I love all types of travel but I find international travel to be especially exciting! The thought of seeing a new country, trying exotic foods, leaning about a new culture……..all if it is absolutely exhilarating!
International travel has challenges and risks that you don’t have with domestic travel. Sure, you can wing it if you want bt a little advance preparation will help you have the best trip possible while minimizing danger to yourself, inconvenience, and unplanned expenses.
One you have identified your intended destination, there are several things you should do to prepare for your international adventure. You should begin early and in stages so that you don’t forget anything.
Passport and Visa Requirements
The United States Department of State is a great resource for your initial travel planning. You can search by your intended country and find all kinds of information: passport and visa requirements, vaccinations, currency restrictions, entry and exit requirements, and travel advisories.
Make sure your passport is valid and plan accordingly to get your visas in a timely manner so you aren’t refused entry upon arrival. Yes, it does happen. Sometimes you can get a visa at the airport; other times you will need to have it before you arrive.
While the US State Department website does give information regarding vaccinations, I also go to the CDC website to check for any additional recommendations. It goes into more detail and you can even tell it what kind of traveler you are: pregnant, traveling with children, a traveler with a chronic disease, cruise ship traveler, etc.
Select your destination and click “go” to find out what precautions all travelers should take, and then more specific precautions based on the type of traveler you and your intended destination. This is a great tool to keep you and your family healthy on your vacation.
Research Your Destination
This step can save you a whole lot of hassle. Research the best time of year to visit, the best time to visit attractions in which you are interested, modes of transportation available to tourists, and currency and exchange rate.
If you have a travel agent, he or she should advise you of low volume travel seasons and whether or not your intended time of year is a good idea. I have clients that wanted to visit a certain destination but it had very specific wet and dry seasons that impacted when the optimal time to visit would be.
Another example: Cuba has a dual currency system so I make sure my clients understand how it works and how/where to get the best exchange rate. I try to prevent them from getting into situations that make them vulnerable to scams.
Hotel accommodations can vary greatly from country to country so it is in your best interest to be very specific about what you want. I ask my clients several questions about preferences and must haves so that I can match them up to options that fit them and their travel style best. Hostels aren’t for everyone, just as resorts aren’t for everyone either.
Book Your Trip!
Once you (or you and your travel agent) have figured out the best time to go to your intended destination, it is time to book it! Using a travel agent will save you a lot of time researching and finding the best options for you.
As a travel consultant, I don’t charge a fee for my service but not all do it that way. Check with your agent to make sure you aren’t blindsided with a planning fee you didn’t know about. Some charge a fee to do the research but then apply the amount paid towards your bookings. We don’t all do things the same way so please ask.
I typically begin with booking the airfare for my client. That can be one of the the largest expenses for them so I try to get that out of the way as well as get their seat preference for them. If I have a client with specific travel needs, planning ahead is a must.
If you are tall, prefer a window, enjoy the amenities of first class……..whatever the case may be, don’t sabotage yourself by waiting until the last minute. Sometimes you can get a good deal if you wait, but sometimes you end up missing out on your preferred flight time because it filled up before you pulled the trigger. I try to balance cost savings strategies with making sure my client gets what they need to travel well. If you book on your own, please don’t wait until the last minute.
If you are planning a long haul trip, an overnight flight is a great idea. Find seats that offer you the most comfort possible and don’t be afraid to spend a little extra for it. The last thing I want is to squeeze my 5’11” into an economy seat for 8 hours. I am happy to spend a little more to get even just 4 more inches of legroom in premium economy. Honestly though, after multiple trips overseas, I am happy to spend extra for comfort.
Do you plan to use your credit card overseas? Make sure it works! Contact your bank, inquire about foreign transaction fees, AND set up a travel advisory. Banks will decline transactions if they suspect fraud so don’t put yourself in a position where you are in a foreign country with no cash or ability to pay for what you need.
If your card charges foreign transaction fees, I encourage you to find a card with travel benefits to use on your trips. Some cards offer travel insurance, rental car protection, and even reimbursement for Global Entry. Just read the fine print so you understand annual fees (if any) as well as how to take advantage of all of the benefits offered by your card.
