How To Travel To An International WordCamp

As a result of my mistakes, I have learned some valuable lessons. Let me explain...

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You’ve just been chosen to speak at a WordCamp on the other side of the world.  Congratulations! That’s super exciting! There’s a long list of things you should know and do just to get there, let alone have a good time once you’re there.  

I live in the U.S., but I’ve been to WordCamps in India, Austria, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Australia, and England. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and learned some valuable lessons. Let me show you what I mean.

Preparation

Preparation for long travel should begin as early as possible.  Some things may take months to deal with. Let’s start with flight timing.

Flight Timing

I’m assuming that you’re going to have a time change.  It doesn’t matter if you’re gaining or losing, your ideal situation is to land at your destination in the morning, having slept on the plane. This is going to help you with jet lag quite a bit. Not completely, but your body likes waking up at dawn, and it really sets the pace for the rest of your trip. So look for flights that let you land near dawn at your destination.

Next, make sure you have one to two, or even three hours in your layovers.  The more legs you have, the longer the layovers need to be.  If your second flight has a 30 minute delay, and your third flight has a 30 minute delay, then you’re already an hour late for your fourth flight. Now imagine if any of those flights has a 60 or 90 minute delay. 

Furthermore, long layovers allow you to have a low stress trip across an airport filled with signs in a language you don’t know. You really don’t want to be rushing and mis-read a sign and end up at the wrong end of a concourse.

An end result of all of this is that the time you take off to start your trip is pretty irrelevant.  On short flights I like to not get up too early etc., but when all of that other stuff is more important, I’ll start my trip whenever I have to.

Destination Education

Take the time to learn everything you can about where you’re going. You don’t want to be surprised by food allergies, or having the wrong money, or even being turned away at the airport and having to fly home.

Food

You’ll want to investigate two kinds of things with food. One is whether it suits your taste, and the other is whether it will hurt or kill you. Personally I’m very allergic to shrimp, so when I went to a coastal city in Spain I had to be careful to avoid the shrimp dishes, because they were very popular.

Greek food has a lot of cheese, so if you’re lactose intolerant you’ll need to think about what you’ll eat. I don’t like fresh tomatoes, so I learned about Italian food and dishes that don’t have them. 

Find out if the street food is good and safe. In some cities it’s amazing, and in others you want to avoid it.

Whatever your reason, learn about the local food.

Climate

Don’t assume you know what the climate will be like. I’m going to Bangkok in February, and I assumed winter in a “really hot” place would be 75-80F, or 23-26C. Good thing I checked, because the average high is 96F, 35C. That dramatically changes what I want to wear while I’m there. 

Length of stay and available laundry facilities will impact this as well. Good laundry services allows you to take far fewer clothes, and have less baggage, which matters more on long flights.

Money

As an American, any time I go to another country, they use different money.  If you’re staying inside the Euro zone this isn’t nearly as big a problem.

First you’re going to want to find out what they use. Euro? Baht? Rupee? Which Rupee?

Second, find out if you’ll need cash at all. When I went to Portugal and Spain I didn’t take any cash. I was able to use my cards or Apple pay.

Thirdly, if you find you will need cash (Italy!) find out where you want to buy some currency. My guess is going to be your local bank, and do it some weeks before you leave.  Your bank has the least incentive to gouge you, and it can take some time for them to get it. It took my local bank a week to get the Euro I needed to take to Italy.  Also, when I got back and had some left over, my bank would only take back the paper money.  They didn’t want to deal with change.  Since Europe has 1 and 2 Euro coins, I actually ended up with about 8 Euro to take home and save for another trip.

Medical Support

There are two types of people that need medical support while traveling; those who start their travels with known issues, and those that get surprised by their need while at the destination.  

The former probably already know that they need to check, and what to check for. 

People who normally don’t have any issues are much less likely to look at what medical support is like. My sister went hiking in the Andes in South America and tore some ligaments in her knee.  She had to be carried out, and then when she got to the hospital they wouldn’t see her until she came up with several thousand dollars.  Her friends all pooled their credit cards and helped her out, but it was very awkward.

So before you go, talk to your health insurance company and find out if they can help you at your destination. You might need to buy extended coverage, and it might not be from your regular health insurance company.

Some countries have universal healthcare, regardless of citizenship, and you won’t need anything. Again, your own insurance company will have the answers to these questions.

