Grace Lower | Sep 12, 2017
Whether you’re embarking on a weekend trip or a year-long study abroad program, you’ll be surprised by how many simple skills come in handy when you’re on the road. A basic knowledge of a second language will get you far (or at least, farther than hand-gestures would). A bit of first aid know-how can make all the difference when you’re in a rural area. And the ability to decipher a map is a dying art, but a valuable one.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of the basics, you may want to look into mastering a few lesser-known travel skills, as well. These traits — as strange as they seem — can be a major asset, when applied correctly. The best part about these seemingly unrelated abilities is that you can practice them at home. If you put in the work to master these eight skills, by the time your study abroad trip rolls around, you’ll be better equipped for whatever adventures (and pitfalls) come your way.
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Before you write crafting off as “too domestic” for an adventurer like you, realize that there are plenty of skills to be gained from arts-based hobbies. Macramé might not be your cup of tea, but understanding how to tie knots and create strong braids is surprisingly helpful (especially if you’re anywhere near a boat or a campsite). Meanwhile, tasks like sketching and journaling can give you something to do when you’re waiting for a train or sitting in a cafe—no cellphone data needed! If you like creating trinkets, a handmade bracelet or an origami crane is the perfect token of friendship to share with local kids or your host-siblings. The hobby you choose is up to you; just make sure that the materials are inexpensive and compact enough to fit into your carry-on.
One of the lesser-known benefits of travel is that it’s an incredible leg workout. Whether you’re in Central America, Northern Europe, or Southeast Asia, you’ll likely spend long days walking through a variety of terrains (and if you’re from the mountain-less Midwest like me, you’ll be amazed by how many steep inclines you’ll encounter along the way). There’s also the very real issue of bathrooms. Depending on where your travels take you, you’ll probably encounter your share of alarmingly dirty public restrooms, squat-toilets, or in some cases, no toilets at all. Without getting too graphic, you’ll be grateful for your ability to squat when needed!
During my time abroad, I was amazed by how often I drew from my high-school theatre classes. When you’re in an unfamiliar environment, sometimes you have to rely on a little bit of improvisation to look confident (even when you have no idea what you’re doing). A good rule of thumb, in travel and in acting, is to know your audience. If you’re haggling, think about whether the vendor will respond better to sweet-talk or to tough negotiation. If you feel unsure of how to connect with your host family, study how they interact with one another, and give it a try yourself. And if you aren’t sure how to conduct yourself at a public event, use your acting skills to mirror the body language and behavior that locals adopt.
Although Americans are notoriously ambivalent about soccer (or football, as our international friends call it), the rest of the world can’t get enough of it. A basic knowledge of “the beautiful game” will score you friends, no matter where your travels take you. And if you’re willing to jump into a pickup soccer game, it’s all the better. If you’re not confident in your soccer skills, don’t despair. Take an hour to read up on any local soccer teams, and learn a little about the international clubs and players. Whether you’re in a bar, at a cafe, or out with local friends, soccer-talk is an easy way to break the ice.
Part of successful travel is the ability to make yourself fit into any situation—literally. If you’re in a crowded market, it can help to “make yourself bigger” to keep from getting shoved to the back of the line. Alternatively, if you’re in an overstuffed metro, sprawling across the seat will earn you more enemies than friends. As a matter of courtesy (and safety, too!), it helps to be aware of how much space you’re occupying and adjust accordingly, based on the people around you. Shape-shifting can help in social settings, too. Want to make new friends? Open body language is a great way to show that you’re approachable. Meanwhile, if you’re trying to catch a few Z’s on the plane, curling up with your hoodie and a neck pillow ought to send a strong message to your fellow passengers. Your body language and use of space can be an excellent means of communication—understanding their impact and using them strategically can make all the difference.
Okay, so sleeping might not be a skill as much as it is a necessity. But there’s an art to sleeping in unusual or uncomfortable settings, and it’s a skill that travelers should strive to master. After all, good sleep is the key to happy travel. Sleeping soundly in a noisy hostel room or successfully napping during an international flight are tough feats, but with enough effort, they’re possible to pull off. Here are a few simple resources to help you get the hang of sleeping on planes and managing your sleep schedule while traveling.
One of the easiest ways to connect with local students and families is to share a meal with them. Unfortunately, if you’re a picky eater, what should be a mutually enjoyable event can be grueling. It’s not always possible control your dietary preferences, but if you’re up for the challenge, try to train yourself to become a more adventurous eater. Do you get hung up on odd textures? Try sampling foods with mild flavors but unusual consistencies, like grits, tofu, bubble tea, or sautéed mushrooms. Are strong and spicy flavors a deal-breaker? Ease up your tolerance by adding a splash of hot sauce to your favorite savory food or by sampling flavor-rich cuisines like Indian, Mexican, and Korean. If you’re not sure where to start, you can always go to favorite restaurant and order a dish that you’d normally never try. By training yourself to have an open mind about food, you’ll be able to graciously accept any dinner invitations you receive while you're abroad, without fear of the unknown.
There’s a reason I was an English major in college, aside from my love for literature. The truth is, I am pretty mediocre at math—especially mental math. That weakness proved to be a huge disadvantage during my travels, especially when I was
on shopping trips. As a traveler, you’ll want to get the hang of mentally converting currencies. This trick gives you a sense of what you’re actually spending. And if you’re in a haggling situation, a keen sense of numeracy
will help you determine whether you’re actually getting a great deal. Additionally, many countries run on military time (think 15:00 rather than 3:00pm). Trust me on this, there’s nothing more embarrassing than telling your local friends
that you’re running late because you misread the digital clock in your hostel. Rather than relying on your phone to do simple arithmetic for you, do yourself a favor and sharpen those mental math skills before you depart. Your pride and sanity
will thank you.
Grace Lower is a recent college graduate with a love for writing and an incurable case of wanderlust. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.