So you just pulled the trigger on that big international trip you’ve been drooling over? Congratulations!
And now, holy moly you have a lot of work to do. What if you miss something important and the whole trip is RUINED?
Fear not, I’ve got you covered. By now I’ve traveled so much that preparing for an international trip is almost second nature. But the first few times, I remember, it was hard.
Here’s a detailed, experience-based checklist of essential steps to prepare for travel abroad.
Take care of these essential planning steps and you’ll have all the most important stuff covered. Then you’ll be ready to approach your trip with the calm curiosity and open mind of a seasoned traveler.
Check Your Passport Validity
You wouldn’t be the first person to discover, the night before your big international trip, that your passport expired a few months ago. Oops!
Don’t be this person! Check your passport well in advance of your trip, a few months ideally. This will give you plenty of time to get a new one if needed, without paying costly rush fees and triggering a panic attack.
What to check for:
- Passport expiration date is minimum of 6 months after your trip (this is a requirement for some visas).
- Passport has at least two blank visa pages remaining (also often a visa requirement).
Check Visa Requirements
Make sure you know, at least a couple months in advance, how you will get your tourist visa for the country you plan to visit. Can you simply get it at the airport when you arrive, or will you need to apply online or at an embassy in your home country in advance?
Visa requirements can be complicated and depend on both the country you’re from and the country you plan to visit. One good way to check visa requirements is to find the website of your destination country’s embassy in your home country.
For example, if you live in the US and want to travel to Laos, find the website of the Embassy of Laos in the United States (often located in Washington D.C.). The embassy should have a page on their website describing visa requirements for US citizens wanting to travel to Laos, and a phone number you can call with questions.
Beware when searching online for visa requirements, as many of the results you’ll find are from visa services companies trying to get your business. They will assist with the visa application process for a fee, but often this isn’t necessary because you can easily do it yourself. I’ve traveled to dozens of countries and only used a service like this twice, when it was truly the best way to do it.
If traveling through multiple countries on a long trip, look into getting your visas along the way from embassies in the countries you’re visiting. Good information about this, and visa requirements in general, can often be found in travel forums like Lonely Planet Thorn Tree.
If you’ll be applying for a visa on arrival, make sure to bring all the required documents on your trip. Depending on the country these can include:
- One or more recent passport photos
- Application form
- Confirmation of hotel or flight details
- Cash payment in a specific currency
Check Health and Vaccination Recommendations
Travel exposes us to fascinating new ideas and cultures, and also to new germs and illnesses. Especially for travelers from the “developed” world traveling to countries that are still “developing,” it’s critical to check vaccination recommendations for your destination.
Check vaccination recommendations as soon as possible after deciding to travel. Some vaccines require multiple injections that can take weeks or even months to become effective.
To check vaccination requirements, start by looking up your destination country on the CDC travel website. If it looks like you might need something you don’t have, make an appointment with a travel clinic in your area, or your general doctor as a starting point.
A professional opinion is important, especially if you’re new to this type of travel. Recommendations can be complex and vary by country, region, type of activities you’ll be doing, and even time of year.
In addition to vaccines, you might need to prepare for a few other issues that can’t be vaccinated against:
- Malaria is common in many parts of Africa, Asia, and other tropical locations, but there is no vaccine. Instead, travelers take preventative medication (not 100% effective) and use bug spray and netting to reduce mosquito bites.
- The dreaded “traveler’s diarrhea” is real, and many travelers choose to bring a course of emergency antibiotics when traveling to places where food and water can carry unfamiliar bacteria. Ask your travel doctor about this, and only take it if absolutely necessary, because taking unnecessary antibiotics is harmful.
If you take other prescription medications, make sure you have enough to cover the duration of your trip. It’s also smart to pack them in their original containers with documentation showing what they are, in case airport security or customs decides to ask you about that mysterious baggie of pills in your luggage.
Buy Travel Insurance
I never used to buy travel insurance, and fortunately I was lucky. But since upping the out-there factor and taking long solo trips in Africa and Asia, I’ve changed my ways, and travel insurance has saved my butt a couple of times.
