In less than a month, my boyfriend and I are traveling to Ireland – which will mark his first time EVER out of the country. I remember my first time out of the country, and how much I didn’t know, how much I was unprepared for. So like the good girlfriend I am, I started writing a list for him. About six or seven points into the list, I realized this would probably help a lot of other first-timers. So here is everything to know before your first international trip!
Get Your Passport
Before anything else, you will need your passport. For first-time adults, they typically cost around $145. Passports usually take around 6 to 8 weeks to process, but get it done as far in advance as you can. If you are cutting it close, you can pay an additional $60 to get it expedited.
Click here to find the nearest location to get your passport!
Do You Need a Visa?
Your passport is just your identification, your visa is your permission. Not all countries require visas, but many do. While passports keep track of WHO is visiting their country, visas keep track of WHY. On your application, you will have to state why you are visiting – business, tourism, education, etc. Visas usually cost around $50-200. To get your visa, check the embassy or consulate website for the country you’re visiting. You can usually print the forms from there, fill them out, and mail them in. The process can take 2-8 weeks, and they will mail you your visa which will attach right into your passport.
To see a full list of which countries require visas, click here!
Do You Need Vaccines?
Some countries require proof of vaccinations. Be sure to check as soon as you book your trip, because many vaccines need 4-6 weeks to start working.
Check the CDC website here to see if you are required to get any vaccines, or if there are any health notices. This site will also let you know if the water is safe to drink, or if you should stick to sealed bottled water – and lots of other helpful information about your destination.
Every country has customs to control what is being brought in and out of their country. A quick Google search could save you a lot of hassle. Most customs make sense, like the amount of alcohol you can have. But others are more bizarre. For example, you can’t take dental products in or out of Algeria. In some countries, trying to bring in sex toys will land you in jail. So just do a quick search to avoid any trouble. And be sure to check customs not only for your destination, but also for any layovers, and what your home countries customs are as well.
The first time I traveled to Europe, I completely forgot to bring travel adaptors. Luckily my sister brought a few extra. Do a quick google search to see what kind of adaptor you will need, or better yet, buy a universal adaptor!
If you need to plug in multiple things, no need to buy multiple adapters. Just bring a power strip from home, plug that into the adapter, and you’re all set. Don’t plug in more than two or three things at once though, and I wouldn’t leave it plugged in when you leave. This is a great travel hack if you do it safely!
Check the Voltage on Your Electronics
Even with the right adaptor, you still may not be able to use some of your electronics. Things like flat irons, curling irons, chargers, could all fry – even with the right adaptor. If it’s not dual voltage, leave it at home! Buy a dual-voltage version before you leave, or buy a cheap curling iron (or whatever you need) once you’re there! I’ve never tried a “voltage converter”, but from everything I’ve heard, even the most expensive converters can still fry your electronics. So just be safe, and leave them at home.
All electronics will list the voltage right on them. Here is a list of voltage info for every country!
Do your research! In some countries (Cuba for example) they do not exchange USD, and ATM’s do not work with American cards – so you have to come with the exact amount of cash you plan on spending. Holy budgeting!
Research the best way to do it based on where you’re going. Here are a few ways to exchange your cash!
Exchange it at the bank or credit union in your home country
Call your bank and let them know how much you will need, and they will order it for you and call you when it’s ready to pick up. It usually takes just a couple days. A lot of banks can also ship it to your house, but I personally don’t trust cash in the mail.
Exchange it at the airport once you’re there
A terrible deal, but it sure is convenient. If you’re willing to pay for the convenience, go for it! Just know that this is one of the most expensive ways to exchange currency.
Use the ATM once you’re there
My favorite option! Small fee, and very easy if you’re in a city with a lot of ATM’s. Just remember to check with your bank beforehand about their policy on foreign transaction fees, and check that your card will work in that country with a quick Google search.
Use your credit card once you’re there!
Depending who your credit card provider is, you may be able to use your credit card directly! There are lots of cards that have zero foreign transaction fees – just check!
If not, the fee usually isn’t too high. I wouldn’t use this for every purchase, but it’s great for “larger” purchases like your hotel room, or meals. Do not use your credit card on an ATM though – you will pay crazy fees!
It all depends on the country! In Budapest, we found the cheapest way to do it was to just use the ATM’s there. We also found out that a lot of places accepted USD!
Also be sure to download a currency conversion app. There are almost always people who will try to take advantage of your unfamiliarity, and try to rip you off. Understand the currency! Understand how much you will be paying for something! The app I use is called “My Currency Converter & Rates”, which I love because it’s simple, and it works offline. But there are a million options out there!
Call Your Bank
Call your bank at least a week before you leave and let them know you’ll be leaving the country. Look at it from their point of view – of course they’re going to think it’s identity theft if charges are being made on the other side of the world. Avoid the hassle of proving you’re actually yourself, and just let them know ahead of time.
Be prepared for the time change. Do you need to sleep on the plane to adjust? Or do you need to stay awake to adjust? Depends on where you’re going!
Have you ever heard the expressions “west is best, east is a beast”? An unfortunate truth. This is because you are forcing yourself to stay up a little later to adjust, rather than going to bed at what feels like dinner time. In other words, your body adjusts easier to having a longer day than shorter one.
