out?
Are there places nearby that you can eat? If there are places that you can eat near your accommodation, is it the type of food you can eat? Do you have any particular dietary restrictions? If so, then looking at different neighborhoods where those are more likely to be available and have more variety. If you are Vegan, Vegetarian, or have any particular allergy to certain foods – then I would recommend using Pinterest to plan out your eating excursions before you go.
Do you cook your own meals when vacationing?
If you do have severe dietary restrictions, or like to eat a little healthier while traveling – then choosing an accommodation near a supermarket may be worthwhile. Try your hand at local cuisine, or even eat with locals through EatWith.com where you can schedule a meal with a local and other travelers, take a food tour, or even learn how to cook like a local.
Will Your Personality Fit Your Accommodation
Are you a quiet hermit type? Are you outgoing and lazie faire? Are you refined and love that luxury life?
If you don’t like chaos, or can’t sleep through drunk people coming in and out at all hours of the night – then a Hostel is not for you. Do you like to be social, but still want your privacy and a relaxed environment? Then a Bed and Breakfast may be for you. Do you love luxurious surroundings, and value your sleep above all? Then a higher-end luxury hotel might be the best choice.
When staying in any location, it is important to know if you have the only key to the house, apartment, or room.
If you don’t, then I would suggest to my Solo Female Travelers that you demand this, or just look for another accommodation. If it is a Bed and Breakfast type home, where other people will be staying, this is fine, but you still want to ensure that you will be safe while you are sleeping – and there is lockbox for your passport.
Will you be alone or with other people?
If you will be alone in a dangerous neighborhood, then I would suggest getting a hotel closer to the city – and make sure there is good lighting on the street. Using Google maps street view is a good way to take a look at the neighborhood you will be going.
If you will be staying with other people, such as in a hostel, do they have lockers you can use? If so, are there locks you can rent, or do you need to bring your own lock?
Is the community gated/barb wire fencing?
When I was staying in Guatemala City, there were a lot of reports online that theft and muggings were common with tourists. Arriving late at night from San Pedro made me a bit nervous, as I didn’t properly scope out my accommodation. Driving into the complex though, provided a lot of ease of mind when I saw that there was a security guard, cement fencing with barbed wire on the top, and good lighting in the streets. So it really depends on the safety level of the country you are going to, how cautious you need to be, and how much research you need to do prior to finalizing your booking.
There are certain countries where tourists have to stay inside a compound for safety reasons. So for my adrenaline junkies out there, make sure that you understand the risks. If there is a safety advisory by your state/country department for that particular country – and you decide to go anyway; it could limit their ability and willingness to help you if you decide to ignore those warnings.
Do they have safety measures for fire hazards, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes?
If you are staying in a wooden bungalow in the Maldives, and a hurricane blows through while you’re there – because the prices were cheaper in the rainy season – do they provide, or have a safe spot or emergency evacuation plan/supplies to aid their guests? This is something that happened to a friend when in Jamaica, and they had to fend for themselves until the communities were stabilized. Luckily they were in a hotel, not a bungalow, and had some granola bars to tide them over while electricity was restored in the kitchens.
Getting Travel Insurance is a great way to ease the mind.
I typically will use World Nomads as my Travel Insurance for medical evacuation or any emergency needs/delays/cancellations. Something you will have to ensure with medical, natural disaster, or political unrest evacuations – is that the fine writing often says ‘will evacuate you to the nearest USA location or airport’. Well that doesn’t help you much if you are vacationing in South America, and they send you to a hospital in Atlanta – but your house is in Oregon. Medical Transport on a ventilator from one area of the USA to another is done by helicopter with a specialized team and starts at $15,000 depending on the team needed and flight time. So if you are from the USA, or are purchasing the insurance through your own country – I highly suggest you read the fine print on this particular portion.
Will you need to get vaccines prior to going?
If you are a US Citizen, there are certain vaccines that are mandatory if you visit a country where a disease is prevalent.
Some of the vaccines can be out of stock or on back order – so it could take months until you receive it. Be sure to check with your local health department on these specialty vaccines.
