INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL TIPS FOR FIRST-TIME TRAVELERS
If this is your first time traveling abroad … Congratulations!
You are no doubt excited and brimming with anticipation at this new travel experience.
Oh, the sights you will see, the food you will eat, and the interesting people you will meet!
But you may also be experiencing a bit of trepidation.
That’s to be expected.
Going to a foreign land can be exhilarating, but it can be equally scary and confusing, especially if you are not familiar with the local language.
Luckily, I have some valuable advice for those of you venturing on an international trip.
It is exciting, to be sure, but it’s also important to make the most of your travel experience and follow these important international travel safety tips, so that you will be able to truly savor your trip and come back with some awesome travel memories!
Planning Your Trip
Get your passport well in advance, as it can take up to six weeks to obtain one.
For Americans, you can get more information here.
And if you already have one, make sure it does not expire soon (within 6 months).
While there are many things you probably want to cover on this trip, know that you cannot do everything (even though you may want to!).
A good rule of thumb is to have a loose itinerary of the tourist attractions and activities you simply MUST do, but also leave room for spontaneity.
Because no matter how much you plan in advance, once you get to your destination and start exploring, you are virtually guaranteed to find places you want to check out that are not in any travel guide.
You may also very well have conversations with locals or fellow travelers who suggest great things to do that you may never have thought of.
Next, research your destination country’s culture.
If you don’t speak the language, you may want to consider learning a few words and phrases to help get you around!
While it’s true that many people you may encounter understand English these days, learning their language shows that you are really making an effort to appreciate their culture.
Stay Safe with These International Travel Safety Tips
Vacationing in an unfamiliar country can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be!
Here are some tips to follow to ensure things go as smoothly as possible:
- Have the contact details for the country’s host Embassy or Consulate, and carry emergency numbers with you, including family members or friends you may have in your destination.
- Leave your itinerary with a family member and/or friend, so they know where you are throughout your trip.
- Sign up for travel advisories and alerts with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), and listen to all travel warnings.
- Check with your cell phone company about their international roaming plans. If your carrier does not offer this, consider getting a temporary phone with global capabilities. Select airports also have SIM cards you can insert in your phone to connect with your carrier in a different country.
- While on the street or using public transportation, keep cell phone usage to a bare minimum. These places are hotbeds for phone theft.
- Research common safety risks in your destination country. Are there particular scams that are prevalent? Which neighborhoods are generally deemed unsafe? Having general knowledge about your destination will make you more confident once you get there.
Security & Health
As with any trip, there are always “what ifs” to consider with regards to securing your valuables and looking after your health while abroad:
- Have a healthy supply of any medications you take for the duration of your trip. And no matter how healthy you are, have your medical information handy at all times should you get sick or injured during your trip.
- See a travel doctor for any recommended vaccinations.
- Make a hard-copy of your passport and store it in a separate, safe place. Upload a digital copy to the cloud (Dropbox or Google Drive are the common ones).
- If you need to bring a laptop with you, make sure you backup all files into the cloud, and clear all important data from your hard drive, just in case your laptop gets lost or stolen.
- Get good traveler’s insurance, as your regular insurance may not pay for any medical issues that may arise. Travel insurance is also good for certain emergency expenses such as canceled flights, etc. But not all insurance companies are created equal. Do your research and read the fine print to determine what is best for you. Check out the following tried and tested travel insurance companies: World Nomads, Seven Corners and Insure My Trip (travel insurance comparison site).
- During your journey, ALWAYS keep a close eye on your bags, especially in airports, bus terminals, etc. These busy hubs are a magnet for thieves. Keep locks on any checked baggage.
- Keep your cash and credit cards in multiple locations; not all in one place. You can stash them in different places throughout your luggage, and in different pockets on you as you’re out and about. Ladies should wear their purse snug across their body, and men, consider getting a fanny pack. Or at least a money belt. No, it’s not sexy, but neither is getting your valuables stolen.
Luggage & Packing
Packing light is key!
As a general travel gear guide, take only the essentials and don’t bring valuables such as expensive jewelry or heavy camera equipment with you.
There are many high-quality, lightweight cameras out there that will satiate your travel photography desires.
Or consider simply using your smartphone as a camera!
I am a big believer in packing light.
If you really plan your outfits strategically, you only need to bring 3-4 sets of clothing and mix/match them throughout your trip!
Also, unless you will be attending a fancy event, don’t bring fancy shoes!
You only need a good pair of walking shoes and 1-2 other pairs of sandals/boots.
If you pack light enough, you will be able to get everything into a carry-on bag and not even have to check in your luggage!
This saves you time and potential headache at the arrival airport should your bag be delayed or lost.
You can realistically fit everything into a carry-on bag and a travel backpack.
Most airlines will allow you to carry on these two items, per person.
More International Traveling Tips
- Be patient. When you leave your hometown and head to a faraway place, lots can go wrong. Despite your best intentions, you may miss a connecting flight, lose track of the shuttle, or run out of cash while you’re out and about. The most important thing is to stay calm and strategically plan your next step. Walking to a nearby town or waiting until the next bus shows up will take less time than you think, and any downtime is a chance to do more exploring and sightseeing. After all, that’s what you’re out there for.
