I’d like to say that I sort of know what I’m talking about now that I’ve been to 50-ish countries. But just a few years ago I was setting off on an around-the-world adventure with no set end date. Prior to that, I’d been to 4 countries; Canada (a quick weekend trip across the border), Mexico (woohoo senior year!), France (with my parents at age 12), and the Dominican Republic (to a swanky all-inclusive). So describing me as a “travel virgin” wouldn’t be too far off.
I’d sold all of my worldly possessions and set off for Buenos Aires, Argentina. Only to get mugged at knifepoint 5 hours after landing. Not that I ever really learn from my mistakes, I still make them regularly. But hopefully I can impart some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way so that as a first-time traveler you can avoid them!
Planning for your Trip
Money and Documents
- Check your money situation. Does your bank charge international fees? What’s their ATM fee situation? When in doubt, bring cash. We love the Charles Schwab debit card that offers zero international fees and refunds all of your ATM fees. But our Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card is best for earning points.
- Release your cards for international use. There’s nothing worse than having a bunch of credit and debit cards but none that actually work. You’ll need to call your banks and give them a list of the countries you plan to visit.
- Check your passport. Is it valid for at least another 6 months? If not you’ll likely be denied entry into another country (they want to make sure you’re going to leave).
- Check your visa requirements. Some countries (like India, Brazil, and Iran) require a pre-arranged visa. If you don’t have it, your trip won’t be fun (because it will be nonexistent).
- Take a photo of your passport and email it to yourself. Just in case.
- Do a little planning. You may be asked by the airline or TSA about where you’re staying and how long you’ll be in the country. It’s smart to have some sort of answers to give them.
- But don’t plan everything down to the minute. If you get somewhere (i.e. a hotel room, a city, or even a country) and don’t love it, it’s nice to have the freedom to leave.
- Make sure you have (or don’t need) proof of onward travel. If you’re headed to an island (like, say, New Zealand or the Bahamas), you must prove that you have a way to get off the island. Or the airline won’t let you check-in. But what if I don’t know when I am leaving? Then buy a refundable return ticket a few hours before your flight and return it after you land and clear customs (but make sure you return it within the allotted time frame – usually 24 hours).
Clothing, Accessories, and Toiletries
- Not sure whether or not to pack it? Don’t. You can always buy things that you need and forgot (and trust me, you’ll want to shop). The lighter your bag, the better.
- How much underwear are you packing? Double it. Believe it or not, most hotels don’t want you washing your panties in the bathroom sink. And they run out faster than you think.
- How many pairs of shoes are you packing? Split it in half (not literally, one shoe will do you no good). I can’t think of a single reason you would need to bring more than 3 pairs of shoes; 1 pair of flip flops, 1 pair of running/walking shoes, and 1 more of whatever your heart desires.
- Does it wrinkle the second it leaves your body or a hanger? If yes, you’ll never wear it.
- Is it “dry clean only”? If yes, you’ll probably also never wear it.
- Check the weather. It may be 90 degrees during the day and drop to 50 at night. If you don’t have long pants and a sweater you’ll regret it. And even if there’s only a 10% chance of rain, bring a light rain jacket, just in case.
- Check the “modesty” expectations. If you bring all jean shorts and tank tops to India you will spend most of your vacation feeling like, excuse my language, a whore in church. Women are expected to cover their shoulders and their knees in most areas of the country. And in Iran if you are a woman and your head is not covered, you’ll wind up in jail (tourist or not).
- Hair dryer, curling iron, hair straightener. You don’t have room for all three, leave one of them at home.
- Electrical outlet converter. You won’t even be able to use your hair tools unless you have a converter. Luckily you can generally purchase these in the airport if you forget to plan ahead.
- If you can’t carry your luggage up a flight of stairs without assistance, you’ll be miserable. Trust me, I’ve made this mistake. Once again, the lighter your bag, the better.
- Wheels or no wheels? Depends on where you’re going. If you are headed to a quaint little city with cobblestone streets and lots of stairs or a remote island with a long beach you have to walk down to get to your bungalow, wheels will hinder, rather than help you.
- Add flair to make your luggage stand out. Makes it easy to spot on the conveyor belt when you land.
- Pack some essentials in your carry-on. A change of socks and underwear, a sweater, a toothbrush, and travel toothpaste are all essential in the unlikely event of lost baggage.
- Use a sturdy luggage tag. Make sure your email address is clearly visible on it.
Do Your Homework
- Download a map of the area you’ll be traveling to so you can access it anytime. Star your hotel and a few good tourist destinations in advance.
- Research the currency and the conversion rate.
- Take a screenshot of a few phrases in the language of the country you’ll be visiting. “Please”, “thank you”, “hello”, and “goodbye” can go a long way. Or better yet, download an offline language pack in the Google Translate app.
- Research how you’re going to get from the airport to your hotel. I don’t trust taxis. Ever. And there have been countless times that I’ve been quoted a taxi rate from the airport and replied “WHAT?!? That’s outrageous!!!” And I’m sure that I’m getting ripped off. Well, maybe I am but maybe I’m not, I should have done my homework. Also, there may be a train or a bus that are easy and much cheaper.
