Planning a vacation or trip to another country can be tricky, especially if you've never been there before. It's even trickier if it's your first international trip. The following international travel tips, sourced from various experts and travel publications around the Web, can help you prepare for what needs to be done ahead of time and what you should do once you arrive.
Before You Go
There are several important steps you should take even before you start researching flights and hotels.
Tip #1: Get Informed on Your Destination
Visit the website for the US Department of State for important information about the country or countries you plan to visit. Here you'll find vital information that can keep you healthy and safe on your journey, such as:
- Travel alerts and travel warnings: Usually relating to terrorist activity, political disputes, strikes or recent disease or viral outbreaks
- Location of the US Embassy and any consular offices: Keep addresses and phone numbers handy
- Crime and security information: Learn about any ongoing violent crimes and how to stay safe from pick-pocketers and petty thieves
- Health precautions: Including recommended vaccinations from the CDC and World Health Organization
- Local laws, customs and medical care: Women travelers are especially affected by religious and cultural beliefs and the concept of "free speech" can land you in jail
- Visa and passport requirements: See more about these travel documents in the next section
For information about the climate and weather in your chosen destination, try a site like World Weather and Climate Information.
Different countries and destinations will have different requirements for official documentation. Make sure these are in place well ahead of your departure.
Tip #2: Renew or Apply for Travel Documents as Soon as Possible
All US citizens must use a US passport when leaving and entering the United States. Some countries require a visa from tourists and some do not. A quick check at CIBT Visas can tell you if the country you are visiting requires a visa or how long you can visit without one.
- It takes six weeks for the standard processing of a passport and three weeks for expedited service, which costs an extra $60 per applicant.
- Your passport must be valid at least six months after you return home and have at least two blank pages to avoid the risk of being denied to enter another country.
- You can also apply for a passport card good for entering the US by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. Passport cards are not valid for international air travel.
- Adult passports (16 and over) cost $135 and expire in 10 years. Renewals cost $110 total.
- Minor passports (15 and under) cost $105 and expire in five years. Renewals cost the same.
- The cost to apply for both a passport book and passport card is $165 for adults and $120 for minors.
- First-time applicants must apply in person at a passport agency or an authorized passport application acceptance facility.
- To apply for a visa, you must contact the local embassy or local consular office of the country you plan to visit.
- You can find the websites of foreign embassies in the US by visiting the US Department of State online.
- You will be required to send your original passport book, as well as other important documents, depending on the country's requirements. To protect your important (and expensive) documents, it is strongly recommended to use a carrier service like FedEx or UPS with tracking numbers or USPS express mail or certified mail.
Tip #3: Print out a Few Copies of Your Entire Travel Itinerary
In your itinerary packet, include e-mail confirmations of flight tickets, hotel reservations, car rentals and map directions. You may not always have an Internet connection to access this information. Give copies to a trusted family member or friend so someone back home knows where you are and when to expect your return.
Although any trip you take requires customized packing based on location and activities, international travel definitely includes a few extra items not needed when traveling within the United States.
Tip #4: Use a Written or Printed Packing Checklist
An international travel packing checklist should start off with all the important documents and incidentals needed to visit and leave different countries, such as your passport, photocopies of identification pages in your passport (stored separately in case the passport gets lost or stolen), proof of vaccinations, visas (if required), local currency, and gadgets such as electrical outlet plug converters/adapters. See LoveToKnow's complete packing list for international travel, which includes a downloadable form.
Tip #5: Pack as Light as Possible
Many travel experts agree that packing light is the way to go on international trips. Personal items that can fit in one carry-on bag for airplanes (at least major carriers), buses and taxis are much less likely to get lost, ransacked or stolen. Roll your clothes tightly instead of folding them. It saves a lot of space and helps prevent wrinkling.
Tip #6: Bring Your Most Versatile Clothes to Mix, Use and Match
Dress in lightweight layers to cut down on bulk. Travel writer Katie Coakley brings apparel that can serve multiple purposes. Her Tahitian sarong can be used as:
- A cover-up for the beach
- A picnic basket
- A tablecloth
- A makeshift hobo-style satchel
- A scarf for bad hair days
- A pillow or curtain for a bottom bunk beds
When lifestyle blogger Gaby takes one of her many trips abroad, she cleverly wears her heaviest and bulkiest items on the day of travel, such as her leather boots, combined with a pair of dark denim jeans and a lightweight jacket. That should take up more than half of your heaviest clothing items and you're ready to go just about anywhere. Leggings, knee-length shorts and dresses, khakis and lightweight tops, all in mostly neutral colors are easy to mix and match with one additional pair of jeans and they won't take up a lot of space.
Tip #7: Be Sure to Bring Your Own Medicine
Let your doctor know of your travel plans so he can provide refills with enough medication to cover your trip, plus a note saying these medications are medically necessary. Make sure all medication is in the original bottle with your name and home address. Include over-the-counter medicines for upset stomach, heartburn, diarrhea, pain relief and cold and flu.
When traveling abroad, your wallet should have a mix of plastic and cash in the local currency. Research the exchange rate before you leave so you'll know what to expect.
Tip #8: Use Debit Cards at ATMs for the Best Exchange Rate
According to Fodor's and the Independent Traveler, using your debit card to withdraw cash from foreign ATMs results in a lower conversion fee (as low as 1% to 3%) than trying to exchange cash or travelers checks.
