By Kaitlin Young
Traveling to train, fight, or do tournaments will produce amazing adventures, give us better cultural understanding, introduce us to new friends, and give us crazy stories for the grandkiddies. The cool thing about martial arts is that they are as popular, if not more popular, in other areas of the world or even other areas within the US. This means that if you are an invested martial artist or fighter, there are many opportunities outside of your backyard. You just need to be willing to take the jump.
1. Anything made custom or important goes IN THE CARRY ON
Pack as if your luggage will be lost. It happens all the time! If your fight gear has $5000 worth of sponsor logos on it, but it happens to be in a checked bag that doesn’t make it to you before fight time, you’ll be crying into your ramen noodles.
Anything you NEED and cannot easily replace goes IN THE CARRY ON! Even better, put it in a backpack under the seat so you won’t be forced to check it on an overbooked flight. This includes but is not limited to your fight outfit, mouthguard, cup, national MMA ID, copy of medical records, etc.
2.Pack for the worst
Unless you are fighting for a promotion you know well, or in a town with which you are familiar, pack as if it will be a complete disaster. This is especially true of any international fights or competition. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to make a Walmart trip, have access to a gym, or even have access to food you like once you arrive. If you need it, bring it.
As a general rule, never leave home without your own scale and a sauna suit. You cannot assume that you will have access to a bathtub or sauna just because other promotions you’ve fought for thus far are professional. Many of them are not. You’ll be on your own and expected to make weight just the same. I’ve had several weight cuts using a shower to create a steam room and jumping around in a sauna suit. It’s not fun, but sometimes there is no other choice.
The same goes for your pre-fight meal. If you like to have Pedialyte (they make packets – much easier for travel), oatmeal, or any other “normal” food or drink after weighing in, don’t expect to be able to pick it up abroad. Bring any of your must haves along for the flight.
3. Check the policy
On international flights, some airlines have a massive fee for changing your flights. Delta, for example, charges $400 for international changes, in addition to any variation in original ticket price. Several others will do it for a much smaller fee — especially airlines based in foreign nations. Cathay Pacific, for example, will only run you $150 to change your flight.
Beware of booking on Expedia and some of the other travel deal sites as they will have their OWN policy on changes and you may be required to go through them. Saving 30 bucks in the short term could cost you hundreds more if you need to adjust your dates.
When traveling within the US for training or competitions, Southwest offers a few perks that other airlines simply do not. First, you get checked bags free of charge. This is huge if you’re lugging all your training gear and a month’s worth of clothes. Checking two bags will run you at least an additional 70 dollars each way, which adds up to a whopping 140 on a roundtrip flight.
Second, and maybe more importantly, they charge you NOTHING to change your flight. So, if you break your hand, get the flu, your fight date changes, or an opponent pulls out, you’ll have lost nothing provided you rebook any Southwest flight within a year. You don’t get to choose your seat ahead of time, but that’s a small price to pay for an athlete on a budget.
A Place to Stay
5. The words “accommodations” and “hotel” do not mean the same thing to everyone
When a promotion puts you up, it may not be the sort of place you would choose to stay. It could be a motel infested with prostitution and rampant drug use, an Airbnb, military dorms, or even a tent (no, I’m not kidding). I’ve witnessed shows use all of the above to house competitors. I took a fight overseas where the promoter had generously offered to let us stay a few extra days after the fight and paid for our “hotel” for the time. Upon arriving, we learned that we had been put in a rented home with leaky faucets and a rather severe roach problem. When we went to cook a meal, we found nearly every spice or seasoning in the cupboards had dead bugs in the container. Hopefully he didn’t pay too much for what we affectionately dubbed “Roach Manor”.
Some promoters will surprise you with a 4 or 5 star hotel, but if it’s a small show that is not likely to be the case. It’s a good idea to ask so that you know what you’re getting into and are not surprised when you arrive. There may be no sauna, bathtub, or gym facilities anywhere around your lodging. Come prepared.
6. Find out what’s available
When traveling abroad or even within the US, it’s good to figure out what the transportation options will be in the area. The promotion may have drivers, but if you haven’t worked with them before, it’s best if they are not your only option. Internet travel forums are great. Most major cities have Uber, Lyft, or Grab Taxi; download them before you go. Some of the apps even allow you to share your ride location and status with someone at home, which can be nice if you’re traveling alone. Having the benefit of using the pin drop is sooooo much easier than hailing a taxi and trying to explain where you’d like to go when you don’t speak the native language.
