One Very Important Tip for Novice International Travelers

Travel tips are a bit like salt water taffy on Halloween… you can find them anywhere and most of the time they’re pretty stale. I follow a number of travel experts on Facebook, Twitter, etc…   sometimes I see some good advice, but most of the time it’s pretty common sense stuff… even for the novice traveler (everyone knows to wear comfortable shoes when traveling on a long haul flight).

So (as someone who logs approximately 200,000 miles per year) what’s the one travel tip I would give… perhaps a clever bit of advice that a novice traveler may now know?

This became very apparent to me on a recent trip to Europe.  I was fortunate to be flying in business class and happened to be the first person to step off the Boeing 777 after it landed in Paris. On this particular flight a junior colleague was traveling in the main cabin and was unlucky to have a seat in one of the back rows of the plane. I ended up waiting 10 – 15 minutes for my colleague as I watched about 200 people step off the jet bridge and into the terminal.  Certainly it came as no surprise that the first 2-3 dozen people off the plane were the seasoned travelers – those flying in business class and premium economy. These folks were moving quickly and efficiently off the jet bridge at a brisk pace without delay.  The longer I waited and the more people passed, it was very apparent that I was watching less savvy and inexperience travelers. Of the last few dozen people off the plane, the majority appeared to be complete novices that looked bewildered as took their first steps on foreign soil. Most were traveling with companions or family members and I detected very little urgency with many of these folks. Some were looking for a restroom, others were stopping to reshuffle their hand luggage, many were casually sitting down to discuss travel plans with their travel mates. I even saw some that were stopping to take pictures as they documented their first moments in a new country.

If you’re a novice traveler and visiting overseas… or perhaps you’re a more seasoned domestic traveler, but traveling to a foreign country for the first time, there’s something you should realize.  Just past the breezeway, down the concourse, and around the corner there’s a immigration kiosk waiting for you… and there’s a nasty line you’ll be stuck in for a while. No way around it… YOU MUST PASS THROUGH THE IMMIGRATION LINE… regardless of the country you’re visiting… and THERE WILL BE A CONSIDERABLE WAIT TIME.  What’s a considerable wait time? Plan on 15-20 minutes minimum. There’s a chance you may be waiting for considerably longer… 45 minutes., 60 minutes, maybe more. For the record, I’ve been stuck in a ridiculously long immigration lines all over the world –  including at some very highly rated and (normally) efficient airports.  Off the top of my head I can think of a number of places where I’ve unexpectedly encountered long wait times:  Atlanta,  New York City, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Amsterdam, Paris, Casablanca, Santiago, Mumbai, Dubai, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo… the list goes on.  One of the worst I ever experienced was at the Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Turkey (see picture above).  I had been traveling for nearly 24 hours straight when I got unexpectedly caught in a frustratingly-slow-nearly-two-hour-long immigration line (notice there’s not too many people smiling).

I share this not the SCARE you (the novice International traveler).  Do understand… odds are still good that you’ll get lucky, (this is often the case when passing through a immigration at the larger European airports), and the wait time may only be 10 minutes and you’re done. However, there’s still a sporting chance you’ll be unlucky and potentially stuck waiting for 90 minutes or more.  No matter who you are, regardless of your airline status, and no matter when or where you travel… you could be topping off your delightful 10-hour long haul plane ride with a delicious 60-minute-or-longer wait…  AND THERE’S NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT.   What if you’re a business big shot?  NOPE… gotta wait in line. What if you’re a former teen idol and celebrity… NOPE… that’s a travel weary Donny Osmond in the picture below who was a few people ahead of me in the queue as we waited in line at the Heathrow (London) last year.


So on the return trip from Europe, I decided do a little test.  This time my colleague and I were both sitting near each other in Economy Plus.  As we were waiting to step off the plane I instructed him to text me the moment he cleared through immigration.  Meanwhile, I stepped into the bathroom for exactly two minutes and clicked the stop watch on my phone.  By the time I stepped out of the bathroom and onto the jet bridge, dozens of other passengers had passed me by into the terminal and ultimately ahead of me in the immigration line. Twenty minutes later I received a text from my colleague… he had cleared immigration.  I was in line for another 18 minutes.  My two minute bathroom break as I stepped off the plane resulted in a delay of 18 minutes because I stepped out of line.   This was in a mid-sized airport on a typical day when their were no other delays…   and no other (known) factors impacting my little anecdotal test.  Had I taken a longer bathroom break, in a larger airport… I can only imagine I would have been waiting much longer.

So the moral of the story… and THE ONE TIP I WOULD GIVE THE NOVICE INTERNATIONAL TRAVELER.   Don’t dilly-dally when your plane lands on foreign soil.  Use the bathroom an hour before you land. Have your hand luggage ready to go…  Tell your travel mates of your plans later.  It might not hurt to have a crossword puzzle or game of Sudoku ready – just in case you get stuck in a line.  Then…. as soon as you get off that plane, HUSTLE AT A BRISK PACE TO THE IMMIGRATION LINE.  This is especially true if you’re near the front of the plane… a lack of urgency could cost you considerable time (15, 20, even 30 minutes or more).  Get moving to that immigration line as quickly as possible, and you’ll be grateful later.  Safe Travels.