Are you planning on traveling internationally for the first time? If yes, you’re probably filled with a mixture of excitement and fear. A little bit of caution is probably in order, but you needn’t be fearful and there are a number of things you can do to make your trip go as smoothly as possible.
The following tips are based upon my own experiences, and input from readers & Twitter followers (I’ve tried to acknowledge sources where relevant). As with many endeavors, most of the most important things must be done well before you depart for the airport…
Before your trip
1. When making reservations, double and triple check everything, making certain you have plenty of time for connections and clearing Customs
3. Check the State Department’s website for information on the country you’ll be visiting: required innoculations, tourist warnings, embassy information, and much more. See below for an example of the types of information available. The State Department strongly encourages you to register your travel with it, in case of an emergency; this is of course optional and completely up to you.
4. Make sure your passport is signed and current, and will be valid for at least six months AFTER your travel dates. Fill in the emergency contact information on your passport. Check with the State Dept. website (above) to see if your trip will require a Visa
5. Check your overseas medical coverage with your insurer; if you’re not covered, consider supplemental insurance – particularly if you’ll be on a lengthy trip
6. Call your credit card issuers and advise them that you’ll be out of the country and tell them which countries you’ll be visiting; if not, they’ll likely put a hold on your cards when they begin seeing (what will appear as) unusual charges. Also, ask about ATM charges for getting cash while you’re on your trip – use the card with the lowest charges
7. Familiarize yourself with the currency of the countries you’ll be visiting. Here’s an example from Wikipeida for the Euro. All you need to do is Google something like “all about Indonesian currency,” and you should find helpful articles. Don’t wait till you arrive – you’ll be a bit tired and trying to figure out an unfamiliar currency will be confusing!
8. Print several extra copies of your itinerary, making sure to include phone numbers: put one in each piece of luggage, and give one to family members and/or friends so you can be contacted in case of an emergency. Email your itinerary to yourself so you can access it with your smartphone
9. Call your local bank and see if they can exchange currency. If yes, get enough to handle your first day’s expenses – taxis, a quick meal, and the like. Don’t get $500 in foreign currency from your local bank – the costs involved are not likely to be attractive. Also, don’t exchange currency at ATM’s in the airport or train station. You’ll find the best rates at ATM’s affiliated with major banks. Frankly, I’d avoid ATMs in train stations or airports altogether, and would opt instead for those away from crowded tourist areas.
Be on the lookout for ATM “Lebanese loop” devices – if the ATM won’t return your card, carefully feel around the card slot for small plastic “prongs” – these will enable a thief to retrieve your card. Whatever you do, DO NOT leave the area. Call the phone number on the ATM for assistance; after that, loudly announce that you are calling the police. Read this article for a full description of this scam. This is another reason to use ATM’s that are not located in touristy areas
10. Visit VirtualTourist.com for the country you’ll be visiting – it’s full of useful information
11. Learn a few key phrases (e.g., “May I have yet another drink!?” or “Officer, I intended no offense!”) (seriously: “Thank you,” “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Excuse me,” and the like, before you leave home. Locals will appreciate your willingness to at least try using their language, however horrible you are at it (from reader/PH contributor Berg)
12. Also: familiarize yourself with local customs so as to avoid offending anyone (Berg)
13. A terrific suggestion from PH reader Mau: Plan to be on the local time schedule during your flight. e.g., if you’ll arrive during the evening, try to stay awake during your flight so you’ll be able to sleep; conversely, if you’re arriving in the AM, get as much sleep as possible so you’ll be awake and reasonably alert for the day
14. Pack light; don’t get carried away with travel gizmos and gear. Take a few things which make you comfortable, be it jeans or your favorite shirt. That being said, it’s advisable to take a waterproof jacket. Better to take more money but less luggage (Berg & fellow PH reader Till)
15. Hotels around the world don’t look and work like Hampton Inns. Decide on your must haves (private bath, etc.) and figure out how many stars that equates to; don’t go below that. (PH reader Scott)
16. Before departing, check on the potability of the drinking water where you’ll be going. It will alter what you eat as well as drink (and don’t forget about brushing your teeth with clean water!) (Berg)
17. Pack everything for everyday use that you can in a carry-on, including clothing, valuables, and toiletries. Keep it around 12 pounds or less and have it small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. Then you don’t have to freak when your seat mates take up all the overhead space (PH reader K-eM)
18. Keep your “personal item” very small and if possible, leave room for it in your carry-on so that you can put it there if regulations or just plain practicality require it. (K-eM)
19. Take your packed luggage for a test run. Take it out the front door, try handling up/down stairs and if you’re really game, take a ride on public transport. Better to realize your luggage is too heavy & cumbersome before you head off than during your first long trek, over cobblestones, to your hotel! (PH reader notmensa) Also: road test your clothing and especially your footwear before you go. You don’t want to get to your destination and discover that your nifty new shoes are killing your feet!