Getting the vaccines within a certain time period PRIOR to your departure is imperative. Your immune system needs time to work, and what if you have a bad reaction? The earlier you can do it the better is what I highly suggest.
Are there animals or insects that could come in while sleeping? Do they carry diseases? Does the accommodation have mechanisms to prevent this?
If you are terrified of snakes or creepy crawlies coming into your room at night – then any tropical environment, even Australia may not be for you, unless you stay in a place where this can’t happen.
If you are in Africa, having a mosquito net is essential as many parasitic diseases including Malaria are transmitted there.
If you are staying in a grass hut in South American, there is a bug called the Kissing Bug (bites near nose/eyes/mouth at night), that transmits a parasite that can live in you for decades before showing up as a major heart issue.
In hostels, there is a growing issue with Bed Bugs. I was attacked by Bed Bugs in a Hostel in Prague a few years ago. I had 32 bites all up and down my arms, legs, chest and even a few on my face. Little did I know that I was allergic to the bites, and ended up swelling at each bite, felt like I was hit by a bus for the entire time I was backpacking through Europe.
It isn’t just hostels though, Bed Bug reports in New York City were up by 40% in 2018. If you bring those little bastards home with you, guess what….it can cost anywhere from $1600 to $5200 to get rid of them. Often it results in you having to replace furniture, beds, clothes and other items that they squeeze into and lay hundreds of eggs. So consider yourself warned, research how to spot bed bugs, and make a rule that you put your bags outside the room until your inspection is complete. It only took once, to learn this very painful and difficult lesson.
Are there restrictions on staying with those of the opposite sex?
I touched on this previously when I was traveling with a local in Morocco. But I bring it up again here because some countries do not allow you to stay with the opposite sex unless you are married or have the same last name. So just inquire, before you book if you are concerned.
Is the destination friendly to the LGBTQI community? Would you be allowed to stay in the same room as your partner?
This one, unfortunately, is still not accepted worldwide. While the courageous individuals who are traveling to the more close-minded countries, and are helping to try to educate on this particular point – I would advise you to research this extensively. While I don’t really feel it is necessary to call out specific countries, I wanted to put this in this guide – because it can pose a security risk to members of the LGBTQI community.
A good resource for those in the LGBTQI community that want to travel is ‘Dopes On The Road‘ – this website will give you Safety Tips to Consider, questions to ask, and how to plan a honeymoon as a LGBT.
What about racial discrimination?
While I am a white American female, I do have plenty of inspirational women of color that I highly admire and look up to. One such person is, Glo, from the Blog Abroad – who is very frank, honest and open about facing discrimination while traveling and how she handles it. Another great resource for what it is like to travel like a black man is Erik Prince from Minority Nomad. His goal is to be the first black man to travel to every country and would be a great resource because so far (as of August 2019) he has visited 90 countries. Because of my own ethnicity, I think it is a subject that I regrettably have been ignorant of for my readers. So to those who are concerned about this, hearing it from a white woman isn’t going to ease your mind – so look up Glo and Erik – you won’t regret it.
I know these are a lot of questions to process and take in, so it may feel like information overload. This is why I broke it down into bullet points because once you choose your destination, know your budget, and limitations or preferences of the people you travel with – it will be easy to skip over some of the questions.
I tried to include every question I ask when approaching a booking, or choosing an accommodation (traveling with my dog is a whole other article that I didn’t address). So if you are trying to book something luxurious, then you will have a guide – if you are finding accommodation in a busy city or a remote village in Africa then you will have a resource to remind you of how to best approach it and make the most informed decision possible.
Would you include any tips/tricks or advice to those who are just starting out booking their own accommodation?
“You have to howl!” Sheri screamed up at me as I summited my first climbing route in Joshua Tree National Park. This would make a lasting impression on me for the rest of my life, to throw caution to the wind and celebrate the accomplishments we have in life, out loud and proud. I could write a book about Sheri, following her adventures of van life from San Diego to San Pedro, and making her home in Lake Atitlan. The story I want to tell you about though is one of true compassion, connecting cultures, and empowering the women in San Pedro La Laguna with Sheri’s Company – She Rides Dragons.
