Denmark 101 – The Secret to Meeting Danes – Episode 6

Perhaps THE most common question among recently arrived internationals in Denmark is, “How do I meet Danes?”.

In this video I delve into the topic, offer suggestions and a few comments that should ease you in the process and help you better understand why building Danish friendships can, at times, require an entirely different approach than you may be familiar with in your home culture.

Don’t miss Episode 7 which builds on this video with specific advice on how to make Danish friends. See it here.

Sorry about the light! Sun came out and overwhelmed the camera.

Want to start at the beginning of the series? Jump to episode 1.

Denmark and it’s residents are a fascinating group. In this video series I leverage my observations and research to share with you insights into how to get the most of your interactions with the Danes and your time in Denmark regardless of the duration of your visit. One day or ten years – my goal is to share observations I’ve made from my 5 years of living, studying, and working among the Danes.

If you’re Danish, hopefully you’ll find this series interesting, a bit informative, and not too outlandishly inaccurate. So far the feedback and input has been great and I look forward to continuing to further exploring Danish culture with you.

If you’re a foreigner coming to Denmark, I hope this helps you build upon observations and insights the rest of us had to find out the hard way.

Topics that will be covered include the Danish approach to nudity, how to make Danish friends, how to meet Danes, Danish manners, studying in Denmark, working here, traditions, key behaviors, taxes, dating and even a look at Janteloven.

Stay tuned for future updates – this is just the beginning!  Can’t wait?  Jump to YouTube and view all of the latest episodes and while there make sure to Subscribe!

Your First Two Months Will Define Your Study Abroad Experience

I remember the surreal exhilaration as I took that first step onto Danish soil.  Even as a veteran traveler I still couldn’t help but feel a bit like Neil Armstrong as he stepped out from the Lunar Lander into the unknown.  For me, it was the start of a two-year full degree program at the University of Copenhagen and a radical change from my lifestyle over the previous three years spent working 9-5 in the mergers and acquisitions industry. I was incredibly excited but also positively terrified. Living it at the time was a bit overwhelming but, as I look back, it was one of the best experiences of my life.  It was also a major learning lesson where I made mis-steps and could have done some things better. Overall though, I made a lot of great decisions and have relatively few regrets.

Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

Over the past few years I’ve worked with a lot of international students who have been engaged in a variety of different programs which range from semester exchanges to multi-year full degree programs.  In so doing I’ve noticed a couple of trends which are deeply ingrained in human behavior which can do a lot to shape how much you get out of your international study experience. Chief among these is tied to your behavior during the early-arrival period and how you form your daily routines.

You Will Never Make Friends Sitting In A Dark Room By Yourself

Women Relaxing - Copenhagen, Denmark

It has been 22 months since I arrived at Copenhagen Airport lugging three over-sized suitcases and a backpack.  I arrived in Denmark with lots of assumptions and unknowns and very little concrete data.  The sum of my previous exposure to Denmark stemmed from meeting Danes abroad, reading about a quirky Utopian liberal paradise in the frozen north, and two glorious summer days spent in Denmark the year before. At the time I didn’t know the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic, though I had mastered the fact that Danes spoke Danish, Germans were Deutsche and the Dutch were from Holland.   I assumed that Copenhagen’s “difficult” housing market meant I’d have to look at 5 or 6 places and it might take a week to find somewhere – not that I’d spend four months searching, having to interview like I was applying for a job, to get a room. I also traded an extensive local social network in Arizona for Denmark, where I knew virtually no one.  When I arrived I intended to stay for two years, but told myself that if I didn’t like it or couldn’t cut it there would be no shame in packing my bags and heading back to the US where I had a deferred acceptance to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. waiting for me.

I remember the moment when I walked out of the airport, fighting with my bags, in search of a luggage locker to store two of the larger ones.  It felt like I’d just been smacked in the face with a fresh fish.  In part because of the light Danish rain that was falling, but mostly because that’s when it finally registered completely that I had conquered my fears, bypassed the temptation to self-sabotage myself, chosen a direction, closed my eyes and jumped…to a totally different continent.  It hit me then, completely, that I was now responsible for building the next stage of my life.  A two-year period, assuming I didn’t blow it, that would require me to re-orient myself from the corporate lifestyle I had grown accustomed to in favor of the lifestyle of a student.  That I would need to not only adjust to student life, but Danish student life, and the life of an expat. It was an incredible feeling…but it was also a fantastic amount of pressure. There was the pressure not to fail myself, my family, my friends, or my future.  It weighed on my mind heavily over the first few months as I fretted over how I would perform as a Danish MA student. I paused to ask myself if I was doing all I could to help myself succeed while doing a periodic gut-check to see if I was suffering from homesickness. To the first – I could have done more, but did well.  To the second – to this day I’ve never had a bad case of homesickness.

Spring in the Mirror

The First Few Months

The first few months were not easy. The Dorm offer I received from the University of Copenhagen’s affiliated housing program was dreadful: situated 40 minutes outside of town in a deeply residential area that was predominantly home  to other International Students. I refused it and casually searched for a more centralized housing option.  For the first month I had a place to stay because of an incredible referral that was a text-book illustration of Danish hospitality, and the power of my international social network. I looked for apartments but still didn’t completely understand how the Danish rental market worked. I resisted getting into a housing agreement because my Visa and Residence Permit was still being processed in what dragged along for a vexing and gut-knotting four plus month ordeal.  After a month staying with my first friend, he now had new renters moving in. He referred me to a friend of his who put me up for another two months.  I had arrived at the end of July. By late October my residence permit finally came through. Shortly thereafter I thought I’d found a place, only to find out six days in that my 42-year-old male roommate not only found me very attractive but was also extremely odd. It was very uncomfortable, but makes for a comical story. I moved out on the morning of the 7th day. When I told him that morning he cried. After a third month back with the friend who had been putting me up, I finally got frustrated by the apartment hunt and offered 200DK a month more than the asking price for a room. It worked. By December I had a furnished room at a reasonable price in an excellent location.  With a permanent address and my Visa/Residence Card, I was able to get my CPR number which is effectively the Danish version of a Drivers License and Social Security Card all rolled into one.  It meant I could finally register for a cellphone plan, get internet, and a bank account. In short, I could begin to settle.

