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Preparing for your first international trip can be as exciting as it is stressful. When I first began traveling, there weren’t the same resources available online for new travelers, and I was a nervous mess. I caught my coat on fire the day of my flight in a freak space heater accident at work, missed my connection in Frankfurt, and arrived in a small town in Bulgaria just hours before my first morning meeting. But now with advance planning and advice from other travelers, you can avoid many potential problems and have a smoother trip. Read on for my best tips on how to survive your first international trip!
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1. Apply early for your passport
If you haven’t had a passport before or meet certain criteria, you’ll need to apply in person at a passport acceptance facility post office. Start here to find out the basic steps of the process and links to help you complete your application.
Including mailing time, the State Department quotes applying for a passport via routine service as taking approximately 6-8 weeks. Paying extra for expedited service is estimated to get your passport back to you in 2-3 weeks. Click here for information on getting a passport in a hurry.
Once you’ve applied, you can view your application status here.
If you have an existing passport, its expiration date should extend several months beyond the anticipated end date of your trip. Generally, six months is recommended. If yours is close to expiring, check the visa and entry requirements for the country you’ll be visiting. Be sure it also has at least two blank pages for stamps.
I travel with a separate photocopy of my passport, which can help the process of replacing it if lost or stolen. I also keep a scan in my email and send it to someone at home, just in case.
The Haphazard Traveler Pro Tip:
You know the joke that it’s time to go home when you look like your passport photo? I say just never pay for an awful passport photo in the first place! Skip the drugstore and check Yelp or Google for a local photography shop that does them. It usually costs only slightly more and you’ll get a much better quality photo for the next 10 years of travel!
2. Learn about your destination
What are the entry and exit requirements for the country you’ll be visiting? Will you need a visa? Are there any travel advisories or security recommendations? Check out the Department of State’s site to search by country. If you’re not a U.S. citizen, check your country’s corresponding site for visa information or the immigration page of your destination country.
Before you go, find out as much as you can about what to expect by also researching local customs, climate, clothing, security concerns, and general travel advice. I suggest searching Google for:
- [country name] advice for travelers
- [country name] what to wear
- [country name] customs
- [country name] common tourist scams
Also research any special considerations for yourself as a traveler to that country. For example, women travelers, older travelers, LGBTI travelers, travelers with disabilities, etc.
3. Plan ahead for a healthy trip
Are there any health considerations or vaccinations required? Visit the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) traveler health section to search by country and traveler type. The GOV.UK’s foreign travel advice includes information on the availability and general standard of healthcare in each country.
Also check with your doctor to be sure your regular vaccinations are updated, and get any recommended booster shots. Your medical insurance and prescription plan might cover travel vaccinations and medications, or you might have to pay out-of-pocket. Check alternative methods too – for example, my insurance didn’t cover the typhoid vaccination shot, but my prescription plan did cover its pill version.
Take a basic first aid kit with you including band-aids, pain reliever, sunscreen, and stomach sickness medications. Keep any prescriptions and eyeglasses in your carry-on.
Also, if you get sick when traveling, don’t be afraid to stop in a local pharmacy. In some countries, pharmacists can dispense basic prescriptions. Also, I once saw a doctor at a medical station at the Bangkok airport! I was worried that I had pink eye and was afraid to travel 24 hours home without treatment. It turned out to only be allergies, but the $20 I spent on the doctor visit and eye drops was well worth it (and less than my U.S. insurance co-pay).
4. Register your travel
If you’re traveling to a country that has travel warnings or frequent geographical or weather events (like hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.), consider registering your trip with the local U.S. Embassy. By enrolling in the Safe Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP, you’ll get travel alerts and warnings for your destination country. The Embassy will also have information to aid in contacting you if an emergency occurs.
5. Should you get travel insurance?
Many U.S. healthcare policies include emergency coverage for trips abroad. Generally, you’ll be required to pay out of pocket and then get reimbursed. Call the customer service number on your insurance card and ask for details on your policy’s emergency medical coverage for overseas travel.
If you’re traveling with a group tour you might be required to buy additional travel insurance separate from what your medical plan or credit card might provide. Or you might just want added peace of mind. In addition to limited emergency medical and dental insurance, these policies can include coverage for: medical evacuation, trip interruption or cancellation, baggage delay, travel assistance and more. If you buy the insurance at the same time that you book your tour, you could get extra services included at no cost. Do your research before you book – I use Travel Guard for my trips.
6. Sort out your money
Notify your bank that you’ll be traveling. Some banking sites or apps like Bank of America let you set an alert online, detailing the dates of your trip, the countries you’ll be visiting or transiting through, plus what cards you plan to use. This helps your bank to know that the purchases you make are more likely valid. If this function isn’t available online, contact the customer service line of your bank or credit cards to set these travel notices.
Decide how you’ll pay for your purchases while you travel. Research the exchange rate, and check with your bank to see if they have agreements to waive fees with any ATM networks where you’ll travel. I always take some U.S. currency, but since I often travel to several countries in a trip, I rely on using ATMs for local currency. I find that paying the fees are worth the peace of mind of not carrying large sums of cash.