Tip #9: Get One of the Best International Credit Cards
Use credit cards with no foreign transaction fees for big purchases such as hotel bills, car rentals and attraction tickets. Chase Sapphire Preferred and Capital One Venture Rewards are among the best credit cards for international travel.
European businesses prefer smart chip cards which are less susceptible to fraud than magnetic strip cards. Chase Sapphire Preferred, Amex Platinum and Barclaycard Arrival Plus are among the few American credit cards with this updated technology.
Tip #10: Check the Country's Entrance and Exit Fees
Some countries require an extra fee to cross the border going in either direction. It is typically not included in the price of airline tickets and can cost from $25 to $200. Check with the local embassy or the website for your destination's tourism board for more information.
Tip #11: Notify Your Bank and Credit Card Company
Banks will often suspend or shut off debit and credit cards when charges in foreign countries suddenly appear on the account. Provide the fraud department with a summary of your travel itinerary to avoid any confusion or being cut off from funds when you need them the most.
Don't travel internationally without making sure your health and well-being are suitably protected first.
Tip #12: Get International Travel Health Insurance
Entrepreneur and CBS News financial expert Robert Pagliarini strongly recommends a cost-effective and affordable overseas health insurance plan such as International Medical Group's Patriot Travel Medical Insurance.
In the event of a medical emergency caused by an unforeseen accident, personal injury or contracted illness or disease, your US-based health insurance may not cover or be accepted for medical services provided in other countries.
Tip #13: Include Medical Evacuation Insurance
You'll be doubly glad for including medical evacuation insurance if you or your loved one has a serious injury or illness while abroad. Avoid facing surgery in a foreign country when you can be safely transported to the hospital of your choice back home.
Tip #14: Acquire Extra Protection for Non-Refundable Expenses
If your international trip has to be canceled or is interrupted by an unforeseen accident, injury or illness affecting you or a close family member, cancellation insurance and trip interruption insurance can help reimburse non-refundable items such as airline tickets and hotel deposits.
Cancellation insurance protects your travel investment before you leave. Trip interruption insurance protects you during your trip. Read the policy carefully so you understand the terms and limitations.
Sightseeing and Shopping
Insider advice from those well-experienced in international travel can help you get the most from your overseas adventure.
Tip #15: Arrange for an English-Speaking Guide
During his Asian excursions for a non-profit organization he cofounded called Band of Brothers, Robert Pagliarini discovered the value of local, informal English speaking guides. For a nominal fee of $15-$20 per day, a local guide can help with language barriers, finding transportation, the best places to eat and all the must-see attractions. Contact your hotel well in advance of your departure and let the staff know you are looking for an English-speaking guide to hang out and show you around for the day.
Tip #16: Make Advance Reservations
Rick Steves, founder of a European travel guide company and an avid traveler himself, recommends buying advance tickets or combo passes for well-known European sites as soon as your travel dates are confirmed. Small booking fees are well worth the avoidance of long lines and grueling wait times to see attraction like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Vatican Museum in Rome, Barcelona's Picasso Museum and Italian Renaissance art showcased in Florence's Accademia or Uffizi galleries.
Tip #17: Wake up Early
Travel blogger Matthew Karsten, also known as the "Expert Vagabond," recommends an early arrival at popular attractions. You might have a few quiet moments to yourself. The softer, diffused natural light also produces excellent photo ops.
Tip #18: Don't Stand out as an Obvious Tourist
Dress appropriately for the area you are visiting. Avoid flashy, brand name clothing, wearing expensive jewelry and exposing large amounts of cash. The more you blend in with the locals, the less likely you are to look offensive or like an easy target for petty thieves.
Tip #19: Spread out Your Spendable Shopping Money
Keep low denomination bills folded individually in different zippered pockets of a cross-body shoulder bag, a forward facing fanny pack, a jacket with interior pockets, or jeans with front pockets. If you see an item that only costs a dollar or two more than the bill you pull out of your bag or pocket, the vendor is likely to accept the sale. This is one way to haggle with foreign vendors and works for international adventurer Dena Haines when shopping in Ecuador.
As a guest in a foreign country, show respect for the people providing services in addition to the overall culture and lifestyle of the locals who live there.
Tip #20 Learn the Basics in the Local Language
You don't have to be fluent in the language spoken in the country you are visiting, but take the time to learn a few greetings, numbers and questions. Things like "hello," "how are you," "have a nice day," "please," "thank you" and "goodbye" can help you interact with politeness towards locals. A language translator or dictionary app can be extremely useful, but make sure you have some screenshots or pages saved in case you have no Internet connection.
Tip #21 Educate Yourself on International Tipping
Local tipping customs vary from one country or region to the next, so it's a good idea to consult a travel tipping guide or learn the acceptable percentage or amount for individual services provided in each country you visit.
Tip #22 Experience the Local Cuisine
You may be surprised to find out that authentic Mexican, Italian or Chinese food prepared by family-run restaurants or street vendors in Mexico, Italy or China tastes completely different than the Americanized versions you've been eating back home. This is where your local guide becomes a valuable resource for showing you the best places to eat, what and how to order, and how to engage in local customs.
Have Fun and Soak It All In
You won't have to sweat the small stuff when traveling internationally if you do plenty of research and careful planning beforehand. It's time well spent that will allow you to relax and soak up the culture, attractions and natural landscapes of your chosen destination.