• Jenny

A Beginner's Guide to International Travel

Updated: Jun 5



You've planned the trip of a lifetime. You've dreamed about exploring ancient ruins, relaxing on black sand beaches, or walking through cobblestone streets. Your flight and hotel rooms are booked. Now how do you make sure your trip will be a success? Read on to find out all the do's and don'ts of international travel!


What to pack

Make it easy on yourself and pack as little as possible. It's nice to have wardrobe options, but you do not want to be that person lugging around a gigantic suitcase, carry-on suitcase, AND personal bag. Try to limit yourself to two of these items, and don't forget to leave room for souvenirs! Whether you'll be traveling to your hotel on foot, in a taxi, or on the metro, you will thank yourself later.


Riding the metro and walking along crowded sidewalks or cobblestone streets can be challenging with too many suitcases or bags. Even if you plan to take a taxi to and from the airport, keep in mind that cars in other countries are usually much smaller than American cars. Also, taxi drivers sometimes charge a "per bag" fee in addition to your fare. For more tips on what to pack, see my article "The Art of Packing Light".


Documents

Before you grab your passport and hop on a plane, consider these other documents you may also need. Take your driver's license as a secondary form of identification in case your passport is lost or stolen. Also, take copies of your passport and driver's license and keep them in a separate location from the originals. In addition, find the address and phone number of the U.S. Embassy in each place you are visiting and keep it in a safe place.

If you plan to rent a car, you'll need an International Driver's Permit. You can get this online or in person from AAA. Your car insurance and credit card companies may cover international car rentals. If so, print the verification required by the rental company so you don't have to buy alternate coverage.


Finally, be sure to take your health insurance cards and other information you'll need in case of an emergency situation. If your health insurance has limited coverage, you may want to look into travel insurance. One reasonable option is Gateway International Insurance, but there are many other options as well.


Money

It's wise to do a little research in this area before you leave on your trip. Many foreign countries will take U.S. dollars, but there are just as many that do not. Find out what the local currency is, and look up the conversion rate to U.S. dollars so you'll be prepared and know how much you're paying for things.


Research whether businesses such as restaurants and stores take credit cards, or only cash. Using credit cards in stores is usually safe enough, but you may want to consider only using cash at restaurants. There have been incidents reported where restaurants have charged exorbitant amounts of money or changed prices after the credit card has been given.


Communication here is the key. Know that many restaurants charge for water because they serve it in bottles. Just ask ahead of time. Also, ask if there are "sitting fees", especially if you are in Italy. A little research ahead of time really goes a long way.


There are two options for using cash on your trip. You can order foreign currency from your bank ahead of time, or you can get cash as you go by using local ATM machines. I would not recommend getting cash at one of the airport currency exchange counters or the ATM machines affiliated with them, they charge ridiculous fees.


When using ATM machines, find one that is at a local bank. Also, make sure that the debit or credit card you are using does not charge extra fees for use in foreign countries. Some banks also have security measures that require you to notify them ahead of time when you will be using the card outside the U.S. You may even want to look into a good travel rewards credit card, such as American Express, Capital One Venture, Discover Miles, or Chase Sapphire. Another option is an airline rewards credit card such as Delta Sky Miles, United Explorer, or American Airlines AAdvantage.


Communication

One of the questions you may ask before traveling abroad is, "How am I going to communicate with people?" Thinking about being in a foreign country without knowing the language can be scary and daunting. Just keep in mind that people from all over the world travel to all sorts of places where they don't speak the local language. Many others countries teach English in school and it is a commonly spoken language. Use these rules of thumb to make your travels easier and much more enjoyable:


1. Before you go, learn or write down basic phrases such as please, thank you, you're welcome, excuse me, I'm sorry, can you help me, how much is this, hello, and goodbye. Include variations such as good morning, good afternoon, and good evening. Even if you don't pronounce the phrases perfectly, people will appreciate the effort! I also recommend downloading an app like Google Translate that you can use on the go. Some apps even let you use your camera mode to hover over text and translate entire paragraphs (this is awesome with menus!).


