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10 Things You Should Do Before Traveling Internationally

(Photograph provided courtesy of Denver International Airport)

If you don’t travel often, the thought of going to another country can be scary: What’s it going to be like? What do I need to bring?  What if something happens to me?  It may seem overwhelming to plan for all the “what if’s” so don’t!  Through all my years of traveling, I’ve found there are only a few things worth doing in prep for an international trip, regardless of where you’re headed — knock off the 10 things below and you’ll be way more prepared than most travelers.

1. Check Entry Requirements

As US Citizens, we can go to a lot of countries with our passport and nothing else… but not all countries.  Always make sure to check the entry requirements of the country you’ll be headed to in case you’ll need to apply for visas or if you need to renew your passport.  Some countries only permit entrance if you have a passport with blank pages and/or if the passport is valid for at least 6 months.  The best place to check those requirements is at the Bureau of Consular Affairs Travel site.

When should you do this? ASAP.  I recommend checking entry requirements as part of the initial research you do when trip planning (depending on what it says you may want to change your destination).  If you’ve already booked your ticket, then check the entry requirements right after.  This gives you the max amount of time to apply for a visa or renew your passport – two things which could take up to 2 months to process if you don’t want to pay exorbitant fees for expedited processing.

2. Research Safety Concerns

Traveling is a lot of fun until someone gets hurt.  Be smart and read up on the travel warnings and safety concerns for a country before you get there.  The Bureau of Consular Affairs Travel Site is another good place to start for this one as it mentions potential areas to avoid, prevalent crimes, and common scams.  For more specific details, try googling the name of the destination and “safety tips”.  As a warning, however, try not to get scared off by everything you read — if there’s one thing I’ve realized while traveling it’s that petty crime is common in practically all parts of the world and most countries are perfectly safe for tourists as long as you exercise common sense (e.g., don’t leave your belonging unattended, stay away from dark alleyways, keep windows rolled up, don’t dress to get attention, etc.).

When should you do this?  ASAP. Like checking entry requirements, you should research safety concerns when you’re doing your initial planning.  Depending on what you find, you may want to pick a different destination.

3. Get Vaccinated

Hygiene (personal and food related) just isn’t the same abroad and neither are the insects/bugs that you may contact; you leave yourself susceptible to a plethora of travel illnesses if you aren’t properly vaccinated before you travel.  To start, check out the CDC’s Travel Health section to find out what vaccines you may need and schedule an appointment with your nearest travel clinic or family doctor to get the vaccinations you’ll need.

When should you do this? At least a month before you travel.  Some vaccinations require some time to kick in or require you to start them before you travel in order to get the full effect.

4. Invest in a Guide Book

Whether you’re on an organized tour or traveling independently, a guidebook always comes in handy.  Good guidebooks not only bring the attractions to life, they offer tips to avoid the tourist rush, common phrases you’ll want to know, and where to go if you’re in an emergency (among a ton of other useful advice to handle all your “what if” scenarios).  My go-to guides at the moment are those by Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.  I also love buying them on Amazon since it’s less expensive than buying from a bookstore.

When should you do this?  The earlier the better since it helps with travel planning, but if not, just make sure you’ve got a book in your suitcase before you take off.

5. Figure Out The Money Situation

Some countries only deal with cash; in others, credit cards are widely accepted.  Some vendors and exchange bureaus abroad only take crisp dollars (USD that is torn or worn is not accepted).  Make sure you do your research to figure out how much money to bring and the current exchange rates.  Personally, if I know that the ATMs in my destination country are safe to use, I bring just enough cash to pay vendors who requested cash payment and then a little extra for emergency use since I’d much rather withdraw from the ATM abroad (you generally get better rates that way).  To stay on top of exchange rates, I use the XE Currency app on my cell to get real time updates on all the currency rates.  If you don’t want to download an app, you can visit a currency exchange site and note the exchange rate.

When should you do this?  At least a week before departure so there’s time to go to the bank.

