20 Things to Do Before You Travel Abroad

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The second of our guest posts this week comes from Doug Cunnington. Doug has been reading my blog for a while and impressed me by sending over some fantastic posts he has written for other sites. AJ actually suggested the topic for this post, so you have him to thank! “Travel can be intimidating,” he said. “Before we went to Ireland, I didn’t know what needed to be done ahead of time, or that all the cars would be stick shift or that the streets wouldn’t have signs. I think you should write a post about some common strategies that can help people prepare for international trips!” Folks, my husband is a genius, and lucky for us, Doug loved the idea! I’ll let him take it from here!

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Traveling abroad can seem intimidating. After all, there’s a lot we take for granted in the comfort of our own country. It can be overwhelming since the stakes can be high when you are out of the country. Some common questions you may find yourself asking are:

  • Will your driver’s license be accepted?
  • Will your health insurance apply?
  • What will your money be worth?

Fortunately, with a little preparation we can address potential problems before they happen and have a safe and enjoyable international trip. Here are my top tips to enjoy a low-stress international adventure!

1. Make a copy of your passport: Your passport is your ticket into and out of foreign countries. If it is lost or stolen, it’s important to have a copy so you can get back to your home country. Bring a copy with you and store it in a separate location from your original passport. It’s also a good idea to have an electronic copy available. I also leave a copy with a family friend back in the states just in case something unexpected happens.

2. Plan your trips in the off season: When possible, always travel in the slow season. Danielle mentions flexibility as one of the top reasons she can afford to travel. While you may have to contend with colder weather, the crowds will be much smaller and you can save a significant amount of money on tours, hotel prices and more.

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Sorrento Coast, Italy. Photo credit: Sorrento Coast Limo

3. Get your health insurance in order: Make sure you have the proper vaccinations before traveling to a foreign country. If you take any prescriptions, make sure you have an adequate supply to last you for the duration of your stay and check with the immigration department of the country you’re traveling to in order to ensure that you do not need any additional information from your doctor. (Danielle’s note: Some countries, particularly those with religious or conservative governments, may not permit narcotic pain medications, sleeping pills, etc and may require a note from your doctor in order to allow the pills through immigration. It never hurts to double check!) Check with your health insurance carrier and make sure that your coverage will apply overseas. If it doesn’t, consider getting supplemental insurance that will cover you during your trip.

4. Let your bank know you’re traveling abroad: To protect you from fraud, some banks or credit cards will freeze your account if they see purchases being made on your account in a foreign country. By informing your bank and creditors beforehand, you can avoid the frustration of having your card declined during a dining or shopping experience in a foreign country. Also, check whether ATMs will accept your country’s debit cards. You can usually find this type of information on Trip Advisor!

5. Check the conversion rate: Before you travel overseas, it’s important to know what your money will be worth in the local currency. Since the exchange rates fluctuate constantly, it’s important to keep up to date so you know just how far your dollar will go. Apps like XE Currency can tell you minute-by-minute how far your dollar will go! (Danielle’s note: Some countries have more than one conversion rate – the “official” rate, which you will receive at banks, and the “unofficial” rate, which shops and local businesses may offer. Argentina is a great example of this. Find out if this is the case in the country you’ll be visiting and plan accordingly!)

6. Carry local cash: Since not all shops and businesses take credit or debit cards, it’s a good idea to keep some of the local currency on hand as cash. Make sure to find out if your debit card will be accepted at the country’s ATMs; otherwise, bring some cash with you!

7. Invest in guidebooks: Guidebooks are excellent tools to help you get the most out of your trip abroad. They can show you areas of interest, interesting museums, and delicious local restaurants. The biggest value to me is usually around the restaurant recommendations and I prefer the Lonely Planet books for that reason. I feel like they can guide me off the beaten path and to more local hangouts. They also typically contain maps and translations for common phrases. Normally, public libraries have a good selection of travel books so you can scope out the style of guidebook that suits you. If you don’t want to carry a big book with you, consider bringing just a few pages that you find relevant or download the electronic version onto your tablet or phone or grab a pocket guide.

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Curacao!

8. Buy tickets in advance:  As with all travel, the more you plan ahead, the more money you’ll save. If you find shows or events that you’d like to see, purchase your tickets in advance. Not only will you save time waiting in line, you can also save money. Not to mention some shows could be sold out if you wait until the last minute.

9. See what events are going on: See if there are any local holidays, parades, or festivals happening nearby while you’ll be in the country. Not only are events like this a blast, they can be a great way to get a feel for the local culture and make memories that will last a lifetime. Don’t be intimidated – join in the fun!

10. Get an adapter: Your American electronics will not plug into most foreign sockets. Fortunately, there are a number of adapters you can buy to remedy this problem. You can purchase them cheaply on Amazon or pay a lot more in an airport or hotel gift shop – the choice is yours! Be mindful of this before buying electronics abroad as well.

11. Prepare your cell phone: Most cell phones have a global setting that you can turn on when traveling abroad. While there’s generally a fee for doing this, it’s usually much cheaper than roaming charges. (Danielle’s note: Also, consider downloading apps like WhatsApp or Line that allow you to make voice calls and send texts over Wifi! Although some countries (the UAE and Oman come to mind) block these apps, they’ll work in many places.

12. Pack spare clothes in your carry-on: Sometimes, your check luggage may get lost. It’s best to be prepared by bringing a change of clothes in your carry-on luggage. At minimum, a change of underwear and socks is essential. If you’re good, you can pack everything you need in your carry-on.