Ordering currency before you travel can save you time, but check out the exchange rate. Often it’s less to pay the international ATM fee plus the 3% conversion fee your bank might charge. Be sure to get a currency conversion app before you go – they work offline even if you don’t have cell coverage.
7. Check your phone plan
Some plans offer reasonable international coverage, or might only charge you on the days that you use the plan. Either way, you’ll most likely need to call to set up international roaming. You might have a limit of how much data or the number of texts you can use during your trip. You can check the data usage in your phone’s cellular settings to get a starting point for your trip and keep an eye on daily usage.
Before you turn off your phone in your departure city, find the cellular data options in your phone settings. Set your data roaming to “OFF.” This will keep your phone from automatically updating email, texts, and other data-heavy apps. You can then access these features when connected to a wifi network. Or, turn your data roaming back to “ON” if you need to make a call, check a map, etc. This will give you more control over your data usage.
Also, if you’ll have phone service, check the local emergency number for the country where you’ll be staying and save it in your phone under the country name and “emergency.” Check to see if there is a tourist police number and do the same. Most likely you won’t need these, but it can save you time in a situation when your natural response would be to call “911.”
Check out my Best Travel Apps post for smartphone app recommendations for your journey.
8. Stop your mail service
Setting up “hold mail” service for your address might be available online – visit USPS.com to check. USPS will hold all mail for your address, then deliver on the date you specify.
9. Buy travel necessities
Purchase adapters, a crossbody bag with security features like a no-cut strap, or other items that will make your travel go more smoothly. It’s not necessary to buy an entire wardrobe or all new gear, but focus on a few items that will fit your needs, destination and budget. As you travel more, you can always add to your collection. Check out my Best Travel Gear for some ideas.
A tip on adapters: Electronics with chargers (like laptops or cell phones) are often rated for dual voltages. Check your device to see if it has a range like “110-220V.” If not, you’ll need a power converter AND a plug adapter
10. Double check baggage requirements
Check the carry-on and checked bags requirements for the airline(s) you’ll be flying. I’ve actually done the work for you with my Carry On Limits post, but be sure to verify with the airline’s page as well. If you’ll be flying on any codeshares (multiple airlines sharing a flight on a route), check those airlines as well. Research any restrictions on items that you can’t bring in the cabin (such as liquids more than 3 oz) or can’t put in checked luggage (such as lithium batteries).
Also think about your flights and how you’ll transit. Most likely, you won’t have access to your checked bags until you reach your destination. Be sure to have what you need for the flights, but not so much that it’s a burden getting through airports and screening.
11. Flying with kids? Plan ahead and double-confirm
If flying with children, check requirements for checking strollers, baggage limits for “lap children” (young enough not to need a ticket), etc. While pull bags with seats are cute, I’ve seen meltdowns where parents end up juggling a lot of carry-ons plus carrying the child. Consider a small backpack that kids can carry themselves and even help pack. Remember that the things you are used to finding easily in the U.S. might not be as readily available overseas or have the same quality standards (like sunscreen).
Always double check your seating arrangements. After booking and again at the airport, ask to see what the airline will do for parents traveling with kids and confirm what you’ve been promised. Many airlines reserve the bulkhead rows for families, especially since some planes have bassinets that fit into the wall.
If only one parent of the child is flying, or if a minor under 18 is traveling without either parent, also check to see if a letter is required or recommended for exiting or entering any countries on your route. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) strongly recommends that the accompanying adult have a notarized letter from the non-traveling parent (or, in the case of a child traveling with neither parent, a note signed by both parents) stating “I acknowledge that my wife/husband/etc. is traveling out of the country with my son/daughter/group. He/She/They has/have my/our permission to do so.”
Search blogs for “traveling with kids” and even country-specific recommendations for some great tips from experienced travel parents.
12. Research activities
Plan ahead for the events and details of your trip, including local transit and car rentals. Check to be sure your driver’s license will be valid in your destination if applicable, and if booking on your credit card covers any of the car insurance requirements.
Also be aware that travel insurance (if booked) often doesn’t cover things like unlicensed scuba diving, jet skiing, paragliding, and other “extreme” sports. Check ahead, and confirm all details when making reservations. I once booked what I thought was a jeep trip in Brazil, but turned out to be a 12km bike/hike/kayak adventure through the rainforest. I made it about 4km in a skirt on a bike before a truck had to pick me up.
13. Safeguard your stuff
Keep all your belongings with you while you are in transit. I set a routine so that I never take a step without my bags, and I assign a place for all of my most-important items. For example, I always take time to put my passport or wallet back in its regular place. You’ll be tired and in unfamiliar places, so take a moment to keep yourself organized.
After arrival, if your room has a safe, use it! If not, you can always ask to place your passport or valuables in the hotel safe – just don’t leave without them. Always follow the recommendations of guides and the research you’ve done as far as local scams, etc.
I also try to keep some cash and a credit card separate from my other money, just in case.
14. Know what to expect on your return
Visit the website of U.S. Customs and Border Control to see what you can bring home, the duty-free exemption, and what to expect upon re-entering the U.S.