6. Prep Your Credit Cards

While we’re on the topic of money, if you want to make sure you can access it abroad, call your debit and credit card companies before you leave and let them know the countries you’re going to.  If not, there’s a possibility they’ll assume  your transactions abroad are fraudulent and deny them!   Another quick tip related to credit cards is the ATM card – make sure you have a 4 digit PIN.  ATMs abroad only accept PIN codes with 4 digits so if yours has more than that, you’ll have to change it to 4 digits if you want to be able to use it internationally.

When should you do this?  Anytime before departure.

7. Photocopy Credit Cards and Passports

This is for precaution.  If your credit card is stolen, you’ll be glad you have a photocopy with the collect-call number you can dial to cancel the cards.  If you don’t want to carry your passport around (it’s a good idea to leave it in the safe, btw), bring the photocopy of the passport  instead.  Also, if you lose your passport and you happen to be traveling alone, the US Embassy needs documentation that proves your identity.  A photocopy of the passport would suffice.  If you don’t have the photocopy, another US Citizen will need to vouch for your identity and in person, which would be a pain if you’re traveling solo.  Do you really want to call someone at home and tell them they need to fly to XYZ place to vouch for your identify?  Didn’t think so.  Bring photocopies.  As an extra tip, I take photos of my credit cards and passport and upload them to Google Drive so that I can access them anywhere there’s internet connection.

When should you do this? Anytime before departure.

8. Research Electricity

If you plan on charging any devices (laptop, cell, batteries, etc.) while you’re abroad, figure out what the power plugs in your destination country look like as well as the electrical voltage used.  Then, buy adaptors and a converter, if necessary.  Personally, I’ve only been successful charging laptops, cell phones, and camera batteries when abroad.  Anytime I’ve tried to charge my hair straightener, it’s been futile, so the lesson learned is to keep the devices simple and don’t expect them all to work well even if you have the adaptors and converters.  It sucks, but there’s not much else you can do here.

When should you do this? A couple of weeks before departure so that you have time to purchase adaptors and converters.

9. Make a Packing List

I’ll just say it: I hate packing!  It’s my least favorite part of any trip because it takes so long to do!  To fix that, I started making a list of things to pack so that when the time came to actually pack, the process was tons simpler.  I recommend you start a packing list and write down items as they come to mind.  This way, when the time comes to actually pack, you can be pretty sure that you’ve thought of everything.  I also make a list of outfits I plan to wear.  It may seem like overkill, but it actually prevents me from overpacking!  Try it and let me know what you think!

When should you do this?  Get the list going as soon as you’re sure you’re going on the trip and add items to it over time.  Don’t forget to add any prescription medications to the list!

10. Print Out Itineraries & Confirmations

The worst is being on vacation and running into problems with vendors with which you’ve already communicated.  Maybe you booked a room with an ocean view but the hotel gave you a garden one instead.  Maybe the tour was supposed to pick you up at 9am in the lobby but it’s 9:30am and they are no where to be found.  Or, maybe you’re at the airport checking into a flight but the desk agent can’t locate your itinerary.  The best way to get through these situations is to bring hardcopies of all confirmations, vouchers, and emails between you and tour agencies, vendors, hotels, airlines, etc. to reference in case you run into hiccups.

When should you do this?  The week of departure.

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Christopher Dye - July 5, 2013 - 10:31 am

Two other things to consider doing: 1) get a no-foreign-transaction fee credit card before going so you can use your credit card without all the extra charges (Capital One has one of these cards). 2) Open up a checking account with Charles Schwab, and then use the ATM card to withdraw cash. They reimburse any ATM fees no matter where you withdraw cash from. Very handy!

Just Wanderlust - July 12, 2013 - 3:16 pm

Hi Christopher! Those are great tips especially for those who travel often!

Mackenzie - July 19, 2013 - 8:15 am

I am studying abroad for a semester in Italy and found this checklist to be very helpful! Packing for four months is a little overwhelming I’ll admit, but your tip to plan outfits is forcing me to pack only clothes that I know I will actually wear. I tend to try to pack my entire closet, so thank you for the advice!

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