Cup of Coffee

How To Spend Your First 20 Minutes In A New Country

Derek Transportation, Travel Tips & Advice 139 Comments

Cup of Coffee

Coffee? You’ll see.

So, your flight lands. You walk off the plane and proceed to the Immigration lines. You receive your entry stamp in your passport. You collect your luggage from the luggage carousel and you walk through the Customs area without any issues.

And then you step out into the arrivals hall of the airport, ready to begin your adventure in a new land.

At this point, you may already have your transportation organized and somebody or some service is picking you up. Others might have spent a little time before their trip researching the best methods to get from the airport into the city on their own and some people won’t have done any research whatsoever.

If you’re the kind of person (as I am myself) who prefers to do only some very basic research or even no research at all before you arrive, I offer you the following suggestion of…

How you should spend your first 20 minutes in a new country.

You should take a break immediately upon arrival. This is an idea that I briefly mentioned on this site over 18 months ago, one that I learned from fellow traveler John Bardos over at JetSetCitizen.com (lots of useful information on this site for anyone looking to become location independent).

Taking a break is so simple, it makes so much sense, yet almost nobody does it.

Once you collect your luggage and proceed through the Customs inspection, head straight to an airport cafe, plop down in a seat and drink a coffee or tea or anything else you might desire. (If there’s no cafe, just sit down on one of the benches in the arrivals hall.)

As travelers, we tend to be taken advantage of most when we are tired, disoriented and unfamiliar with our surroundings, which is exactly the state we’re in right after landing in a new destination. So why not relax for 20 minutes instead of immediately trying to figure out how to get into the city? Enjoying such a rest allows you to take a few deep breaths, observe your surroundings and to clear your head before stepping out into the unknown.

You can also ask the staff at the cafe for reliable information about transportation and you can read the signs around the airport from your table without looking completely lost. Then, when you feel ready, you can calmly and confidently (you won’t be so overwhelmed anymore) head off into the city. And by this point, the unofficial taxi and shuttle bus representatives will have left you alone and you most likely won’t be bothered by anyone.

Also, if you’re two or more people traveling together, one person can wander around the airport learning the best way to get into the city while the other waits in the cafe so that you don’t have to stand around with your backpacks, exhausted and frustrated, trying to read signs and trying to understand where you need to go.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

Taking such a break has helped me out several times, including…

Upon arrival in Istanbul during my first visit, a simple rest in a cafe at Ataturk Airport allowed me to figure out how to navigate the metro and tram system that would take me into the city center after a 17 hour trip from the US. Before I had my coffee, I found myself fending off several people offering a variety of taxi and shuttle bus services at prices that seemed much too high.

When I flew into Bucharest’s Otopeni airport, taking a seat on a row of benches in the arrivals hall (I couldn’t find a cafe) for twenty minutes helped me discover that the ‘official’ taxis in front of the airport charge 3.50 lei per kilometer ($1.15 USD) but if you walk one minute down the exit ramp you can hail a taxi that charges the standard Bucharest taxi rate of 1.39 lei per kilometer.

And when a friend of mine flew to Vietnam last week, he told me about how he took a seat at a cafe in the airport and how it saved him from getting ripped off by a taxi driver, something that had happened to just about every other traveler he met at the hostel where he was staying in Ho Chi Minh City. Simply by asking the waitress at the cafe for advice, he learned that he could catch a local bus outside the airport that would take him straight into the neighborhood he wanted for less than $1.00.

All it took was twenty minutes of relaxation upon arrival.

Wandering Earl at JFK

TWO MORE AIRPORT TIPS

The following can make things even more hassle-free…

Find another traveler in the airport. Whenever I fly into a country for the first time – and I actually begin this process while on the plane itself – the first thing I do is to look around for other backpackers. If I don’t notice any on the airplane, I look around the immigration area of the airport, the luggage carousels and the customs area to see if anyone else looks like a traveler in need of a ‘buddy’.