You may also want to consider a prepaid travel card. Prepaid travel cards are great for a few reasons. First, you load your card with money rather than linking it directly to your bank account. That limits any losses via theft or fraud to only the amount on your card. Second, if you are visiting multiple countries, the cash on your card can be converted to different currencies as you need it. You can have it in euros for one leg of your trip, then change it to Danish krones for the next leg. It limits the number of stops at ATMs or currency exchange stores and the associated fees.
Take Copies of Your Passport
Why does this matter? Well, if your passport is lost or stolen, you will need something to establish your identity at the nearest embassy or consulate. I also include copies of our driver’s licenses and birth certificates just in case. We leave them locked up in our vacation rental or hotel room but they are close by if the worst happens.
Register with STEP
The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service of the Bureau of Consular Affairs in which U.S. citizens and nationals that are traveling and living abroad can enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. They will send updates regarding travel conditions, make it easier for family to contact you in cases of emergency, and help the U.S. Embassy contact you in an emergency (i.e. civil unrest, natural disaster, etc).
Signing up is free and fairly easy. You will need dates of travel and addresses of hotels/accommodations. You can add multiple travelers if you are traveling with your family but you will need passport numbers for each member.
I have no personal experience with travel emergencies that would require the assistance of the STEP program but I think it is a good idea just in case. Anything can happen at any time so it is best to be prepared as much as possible.
I cannot put enough emphasis on the need for travel insurance. First, some countries require that you have medical insurance (remember that your US insurance generally isn’t accepted in foreign countries). There are several options for medical and dental coverage, reimbursement for lost bags, trip delays or cancellations, personal liability coverage, and even accidental death benefits.
Some also offer evacuation in cases of medical emergencies, natural disasters, or acts of terrorism. Some even go further by offering concierge services to help you as needed during your trip. Again, there are many options so please consider what your needs are very carefully and read the fine print before you purchase a policy.
One last thing about travel insurance: don’t wait until the last minute to purchase it. Some policies, particularly if you go with an annual policy, won’t be come effective until the 1st day of the next month. Plan ahead so you don’t have a gap in coverage when you really need it.
This is a no brainer. If you are on any kind of medication, take enough with you to last your entire trip! You may be able to walk into a pharmacy and get something similar to what you are taking. Or you may not be able to find anything like it at all. Don’t take a chance of compromising your health because you don’t have enough of what you need.
If you are going on an extended trip, contact your insurance provider to find out how to get larger quantities or early refills so that you don’t miss out. Many have vacation overrides available but you need to call ahead instead of waiting until you are ready to go. If an override isn’t possible, contact your physician and ask about samples.
Take Some Cash With You
Even though I get cash when I get to my destination, I always take a little bit of cash with me. The exchange rates and fees at currency exchange locations in the airport are ridiculous.
I either order a small amount of currency from my bank OR I take a small amount of cash that I exchange upon arrival so I have something until I get to an ATM machine. It has been my experience that, if you use a card with no foreign transaction fees, you will get a better deal overall. While I do prepay everything as much as possible, having some cash on hand allows me to tip drivers, valets, etc. until I get my spending money.
Be Smart About Packing
I cannot stress enough the need to pack in a smart way. I hate paying exorbitant bag fees!!! When we travel, we tend to book vacation rentals with laundry facilities available. That enables us to pack less (i.e. 5 days of clothing) and then do laundry during our trip if we need to.
On our longer trips (2+ weeks), it is easier to just do laundry once or twice and also have the benefit of less luggage to handle. My daughter travels in a wheelchair and it is a real struggle handling more than one roller bag. I also recommend prepaying bag fees too.
Take a Power Adapter and a Converter
In case you aren’t aware, a power outlet here in the United States is not the same as an outlet in Europe. Or Asia. Or wherever. First you need an adapter so you can plug your phone or tablet into an outlet but you also need a converter that will change the voltage to the needs of your device. If you don’t have a converter, you risk overloading and blowing out your device.