You can prepare before the trip by gradually moving your meals and sleep schedule closer to their time. Once you’re there, power through the day, and adjust to local time. If you usually go to bed at 10pm, force yourself to go to bed at 10pm their time – no earlier, and no later.
Preventing Lost Luggage
Losing luggage is much more common on international flights. Have a luggage tag with your name and current address. I also always print out my name and address on an 8×10 piece of paper and put that inside my luggage. That way, if the luggage tag falls off or something, your contact information is still there.
I also usually “mark” my luggage with a colorful ribbon or a piece of duct tape, so no one accidentally grabs my bag from baggage claim. My boyfriend has a giant streak of green paint on his! I’ve seen people eye our luggage before, thinking it was theirs, then they see our little customizations and move on.
One more thing I always do (yes I know I’m very thorough) is to take a picture of your luggage. It will speed up the paperwork immensely if it gets lost.
Research the Culture
The most important thing when traveling to another country. Always do your part and research the culture.
If you are traveling to the middle east, you are expected to dress modestly. In Japan, you are expected to take your shoes off before entering someone’s home, and certain businesses. In Hungary, clinking glasses is frowned upon. In some countries, it’s rude to tip – in others, it’s rude not to. Every country is different, so don’t be a disrespectful tourist, do your research.
The Airplane Mode Method
Pros: Free. Easy.
Cons: No access to most apps unless you’re connected to WiFi. No calling or texting, except through apps.
This is my preferred method when traveling internationally. As soon as you board the plane, put your phone on airplane mode and don’t turn it off until you are back home. You will not be able to use data, but you will be able to connect to WiFi still, which means you will have access to Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Snapchat, etc. And no roaming charges! You can still talk to friends and family back home through apps like Google Allo, Facebook Messanger, and Skype as long as you are connected to WiFi.
The one catch with this method, is most apps are not accessible if you are not connected to WiFi. But if you want access wherever you go, invest in a mobile WiFi hotspot, and you can access any of your apps just the way you usually would. Texting and calling are still not an option – but again, there are tons of apps where you can talk, text, video chat, whatever!
Local SIM Cards
Pros: Full service (calls, texts, etc.)
Cons: Can be expensive. You need different SIM cards for different countries.
You probably won’t need a SIM card unless it’s a long trip, one month minimum. Two things to check before you use this method; one, make sure your phone has a slot for the SIM card; two, double check your phone is unlocked so it can read the SIM card. You can buy SIM cards in virtually any airport. SIM cards can cost anywhere from $10-50, and you can choose how much money you put on it, which will determine how much data you will receive. Then just reload it whenever you run out! Or if you are taking a longer trip, there are monthly rates available as well.
Ask Your Provider About Their Rates
Pros: You get to use your own phone and number.
Cons: Only affordable for shorter trips.
A great option for shorter trips. If you’re only visiting for a week or two, it makes more sense to go through your provider than to spring for a sim card. With some providers (like T-Mobile) you already get free data and roaming in 140 countries – international texting is free, but they will charge you a small fee per minute for calls. Verizon and AT&T offer international plans for $10/day – not bad if you’re only going for a few days! Just talk to your provider about what your options are!
Pros: Reusable. No monthly fees. Only pay for what you use.
Cons: This is a great option if you just want to check in, but not if you plan to have long chats.
You can get an international prepaid cell phone for about $30-50, and calls and text are a little less than $1/minute. This is not the option if you plan to have long conversations with people at home. But they are a great option if you are traveling with a group and you plan to split up. That way, you don’t have to find WiFi to contact them, as long as each of you has a phone!
If you don’t know the language, try to memorize a few key phrases before you leave, but also download the Google Translate app. It is available offline without data or WiFi – perfect! While it doesn’t always give EXACT translations, it’s usually close enough to understand. While most people spoke English in Budapest, I still used the Google Translate app for a TON of things, like menus. It was so much easier, and far less annoying than asking the server what everything was.
Travel insurance is your safety net if your flight gets canceled, you miss your flight for some reason, lost baggage reimbursement, expense coverage if there is an emergency evacuation – the list goes on. Every travel insurance plan is different, so be sure to shop around. Travel insurance can cost anywhere from $50-200, but even just rescheduling a flight at the last minute can be $200-350 per person plus the difference in airfare.
Sometimes medical coverage is included in your travel insurance, sometimes it is a separate thing. But medical insurance is important, and often overlooked, especially if you have a chronic medical condition.
Check the Weather
Some people might not know June is actually winter in Australia, or January is actually summer in South America. Don’t assume anything about the weather. Keep checking it until the day you leave. It was unseasonably warm when I visited Budapest in February, and I’m glad I didn’t pack all the scarves and gloves I was planning on bringing!
Maps.me is essential when traveling abroad. All you do is download the app, download the city (or cities) you will be visiting, bookmark your hotel and other important locations, and explore the city without getting lost! Maps.me works without WiFi or data, so it’s perfect for travelers. While many people might think Google Maps does the same thing, the one big difference is that walking directions are not available in offline mode in Google Maps, only driving directions.