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Fast Food, An Unusual Godsend for Travelers ?

Fast food restaurants can be safe havens in sticky travel situations, here’s how.

One of the biggest perks of traveling is trying exotic foods. However, the first thing I go for when arriving in an unknown place is a grease-soaked fast food cheeseburger.

Now, before you cringe and write me off as a charlatan, consider the following. If you are fairly spontaneous when traveling, at some point or another you will find yourself arriving in the darkness of night in a new city, possibly even a new country. Picture the situation: you buy a discounted last-minute ticket over the border and have to run to the station before properly researching your arrival. You turn up after midnight with no money, no knowledge of the language, no idea where to stay, and you haven’t the faintest clue about transportation.

You take your first tired step onto foreign soil and you’re instantly surrounded by sharks: the small but persistent minority, the taxi drivers who profit by ripping off tourists. You are the perfect mark, half asleep and lost. They are shouting and gesturing to you, “come here my friend! I give you special price!” You have no idea what the price should be — that’s a lot of trust to put in a stranger. The crowd is lousy, with pickpockets looking for an easy take and peppered with swindlers who want nothing more than to whisk you away to their run-down hotel, where you will be charged triple the normal rate and the management might pocket a little extra by skimming through your valuables when you are at breakfast.

You are in a bad situation. Obviously, you need to do something. This is where the cheeseburger comes into play.

First you briskly walk around the station until you find a bank machine. You make a point to stride with intent as to avoid looking lost or confused. When you find it, you scan for potential thieves and check the machine to see if it’s been altered or has a false front. Once you’ve determined everything is safe, you insert your card and then cover the keypad with your free hand while entering the PIN number. If you understand the exchange rate you take out what you need, but if it’s unknown you choose the third price option — not the tiniest or largest amount. Probably enough to cover transit, lodging and food for a few days.

You look around and see an international fast food chain — McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, whatever. When you go inside the security risk instantly drops. With all the cameras and the regular staff, this is not an ideal place for thieves and cons to operate. You go into the bathroom and stuff your card and passport into hidden pockets out of reach of sticky fingers. You buy a cheeseburger to fuel up and regain your wits. You pay with your largest bill — bank machines often give out big bills that small shops, kiosks and bus drivers won’t accept. Fast food chains, on the other hand, never seem to mind. An ordinary cheeseburger usually runs from one to three dollars, thus giving you a loose idea of the exchange rate.

Thanks to increased global internet access, most well-located fast food chains now offer free wifi. You get the password off of your food receipt and discreetly pull out a computer or smartphone to look up the exchange rate, as well as any common scams particular to this country, city and station. You shop around for hostel/hotel prices, calling a few via skype to check for availability and to work out the logistics of transportation. You book a bed and tell them when to expect you. Before logging off you scribble the directions and a few local phrases into a small notebook. You lock up your bag and throw the strap over your shoulder, striding out with newfound confidence.

Thanks to that gray slab of mystery meat, you have now drastically improved your circumstances. Your card and documents are safely stowed away, you have smaller bills to make purchases, you have directions to a bed in a place that’s expecting your arrival and the knowledge of how to get there safely without getting ripped off. Everything is ready; your bed awaits. Fast food restaurants are truly a godsend for travelers.

Filed under: Food, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Tristan Hicks is a compulsive traveler who believes that travel and “real life” can be one and the same. He has combined working and studying with his long-term travels, living in the seven countries to date and traveling in dozens more. He is currently on the road. has written 18 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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8 comments… add one

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  • Mark April 25, 2014, 8:49 am

    Excellent article packed with great advice. Thanks.

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  • Vito April 27, 2014, 10:46 pm

    This article makes no sense. Most people don’t just open their eyes to find themselves and their laptop in a foreign country. Virtually everyone is going to Google their logistics before taking the flight.