Sheri Keller and She Rides Dragons
Sheri is a wanderer at heart, but somehow San Pedro and the people in this town stole her heart and she chose to stay. Once there, it wasn’t long before she started making friends. One of her closest friends is Dora, a Spanish teacher, and seamstress who has a smile that will light up the whole room when she allows you to see it.
After several months exploring San Pedro and the other small villages in Lake Atitlan, Sheri discovered the Mayan textiles and an idea began to form. After a lot of trial and error, and drawing on her resources in San Diego, she was able to set up a clothing company called She Rides Dragons. I will explain that name a little later.
Sheri is a Yoga teacher, juggler and all-out fabulous performer that brings magic with her wherever she goes, which fits in perfectly with the backpacking town of San Pedro. So naturally making yoga bags, and other clothing items with Mayan adorned symbols was the next step along her incredible journey.
Collaborating For A Cause
Little did I know, that after following Sheri’s journey of fulfilling her dreams – she had started to follow me as I pursued my dreams of being a travel writer, photographer, and videographer – She would ask me to be a brand ambassador for her company, She Rides Dragons.
I was just starting out but flabbergasted that this woman that I had held in my mind as a goddess of adventure was asking me to collaborate with her for a cause. I, of course, agreed, right after I pulled my jaw back up off the floor and re-attached it to my face.
I received one of her clothing items, a full-length ritual robe, exquisitely hand-crafted and designed with more attention to detail than some of the best brands I have seen. Colors are perfectly matched, the fabric is thick, heavy, and you can almost feel the magic of Lake Atitlan flowing out it.
I immediately messaged her when I received it and thanked her profusely. “Sheri I cannot believe how well made this is!” I was nearly bubbling over with excitement, she replied in her usual cool-as-a-cat way “I know, the women here do such a great job. I hope we can continue to make these because the money is so vital for these families”. This piqued my interest, as my first love has always been humanitarian work and travel for a cause.
Sheri explained that the culture in Lake Atitlan is one of strong patriarchal power. The men often drink, and work is often hard to find, with very little pay. For this reason, she specifically buys the fabric for her company from local women and hires local women as seamstresses to make the clothing and bags, weave the ‘tehido’ that become the tassels on those bags, and as translators to assist with different Mayan languages, of which there are many. Some of the Mayan women Sheri works with speak little or no Spanish and having a translator has been crucial in learning about the different textiles, peoples, and towns around Guatemala. The money that the women make goes straight into their pockets, not their husbands, and they decide how it gets spent.
The women put a lot of their income toward their children and putting food on the table. Many of the women have to weave and sew by the light of the fires they burn near their homes as they cannot afford electricity. If a guest comes, they will feed the guest before they feed the children. The families in Lake Atitlan are not beggars, they work for what they have…sometimes to their own detriment.
Sheri has a gift for observational power and has often found families in need of help. With connections all around the lake, she is constantly on the phone, in her ‘magic makers’ circle – trying to help the families and animals that need it the most. I think she tries to fix the major issues in San Pedro and Lake Atitlan because of how much love she has for this place. Her home has been a haven, an animal rescue, a place of creativity and love – and the people in the city all know her as a giving wonderful human being with boundless love and charity. It is hard for her to walk down the streets without people coming and thanking her for one thing or another.
Yet if you point these things out to her, she will often dismiss it as ‘oh its nothing’, or ‘it isn’t as much as I want to do here’.
Meet Dora – A Seamstress and Spanish Teacher extraordinaire
Dora was born and raised in San Pedro La Laguna. She is Sheri’s friend, a seamstress for She Rides Dragons and so much more. Sheri and Dora met at a Spanish school in San Pedro where Dora taught Spanish. It wasn’t until months later that Sheri discovered Dora was also a seamstress and the two of them began working together on She Rides Dragons.
Dora is so proud that she is able to provide food for her family, can afford electricity, has her own stove, and lives in a very good part of San Pedro. She is able to do much of this because of her work with She Rides Dragons, where she receives pay directly for her work.
