Dr. Linda Seward
Speech and Theatre Department
Middle Tennessee State University 37132

Study Abroad

travel questions

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Arriving and Returning
    Security Measures, Immigration & Customs - What do they see with the body imaging process for security? What's the process for immigration?  Why do I need to save receipts for what I purchase when I'm in other countries?  What is the maximum I can spend without paying additional taxes?
  • Buying Tickets  (What to do if you have to buy your own plane ticket; Where can you buy train or subway tickets?)
  • Cameras
    (What should I take?)
  • Cell phone
    (Will it work in other countries? Should I take mine?)
  • Dressing for travel
    (How to avoid setting off metal detectors? What should I wear?)
  • Electronics  (What is a plug adaptor and why do I need one?  What is a voltage adaptor and why might I need that?)
  • Jet lag
    (Why does it occur? How can I avoid it?)
  • Luggage
    (Why should I put clothes in my carry on bag?  Why do people always say "pack light"?  Why do some people recommend a large backpack vs. regular suitcases? How do I "pack light"?)
  • Money
    (ATMs, credit cards, cash -What's the best way to deal with money overseas?  Do I need an RFID protector for my credit/debit cards? What can I do with left over coins when I get ready to return home?)
  • Safety
    (What are money belts and why do I need one?  How do I know who is acting suspiciously?  What's wrong with getting drunk if it's legal to drink?)
  • Unpopular Views of the U.S.
    (Will people hate me because I'm from the U.S.?)

Arriving and Returning

1. Airport Security

 2. Arriving in another country

3. Returning home


CamerasI recommend taking:

- 2 memory cards for your digital camera, size: 512 or larger. That size will hold a large number of pictures and if you fill them up, you can have them downloaded to a CD or uploaded to your facebook account.

- two batteries - one battery can be used while the other is being charged.

- battery charger that is dual voltage and a plug converter (see section on electronics)

Should you take a video camera?: While it's nice to have videos as well as pictures, you have to ask yourself two questions:

1) Do I want to carry around extra equipment? (especially equipment that is fragile, easily stolen, lost, etc?)

2) Do you want to relax and enjoy what you see or spend your time trying to get the "right shot"?  (Actually, this can occur with cameras as well.  Don't become so carried away with camera angles that you forget to enjoy the moment.)

If you do decide to take a video camera in addition to your regular camera, then make sure you take an easy to carry protective case. [top]

Cell phone -

You must be thinking: How could I possibly live without my cell phone?!! 

While it's true that they are an integral part of our lives (for calls, texts, photos, alarms, etc), the truth is there are still a lot of problems using them internationally.  The most common problem is you might end up with HUGE phone bills (either due to calls/texts while abroad or due to roaming charges and additional taxes). Also, let's face it: you're going to be overwhelmed with all the sights and experiences you're having overseas and it's really easy to lose track of your phone.  They are great targets for thieves (in the U.S. as well as abroad) and just one more thing to keep up with.

      Thus, I highly recommend check with the program director for your Study Abroad program.  Phone situations are changing fast in some countries and the director for your program should have the most updated information for your program country.

     Possible solutions to the phone situation might include: 

1) Buy a cell phone in the country you are visiting with a card for a set number of minutes. Many countries have outlets (in Europe they are often in train stations) that sell these phones.  You can buy additional time and always save the phone for future trips.  The big plus: you won't return home with a huge bill as might occur if you use your own cell phone.

2) If your program has a computer room you can use, ask if the computers have microphones or headphones.  If the answer is yes, then consider signing up for Skype (or other facetime programs).  Signing up for Skype is free and it allows you to call another computer with skype at no cost.  As long as both computers have microphones, you can talk to each other as if you were on the phone - all for free

3) Public phones are disappearing in many countries.  But, if you talk to someone who travelled where you are going within the last year and they tell you public phones are still available, you can buy phone cards and use them at public phones or, make calls from phone centers (which often include an internet cafe). Do NOT buy phone cards in the U.S. to take overseas! Too many students have paid for cards from credible companies only to have them fail to work. And, quite frankly, since you're overseas when they fail, there is nothing you can do.

4) Use the internet for facebook updates, emails, etc.   The internet has several advantages, including:

a) You don't have to worry about time differences. (nothing like waking your parents up in the middle of the night!)

b) You can reach lots of people with one post.

c) You have a great record of what you did when you return.

d) And, most importantly, no one ends up with large phone bills!

