Traveling tips from an international student

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On Aug. 24, 2013, I stepped onto Arkansas Tech University’s campus ready to begin freshman orientation. The day before, I had been on an emotional rollercoaster trying to get to America. The plan was simple. I was going to depart from Copenhagen at 6 a.m., have a layover in Frankfurt and Charlotte and arrive in Little Rock at 3 p.m. where the International Multicultural Student Services had arranged a shuttle for international students at 5 p.m. Nothing could go wrong. Except it did. However, I learned some tips I have used later on when I travel.

The day started out well. My family and I were at the airport at 4 a.m ready to check me in. One of my closest friends had come and surprised me with Danish liquorice and a Danish flag I could turn to if I would begin to miss home. Things went as procedure from Copenhagen to Frankfurt, but my flight to Charlotte ended up being 30 minutes late. On the ticket, I had an hour and a half to get through immigration. Now it was narrowed down to an hour. A knot in my stomach started to form as I was boarding. When I found my seat, I looked at my watch and prayed for no further delays.

My parents had tried to prepare me if something should go wrong or if I should be delayed. “Act like your grandmother,” they’ve said, because she always makes a scene when she is confused and gets assisted by flight personnel. Hoping I would get out of the plane first or get a priority notice through security, I told the flight attendant that I was getting nervous of not making my connection. She just padded me on my shoulder assuring me that I had nothing to worry about and that I would make my flight. I later found out that’s the standard response flight personnel gives you.

PRO TIP #1:

Flight attendants don’t care about the rest of your journey; their job is to make sure to keep you calm and comfortable while the aircraft is in motion.

After we’ve landed and the aircraft had been emptied, I had 30 minutes to catch my flight. And that was before I had to face the biggest time hump: Immigration and security. According to the Department of Homeland Security, in 2013 there were 173,100,000 non-immigrants admitted into the United States; 1,577,509 of them was students. August 23, I was one of them. I had heard horror stories and experienced a two-hour waiting process, so I ran from the gate to the immigration, pushing many passengers to the side in the process. It was effective; I was one of the first people to get through immigration. And that’s where my luck ended. I had to wait 15 minutes for my baggage to arrive at the carousel and carry it through customs.

PRO TIP #2:

Always plan to have more than a two-hour layover when you have to get through immigration and customs. That gives you time to handle delays and long lines.

When I came up the escalator I was faced with several different lines to security leading to different terminals and gates. Before I got oriented and found my way to the right line it had grown from 10 people to a 10-minute line. Only having a few minutes to spare I was frantically checking my watch wishing for the line to speed up. When there was only ten minutes left until my flight departed, I passed a security employee, and I told him my situation, hoping he would get the urgency of my situation letting me get to the front of the line. He didn’t; he padded me on the shoulder and said: “then you better run fast.” I looked at my watch again, and my pulse started rising.

PRO TIP #3:

Don’t expect special treatment from airport personnel; they don’t care how tight your schedule is. Their priority is to uphold order and make sure things run smoothly.

After I got my belongings through security I slid into my shoes and started running. Of course my plane was at the very end of the gate. With my heart in my throat, untied shoes, a pursed over my shoulder and with laptop, passport and jacket I my arms I was running towards a window that was slowly closing. When I arrived at the gate I was out of breath, and I was informed that the gate had closed a minute earlier. My heart sunk as I looked out at my future still docked but soon leaving without me. I was left alone with no clue on how to get to the university once I arrived in Arkansas. All of a sudden the stress I had been feeling the last half an hour was released, and I burst into tears feeling lost and defeated. I called my mom in despair and started to text my coach and the International Office at my school trying to figure out my next move. As I started to relax I was informed that many Asian students had been delayed as well so the international office had made an extra shuttle from the airport. Everything was falling back into place. I went to the desk where two women, who obviously had witnessed my mental breakdown, met me with a pity look in their eyes. I got booked on the next flight to Little Rock which departed 5 hours later.

PRO TIP #4:

If you miss your flight don’t panic; you’ll get on another one. Unfortunately airlines rarely cooporate, so it’s whenever the given airline have a route available.

Now having plenty of time to relax, I set out to explore the airport and to treat myself. Since I had finally arrived in America, I wanted to get some American food. I went to a sports bar to get an American burger and some fries; it was delicious. As I was eating I started to converse with a man sitting at a table next to me. His table was on a different level than mine and we were separated by a low iron gate but it was still nice to talk to somebody even though from the outside we looked like idiots talking across a fence. Looking back at all the stuff that had happened so far, I decided I deserved a treat and bought chocolate cake for dessert. Then I decided to go to my gate and wait so I was sure to get on the plane. At the gate, I met a woman who had missed the same flight as me and we started bonding. It turned out she knew Arkansas Tech University very well because her oldest daughter was a sophomore there. After telling my horror story of a day and her finding out that I was traveling by myself she gave me her business card to have in case of emergency as a support system. Four years later, I still carry that business card in my wallet. America seemed better already.

PRO TIP #5:

If you are stuck in an airport, make the most of it.

Once I arrived in Little Rock, I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept for over 24 hours and I still had a bus ride to go. Luckily, none of my baggage was lost and I found the shuttle group right away. The bus ride to our hotel was so bumpy, I was lifted off my seat several times making it impossible to fall asleep. Since it was dark outside, I couldn’t see a thing and I got flashbacks to African roads. Luckily, I sat next to a Japanese girl and we bonded over the miserable transportation. When we got to the hotel, I brushed my teeth and went to bed happy that the day was finally over.