The combination of visa and housing woes were partially compounded by a strange first semester as I re-integrated into the academic world. I can’t say that I felt like I was homeless for the majority of my first semester in Denmark, as that isn’t accurate, but I was in a transient state. It made settling nearly impossible and sucked up a lot of the energy I would have otherwise liked to have invested in meeting people and really hitting the ground running. Luckily my classmates were fantastic and we bonded quickly which did a lot to help offset the periods of fairly deep loneliness I felt during my first couple of months. This was a time where I worked to push my comfort zone and struggled to re-develop the skills needed to meet strangers and befriend them. During that time I grew a lot, despite it being fairly difficult and at times uncomfortable.  I would go to the local hostel bar and hangout with travelers, go to the movies alone, and at times head to the bars alone and force myself to meet random people. It worked, but was hard and draining. It was also made even more difficult by my lack of regular access to a Danish cell phone and the internet.  Things I needed a CPR for.

YGWA Conference 2013

Mentorship

During that first semester I participated in the Full Degree Mentor program.  My mentor was a Danish girl who introduced me to a local library where I could write my papers, talked with me about Danish lifestyle, and helped translate apartment listings and websites when I ran into issues. She was super busy but always available and helpful.  In retrospect I should have reached out to her far more often and felt less guilty about asking for general help and insights into social activities. At the time I felt somewhat awkward about being overly needy and like I didn’t want to bother her or intrude.  Over this past semester I had the chance to pay-it-forward and serve as a mentor for several incoming students. Now that I’ve spent time on the other side of the equation, I realize that I could have and should have gotten significantly more out of my mentor/mentee relationship – not because she failed me, but because I failed to realize the potential of the program. At the time I had trouble accepting that it was completely OK to ask simple questions and that as mentors we are not only there to help with small and big things alike, but also eager.   To make introductions, to facilitate meeting people, and to connect for coffee or social outings. At a certain level the mentor is often available and doesn’t know what you want or need help with until you ask.  To that end, what I got out of the mentor program was directly related to what I showed I needed.  I’m independent and self-directed. In this case, that go-it-alone approach undermined my success.  I’m a bit jealous of new students entering into the program because the mentor program is being significantly expanded and improved upon.  It will provide a lot of additional social and academic support – things that the early incarnation of the program lacked two years ago.  The new program also provides a lot of events which allow students to meet each other and connect – something that would have been an incredible asset for me when I was first adjusting to Copenhagen but which was lacking. I think these changes will make future Full Degree students’ experiences much smoother and significantly less stressful.

In tandem I also signed up for a professional mentor matching program which was run by the University of Copenhagen and operated university-wide.  The lion’s share of the programs were for Danes, but I made sure to dress in my suit and attended the information day.  The combination of my professional appearance and previous work experience as Research Director in the M&A industry led the Siemens representative to give me her e-mail and ask for my resume. I followed up, and based on her suggestion, listed Siemens as one of the three companies I applied for with a professional mentor.  Despite my inability to speak Danish, they chose to make an exception. I was later matched with their Communications Director in what has been a wonderful mentor/mentee relationship providing fantastic insights into the Danish workplace and professional landscape. Even though the program ended late last year we have continued to keep in touch.

The Hill - Copenhagen, Denmark

The Education

Earlier I mentioned that my first semester was strange.  In truth, I was terrified that the Danish University system would be brutally difficult.  That, despite graduating from Arizona State University’s Honors College and a solid academic background, I would be generally outclassed by my classmates – the best and brightest from everywhere from Denmark to China to Germany. What I found instead was a comfortable program that was still young and experiencing significant growing pains.  Created two years before as a new initiative, the program was full of challenges.  Challenges that were compounded by a number of significant administrative issues, including having one of our professors deported to Australia two weeks before our final exam was due.  These flaws generally impacted class morale across the program and left many of us frustrated.  The upside was that the Danish system is heavily paper oriented with the primary method of examination in most of my classes consisting of either a final 20-25 page research paper, or 10-15 page paper with a 30 minute oral defense.  The remainder of our course work was relatively easy to handle and played to my strengths.  As a native English speaker, I also enjoyed the advantage of writing in my mother tongue. Beyond that though, I realized why American universities, despite their many faults, are some of the best in the world. They prepared me, and drilled into me habits and protocols which have allowed me to excel within the Danish academic environment.  Where I initially thought that the program itself was  easy, I’ve come to realize that it was actually quite difficult by traditional standards. It played perfectly to my strengths, abilities and existing knowledge base.

Now that I better understand the Danish academic landscape, I’ve come to realize just how varied the different programs and universities are. Where I initially thought that the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) was a subset within the University of Copenhagen (KU) just as the W.P. Carey School of Business is a college within Arizona State University, I now know that the two operate independently but still maintain the opportunity to take transferable courses.  I now also know that CBS tends to be very practically oriented while KU tends to be much more heavily focused on a theoretical and academic approach to a university education.  Both contrast against Roskilde University’s heavily humanistic approach, and differ from the Danish Technical University’s (DTU) hard science and math-based approach. If I had taken more time to learn about the different universities and had better understood the differences early on, I believe I would have been much better positioned to custom-craft my education and take full advantage of the highly flexible nature of the Danish university system.

Another key consideration that I wish I had known from the start is the difference in definitions and organizational structure. While the Danish University system is deceptively similar in many ways to the American university, there are basic differences in how material is classified and what material falls under what category.  When I applied for the Communication and Cognition program, I anticipated that the communication component would build heavily upon my bachelors degree which was focused in Human Communication with Mass Communication influences as well as some Journalism cross-over.  What I found instead was a program that was more heavily oriented towards communication theory and communication philosophy with an even greater emphasis on cognitive philosophy and cognitive theory mixed in with lightweight neuroscience.  Programs that I initially assumed would have fallen organically under the Communication category within my program were instead set up independently as different departments such as Film Studies, Media Studies, Rhetoric, IT and Cognition.  While not directly related to my studies, a poignant example of this is the difference between University of Copenhagen’s Theology Department and Religionsvidenskab or Religious Studies Lab and other specialized programs such as Arab Studies in the Cross Cultural and Regional studies program which are spread across three very different study areas.  An international looking to study religion and religion(s) might assume Theology would be the obvious landing place for them, but would quickly discover a program structured and designed for the education of Christian Clergy. These subtle organizational differences were deeply confusing initially.  Ultimately, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration, and misplaced discontent, if I had realized the need to do less narrow research and to take into consideration that these structural and definitional differences might exist.