If I do locate a fellow traveler, I strike up a conversation and ask them if they want to head into the city together. After all, backpackers usually tend to stay in the same area of a city, whichever area has the most budget accommodation options, so why not team up? Dealing with the initial challenges of facing a foreign language, foreign culture and simple lack of local street smarts in a strange land is much less intimidating when you’re with another clueless person.

The word ‘Official’ doesn’t actually mean ‘Official’ in many countries. In many airports, you’ll immediately notice booths and signs in the arrivals area advertising ‘Official Taxis’ and there will be people yelling out ‘Official this’ and ‘Official that’ in an attempt to convince you to use their services. But don’t be fooled, in some airports it seems that anyone is allowed to use this word, even those involved in the most unofficial of operations.

In fact, this is also true with the word ‘Government’ in some airports as well. Signs for ‘Official government taxis’ may lead you to an unlicensed guy with a car parked a mile down the road who will proceed to rip you off and just maybe, as happened to me in Bangladesh, kidnap you for a couple of days. So, this is where taking a break really pays off…it gives you time to find out exactly where the official ‘Official’ taxis or other transportation are located.

At the end of the day, you don’t have to plan every detail of your trip ahead of time and that’s not even something that I would recommend. But you certainly don’t want to arrive in Bangkok or Delhi or Buenos Aires or Cairo, overflowing with excitement about your upcoming travels, only to have all of that positive energy immediately sucked straight out by a negative experience as soon as you land.

And if the difference between a frustrating, upsetting initial experience and a much smoother, enjoyable one lies simply in a cup of coffee and sitting in a chair for twenty minutes, I imagine you’d agree that this is an idea worth following!


Any other arrival advice to share? Do you usually plan your transportation ahead of time or do you just figure it out once you get to your destination?

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Comments 139

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  2. Mikaela

    and I am back again today – I cannot get enough of your blog!
    this is a fantastic post. I leave for my first solo trip on Friday in over 2.5 years and I am going to try this.
    I absolutely love this advice combined with your 5 minute meditation, as being tired was a real concern for me.

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  3. Vividscapes

    Stumbled on your blog from a fellow blogger on facebook and we really hooked, like your funny style of writing and useful information.

    This was by accident that we found the 20 min rest stop after landing during our last 2 trips, when we landed we just thought lets go to a nice little Cafe in the norwegian airport of Alesund, and it was then we felt this little break was quite refreshing and you posts sums it up nicely.
    We are planning to do this regularly on all our future travels too 🙂

  4. Laura (@ worldlynomads)

    Totally agree Earl! We’ve done this a few times but you can easily forget to with all the excitement of getting into and exploring a new place! Taking this time out is sooo helpful and has definitely saved us from a few snap decisions when first arriving to a new place….as a travelling couple it’s also useful being able to leave one person with the bags whilst the other checks everything out without looking desperate with a heavy backpack on, yes good thinking! Thanks for the reminder 🙂

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  8. Mike

    Great advice, and makes total sense. I’ve learned the hard way, like the time I had to walk from Jordan to Israel through 100 metre no mans land, spending about 2 hours trying to get through Israel immigration (put my luggage thru X-ray 3 times), and then was promptly ripped off by the first taxi I saw for a short drive to Eilat.
    Normally I rent a vehicle when arriving, and I think your advice is equally important in that situation to give you a chance to calm yourself before having to drive on the “wrong” side of the road, or weave in and out amoung crazy drivers…

  9. Karen

    I like the idea of resting right after a flight. You’re right that as travellers we’re just too focused on getting on from one destination to the next that we forget what we travelled for. For most, its REST.

    I will definitely make the airport cafe the first place to plonk down after a flight and get me sorted out before I enter the city. Thanks for the tip Earl!

