Helpful First Timer’s Guide to International Travel

So, you’re finally ready to take the plunge.  You’ve decided to travel internationally for the first time (maybe solo!) but you don’t have a clue as to what to do or how to do it.  Here is a step by step guide to get you on your first of many trips as smoothly as possible. 

Passport 

First, you’ll need a passport.  Assuming you’re a US citizen, this can be done fairly easily.  You’ll need to fill out the forms and read about how to submit your paperwork HERE.  As long as you aren’t applying for a passport a couple months before the summer rush (when everyone typically applies for passports so they can take their families on summer vacation), you should get your passport fairly quickly.  There is also an option to pay an expedited fee to get your passport faster if the request is urgent. However for most people, that won’t be necessary. 

For your photo, you’ll have to go to a place that takes passport photos.  You can take the photo yourself but you’ll still have to get it printed on glossy paper.  I usually go to Costco to get my photos because it’s done in about 30 mins.  

Also, I wouldn’t recommend only getting a passport card unless you know you’ll only be crossing into Mexico and at a land crossing.  Although passport cards have their uses, (see my post on the CBX here) they’re absolutely useless when going to other countries. You can apply to get both on the same form though.  

I WOULD recommend getting the large book vs. the standard book if your plans are to travel internationally extensively.  With any type of travel, you’ll see that your passport book gets filled up pretty quickly with agents often stamping blindly into the book.  The problem is when you go to countries that require visas, you’ll need to have blank pages for your visa to be affixed. Also, many countries ask that you have at least 2 blank pages in your passport upon arrival.  

Quick Tip: If want to save a few pages in the back for possible visas for future trips, you can put a post-it note on those pages and write something like “please don’t stamp, saving for visa.” and ask that those pages not be stamped.  Immigration officials understand and I’ve never had anyone who purposefully stamped those pages when I have a note asking them not to. 

Budget

Knowing how much you have to spend before booking anything is key if you want to stay on budget.  Look, we all want to fly first class, get picked up from the airport in a limo, and stay at the Ritz.  But that isn’t going to happen if you budget is $50/day. You’ll need to understand where and when you go will dictate how much you can stretch your money. 

Certain cities are just expensive to visit.  San Francisco, New York, London, Stockholm, Tokyo, Singapore are just a few examples of expensive places to visit.  Regardless of the time of year, visiting these cities will take a huge bite out of your budget. Instead of planning your entire trip in one of these cities, you may want to think about just visiting for a couple days and then venturing somewhere cheaper.  

Traveling during low or shoulder season (the time when tourist demand is between low and high) is the best time to get the most bang for your buck.  Flights and hotels will be cheaper because demand is lower. Of course that means the weather may be worse, some attractions might be closed, or selections for items will be fewer.  But the savings can be huge.  

If you’re trying to figure out where to go during low season, an easy rule of thumb is to travel in the opposite direction of where everyone is going.  Summer travel to Europe from the US is high. Everyone loves going to Europe on their summer break so all major cities are insanely busy and packed. But, what if instead of going to Europe, you headed to South America or Australia instead?  Remember, July is summer here but winter there. No one wants to head to the beach when it’s 40 degrees. I guarantee Bondi Beach is going to be fairly deserted in July vs. December. 

Figure out the budget and find a plan that works within that budget.  It may mean going to a different destination but often times, it’ll just mean you’ll have to go during a different time of year.  

Book Flights

Now you’ll finally have to put skin in the game.  You’re going to have to pull the trigger and purchase your flights which might be tough since you’ll probably be a little stunned at the sticker shock of prices.  

I’d recommend starting at Google Flights.  This will get you a really good idea of what flights are available and the price point you’re dealing with.  If you don’t need to travel on specific dates, you’ll want to play around with your departure and arrival dates.  Flights that depart on Tues, Wed, and Thursday tend to be cheaper than those that depart on weekends. The same holds true for arrivals.  If you can, you’ll want to try to come back during the middle of the week. Not only are these flights cheaper, but since there’s less demand, there are typically fewer people on the flight (which means if you’re going to be on a 14 hour flight, you’ll be able to stretch out).  

Another thing to keep in mind is the city you’re flying into may have multiple airports.  Using New York as an example, there are 3 main airports that service that city: JFK, Newark, and La Guardia.  Many major cities have more than 1 airport. Sometimes it’s just a difference between a domestic and international airport.  But often, it’s an entirely different airport. When you book, make sure you know exactly which airport you’ll be arriving.  

Rough sketch your plans

I put this after booking a flight because all the planning in the world will get you nowhere unless you actually book something.  After booking your flight, you’ll want to get a rough idea of how you want to spend your time there. This doesn’t have to be set in stone.  Just a rough idea.  

For example, if you want to spend 10 days in Australia, you might think about flying into Sydney and spending a few days there.  Then, you might want to fly up to Cairns to go see the Great Barrier Reef and then finally return back to Sydney for a couple days and fly back home.  Getting a rough idea of how you want to spend your time will give you a good idea of where to book hotels and how to get around.  

A side note to all this is you can book your flights open jaw.  Open jaw means you fly into one city and depart from another. So, in our Australia example, you’ll fly into Sydney and fly back home from Cairns, thus saving you the hassle having to come back to Sydney.  However, I don’t recommend this for your first time trip because it could become a little confusing and I believe in the KISS (keep it simple stupid) method of doing things especially for your first trip.  