One final academic takeaway is the difference between ECTS points, the Danish 7 point grade scale and their American alternatives.  While the US operates on a credit hour-based system with the average bachelors degree semester consisting of around 15 credit hours at 3 to 4 credit hours per course, the Danish system utilizes ECTS points which roughly equate to expected time investment for a given course.  At KU my courses have mostly fallen into a 7.5 or 15 ECTS point category depending on anticipated scope and involvement with a typical semester ECTS load of 30 ECTS (equiv. to 30 hours of work per week) viewed as normal and on track.    While somewhat difficult to translate across, the ECTS system is relatively straight forward and used across Europe.

On the other hand the Danish 7 point grade scale is an absolute disaster.  The Danish grading scale was re-structured several years ago in a process similar to the US’s switch to the + or – A, B, C, D, E/F system.  The Danish switch was made in an effort to simplify the old 13 point system while creating a new system that better translated to international systems such as the US’s.  In addition to widespread confusion about the new scale, it is extremely counter-intuitive.  While called the new 7 step scale, it actually ranges from -3 to 12.  To further muck things up the scale has gaps and the 7 steps are actually 12, 10, 7, 4, 02, 00, -3.  The scale officially translates differently to the ECTS based scale and the US grade scale.  This wouldn’t be an issue, except that there is massive confusion over what quality of work a 7, 10 and 12 equates to.  Danish transcripts utilize the ECTS conversion which maps a 12 to an A, a 10 to a B, and a 7 to a C.  The way the Danish professors grade, however, translates more accurately to the US version which maps a 12 to an A+ (near perfect/perfect), 10 to an A and A-, and a 7 to a B or B+.  Meanwhile at the bottom of the passing scale a 02 or “adequate” grade awarded in Denmark registers as an E on the ECTS scale (and the official transcripts) which signifies a fail or incomplete in the U.S. system. This despite a 02 actually reflecting a D, D+ or C- by US standards.  Given that most international employers and Universities aren’t regularly exposed to Danes and the Danish education system, I feel that this is likely a significant source of mis-communication.  I know that within our department, at least, it is only now after two years within the system that I’ve started to fully understand it.

The Largest Tuborg in Copenhagen

Social Reflections

A lot of people fail at prolonged study abroad/exchange/expat life. Ultimately, one of the primary reasons is an inability to successfully socialize and adapt to their new living place.  This post is titled, “You Will Never Make Friends Sitting In a Dark Room By Yourself” because at the end of the day the benefits from study abroad are more experiential than academic.  The lion’s share of the experience, the learning, and the incredible moments I’ve had over the past 22 months comes from hands-on learning and growth.  It has been a wonderful learning opportunity  for me and a time for fantastic introspection and self development. I would have missed out on the vast majority of that if I confined myself exclusively to my studies and severely limited my social involvement or confined it solely to expats.

It took me about 8 months to start to feel settled. The first three months were the hardest and it progressively got easier from there.  BUT, those first three months would have been significantly better had I socialized differently.  In many ways, outside of networking and socializing with the people from my program (about 90% of which were international students) most of my interactions with other people were 1-offs. The common advice given to most new arrivals is to join an association or to pick up a sport.  I find watching sports to be painfully boring and outside of ballroom and salsa dancing, have a general dislike for playing most sports bred by years of dealing with fantastically bad coaches.  To make matters worse, outside of Risk and Monopoly ,I find board games and card games similarly dry and painfully uninteresting.  It generally takes friends to make friends while going drinking, and many of my other interests – travel, photography, space, philosophy, and topics such as business and politics aren’t the type of thing that are easy for casual socializing.  My solution? To push myself periodically to get out of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, that’s draining, stressful, and daunting. So, far more often I stayed home, logged on Facebook late at night and chatted with my friends back in the US.  While this helped me offset the feeling of loneliness, it did little to help me properly integrate or connect with people here in Denmark. The fact that my housing, cell phone and internet access were all a mess for the first 5 months made it worse, but did not need to be anywhere near as prohibitive as I let them be.

What I should have been doing was attending faculty Friday Bars, signing up for Couchsurfing meetups, finding and attending groups on Meetup.com, and tapping into a wealth of fantastic expat (and non) networking groups and events through Facebook.  It took me almost a year to start to get introduced to things like Science and Cocktails – a bi-monthly meetup which is free, and provides a wonderful evening drinking old-fashioned cocktails overflowing with dry ice, served up by Danes in lab-coats  – all while listening to brilliant scientific minds give a casual introduction to things like CERN or Super Volcanoes.

I also should have been working to organize things instead of allowing myself to wait and hope for invitations to events. Over the past year I’ve learned and realized something I already knew but wasn’t acting upon. As an international, the way you make local friends is by inviting locals (in this case Danes) to interesting events. It’s something I’m still horrible about.  The other realization I’ve had is that while it’s great to make social friends while drinking, if you want to convert those into more general day-to-day friendships you need to diversify when you do things.  That means other activities during the week – catching concerts, going to shows, or getting together for dinner or a coffee on a semi-regular basis.  Also, yes, sports do help.  After an initial series of salsa evenings that left me with a less than complimentary view of the local Copenhagen Salsa scene I took a four-month break and gave up on it as a local way to network.  Luckily five months in a friend dragged me out to a new place.  The new venue was everything I thought Copenhagen was initially lacking.  Through it, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and connect with a lot of wonderful people – both Danes,and Internationals.  Many are students, but many are also business professionals.  Over the last year I’ve also gotten more involved in the local University culture – the highlight of which was joining the Youth Goodwill Ambassador Corps. A group of wonderfully motivated and like-minded international students. The program has created great connections, while also introducing me to fantastic opportunities such as the recent chance to meet HRH, Prince Joachim of Denmark.

