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The Complete Beginner’s Guide to International Travel

Taj Mahal in Agra India

So you’ve decided to travel internationally, have you? Traveling to another country is something I wish for everyone to experience at least once in a lifetime.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the privilege to do so. But for those of us with passports that allow us such opportunity, it’d be a shame to never explore an international destination in our great, big, beautiful world!

It might seem a bit scary to take your first international trip, but I promise it’s not that bad. To help you, I’ve put together this thorough guide on everything you need to know in order to have a successful international trip! Let’s get straight to it.

Before You Depart for Your Trip

There’s quite a bit to get ready before your international trip. But, don’t worry. It’s all doable, and it’ll all be worth it!

Eiffel Tower in Paris during sunset

Apply for a Passport

First things first. In order to travel internationally, you’ll need to have a valid, unexpired passport. On top of that, many countries require you to also have at least three or even six months validity left on your passport from your date of travel. So, if you don’t have a valid, unexpired passport or your passport is expiring in three to six months, it’s time to get a new passport before your trip. This process can take a couple months! So plan ahead, and submit your passport request early to save yourself stress and/or expediting fees closer to your departure date.

If this is your very first passport, your last passport was from when you were under 16 years old, your previous passport was lost, stolen, or damaged, or your last passport was from 15 or more years ago, you will need to apply for your passport in person. Here are the official steps for the new passport process.

If the above doesn’t apply to you, you simply have to renew your passport. You can do this via mail. Here are the official steps for the renewal process.

Choose Your International Destination

Yipee! Now that you’ve either already got your passport or have applied for a new one, you can choose your international travel destination. This is largely based on your own interests. But as this is your first trip internationally, keep in mind things like language, similarity in culture to back home, and ease of travel-related infrastructures (like trains or buses).

Apply for Any Visa(s)

Once you have chosen your destination(s), check whether you need visas or not. A visa is basically permission from a foreign government for you to be in their country. Some countries may grant you a free visa upon arrival with a simple stamp on your passport. Some countries simply require you to fill out a form online and pay a small fee before you can board your flight. And some countries require expensive visas which you must apply for months in advance. It all depends on that country you are visiting, your passport country, and how long you plan to stay. I love using Travisa‘s free search tool to quickly and easily check what requirements exist for me before I book a flight. 

Get Any Necessary Vaccines

Before confirming your destination, you should check if any vaccines are necessary for that place. Some vaccines are simply recommended for your own health, while others are requirements before you will be allowed into the country, or even allowed into other countries afterwards (like yellow fever). The CDC website is an easy way to check this. Some vaccines, like yellow fever, are low in supply and hard to get last minute. Others, like malaria pills, require a doctor’s prescription. So don’t leave this step until the last minute!

Check Travel Restrictions

Lastly, make sure there are no travel restrictions or decision-altering political tensions for your destination. Do this by checking the Travel Department site. Simply type in your destination country’s name into the search bar on the left hand side of the screen. 

Preparing Your Finances

Now that your passport is on its way and you’ve settled on your international travel destination(s), it’s time to start thinking about finances.

Senso-ji temple in Tokyo, Japan

Some destinations are very credit card friendly. Others operate on only cash and debit cards. And some don’t even have ATM machines! So you’ll need to do a bit of planning before departure to make sure you’re not stressing during your trip, and to save yourself transaction fees.

Get a No Fees Credit Card

Most banks charge a 3% fee every time you use your credit card to pay for a foreign transaction. As you can imagine, this adds up to a lot over the course of even a one week international trip. The good news is, many banks offer credit cards without foreign transaction fees. Do a quick internet search to see if your bank offers such a card. 

Get a No Fees Debit Card

Most banks charge a 3% fee and $5 each time you withdraw foreign currency from an ATM. Especially if you are traveling to a mostly-cash destination, this is a surefire way to rack up unnecessary travel costs. To avoid this, consider opening a free brokerage account with Charles Schwab to also receive their debit card with zero transaction fees. I first heard about this card when moving to London to study abroad, and I have to say it’s served me well. 

Get Foreign Currency Beforehand

Sometimes, but not often, it’s necessary to have cash in your destination’s currency either before you depart home or right when landing. This might be because your destination does not have ATMs, or because you just want to feel prepared.

If you need foreign cash before leaving home, head to your local bank and exchange currencies. (Just FYI, you’ll get a bad conversion rate doing this, since the bank needs to make commission.) If the currency you need isn’t a common one, your bank won’t have it on hand. In that case, you’ll have to request the exchange online with your bank. 

