Top 12 travel tips for (women) expat scientists

squat toilet travel tips

If your career takes you abroad you may suddenly realize that you have become a world traveler, master of airport layouts, and acquired a sixth sense for booking cheap flights. It happened to me overnight.  I went from being a mid-western girl afraid of moving to university, to living in South Africa and traveling between the USA, UK, SA via Dubai, Amsterdam, Dakar, Abu Dhabi, Frankfurt, Atlanta, NYC JFK… I have made many travel mistakes along the way, so I’ve laid out the following 12 travel tips I wish I had known at the beginning of my live abroad.

1. Get the additional pages option for your passport


It may seem like over-kill, but getting the extra pages now will save you from having to send your passport back home later (and a fee). Keep in mind, some anal-retentive countries, ahrem USA ahem, require that you have at least 2 blank pages to enter/exit their border.

2. The beauty of credit cards with no foreign transaction fees & travel rewards


Credit cards charge a small percentage every time you make a purchase in a foreign currency. This seems like a small unavoidable inconvenience to life abroad, but don’t be fooled – those cents add up quickly and you will use your credit card more than you expect.  Cannonization requirements are more amenable than what’s needed to open a bank account abroad, so you will be completely reliant on your credit cards for a lengthy bit of time.  During my first year in South Africa, I spent nearly $300 on foreign transaction fees and it took me three years to open a proper account there.

Also, look for a card with travel rewards.  You will rack up tons of miles while living abroad.  Do this sooner rather than later, otherwise on your fifth trans-continental flight, you will realize you could have earned enough miles for a free ticket home (or Fiji) by then!

Here is a great resource that compares several different travel related credit cards.

3. The mind-blowing 6-8 week rule for booking flights


Economy seats are all the same and everyone has paid a different price.  The recommendations for when the best time is to book a flight are multifold (i.e. Tuesday morning just after midnight, never on the weekend, after the full moon sets after the Sunday 2 weeks before you fly…), but I have found all but one of these to be completely useless. Plane ticket prices tend to drop to their lowest possible rate around 6-8 weeks before you intend to fly, but will sky rocket <6 weeks before you fly.  Find out what this 6-8 week sweet-spot for your flight is by searching for “hypothetical” flight prices 6-8 weeks from today.  Once your flight hits the sweet-spot, don’t hesitate to book.  I have lost $400 for waiting one day too long!

You can set up price alerts for flights on SkyScanner – but be warned, the alerts are not always up to date, but they do serve as a nice daily reminder to check what the prices are.

4. Ear plugs are your unexpected new best friend


Travel with earplugs, not to block out the stereotypical crying babies on every flight, but to block out that constant mid-frequency yheeeeerrrrrrrrrrr of the airplane engines in flight. After +10 hours of flying, that noise becomes the bane of your existence. Also, most cases of airplane insomnia can be solved by blocking out that irritating ambient yheeerrrr. Bring several pairs of earplug along, because you are bound to lose only one of them.

5. The best place to sleep in an airport when traveling


When you are an exhausted woman travelling alone on a budget with, say, a 5-hour overnight layover in Johannesburg, you need to find a safe place to relax and catch a few hours of sleep. Every major airport and most smaller regional airports have a prayer room that is open 24-hours a day. They are rarely designated by signs so you will have to track down an airport map (also a rarity) to find them (better yet, plan ahead!). This elusiveness means that they are empty, quiet, warm rooms, where you can easily find a corner to sleep on top of your luggage without worrying about being starred at.

6. Your phone, containing all of your travel info, will fail you when your need is greatest


This great tip comes from @chenghlee. We now rely heavily on electronic gadgets when we travel, especially when it comes to leaving the airport. To avoid catastrophe, take a few minutes to write down hard copies of this important information just in case your phone takes a swim on a squat toilet or decides to wait for your return at Starbucks.

6a. Related note: What is a squat toilet and how to use one?

squat toilet travel tips
Yeah – what?

Here is a woman’s guide to using a squat toilet.  Yeah, there’s no toilet paper.  That’s what your hands, and that bucket, are for.

7. Carry-on luggage: Less is best


During a long-haul trip with many layovers, carry-on luggage is a complete pain in the ass. It may seem like a good idea to bring your purse, backpack, and small luggage bag with you, but by the third time you have to go through security or fit yourself and all of your bags into a restroom stall, you are going to realize the error of your ways.  Take one light backpack (with purse inside) and avoid bringing your laptop if possible (even the small ones get heavy very quickly + their chargers + the charger adapter). You, and the queue of people waiting for you to fit everything in the overhead bin, will thank me later.

8. Once it’s packed: Never get into the overhead bin again

Get yourself a nice fleece jacket with multiple pockets.

Left pocket – iPod & headphones
Right pocket – sleep kit (earplugs, eye mask, natural sleeping aids) and mints
Inside pocket – Tampons, regardless of cycle timing! It is a little known fact that a woman’s uterus can detect when she is sitting in an airplane seat, and an unusually heavy cycle will start ~30-60 minutes after take-off. Ladies, your best defense is a good offense.


9. Avoid chronic dry mouth/nose from recycled airplane air


Get a dark coloured, thick, long scarf. When you sleep, wrap this scarf around your eyes and drape over your nose/mouth. This will trap your travel breath (unintended bonus) and keep your eyes, nose, and mouth moist. Ignore this tip and suffer the consequence of large sharp boogers during the passport control queue.

10. Always travel with chocolate


I always travel with something that has chocolate and something that has nuts, or a delicious mix of both worlds. Chocolate has literally saved me during 2-hour long security/passport checks, detainment (it could happen to you – especially when traveling with research equipment!), and airports full of closed stores/restaurants.  Also, security guards are very unlike to take away your precious chocolate.

11. Beware the slippery slope of free wines on international flights


Free alcohol?!  What could go wrong??  Loads.

Drinking during your flight dehydrates you and makes jet lag a million times worse. However, always ask for more wine and secretly stash the mini-bottles during your last flight. Enjoy your spoils at your final destination (great way to make friends at a hostel)!

12. Necessity: Refillable metal water bottles


Not only are you being unintentionally eco-friendly, these bottles are handy for storing water and fragile valuables like sunglasses.  If you’re moving water, empty them before going through security, fill ‘em up from the drinking fountain afterwards. If you get trumped by a second set of security checks, you can always dump it out again. Take that $7 bottles of water!

BONUS tip!


Space bags. Space bagsSpace bags!


ex·pa·tri·ate /eksˈpātrēət/

noun a person who lives outside their native country. “American expatriates in London”
adjective (of a person) living outside their native country. “expatriate writers and artists”

I have lived on three continents, married a foreigner, and immigrated two house cats from Africa to the UK.  I know the best place to sleep in an airport, residency requirements for most of the EU, and how to make detainment enjoyable.  I am an immigrant worker, émigré, expatriate.

This blog is general updates about my life as an expat scientist, the joys and the hardships, triumphs and setbacks.  My post topics will range from research, science, immigration policies, conservation and – most importantly – to how exactly do you move your cats (and all of your hoodies/cardigans) overseas?  I hope other expat scientists will find these blogs relatable and humorous while aspiring expat scientists will learn from my mistakes.

This blog will also host guest blogs from fellow expat scientists full of advice and wisdom for those thinking about becoming an expatriate for their career.