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1) Take a break immediately upon arrival. This piece of advice from the Wandering Earl Blog is brilliant. Sit. Chill. Have some coffee at a cafe in the airport. Instead of running, exhausted and flustered, for the first train you see, sit down, relax and make a plan.
2) Ask your taxi driver where to eat. Following this advice from Legal Nomads is a great way to get immediately immersed in the local culture by finding an authentic, local, off the beaten path place to eat right off the bat!
3) Get local currency: If you are traveling to a different country, this will be one of your first needs upon arrival. In general, the currency exchange booths at the airport are convenient and easy, but you pay for this convenience by paying higher exchange rates. We usually use the ATM in the airport to get cash. Check with your bank about what the rates and fees are for doing this.
Be aware: Much of Europe is switching over to a Chip and Pin system for ATM and credit cards. We were not able to use our ATM cards to get cash last time we flew into London Heathrow.
Had someone in our party not had some US currency with us to take to the exchange booth for cab fare, we might have been stuck in the airport. It is always a good idea to come over with some cash on hand and not just rely on finding an ATM upon arrival.
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4) Find a local food market: There is nothing that grounds me in a new culture more immediately than perusing a local food market and buying some fresh, yummy food to nourish myself after a long journey.
Stow your bags and ask your hotel or hostel where to find the nearest local market. Buy a snack and find a good spot to sit and learn about the place that you are visiting by watching the river of local life flow around you.
There is so much that you can learn about a culture and its values from watching what they eat and how they incorporate food into their daily lives.
5) Stay awake!: Switch yourself onto the right sleep schedule ASAP. As hard as it seems, try to go to get yourself to bed at the right time on the first night, and try to get up in time for breakfast the next morning.
For the first couple days, take a nap in the afternoon if you need to (particularly in destinations where this is the hottest part of the day) but don’t sleep for too long, or you won’t be able to sleep when it is time for bed later that evening.
6) Have a “Hit the Ground Running” plan: I like to have a handle on the basics when I get to a new place. How are we going to get to the hotel? What is the best way exchange currency? Once we check into the hotel, what are we going to do on our first day and how are we going to get there? Have some basic maps handy with your “Hit the Ground Running” plan easily accessible in your carry on bag. This will help to get your trip off on the right foot.
7) Get some good maps and get oriented: Stop at a tourist information office, or a local bookstore to get a good local map, if you don’t have one already.
If you are going to be in the city for a few days, it might be worth it to splurge and buy a good map with a decent level of detail.
There is very little that is more frustrating to us than trying to find our hotel on a map, only to discover that the street that our hotel is on isn’t big enough to be on the basic map that you picked up for free at the Tourist Information Office.
When visiting a new country, we always try to buy the Michelin Map for that country before we go. These maps have an amazing level of detail and they can really get you out of a pinch if you need to know exactly how to get somewhere.
8) Set up communications: If you are in a new country and you are not sure where you will be able to find internet access next, it might be a good idea to follow the advice in #1 of this post and stop for a cup of coffee in the airport while you use the wireless internet access there. Relax and check in with your loved ones at home through Skype, Facebook or whatever your preferred method is.
If you have an international cell phone, get a local SIM card for you phone soon after you arrive. If you don’t know where to get one, ask at your hotel when you check in. This can often be the cheapest way to stay connected in a new place. Alternatively, buy an international cell phone with a SIM card that will work in many countries before you go, so you never need to worry about not being able to make a call if you need to.
9) Drink lots of water, take your vitamins, get a massage: Flying dries you out faster than sitting under a heat lamp in the desert. The food that you eat in the airport and on the airplane often does not provide great nutrition to fuel your adventure. Make sure to bring your multi-vitamins with you and take them along with some Airborne before and after your flight to replenish Vitamin C and other critical nutrients.
A massage or bodywork session once you arrive an be a great way to benefit from the local healing widsom and practices and to help your system recover from the flight and time change that you have just forced upon it.
10) If you are a “balls to the wall” sort of traveler…try to knock one big tourist site off of your list on the first day. This will get your trip off to a good start!
Pick one (and only one) thing that is towards the top of your must see list and try to hit it on the first day that you arrive. Follow up with a relaxed dinner and glass of wine in a restaurant nearby and you have the makings of a great first afternoon and evening!
It is one less thing to see later in the trip, and it will give you a sense of accomplishment that will get your trip off to a great start.
11) Get out into nature. Find a place to relax in the shade and have a picnic, or go for a light hike. Being outside always helps me to “recharge” my batteries after a long flight. This can be a low key way to spend your first afternoon.
12) Exercise to get over your jetlag: Get your blood pumping a little after you arrive can help your body adjust to the new time that you have put it in, as well as helping you to get to sleep at a decent time on the first night in a new place.
Don’t go overboard, but a little jog or a few minutes of jumping jacks can oxygenate your blood and give you a little pick me up! Next time you are on a long flight, you can also do these exercises while you are flying to help stave off the jet lag monster.
13) Go find a bottle of local wine or spirits and make a toast to your adventure! There is a special way that drinking wine made from the place that you are visiting can connect you to the culture and feeling of that place.
When you drink wine, you get a taste of what the French call its “terroir”. This is fancy term that is used to refer to the conditions at the place where the grapes were grown, but I think it goes deeper than that. In my opinion, any wine or spirit distills the air, wind, water and soil (what some might call the very ‘essence’ of a place) into liquid form for you to drink.
Make sure to follow the advice in #9 and have some water first, then enjoy your bottle and your first taste of a new adventure!