Ground Transportation

How will you get around at your destination? In the U.S. I like Uber and Lyft but I’ve found that those are a lot less reliable in other countries. In London the Black Cabs are amazing, and way better than the services.  In Milan Italy, the underground train is extremely popular, with great cab support for the last leg. Black cabs have wonderful card and Apple pay support, but Italian cabbies want cash or nothing.  All that to say you’ll want to find out what works at your destination especially from the airport to your hotel.

Additionally, find out what it’s like to walk the city. Most cities are going to have a part of town where it’s completely safe, and another part where it’s really not. This will also vary based on whether you’re a woman or not.

Documents

There are a variety of documents you might need or want. Some are required, some just recommended.

Passport

If you’re traveling internationally you’ll need a passport.  In the U.S. it can take 6 weeks or more and you have to be interviewed by a federal agent. Other countries vary in timing and difficulty, but if you wait until the week before you fly I promise you’ll be sad.  Start looking into it immediately after you find out you’re going to travel.

Visa Requirements

This is an easy thing to find out, but a surprisingly high number of first time international travelers don’t even check, and end up being turned away.  A quick Google search will tell you if you need a Visa for your travel, as well as where to get it and how long it takes and how much it costs.

I’ve personally only needed a Visa once, and I went immediately to a travel agent and they helped me get paperwork back and forth from Chicago for just $50.  It was 100% worth it.

TSA Pre-Check

This is specifically American, but other countries have their own equivalents.  It’s only for use inside the country, but it helps you move through security much faster. It’s about $100 for 5 years.  If you travel a lot I can’t recommend it enough.

Global Entry

This is similar to TSA Pre-Check, but for coming into the U.S. Again, other countries have their own equivalents, so you’ll need to research where you live. I found this one to be even more amazing. Recently coming into the U.S. I got off the plane, walked down a special hallway to a camera where they took my picture, and I walked into the U.S. I didn’t even have to show my paperwork or talk to anyone, no lines.  Again completely worth it if you travel more than once.

Packing

We’ve talked a little about clothes already but this is more about packing. Pack for your destination.  It might be snowy when you leave, but it could be hot when you land, or vice versa. Take as little of the wrong clothes as possible.

If you’re the type of person that can live out of a backpack it’ll make travel a lot easier. You won’t be navigating baggage return in a foreign language, and you’re much less likely to lose all your clothes. This works much better if there are good laundry facilities at the destination.

Always make sure you have emergency clothes and medication in your carry on. I keep a t-shirt, extra underwear, deodorant and my toothbrush in my carryon. Then if my main baggage is delayed or lost I figure I have an extra day to get more. The same goes with medication. When it comes to things that important, simply assume your main luggage will get lost.

Technology

Keep in mind that we’re talking about the act of traveling, not about being at your destination.

Cell Phone Coverage

For this you simply need to contact your provider and ask them what they support in your destination. In the U.S. all of the mainstream providers operate in most of the world, but how they do it varies. You just need to ask.

If your phone can use a physical sim card you can often buy local sim cards and simply have a different phone number while you’re traveling.  Google for more info.

Cell Coverage Cost

Again you’ll need to ask your provider. Some don’t charge for phone calls, but do for data.  Some charge by the gigabyte, some by the day. It’s not difficult, but I promise if you don’t find out you’ll have a sad surprise a month later.

Maps

Before you leave your cheap fast home bandwidth, download the Google Maps app, find everyplace you’re going to go, and have it download the map data to your phone. GPS doesn’t use either cellular or data, so you can still use your phone to navigate even when you don’t have any connection at all.

Translation Packs

Again, before you leave, get Google Translate and download every language you think you might need.  Then your phone can listen to people talk and translate for you, or let you point your camera at a sign and it’ll translate what it says, all without a connection.

External Battery

My trip from Grand Rapids Michigan to Barcelona Spain was 24 hours. I wasn’t flying that long by any means, but I was certainly traveling. My phone died several times, or would have if I couldn’t plug it in along the way. Some airplanes have plugs, some don’t.  Some airports have plugs, some don’t. No matter what, you’re going to want an external battery.  They range in price and power from very small to very big.

There are some the size of a lipstick that will get you an hour’s use, which is great for fitting in a pocket or purse in an emergency. Some, about the size of a man’s wallet, can fully charge a modern phone several times. 

I recently found one that connects to my iPhone with the magnet on the back, so there are no wires, which is amazing.