- Check to see if they have Uber. I don’t fully support Uber’s company practices BUT they are far more cost effective (and honest) than taxis and they are slowly but surely gaining international exposure.
- Check the tipping customs. The US is the only country I’ve ever been where a 20% tip is the norm. 10% is standard in most of Europe and some countries even consider a tip to be insulting!
- Arrive early. At least 2 hours early for international flights. 1.5 hours for domestic if you’re checking a bag, 1 hour if you’re not. Most airlines won’t let you check your luggage 45 minutes or less from your flight internationally, 30 minutes domestically.
- Make sure your luggage is less than 50 pounds (WHY would you bring 50 pounds of crap with you on vacation?!?). Also check that your carry-on bags are small enough to fit in their size guides (they rarely check but you don’t want to be the one that gets caught).
- Tuck in your straps. Coming from someone who just had a strap aggressively ripped off of her bag during transit, the airlines don’t make bag repair easy on you.
- Flying on a budget carrier like Spirit? They normally have additional costs for checked AND carry-on luggage. And they charge more if you pay at the airport rather than in advance. Either purchase online ahead of time or pack incredibly light. Read the small print – they are budget for a reason.
- Bring snacks (especially if you have any dietary restrictions). Meals are rarely served on domestic flights. Also, it can take a while to get your meal on international flights, especially if there’s turbulence.
- Bring water. Budget airlines don’t really do a beverage service unless you want to pay extra.
- Bring a jacket. And socks. Airplanes love to blast the air conditioning.
- Bring some entertainment. You never know if a plane will offer movies (although most international flights do). Bring a book or download a few podcasts to keep you from going stir crazy.
- Bring your toothbrush and a travel toothpaste. After a long journey, your breath will frighten small children.
- Be nice to your flight attendants. Even if they’re not nice to you. They are like the gods of the sky.
- When speaking with border officials, less is more. Answer questions truthfully but don’t volunteer information that they’re not asking for.
- Stay awake until the bedtime of your new time zone. Force yourself. If you allow yourself a nap you’ll regret it. And then get a full 8 hours if you can.
Try to Blend in
- While many people in the world do know the English language, many do not. Don’t expect everyone to speak in your preferred dialect (refer to the bullet point above about learning a few key phrases).
- Money belts are pretty silly. Plus you have to dig in there all the time to get your money out which takes away some (all) of the mystery. People aren’t going to be digging around in your pockets or your purse unless YOU are being careless and/or drunk. Just carry your money in whatever vessel you use at home.
- Go with the flow. Buses will be late. You’ll make mistakes. Travel isn’t perfect, don’t expect it to go exactly the way you planned.
- Get to know the locals.
- Get to know other travelers.
- Eat the local specialties. Try food that you’re not used to eating, at least once.
- Take public transportation. Is it annoying? Definitely, sometimes. But it can also be way cheaper and incredibly entertaining.
- Say ‘yes” to new adventures. Because no great story ever started with “no thanks, I’m going to wash my hair”.
- See the best in everyone. Most people aren’t out to get you, I promise.
- Don’t carry your passport around with you. Your passport is literally the most important thing that you have when you travel. If you lose it, it’s a serious pain in the ass. In the unlikely event that you DO get mugged (or more likely, just drink too much and misplace your stuff), better for your passport to be safe and sound back in your hotel room.
- Unfortunately scams happen. Everywhere (even your hometown). Be aware but don’t be paranoid. A few easy ways to avoid scams: only take taxis on the meter (or negotiate like crazy), count your change, beware of overly helpful people who are probably just out for a tip, ask the price before committing to buying (or eating) anything or going anywhere.
- Just because you can act a certain way at home, doesn’t mean you can here. Unfortunately for women, we don’t have the same rights in many countries that we do in the US. That means that we are kindly requested (required) to cover up and often frowned upon if seen drinking alcohol in public. Don’t try to be a one-person protest during your vacation.
- Ask for help when you need it. Most locals love foreigners. They genuinely want to interact with you and are happy to help you when you need it. Unfortunately, some do see you as a dollar sign, but they are the minority.
- Give a firm “NO” when necessary. Got a creep following you around trying to “help”? Someone won’t leave you alone? A tout wants to sell you something that you’re not interesting in buying? Trust your gut and don’t be afraid to firmly say “NO”.
- Check with your hotel/hostel staff on any dangerous areas of the city. This isn’t super relevant in most cities but I found it to be incredibly helpful in South America. One hostel owner in Colombia warned us not to take a certain street due to a “bad man on the corner”. It never hurts to ask.
Travel can be amazing and scary and life-changing and frustrating all at once.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
- Don’t let one bad experience taint you or your trip.
- Don’t expect to see EVERYTHING. Focus on meeting people and having fun rather than on visiting every single museum and cultural site.
- Trust your intuition.
- Let your friends and family know your general itinerary but make sure they don’t freak out if they don’t hear from you every few hours.
And most importantly, #62. HAVE A BLAST!!!