So, ask your program director about computer accessibility for the program you are on.  Some programs have a computer room for students to use while others do not.  Internet cafes used to be quite common in many countries but, like phone booths, are starting to disappear.  If you are thinking about taking your own computer (which I highly discourage unless you will be abroad a semester or longer), do check wi-fi availability for the area you will be in.  Accessibility and dependability vary widely around the world.

Note: if you are determined to take your cell phone, do the following:
        (1) talk with your program director
about their experiences taking a cell phone;
        (2) call your phone company
to find out how to get a SIM card as well as to find out what charges you can expect to incur. You want to ask: what rates they will charge you, what roaming charges occur in the country you will visit and what taxes are usually levied in that country.
        (3) consider downloading a free app called "Viber" (or other similar program).  It works similar to Skype and needs to be downloaded by you and anyone you want to call.  Note: be sure to practice with friends/relatives before you go overseas!  [top]

Dressing for travel -

Dressing for Security:

- Wear shoes that are easy to take off because you have to remove them to pass through security. But, to help your packing, you also want to wear your bulkiest pair of shoes and pack the smaller pairs (like sandals).  If you're bulkiest pair of shoes are lace-ups, simply lace them loosely enough that you can slide in and out of your shoes when you go through security.

- Since you have to take off your shoes, it's good to wear socks so you don't have to walk on the dirty floor! Also, some people's feet get cold when they fly on long trips so it's good to have a pair on just in case.

- remove as much metal as possible. The following items have set off alarms at some airports: body piercings, metal jewelry, underwire bras, large belt buckles, metal in shoes (particularly high heels). If you set off the alarms, you may have to be "patted down" by a security employee. Each airport is different and some people have encountered problems with items on the list while others haven't. If there is anything you can do to reduce having to go through extra scrutiny, then I recommend that you do it.

- Don't wear clothing that draws attention to you. This is not the time to wear your "Legalize Marijuana" t shirt, the "I hate the President" shirt or the "Let's bomb the world" shirt. Leave the shirts with obscenities and crude gestures in your closet. Going through security is not the time to stand out from the crowd!

Dressing for Delays/cancellations: We always hope for a smooth trip with no problems, but the reality is that delays can occur for any number of reasons so wear clothing that will be comfortable if you end up sleeping on a cot or scrunched in a lobby chair.

- Wear layers. Temperatures in airports and airplanes can range from hot to cold. If you can adjust your clothing to fit the temperature (a long-sleeved shirt over a t-shirt or a jacket over a sleeveless shirt/blouse), you'll be more comfortable.

- Carry your raincoat, winter coat or light jacket. It saves room in your suitcase and can be used for added warmth if you get cold on the plane. (But don't leave it on the plane when you leave!!)

-Don't wear revealing clothing. If you get stuck somewhere and have to sleep in an airport, you don't want to nod off and end up showing more of your body than you intended.

-Don't wear shirts with rude/crude expressions.

-Women: if you will be flying for 10 or more hours, consider putting a disposable panty liner in your underwear. It will allow you to "feel refreshed" when you remove it even if you aren't quite at your final location. [top]

Electronics - There are two important issues when using anything that needs to be plugged in:

(1) Countries differ on the amount of electricity that goes through the lines to power appliances.  In the U.S. the voltage is 110 but most of the world uses 220 voltage.  This means that if your hair dryer, electric razor, battery charger, etc. is not dual voltage, and you don't use a voltage converter, your electronic equipment will be fried!!! 

          - How do you know if your appliance is dual voltage?  I have found that clerks often don't understand what "dual voltage" means so if there is no label declaring that the electrical item is dual voltage, check the range of volts it can carry.  If it can take from 110-220 volts, then it is dual voltage.  Sometimes dual voltage items require you to turn a knob/screw to adjust to the other current (see photo of hair dryer below) while other items adjust automatically.

dual voltage hair dryer

(2) In addition to different voltage currents, outlets are shaped differently around the world.  The U.S. has outlets designed for two flat prongs but other countries have different shapes (round instead of flat), different angles, or different numbers of prongs (3 instead of 2). Below is a board that shows the variety of outlet plugs from around the world.

world outlets

 Notice that the outlet under #3 above is recessed.  If you go to a country where their outlets are recessed and you are using a voltage adaptor as well as the plug adaptor, be sure to buy a plug extension so the prongs can reach the outlet holes (one of the countries where you can still encounter a recessed outlet is Italy).

Below you can see a U.S. plug next to two plugs for other countries.

electronic adaptors
 Important note: the U.K. (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) and the Republic of Ireland require a different plug adaptor than the rest of Europe.