Many countries that don’t have ATMs also don’t allow their currency to be taken outside their country (like Cuba). In this case, you’ll need to bring enough cash with you in a common currency (like USD, GBP, or Euro). Then, when you arrive at your destination’s airport, you can exchange your cash from home for the local currency.

Sign Up for Airline Rewards Programs

You might already know this if you fly domestically, but most airlines have rewards programs. These allow you to accumulate “miles” in your rewards account each time you fly. Eventually, you might rack up enough to redeem those miles in exchange for a flight!

Consider Travel Hacking

Now, some people use airlines rewards programs and racking up miles on steroids, and this is called travel hacking. Many airlines and banks offer huge amounts of miles when you sign up for a card, or offer miles every time you use that card for a purchase. This allows you to rack up enough miles for a free flight or hotel stay more quickly (or sometimes immediately!). I personally have no energy for travel hacking, as I’m not convinced the miles rewards are worth more in dollars than my current card’s cash reward system. But I would be amiss to not mention travel hacking in a guide to international travel.

Planning Your International Trip

Phew! Now that you’ve got all the annoying administrative work out of the way, it’s time for the fun stuff; planning your trip.

Abu Dhabi beach

I have a whole ten-step guide to planning a trip, so I won’t go into too much detail here. But this can be broken down into planning out your travel itinerary, booking your flight, and booking your accommodation.

Create Your Dream Itinerary

Decide everything you want to see in that destination. I love using Pinterest, Instagram, and travel blogs for inspiration. This is my favorite part of planning a trip, because it gets me so excited about what’s to come! Then, figure out how many days each spot deserves if you are moving around, and figure out how to get from point A to point B (train, cab, ferry?). 

Book Your Flight

After you’ve decided how many days you need, you can decide what your travel dates are and start looking for a flight. You can sometimes find good deals really close to the date, but that isn’t guaranteed. I recommend not leaving this until the last minute! I go into more detail how I search for cheap flights in my trip planning guide.

Book Your Housing

Once you have your flight booked, all that’s left is your housing. I love using Booking.com because of its interface, but any hotel search engine will suffice. Also consider AirBnB if you like the idea of staying in a local apartment, or Hostelworld if you’re looking for a social (and often budget-friendly) option. I go into more detail on different types of travel accommodation in my trip planning guide.

Here are some discounts if it’s your first time using AirBnB or Booking.com:

Preparing for Departure

Woohoo! You’ve got your passport, your trip is planned, and all that’s left is to depart. There are a couple things you should do to best prepare for your upcoming international trip.

Camel caravan walking over Sahara Desert sand dunes in Morocco

Scan the Front Page of Your Passport

Before leaving home, make a copy of the front page of your passport (the page with your picture). Either print it out or send it to yourself via email. In case your passport gets lost, stolen, or damaged during your international trip, this makes it easier to have your passport replaced abroad at an embassy.

Expect Cultural Differences

Every country or region has its own culture and norms, and that’s what makes traveling so great. In some places, like the US, it’s common to greet strangers “hello,” or for shop associates and waiters to be extra doting. In other places, like much of Europe, the slower cafe and restaurant culture means your waiter might not come to you unless beckoned. It’s almost seen as if the waiter is rushing you! Similarly, in Japan, it’s offensive to tip waiters, as it suggests their only incentive to do their job well is receiving your pocket change. No culture is right or wrong, but keep an open mind as you travel, and don’t assume something means the same as it does back home.

Prepare for Language Barriers

Many popular travel destinations have adopted English as a common language due to how many international tourists they receive. So, if you know English, chances are you’ll be fine getting around many travel destinations around the world. But it still doesn’t hurt to learn some basic words in your destination’s language.

Saying “hello” or “thank you” in a person’s mother tongue can go a long way in warming them up towards you. Learning common menu items or words on train station signs will also likely make your life easier and give you more confidence abroad. I love using the free version of Duolingo’s mobile app (iOS and Android) for a few weeks before I head somewhere new to learn a language’s basics. Alternatively, you could simply head to Google translate and jot down key words on a small piece of paper before you depart. Then, keep this paper handy while you’re out exploring for easy access.

What to Expect on an International Flight

Even if you’ve flown domestically before, flying internationally can be a whole different experience. Here are my top tips for flying internationally.