2. Research local customs and respect the culture of wherever you are traveling. Don't assume that people everywhere in the world do things the same way. For example, in some European countries restaurant owners may get upset if a party of two people take a table that seats four. Clothing shop owners may find it offensive if you walk in and start rifling through their clothes without asking. When you go inside a church, wear a shirt that covers your shoulders or bring a scarf to wrap around yourself. If you are a female traveling to a Muslim country, be respectful about the way you dress (shoulders covered and legs covered to the knee). On that note, when going into any shop in Turkey, Morocco, or certain Middle Eastern Countries, be prepared to sit down and have tea with the owner. Even if it's 95 degrees outside! When in doubt about what to do, just ask! Or watch what other people do and follow suit. One of the best things about traveling is meeting people and learning about new cultures. Relax and enjoy it!


3. Remember that attitude is everything. Be polite when you ask for help, and be appreciative when you get it. Even though you are on vacation, other people are living their lives and will appreciate your thanks if they take time out of their day to help out. Above all, be friendly. Kindness is a universal language!


Getting There

Let's face it. Airports can be stressful. But there are a few things you can do to make your check-in easier and get on your way! Number one. Get there EARLY. An hour and a half to two hours, especially if you are checking a bag. Most international flight reservations include one free checked bag, but check your ticket to be sure. Keep in mind that the weight limit for checked bags on international flights is 50 pounds. If you really want to make your life easy, you may want to consider NOT checking a bag. For tips on how to do this, read my article "The Art of Packing Light".


One of the best things you can do to make your airport experience as painless as possible is to get TSA Pre-check status. This is a total game changer. TSA Pre-check status allows you to go through a separate security line, which is almost ALWAYS shorter than the standard lines. Even better, you don't have to take off your shoes or take anything out of your carry-on bags (this includes liquids and electronic devices). You still have to follow the liquid size restrictions and keep them in a clear bag, but keep all of this in your carry-on unless they ask you to take it out. For more information about TSA carry-on restrictions or Pre-Check status, see the TSA website.


Getting Around

Knowledge is power! Find out ahead of time what transportation options are available at the airport you will be flying into, and determine which one is the best choice to get you to your hotel. When making your choice, consider travel time to your hotel and its proximity to the nearest train, metro, or bus station.


Look into hotel or private shuttles, taxis, and ride app services. Uber is available in some countries outside the U.S. Lyft is currently only available in the U.S. and Canada. Bolt (aka Taxify) operates in Europe and Australia, while Gett/Juno are up and coming companies who have recently merged to break into the global ride app field as well.


Another option is to rent a car. There are a few important things to know if you plan to go this route. First of all, go back to the "Documents" section, and read about International Driver's Permits and proper car insurance documentation. Then, before confirming your car rental, read ALL of the rules, restrictions, and fine print!


Most European car rental companies will not rent a car to anyone under 25, and will most likely charge extra fees if they do. Regardless of age, they may also require a significant deposit on a credit card as a condition of the rental. Although in most cases your bank debit card works similar to a credit card, it will not work the same when renting a car. If you plan to use your debit card, you may need to pay a quite large cash deposit as well.


Getting Home

If you want to breeze through U.S. Customs, get Global Entry status. With this program, you get pre-approved for expedited clearance when arriving in the United States. All you have to do is check in at a special Kiosk, scan your passport and fingerprint, and go directly to baggage claim. The cost is only $100 and it will last for 5 years. As an added bonus, it also includes TSA Pre-check status! TSA Pre-check status alone is $85, so why not save time AND money and go with Global Entry? For more information or to apply, go to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.


If you don't get Global Entry, at least download the Mobile Passport app. It will allow you to upload your passport information and fill out your customs questionnaire online. If you're using this option, get on the app as soon as you land and fill out the information, then look for the special line marked "mobile passport" when you get to customs. You'll be through customs in no time!


Some international airports are designated as "U.S. Pre-Clearance locations". This means you go through U.S. Customs at your departing airport as an additional part of the security checkpoint. It saves time when arriving in the U.S.; however, you will need to give yourself plenty of time when checking in to allow for this extra step.

Check this link for a list of U.S.

Pre-Clearance locations. When you are departing from these airports, look for a sign like this immediately after going through airport security.



Now you're ready to be an international travel pro! Get your passport and get going!

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