20. A really clever idea from PH reader Patrick F.: Check websites that serve the area you want to visit. Look at the clothes and rank things by popularity. You aren’t looking to purchase any of these things, but it gives you a good idea of what people are buying. Also, it may give you an diea of what not to bring (thinking of white tennis shoes here).
21. Check out the Traveler’s Health page of the CDC website: www.cdc.gov/travel
22. Go to your itinerary at your airline’s website and enter your passport data – it’ll speed things up when you travel
23. If you need to take prescription meds with you, carry them in their original containers and make sure those bottles are clearly labeled
24. Speaking of which, make sure any meds, valuables, and a day’s worth of clothing are in your carry-on bag
25. Take 15 minutes and enter the following numbers into your cell phone: airlines you’ll be flying; embassy numbers; local police numbers (112 in Europe); hotel numbers
26. Your appliances will likely work overseas (check to see that they’re marked 110/220 volts), but you will need adapter plugs – check Amazon, Magellan’s, or other vendors. Check out the World Map of Plugs & Sockets for guidance
27. Similarly, call your cell provider and make sure your phone will work overseas, and that it’ll do so without excessive fees. Consider using Skype; if you have an iPod Touch or iPhone, Skype works well and is inexpensive. Note that you of course must be in a WiFi hotspot for it to work
28. “I can’t emphasize enough to pack light! If you can’t carry it/roll it by yourself, then you have packed too much! Remember that you’ll probably be taking public transportation, walking a lot, and climbing stairs” (reader Vicki H. via email)
29. Make photocopies of all important documents and carry them in a separate place on your person… passport, Visa, medical card,etc. Consider using a Rick Steves-style money belt for this (K-eM)
30. There are pharmacies overseas. Go light on shampoo and toiletries – you can always buy it there! If you have a particular shampoo or cream you can’t live without, transfer it to small (~3.4 oz or less) bottles
31. If, when you weigh your bags, you’re over 12 pounds on your carry-on and 25 pounds on your checked bag, open them up and see what you can switch out or eliminate. (K-eM)
32. Basic, but: use a packing list (see my FREE Downloads page for one) (notmensa)
33. A forehead slapper, but: buy a good guide book, and read it cover to cover weeks, if not months before your departure. A great way to find a reliable guide book is to use Amazon and pay attention to reader reviews. Something else to consider: if you buy a guide book for France but will only be visiting Paris, cut out the Paris pages with a razor knife, staple them together, and just bring those pages!
34. A few good suggestions from reader and Practical Hacks contributor Michael W. — The daypack you use for your carry-on will double for destination duty. The Rick Steves Civita is traveler friendly and unlike student daypacks, is superlight and compresses down to nothing. Email a pdf of credit cards and bank contact info to yourself; you may need to retrieve it locally via email. Open a seldom-used, password protected email account with Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo for this info, and use this account for travel and change the password after every trip
35. Make sure you carry a small med kit – prescriptions, vitamins, band aids, aspirin, ibuprofen, and the like; it needn’t be large. Locate a pharmacy when you arrive, and pick up anything that’s too bulky or large to pack (Pepto-Bismol, etc.)