Her greatest pride and joy though, is being able to provide a good education for her boys so they can have the best life possible. The best way to ensure survival in Lake Atitlan for the children is to provide education, otherwise, they will be forced to work in the cornfields and coffee farms on the steep slopes of the mountains and volcanoes that surround Lake Atitlan.
Dora is now trying to pass on the love, by getting her Aunt involved. Her sweet Aunt Maria only speaks Mayan and lives high up on the mountain. The home she lived in before her current one was no better than a shanty house with a roof. While she still cannot afford electricity at this time, she was able to afford cinder block floors, walls and a decent roof over her head with a real door. There is a small wood-burning stove on the balcony that she makes tortillas from every morning at 3 am to sell to the local shops so that her daughter can go to school.
There are 36 different dialects of the Mayan language that have survived in this area, and luckily Dora was able to translate from Mayan into Spanish and Sheri then translated into English for me. So trying to communicate in 3 different languages, and get the meaning across was quite comical but we made it work.
Maria, weaves all the tassels for the yoga bags by hand for Sheri. There are many different types of loom weaving that happen and the tradition is passed down over many generations. There are some loom weaving classes in the San Pedro area for tourists, but these women are the real heroes of this story.
Where Does the Fabric Come From?
The fabric for She Rides Dragons comes from all over Guatemala. Fortunately for Sheri, there are fabric markets that offer up incredible inventories so that she doesn’t have to travel to each town when she wants that town’s specific style of weaving or embroidery. There are also traveling saleswomen who visit San Pedro La Laguna. These women make their living by selling second-hand fabrics that their hometowns. The fabric markets, as well, mostly offer second-hand fabrics with a much smaller inventory of new fabrics. When the Mayan fabrics and clothing, huipils (blouses) and Cortes (dresses), are new they are so colorful and bright that you have shield your eyes from their glare when the sunlight touches them.
In order to get the best quality fabric, Sheri takes a 30-minute boat ride across Lake Atitlan – sometimes with waves so bad that people drop on their knees and start to pray (not joking) – to another town called Panajachel (Pa-na-ha-chel). Then it is a long hike up a hill to the fabric market. The market takes place twice a week at the fire station. Sheri has been coming here for four years and has developed a familiar relationship with one of the families that sell fabrics such that when she arrives they know exactly how much fabric Sheri needs, the kind she likes, and it is already, awaiting her inspection.
Sheri sifts through the fabric, sorting, swapping, matching, inspecting for frayed ends or imperfect patterns. After about an hour or so of choosing fabric, then it is a call to her partner, John to check on fabric funds. It is difficult to get cash in San Pedro, they do have an ATM, but can be spotty at best on if it is broken or not.
After some negotiating with the women for the amount of fabric she buys, the fabric is then loaded into large bags for transport back across the lake. I bought a few pieces myself while there because how can you resist the Mayan symbols of Dogs and Dragons!
Grabbing a Tuk-Tuk, we headed back to the dock to take a launcha (boat) back across the lake to San Pedro.
Sewing the Clothing
We hauled the bags back up the hill in San Pedro, grabbed another Tuk-Tuk, and went to Dora’s house to deliver the fabric. Sheri instructs Dora in Spanish once we arrive on the ideas she has for each set of fabric pieces she picked out. Dora makes notes, and patterns are pulled out and set near each pile of fabric.
After a long day, and the afternoon rains coming in we finally get to rest and eat some food. We head back to Sheri’s House. Yet the day doesn’t end there for Sheri, she isn’t one that can sit still for long – despite sometimes needing to. So she gets on the phone with Dora again, to see if she can arrange for another woman who sells huipils – the traditional blouses worn by the Mayan women in Guatemala – to meet with us the next day.
A Long Journey
The next day we head back to Dora’s House to meet with another inspirational woman, Rosa. It is a long journey for Rosa to meet with Sheri. She comes from a small town called Chajul (Cha-hool) that is about twelves hours away by bus. This is how Rosa makes her living, traveling around Guatemala and selling fabrics from her hometown of Chajul. The fabrics are gorgeous and coveted by many women all over Guatemala for their soft feel and durability. Sheri met Rosa 3 years ago when Rosa was traveling though San Pedro and selling fabrics at the Sunday market in San Pedro. Since that time they have developed a beautiful working relationship and Sheri is one of Rosa’s best customers, which is why she is willing to travel all the way from her home to see us.