Thus, to use an electronic item in another country, you MUST have a plug adaptor.  You MAY need a voltage converter as well.   Note: more products are available dual voltage.  If all of your electrical equipment is dual voltage, you do not need a voltage adaptor. (If the clerk doesn't know if an item is dual voltage, read the material and see if it goes from 110 - 220 voltage.  If so, it is dual voltage.)

 Note: if you will go to several cities/countries while abroad, consider taking two plug adaptors. Reason: When you move frequently, it is easy to quickly pull your electrical item from the socket and not notice that the plug adaptor is no longer attached to your appliance.  Without a plug adaptor, you won't be able to plug your aplliances in.  Since plug adaptors are small and inexpensive, it's worth having a spare.

You can buy plug adaptors and voltage converters at luggage stores, some department stores and some discount stores. Luggage stores usually have individual plug adaptors and clerks can help you pick out the one for the country you will visit while discount stores tend to sell the voltage adaptor and plugs for around the world as a set.  Note: Be sure to check the type of plug adaptor needed for each country that you might visit.

    Note: don't get taken in by more expensive sets that boast about having a strong carrying case for the converter and plugs for around the world.  Reason: unless you are literally going around the world, you will only use one style per trip! 

Jet lag - You may hear people talk about jet lag when they travel overseas and wonder what it is and what you can do to minimize it.

What is it? Maybe I shouldn't have this question because I actually think it's not related to flying - or flying a particular direction (some people claim it is worse going one way around the world than another); rather I think it is simply a function of what it takes to fly abroad.     
         Think about it: you're all excited about traveling to another country so you probably don't sleep well the night before you leave. You then have to arrive hours before your plane leaves - which means standing in lines, waiting by gates, getting bored, etc. You may have to fly from one U.S. city to another before departing for your eventual destination, which means more lines, more waiting. You then get seated in a crowded plane with virtually no leg room and you're stuck there for anywhere from 5-12 hours!!! Then you arrive and while back home it's only 2 am, you suddenly have to pretend that it's 2 p.m.!

So, are you tired? Sure you are. Do you want to go to sleep once you get settled in? Sure you do. But, the most important rule in dealing with jet lag is:

Once you arrive, DO NOT GO TO SLEEP until it's evening in the culture you just landed in.

 This can be rough, but it is crucial that you follow this rule.

How can I minimize jet lag? A friend of mine who flew to Australia talked to everyone he knew about jet lag and ended up with a list of 13 things to do to avoid jet lag. I teased him about his list and pointed out that if he didn't experience jet lag he would have no idea which of the 13 items worked! While some people do have lists of things to do or eat, the basics are these:

1) Sleep on the plane. If you think you'll find this difficult, take something that will help you sleep. Products with "PM" in the title work well. Don't drink alcohol!! You get drunk faster when drinking on a plane and you'll end up with a hang-over! (plus, it's expensive).

2) Don't try to figure out what time it is back home. Whenever the pilot announces the local time, change your watch to that time and tell yourself that it is that time. When you land, don't think: "It's only 2am back home but it's 8 am here. Boy, am I tired." If you think that, you will be tired.

3) Don't take a nap once you arrive. This is sooooo tempting - but it will only prevent you from adjusting to the time zone you are in. Once you get settled to where you are staying, take a walk; start learning the immediate area. You can go to bed earlier than your normally do but don't go to bed before about 9 pm local time - if you do, you'll find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, all refreshed and ready to go . . . . . where?!!  

Note about returning home: When you return home, you may spend several days sleeping a lot. If your study abroad course was a short one (4-5 weeks) odds are you didn't get enough rest while you were abroad.  Think about it: when faced with: "I can either:  (a) take a nap because I'm exhausted from constantly being 'on the go'and walking twice what I would at home," or,    (b) go see  world class art, shop at unusual places or see incredible theatre - gee, which would you choose?!  So, you return home, excited to see everyone, hungry for your favorite foods, talking like crazy about all that you've seen and done, then, "bam" - you're dead!  Sleeping 12 hours, up for a few hours then taking a nap -  it's all normal and part of the readjustment process.


Luggage and Packing-

Why should I put clothes in my carry-on bag?

Why do people always say "pack light"?   Why do some people recommend a large backpack vs. regular suitcases?

How do I pack light? 


Money - Your local bank can order currency from other countries for you. (I live in a town of 100,000 and it took my bank less than a week to get money for Great Britain and Turkey.) My bank charges a small flat fee for any amount that is ordered so the more you order at one time, the better.

    If you do order money in advance, you want primarily large bills so you don't end up with a huge wad. But you also want some small bills in case you want to make a small purchase while you're at the airport or when you first arrive.

