Taking a trip out of the United States is exciting, but it can also make an amateur international traveler -- and even a pro! -- feel a little overwhelmed and anxious.
Confirming your trip itinerary, applying for a U.S. passport, working within the boundaries of your smartphone’s limited data plan, and understanding the currency exchange rate are few things to think about (that will likely stress you out) when planning a trip abroad.
So to help lower your anxiety the best we can, we’ve pulled together a list of what you should do before you travel abroad. And a reminder: don't leave this to the last minute.
1. Research your travel destination thoroughly.
We all do well with researching a country’s or city’s most popular tourist attractions when planning a trip, but we sometimes don’t check to see if a country is safe or if additional documentation is needed to enter the country. For example, if you plan on traveling with children, border patrol or officials may require custody documents or written consent from the other parent (if he or she isn't present) before passing through customs. And do the extra research to understand your travel destination’s local laws, customs, medical care system, and health precautions (i.e. if vaccinations if needed).
2. Renew or apply for a passport or visa well in advance.
Well ahead of booking a trip, travelers should apply for a U.S. passport or check to make sure their existing passport is valid to ensure it doesn’t need to be renewed. For routine service, a passport can take six weeks to process unless you're willing to fork over $60 for the expedited service, which will take about half the time. Some travel destinations require a U.S. passport that has been valid for six months and/or has a couple blank pages for entry into the country.
And if you’re traveling with children, keep in mind that their passports are valid for only five years in comparison to an adult passport, which is valid for 10 years. Also check to see if a visa is required to enter your travel destination(s). Contact the embassy of the foreign country or countries you will be visiting for more information.
3. Apply for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck.
For frequent travelers, the Global Entry program has become the stress-free way to travel. After a rigorous background check and a 10- to 15-minute in-person interview, enrollees are able to expedite their re-entry back into the U.S. at airports. They simply use the Global Entry kiosks to scan their passports, U.S. permanent resident cards, or fingerprints to dodge those long customs lines. Global Entry also has perks for domestic travelers. Using the PASS ID number on the Global Entry card, frequent flyers can enter the number into the “Known Travel Number” field when booking a flight. This allows members to step into the TSA Pre-Check line. Keep your shoes on and leave your laptop in your backpack or carry-on luggage. It’s hassle-free travel at its best.
4. Check travel warnings and alerts.
Be aware of any travel warnings or travel alerts issued about your desired destination. Travel alerts are used for short-term events such as strikes, demonstrations, health alerts (i.e. outbreak of H1N1) or evidence of an elevated risk of terrorist attacks. A travel warning is issued when travelers should consider whether they should go to a country at all for an extended period of time. An unstable government, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks are examples of why the U.S. State Department would issue a travel warning.
In addition to checking the U.S. embassy’s or consulate’s website, you should also consider adding your trip to the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). The program’s perks include receiving important information from the U.S. embassy about your destination country; the U.S. Embassy being able to contact you in an emergency; and your family and friends having the ability to reach you in an emergency.
5. Insure your trip.
We’ve all done it at some point; we get to the check box for trip insurance and we decline to pay the extra money for it. In those rare cases that you may need it, trip insurance can be a lifesaver. In the U.S., airlines may be lenient with uninsured victims of a canceled flight and book them on a later one, and/or cover hotel costs if necessary. However, that’s rarely the case for airlines in other countries. While traveling abroad, a passenger’s flight can be canceled without a refund, which means the money paid for a ticket is a complete loss and another full-price ticket must be purchased. Save yourself the headache and buy travel insurance when offered to avoid these fees. Paying the extra money will give you peace of mind.
6. Confirm and share your itinerary.
Nothing makes a trip spiral out of control more than an unconfirmed hotel reservation, or the last-minute realization that one's flight’s departure time has changed. Be proactive and check your entire trip itinerary to ensure hotel, flight, and other booked reservations are accurate. Make two copies of all your travel documents and personal identification (passports, visas, etc.) in case of an emergency. It’s also a good idea to share your trip itinerary with a significant other, relative, or close friend in case someone stateside needs to get in contact with you.
7. Check the country's entry and exit fees.
Some countries require travelers to pay to enter and/or leave the country. These fees are not included in the price of your airline ticket, and can range from $25 to $200.
8. Request a doctor's note for medication.
Pack a note from your doctor if you plan to take any medications with you on your trip. Keep in mind that some countries have strict laws against certain types of prescribed drugs or over-the-counter medications bought or sold in the United States, so it's important to not only know this before you go, but also be prepared with backup if some gets lost in transit and it's difficult to find in your travel destination.
9. Know how to power up your gadgets.
We can’t deny that we live in a hyper-connected world, and most of us can’t leave home without our favorite gadgets. So if you’re traveling with your smartphone, Kindle, iPad, or laptop, it may be a good idea to check to see what the electricity or voltage requirements are in the foreign country or city you're heading to.
In addition to an electricity converter or transformer, U.S. travelers will almost certainly need an adapter plug to keep their gadgets powered up. Several retailers and special stores sell adapters that can be used in multiple countries with varying setups.
10. Know your smartphone capabilities.
Taking pictures and staying in touch with friends while traveling abroad has become a major perk for smartphone owners, and fortunately there are ways to plan ahead to avoid expensive data roaming costs. First, travelers should contact their carriers to see if there are ways to minimize the cost of using a phone while on vacation. Some companies, such as AT&T, offer predetermined prices for international calling and texting packages. Others offer different data plans for travelers looking to stay connected. Again, this varies from carrier to carrier, but it’s worth checking out. And when you arrive in your destination, sometimes switching out the SIM card, using Wi-Fi (where available), and relying on popular international apps (e.g. WhatsApp and Viber) can also help you avoid coming back home to a $500 phone bill.
11. Assess your cash flow and bank needs.
Travelers should be aware of the exchange rate to help manage their money appropriately when on vacation. It’s always a good idea to wait until you get to your destination before you withdraw local currency from an ATM, but be aware that ATMs are susceptible to scams, including debit or credit card skimming. A helpful tip is to avoid currency exchange businesses located in airports or in known tourist areas because they can quickly deplete your cash flow if you’re not a savvy budgeter.
It’s also recommended that you call your bank or related credit card companies to alert them of your travel plans outside of the U.S. (Some major banks also allow you to enter your travel plan information online.) This is primarily to avoid having a bank or credit card company place a hold on your card(s). A bank representative can also inform you about specific banks chains that are best for avoiding paying ATM fees when abroad.
12. Pack, dress, and stay culturally informed.
In addition to packing snacks for a long trip abroad, travelers should pack an extra set of clothes in case checked luggage doesn’t make it to its final destination. Packing transitional clothes to wear from departure to arrival destinations is also important.
Travel guidebooks can never fully capture the authentic experience of visiting a place, but they can offer insights about local clothing styles and protocols, tipping, social norms, and traditions, making it a little easier for you to blend in with locals -- and better yet, not offend anyone. And it never hurts to learn a few key phrases in the native language to help make your stay more pleasant as well. More knowledge about your destination will only empower you and encourage you to fully explore and experience the destination in front of you.