These are in no particular order, because one is really no more important than another. They're all just as important to ensuring that you are as prepared as you can be.
1. Language. This is the first time that we'll be visiting a country that doesn't use the Latin alphabet. So it's a little tougher to learn some basic words and phrases, but we think it's really important to the people and culture of the country that you're visiting to at least be able to say "hello" and "thank you" in the language of their country. Other important words like "beer" and "wine" are likely to come in handy as well!!
Many online dictionaries and translation services not only show you the direct spelling translation, but they also show you phonetic pronunciation which is vital when you're trying to learn something that's written with the Korean alphabet!
Hello = 안녕하세요 pronounced "ann-yeoung-haseyo"
2. Money. Many people think that it's okay to simply take the U.S. dollar where ever they go and they'll make out just fine. Well, you probably will make out fine, but you'll pay for it! In our experience, you are always better off using the currency of the country that you're visiting. And figuring out the real exchange rate in advance to know what kind of value you're getting for your dollar is the only smart thing to do. The "real" exchange rate is the one that is used to actually change your money, not the "market" rate.
Then, once you know the exchange rate, you make yourself a cheat sheet and print off a small hard copy to keep in your wallet or purse so that before you hand over a fistful of oddball currency, you'll know exactly how much you're paying. Here's our cheat sheet for Korea...
500 Won = $0.57 $1.00 = 871 Won
1,000 Won = $1.15 $2.00 = 1,742 Won
2,000 Won = $2.30 $5.00 = 4,355 Won
5,000 Won = $5.75 $10.00 = 8,710 Won
10,000 Won = $11.50 $15.00 = 13,070 Won
25,000 Won = $28.70 $25.00 = 21,780 Won
35,000 Won = $40.18 $40.00 = 34,840 Won
50,000 Won = $57.40 $50.00 = 43,550 Won
75,000 Won = $86.10 $75.00 = 65,330 Won
(These are based on the Canadian dollar, so the U.S. dollar would be slightly different.)
3. Transportation. Planes, trains, or automobiles?? And don't forget about buses and ferries! We've learned that you can save a lot of money knowing how things work in different countries. For example, in England you will get the best train deals by booking far in advance. The closer you get to your travel date, the more expensive your ticket will be. Not necessarily so in other countries...everywhere is a little different.
We're looking forward to trying out the high speed passenger train in Korea! Called the Korean Train Express (KTX)...
The KTX train regularly travels at 305 km/h (190 mph)!!!
4. Touring. We always research Unesco World Heritage sites, and we've never been disappointed when we arrive at these world class travel destinations. But we also use the tourist websites of the various regions we travel to. Every major city has a tourism website, and if you can't find what you're looking for they're always willing to help via email. With very few exceptions, their job is to make sure that you enjoy your visit.
Another great website that's fairly recent, but getting better all the time is Wikitravel, the online travel encyclopedia that is written by other travelers. Lots of useful information!
5. Food. What are you going to eat, and how much will it cost you? An example of being prepared comes from our son Alex who is touring Europe just now. He knew in advance that Switzerland is a very expensive country to visit, but he was a little shocked to find out that a Big Mac would cost the equivalent of $14. And that's just for the burger...no fries or drink included!
So, you need to learn what the locals eat and how they do it. In Mexico, the locals will head to a street food taco stand for a quick meal. Inexpensive, and usually really good! We've read that in Korea, a popular inexpensive meal is a spicy chicken stir fry dish called "dakgalbi". We're looking forward to eating lot of dakgalbi!!
6. Accommodation. This may seem obvious, because of course you're going to have to research where you're going to sleep. But there are a lot more options than just your typical hotel! We learned in Slovakia that some of the best places to stay were the "pensions" which are typically apartments that have been added on to someone's private home. Also while the downtown areas of the big cities are usually worth visiting, we've found that the experiences you'll get by staying outside of the big cities in some of the smaller towns off the beaten path will offer you a much more culturally enriching experience.
Always worthwhile to look for something different as well. We came across Korea's TempleStay program which turns out to be very reasonably priced and is sure to be an interesting highlight of our trip.
7. Paperwork. Tourist visa's, shots, inoculations. Make sure that you know how long you're allowed to stay in the country you want to visit and if there's any paperwork or forms that you need to get filed in advance. It's different for every country, so know before you go! We know that citizens of Canada are allowed to visit South Korea for six months visa free, yet citizens of the United States are only allowed 90 days. So there's a perfect example. Why is there a difference? Who knows. But there is, and you need to know this stuff.
8. Etiquette. People in different cultures do things differently. And what's normal in one country could be considered rude in another. Here's an example...
Flagging a cab in Canada or the U.S.? Hold your arm out at a 45 degree angle with your idex finger pointing up. In Korea, that might get you run over. That style of arm gesture is reserved for animals. You need to hold your arm out parallel to the street with fingers pointing down.
And, when eating at a dinner table with others, you never begin to eat until the eldest person at the table has taken a bite of their food. If you are the eldest? Eat up!
When drinking soju (a popular Korean alcoholic drink) you never refill your own glass. And you always keep your eye on your companions glass so that you can refill it...because they are not supposed to refill their own. And, you never refill until the glass is totally empty!
So, it's wise to read up on these things in advance!