Stonehenge, England, United Kingdom

What to Pack in Your Carry On

Packing carry on luggage for an international trip is similar in many ways to for a domestic trip. The same rules apply with regards to liquid sizes and electronics. However, as international flights tend to naturally be longer than domestic flights, there are a few extra considerations.

Make sure you are comfortable. Bring your own favorite headphones instead of using the uncomfortable free or for sale ones on board the flight. Also bring an eye mask (and a neck pillow if you need that) so that you can try to sleep a bit. You’ll also want to pack clothing items like one pair of pajamas and one or two proper outfits, in case your luggage is lost or delayed. It would be super inconvenient to buy these things right after you land in a foreign country!

Common Flight Etiquette

No one likes flying. So to make it easier on everyone, here are some best practices for being polite while in the airport and on the plane.

  • While in the airport, don’t stand up and crowd around the gate way before your boarding group is called. Everyone will get their chance to board.
  • Once on the plane, the middle seat person gets dibs on the inner arm rests.
  • Right after the plane lands, don’t rush to pull your luggage from the overhead before the plane doors have even opened (especially if you’re in the back of the plane!). If you’re in a rush to catch a connection you think you might miss, ask the flight attendants before landing if they can help you get off first. Sometimes they’ll make an announcement that everyone should stay seated until those about to miss a connection exit first!

Staying Healthy While Flying

The last thing you want is to get off your flight and feel unwell the first days of your epic trip! Here are precautions you should take to ensure you land in tip-top shape.

  • Stay hydrated. Airplane air has less humidity (only about 10 – 20%!), so make sure you are drinking enough water, especially on long haul flights. I always bring a large, refillable water bottle when I fly. I fill it up at an airport water fountain right after passing security and finish it all before boarding. Then, I refill it again to have a full supply while on board. This is important not only for headaches and such, but also to prevent skin breakouts in the days after landing.
  • Keep the blood flowing. Not only are you not moving for hours upon hours when flying internationally, but your feet are flat on the floor the entire time, too. This isn’t great for blood circulation, and can cause swelling in your ankles and feet the days after your land. (It’s also just not good for your health to not move!) So, make it a point to get up and walk around the plane. Since you’ll be drinking a lot of water anyways, maybe walk up and down the aisles for some minutes each time you finish using the toilets. Do some stretches, like pulling your feet up to your booty one at a time and holding, or lifting each knee up and holding. If you have a layover with enough time, walk around the terminal for some time before boarding your second flight.
  • Stay clean. Even pre-Covid-19, planes and airports have never been the cleanest places to be. Wash your hands frequently with soap, use hand sanitizer, and consider disinfecting your food tray, screen, and arm rests right after getting on board. Make sure not to touch or pick your face too much, especially since it’s already dealing with the dehydrating air!

Flying with Dietary Restrictions

Airplane food is pretty much never great, especially if you aren’t flying first class. But if you’re on a particular diet or have dietary restrictions, you’ll need to plan ahead of time. Consider packing some of your favorite nutritious snacks instead of relying on the salty pretzels you can expect on board. If you have a specific need, like vegan meals, call the airline 24 hours before your flight to put in your request for a special meal. You might also want to double-check the meal request before take off at the gate.

Staying Safe While Traveling Internationally

While the world isn’t the big, bad, scary place we’re often made to believe, that doesn’t mean travel is free of risks.

Taj Mahal in Agra India during sunrise

A lot of the safety precautions and considerations you should take while traveling abroad are similar to those you take at home. But a few aren’t. Here are my main safety tips for international travel.

Solo Travel

By its very nature, traveling alone is more risky than traveling with a companion. Is it significantly more risky? I think not. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t take any extra precautions when traveling alone.

One precaution I take is to always let someone know where I am. If I have a full itinerary planned, I send my mom a summary of each city and accommodation I plan to stay at. If I’m doing something like a hike without any new friends I’ve met, I’ll let the front desk know my plans before I head out. I also try to be confident. Even if I don’t know where I’m going, I try to look like I do! If I need to look directions up on my phone, I might do it before leaving the hotel or shop or restaurant.

Another thing to remember is that traveling solo is not traveling alone. Especially if staying in hostels, you’ll meet other people traveling solo like you are, and you can do activities with them.

