Tips for Traveling Abroad the First Time

So here you go!  Off on your first adventure abroad (gosh I remember mine like  yesterday) or maybe your first one in a long time.  But either way you are about to embark on a fabulous adventure.  And you are so excited!  Except for those few unknown things that just might be causing a bit of anxiety.  I remember those days and how I was so worried something would go wrong.  And some of them did go sideways!  But I have survived to tell the tale and hopefully share a few “first timer” tricks I have learned along the way.  Now these items are just part of my travel prep checklist and don’t steal any of my pre-trip zzzz’s.

arrowForeign Currency

My friend Ali is about to embark on her first trip abroad and her #1 stress is making sure she has access to money.  And for good reason, no one wants to spend part of their vacation hunting for a Western Union after a desperate phone call back home for funds.  So to help prevent being stranded without access to money:

arrowCredit & Debit Cards – Take more than one card so that if you do run into problems with any of your cards you have a back-up.  But there are a few tips to help prevent those problems:

  • Call your card providers before traveling abroad to inform them of your plans.  This will help prevent your transactions from being denied, flagged for fraud, or deactivated mid-trip.  With fraudulent activity on the rise financial institutions are constantly (and thankfully) on guard for flagging what appears to be fraudulent transactions.  But this also means they may shut down your card as a precaution especially if they are unaware of your travel plans.
  • Be sure to ask about all fees related to foreign transactions on your cards. Some cards can still have really steep fees when it comes to foreign transactions and you don’t want the unpleasant surprise once you are back home of unexpected and excessive fees.

Tip: Some cards are definitely more foreign fee friendly than others so if you are going to travel abroad regularly it might be worth checking into some other card options.

arrowCash & ATMs – While many places in the world (even some unexpectedly remote ones) accept credit or debit transactions there is always the chance of running into cash only situations or very limited access to ATMs.    

Bringing at least a bit of starter cash.  You have a few options for accessing foreign currency:

  • Visit your bank ahead of time to get cash in the foreign currency.  If you are going to a more remote location this might be the safest bet. .
  • Bring cash that you can convert at a Currency Exchange which are very easy to find in all major airports and cities.

ATM usage – not all cards can be used at an ATM and some have exorbitant fees if you do use them.  So make sure that you understand which cards can be used at an ATM and  the fees related to withdrawing cash vs just using it as a credit card.  

Even with as much as I travel and even though I notify my credit card companies in advance, I have had cards deactivated mid-trip.  This could have created panic except that I did have a reliable fallback card and access to some local currently.

Tip from reader Jenn BBI’d add to your credit card tips that once you’ve identified your Foreign transaction free card and notified your issuer of your travel plans never let a merchant convert the currency for you – let your card issuer do it! We were asked almost every transaction in Ireland which currency we wanted to use and hands down it was better to let them run it in Euros and let the bank do the fee conversion free.

arrowForeign Language 

Language is a barrier that can be very intimidating when traveling, but this definitely should not stop you!  If you really take the time to listen to people speaking in their native language it is beautiful and charming and one of the best things about traveling.  One of the most courteous things you can do when traveling abroad is to learn the basics of the native language.  

When traveling abroad Anglophones are pretty fortunate that in larger cities many people speak at least some English.  But do not take that for granted as in some more remote areas this may not be the case.  Plus your host country will appreciate the effort you put into learning some of their language.  A few apps that make learning the basics both easy and fun are:   

  • DuoLingo
  • Mosa Lingua
  • Tiny Cards

I also love that these apps make finding the time to take a lesson easy.  Only have 5 minutes, no problem!

In addition, make sure that you have a translation app, such as Google Translate, downloaded for those instances when you do need some help.  At least I know that I always want to know what I am ordering off of the menu or exactly how the metro works before hopping on!    

arrowPacking

Packing is one of the most dreaded parts of any trip and because of this 99.9999% of us over pack (guilty!).  But lugging around a huge suitcase can actually complicate your trip and make it more overwhelming than it needs to be (voice of experience).  This is really an area where the golden rule of “less is more” really does apply.  