Rosa arrives at Dora’s house with two large bags full of fabric, Cortes, and huipils. After greetings, how-are-yous, and some water to drink, Sheri, Dora, and Rosa begin looking through the bags. Sheri picks out the fabrics she thinks would be a perfect match for the Yoga bags. Carefully choosing symbols that she thinks would resonate with her ideal customers. After paying her for the items, Rosa takes the remaining fabrics and clothing to Panajachel to sell what she can at the fabric market. Then it is another long journey home, all to help feed her children and keep them from having to work on the farms.
Creating The Clothing Infused With Magic
There are many reports from those who visit Lake Atitlan that there is some kind of magical pull there. They have ‘odd’ dreams, and tend to live more on the wild side of life – yet the local community is very conservative and Catholic.
It sounds a little odd, and I didn’t believe it at first – but waking up the morning after I arrived and seeing the incredible Lake, it made me wonder if it was true. Lake Atitlan was made after a Super Volcano erupted, then imploded creating a caldera for the lake to be born. The lake itself is 1115 feet (389 meters) deep, and 11.2 mi × 5.0 mi (18 km × 8 km) surface.
The Sierra de Los Cuchumatanes mountain range surrounds this lake with the highest mountain, Atitlan Volcano, reaching an elevation of 12,588 feet (3,837 m). The name Atitlan is a Mayan word that means “the place where the rainbow gets its colors.” There are two other volcanoes that are also part of this range, Toliman volcano, and San Pedro Volcano.
There is so much Mayan folklore and stories that the local Mayans still believe about this place it is hard not to believe it yourself when you are there. The local mythology considers Lake Atitlan to be the birthplace of all creation.
So not only is the clothing and yoga bags that Sheri makes selectively handcrafted, it is done so in a place and by the people that have lived in this area since 300 BC. I really hate describing a place as ‘magical’ because I feel it is often overused – but there are two places I have been so far that I can truly use this with – one is Scotland, and the other is now Lake Atitlan.
A Force For Change
There aren’t many people I have met in my life that have inspired me as much as Sheri and the women of Lake Atitlan who help her. They have a hard life, compared to the rest of the world.
I asked Sheri why she named her company ‘She Rides Dragons’ and she explained the strength of Dragons and their ties to Magic. I think it is more than that though, she is a strong, beautiful woman who is tackling the problems in San Pedro that are much bigger than what one person should handle on their own. She is helping to empower Mayan women to create change in their hearts, their homes, and provides food for the table their children eat at. The children also get to have an education, giving them a chance at a better future than poverty and starvation. If this wasn’t enough, she also rescues dogs and cats in the area – pooling resources to help treat for worms, feeds them, bathes then and raises money to help neuter them. She is known for her healing abilities, yet has seen many animals not make it because of lack of education in the community.
This isn’t about a clothing company, it is about women in Lake Atitlan trying to ride these giant problems – dragon-sized problems. These problems are unruly, difficult beasts that tend to bury most people in depression and anxiety of the acutest kind. Yet Sheri has collected a group of people, women, and literally a whole community to help fight them and she is succeeding at it – even if she doesn’t always give herself credit for doing so.
How Can You Contribute?
Take a look at She Rides Dragons, buy some of the clothing she offers. Now that you know the attention to detail, the love poured into the clothing, and the magical place these items come from – it will be an item that will hold more meaning for you than any other piece in your closet.
If there isn’t anything, in particular, you would like to buy you can also donate to her cause. Her dream is to be able to hire 8 women, to change their lives, and so their children’s lives can change and it will balloon from there. If you would like to donate for Maria the weaver to get electricity, send the donation via PayPal to SheRidesDragons@gmail.com – and make a note for something, in particular, you would like to donate to.