Which leads to the next point.  Students are great, but to build long-lasting connections to a place you need to diversify who you’re connecting with. Students, especially international students and expats, are in transient stages in their lives. The average professional expat stays in Denmark for 3-5 years.  The majority of the international students in Copenhagen are on Erasmus or semester exchanges which means they are in Denmark for four to six months. These relationships can be excellent and I’ve developed a truly global network of great friends as a result, BUT for someone in my position doing a two-year program it has meant that a huge chunk of my social network leaves within two to three months of our friendship’s maturing.

Ultimately, time and money are the two biggest challenges I’ve run into.  As my two year program winds down and I reflect on my time here in Denmark there’s a lot more I could have done (there always is) and that I could have done better. I got a lot out of my time at the University of Copenhagen but the reality is that I could have gotten more heavily involved, attended more social events, and connected in a much more extensive way with the Danish students. I also have a lot of wonderful casual friends/acquaintances that I am confident would be fantastic friends if I just had, or made, the time to be more pro-active in spending time with them.  Nothing simple, nothing complicated, just inviting them for coffee, a drink, or to catch a show a few times a month. I know this, and yet it is challenging. In part because I still find myself slipping back into that dark room, content to chat with friends 3,000 miles away on lazy evenings.  Beyond that though, there is a second room that is deceptive.  The friends I’ve made through my program and which I hang out with regularly are fantastic. So much so that it is easy and comfortable for me to spend all my time with them, or working on my personal projects (eg: this blog). The reality is, however, that crutch also prevents me from properly responding to and realizing the invitations that potential friends and casual acquaintances send my way. It is also expensive to socialize. Even when the time for a coffee with a different friend is available, the $5-10 required for a coffee or beer  adds up quickly.

Relaxing in the Park - Copenhagen

Will I Stay?

As I work on completing my thesis and winding down my MA program I am incredibly happy with my choice to come to Denmark.  While this post focuses predominantly on things I’ve learned or could have improved upon and want to share with other potential study abroad students, I have fallen in love with Copenhagen. The people are spectacular, the history fascinating, the culture engaging, and the city deeply charming.  Denmark, and Copenhagen more specifically, is doing a lot of things right. While it has its moments of tomfoolery common sense is present here in a way I always found deeply lacking in Arizona.

I am currently in the process of transitioning from academic life back into the professional world.  As I do so I am working towards a skilled worker visa and full-time position in Denmark.  As I make that transition, I am reminded of the absolute power of a vibrant social network and the pivotal role it plays in launching a successful career.  While this is a period for reflection, I also plan to take the lessons I’ve learned over the last 2 years and work to more aggressively implement and act upon them moving forward, particularly if I find myself presented with the opportunity to stay in Denmark for several more years. I feel as though I am well on my way down the path toward comfortable integration.  Moving forward it is just a matter of continuing to overcome bad habits while building upon good ones.

This post is part of a series of pieces I have written reflecting upon my time in Denmark, Danish culture and Study Abroad.  Please consider searching the archives for previous posts related to Denmark.

Crash Course Advice For Travel Photography

Traveling Boots - Isle of Skye - Scotland

A huge chunk of the travel photos I see on a daily basis are horrible. Not just amateur shots from friends and strangers, but also from semi-professional travel bloggers and established travel brands.  It always amazes me how many photos are horribly grainy, low resolution, blurry, crooked or nonsensical.

There’s a reason that people dread that moment when a friend or family member returns from a trip and is eager to share the 3,000 photos they took over the course of their two week vacation. About 10% of the usual photo show is interesting, well-composed, and speaks to the audience.  The remaining 90% should have been sorted, filtered, deleted, or saved for personal use.  As my friends and loved ones can tell you, I still have issues with this one.  We all do.  So, don’t view this post as an absolute do/do not, view it as suggestions and guidelines to aspire towards.

Alex Photographing Elephant(Photo by Ed Berger)

Four Types of Travel Photos

First things first.  It’s important to understand that you shouldn’t just be shooting one type of photo.  Far too often people aim for the “postcard perfect” photo while deleting everything else.  Or the “in the moment” type of photo that captures the spirit of the moment.

The reality is, that you should shoot with two to four potential uses in mind.

1. Record Memories – Believe it or not, you can and will forget some of the most amazing and magical moments experienced on a trip unless you document them somehow.  For some people writing a journal works.  For many of us, we’re visual and taking a photo is a huge help.  This means that you should be taking a lot of photos and that many of these photos should be for you and you alone.  These are small things like a cafe where you had coffee along a small side street, your first Argentinian steak, or a photo of the random local you swapped stories with in a tiny Irish pub over your first pint of Guinness.  For years I either wouldn’t take these shots or I’d delete them as random garbage that didn’t meet the “postcard perfect” standard.   I now keep these photos and like to go back through them a few years after returning from my trip.  It is amazing the things they bring back to mind.  The majority of these photos should be kept private.  Outside of particularly flavorful photos, these shots are likely boring to others without the richness that was added by actually having experienced the moment.

2. Postcard Perfect Shots – These are the photos that you will want to share.  These are the photos where you composed it beautifully, where the sharpness is excellent, there’s not too much ISO noise and you have a share-friendly image.  For every 200-300 photos most of us take, we’ll get 5-10 of these types of photos.  These are the shots where all of the photography guidelines and best practices are extremely useful.  Things like the rule of thirds, good framing, balance, lighting etc. are all important.  There are thousands of how-to guides for improving general photography and I suggest reading at least a couple before taking your trip.