Some cities or countries have great public transportation systems, allowing you to easily travel by train or bus. Again, hit the forums and figure out the best options here.
When in Rome
7. Look up the local laws and customs
In larger cities or places with a strong tourism economy, some of the cultural transgressions you’re bound to make as a foreigner may be overlooked. Still, it is helpful to research the cultural norms prior to visiting another country. Is it customary to tip your server? Does the relative age of the person you are greeting matter? What is the expectation for interactions with the opposite sex? Can you be jailed for speaking ill of the monarchy or government? There are many, many things that we take for granted as “normal” in the US which are definitely not normal in other parts of the world. Do a quick Google search to figure out what those differences are before catching a flight to a foreign country.
8. Watch your mouth
The United States has a very direct and individualistic culture and style of communication. This section could be a blog post all its own, but I’ll do my best to summarize. America is somewhat unique in that we have many laws and disputes are handled legally, for the most part. Most consider there to be a hard line between words and physical fighting. In many other parts of the world, this is simply not so. In the US, being polite can cause you to be well-received, but in other parts of the world it can save your life. A person yelling or accusing someone of being an idiot in the United States is unlikely to erupt into violence. If you raise your voice, spray insults, and act in a threatening manner in many other parts of the world, you’ve already begun a fight. To those who felt Khabib Nurmagomedov was shockingly out of line in the aftermath of the Connor McGregor fight, this is what you were witnessing. In Western culture, verbal aggression and physical aggression are somewhat separate. In countries steeped in honor culture, like Dagestan, verbal and physical aggression are more closely linked.
9. Saving face
Several of the countries that happen to be martial arts hot beds also happen to have a culture of saving face. Making another person look bad, regardless of whether or not you are correct, is not tolerated well. Saving face, to them, is of utmost importance. Though this tends to be less of a big deal to Americans, the same consideration will be paid to us. This can be quite confusing if we are unfamiliar with this behavior. It can seem like lying, and since we can’t see any reason for this person to lie, the assumption is that they are trying to pull one over on us. It may just be that the person doesn’t want to tell us “no”, so they say “yes” in a very non-committal way and hope we pick up on it, saving face for both them and us. They don’t want to disappoint or admit they are unable to do something or imply that our request is too much. This behavior is the source of MUCH confusion to a person from an individualistic culture, and is a result of a highly collectivist culture where social harmony is viewed as more important than having one’s individual needs met.
If you make a person lose too much face, you will find yourself back at #8. This is not to say you can never have a dispute with another person, but doing so calmly and in a manner that does not assign blame to anyone (even if they ARE to blame) will help your cause tremendously. “Oh, the register must have printed the bill wrong,” goes over far better than, “You made a mistake on the bill.” This gives the person an out and the ability to fix it without having to admit fault. In addition to that, do not expect an apology. If a person makes a mistake, they will most likely prefer to correct it without drawing more attention to the issue. It isn’t as though they don’t feel badly about the mistake, it is just not culturally appropriate to accept or assign blame.
Make the most of it!
10.Some things are more available, or more affordable, than they are at home
If you have trip planned and you have the time to get away from prior obligations, consider how you might get some extra perks out of the deal. Medical and dental tourism are a thing! High quality dental work is MUCH more affordable in Mexico or Thailand. Be smart about it, of course, (read reviews, etc.) but you could easily save yourself thousands in dental care.
If you’re planning to fight in California, Nevada, New Jersey, or would just like a checkup for your own good, expensive required tests like the MRI are available at low cost and you can usually request results in English.
There are also many expensive prescription medications in the US that are available cheap and over the counter in other countries. Albuterol inhalers, for example, are about 6 dollars in Thailand. I’m in no way advocating smuggling controlled substances, but items like an epi pen, or that super spendy NSAID your grandma needs for her arthritis, are easily obtained.
Just Do It
In the past five years, martial arts have taken me to Asia, Europe, Australia, the Middle East, Africa, Canada, Mexico, and many states within the US. I wish I had taken steps to start traveling much earlier in my career, but late is always better than never. If you’re considering taking that first trip, DO IT! Take that training trip, that fight, or try to qualify for that tournament. We learn so much about fighting, other cultures, and ourselves, when we take a few steps outside of our comfort zone. Don’t forget to book travel insurance!
The views, advice and opinions expressed in this article are those of author and do not necessarily represent those of Zebra Athletics and its employees.