Helpful Tips for First-Time International Travelers
Traveling within the United States is an excellent way to become acquainted with travel, but international travel typically requires more planning and preparation than domestic trips. Often, the best trips across the globe happen because you’ve gone the extra mile and thought carefully about the details, not to mention the “what ifs.” These tips for first-time international travelers will help make your initial trip abroad a success, and hopefully, encourage you to continue to travel the world in the future.
Apply for a passport well in advance.
If you don’t yet have a passport, don’t wait until the last minute. (We’ve all made that mistake at some point and then we’re scrambling and stressing.) Depending on the time of year you apply, a passport can take six weeks or longer. I suggest applying when you have the slightest notion of traveling to another country. Besides, everyone should have a passport even if they don’t have an international trip on the books. A passport provides the convenience of picking up at a moment’s notice and traveling anywhere, and it’s also a second form of identification. Most countries will require a passport only, but some (like Vietnam) will require a Visa. Check with the state department well before you travel.
Consider a shorter length for your first international trip.
If you’re not an adventurer, you might consider a shorter flight and a shorter time away for your first international getaway. Try five nights in London or a long weekend in the Caribbean. Take baby steps until you’re a more seasoned traveler. On the other hand, if you’re filled with adventure and being far away from home doesn’t make you apprehensive in the least, then go for it! Book that month-long trip backpacking through Southeast Asia and enjoy every second of it.
Research the destination before you book.
Do your homework before you book the plane ticket. Inform yourself about crime rates and general safety. The US.gov website tends to scare all of us into thinking that no place is safe and we’re all going to be victims of something horrific in another country, so bear that in mind. You might use the Canada website for general info and also read local blogs and forums about the city or country you’re visiting. Every place has safe areas and not-so-safe areas. Know those before you go.
Consider how you’ll keep in touch while abroad.
When we talk about helpful tips for first-time international travelers, I can’t stress communication enough. You’ll definitely want phone and internet access while you’re on the road. While you should have connections at your hotel, you won’t when you’re out and about. But you can remedy that. Purchase an international phone, switch the sim card in your own phone once you arrive (as long as your phone is unlocked), or purchase a plan through your cell phone company (typically, the most expensive option).
If you plan on traveling a lot, investing in a second phone that you can just buy minutes and data as needed might be the smart solution. If you plan to stay close to the hotel or resort, you might not need a phone at all. But if you’re driving or traveling from city to city or in more rural areas, a phone would be a good idea for safety and in case of an emergency.
Learn a few words of the language if at all possible.
No matter which country you travel to, learn how to say hello, goodbye, thank you, and a few other words or phrases that are used locally. You’ll find the people of the country you’re visiting more receptive and eager to help and listen if you attempt to speak their language. Plus, it shows respect for their culture and country, and it’s not a bad idea to know a few words in another language either.
Book hotels ahead, especially in prime season.
Spontaneity can be fun and exciting, but it can also ruin an international trip. For your first time traveling abroad, I recommend booking your hotels in advance. If you’re the more adventurous type and you’ll be traveling around from place to place, at least book your first night or two. Know that you’ll have a clean, safe place to lay your head once you arrive at your destination.
Driving? Get an International Driving Permit.
Laws vary from country to country, but if you plan to rent a car and drive, get an IDP. In Italy, for instance, if you get pulled over, you have a great chance of getting a big fat ticket if you don’t have an international license. But you can obtain one before you take an international trip. Bring two passport photos with you to your local AAA, fill out an application, and wait for your permit. You must, of course, have a valid US drivers license to qualify. The fee is $20. An IDP (sometimes called an International Drivers Permit) is also an additional form of identification and translates your ID into ten different languages. Tip: To secure the best price, I recommend booking a car through Discover Cars or Rental Cars.
Think about currency.
Depending on the country and currency, it may make more sense to wait to get cash until after you arrive. Some foreign exchange rates aren’t favorable in the US, so take cash and do your exchange after you get there. For destinations where the rates in the US are favorable, though, you’ll want to carry some currency so you’re ready to go once you land. Usually, withdrawing cash from an ATM in a foreign country offers the best rate. Use the XE app to convert currency and get the latest exchange rates.
Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
Using a credit card for travel expenses is the smartest way to pay (you won’t have to carry wads of cash), especially if you find a card with a cash-back perk. I use Capital One Quicksilver and I swear by it, but there are several great credit cards out there that don’t tack on fees when used in other countries. Try to get a rewards card if you can, so you get something for every dollar you spend. And whichever card or cards you take, let your bank know that you’ll be traveling.
Don’t put all your cash and cards in one place.
No one wants to think about theft or crime when traveling, but it does happen.
You can minimize any loss by being prepared. Keep some cash, a bank card, and one credit card as well as a copy of your passport with you. Keep emergency cash, an additional bank card, credit card and your passport in a hidden place, preferably in a hotel safe. When you’re on the road, find a place in a different bag (not your purse or pocket) for the extras.I f you have extra cards and cash, you can cancel the stolen cards and continue with your travels.
Make a copy of your passport and keep it in a safe place.
Keeping your passport in a safe spot will lessen the chance of it getting stolen, also decreasing the chance of identity theft and the need to go to the embassy to get a rush passport. I suggest taking a photo and keeping that on your phone, which is hopefully backed up to iCloud or some other storage service. Also keep a paper copy somewhere, perhaps hidden in your suitcase. And of course, don’t let any of your belongings out of your sight at any time.
Buy travel insurance.
I recommend buying travel insurance for all international trips. I purchase mine through SATW (Society of American Travel Writers.) Luckily, I’ve never had to file a claim, but should I get sick, have an accident, or need to cancel my trip due to a family emergency, I am covered. To me, I’d rather lose $100 or $200 than risk losing thousands of dollars. Most plans also cover natural disaster and terrorism, which, sadly, is something we need to think about when we travel. This trip insurance company is very highly rated.
Depending on where you’re going, consider hiring a guide.
I’ve traveled both ways – on my own without a guide and with a local guide. Depending on where your trip is, you might not need a guide at all. If you’re spending a few days sunning and sipping cocktails on the beach in Costa Rica, you can relax and sunbathe on your own. If you want to explore the rainforest or more off-the-beaten-path locations in the country, however, hiring a guide is a great idea. Explore the country with a passionate local and you’ll see it through completely different eyes. By stepping away from the guidebook, you’ll have the opportunity to immerse yourself deeper in the area’s culture. Isn’t that the reason most of us love to travel?
Do you have any tips for first-time international travelers? Please add your thoughts in the comments!
And travel apps worth checking out.
This post was updated February 26, 2023.