3. People – There are portrait shots and then there are people shots.  A good portrait shot falls in the “postcard perfect” category.  What I suggest for the third type of travel photography is general people shots.  Travel is a social experience.  You meet other travelers, you spend time with traveling companions, and even have some great conversations with local folks along the way.  Take photos of those people. Even better if those photos capture them being natural – relaxing, playing, eating, chatting – you name it. It humanizes the trip and it provides fun photos to document the social side of your experience.  It’s also a great way to keep in touch.  A few years back I explored the power and value of facebooking travel photos in my post “Personalize Your Travel Photography”   and it is more true today than it was in 2009.

4. Utilitarian Photos –  As a travel blogger there’s a whole subset of photos that I need to take that will help me visually convey the things I write about.  These photos are not works of art by themselves, rather they’re illustrative tools that help enhance a post but are too weak to be shared or consumed on their own. It’s important that I take these photos, edit them and upload them but it is equally important that I don’t confuse these shots as the types of shots I want to showcase and highlight.

Each of these four potential types of photos should be sorted during your post-trip photo editing.  Go through and ask yourself where each photo you’ve decided to keep belongs and then sort them into separate folders.  Once that’s done, choose how you want to share each one.  Remember, for your travel blog or journal you can always pull from the different folders simultaneously.  But, I always find the act of having to sort my photos and having to categorize them is incredibly helpful when deciding what I should keep, what I should share, and what I should publish.

A Social Polar Bear

The DO and DO-NOTs

DO NOT use digital zoom – All digital zoom does is crop the photo in the camera.  It will make your photos grainy and decrease the quality on anything larger than your 3″ camera screen.  Have to zoom in? Zoom to the max mechanical zoom your camera has and then take your shot.  You can do your own digital zooming in post-editing if absolutely necessary.

DO NOT post crooked photos – The way we hold cameras is awkward.  As a result, most of our photos end up being slightly crooked.  That’s a natural part of photography.  BUT, there’s no excuse for not rotating and cropping your photo before publishing it. It takes 5 seconds and is essential for creating a decent photo.  The only exception?  When you’re intentionally being really creative and meant to have a crooked horizon or photo. Be honest though, were you being “artistic” or were you just standing on a slight incline?

DO edit your photos in Picasa or Lightroom – There are great photo editing solutions available now that streamline the photo editing process. Picasa (free) is good for absolute amateurs while Lightroom ($75-150) is fantastic and used by most semi/professional photographers. They make processing and work flow MUCH easier and faster.

DO use automatic presets – Not a veteran photographer shooting in RAW and familiar with the details of AV/TV/P/M settings? The modern point-and-shoot camera is really smart.  Even the dSLR presets for those who are still learning but not completely comfortable fiddling with things like aperture, white balance, and ISO work well.  Shooting fireworks?  Use the fireworks setting.  Landscapes?  Use the landscape setting. Sunset?  Definitely. These presets will adjust the colors, exposure, and speed to help take really rich photos. Auto is great, but the scene and auto-presets are even better!

DO NOT keep blurry photos – A blurry photo is blurry.  Yes. It REALLY sucks you missed the moment. It doesn’t matter. To everyone else your photo looks like a blurry mess. Would you watch a blurry movie?  No. Want to avoid blurry photos?  You’re shooting digital.  Take multiple photos of particularly memorable or beautiful moments. Never be afraid to delete photos later. Just make sure you are actually willing to delete them.

DO be interesting – When taking photos of people or posing for photos try and be interesting.  Be silly, flavorful, active, or engaged.  Otherwise you’ll have what looks like a mugshot that’s been photo-shopped in front of a bunch of beautiful places.

DO wait 30 seconds – Take the extra 30 seconds to make sure there aren’t an army of other tourists in your photo.  It always amazes me how often people post photos of themselves from their trips and the photo is a close up of them, and a bunch of tourists in the background that detract from your main subject. People will move. Just be willing to wait a few seconds to set up a shot properly.

DO NOT upload low resolution shots – Whatever you upload to the web should be at least 1024 px wide. AT LEAST. Do NOT upload low resolution versions of your shots to the web. Worried about people stealing them?   Fine.  Upload a medium-resolution shot.

DO NOT over watermark – You’re proud of your photo.  You don’t want people to steal it.  Fine.  If you absolutely must add a water mark, then make it SMALL and SUBTLE. Think of a watermark as an advertisement.  Would you go see the Mona Lisa if it had an ad for a website semi-transparently painted across her forehead?  No. You’re sharing your photo, so share it.  If someone steals it, then you can deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

DO be aware – When framing your photo constantly ask yourself, how much of this is what my eye sees, and how much of this is what the camera can see and capture?

DO buy an extra memory card and batteries – There are few things worse than accidentally deleting photos or not being able to take photos because you’re out of memory.  Similarly, even the best photographer in the world can’t take a photo with a dead battery.

Remember – travel photography is a work in progress. Anyone can take amazing shots, some just have to work a little harder at it.  I still have a lot to learn, and my photography (and post-processing) is constantly improving.  Following the simple suggestions outlined in this post should help you make major advancements in your travel photography without having to get too deep into the technical minutia of advanced photography.

If you’re in the mood to hunt for Lightroom, extra batteries or an SD card – I’m an Amazon affiliate and you can help support this site by clicking this link.

How and When to Buy Airplane Tickets – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here.  To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later.  Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike.  In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week.  You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.

This week’s travel question is from Kate K. she asks,

Q. “When is the best time to buy plane tickets? Are the rumors on when to buy true?”

A. – The simple answer concerning many of the rumors tied to airfare is yes, they still hold true. Despite significant disruption within the industry and major consolidation over the last decade the actual dynamics of pricing and booking flights for more traditional airlines haven’t changed much. For the cheapest tickets, you should plan on flying on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday. If you don’t have time to hunt aggressively for airfare, watch for airfare specials, or to fiddle with your departure dates, the conventional wisdom that booking 1-2 months ahead of time is also likely your best bet.