There are several all-in-ones available and they really aren’t expensive. It is worth the investment to grab a couple and keep them handy for your next trip. If you plan to cruise, take a power strip with you because you will only have a couple of outlets available in your room.
Cell Phone Coverage
I love Verizon coverage. We had service in Cuba when no one else did. There are alternatives to using your phone and risking roaming though. I have an international plan that has a flat daily fee to access my plan which just happens to be unlimited everything. Yes, there are inexpensive alternatives but so far I haven’t found anything with the same quality as my Verizon plan.
If you are in an area with wi-fi, use Google Voice to make calls or use Skype to contact family and friends. If you have a phone that is unlocked, you can remove your existing cell company’s SIM card, and replace it with one from a local company in your destination. A SIM card might cost $25 - $30 depending on where you are going but it will give you enough talk time or texts to check in with friends and family several times.
Download Offline Maps and Apps
This is really easy and a great idea in case you don’t want to pay for international coverage or if you are unable to access wi-fi. Download maps for your intended attractions so you know how to get there if all else fails.
I like carrying as little as possible including local or regional maps. I don’t even like carrying the hop-on-hop-off bus maps if I can avoid it. It all depends on how much convenience matter to you.
Give Your Itinerary to Family
This is a good idea in case something happens during your trip. A family emergency occurs back home, a tragic even happens and you lose the ability to check in with family, or maybe something way less nefarious. If your family needs to find you, giving them itinerary will allow them to at least contact your hotel.
Take Copies of Confirmation and Booking Numbers
I know I have referred to this multiple times in this article but that is because it is so important! Take paper copies or some kind of written record of your bookings with confirmation numbers with you. If there is a booking mix up, you have something they can look up. If your phone or tablet breaks or get stolen, you have a back up.
Take Clothes and Meds in Carry-On
It only took one flight delay and cancellation to learn this lesson. Keep one change of clothes and the necessary toiletries and medications so you don’t have to run out and buy more unnecessarily. Even though it is a small inconvenience, if you are unable to get to a store to get the necessities, it can be a real pain in the you-know-what.
Identify the Nearest Embassy/Consulate
Chances are you will never need it BUT map out where the nearest embassy or consulate is JUST IN CASE something happens and you need it urgently. I keep a printed map of the important places within my destination in case I lose my phone, it dies, or if there is no internet service.
Two years ago we were in Greece at the end of a glorious 3-country trip. It was fabulous all the way through……until my phone was stolen. Fortunately I had my tablet with me so I had access to everything that I needed but what if I hadn’t? Keeping paper copies of the important stuff is a great back up for situations that are beyond your control.
Get Some Cash Upon Arrival
There is some debate about the best place or way to get currency. I have had the best luck going to an ATM either at the airport or a local bank. The currency exchange stores charge an exorbitant amount for the service. Some offer a discount on exchanging larger quantities or buying a prepaid card but I don’t find the discount to be worthwhile.
Prepare for the Long Flight
If you have chronic health issues, contact your physician and inquire about how a long haul flight might affect you. After your doctor has advised you on how to prepare yourself and how to take care of yourself, the following are additional tips that I have found very useful over the years:
Wear comfortable clothing.
Layer clothing, take a sweater, or blanket if you are cold-natured.
Plan for comfort: noise cancelling headphones, earbuds, a neck pillow, etc.
Take something to keep you entertained.
Take gum to pop your ears.
Take sanitary wipes to wipe down armrests and your tray table.
Take trial size toiletries to freshen up upon arrival.
Charge your devices before you board and/or have a power bank available. Not all seats have charge ports.
Hydrate well before, during, and after your flight.
Prepare for unexpected motion sickness. I love patches!
Contact the airport or airline ahead of time if you need assistance of any kind. They will have someone available to help you if you let them know what your needs are. Also, let them now if you have a service animal.
Last but certainly not least……….ARRIVE EARLY! You don’t want to miss your flight because you are stuck in security.
I hope this checklist helps you have the best trip every. Travel offers a profound level of personal growth and I urge you to get out of your comfort zone. Don’t wait for “one day” to start having your adventures! The time is NOW!