How to prepare for your first international trip

Travel broadens your mind and drains your bank account, but it’s worth it. Still, if you’ve never traveled outside of your own country before or have just put things on hold during the pandemic, your first international trip can be a bit intimidating.

But don’t worry, there are plenty of things you can do to make sure this first big adventure goes off without a hitch. Or at least as smoothly as you want, because as you’ll soon learn, half the fun of traveling is that sometimes things don’t go as planned.

Get excited

Seriously: traveling is amazing. Wherever you go, things will be totally different in a good way. Even big cities that seem to have a lot in common, like London and New York, have totally different vibes. For example, nothing I had seen back home in Ireland prepared me for the open nothingness of Montana or the sunny sprawl of Los Angeles. And you probably have a similar experience.

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Before you go, take a moment to get excited about all the new things you’ll see, the people you’ll meet, and the food you’ll try. All this diversity can be overwhelming at first, but don’t worry, embrace it.

Do your research and plan, but not too much

There’s a fine line to walk when planning a trip: You have to learn enough to be prepared, but not so much that you get stuck with a rigid plan.

If you don’t do enough research before you go, you’re likely to miss out on a lot. It’s easy to cross the big tourist attractions off your list no matter where you go, but the most fun things tend to be the smaller places you discover for yourself and cater to your specific interests. If you love photography, find a gallery that features local artists. If food is your thing, don’t just go to the fancy restaurant or tourist trap, and seek out some of the places where the locals eat. You can do all of this on the ground, but it’s easier when you’re at home with a stable Wi-Fi connection and all the time in the world.

On the other hand, you’ll want to have a list of things you want to see or do, but not a busy schedule. If you run from one place to another, you will never have time to enjoy the destination and experience chance or happy accidents. You’ll meet interesting people you might want to chat with a little more, take advantage of cool opportunities you didn’t know about, and at some point, you just need a break. And to enjoy all of that, you’ll need a bit of flexibility.

I’ve found that the best balance is to plan one big activity each day (like a museum visit, hike, or theater show), choose a nearby restaurant to eat, and have a couple of ideas of things to do during the day. But leave the rest of the calendar somewhat open. This way, you’ll still have a good plan and cross all the big things you want to do off your list. But if someone invites you to do something epic, you’ll also have time to say yes.

Check visa and Covid requirements

If you don’t have a passport, go ahead and apply for one right now as it is a must for international travel.

But while a passport is necessary, it is not always enough. To enter many countries, you will also need a visa, eVisa, an electronic travel authorization, or a pre-approved visa waiver. The easiest way to quickly find exactly what you need is to visit The Passport Index. This site compares passports from around the world and lists the entry requirements for any country you would like to go to on that passport.

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Similarly, as the world opens up, some countries still require negative COVID-19 tests or proof of vaccination to enter. Be sure to do your research for health guidelines at your destination, such as mask mandates or local paperwork to go to places like restaurants or theaters. Also, plan ahead if you find out you need to take a PCR test before your trip: some countries may require results within 24 hours before departure, which could complicate matters if the lab or medical center you go to you cannot guarantee a quick turnaround.

Learn a bit of the lingo

If you are traveling to a place where English is not the main language, don’t expect to be able to communicate with everyone. If it’s a big tourist destination, hotel staff and tourism workers may have some English skills, but regular people may not.

Before you go, it’s worth using Duolingo (available for iOS and Android, and on the web) to learn the basics of the local language. Grab a phrase book (or a guide with some helpful phrases) too so you can ask for directions, order a meal from a menu, or tell a taxi driver to take you to your hotel. Even just being able to say “Hello”, “Please” and “Thank you” in the local language will endear many people to you, as there are few things more embarrassing than seeing foreigners speak slowly and loudly to someone. he clearly doesn’t understand a word they’re saying.

And for emergencies, you can always count on Google Translate. Download the dictionary of the language spoken in your destination and you will be able to translate text and voice in real time and offline. Keep in mind that the platform isn’t perfect and you may have a hard time translating slang or local turns of phrases, but it can certainly help when basic phrases aren’t enough.

put things on paper

If you think your smartphone battery isn’t lasting long enough now, wait until you see how quickly it drains when you use it to take photos and browse all day and don’t have access to a charger.

Yes, you can bring a power bank, but just in case, make sure you have a printout of anything important, like your booking confirmation receipts and a photocopy of your passport. Also, write down your hotel contact information, recommended restaurants, and anything else you want to check.

I can’t count the number of times my phone ran out of battery while exploring somewhere, and I was only able to return to my hotel because I had the details written down.

Decide how you are going to pay

A surprisingly tricky part of traveling is paying for things without getting ripped off with charges and fees.

Countries that widely use debit and credit cards accept both Visa and Mastercard fairly universally, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case with American Express cards. I have seen many confused Americans in Dublin trying to pay for dinner with an Amex, not knowing that they are generally not accepted anywhere that does not explicitly cater to American tourists, and it is the same in most of Europe.

Regardless of the card you plan to use, be sure to check what the foreign transaction and ATM withdrawal fees are. You should also check what the exchange rate is on your card, as there is often a markup which means that paying with plastic will be more expensive than buying currency and paying in cash. And if you’re not careful, that difference can add up quickly and you can easily spend hundreds of dollars more than you need to. It may be worth checking with your bank to see if they offer a travel card with reduced fees.

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All of that assuming you can use a card. Some countries are still largely cash-based and many small or local businesses do not accept plastic. If that’s the case, you’ll need to make sure you have enough cash with you to cover your day-to-day expenses. This is good advice for most countries with a few exceptions, like Sweden, which is mostly cashless.

consider your phone

Unless you’re subscribed to a (probably expensive) roaming plan, your phone won’t continue to work as usual as soon as you step off the plane, and you certainly won’t be able to rely on it for everything like you can. do at home If you want your device to continue to be used abroad, it pays to do a little planning.

The best way to use your phone on the go is to buy a cheap, local pay-as-you-go SIM card. For around $30 in most countries, you’ll get a gigabyte or two of data that you can use to stay online on the go. But this only works if your phone is unlocked. If you’ve been on your current contract for a while, contact your carrier and see if you’re eligible to unlock your phone.

If you plan to travel a lot, you might also consider switching to a plan with good roaming options. If you don’t know where to start, WhistleOut has a great breakdown of the best options.

prepare for the worst

Traveling, for the most part, is really safe. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll die or lose a leg while abroad, but that doesn’t mean it’s totally risk-free.

Before you go, check out the Department of State’s travel advisories – they provide a good overview of everything you need to know in terms of safety, including health advisories and the possibility of civil unrest. For example, the entry on France notes that recent demonstrations and protests may affect your travel plans.

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And while you may be physically safe, your stuff may not be so lucky. Pickpockets in major cities target tourists, airlines routinely misplace bags, and it’s much easier to lose a phone when you’re out of your daily routine. You’ll need to be careful with all of these things, but the easiest way to ensure that one small problem doesn’t derail your entire trip is to get good travel insurance. If things go wrong, your flight is canceled or you have to go home early, at least it won’t cost you too much. Your credit card may already come with a policy, so make sure you’re not insured before you buy one.

Travel insurance is particularly important these days when delayed and rescheduled flights commonly leave people stranded at airports and airlines refuse to refund tickets in the event of cancellations. You should also be aware that some countries now require travelers to obtain insurance, as local state-sponsored care for severe cases of COVID-19 may not benefit foreign nationals.

Exploring new places and having new experiences is what makes exploring new places so much fun. International travel is especially great because things can be so, well, foreign. The ideas and attitudes you take for granted at home may not exist at your destination, which can be challenging, but also downright revealing.

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