I recommend that most travelers look into travel insurance, since basics you may take for granted at home (like medical care insurance) usually don’t apply while traveling overseas.
I’ve used and recommend World Nomads. They’re especially popular with adventurous travelers for their reasonable prices and transparent coverage of outdoor activities. I’ve filed two claims with them in the past, for stolen property and trip interruption costs, and they processed both efficiently and fairly.
Research Your Destination
Your research needs will depend a lot on what type of trip you’re on (a guided tour versus a loosely structured independent trip) and how much time you’ll be traveling for (a jam-packed long weekend, or a month+ wander). Some people will want to research and plan each day in detail, and others are more comfortable just showing up.
Regardless of your style, here are the key logistical questions you should answer as you prepare for your international trip:
- What will the weather be like?
- What languages are spoken and how widely is English used?
- What currency is used, and what is the best way to get local money (ATM, currency exchange)?
- Is tipping common in the local culture?
- Are credit cards and ATMs widely used, or should I prepare to pay mostly in cash?
- How much money do I expect to pay each day for food, lodging, transport, and activities?
- How will I connect to the internet and make phone calls? Is it easy to find wifi and/or buy a local SIM card for my phone?
- What is the public transportation network like, if traveling independently?
- What are the cultural norms I should be aware of in terms of dress and behavior?
- What are the locations and activities I don’t want to miss?
Thoughtful travelers committed to going beyond a checklist and getting more depth out of their experience will also want to research questions like these:
- What are the most common local religions? How were they developed? Are they interpreted conservatively or liberally?
- What local history should I be aware of in order to understand the current cultural landscape of my destination? For example, visitors to Rwanda or Cambodia will need to understand the history of recent genocides, which are still fresh in the memories of many adult residents.
- What’s going on in the local news? Are there any political elections coming up or recently completed? What events are the locals interested in right now?
- What books, either nonfiction or novels, can I read for more insight into my destination?
Prepare a Packing List
Now that you’ve done your research, you’re ready to put together a packing list based on your travel style, trip duration, activities, and expected weather. Google can help you out with this – google “packing list for (your destination).” Personally I like to make a spreadsheet, so I can plan in advance and check things off as I go.
One of the biggest challenges with packing for international travel is not overpacking. This could be the subject of an entire separate post. In the meantime, here are some tips on how to not overpack:
- Use a smaller bag. Carryon-size backpacks, like my beloved Osprey Porter 46, work great.
- Research thoroughly, so you can answer all those “can I find (thing) in (destination)” questions so you don’t have to bring every possible thing you could ever need.
- Create a well thought-out minimalist wardrobe of comfortable, coordinated, non-wrinkling, stink-resistant travel clothes. I’m a big fan of merino wool for travel.
Register With Your Country’s Embassy
Some countries allow you to register your travel plans with your home government, for example the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) in the United States. It’s easy, free, and only takes a couple minutes.
STEP registration notifies the US embassy in your destination that you’ll be visiting, which might come in handy should you need emergency help while abroad. It also signs you up for travel advice updates, so you can monitor any potential issues in your destination before and during your trip.
Notify Banks of Travel Plans
If you plan to use your ATM or credit cards overseas, it’s important to file travel notices with your banks ahead of time. Otherwise, your transactions may be blocked by overzealous fraud protection features.
Many banks have an easy online feature for this. Look for an option called “manage travel plans,” “update travel notices,” or something similar. You can always call customer service too. Usually you’ll need to enter your travel dates and destination countries, and perhaps a contact number.
It’s a quick and easy way to avoid major headaches during your trip, so don’t skip this step.
Upload and Print Copies of Important Travel Documents
This might seem unnecessary in the age of smartphones, but as I’ll explain below, sh!t happens. Therefore I always scan, print, and upload to Google Drive the following documents before a big international trip:
- Details page of passport
- Visa page of passport, if you’ve already received your tourist visa
- Recent passport photo
- Credit card and debit card details (number, expiration date, and customer service phone number)
- Travel insurance confirmation
- Health insurance card
- Contact info for my country’s embassy in the country I’m visiting
Why might you need this? All kinds of reasons. Your passport is lost or stolen and you need to get a replacement in order to travel home. Your credit card is lost or stolen and you need to call and have it canceled. Your phone breaks or disappears and you can’t access your travel insurance info online during a medical emergency.
