Tips on traveling abroad for a startup event

Michael K. Ocansey
Jun 19, 2018 · 6 min read
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Somewhere in Geneva (July 2018)

Over the past 18 months we have traveled quite a lot for several startup competitions, boot camps, technology fairs and summits. During this period we’ve been quite surprised and sometimes shocked at how startup founders (especially our African pals who are traveling for the first time) came abroad so unprepared. We have had to on few occasions bail some people out. This article is to help first time travelers (especially Africans) going for such events to prepare properly.

Double check your visa

The embassies sometimes make printing mistakes on the visa they placed in your passport. The name or anything else can be misspelt. The slightest misspelling especially in your name means the visa you’re having isn’t yours and immigration in the destination country can hold you for forgery. Very important to ensure the details in the visa match what’s in your passport bio page.

Most importantly check the expiry date of your visa to ensure you’re traveling within valid dates. You don’t want to get to Europe only to realize you need to get on the next plane back because your visa expired while you were in the air.

Don’t forget your travel insurance

This document is mostly used for the visa application but you need to also carry it with you when you travel. Even if you’re never asked to show it, it’s best to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

Have hard copies of all relevant documents

Yes we know you can have all such documents on your phones and tablets but guess what, paper doesn’t run out of battery your device might. You may need to present your return flight ticket, invitation letter and/or your hotel reservation to the immigration guys in the foreign country. It’s usually faster to just hand these on paper than try to pull out emails having these as attachments.

Know where you’ll stay — at least

Make sure you memorize the name and address of where you’ll be staying. You’ll look suspicious if an immigration or passport control officer asks where you’ll be lodging during your stay and you fumble. Also, in cases you need to take a taxi to the accommodation you should be able to tell the cab driver where you’re going.

Have some foreign currency not your local currency

With all due respect, your local currency is probably useless beyond your country’s airport. Switzerland might probably be the only foreign country that’ll accept to convert your local currency to Swiss francs. Makes sense. They hold the world’s cash. Please please please have foreign currency with you. I mean cash.

Most of these startup events promise you some stipend but what they mostly don’t state is the fact that the stipend comes at the end of the event. Yes it’s never made sense to anyone but that’s how it is. You’d expect the organizers to know the money will be more useful during your stay and not when you’re checking out. Most events feed you breakfast and lunch so dinner is probably on you. Sometimes you get dinner but — more about this later. If you’re cashless you’ll need a miracle. You’ll be fasting anyway so a miracle will come quicker than usual.

Sometimes you may be tempted to believe it’s abroad so everywhere will accept cards. Some places don’t accept cards and also not all cards work outside your home country. Check with your bank before flying out to ensure the card you possess can be used abroad. Also ensure you know of any limitations they’ve placed on your card. There are times you’ll have a card that works but no ATM around you to withdraw any money. Cash is still king.

Things are likely to sound more expensive when you convert the prices of goods and services to your local currency so just don’t. You’re not in your country and the earlier you got over that the better.

Shut up and eat you African

The fact that we have very good food in Africa doesn’t make food everywhere else crap. Even if the food is crap you should know your host has feelings too. Just shut up and eat the damn food. It’s a different culture. Food is expected to be different. Try something new.

Find a McDonald’s fast

This is always a very important task to complete. You’ll thank me later. Sometimes at these events you attend dinners and wonder when the main food will be served. Well, guess what. You probably ate the main dish already. Ahuh! It was that tiny portion you were served. These guys still don’t know the capacity of an African stomach. Take a deep breath, now take out your phone, launch Google maps, type McDonald’s, start moving towards there. You’re sorted. You can pack a take away for all I care. It’s your $$$.

Cease fire for just a week

This article is to help you prepare for the trip so I might as well give this to you raw and uncut. You’re likely to experience some racist moments throughout your journey at transit airports, immigration related border control and even when in the country you’re attending the event at. You have the option to either wear your United Nations hat and try to prove that African lives matter or just chill and tolerate the BS for just a week — that is if you don’t intend to overstay. Come on. It’s not like everyone in the country hates you. It’s just some very random once in a while moments. Just chill.

The west isn’t as free as Africa

Back home I’m sure you can just whisk your willy out and pee in some gutter when you can’t hold it anymore. Pull that stunt in Europe and you’ll be famous for the wrong reasons. The kind of freedom we have in Africa isn’t the same out there. If you feel pressed and want to either pee or poop you’re better off entering a coffee shop or food place. They always have toilets but depending on which country you’re in you may need to buy something first and use some code on the receipt to access the toilet door.

Don’t go saying good morning to everyone you meet on the streets or in the train. They’re not as communal as we are. Don’t just cross the road the moment your mind thinks about it. You better go walk on the zebra. Have you spotted a friend 200 meters away? Don’t just scream their name. My advice! When unsure either ask or watch the natives. At least do as they do (but apply some common sense judgement).

Free WiFi available here and there

Data roaming on your local sim will be expensive so just turn it off. It’s likely to use your credit and not the bundle you activated before leaving. You might probably be staying too short to get yourself a local sim but luckily there are quite a lot of free WiFi places abroad. Most airports do. Every coffee shop is likely to have one. You don’t need to enter the coffee shop to purchase anything. Just stand close enough to get some signal and browse away.

Avoid confrontation with the law

Always carry your passport when leaving your hotel for town. Any police can randomly ask for it. The night club will surely require some ID proving you’re old enough to dance.

When taking public transport always ensure you have a ticket. Some events will give you a ticket lasting for your entire stay. Often they’ll tell you to always carry the ticket. You took the train a few times and never got asked for a ticket so decided it wasn’t necessary to carry it. The checks for tickets are mostly random so better to have it with you and save yourself the embarrassment.

Copyright laws are very much respected in the west. If you are a fun of ‘stealing’ music and videos using torrents, you better pause till you get back home. Yes the internet will probably be damn fast enough for you to download all the things in your queue before you get home. That’s probably the devil whispering in your ear. Don’t listen. You can easily be tracked and picked up.

Hopefully these tips save will someone the embarrassment.

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