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10 tips for coping with international business travel

Traveling to other countries on business can get a little tricky. Here's some hard-won advice from one globetrotting IT pro.

I have always had a passion for travel and I have been fortunate to be able to see a good bit of the world. Between business travel and personal travel, I have visited more than 60 countries. One thing I have learned through my travels is that some places can be very different from what you might be used to. These differences can sometimes make business travel challenging. This article lists 10 pointers to help make your international travels go more smoothly.

1: Make sure you have the proper voltage adapter

Lesson number one is that not all voltage adapters are created equal. If you are traveling to a country that uses a different type of outlet from what you have at home, it is crucial to get the correct type of voltage adapter.

There's more to choosing a voltage adapter than just looking for the right type of plug. Some adapters are designed for high wattage devices, such as irons, and are not suitable for electronics. Others might be okay for electronics, but can't be used for higher wattage accessories, such as blow dryers. Some voltage adapters are merely pass-through devices and can fry your electronics unless the device's power supply is designed to accommodate the voltage in your locality.

2: Play nice with customs agents

Be nice to customs agents, even when you don't think that they deserve it. Business travel by its very nature often receives extra scrutiny from customs. Mouthing off to customs officers can turn a little extra scrutiny into a lot of extra scrutiny.

Admittedly, sometimes it can be hard to bite your tongue. I was leaving Barcelona once and the customs officer who didn't think I understood Spanish said something really nasty about me to another worker. My first instinct was to tell her what I thought of her little comment, but ultimately I pretended that I didn't know what she had said and was soon sent on my way home.

3: Get some rest before you go

One of the best pieces of advice I can give to those traveling on business is to try to get some rest before you go (or sleep on the plane, if nothing else). Don't expect to be able to rest when you arrive — there is a good chance that you will be expected to jump right into your work upon arrival.

I once did a project in Southeast Asia. Between flight time and layovers, it took me about 30 hours to reach my destination. By the time I got there, I was sleep deprived and ready for a hot shower and a bed. However, my clients picked me up at the airport and we went straight to the office to get started. Ever since then, I have always tried to make sure I get rest whenever I have the opportunity.

4: Familiarize yourself with local customs

Things that are perfectly acceptable at home can be extremely offensive in other parts of the world. For example, I once made the mistake of giving someone the "okay" sign, only to find out that it was considered a vulgarity in his country. This might be an extreme example, but each country has its own expectations for social behavior. For instance, in Korea you are expected to pay extra respect to the oldest person in the room. Likewise, in some countries it is considered rude to speak during a meal.  It's a good idea to look into the local customs before traveling to an unfamiliar destination.

5: Research your Internet connectivity options ahead of time

In the United States, finding Internet connectivity is no big deal. You can get free wireless Internet access at just about any coffee shop, book store, or fast food restaurant.  However, that is not the case in some other parts of the world.

When I have worked in Europe, for example, I have found it to be a little bit more difficult to locate public Wi-Fi hot spots. Furthermore, most of the hot spots that I did find were not free.

6: Eat smart

Nothing can ruin your trip faster than an intestinal parasite. You don't have to worry too much about the food quality in many parts of the world, but food safety can be a major consideration in certain locations. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Avoid raw fruits and vegetables unless they have a thick peel (like an orange) and you peel them yourself.
  • If the water quality is questionable, stick to bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth. Don't put ice in your drinks and be careful not to get any water in your mouth when you are showering.
  • Make sure meats are cooked thoroughly.
  • Stay away from anything containing uncooked milk or eggs.

7: Use technology to your advantage

Technology can make foreign travel a lot easier. For example, my Windows Phone has a feature called Bing Vision. You can aim the phone's camera at a block of text and Bing will translate it into English.

Similarly, it is a good idea to load a currency conversion app onto your tablet or smart phone. That way, you'll know how much you are spending.

8: Try to blend in

When you're doing business in a foreign country, there will usually be times when you are by yourself. During these times, try to blend in with the locals to avoid calling attention to yourself and potentially making yourself a target for crime.  The best way to do this is to try to dress similarly to the locals and to avoid wearing anything that is distinctly American (or from whatever country you might be from).

9: Learn some key phrases

If you're an English speaker traveling to a non-English speaking country, it can be helpful to learn a few phrases in the local language. My experience has been that it is possible to get by on English alone in many places if you absolutely have to. However, knowing a bit of the local language can make life a lot easier.

10: Ask ahead of time what it will cost to use your cell phone

Finally, if you plan to use your cell phone while abroad, find out how much it will cost to do so. When I took a recent trip to Aruba, someone told me that he gets free text messages in the United States, but that his cell provider charges 50 cents for every inbound message in Aruba. He kept receiving text messages from friends who didn't know he was traveling, and he accumulated quite a phone bill.

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Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.

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