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Fasten Your Seatbelt and Put Up Your Tray Table

It was several years ago, in July. My mom was trying to hide the fact that she was crying, and my dad was standing before me waving a thick finger in my face. "Remember, with freedom comes responsibility," he said. I nodded, looped my thumbs through the straps of my backpack, and headed down the long, quiet corridor. I tried to look confident, but the truth is, I was scared. I was 20 years old, traveling abroad to England for the first time -- alone.

Your first journey to foreign countries sans parental supervision -- whether it be during spring break or to study abroad -- will probably be one of the most exciting times in your life. In fact, traveling abroad is a lot like your first day of college -- you're nervous and excited, as well as amazed at the amount of preparation it requires. To take the edge off, follow these tips offered by those who've trekked before you.

Get ready for takeoff
The most important part of the preparation process is research. Research, you ask? Isn't this supposed to be a vacation? Yes, but in this case, research is as important as it is for a 25-page paper supporting Einstein's theory of relativity.

You need to have a working knowledge of the language, customs, and etiquette of the foreign countries you're traveling to, as well as the areas you'll be visiting. Purchase maps of the cities and countries, and plot your route beforehand. This way, you'll avoid looking like a misplaced tourist, which, aside from being uncool, makes you more susceptible to theft or harassment. Buy books on the countries you'll be traveling to, like the Let's Go series, which list hotels, restaurants, clubs, costs, etiquette, even acceptable attire.

"I wish I had known [people in Belize] dress casually," says Mariel Giletto, who traveled to the tropical paradise on spring break. "There was no need to get dressed up -- they don't even wear shoes!" Knowing proper attire would have made Mariel's preparation a little easier and her luggage a little lighter. Which leads to our next subject....

Only one carry-on per traveler
When Elizabeth Weiss set off to Cambridge University (Cambridge, England) to study abroad, she had to maneuver the narrow streets of the compact town with overstuffed suitcases. "As my suitcases wobbled back and forth over the endless cobblestones, I thought to myself, 'I will never overpack again,'" she recalls.

On the contrary, Todd Waters and Shannon Smith knew to pack light when they traveled around Europe for four weeks after graduating from Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ). With stops in England, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands, compact packing was key. "We found that using a duffel bag with wheels and backpack straps was best," says Shannon. She and Todd also purchased locks for their luggage to keep their belongings safe.

Fasten your seatbelt
Just as important as keeping your belongings safe is securing your money. Robert Meltzer, vice president of sales and marketing at Travelong Travel Agency (New York, NY), recommends purchasing a money belt (a thin, fanny pack-like strap worn under clothing) before traveling abroad. "Don't keep all your money with you -- only enough to get you through the day," says Meltzer.

More important, when you arrive and need to convert the cash you have, Meltzer says a better conversion rate is available at banks than at currency exchanges. Todd echoes that sentiment. "When we were in Paris, we stopped at an independent vendor and cashed $100 worth of traveler's checks," he recalls. "As we walked away and counted it, we realized we only got about $70 back."

Debit and credit cards also offer good conversion rates. But before you go, notify your credit card company you'll be traveling abroad. If credit card companies see any unusual activity, they're likely to become suspicious and put a freeze on the account. As for traveler's checks, most who've traveled to foreign countries don't recommend them. "We found they charge a ridiculous conversion rate to cash them, and it adds up," says Todd.

A delay in takeoff
Theft can be devastating when traveling abroad, which is why photocopies are essential, says Meltzer. Photocopying? Research? What's next, an exam? Bear with us.

Keeping duplicates of your passport and birth certificate are helpful to establish your identity should your originals get lost or stolen. Meltzer also recommends carrying copies of any prescriptions you have so they can be refilled in a pinch. Having a prescription is also helpful in avoiding problems at customs. You've seen the man behind the security desk -- you certainly don't want to mess with that.

Avoiding turbulence
You've finally made it. Stepping off the plane, you're either thrilled beyond belief, scared out of your mind, or a combination of both. What now?

Become aware of your surroundings. "When in Rome, don't get duped at the Colosseum," warns Megan Lange, who traveled to Italy on spring break with some friends. Megan's group was approached by a 'gladiator' who offered to take a picture with them. Thinking of characters at Disneyland, Megan and her friends opted for a quick photo. "My friend wanted one by herself," she says. "The 'gladiator' took her and put his sword up against her throat. At first we thought he was joking, but he didn't let her go, and demanded some amount of lira or she 'gets it.' We gave him whatever he asked for, which we later found to be only about $5 or $10."

In situations like this, Meltzer suggests being very assertive. "Shouting loudly 'leave me alone' should do the trick," he says. Most likely, incidents similar to Megan's will happen in crowded tourist areas. Bringing attention to yourself will scare off a perpetrator.

Also, be prepared for some culture shock when traveling abroad. Ilyse Linder traveled to Israel three months before the September 11 attacks. During her stay, bodyguards often escorted her and her group around the country. But these weren't ordinary bodyguards: Dressed in fatigues and holding machine guns, these guards were only 19 years old -- Ilyse's age at the time -- and all girls. "While I was excited to buy lottery tickets at 18, these girls were enlisting in the Israeli army," she says. More shocking however, was when Ilyse's group visited Israel's national cemetery. "Some of the Israeli girls began crying when we walked by this pretty, wooded area," she recalls. "Apparently two of their best girlfriends had been killed on their second day of service during a training mission and had been buried there. Listening to their story made me realize how lucky I am to live in America and how often I take my freedom for granted."

We'll be landing shortly
Since you're an American, remember that certain stereotypes will be applied to you -- something Meltzer calls the "Ugly American Syndrome." "Americans can come off as spoiled in foreign countries," he says. He recounts an instance while dining on the Champs-Elysees in France. "At the table next to me were American parents and their teenage daughter," he says. "She was angry ... yelling and cursing about something." Since her parents didn't calm her down, Meltzer turned around and asked her himself. "It's instances like that that perpetuate the spoiled American stereotype," he says.

"What safe travel abroad comes down to," says Meltzer, "is common sense." So do your research, remember your photocopies, and why not quiz yourself on acceptable table manners in Moscow? (Sorry, there was an exam for you after all.) Enjoy your stay!