    Trying to figure out how much money to take is one of the hardest parts of going abroad for a length of time. Definitely check with your program director and students who have recently been to the country you will visit. 

Luckily, we also have lots of technology that helps.

- Credit cards used to give THE best exchange rates without charging a transaction fee. This has changed, however, and many credit card companies are now charging a fee. Call your credit card company to find out their policy. If they do charge a transaction fee, ask if they will suspend it - and explain that you will use whatever card agrees to suspend the charge for converting currency. Credit card companies want you to use their card so they will often meet your requests if you just call them.

Note: you will need to call the credit card company anyway to let them know that you will be overseas (they will ask you for exact dates and a list of any countries you will visit). Otherwise, when charges suddenly come in from overseas, they may decide that your card was stolen and cancel it while you're away from home!

Note: Master Card and Visa are accepted by more businesses than American Express because American Express charges businesses a higher percentage than the other cards do.

- RFID Protectors:  Let's start with what an RFID chip is.  The Radio Frequency Identification chip carries the same information that is on the magnetic strip of your credit card - with this important difference: someone with the right equipment can obtain your information without touching the card or you.  In fact, they can be up to about 20 feet away.  This has been great for thieves and spawned an industry of RFID Protectors. BUT, before you panic or buy a protector for your credit/debit cards find out IF your card has the technology!  The reality is that many of us are carrying credit/debit cards that don't have the chip.  If you call your company and find out that you do have an RFID chip, you can buy protectors at luggage stores.  

passports that have an RFID chip were sent with a protective sleeve.  If you were sent a passport with the sleeve, use the sleeve!

ATM machines are found in many parts of the world - but check with your program director to find out the conditions in the country(ies) you will visit. I've had no problem in Europe, for example, but when I visited Japan in 1997, ATMs did not always work.  Also, find out what your bank will charge for using an ATM overseas.  Until the end of summer 2007, my bank did not charge to use an ATM overseas.  Now it charges $5 per transaction.  Note: here's the drawback to ATMs: you don't know what exchange rate they have given you nor do you know what charges you have been assessed. So, for example, if you withdraw 50 euros, you don't know what is charged to your bank. Which leads me to my next recommendation:

- Be sure to set up your accounts for internet banking. With internet banking you can quickly find out what you are charged when you use an ATM machine.

- Important tip!  Take a debit card that cannot be used as a credit card. This card can be used at ATMs to withdraw money but cannot be used as a credit card.  This means that it will always require a pin number to be used.  If it is stolen, someone cannot empty your checking account. (and, yes, I realize the bank will not hold you responsible for all the charges that someone else makes, but it will take them awhile to get everything straightened out - and while they're working on it, you have no money!!) I recommend taking a debit card and a separate credit card.

-Before you leave home: Put a $20 bill in your money belt for the trip home. When you fly home you may end up having a lay-over at an airport and you'll need American money  for food or something to drink. 

-As you prepare to return: what to do with left over coins?  While you can trade in your foreign currency for U.S. money, banks and change lenders won’t take coins. (One exception: in 2010 a friend was able to exchange 1 and 2 euro coins – which equal dollars – at the JFK airport; Irish banks, however, would not give her U.S. money for the coins.) In general, coins are a great gift for young nephews and nieces, useful for last minute purchases at the airport or to bring back and convert to jewelry.  But, if you’ve got a lot of coins, try this neat trick: go to a Starbucks and buy a Starbucks card.  You may even be able to buy one with a design and/or name of the country on it.  Once the card has the money on it, you can use it back in the U.S.!  You will still pay a conversion fee, but at least the money isn’t a total loss.


Safety In many ways, this is the hardest section to write. My purpose is not to scare you, yet, I do want you to be careful when you travel! On the one hand, lots of people travel abroad, don’t play it safe and they’re fine. On the other hand, others end up being robbed or attacked. This can happen at home, too; the reason we talk about these things when you go overseas is because you are overseas – far from home, perhaps in a country where people speak a different language and the rules are different from what you’re used to. So, this is intended to help you become one of the happy travelers – someone who doesn’t have a negative experience – by letting you know what can happen if you’re not alert.

(As a card my mother once sent me said: Be alert . . . . . . . the world needs more Lerts!!)

    Having items lost or stolen is always a hassle; having them lost or stolen when you're overseas is a hassle times 100! Some cities and parts of the world have more theft than others, but as a tourist you are always a target. Consider this: one of President Bush's daughters had her purse stolen while eating at a popular tourist restaurant in Argentina and she had secret service agents with her! (albeit not at the same table)

There are two aspects to safety: keeping your valuables safe and keeping yourself safe.

