I have a dark confession to make: Even though I write a weekly column for an internationally read publication, until recently, I'd never even owned a passport. "But Gladstone," you say. "How is that possible when you're such a smooth and sophisticated man of the world?" I'll admit, it's puzzling, but the United States is not like Europe. Going to other countries here requires plane fare, and I didn't grow up with a lot of cash. By the time I had money, I had small children, and I wasn't going to have some European vacation dictated by infants.
"First we go to Prague!"
But a few weeks ago, an old friend of mine got married in Edmonton, Canada, and at the exact same time, I was invited to appear at the Edmonton Comic & Entertainment Expo. It was like a perfect storm calling me to a foreign land. (Shut up! It was a six-hour plane ride and it required a passport, so it counts!!!) I decided to take off to this exotic destination, but there was a problem. I was too old to be having this first experience -- much like Cracked's Soren Bowie, who had to ask a girl out for the first time at 27. (Before that, he'd relied on his now fading boyish good looks to get spontaneously molested by passing women.)
In any event, I decided to go abroad, but how could I do that without looking like a noob? I learned the hard way, but now you don't have to. Profit from my mistakes and follow these six tips so you can remain the confident, undetected tourist even when traveling abroad for the first time.
#6. Get Your Papers in Order
The first thing you need to do is make sure you're legally allowed to travel. If you're a terrorist or currently serving a life sentence, that can create certain obstacles. But for the rest of us, you need official papers to go abroad -- even if you write for the Internet. I checked. Here's a tip: You don't need to go to the post office or Kinko's for your passport photo. Instead, save a few bucks by going to your neighborhood bodega. There, you'll find a charming dude with a camera and winning personality. Only such a talented individual will be able to capture your best features.
The best thing about my passport photo was that I was able to get Gabriel Byrne's left eye to make a cameo.
Once that's done, just fill out the forms at the post office and pay like 200 bucks to expedite. In three short weeks, you'll be on your way.
#5. Pick the Right Country
Now, if you're a late-travel-bloomer like I am, you'll need to start small. You're not going to be able to pull off growing up in Wales and suddenly appearing like you're a super smooth world traveler in Beijing, China. Baby steps. If you're Spanish, try visiting Mexico. If you're French, try Quebec. And if you're American, try visiting anywhere in Canada that isn't Quebec. That's what I did. I left the familiar waters of the Northeast for the no-waters of Edmonton, Canada. Yes, Canada, our neighbor to the north. Some told me that Alberta is the Texas of Canada, but I've never been to Texas either, so it promised to be an exciting ride. And sure enough, when I got off the plane, I was greeted by something I'd never seen:
Yep, those Canadians sure know how to make baggage carousels festive.
But even though it was a strange and unfamiliar experience, I played it cool. Mostly because I only brought carry-on luggage.
#4. Learn the Currency
Normally, going to a foreign country means planning ahead, perhaps by getting some walking-around money in that country's currency. But if you're a travel novice like me, you totally forget to do that. Now you have to starve to death in some foreign land because you failed to convert dollars into lira or pesos or zagnuts or whatever weirdos use. But because I followed "Step 5: Pick the Right Country," all of that was avoided. In Canada, I was able to use my good ol' American ATM card and get Canadian bucks from a cash machine. What about the exorbitant fees for such an act? I don't know. My statement hasn't come yet, and when it does, I plan to claim that I was mugged by a roving gang of Canadian thugs.
I had heard that Canadians were too laid back to sweat details like numbers and science, but their currency has numbers on it, just like ours! I was sure to have smooth sailing from here on out. So with some time to kill before the wedding and the expo, I decided to check out the Art Gallery of Alberta. After all, I knew how to keep my cool in any art gallery: Walk slowly, nod, pretend you understand the significance of what you're seeing and tell the alt chick sketching on a bench that you really think she has a bright future. I was positive that this was a universal.
For those of you traveling, you'll know that you've reached the museum when you get to the building that looks like it was left in your pants pocket during a wash.
So I went through an exhibit of pretty neat pencil and ink sketches of monsters that were hundreds of years old and everything was fine. No one had any idea that I was American or devoid of even a rudimentary understanding of art. It was perfect. But then I hit the gift store to get some souvenirs for the kids. No problem there, right? Just because Cracked's Chris Bucholz, the only Canadian I know, was hatched in a lab as part of a supersoldier experiment is no reason to believe that Canadians can't have children naturally, right?
I bought about $11 of fun art museum stuff for my kids and paid with my Canadian $20 like a champ, but the girl behind the counter gave me a $5 bill and a bunch of coins. So this is how it was. The old Canadian shortchange-the-Yank trick. Well, I might have been a novice traveler, but I wasn't having it.
"Excuse me, miss, but it was $11, and I paid with a 20, and you only gave me back a five and a bunch of-"
It was then that I realized that the ridiculous mass of cheap, clanging metals in my palm were nothing like American coins. Canadians had coins for dollars and even two dollars -- commonly called "loonies" and "toonies."
For example, this = $4.30. Messed up.
"Oh, sorry, my mistake. I'm American," I said. Cover blown. Dejected, I did what any American would do: I sought out alcohol. Turns out that's popular in Canada, too.