I love traveling internationally, and I’ve become quite good at making all the necessary preparations before I head off on my adventures. When I was in my 20’s, this was how I planned a trip: Save some money (probably not enough), book a flight and a hostel or two, show up in a country and wander around aimlessly. Those were some good times and I went on some amazing adventures during those years of my life, but these days I’m a little older, a little wiser, and a little more interested in living more luxuriously while on the road. As a result, my list of preparations for a big international trip has become more involved, but it has really helped me to stay in some wonderful places and have some amazing experiences that I probably would have missed out on had I just “flown by the seat of my pants” as I did in my 20’s.
I’ve written about budgeting for a trip before, so I’ll just link to that post instead of getting into the topic too much here. Check out my tips for budgeting for a trip if you’re looking for tips on saving for and paying for travel:
If you’re thinking about going on a grand adventure, you might be wondering just where to begin and what preparations you should make. It is my hope that this handy guide will help you to make sure you don’t forget anything so you can concentrate on having an amazing time instead!
Research entry requirements for your destination.
This is extremely important, because depending on where you’re going there will be different entry requirements based on where you’re traveling to and what country you’re from. This information can be easily obtained online on the immigration website for your destination. As an American, I’m extremely fortunate to have one of the world’s strongest passports, but even I have to obtain visas for certain countries. For instance, I had to apply for a visa when I visited Australia (but it was extremely easy, cost only $25, the application process was entirely online, and I had my visa approval within a few days). Other countries, such as Russia, have more stringent visa processes which involves applying and getting approved at a Russian consulate or embassy and requires sponsorship (though usually hotels can be your “sponsor”, and comes with a lot of other provisions and can take a long time to get approved at times). Other countries issue visas upon arrival, such as Japan, the U.K., Canada, Mexico, most of the E.U. and many other countries. These requirements and rules vary for every country though and the rules can change, so it’s always best to check before you make your travel plans.
Do your research on where you’ll stay.
A friend of mine is heading to Europe for the first time soon. Since I’ve been there before, she was asking me about the best areas to stay in London and Paris. I had a great time going over the different areas with her and telling her about my experiences. I did the same thing with my Japan trip, relying on the internet and friends who had been there for information on the best, most convenient places to stay in Tokyo and Kyoto. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends who have been to your destination before for their recommendations. If you don’t know anybody who has been there before, the internet is a fabulous resource for this kind of information and travel forums everywhere are full of people who are more than happy to help. I’ve also found travel bloggers to be an extremely useful resource for all sorts of useful travel information (and I’m not just saying that because I’m a blogger…I actually read and check a lot of other people’s blogs too when I’m planning a trip).
Doing your research can mean the difference between staying in a fabulous, centrally located place near a transit station and staying several miles away from the nearest bus stop in a far-out residential neighborhood. You can also find out if some areas are safer than others, close to shops and restaurants, or whatever else might be important for you to know.
Things to book before you go.
You know you need to book your flights before you go and you’ll likely want to book your hotel, hostel or Airbnb before you head over, but there are other considerations to make as well. Will you be wanting a car rental? It’s best to reserve this ahead of time. What about train passes? For instance, I had to book my JR Rail pass for Japan ahead of time because the pass is only available to foreign travelers and can only bought from outside Japan. Otherwise I would have had to buy train tickets in Japan and wouldn’t have saved the money I saved! It’s best to look into whether or not you’ll need something like this for your destination before you go and make the necessary preparations. Another thing you should look into is whether or not prior reservations are required for any of your must-do activities or must-see attractions. If there’s a restaurant you’ve been dying to try or a popular activity or attraction you’re dying to see while you’re traveling, it’s best to make reservations ahead of time if possible. You wouldn’t want to fly halfway across the world and miss out on your top activities, after all!
Learn a little bit about the language and culture of your destination.
You don’t need to become fluent in a foreign language and an expert on the culture in order to travel to another country, but it’s always a good thing to learn a little bit about the language and culture before you go. The more different the culture is from your own, the more you should probably do this. For instance, when I went to London I wasn’t too worried about this because I’m a native English speaker and although there are some differences between British and United States culture, the differences really aren’t so much. However, when I traveled to Japan I found it really useful to learn a few things ahead of time, such as the etiquette of bathing at an Onsen and staying in a Ryokan. It was also really helpful to learn a few key phrases in Japanese that helped me to say thank you and get a few key points across. Not required, because it really wasn’t all that hard to get around in Japan, but a little bit of the language really does go a long way.