However, as with most travel related questions there are a number of exceptions. When booking airfare you need to differentiate between budget airlines and traditional airlines. While booking several months in advance with a traditional airline is likely to give you a middle-range/better than average price there’s no such guarantee with a budget airline. This is because budget airlines tend not to be that cheap on a standard flight basis. If we use industry leader RyanAir as an example their generic sticker price is often fairly comparable (and sometimes more expensive) when compared to a traditional airline. Users booking with a budget airline should always book at least 1 week in advance, but also need to monitor the company’s website regularly looking for one of their specials or sales. These sales are often held several times a month and will drastically alter the cost of your ticket turning $150 tickets into $10 tickets, etc. In these cases individuals booking ahead of time without doing their research are almost guaranteed to get an inferior price.

When booking with more traditional airlines it’s important to keep in mind that the airlines have a variety of tiers set up for seats on each flight. While the seats themselves are identical, the airline only offers a certain number of seats in each price range. The more demand, the fewer budget seats available and the higher the price. In the past when airlines were more inclined to under-book aircraft you’d see prices fall closer to departure as the companies rushed to fill empty seats. Now, with most flights overbooked you’ll find this happens far less often making last minute ticket purchases far more risky (and expensive!). This approach to pricing seats is why you’ll see significant fluctuations in pricing from day to day. The advantage of booking early is that it locks you into one of the cheaper ticket tiers. The challenge can be that it also means you may miss airfare specials, or price drops intended to help fill a flight that isn’t experiencing the same demand the airline expected. It’s also worth noting that in my experience airfare prices tend to be pretty stable 3+ months out. While prices vary somewhat, it’s really only in the three months before a flight that you’ll see prices start to shift radically from day to day.

If you know you’ll need to fly on a Friday, Sunday, Monday or close to a major event or holiday your best bet is likely to book as far in advance as you can. The same goes if you’re not able or willing to dedicate the time to monitoring and hunting for airfare. On the other hand, if you’ve got a little time to dedicate to the search, and are traveling on an off-peak period I’d suggest giving yourself a month or two to watch fares before eventually deciding to book. If you have a fairly inflexible schedule and are set on a specific destination, I usually recommend that people book airfare with a traditional airline at least 25 days before their flight. If, on the other hand, you’re looking at a budget airline I’d aim to have your ticket purchased at least a week before the flight.

More/specific questions about airfare? Let me know in a question and I’m happy to do my best to respond to them! You can also visit my Travel Resource List site for a selection of useful airfare search tools.

Kate, thanks for a great question!  To my readers – have a question of your own?  ASK IT!   Want to see previous questions? click here.

This post was brought to you in part by Waikiki hotels.

Credit Card Fees and Currency Concerns – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here.  To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later.  Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike.  In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week.  You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.

This week’s travel question is from Felice D. she asks,

Q. “Clarify the best way to get and spend other currency: credit union card? no exchange fee but processing fee? bank card? atm? pay with credit card? cash? and….how to recoup VAT sensibly”

A.p2 – I’ll start with your VAT (Value Added Tax) question first, as it’s the hardest to answer. Unfortunately, it’s not something I have a lot of experience with or have been able to find a good resource for. The way I travel most of my expenses are not eligible for VAT refunds. The process for claiming VAT also tends to vary widely from country to country and is dependent on the type of travel you’re doing. VAT for tourism and personal travel is different than VAT reclaim options for business travel. One of the best writeups I’ve found is tailored to Italy but should offer insights for reclaiming VAT in most places. Head on over and check out WhyGo Italy’s “How to get a VAT refund in Italy” post. On the flip side if you’re a business traveler one useful guide I tracked down is Deloitte’s European VAT refund guide 2011.  At the end of the day you’ll need to spend some time running a few web searches on the specific VAT policies of the country you’re visiting.  Consider how obnoxious the process is (eg: Italy) and how high the threshold is (eg: Denmark’s ~$50 minimum per shop). Also keep in mind the items that qualify for a VAT refund and if it makes sense to pursue.  In most cases you’ll probably find that it’s not worth the hassle.

A.p2 – Circling back to the first part of your question – there are a lot of different options for converting your cash to a foreign currency.  Which is right for you will depend heavily on the nature of your financial situation.  Different banks charge significantly different fees.  The fee structure also tends to vary between Checking/Savings and Credit Card accounts. I’ll answer these questions tailored to US bank accounts, but the advice will be similar for international readers as well.

When using a Credit Card abroad it is not uncommon for many users to get hit by 2-4 fees simultaneously.  For Checking/ATM withdrawals these usually come in the form of an ATM service charge for out of network use (as much as $6 per bank) and a currency exchange fee (often 3%). When using your Credit Card abroad many charge 3% per transaction, while many vendors will also charge a point of sale surplus charge of up to 3%.  Never use your Credit Card for a ATM cash advance abroad, only use your Checking/Savings cards at ATMs while traveling. Also, for fraud prevention reasons I suggest only using Credit Cards (not debit cards) for point of sale (non-ATM) purchases.  Despite how expensive the ATM/Credit Card combination is, it’s actually often the cheapest option and the one I prefer.

Luckily, if you’re smart about it you can cut many of these fees out. Unfortunately, it may require kicking your bank or existing credit card to the curb.  FlyerGuide maintains a fantastic list of different bank’s and their card fees. Different cards provided by each bank will also have different fees. For international travel CapitalOne has made a reputation for itself by waiving the 0% international transaction fee on its cards. This in turn has started a trend which is being duplicated by some of the other banks.  For low-fee, or waived-fee ATM use abroad, you’ll likely have to go to a Credit Union or carry a large balance in your accounts. While this can cut the fee, it can also limit where the card can be used, so do your research ahead of time.

I suggest avoiding the use of traveler’s checks. While they can still be useful in some limited situations, the general consensus within the community is that they’re typically far more hassle than they’re worth.

Similarly, avoid currency exchange booths whenever possible.  Not only do these tend to charge obnoxious fees, they also will give you extremely bad exchange rates.  It’s not uncommon to see people leave 6-10% of their cash value at the currency booth when using these vendors.  Regardless of the various promises they may make or claim.

Money wires tend to be extremely expensive.  Unless it’s an emergency you’ll want to avoid these wherever possible.  If absolutely necessary explore online services designed as disruptors such as PayPal and its competitors.