Simply put, having these documents accessible via paper or online backup can save your butt. It’s easy to think these problems will never happen, but travel for long enough and eventually one of them will. Then you’ll be super glad you were prepared.
Withdraw Travel Cash
If you did your research as mentioned above, you’ll have a sense of how much cash you should bring. Factors include:
- Are credit cards widely accepted?
- Are ATMs widely available and reliable?
- How easy is changing foreign currency to local currency, and which foreign currency is best (usually Euros or US Dollars)?
For travelers visiting developed countries where ATMs and credit cards are common, your cash needs will be relatively small. It’s still always recommended to carry some emergency cash while traveling, perhaps a few hundred US dollars.
For travelers venturing to places with primarily cash economies and unreliable ATM networks, you’ll need to bring enough cash to cover most or all of your expenses. When I traveled in West Africa for several months, I carried thousands of US dollars in my underwear! Travelers in this situation will want to pay special attention to planning your budget, storing all this cash safely, and knowing how you’ll exchange it for local currency.
In all these cases it’s safest to bring cash that is:
- Relatively new
- In large denominations, like $50 or $100 bills
- In very good condition (not torn or creased)
This will usually ensure the best exchange rates, and make sure your cash isn’t turned down by picky money changers. You can usually ask a bank teller to help you withdraw cash that meets these requirements, instead of using an ATM and hoping for the best.
While traveling, always store your cash stash safely in a money belt or pocket underwear. Use ziplock baggies to make sure it doesn’t get wet or sweaty, and take care to keep it from getting crumpled or creased, as these factors can cause money changers to reject it.
Plan Your First Day and Night
For even the most spontaneous independent travelers, I almost always recommend planning these pieces at minimum:
- How will you get from the airport to your first night’s destination? Local taxi, hotel shuttle, meeting a tour guide? How will you contact anyone you need to meet once you arrive, keeping in mind that your home SIM card may not work abroad.
- Where will you stay your first night? Do you need a reservation?
After that, a spontaneity-loving traveler can wing it. Most people will do even more planning, and that’s fine too.
Take extra care with your plan if your flight arrives in the middle of the night. Sometimes, unless you have trusted transport arranged in advance and know the area you’re being taken to, it can be best to hang at the airport until sunrise. Transportation prices tend to be lower during the day as well.
Learn Some Local Phrases
Depending on the trip, this might be completely mandatory or just for fun. Regardless, it’s a great way to get a sense for a new country, show respect for the local people you’ll meet, and keep the language learning part of your brain sharp.
For those wanting to pick up a basic vocabulary and some key phrases, I recommend the Duolingo app. It can also be helpful to seek out a travel phrasebook, but this is really more a reference than a learning tool. It’s VERY hard to learn a language by simply reading a phrase book.
Travelers visiting for longer, in areas with very little English, or who just want to dive in fully can study a language more formally. I personally use and recommend the unique approach of Language Transfer, a free series of audio lessons that promotes an intuitive approach to learning language.
Once at your destination, use tools like these to communicate and continue improving your language skills:
- Notebook and pen, for writing down new words or keeping track of phrases to look up later
- Google Translate app: you can even download individual languages for offline translation use
- Pocket translation dictionary or phrasebook, especially for places where smartphones aren’t as widely used.
- Picture dictionary, allowing you to point to pictures without needing to know the local word
This will be a bit different for everyone, but here are some last-minute to-dos to keep in mind as you prepare for international travel:
- Check in to your flight and arrange transport to the airport
- Write down and/or cache offline any key transportation or hotel reservations and phone numbers for the beginning of your trip
- Check to make sure you’ve packed all essentials in your carryon bag, if you’ll be checking luggage
- Prepare your home: set the thermostat, turn off lights, arrange pet care, etc.
- Get excited!
Preparing for international travel can seem overwhelming, but if you follow this checklist you’ll have all the essentials covered. Now all that’s left is to have an exciting, interesting, and enjoyable trip. Bon voyage!
More Travel Resources
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