At some point you’re going to find yourself standing outside an airport at night, needing a ride, and your phone will either be dead or so close that you won’t be sure it’ll stay alive to the hotel.  Get a battery, they’re cheap and worth it.

Wires

You’re probably going to want to plug something in.  Maybe your phone, maybe your laptop on a long layover, who knows?  Keep the proper wires close to an external pocket on your carryon.

Plugs

Plug shapes vary around the world.  There are really only about 5 really common ones, but Europe, Asia, and the U.S. are all different.  The power is generally the same, it’s just the plug shape.  You’ll spend the least money buying them before you leave, but they ARE generally available in airports and stores, so you can get some in a pinch.

My recommendation is a power strip full of your native plugs that can plug into one foreign port.

Airline App

Whatever airline you use, get their app on your phone. It should have your ticket info, boarding pass, and importantly be able to send you notifications about flight changes. 

That said, most of them are progressive web apps, and require an internet connection to work. I promise you that the time will come that you’ll walk up to board and your connection will die and you won’t have a boarding pass. When you get one, take a screenshot.  When your flight changes and you get a new boarding pass, take another screen shot.  Always make sure you have a boarding pass that doesn’t need an internet connection.

Culture

Learn about the culture where you’re going. If you don’t, you’ll end up being rude, that’s just the way it goes. And a foreign country is not someplace you want to put people off.

Language

Some countries are pretty multi-lingual, some aren’t. Regardless, it’s respectful to look into some common phrases.  Please, thank you, where is the bathroom, do you speak English, etc. Making an attempt goes a long way.

Faux pas

Every culture has a few things that are rude internally, but no-one else knows. It could be a phrase or gesture or even conversation topic. Google it, find out what’s rude, and don’t do it.

Travel

So far we’ve talked about preparation. Now we’re going to talk about what to do during actual travel.

Clothes

Dress for comfort first.  Feel free to look nice, but comfort is most important.  I don’t recommend high heels. Personally I don’t wear a belt. Sweatpants are your friend. You’re probably going to want to take your shoes off. That’s generally not a good idea, but if you have clean socks and your feet don’t smell it’s fine.  Slippers are not out of the question.  Remember, we might be talking about a 14 hour flight. Also remember you’re probably never going to see any of those people again, and what they think doesn’t matter in the slightest.

Dress for your destination. If you’re leaving cold and going to warmth, don’t wear your big coat on the plane. Ideally don’t take it all.  If your home airport has lockers you can rent it might be worth leaving a coat or small bag of proper clothes in it.  The same goes for shoes.  Don’t wear your snow boots to Mexico.

Food

On long flights airlines provide a meal and a snack, maybe two snacks. They’re not awful, but they’re definitely airline food. Airlines serve the same meal for several months in a row, so if it’s really important it’s possible to find out what they’re serving. Think about allergies etc.

Bringing your own food is completely acceptable. It’s not uncommon to buy hot fast food in the airport and take it on, and it’s also fine to bring food from home.  

Something to keep in mind is that food tastes less intense, so food you bring may not taste as good as you remembered.  Also keep in mind that smells travel and linger in an airplane. A pickled bologna sandwich might not be a good idea. 

Also remember your environment. The overhead bins are not refrigerated. If you put a sandwich with mayonnaise up there and fly for 10 hours it’s entirely possible it’ll make you very sick.

Beverages

I don’t recommend taking beverages on international flights. All drinks are free on most airlines. Water, pop, tea, alcohol; all of it. It’s there for the asking.

That said, if you must take something, here are some things to remember.

  • Planes are pressurized at about 5000 feet, while pop (soda) is canned at sea level.  It’s going to foam over.
  • As mentioned, there’s no refrigeration, so unless you drink it right away or want to drink it warm, you’ll need to ask for ice.
  • There are Rules about alcohol.

Alcohol

Most airlines have free alcohol on flights. Usually a red and white wine, an American and a European beer, and a Bourbon and a Scotch whiskey. If you want something else you’re out of luck, it’s against the law to drink alcohol that you bring on the plane yourself.

It can be tempting to drink a lot when it’s free for the asking, but there are some excellent reasons not to. One is that alcohol affects you harder and faster at altitude. You may think you have a handle on how much you can handle, but throw that out the window when flying.