Solo Female Travel

Something my loved ones tell me often is how it’s so unsafe to travel alone as a woman. But the truth is, is it perfectly safe to be a woman anywhere in the world? Even when I’m in in the comfort of my home country, I rush to my car when in public garages at night, receive uncomfortable comments from strangers on the street, and face the potential of sexual harassment or even assault. Sexism exists everywhere, not just abroad. Of course, I do take extra precautions as a solo female traveler compared to a male solo traveler. But I also take extra precautions as a female in my home country, too.

These are some of the precautions I take while traveling as a woman, in addition to the precautions I take for traveling solo in general:

  • I never walk alone past dark. Ever, ever. Even if I “feel” safe in a place (which is most of the time), it’s just something I’ve promised myself I wouldn’t do.
  • I try to dress conservatively in certain destinations. Especially as a Californian, I’m used to super short shorts and low-cut shirts being totally normal. While these are still often acceptable abroad, they definitely cause a lot of stares that I personally have decided I’d rather avoid if I can. So, I’ll wear looser, longer shorts instead of tight short-shorts, or midi skirts and dresses instead of what I consider normal length. This isn’t so much because I feel unsafe, but because I’ve realized it decreases bothersome male comments and advances immensely.
  • I haven’t actually done this yet, but it’s a trick I have in my back pocket. Bring a fake wedding ring. Depending on the destination, this can help ward off some comments (and even playful marriage proposals!).

Traveling as a Person of Color

Similar to the solar female travel issue, a lot of my family fear that I’ll stand out like a sore thumb as a black woman. Also similar to the solo female travel issue, racism is simply something that exists everywhere, not just abroad. Of course, I do take extra precautions as a black solo traveler compared to a white solo traveler. But I also take extra precautions as a black person in my home country, too.

The main extra consideration I take while traveling as a person of color is to research the experiences of other black people or black women in destinations I know less about, or that I know have few black people or tourists. I recommend you do the same for whatever race or ethnicity you might identify with, as destinations might be used to one group but not a different group. This, of course, can be difficult, as the voices in the travel sphere are mostly white men, and next white women. (This is why it’s important to have better representation.) If you can’t find the insight you need online, consider directly emailing or messaging any travel writers or influences whose experiences you’d like to hear.

Traveling with Cash and Valuables

Like you would in certain areas of your home country, don’t flash valuables while traveling. Be cognizant as you withdraw or exchange any cash. Being a tourist can make you a target already, so don’t give pickpockets any extra incentive!

Be careful not to carry all your cash and cards in one place. If you can, take some with you as you explore, and then leave back up cards, unneeded cash, and your passport back in a safe in your accommodation. That way, if anything gets stolen or lost while out exploring, you have back ups to hold you over.

Bring Locks for Hostels

If you are planning on staying in hostels, definitely purchase a lock before your trip. Hostels usually have lockers, but charge a couple bucks to rent a lock. It’s much more economical to purchase once and not pay each time.

Register with Your Country’s Embassy

This is a step I never usually did before, but one I’ll be doing every time in the future! I was “one of those” people who got stranded abroad in a foreign country when the world started closing borders in response to Covid-19. I always thought registering with the local embassy for my country was a waste of time, but this turned out to be the best way to get up-to-date information on the situation. After missing out on crucial info once, I signed up. And it’s thanks to that I was able to eventually get home!

You never know what could happen when you are abroad, whether that is a pandemic, weather-related disaster, local protests, or political tensions. It’s near-impossible to keep up with your foreign destination’s news while traveling. So registering with your embassy is an easy way to get a simple email for key things you should know. For Americans, this program to register is called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), but other countries have pretty much the same thing.

Get Travel Insurance

I’m not sure I believe “everyone” should “always” get travel insurance. But for a first trip abroad, it’s worth considering. I typically never purchased it when I traveled places I knew well. But these days, as I’m no longer on my parents’ good insurance, and as I travel mostly solo, I do purchase travel insurance. It often only costs a couple dollars a day, and usually covers lost baggage, medical visits for accidents or illnesses, theft, and more. Especially if you are planning adrenaline activities or traveling somewhere distant, you should consider it! 

What Do You Think About My International Travel Guide?

And there ya have it, folks! Are you feeling prepared for your international trip! I hope this guide was helpful. If you still have more questions before your trip abroad, definitely comment below and I’ll answer. Or, if you have any advice you think I missed that others should know, please also comment below!

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International travel plans soon? This detailed, beginner's international travel guide will take you from A to Z. From getting a passport, avoiding foreign transaction fees, planning an itinerary, to solo female travel safety tips, carry on packing and more! Travel tips. Flight tips. Long flight tips.

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