13. Bring extra food to snack on: Sometimes, you may encounter situations where it takes a fair amount of searching to find a nice local restaurant. In these instances, a few snack bars or some trail mix can help tide you over until you find the right local fare. Also, head to the local grocery store and load up on snacks when you arrive! It’s a great way to fight hunger while you’re walking around all day. (Danielle’s note: for travelers with health-related dietary restrictions, do your research way ahead of time. For example, I always print out a card explaining, in the native language, what gluten is, where it is found, and why I can’t have it. I also find out what the local symbol for “gluten free” is and look for those products in stores!)

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Sorrento Coast, Italy. Photo credit: Sorrento Coast Limo

14. Prepare to check in with family and friends: Check in your loved ones at least once a day so someone back home knows where you are at all times. Sometimes once a day is not convenient so you can set a predetermined time to make sure everything is good when you’re abroad. In normal circumstances, it’s a great way to share the joy of your journey with your folks back home. In an emergency situation, it could save your life. Even if you just post a status update on social media, your friends and family will know you’re alive and well.

15. Come up with a method to track your spending: Whether you use budgeting software on your laptop or a pen and paper, keep a record of everything you spend. This will help you stay within your budget throughout your travels. (Danielle’s note: Woof…I should do this…)

16. Know and accept that you can’t see it all: Every country has a wealth of things to see, do, and explore. Rather than trying to pack everything into a single trip, realize that you will only be able to experience a fraction of what that country has to offer and be present to experience it fully. I typically budget in a day where nothing is planned so there is an opportunity for spontaneity. Sometimes that spontaneity is just hanging out poolside or having lunch in a random cafe.

17. Learn a little of the local language: Take the time to learn at least a few phrases in the local language. Not only will locals appreciate your effort, it can also lead to a richer cross-cultural experience. (Danielle’s note: Check to see if English or your native language is widely spoken – it may surprise you! For example, despite Japan’s heavily industrialized nature, the majority of people there do not speak English (or are shy about speaking it), so it was hard to communicate there. By contrast, everyone in Oman spoke English as well as Arabic!)

18. Make sure your passport is up to date: Your passport is your ticket into and out of foreign countries. Renewing your passport can take weeks. If you need to renew your passport, be sure to do so well in advance. Check with the requirements of the country you’re visiting – some require that your passport will be valid for at least 6 months after your trip and won’t let you onto the plane without it!

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19. Remember to keep your electronics charged: When in a café, airport, or any place you have access to an electrical outlet, be sure to charge your phone, laptop, camera, and any other important electronic devices. You never know when your next opportunity will arise. Portable charger batteries are also a good investment.

20. Prepare to be present: When traveling abroad, there’s a tendency to view your surroundings as a photo op for your social media accounts (Danielle’s note: Guilty!). Rather than thinking of your trip as a way to document your experience for others, focus on being totally present in your own adventure.

Bio: Doug writes about Travel, Homebrewing Beer, and Food. His primary home online is at The Kitchen Professor where he obsessing about food and kitchen gadgets. Doug runs too – mainly to burn off all beer calories. His toughest race was the Estes Park Half Marathon in Colorado where the average elevation on the course is 7650 feet. Follow him on Twitter @diydoug.

6 thoughts on “20 Things to Do Before You Travel Abroad

  1. I lived in Ireland for close to a year, and traveled all over Europe in 2014. Some of the things that really helped me (in addition to most of the tips here) : did my research on plane/train connections, if I had a complicated question in a country that didn’t speak English as a matter of course (Spain, Portugal, France, Germany) I always asked a person who looked to be in their 20s as they were more likely to speak English; i took out a Capital One debit card because they don’t charge extra fees for ATM transactions; I bought traveler’s health insurance – cost about $85 for the entire 11 months and was reimbursed for the one minor need i had. EU health expenses are generally inexpensive compared to US, but if you had a big event, the health insurance is worth it – check the fine print though because many don’t cover certain activities. I always learned : “Do you speak English” “Where is the bathroom?” “Please” “Thank you” – no matter where I was. Most people responded in English to me, because generally my accent was bad 🙂 Rick Steve’s language books have the most useful phrases, I think. I mainly traveled by myself and except in Rome and Naples I never once worried about my purse. European women carry their purses everywhere. I never carried much money with me when I was out, I kept my passport and credit cards close in an interior coat pocket. I asked locals for restaurant recommendations. I used Rick Steve’s podcasts for tours of different places such as Munich, Florence, some galleries, the Louvre, -they are pretty good and interesting, if sometimes corny. I talked to people as much as was natural. I worried in Paris, for about 10 minutes – regarding what the French would think of me, and then I thought – who cares! Relaxed and enjoyed myself! In Ireland I joined a MeetUp group that did outdoor things and as a result made friends, and saw a lot of the countryside on foot, going places I wouldn’t normally go. I did all this at the age of 60. Would go again in a heartbeat!

    1. Wow, Kerry! That is so amazing!! I love that you did this at age 60 – hint hint, T-Rex Mom!! Those are some great tips and I am definitely going to buy travel insurance for my trip to Nepal. Some credit cards, like the Chase Sapphire, also have guaranteed travel insurance if you pay for your trip with them, but they don’t cover everything, for sure! I have started researching where I can buy gluten-free food and how to communicate my needs in that area to people!

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