    And if that airport McDonald’s is anything like my local McDonald’s, they better continue to figure out their Day 1 logistics prior to arrival. They might be very disappointed by the erratic and unpredictable McDonald’s wifi.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey April 27, 2014, 11:08 pm

      I disagree with you completely. Maybe if you’re a tourist who has spend the past six months planning their vacation you have all the logistics of entering a new country sorted out, but if you’re on the road long term there are many times that you are going to enter a new country or city unprepared. The last thing I recommend anyone to do is to spend their days of travel sitting around in hostels plotting their trips every step of the way.

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    • Vito April 28, 2014, 12:33 am

      No one is talking about 6 months of preparation. It’s about 1 hour of preparation instead of dropping into some country with eyes completely closed.

      My point is that even people who just drop in – and I’ve booked cross continent flights <24h advance – can get these basics done before departure. I don't see why anyone would wait and then stress out at their destination like this. Maybe if they forget something…

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      • tristanbul April 29, 2014, 11:05 am

        Ninety-nine times out of one hundred you would be right. Yet sometimes travel plans do change or must inherently be fluid. It’s not always due to poor planning. You make a good point that some further detail may help the article, so here are two examples from my own life. Consider this a mini-article.

        After finishing my first stint living abroad, I was headed north through Bulgaria via the city of Plovdiv. The weather was fine when I left Istanbul, but upon arrival in Plovdiv the city been overtaken by a freak blizzard. Everything was more or less inoperable — shops were closed, public transit wasn’t functioning and my host was not at the station as planned. Having no way to contact my host (I had no phone that worked in Bulgaria), I had to leave the station and walk through the snowstorm until I found a still-open internet cafe.

        This was in 2007, before the ubiquity of smartphones and free-wifi. If it happened now? In the same situation, I could look for free wifi and contact my host immediately. No need to walk for three hours through dangerous weather with all of my gear on my back. Of course, if I had a guidebook or the foresight to write down backup hostels I could have found a place to stay easily… At the time, though, I was so broke that I was losing weight for lack of food. No way could I have paid for a bed even if I had known where one was.

        The second example is less extreme. In many countries, unless you’re in a very large city or a tourist hub there simply aren’t listings for cheap lodgings online. I’ve been based out of Seoul, South Korea all week. This morning I scheduled an important meeting for early tomorrow in Jinju, which is on the other side of the country. I had the option of either 1. catching the next train on short notice or 2. waiting until the morning to take the trip, risking a late arrival or missing the meeting entirely. I chose #1. I’m fairly experienced in Korean travel so I know how to find cheap rooms easily, but if this wasn’t the case I would still have made the same choice. With zero time for planning, the first thing I would do upon arrival would be to find wifi and search for “how to find cheap places to stay in Korea,” “hostels in Jinju,” etc.

        I hope this clarifies things a bit. Most of the time, travel comes pretty easily and we have the chance to plan at least a little bit in advance. Yet, this is not always true. Having the skills and know-how to compensate for those last minute surprises is the key to traversing the planet safely, cheaply and enjoyably.

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  • André Vieira April 30, 2014, 4:55 am

    Travelling is becoming so easy. What’s gonna be the next shortcut to make “it” easier? Good article.

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    • tristanbul May 1, 2014, 6:54 am

      Glad you liked it. I wouldn’t worry about the fact that travel is becoming ‘easier’. On the surface it appears that way, and I have to say I do love the enhancments in infrastructure and the proliferation of cheap tickets. Still, ‘real travel’, if there is such a thing, is always out there. Heck, even in the direct center of Venice, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, all you have to do is walk four or five blocks down some side streets and suddenly all the English menus and package tour folks disappear.

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  • Ivan Snavely May 28, 2014, 10:48 pm

    Good article. I don’t always just pop into an unknown country every day, but if the border is there… it may be the only time of my life to get a quick visit.

    Also, a smile can go a long way.

    ivan

    http://playazipolite.blogspot.com/2014/05/fast-food-unusual-godsend-for-travelers.html

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