It also dehydrates you. Combined with the fact that the air conditioning in airplanes also dehydrates you, you can get into trouble quickly. Check out the symptoms. A healthy person will probably only get uncomfortable, but do you really want to be uncomfortable in an airplane seat for 14 hours?

Health

There are unique health risks in flying long distances. One of the most serious is called deep vein thrombosis, or blood clots. Sitting for a long period of time can cause clots to form in your legs, and when they break free they can go to your heart and kill you. The easiest way to avoid it is to simply get up and walk around every couple hours. Go to the bathroom, walk the length of the plane, whatever you need to do. If you have blood or heart issues talk to your doctor before leaving.

Additionally, make sure you eat and stay hydrated.

Documents

Your journey will require any number of important, valuable documents.  You’ll need to both keep them safe as well as readily accessible. They should at least stay in your carry-on, ideally on your person in a well secured pocket or purse. Your greatest fear here is pick-pockets, so keep them in a pocket with an enclosure like a button or zipper.

Technology

Headphones

A good set of noise canceling headphones can be incredibly helpful in a variety of ways. For one thing, they greatly reduce the noise of the engines. This is great both when watching movies, but also when trying to sleep. If noise canceling is specifically and especially important to you, the Bose 700 headphones are specifically tuned to airplane engine noise, and they do a better job than others. Any noise canceling is valuable though.

Cell phone battery and wires

As mentioned above, you’ll want an extra battery for your plane.  Even that probably won’t keep it charged for the whole flight though, so make sure you also take a USB charging wire.  Most planes these days have a USB port in the back of the seat to plug in your phone. If you have the right wire you can also charge your spare battery.

Tablets

In my experience airplane seats are too close together these days to open your laptop properly, so a tablet can do a better job.

Downloads

Airlines often keep a set of movies for 6 months, so if you travel more than a few times you might have seen all the movies they offer that you want to see. Most video streaming services these days (Netflix, Disney+, etc) allow you to save a movie to your device. Even if you don’t know what’s on the plane it may be worth saving some things you want to see to your tablet or phone.

If you’re an ebook reader, also make sure you get whatever books you want before you leave. Make sure it downloads, and don’t leave it on the server.

WiFi

Most airlines will let you pay for WiFi, but it comes with some restrictions. No streaming media or video calls notably. 

In an exciting bit of news, Delta has announced that WiFi will be free on all flights beginning 1 February, 2023.

People

When traveling to a conference, especially a large one, chances are good that some of your fellow travelers will also be going to the same event. If you’ve never been, watch for indicators they might be associated with it. When going to a WordCamp for example, you might see t-shirts from other camps or products. 

It can be worth it to introduce yourself to these people and find out if they’re going to the same place as you. Traveling in a group is always safer and more comfortable. With WordCamps especially you’re likely to find lovely people who will be happy to meet you.

And of course if you’ve been to camps before, watch for old friends. I’ve been to more than one camp where the last leg was 25% WordPressers.

Sleep

Get all the sleep you can.  You’ll simply feel better for it. If you take sleep medication, this is a great time for it. As mentioned above, try to wake up at dawn when landing, it’ll help in the time ahead with jet lag.

The Return Trip

Airport Navigation

When leaving to go back home you’re going to be navigating a strange airport. Fortunately it’s your first leg, so if you get there early you’ll have time to get your bearings.  If it’s very early morning, find out when they open, it’s not unheard of to get stuck standing outside at 3am because you get there extra early for a 6am flight.

Most airports offer airport maps online.  The previous day, download the map and figure out what door you need to enter, and how to get to your proper desks from there.

Souvenirs

Find out what is legal and illegal, both to take from the country and bring into your own. It’s rare you’ll have more repercussions than simply having to give up what you brought, but if your heart is set on giving grandma that set of fresh tomatoes you brought from her homeland, you’ll be sad when the airport police confiscate them. This actually holds true for when you leave home as well. Some gifts you simply can’t take to friends.

Summary

International travel can be complicated, and long travel even more so. This may seem like a long post, with many things to think about, but if you make a checklist, once you’ve done it a couple times it becomes very natural. It’s learning how to travel, and once you get good at it, it’s really quite fun.


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Topher is a web developer and WordPress community member from Grand Rapids MI, where he lives with his wife Cate. Topher has been a web developer for nearly 30 years, and a WordPress developer for 13 years. He loves going to WordCamps and teaching other people how they can fall in love with web development as well.

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