Tip: Before you even start packing ditch the idea that you need a “new and fresh” set of clothes for each day.  It just simply is not true.

arrowClothes: Should mix and match and each piece used in a minimum of 2 outfits.

arrowShoes: take up way too much space so pack only 1-3 pairs.  And comfort is the most important feature of most vacation shoes.  It’s hard to spend a day exploring when your feel are screaming for mercy.  

arrowToiletries/Cosmetics: Simplify your routine as much as possible so that you are not lugging your whole bathroom with you.

arrowPlug-ins:  If you are bringing along items such as hair dryers, computers, phone chargers definitely make sure you check the electric voltage and pack the necessary converters.

One of the best pieces of advice given to me and I still recall when I am in a packing frenzy is don’t sweat it because if you forget it you can just buy it there.  The only thing you absolutely must have is yourself and your passport everything else is generally available at your destination.  Think of it as a perfect reason buy another super cool as a souvenir.  I love saying..”Oh these shoes?  I just grabbed them at a boutique in Paris..”!

For a more in-depth packing tips & tricks on each of these items, check out this earlier post.  

arrowAvoiding Jet Lag 

It’s real and if you are traveling more than a few hours in time zone differences you need to be prepared.  When doing an international trip to a vastly different timezone (4+ hours) sleep habits can definitely put a kink in your plans.  Heading out on a new adventure is so exciting and it can be hard to imagine falling asleep on the plane, but as much as possible use your plane time to adapt your internal clock.  

For example, most trips to Europe from North America are overnight flights that last 6 plus hours.  By sleeping on the plane (even staying awake for the airline meals is definitely not worth it) you will wake up in the morning hours of your destination and it will be easier for your body clock will be able to adapt to the new timey.  This will let you maximize your time exploring your new destination and prevent sleeping in until noon wasting half of your day.   

Tip: Pack a sleeping mask and ear plugs in your carry on bag make it feel cozy (or as cozy as possible when sleeping with 199 of your closest strangers).  

Tip: Once you arrive at your destination as tired as you may be try not to take a nap or go to sleep the first night before 9:00 pm local time to help keep your body in the correct timezone on day 2, 3….

arrowCell Phones & WiFi  

Although in my younger career days I was known to run around frantically looking for a cell phone signal, I am going to bet (or at least hope) that on vacation most are looking for a much needed break from having our noses glued to our phone.  On the other hand it is nice to still have access for staying connected to family, getting directions, or researching your next adventure.  While not so long ago this was quite difficult and expensive, now it is often easy and affordable to maintain connectivity with a bit of planning.    

arrowCell Phone Plans

  • Short term trips – Most major cell phone companies have very reasonable travel access or passes.  Just make sure you contact your provider to find out your options and pricing and select an option before leaving.
  • Long  term trips – When we are gone for more than a few weeks we often find the local cell provider and purchase SIM cards with set amounts of data.  For some people this might be a lot because it changes your phone number, but it can definitely be worth it for longer trips. 

Tip: Recommend that you buy your SIM card for a large local company and not one of the small options you see in the airport or on the street to ensure you get the proper support and installation of the SIM card.

Tip: For Canadian’s international or travel passes are notoriously expensive from Canadian providers so we have found that it is cheaper for my hubby (who has a Canadian plan) to buy a SIM card.  Since I have a US plan I have a bit more flexibility in choosing the best option than he does.

Tip: If you are planning to get a SIM card at your destination make sure that your phone is unlocked.  

arrowWiFi – Make sure you read about the level of connectivity for your destination, but so many places now have WiFi access.  In addition to public WiFi many shops and restaurants can have WiFi available for their customers.

arrowInstant Messengers – Make sure you have instant messengers installed that only require WiFi to communicate in case texting is not an option or you need to control your data.  Options such as i Messaging, Facebook Messenger, and Skype will work just fine.  

Tip: In Europe What’s App is wildly popular.  So if you are headed to Europe any local people (such as AirBnB hosts) will want to communicate on What’s App so worth downloading before you go.

arrowOther Tips

arrowInternational Drivers License – If you are planning to rent a car to get around make sure you check the requirements as many countries require an International Drivers License.  These are relatively easy to get and do not require a test, but do require a properly formatting photo.