Another option is to purchase your currency before your trip. This can be done through your bank, or a third party and is usually relatively affordable. Unfortunately, it also creates a huge problem for travelers traveling over an extended period of time or with healthy travel budgets.  If you expect your trip’s cash based expenses to be more than $1,000 USD (which is probably conservative for most of you), keep in mind that you’ll be stuck carrying that money during your trip.  If you get robbed, lose a bag, or somehow are separated from that currency you’ve lost far more than the 3-5% max you might have paid using a carefully selected Debit/Credit Card combination. For this reason I almost never travel with more than $200-300 USD in local currency on me (and usually have far less on my person).

Ultimately the best approach will also depend on the region you’re visiting.  Keep in mind that different banks and card services (MasterCard, Visa, etc.) are accepted to varied degrees from country to country.  Similarly, your cash will go much further in some countries than it will in other’s requiring fewer ATM withdrawals.  The level of crime in a country is also a key factor when deciding how much money you should keep on your person.

Hopefully this helps you as you prepare for your next trip.  Did it lead to a more specific question?  Feel free to ask in a comment below.

Please keep in mind that the above are general suggestions based on my personal experiences and research, not financial advice.  The material covered in this post is constantly changing, so make sure to do your own research using what I’ve shared as a foundation and a baseline to help you in the process.

Felice, thanks for a wonderful question!  To my readers – have a question of your own?  ASK IT!   Want to see previous questions? click here.

 

Five Major Differences Between Long-Term and Short-Term Study Abroad Programs

The Round Tower - Copenhagen, Denmark

It sounds simple but if you’re like me, you probably view all study abroad programs as essentially the same, and you probably view most international students similarly as a result.  Hold your horses!  The two are actually vastly different.

I’ve participated in the two extremes of study abroad.  My first introduction was the summer after my Freshman year of College at Arizona State University.  I attended a six and a half week study abroad program through the Barrett Honors College which spent three weeks in London, ten days in Dublin and twelve days in Edinburgh. We traveled, we explored, we took two courses, and it was a great intro to international travel.  In the 7 years since I completed that program I used it, movies, and conversations as a general way of relating to all of the international students I met.  While it helped some, I now realize I made a lot of mistaken assumptions.

Just over three weeks ago I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark where I’ll be spending the next two years pursuing a masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen. An experience which I’ll be documenting here on VirtualWayfarer.  My formal studies start in less than three weeks and without even beginning the academic portion of the experience I’ve already realized that long-term study abroad and short-term study abroad are vastly different.

To clarify terminology – when I say short-term study abroad I’m talking about trips which last less than 7 months but longer than 5 days.  When I say long-term study abroad I’m including year long programs but mainly focusing on complete degree undergraduate and graduate programs.

Here are five of the key differences:

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

1. Commitment

As scary and challenging as short-term study abroad programs can be, you never truly have to commit to leaving.  The study abroad trip is an adventure, sometimes a relatively long one, but always experienced with a set perception of your native country as home.  You know that you’ll be going back at the end of that program and even if that program is 6 months long, you’ll always be in a social/passing through phase.  While you may become a participant in the local culture, you’ll never find yourself striving to become a truly active member or to go native.

In a long-term study abroad program you have to go all in.  You’ve committed to something more than just an extended visit and are literally moving to your destination country.  You operate on the realization that in the 1 to 6 years you’ll be gone that everything will change drastically, that you as an individual will be completely different, and that you are re-locating your home.  There is a realization that to not only enjoy, but to survive the experience you have to make an effort to go native.  That you will be changing far more than just where you sleep and study, but also how you eat, how you socialize, and perhaps even some of your core assumptions and values.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

2. Support

One of the best parts about a short-term study abroad program is that almost everything is taken care of for you by the partner schools, program coordinators and chaperones.  You’re told exactly what to do to engage in the process, where to be, and what to expect. Things like housing, transport, and course registration are handled, and most programs have you experience the trip as part of a group of people from your University or home country.  For my first trip this consisted of  two courses taught by faculty from my home University and our group was made almost entirely up of students from Arizona State’s Communication and Honors colleges.

While the experience may vary, I’ve found that long-term study abroad comes with significantly less support.  Especially for international students who are completing entire degree programs.  As a full program international student you’re not engaging in a study abroad program, so much as you are opting to study abroad.  The subtle difference is that while one is a program, the other is standard application and acceptance in a University that just happens to be international.  That means that virtually nothing is taken care of for you, though most Universities offer international programs offices which try and provide some guidance and limited help. At a basic level, however, consider all of the things that go into applying for College or Graduate school as a student attending an out of state school (housing, strange fees, long distance phone calls, different time zones, different banks, paperwork, transcripts, moving your possessions etc.) and then consider doing those internationally across thousands of miles.  Things like visa processing and paperwork, language barriers, international time zones, and vastly different education system structures all come together to create a very challenging and daunting experience.    Believe me, trying to complete the housing and visa process alone with minimal guidance or support is an incredible challenge and one that has left me with more than one sleepless night.

Candy and Scale - Copenhagen, Denmark

3. Different Educational Systems

While most people know this, I don’t think people truly internalize the fact that school systems around the world differ greatly. American educational systems are vastly different than European systems which are completely different than Asian systems.

I mentioned earlier that for my short-term study abroad experience we brought our own teachers with us.  You’ll find that in most short-term study abroad programs the academic coursework and structure remain largely the same as the country of origin.  This makes sense as switching back and forth for a few weeks/month-long program would be messy and confusing.  It also goes back to the experience as a visitor vs. participant/member.

Long-term study abroad programs, however, are done in the local educational system.  Remember – you’re just a regular student who happens to be from abroad.  As a participant this means figuring out and learning vastly different registration, course schedule, course load, teaching style and testing systems.  Even the little things like how course hours are credited can be vastly different.  For example while US schools operate on a credit hour basis, University of Copenhagen and most of Europe uses the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

Street Music - Copenhagen, Denmark

4. Social Restart

I mentioned earlier that short-term study abroad programs tend to set you up with, or travel in packs.  Even though you probably didn’t know most of the people before the trip began, you’re put with a group that automatically forms into a new peer group/group of friends. Some will become great friends, some you’ll tolerate because, hey, it’s only a few weeks or months, and one or two you’ll probably absolutely detest.  Ultimately though, this becomes your social network while traveling and fills in for your family and friends back home.

