A poster named Simone e-mailed me looking for information about Amsterdam and traveling abroad for an extended period of time. I thought it would make a good post for everyone.
Amsterdam is a popular tourist destination for Americans. We share a common language, which means that culture shock will probably be at a minimum. This isn't to say we are the same, though. There are many differences that will baffle and amaze you. The most obvious is the legalization of marijuana. It's very important to note that marijuana is allowed only in certain cafes in Amsterdam. Sometimes, certain hotels will allow the use of the plant, but it's best to stick to the cafes. If I had to describe Amsterdam in one word it would be: tolerant. There is a relaxing vibe to the city that tends to affect you. It amazed me that so many different people could, for the most part, get along. Personally, I experienced no discrimination in Amsterdam.
Now, let's get down to the bone. Traveling abroad for an extended period is a tricky thing to do, at least at first. I will stick to the main things you might want to do. First, there is the subject of your current living arrangements. If you are in an apartment, think about subletting. If your lease allows it, it is a great way to ensure your apartment is kept in good shape, if you pick the right tenant. Make sure you put a clause in the tenant contract that ensures that if you have to come home quickly, for any reason, then the apartment will have to be vacated by the tenant within a reasonable period of time. If you live in a house, you can choose to rent it out as well. If you have the funds to do so you can always keep your apartment/house empty, and have a trusted friend or family member come by to check on it regularly. You can forward your mail to a PO Box or to a loved one's house. It's important to do this as well as stop your newspaper service, if you have it. You don't want your house/apartment to look as if no one is living in it.
The best tip I can give about making plans to travel abroad is to start early. When traveling, things will always go wrong. Always. If you are well prepared, then you can frequently overcome these obstacles. Try to book your flight at least four months in advance, six would be great if you can swing it. It's the classic demand/supply system. When there are plenty of seats available, the price is lower. The fewer seats available, the higher the price. I have found some amazing deals because I booked my flights early. Speaking of airlines, try to pack as lightly as you can. I know it might be tempting to try to take all of your favorite pieces, but fight the urge! Try to have a lot of "basic" pieces, meaning pieces that can be worn with a variety of outfits. Learn how to pack efficiently, so you won't be bogged down in a busy airport or foreign street.
Make sure your passport is up to date and with you while navigating through airports. I recommend putting your passport and ID in a plastic baggie in your zipped purse for easy access. Getting a safety pouch to put underneath your clothes is always a good idea. Keep it high on your stomach so that it can't be reached by an "accidental" touch. Always be alert. Pickpockets and criminals often target those that look distracted or preoccupied. Take close notice of your surroundings and the people around you, even if you are with a group.
The Internet is your friend when it comes to finding a place to stay for an extended period of time. There are websites dedicated to reviewing hotels, hostels, and even apartment buildings. Study these and see what other people have to say before you commit. If you're going to travel during the off season or have never stayed in the particular establishment, then I recommend making a short reservation, just to see if you like a place first. If you like the place or have been there before, it might be helpful to contact the owner of an establishment and see if there are any ways you can save money since you're going to be staying for an extended period of time. Once, I received an extra week free in a hotel in Canada because I talked to the manager and told her that I would her be staying at least three weeks.
Finally, have fun! Take a lot of pictures/video to commemorate your time. Make sure you savor the moments you have. The memories will be with you forever and you can reminisce about them forever.