Finding Your Wings on Your First Trip Abroad

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By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006

It sounds like a dream -- getting paid to travel around the world, hitting all sorts of exotic spots your friends only wish they could visit.

Overseas travel is increasingly an assumed part of many jobs. While it's an exciting prospect for young workers, it can also be nerve-wracking. It certainly worried one recent participant in my online discussion. "I'm going on my first business trip next week and it's a doozy: four weeks in Zimbabwe and Namibia. . . . I will be meeting with people a lot more senior than myself and am worried about screwing up in some way or another."

More experienced global travelers said it's not a bad idea to be a little freaked out, as long as it prompts you to prepare. After all, "going to India is not the same as going to Indianapolis," said Paul R. Ruppert, a wireless executive who has traveled more than 1 million air miles in the past five years alone.

Experienced globe-trotters offered these tips to improve your chances of having a good experience on your first overseas trip:

· Check your insurance. "Health insurance that's effective overseas is a must," said Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., whose 30 years in the Air Force took him to Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. "Travel insurance that includes the all-important benefit of medical evacuation is money well spent if you become seriously injured or ill." And check with your doctor before going to developing countries. "True, shots aren't fun, but neither are weird diseases," said Dunlap, who lives in the District.

· Blend in. "Listen more, talk less," Ruppert said. "Think as a guest and assimilate into the culture of the country you're visiting. . . . Take time to understand business practices and social etiquette in the country you are heading to," including guidelines for business dress and how you should present your business card. He recommends Executiveplanet.com, which features information on more than 40 countries. Learn at least basic phrases in the local language.

· Travel conservatively. Leave yourself room for error. "Since you're not a seasoned traveler with lots of frequent-flier miles, when they say get to the airport extra early, they are talking directly to you," said Alison Tompkins, who traveled to Asia, Latin America and Europe in 16 years of working in sales.

"There could be lines at every airport and at every turn you make (check-in, security, baggage check, passport check). So, if you're not familiar with the airport or how far away your gate is, check in and go directly to your gate. Then look for food or a place to read. For the inexperienced traveler, better safe than sorry," Tompkins wrote in a recent e-mail.

Also, consider taking an early morning flight instead of a red-eye, advises Vicki Caruthers, a sales director whose work takes her to Europe several times a year. "It gives you a chance to adjust to the time zone and get a night's sleep before your meeting. Unless you have no problem sleeping on an airplane, arriving jet-lagged and sleep deprived in the morning will make your first day difficult," said Caruthers, of St. Michael's, Md.

· Pack smart. Pick a limited, conservative color scheme and stick with it. "Being overdressed is better than being underdressed (even in Hawaii)," Tompkins said. "When in doubt, choose the suit and choose clothes that will not wrinkle. Garfield & Marks has a huge collection of suits that are great for long flights and look nice even after being packed for hours in the suitcase."

· Get your bearings. Dunlap recommends a half-day city tour with a reputable local company, if you can schedule it. "This will give you a basic orientation, as well as something to talk about with your clients. You may meet some fellow travelers, as well. . . . Look for an English-language local paper; they are fascinating and great for an overview of hot issues."

· Keep in touch. Remember that the "home office" won't be working the same hours you do, said Ruppert, who lives in Gaithersburg but has worked in more than 80 countries. To prevent mix-ups, change your voice mail on your desk and mobile lines to let people know you are traveling abroad so they know why you're not answering. Be careful with U.S.-based cellphones. "International roaming charges will quickly bring the attention of your boss and CEO," Ruppert said.

· Enjoy yourself. Trips such as these give "you the chance to be paid in two coins: cash and experience," Ruppert said. "Travel is one of the most liberating experiences in life. . . . So, keep yourself and your attitude open to making new friends and having new experiences. A foreign trip is the best opportunity for this."

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 2 p.m. Aug. 7 at http://www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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