Working Abroad: Useful Tips for Travelers-in-Training

By Purnell T. Cropper | February 16, 2010

By Kate Hornberger ’11M.B.A.

Editor’s Note: Kate Hornberger is a Marketing Specialist at Advertising Specialty Institute and an M.B.A. student at Arcadia University. Her favorite destination is the Jersey Shorefist-pumps all around.

Michele Bell is the George Clooney of the ad specialty industry. Up in the air 50,000 miles a year, this well-traveled expatriate enjoys VIP access to airline lounges, showers, napping areas and complimentary food and drink. The rest of us settle for a few ounces of soda and a wrinkled travel magazine.

Your fellow Knight snagged the witty editor of two award-winning trade magazines, Supplier Global Resource and Counselor, for practical tips on traveling abroad, including how to get free dry cleaning and follow up an invitation to a Spanish bull fight.

Kate Hornberger: What are some personal challenges you’ve faced while traveling?

Michele Bell: While traveling to places like Hong Kong, mainland China and throughout Europe can be exciting, the logistics of getting from point A to point B can be both exhausting and exasperating. Yes, you get to meet very interesting people, build an amazing network of international contacts and have a variety of multicultural experiences—watching people drink snakes’ blood, for example, which is considered a medicinal treatment and a delicacy in China—but you get tired of sleeping in hotels, watching CNN International or BBC and making sure every communication is written out if you don’t speak the language. I don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin—the two languages predominately spoken in China—so the hotel’s concierge has to write down where I need to go when taking cabs, what I’d like to order in restaurants, etc.

Hornberger: What advice would you give to future international travelers?

Bell: Here are some things I’ve learned over the years:

1. Exchange U.S. currency at the airport before you leave if you’ll be landing in your destination country early in the a.m. since currency exchange offices most likely open after 9 a.m. If you arrive without enough local currency to at least get you to the hotel—where you can exchange money at the front desk—you’re stuck. This happened to me on my first trip to Asia.

2. It may sound simple, but always have a pen and your passport handy.

3. You’ll pay more, but stay on the concierge floor at hotels. Often, one of the perks is free laundry service, which cuts down on the clothes you need to bring.

4. By about day three, I get homesick for simple things you take for granted—my family, friends and cats, my bed, English-speaking TV and U.S. comfort food. I now bring a small bag of Doritos, Oreos, etc. when I travel. You also wouldn’t believe how much you can miss a glass of soda with ice. Ice in beverages is a distinctly American characteristic, and in Asia and Europe, beverages are served without it.

5. Plan ahead regarding what you’ll need personally and to conduct business. Use Google to map out the lay of the land and talk to people who’ve been there—that’s the most critical piece of advice.

Hornberger: What are some job-related challenges you’ve faced while traveling?

Bell: The single greatest job challenge is keeping up with business back in the office and then dealing with everything when I return. My magazine doesn’t stop its production cycle just because I’m traveling.

Hornberger: How do you cope?

Bell: By learning from others who travel more than I do and from my own mistakes. The first time I went to Asia, I brought way too many clothes, shoes and makeup. Now I know to bring cough/cold medicine, antibacterial wipes, Band-Aids and an Ace bandage. (I twisted my ankle once in remote China and the hotel had nothing to help me and no nearby pharmacy. Another thing you take for granted: the ubiquitous convenience of things like CVS.)

Also, because I travel overseas to attend trade shows, the amount of business cards I return with is staggering. To remember everyone, I make little notes on the back of their cards (“Guy from Spain who told me he wants to take me to a bullfight”) and follow up immediately. Because of this, I have a great network of international business friends, and we all help each other when traveling to each other’s respective countries.

A lesson to be learned form this interview, whether traveling abroad or not, is never to take the comforts of home for granted. And it’s true—the best lessons learned are the most expensive. This does not only refer to monetary expenses, but also to experiential practice.