 1. Money Belts and Valuables:

         2. Personal Safety


Unpopular Views of the U.S. - It is true that the U.S. government is not popular in many places around the world due to a variety of actions it has - or has not - taken (from the Iraq war to refusing to sign a wide range of treaties that would do everything from help the environment to ban landmines).

(In a 2003 poll, Europeans were asked to rate which countries were a threat to world peace.  Israel was rated highest and then came the U.S. - in a 3-way tie with Iran and North Korea!

    This raises the question: will people mistreat you because you're from the U.S.?

    Luckily, people do distinguish between the actions of our government and the people. In part, however, the answer will rely upon how you behave. So far I've been to 19 countries over a span of 30 years and in all of my travels around the world, I have never personally been mistreated because I was from the U.S.  But I have encountered Americans who were dismissed or not helped - even by people who were helpful to me. What makes the difference? Here are some things to keep in mind:

- When possible, speak the language of the country you are in. Even if you can only say "hello" and "thank you," this will make a huge difference. Ask if they speak English, rather than assume that they speak English. Always thank people for their help. (If you feel awkward about trying to speak another language, use a phrase book. You can point to sentences if you feel your pronunciation is not accurate.)

-Pay attention to how natives act. Do they greet store owners of small shops when they enter the shop - or do they remain quiet? Do people place money in a clerk's hand or on the counter when buying an item? Do people smile at each other as they walk down the street (most people in the world don't)? Do people make direct eye contact as they walk down the street (most people in the world don't)? etc.

- Don't wear American flag clothing or "USA is #1" clothing. This "in your face" attitude does not endear you to other people.  Furthermore, it makes you a target for an obnoxious drunk or if public demonstrations occur.

- Respect their clothing rules. If they want you to wear sleeves or long pants in a church, then do so. It's their church! If they don't wear shorts, don't wear shorts. You already stick out as a tourist; no sense in sticking out even more.

(Note: you may find some cultures conservative, but turn it around: how would you react if women were topless at the beach? Before you get all excited – what if the women were senior citizens- maybe even your grandmother! Now you're not so excited, are you?  Yet in France, the first topless women I saw were at least in their 70s.  For the French, nudity is about being natural, not sexual.)

 Women: you may think you're showing your sexual independence by dressing in skimpy clothing but if you are in a country where women dress conservatively and cover their body more than we do, then you should be aware of that and dress accordingly.

One year we had a problem with a student who insisted on wearing outfits that were sexually inviting - and then constantly complained about men approaching her and treating her in a sexual manner!   You may disagree with their interpretation of what is modest, but you're a guest in their country.

- Everyone in the world is proud of where they are from. It’s our home. It may not be perfect but we love it. But, like our family, we have a rule: I can criticize my family but YOU can’t criticize my family. It works the same for countries. This means that if you are not willing to listen - really listen - to people who have a different perspective than you, don't bring up politics or American policies. If you want to know what they think of the U.S. and our policies, you can read newspapers and news magazines (even if you are not fluent in the language, major cities publish English versions of the news). Then if you get mad at their views, you can just crumple the paper!!

- Along the same lines as the item above: don't criticize the country you are visiting when natives can hear you. We don't like people coming to the U.S. and criticizing us, so why would you think they like to hear you criticize them? Save complaints for private conversations or entries in your travel diary.  (Besides, all those hassles, odd customs and strange foods will make your best stories when you return home.)

- When you encounter differences that don't make sense to you ("Why do they do X?"), instead of complaining about it, why not try to find out why they do what they do? For example, on my first trip to London, it was filled with litter. No trash cans could be found in public. It would have been easy to conclude that the English didn’t care about litter but the reality was quite different: trash cans were removed in England years ago after the IRA (Irish Republican Army) started placing bombs in them. Thus, the lack of trash cans was a security measure. (And, by the way, peace treaties have been signed with the IRA and bombings are no longer an issue with that group.)

Visiting another culture can be one of the most life-altering experiences you have - but you need to enter the experience with a flexible attitude about how things are done and a sense of humor.  In fact, those two "items" are the most important things to take with you.

The anthropologist, Edward Hall, has noted that "the great gift that the members of the human race have for each other is not exotic experiences but an opportunity to achieve awareness of the structure of their own system, which can be accomplished only by interacting with others who do not share that system." (Beyond Culture, p. 44) Thus, when you complete your study abroad experience you will return not only with a better understanding of the culture you visited, but also a better understanding of yourself and your own culture. [top]