Tip: In Canada you can get your International Drivers License at a CAA location and a bonus is that they are also equipped to take your pic in the proper format.  Plus you get your license on the spot!    

arrowReader Tip from Kim S: I find it handy to print addresses in which I need to know to show cab drivers, this is critical in non English speaking countries! Imagine ending up on the wrong side of Tokyo because you can’t pronounce the address correctly!

Tip from reader Philippe P: Another idea is to screen shot the addresses so they are available on your phone.

There you go!  The top items people ask me about when they are traveling abroad the first time.  But absolutely none of them should cause any anxiety if you take a few minutes to plan and prepare in advance of your trip so you can spend your energy on maximizing your adventure!  

bon voyage

P.S. If you have any other things that create stress for you when traveling abroad and how you handle them, would love it if you shared with me so I can update the list!

Siblings Tour Eiffel
My first trip abroad in 2009 began my love affair with Paris. What you don’t see in this pic are my bloody and bandaged feet, massive suitcase I had to haul around on the trains, and the stress of coordinating communications with myself and my siblings. #wishIknewthenwhatIknownow

Eastern Townships (Cantons de l’est), Quebec

Ready for a break from the hustle and bustle of the city and a nice chill weekend in the mountains?  If that is a yes, I know your next destination…to come visit me in the Eastern Townships in Quebec!  Seriously, you can feel your stress level dropping by at least 12 notches here.  This collection of adorable villages is situated between Montreal and Quebec City making it a perfect stop in any Quebec adventure.    

So if you have not guessed this is my home base and I am just in love with it (except in late winter when it is time for the snow and cold weather to just go away).  I will confess that despite growing up in a small town, I was not certain how I would re-adapt to small town life after city living and globe trotting.  Well turns out I kind of won in the “best places” to live lottery.  Plus there is so much to do that after 2 years of living here I will have a long “to do” list.

I tried to keep it brief but there is so much to do here, this post ended up being a bit longer than usual but hopefully the links will help you move around easily to the things you are most interested in.

Villages

The good news is that these villages are so close to each other they are drive-able as a day or semi-day trip from wherever you decide to make your home base for this excursion.

  • Sutton – Pick from plenty of outdoor activities such as  hiking, road biking, and skiing.  After you are done with the physical exertion, there are also many great restaurants, coffee shops, and local boutiques to explore.  And as one of the stops along the Quebec Route des Vins you should definitely explore the close-by wineries.  One of my personal favorites on the route is Vignoble Domaine Bresee and if you are going at lunch take a picnic to enjoy with a bottle of their wine!  Sutton also has plenty of unique adventures including Au Diable Vert which also has the Velovolant.
  • Bromont – Only 45 minutes outside of Montreal Bromont is a hotspot for outdoor adventures.  With an excellent mountain biking trail system that is continually expanding for the summer months and Ski Bromont which is one of the largest (possibly the largest) illuminated alpine ski centers in North America.  And no matter which season you are visiting in you can relax those sore muscles at the Balnea Spa followed by a beer at a local microbreweries and then dinner at one of the many local restaurants.  Two of my favorites are Le Macpherson for a unique volcano cooking stone experience or Le David et Goliath for an affordable and delicious table d’hote menu.
  • Orford – My personal favorite of the eastern township villages (my Canadian hometown!) this is one of the smaller villages but with easy access to the outdoor adventures.  Alpine ski at Mont Orford or if you prefer not to plummet downhill at the speed of a human rocket (like me!) you can opt for Mont Orford National Park which is one of the largest XC and CC ski centers in Quebec.  And depending on the season there are plenty of outdoor activities to choose from including camping, snowshoeing, hiking, kayaking, canoeing…well pretty much close to everything you can do outdoors in a park.  Check out the restaurants in the petit village or Magog is a short 5 – 10 minutes drive for an expansive selection of restaurants and shops.  Not to be missed is the Espace 4 Saisons which is a super cool place to stay, but there are also a lot of AirBnB ski chalet’s in this area which is absolutely perfect for a ski resort area!  
  • Magog – Situated on Lake Memphremagog is a bustling little village with so much to do!  In the summer there are plenty of water activities on this gorgeous lake and a perfect little downtown chock-full of adorable restaurants and boutiques.  Dine along the river or have a glass of wine on the lake shore while watching the sunset.  The Orford Express departs from here, choose from an array of lake cruises, or you can relax at the Spa Nordic Station.  And if you look closely you might just get a glimpse of the fabled and absolutely adorable lake monster, Memphre (I am still on the lookout for her).  Also easily accessible from Magog is the St Benoit Abbey du Lac.  Since I live right in this township I do have some restaurant recommendations for you:
    • Fondissimo – fondue restaurant that you can bring your own wine!  While it is casual it is very popular so reservations are definitely recommended (but not required, if they have a table they will give it to you)
    • Microbrasserie La Memphre – Our favorite place for grabbing some yummy Quebec style pub food and their beer is really good too!  I almost always get the flight because I can never pick just one…
    • Les Enfants Terribles – Our favorite thing about this place is the rooftop terrace in the summer with a fabulous view overlooking Lake Memphremagog
  • North Hatley – one of the smaller villages in Eastern Townships this is also one of the prettiest!  This village is on our regular cycling routes as we love to get their just in time for lunch from Saveurs Et Gourmandises Boulangerie and eat in the little park that borders the lake.  This place is absolutely one of the most picturesque and definitely worth at least spending part of a day and having a drink at one of the several restaurants on the river or lake and exploring the local boutiques.