- The early bird gets the worm. While you may enjoy sleeping in on your days off, when you’re traveling, it pays to wake up early so you can beat the crowds. Especially if you’re traveling during peak travel season, the earlier you head out, the better chance you’ll have of experiencing the attractions without the masses. A nice side effect is that your pictures will also be less crowded, and you’ll have a much easier time interacting with locals before the onslaught of tourists.
- Take in your surroundings. When you’re on the go, it’s easy to get caught up in arrivals and departures, maximizing each moment of your trip. But remember, it’s all supposed to be fun, and when you’re stressed about fitting everything in, you might forget to take time and appreciate where you are. Sometimes the best international travel tips are to do nothing — hit the park or a busy street corner café and just take in the sights and sounds. Pick up a treat or two and enjoy the afternoon bustle or interact with locals to get a real feel for the area.
- Don’t take traveling so seriously. While some people seem to turn traveling into some sort of contest, it’s important to know that traveling is many things. Accept that you’ll never be able to see everything and focus instead on having a good time. You don’t have to go where everyone else is, and sometimes the most memorable moments happen off the beaten path and on a whim.
- Consider volunteering. Not only is volunteering a good way to meet locals and learn more about the area you’re visiting, but international volunteering can help you establish or reinforce your empathy for distant people and cultures, and you just might find a new hobby that you can do domestically before your next big travel plans.
- Take lots of pictures. While you might proclaim a return to the many places you visit, odds are you’ll need more than your memory to recall the sights and sounds of faraway places. Photos are great to show family and friends, and when you return to them after your trip, they’ll be a great reminder of the time you had. Don’t forget to take video, too!
- Stay positive. For anyone that’s traveled extensively, it’s practically impossible to have an international trip go off without a hitch. By keeping your attitude positive and being open to changes, you’ll be better equipped to handle whatever it is that your trip throws your way. Know that it’s pretty much always possible to reschedule or find another way to accomplish your traveling goals, so keep that negativity at bay. Even if it doesn’t happen, you tried, and that may actually be more memorable than achieving your goal.
- Comfort is the enemy. If you’re one that usually stays on the straight and narrow, now is the time to break free. If crowds aren’t your thing, go into the busiest area of town you can find. Hit up that locals-only restaurant and strike up a conversation. Go swimming with sharks. You’re already out of your element as a tourist, so why not push your boundaries further and see what you’re made of.
- Leave the judging at home. You’re traveling, so now is not the time to compare your life to the lives of locals and others that may have a different set of concerns that drive their actions. You might be right at home, but out there you’re a visitor, and respect is an important international travel safety tip. Instead, ask questions so you can learn more about different lifestyles and customs — you just might take something back to your normal, day-to-day life.
- Get lost. Sometimes the best experiences happen when you’re not really trying to do anything at all. Pick a street and see where it takes you, but be aware of general travel safety tips — you don’t want to end up in the wrong neighborhood or so far away from your starting point that you lack the ability to get back.
- Learn the language. While I wouldn’t expect you to cram for months prior to an international trip, it does help to learn a few choice words and phrases before you arrive. Translation books and phone apps can help close the language barrier, and you’ll never know when you need the assistance of a local or if you need to ask permission before taking a picture.
- Bring more than one form of money. While cash is still king, more places accept credit than you’d think, and multiple cards, checks and other forms of cash will help you if you misplace anything. Sometimes an ATM will eat your card, or sometimes you’ll forget it after a night of drinking. With backups, you can cancel your card and continue on without the hassle of tracking down a lost card.
- Inform yourself. If you’re bothering to travel halfway around the world to visit a country, it helps to read a book about local history and culture before you drop in. Not only will it give you more to talk about with locals, but you might even find novel travel ideas inside that can help enhance your trip.
- Splurge once in a while. Sure, traveling is expensive. But traveling on a shoestring budget gets old after a while. Sometimes all you need is a good meal, a night on the town or a couple days at a nice resort or hotel. Not only is it nice to treat yourself while traveling, but it’s also a nice way to recharge in the middle of an extended trip.
- Bring ear plugs, an eye mask, and a scarf. In addition to all the clothes and gadgets you may be bringing with you, it’s easy to forget that simple things can make a bad experience tolerable. Ear plugs are great on airplanes and in noisy hotel rooms, and an eye mask is crucial to catch some Zs during daytime hours. Bringing a scarf is also a great international traveling tip, because of its utility as a sun shield, a makeshift towel and as a knapsack in a pinch.
The important thing to remember is that you will no doubt make mistakes; it is your first trip abroad, after all!
But know that it is just part of the journey.
As long as you stay alert and use common sense, these international travel tips will ensure you have a fantastic time.
What are your international travel tips for first-time travelers? If you have any, comment below!
If you are looking for a step-by-step guide to help you plan your first international trip, check out The Ultimate Guide to Trip Planning.
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