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  13. Jonny Blair

    Hi Earl – nice post and interesting that you do this. I’ve actually done this twice before but only at airports while I was waiting on a mate’s flight to arrive. If I’m travelling overland and cross a border, I’ll usually try to head to the nearest town or city first to drop off my bags before grabbing a coffee or a beer. Coffee at airports is usually beyond my budget too. I carry sachets of coffee with me (wrote a post about it) so anywhere that has free hot water and a cup, I grab a free one! Safe travels. Jonny

  14. Pamela

    Wow, great tip there.
    This post make me think back on 2 occasions when I touched down onto the land of the unfamiliar after an overnight flight. One time, I rushed to get the train. I was kind of disoriented while trying to figure out how much to pay for the fare and get to the right platform. Another time I had time to get myself more oriented and confident because I had to wait for the airport shuttle to operate and bring me to my hostel. Now I realise the idling time was actually very helpful.

    I will make a point to ‘star’ this in my brain when I travel to another land of the unfamiliar.

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  17. Julia

    Great advice! I just gave a similar tip to a student of mine, advising that she go for a meal after any long bus ride. You always roll into a new place dehydrated and tired! Taking a break to orient and get some calories makes a huge difference. Thanks for sharing!

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  20. Anne

    Having traveled the world for more than 30 years (not continuously, but close) I think this piece of advice is nothing short of brilliant. Take a moment. That’s it. Sometimes the simple things are the very best. I may put this into our pre-departure documents (citing your blog & giving you credit, of course). Anne @onthemap

  21. Christine

    simple but very valuable advice, thank you. I will definitely take your advice and not just in airports but anywhere I find myself disorientated 🙂

  22. Jonathan Paradis

    Caught myself doing that at the Sheremetyevo International Airport. The train that’d take me from the airport to Moscow city centre wasn’t going to come before another 30 minutes. I think I almost cried when I walked away from the ticketing office only to find a Starbucks. It’s crap coffee, absolutely overpriced at $4 bucks for a drip and truthfully nothing special, but after four months spent in India it tasted just like home (Vancouver) and man that made me happy! Sometimes this forced break gets you to see something you didn’t even know what you needed hehe! Starbucks aside, the tip’s a really good one. After long-haul flights, you really are spaced out and taking a few minutes to actually land can make you much more aware of your surroundings and avoid getting ripped off. Good tip, pal!

  23. Michelle

    Great advice and I’ll definitely try it out when I go on my first solo-backpacking trip to Asia. Whenever I travel with friends or boyfriend, upon arrival we immediately look for the fastest way to get into the city, not allowing ourselves any time to just sit down and get accustomed for a bit, which results in arriving at our destination feeling rushed and tired. Never gonna do that again!

  24. Erin Walton

    Earl, of course. Of course, of course, of course. I never do that – and now, will never NOT do that again. It’s so true that when you arrive, you’re exhausted and disoriented and much less likely to make your best decisions. Fabulous advice: And easy. And free! I’ve only just found your site – and so am looking forward to more.

  25. Passport Dave

    Great article. I have always done this when I travel, didn’t realize there were others out there doing the same. I just liked avoiding the crowds, so I chill and wait for them to dissipate before coming up with a plan.

  26. Lien Pham

    Hi Earl,
    i really enjoy your blog and love to travel independently whenever possible … thanks for sharing these awesome tips! i am originally from VietNam, went back there 6,7 times and completely understand about the ripoff :-(. Bon voyage! lien (from California) 🙂

  27. Ros

    Hi Earl
    What a great blog! Love it! I like this advice; you are so right! We have a 7 year old now so a little harder to travel but easier as he gets older. Years ago we landed in Lisbon and got pounced on by the first guy who offered us accommodation. We were lucky as it was genuine but it is truly so easy to be ripped off by people who prey on us tourists. Next time we travel (to Vietnam in October), I will be conscious of your “20 minute advice.”
    Happy travels!

    1. Earl

      Thanks Ros! And I’m sure this ‘trick’ will prove useful in Vietnam. It has yet to fail me 🙂 Enjoy your travels as well!

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  31. Fatima

    Great advice ! I’m heading to Paris tomorrow from London …by bus! And will definitely be tired and disoriented when I arrive. So thanks! Will have coffee and sort myself out before happily getting lost with the French 🙂

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