If you would like to help with funding or volunteering at an animal hospital or donate to help with education on how to care for animals and recognize diseases – email SheRidesDragons@gmail.com and she can get you in touch with the right people there.
Also, if you are interested in learning Spanish, Dora is an excellent Spanish teacher and does online classes starting at $10 an hour. Please contact send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will connect you to her. I started taking lessons from her and think she is an absolutely incredible Spanish teacher. It is difficult but immersive and I’m learning quickly.
Driving in another country can be a scary thing when you are doing it for the first time, but when you are responsible for any damage that might happen while in that country…..makes it even more scary. My first time driving internationally was when I went to Scotland on my first Solo Trip. So here are a few things to look for when renting a car either at home or abroad.
Renting the Right Car for Your Skill Set
Stick vs Manual —- Large vs Small — Car vs Motorbike. These are all questions to consider when renting a car. In European countries, many of their cars are stick shift, and personally I do not know how to drive one well without grinding the gears to oblivion. In many North American countries, they opt for the manual transmission – so you need to look at which car is right for you and the availability of that particular brand of transmission in the country you will be visiting. For example, renting my car in Scotland – they only had four manual cars available for the company I chose. I had to rent the car several months in advance, because there was a festival going on the week I was there and happened to get the last manual transmission left.
It may be a simple question – but a large vs small car for where you are traveling can make a huge difference. If you typically drive a compact car, and have 6 friends coming with you on your trip that requires a large suburban/van – your going to have a difficult time adjusting to the maneuverability and inability to see the surrounding cars/area when turning, backing up etc…
There are some countries and even cities where having a motorbike vs a car is more practicle to get around traffic and find parking. If you aren’t conifdent in your motorbike skills though, get a car to have the added protection. They are called donor cycles for a reason my friends, especially in the USA it is hard for cars to see motorbikes on our huge roads- not like in Europe.
Look at Mileage Limitations
This was very important for me when I was in Scotland, as I was planning a road trip up to Culloden, near inverness, then to Dunrobin Castle, and up to John O’Groats and back down the NC500 to Edinburgh. It was a lot of driving time, and also a lot of miles on the car. It was important to find a car company that allowed unlimited miles. Some companies charged you after going over a certain amount of miles, which would have turned out to be an even bigger bill when I returned the car. So save yourself the extra bill and make sure your rental car has unlimited miles on it.
Look at Gas requirements
Most companies require you to return your rental car with a full tank of gas. They will offer to have you fill up the car at their station, but this is just another way to put some extra change in their pockets. Be sure to fill up your car before you bring it back.
The next question I would ask is, how common are gas stations between the locations you are traveling. Here in the United States, you can drive for several hours without seeing a single gas station (or sometimes a town). If you are in a snowstorm, or a hot and humid environment – the extreme weather can be life threatening. So be sure to notate how far each gas station is. When I go on road trips, I always make sure to have a quarter tank of gas as my emergency gas supply – that way, it gives me a few hours to find the nearest gas station.
Do They Require a Credit Card or a Deposit?
When I first went to rent a car on my own, it was such an exhilarating feeling— I felt I was finally an ADULT! They asked for a Credit Card, and I proudly told them I did not own one but had a Debit Card. With the straight (I call it a Bitch Lady) face, she told me there would need to be a temporary $400 with drawl from my account. WTH! Being young and dumb at the time, I quickly realized this would leave me with very little spending money or food money on my vacation. Luckily my friend was with me and had a credit card she put on file and no deposit was required.
Even though they didn’t charge her for the rental car, I felt completely mortified that I had to rely on someone else for this simple thing. So to all those rental car newbies, this is your fair warning.
What are the extra fees they tack on?
The extra fees they tack onto the car rental can be quite absurd. They can charge you for extra mileage, a tank that isn’t quite full, picking up and dropping off at different locations. There are even extra fees for picking up your car at the airport vs within the town.
The initial price of your car rental may beat the competitors, but they will make up for it when you go to pick up your vehicle at their desk. This is why I like to call the company and ask them, or email them and have them state what the fees I should expect to see on my bill upon check out. Then I can print out what they said, and show it to the desk if they try to charge me for something that was not mentioned beforehand.