Prepare for the fact that your smart phone will not “just work”.
It’s 2017, so I can probably assume the vast majority of you have become reliant on smart phones. I remember studying abroad in Amsterdam in 2004 and nobody from our little group of Americans had working cell phones, but it was fine. We had maps and we pointed out places on the maps we would meet at certain times and it was just fine. However, in this day and age we’ve become so reliant on our phones being our guides to the world that it can be a little disconcerting when it suddenly doesn’t work. If you travel outside of the country, your phone likely won’t work, so you should think about this before you go and prepare yourself with a plan. There are different things you can do to plan for this. You can invest in paper maps and travel old school style, you can get yourself a portable wifi device such as Skyroam, you can plan out places you’ll be able to use wifi and look up directions before you head out each day (that’s what I did in Canada and it worked like a charm. Morning routine: go on wifi and look up directions to wherever I’m going, screenshot the Google map, hit the road). You can also contact your cell phone provider and get an international data plan (but I warn you…it’s expensive). Another option is to seek out a local sim card for your phone or get a pre-paid phone upon your arrival. Whatever option you prefer is entirely a personal decision, but you should definitely come up with a game plan before you go.
Speaking of technology…
Plan ahead for your trip by downloading helpful apps for your phone as well as entertainment for your long plane ride. Helpful apps can be things like Google Translate, which has an offline feature, travel guides for your destination, subway and metro maps, and other helpful destination-specific apps. I’m assuming you’re probably hoping to travel as lightly as possible so instead of bringing a stack of books and guidebooks you’ll save a lot of space and weight in your suitcase by downloading novels, guidebook e-books, podcasts, music, games, and anything else you want to have with you on your phone or tablet.
Another thing that’s extremely useful to have is an external battery which you can plug in to charge up your phone, digital camera, tablet, e-reader, fitbit, or anything else you might need to charge on the go. After all, some of those long international flights can take an eternity and there’s nothing worse than your phone battery dying halfway through, leaving with you nothing to do other than stare at the seat in front of you and thumb through the same airline magazine over and over for hours on end. Do yourself a favor: get an external battery/charger.
Check the weather before you pack.
I know this seems like a no-brainer, but some people don’t think of this. A prime example: I live in San Diego, California. People assume it’s 75 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny every day, all year long. While we do have some of the best weather in the United States, I can assure you that it does in fact rain here. It does in fact get cold here. Sure, we’re not Wisconsin or Finland, but it’s not rare for it to be in the 40’s in the wintertime, especially at night. Does that sound like shorts and flip flops weather? I thought not. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gone for a stroll by the beach in my area and overheard somebody saying, “I wish I would have brought a sweater on this trip. I had no idea it would get so cold!“.
Always check the weather before you pack, and always pack a few layers, just in case. I’ve even needed a sweater a couple of times in Hawaii! You just never know. Best to be prepared.
Get a little cash before you go.
In this day and age, most countries have ATM machines that are easily accessible and it’s definitely the best way to get cash when you’re traveling. Still, I think it’s a good idea to get a little bit of cash before you go. Contact your bank and tell them you would like a little bit of foreign currency before your trip. They usually have to order it, but I’ve never had it take longer than a week to arrive. You don’t need a ton of money, but it’s really nice to arrive in a country with a little cash, which can be useful to do things like paying a taxi driver, putting a little cash into a train ticket machine, or buying a coffee from a cash-only cart upon arrival. This will tide you over until you can find an ATM machine.
Speaking of your bank, let them know you’re traveling.
You don’t want the bank canceling your card over a fraud alert while you’re abroad. It’s a huge pain! Make sure you contact your bank and your credit card company to let them know when you’ll be out of the country and where you’ll be going in order to ensure you don’t have any unexpected surprises while trying to use your card.
I hope you found this list to be useful! What preparations do you like to make before traveling? Anything you think is particularly important that I might have missed? I would love to hear your thoughts!