Travel Hacks for Long International Trips

International flights are nothing at all like domestic flights. Boy, I learned this the hard way.

I considered myself well-traveled until very recently, when I had my ego handed to me on an international flight from America to Cairo. As I suffered through my awkward and somewhat painful learning curve, I wished silently I done some better research.

Heed the universal advice that I ignored, and heed the advice I am including for you below, because there are some truly effortless things you can do to save yourself a good amount of traveling heartache.

Get up and walk around on your long flights. Ankle and leg swelling are the very painful side effects of staying in your middle seat for the entire 12-hour flight, so as not to disturb your neighbor sitting in the aisle.  Get up! and save yourself an additional two weeks of pain and discomfort. Cankles are not sexy, and I definitely worried that I would never get rid of mine. My face is still a little bit swollen, a month later! 

Drink as much water as you can tolerate. Never stop drinking water.

Can you see the many ways this could end up badly for you?

Put your passport, driver’s license, visa papers and other very important documentation in a zippered bag, like a pencil bag. Then, make sure every time you need to present one of them, that zippered bag is retrieved from another zippered, but easily reachable location, like a backpack that you are wearing on your front, or maybe a fanny pack or other accessory that will keep your papers both secure and easy to reach. Quit worrying about what it looks like and worry more about having them stolen out of your backpack while standing in line (if you wear your backpack the correct way), worry about that zippered pouch falling out of the top of an opened purse or bag (this happened to my friend, and her “everything” was left behind on the floor somewhere in the Cairo Airport), and worry about how increasingly likely it will be for you to lose something if you are fishing for three different things all from different pockets, purses and bags while passing through lines.

Don’t bring heavy or awkward carry-ons. Many international airlines direct passengers to walk long distances out onto tarmacs and out to their connecting flights, where they must then climb a daunting, steep flight of steps. There should be no assumption that there will be a valet bag check at the door. I lugged an extremely heavy carry-on, plus a backpack, plus my purse and a pillow onto and off of two connecting flights in this way, in high heels. There were no air-conditioned tunnels or bridges onto these planes. When I finally fell into my seat aboard the plane, I felt like I’d been in an Iron Man competition. 

Two Bloody Marys was two drinks too many. Ask for water instead, trust me. My face was already blowing up, only halfway through the flight.

 Drinks are free on international flights (at least with Turkish Airlines they are) so my new friend Faye from Iran convinced me to enjoy a Bloody Mary with her. Two, in fact. So I managed to get myself a little drunk, which made me feel physically ill as my body also struggled with the altitude, my ankle and leg swelling, cabin pressure, and extremely crowded spaces. Save yourself a crippling headache and don’t drink anything but water. 

When you are booking your international flights, long layovers seem like a grueling waste of time, right? And you’re excited and you’re ready to get there and all that…I get it. Wrong. I had a two hour layover in the Istanbul Airport and it was not nearly enough. Disembarking from my Houston flight in one concourse and unable to read the mural-sized Arrival and Departure monitors, I walked (in heels) to the wrong concourse and gate. I discovered my mistake, 20 minutes later, and then had another 30 minute walk (with all of my heavy stuff) to another international concourse in Istanbul’s vast and confusing beehive of an airport. I barely made it. A four-, five-, or six-hour layover would have been MUCH, MUCH better, and in the future I will always allow this extra time. It’s infinitely less stressful not to have to hurry.

An hour after I first arrive in Cairo, August 26, 2018

Bring a good deal of change. American currency is highly sought after and tipping in dollars and change will get you many smiles and extra friendliness. What you don’t want to be doing is handing out five dollar bills or asking for change in American currency. There won’t be any. It would have been a great idea, looking back, for me to carry $20 in ones for just this reason. $40 in ones would even get you through the first few weeks of settling in, or quite a few Uber rides or nice dinners out.

Learn one very important word in the native language: thank you. You will say it a million times, and it shows good diplomacy to extend gratitude in their language instead of assuming they know it in ours. They do, and they may speak English back to you, but it still shows you have good manners.  

Finally, roll with it. Don’t let any of the tiny differences in language, culture, or perception dull your excitement or your willingness to learn something with a new set of eyes. The most important rule of traveling is to enjoy the ride. 

About Dawn Quarles

Dawn Quarles is a high school political science and American history teacher who moonlights as a blogger and writer. She lives on Pensacola Beach, Florida.

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