Things You Probably Should Not Miss (#Bucketlist)

  • Forest LuminaParc de la Gorge de Coaticook comes alive at night with a really unique and super cool multimedia light show.  Enter this magical other-world by venturing across the swinging bridge and pulling away the mystical veil for a peek into the magical and supernatural world that runs parallel to our world.  This adventure just might explain a few of those “what was that ?!?!?” experiences you may have had in the woods.  We had so much fun that we went back to see it again! 
  • Route des Vins – So wine is not probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think about visiting Quebec.  But definitely give it a second thought!  While Quebec is mostly known for the sweeter dessert types such as Ice Wine, Late Harvest, and Cider (which are a yummy treat) white wines are also quite good and recently I have found some really good red wines!  

Plus just imagine visiting during the fall harvest season, and zipping along the route with windows open or on a bike, leaves turning brilliant fall colors, and having a bottle of wine and a picnic at any of the fantastic outdoor spaces that many of the wineries offer.  Truly a perfect day.  This awesome website will help you plan the perfect trip.   

  • Orford Express (Magog) – A leisurely train ride that takes you through several of the villages traveling along Lake Memphremagog, over several rivers and bridges is the perfect way to spend some time on the weekend.  We opted for the brunch ride and not only was the food amazingly good the atmosphere was topped off with a live jazz singer after brunch was finished.  Sipping bubbly, listening to jazz, and enjoying the gorgeous scenery from a luxury train car is a truly relaxing way to see several spots in eastern Quebec.
  • Nordic Spas – After a day filled with any of the myriad of outdoor adventures you must finish off the day by relaxing tired muscles at one of the Nordic Spas that are sprinkled around.  Not only are they super relaxing with the outdoor ambience of Canada, your tired muscles will feel like they are floating on clouds.  These spas are perfect any time of the year and don’t miss out on the cold bath (even in winter) as part of the routine!  Those of us from warmer temps tend to want to skip it, but truly it’s a must.
  • Sugar Shacks – If you are visiting Quebec in the late winter/early spring it is a must to have an authentic sugar shack on your list.  After a few years of living in Quebec I finally visited an authentic sugar shack with my hubby and sister!  I love maple syrup so a whole meal smothered in freshly made maple syrup is…well…amazing ! Choose your sugar shack carefully because there are lots of options out there that are more commercial in nature, but I prefer a smaller more authentic experience and those are smattered throughout the Eastern Townships.