While there is some of this in long-term study abroad the nature of the program makes it significantly more difficult. There’s a huge sensation of loss as you realize that you’re not returning to your regular social group and good friends in a couple of weeks or months, but that it will likely be years. Years during which they may get married, move elsewhere, or change drastically as people.  As a long-term student you also have to effectively start over from ground zero.  One of the biggest frustrations I hear from people who did long-term study abroad programs and had negative experiences was that they never managed to meet new people or establish a new network.   It’s tough, and it takes an active willingness and investment in meeting, connecting, and generating friendships in a way most of us haven’t done actively in close to a decade.

There is no fall-back social group, or core-social group that you can always spend time with or call up to go grab a coffee, see a movie, or grab a beer. That sense of initial isolation is where I’m at right now, and while I feel very positive about the people I am meeting and my ability to build a new social network here in Denmark, it can be rough at times.  A lot of that will also change as the other international students starting my program arrive in town and courses start giving us an easy common thread to network through.  Still, that in and of itself poses another challenge as I know that if I’m going to be here for two years I need to do more than just hang out with other international students. That means going outside of my comfort zone and doing things that are far less comfortable for an international student – it means committing myself to the culture.

I’ve met some great people in the three weeks I’ve been here, and as orientation starts up I know I’ll meet a wealth of new ones. Despite that, it has definitely been a vastly different experience than traditional short-term study abroad.

Dad and I

5. Family

I always wondered how my international friends, roommates, and acquaintances dealt with being away from family. I come from a very close family where my parents, brother and I talk regularly, travel well together, and have an incredible relationship as peers.  For a long-time I wondered what long-term student’s relationships with their families were like that they were comfortable and able to leave their family for years at a time.  I think at a certain level, though I’m a bit ashamed of myself for it, I assumed that their relationships with their families must not have been incredibly close which made it easier to spend time away.  I’m happy to say I had no idea what I was talking about.  Leaving family behind and knowing that visiting and communicating will be much more challenging is easily one of the toughest things about long-term study abroad, but it in no way reflects the strength of the relationships between an international student and their siblings/parents.

As I write this I’m engaged in a two year program which may extend into a PhD and has the potential to lead just as easily to an expat scenario as a return stateside at the end of my two year program.  Two days before I flew over to Denmark my brother flew to Africa with the US Peace Corps for a two year deployment to Zambia.  Moving thousands of miles away, after spending most of our lives less than an hour away from our folks and each other was an incredibly difficult decision. But it was one that was made possible largely BECAUSE of how close our family is.  Their support, encouragement, and constant wisdom made the move a reality.  So, I encourage you all not to make the same mistake I did.

Are you thinking about studying abroad, or have you done a short or long-term program?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, observations and answer any questions you may have!

International Airports and Luggage Storage (Short and Long Term)

Tempe Sunset with Landing Airplane

When I arrived in Copenhagen to begin my two year study abroad program my flight got in at 10PM, I had a backpack and three 50 pound suitcases with me.  As a lone individual it was way too much for me to get into the city on my own.  Luckily, I was able to store two of those suitcases at the airport which brings me to today’s topic: luggage storage.

There are a wealth of reasons for why you may need to store your luggage at the airport. From simple logistics (like mine) and extended layovers to more complicated reasons.  I’ve seen people who were spending time in two vastly different climates and needed two sets of clothing.  Instead of hauling extra weight and bulk which they had no hope of using, they got a locker and stored it at the airport.

If you’re like me you may be wondering A) Are luggage storage/lockers affordably priced and B) In a post 9/11 world, do they still exist?

Is Post 9/11 Storage Possible?

Surprisingly, the answer seems to be yes for most major airports.  The trick is that they’re no longer (if they ever were) a stand alone department and operation.  Which means you’ve got to be slightly creative when researching if the airport you’ll be using offers luggage storage services.  The most common place to store luggage is actually at the lost luggage counter.  They have the facilities and infrastructure in place and for a daily fee will usually keep an eye on your bags for a few days, weeks or in some cases months.

Many airports also maintain coin operated luggage lockers. However, these tend to have been isolated and reinforced for security reasons. At the Copenhagen International Airport there was one set of mixed size lockers located across from the main terminal structure along a side wall of parking garage 4.  Unlike the lost luggage counter, these lockers were completely automated and had a 72 hour usage limit.

Since arrivals and departures can occur at all hours of the day make sure to do your research.  I did not and by the time I arrived in Copenhagen the lost luggage/luggage storage office had long since closed.  If not for the outdoor luggage lockers, I’d have been left stranded until the office re-opened 6 hours later.

Keep in mind that your airport may have storage services, but those services may be located in/near another terminal. Plan accordingly.

Is Airport Luggage Storage Affordable?

This is always a subjective topic. One person’s affordable is another person’s daily budget. That said, I’m inclined to say that depending on how you intend to use the luggage storage service it is typically well worth the cost.  In reviewing pricing across several airports the standard cost per day seems to be around $6-15 USD.  Depending on your needs and the airport you’re using many of the lost luggage storage services charge on a per item basis, while the luggage lockers tend to be based on size. When I used the “large” luggage lockers in Copenhagen one cost me 60DKK a day, or about $12 and fit two full sized suitcases with room for a third.  Quick online research suggests that large lockers are available at the Barcelona airport for 5.60 Euro, and in London Heathrow  lost luggage storage is 8 GBP a day per item and items can be stored for up to three months.

While you’ll almost always be better off storing your luggage at your hotel or hostel when possible, if you find yourself in a pinch or need the added security of a monitored/longer term/on site storage service there are still great options available to travelers.

Have a favorite resource for finding up-to-date information on an Airport’s luggage storage facilities and pricing? I’d love to know about it.

Don’t forget to pick up several TSA friendly Combination Luggage Locks for use on your baggage as well as securing your hostel locker.