36. Some countries require an International Driver’s Permit if you’re going to be operating a motor vehicle. Check this AAA application for an IDP (see the 2nd page) for the relevant countries
During your trip
37. The most important tip: Keep your expectations low and your sense of adventure high. Put another way (from PH reader Till): “Prepare for culture shock. Be open and ready to learn.” You are going to interact with people who may have a dramatically different approach to life than you do, eat food that has unusual names, and deal with problems that will inevitably crop up. Be cool, be calm, and keep in mind that you are fortunate enough to do something that many, many people will never have the chance to do.
38. Have a general plan for what you want to see, being aware of schedules for closings of key attractions and places. (A good guide book will help tremendously in this regard.) Then be willing to adjust the plan if something looks interesting. (Scott)
39. If you’re renting a car, Google something like “buying gas in (country name).” Gas pumps in Europe, for instance, are dramatically different than those in the U.S. Make certain you know what kind of gas your rental car requires. Putting diesel in a gasoline engine does not work especially well, for instance
40. Similar to #37: “Embrace the unknown, eat like the locals do, learn a few a few key phrases in the local language, “when in Rome…” (@outboundliz via Twitter) Similarly, from reader Paul Z.: “The best advice my father gave me on my first trip overseas? ‘Remember, here YOU’RE the foreigner.’ “ Adds reader Fabricio, “Things WILL work differently, and never expect they’ll work like at home.” Be cool, and be flexible; embrace your inner adventurer!
41. Another very clever idea from Patrick F.: When you reach your destination, go to the first grocery store you see. Make a note of the open and closing times for further reference if you have an emergency (need some Pepto, etc.) and to give you an idea of the shopping times in the area
42. I don’t want to over-emphasize scams, but it’s a fact of life that in certain cities, people other than shopkeepers and restauranteurs will want to separate you from your money. A very good rundown on several scams appears on the Rick Steves website; see it here: Tourist Scams in Europe
43. Patrick F. strikes again with another travel-tested tactic: “(In the UK) …there are shops that offer/require grocery bags to purchase, like Netto’s; they have the bulk standard grocery bags and the sturdier model for pence more. Go for the sturdier model and when it rains, you have something to keep all your electronics dry. I know you could travel with a trash bag, but that looks funny. This will make it appear a lot less likely that you are carrying valuables.”
44. Falling into the category of “obvious but worth noting:” To avoid being the target of crime, don’t wear conspicuous clothing, expensive jewelry, or flash a lot of cash. Also, don’t wander around with maps hanging out of your pockets with a confused look on your face. Act as though you’ve done this 50 times, and move with confidence. Be especially wary of crowded tourist areas, in particular train stations, or when boarding public transit. Read the Steves article linked to in #42!
45. YMMV, but this is my opinion: there is a clichéd image of Americans traveling abroad: shorts, sneakers, baseball caps, flip flops, Hard Rock tee shirts, convertible travel pants, and travel vests. I’d suggest that if you don’t want people (including pickpockets) to be able to immediately pick you out of the crowd as an American, dress well.
No, you don’t have to wear a suit, but for guys, consider a pair of khakis, a nice shirt, and a lightweight sports or casual jacket. Wear a decent pair of shoes. For women, a knee-length dress or skirt and blouse will work.
Why does this matter? In many countries, our casual or even sloppy dress conveys a lack of respect for their culture and traditions. At certain venues, it may even keep you from being admitted. Keep it in mind. Also: speak quietly: don’t be loud or loutish. Keep in mind that you are representing your nation and culture.
What have we missed? If you have any other great tips for infrequent international travelers, please share them by commenting!
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