If you are in the Magog/Orford area I can definitely recommend Erabliere Chic Rustique. This is the only sugar shack that I have visited myself but between a horse-drawn carriage ride to the shack, the small rustic shack, and hike in the woods after to see the trees “at work” I cannot imagine there is a better experience.  Plus it was BYOB so don’t forget to pack your favorite adult beverage that matches well with maple syrup!

  • St Benoit Abbey du Lac – A working monastery the abbey is absolutely breathtaking.  If you love touring the old churches of Europe you will not want to miss this.  Or if you have not had the opportunity to visit European churches yet you should not miss this so you can get a taste of how extraordinary they are!  Attend a gregorian chant service, purchase products made onsite by the monks such as cheeses, apple ciders, and jellies (and I can attest that they are fantastic), take a hike on the grounds, or pick apples in the fall.  
  • Things still on my to-do list
    • Lake Memphremagog Cruises – I really want to check out the scenery from a boat so my next victim (I mean visitor) to come to Quebec will get to be the lucky one to experience this with me!  With plenty of options including pirogue boats, pedal boats (if you have a desire to captain your own boat and stay closer to shore), pontoon boats, brunch cruises, dinner cruises.  Some of them even let you bring your own picnic lunches so you can definitely design your own experience.  And if you are lucky maybe spot Memphre the lake monster!
    • Velovolant (Canopy Cycling) – Bicycling in the treetops from a suspended bike…why, yes I would love to!  This is one of the newest activities in the area and I absolutely cannot wait to try it out!  If you do before me let me know what you think!

Experience Stays

If you are an outdoor or camping enthusiast, the Eastern Townships have several experience stays you really should consider.  We have done all that are recommended here and I can tell you there is no better way to disconnect that going offline for a day or two and picking any of these unique options!

  • Au Diable Vert (Sutton) – Sleeping in a tree house but for adults is such a fun alternative to a typical overnight stay.  We loved it so much we had to go back a second time!  It is a camping experience so you will need to make sure you bring your supplies for sleeping and cooking (unless you opt to go into town for your meals).  We cooked our meals around an open camp fire next to a field full of the cutest cows who are quite friendly.  

Tip: You will need to carry your supplies to your tree house and while wheelbarrows are provided it can be a bit of a hike so make sure you prepared for this and don’t over-pack.

  • Canoe Camping – So forget drive-up camping…how about going up the adventure experience a few notches and try paddle-in camping!  There are many outdoor activities to experience at Parc National de la Mauricie but one of the most unique is their secluded canoe camping.  So test your partner communication skills, wildlife survival skills and paddle your way into an unforgettable experience. During the day you can hike, canoe, and road bike.

Tip: You will be paddling your camping supplies in the canoe with you so don’t pack the house…just what you really need.

Tip: You are in a wildlife area so make sure that you read the advice and instruction they provide at the park station because it is important that you keep yourself and your fellow campers safe.  We have never had an encounter with a wild animal but we do follow the rules very carefully.  

  • Yurt – Another fantastic trip we had was when we rented a yurt for the weekend.  There are plenty to pick from in Quebec and since you are in a national or provincial parc there are likely plenty of day time outdoor activities.  We had a great time mountain biking and canoeing down the river when we stayed at Vallée Bras du Nord.  We had so much fun that it is on our list for a return trip!

So if all that roughing it in the outdoors has you ready for some pampering and luxury you are covered there too!  Or if you want to skip the outdoor experiences and just go straight for luxury (really I don’t blame you) totally go for it!  

  • Hovey Manor – Recently named #27 in the “Top 100 Hotels in the World” by Travel + Leisure Magazine and as one of two luxury hotels in the area Hovey Manor is a perfect splurge.  It is our go-to when we need a close weekend getaway and we have celebrated a few New Year’s Eve’s here and I can tell you that they never fail to disappoint on experience.    
  • Ripple Cove Manor – The second 5-star hotel in the area Ripple Cove is just as enchanting.  While we have not stayed here we did host our wedding reception here and it could not have been any more perfect.