The fact is, they are able to get you with those hidden fees when your standing at their desk, in a foreign country or state – all other cars are rented/leased and you have no choice but to proceed with your rental car.
If you do want to take the risk with the seemingly cheaper options, a good rule of thumb is to add about $300 to any rental car fee. This will cover any additional fees or deposits that they require.
Shop Around For Rental Car Insurance
Not all healthcare is created equal, and neither are rental car insurances. Getting the insurance from the rental car company might seem like a good, and convenient option at the time – but it is likely going to cost you your life savings. When we rented a car in Scotland, they tacked on another $400 to our bill for insurance purposes. The thing is, I got home, called my insurance company at home and they covered rental car insurance internationally….. this was very frustrating for me.
I also found out later, that because so many rental car companies require a credit card; the credit card companies have started offering rental car insurance as well.
Take a video or photo of any Damage on the car prior to leaving the Rental Company
This is imperative, because I have heard horror stories of rental companies claiming damage to the car that present before it left the lot and my friends were stuck with the bill. My suggestion would be to take a video, or photo of the person who checked you out; along with any photo/video or damages present inside or outside the car.
Take a photo of the miles driven before and after, and ensure the correct mileage is written down before leaving the lot. That way they can’t tell you that you drove more miles that you actually drove, and will avoid the extra fee.
What Are the Restrictions For the Car?
It is a good rule of thumb to not go off roading with your rental car, unless it explicitly says you are allowed to do so. If you are in Hawaii on the Road to Hana and a portion of the road is not paved – you go a little too far over the edge and the car slides off the road. What about wanting to have a beach party, or drive onto a grassy area because there is no parking. Your car gets stuck, an axle breaks or any other number of horrible situations – most car rental insurances will not cover any damage to the vehicles in these particular situations.
Be careful where you drive your car, and take a careful look at your itinerary and what the rental insurance covers. There is nothing worse than having to pay out of pocket, especially in foreign currency for damages to a car.
Can you cross the border with their rental car?
If you are planning a road trip across Europe, and want to go to more of the off the beaten path places – is the car rental company able to accept the car in a different country? The answer I have typically encountered is a resounding no.
While there are buses, trains, and other quick transit for your backpacking needs through Europe – some countries do not have as reliable of transporation. So be sure to know the rules when crossing borders. A cheaper option might be to hire a guide, like I did in Morocco – where we were able to go to places the large buses just can’t go- and take his car off road.
Will it fit you and your luggage?
While the compact cars are fabulous on the budget, the car you rent may not be the best one for you and your luggage – especially in Europe. So make sure you know exactly what type of car your will be driving, and if it will fit your required luggage.
Bring your own extras
While it is convinvient to just utilize what the Rental company has as far as the ‘extras’ there are a few other things I would suggest bringing with you. Firstly bring your own music. There is only so far you can travel away from a large city until you lose music. Most cars are equipped with usb ports, and even third world countries have radio where you can plug in some of those old school transmitters for your phone. Next, I would bring your own gps. MOST of the time your phone can be a good guide, but when I was in Scotland it was nice to have two options because sometimes you lose signal in between mountians or in the really rural communities and need the satellite gps as backup.
Even at home I forget to bring sunglasses, when your driving in a new country (or even on the ‘wrong side’ of the road) it is stressful! So bring sunglasses to protect from the deadly glare. Some friends of mine have suggested getting an electronic toll pass rental. This is not just true for the toll roads, but also having one for trams and buses – many in Europe are electronic & very easy to recharge rather than getting cash from an ATM that can have a service fee to buy multiple tickets.
Find your perfect Vacation Vehicle
Europa Car is the one that I tend to use, while it is associated with an Affiliate link – and they have some hidden fees. They really were kind to me both of the instances I rented a car from them in Scotland.
There are a lot of little tidbits in this article, but after experiencing what it is like to rent a car at home and abroad I feel these guidelines have helped keep me safe and save money.
If you have any tips on what to look for when renting a car, feel free to add them in the comment section below. Happy Travels Friends!