Of course there are plenty of other options in the area as well including unique AirBnB’s and plenty of adorable B&B’s to choose from.

Outdoor Activities

  • Camping – There are a ton of camping experiences for all types of campers from tents to RV’s to Cabins to Yurt’s to Tree Houses (yup..pretty much everything).  Likely if it is a camping accommodation the Eastern Townships has it.  Simply pick your level of “roughing it” and then choose a location to serve as your homebase while you explore the area.
  • Hiking – So we are in the mountains which means there are plenty of trails and experiences to pick from!  This awesome trail finder will match you to your dream hike!  Pick your length, level of difficulty, location, and even some cool things such as pet/stroller/wheelchair friendly.  Think of this like your dating app…it find the perfect trail-mate for you!
  • Road Biking – Eastern Quebec is considered a biking destination for road cyclists.  In fact,  I learned to road bike in Quebec and that is partly because it is so incredibly bike friendly that I rarely feel intimidated by cars.  Most roads have plenty of shoulder space for peaceful co-existence of bikes and cars.  In addition they have a lot of public messaging encouraging a “share-the-road” mentality and in general I find the cars to be very courteous (probably because many people in cars are also cyclists).  Much is built into the tourism infrastructure of Quebec to accommodate cyclists:
    • Bike Taxi’s – To return you to your home base if you have gone just a bit too far
    • Accommodations – An established “Bienvenue Cyclists” designation will identify accommodations that can also safely house your bikes and gear when you are not in the saddle.
    • Cycling Maps/Routes – From the wine route, getting from village to village, multitudes of distance to choose from they have thought of it all!
  • Mountain Biking – So one thing I have learned is that many Quebecois are die-hard mountain bikers so there are several trail systems to keep you on your toes and probably teach you a few new tricks!  As a mountain biker’s destination trip trails and bike parks being built regularly.  And if you didn’t travel with your bike most towns have a local bike shop that can help you out with a rental.  Check out these links for more information on various trail systems:
  • Skiing: Canada + Winter + Mountains = Ski opportunities galore!   Whether it be hurdling down a hill at neck breaking speeds or keeping up with your cardio routine you are covered!  This awesome ski matching-making site will help you choose just the right place!
  • Snowmobiling – For those with a taste for speed and zipping through the woods snowmobiling is a perfect activity.  Quebec has a great snowmobiling trail system and places to rent.  Not really my cup of tea so I don’t know much about it, but lots of people here love it!

Special Events

There is always something going on somewhere in an Eastern Townships village.  Here are a few that I know of but for the complete listing at the time of your visit check out this event site!

  • Vendanges (Magog) – Eat, drink, and be merry!  If you are around the first 2 weekend of September the place to be is at this festival.  Hosted on the shore of Lake Memphremagog, filled to the brim with local wines, beers, food, artists, gourmet presentations by local chefs, and tasting events this is pretty much the definitely of fun.  
  • TriMemphre Triathlon (Magog) – If you are an endurance athlete this might be worth checking out and putting on your training schedule.  Starting in 1995, there are now over 2,000 athletes that come to participate in the swim, bike, run competition.  It’s a beautiful place for you to put your skills to the test!
  • Magog Marathon – Prefer to keep it simple and to just one sport…cool…then there is the marathon that happens in late October, because why not run 26.2 miles in the gorgeous fall scenery?
  • Grand Coulée Beer Festival (Orford) – Even though it is one of the newer events in the area, this festival is wildly popular.  Why?  Well because of the plethora of local micro breweries, food trucks, live bands, and chairlift rides up the mountain.  Yup…lots of fun!
  • Fall Festivals – You don’t get a more perfect fall than in Quebec.  With crisp, cool mornings and evenings, warm days, and stunning leaves there is nothing more fun than a weekend of fall festivals in Quebec.  Pretty much all the villages host them so make sure to find one (or two) and check it out!

So basically you now have no reason not to come visit the Eastern Townships because there is something for everyone in all seasons.  Plus you can come visit me!

If you have any feedback on any of these suggestions of know of something that I should add to the list share with me!