Hotels/AirBNBs/Hostels

Next, you’ll want to look into where you’ll stay.  I put this next because for your first trip, you’ll want to have as easy a time as possible and the less you have to do upon arrival, the better.  As you become a seasoned traveler, you’ll be able to book accommodations while waiting for your flight to depart at the gate. But I’d recommend just booking this shortly after your flight.  Why?

First, you’ll have time to research where you want to stay.  You’ll be able to figure out where the safe parts of the city are, where the hotel is located in relation to public transportation, does the hotel have parking (if renting a car), is it handicap accessible, etc.  I almost always try to stay in a hotel that’s near a metro station because it makes getting to/from the hotel that much easier.  

Second, I recommend booking the hotel now because your 2 largest expenses are going to be your flight and hotels.  Everything else will be relatively small items (like metro tickets, food, tours, attractions, etc) and items that don’t need to be planned.  But by having the 2 major expenses out of the way, you’ll have a very good idea of how much your trip is going to cost.  

You’ll also have to decide if you want to book a refundable or nonrefundable rate.  A nonrefundable rate will typically save you a few dollars but if you find a better rate at another hotel, you’ll obviously be out of luck.  This will all depend on your comfort level but a refundable room may be the way to go in case plans change.  

Hotels are like flights in that the earlier you book, the cheaper the rate (unless you’re booking super last minute like a couple days before).  Obviously the early you can commit, the better it is (especially with vacancy) but unless you’re going to a very remote area with limited vacancy, you should be able to find a room fairly easily. 

Research the logistics

Now that the big ticket items are booked, you’ll spend the rest of your time figuring out the logistics of your trip.  How to get around the city using the metro, figuring out the train system to get from one city to another, times and schedules for tours, etc.  Most major cities have some sort of metro system in place that will take you to major points of interest with relative ease. However, you’ll also want to see if there are any apps for that specific country that will give you exact times and lines for the metro system to get around.  Tokyo’s subway system can be challenging for locals, so having an app there is almost a necessity.  

Logistics isn’t just for transportation but also for things like visas and health shots.  You’ll want to make sure you don’t need a visa for the country or if you do, you can get a visa on arrival.  If not, you’ll have to plan your visa in advance. Also, if you’re getting a visa on arrival, you’ll want to know the exact requirements for a visa.  Make sure you have the money to pay (in the currency they ask…just because you’re in a foreign country doesn’t mean they want to be paid in their currency…many will ask for the fee to be paid in USD).  If paying with dollars, make sure the bills are new, crisp bills. I find it frustrating that locals are happy to give you change in currency that looks like a used tissue but demand dollars that are in mint condition. 

For anything health related, you’ll obviously want to consult with your doctor to make sure you have any and all appropriate shots before traveling.  I don’t think there is really anything to worry about but that obviously depends on your destination. This is really important for those who haven’t been vaccinated.  

I also like to figure out how I’m going to travel from the airport to the hotel (this is where knowing exactly which airport you’re flying into is important).  For a first timer, I’d recommend trying to see if your hotel offers a shuttle service. Yes, they might charge much more than a regular taxi for the convenience but it certainly makes for a stress free arrival when not having to deal with the countless people asking if you need a taxi at the exit (sorry to paint with a broad brush here but I believe most of them are scammers).  

Logistics at home

A few days before departure, you’ll want to contact your bank, post office, make an electronic copy of your passport, and possibly someone to check in on your house while you’re away.  

For banks, you’ll want to notify them of the dates of travel and countries you’ll be visiting.  This will make sure your cards will work overseas and that the bank doesn’t interpret the spending as a fraudulent charge.  Also, without prior notice, your ATM card may not work since your bank will will try to protect you from any unauthorized withdrawals.  This can easily be done online and only takes seconds but can cause a lot of pain if you forget. 

Contact the post office to put a mail stop on your mail.  This will tell the post office to hold your mail for a specific amount of time so that it won’t just pile up in your mailbox.  Overflowing mailboxes and uncollected newspapers on your front door are clear signs that no one is home and there’s no reason to broadcast that to everyone. 

Make an electronic copy of your passport and save it to your email, cloud, etc.  You never know when something might happen. You can’t plan WHEN something is stolen from you.  However, you can plan IF something is stolen. If your wallet, purse, backpack, is stolen with your passport, you’ll need to get it replaced immediately.  Having an electronic copy of it in your email or in the cloud will go a long way in getting a replacement sooner. The hope is to never have to use it but if you do, you’ll be glad you did. 

Finally, you may want to ask your neighbor, friend, or family member check in on the house while you’re away.  Someone to water the plants, collect the mail (if you didn’t put a stop), and generally check to make sure nothing catastrophic occurs while you’re away.  Sometimes it just feels nice to have someone check in on your house to make sure it’s still standing.  

Now would be a good time to think about travel insurance as well.  Although I typically don’t get travel insurance, I understand it could be a huge lifesaver.  Before you dive into though, you might want to check with your credit card company to see if you’re covered with any sort of travel protection.  Many premium credit cards offer this protection and you don’t need to book your entire stay on card to qualify. You only need to have some or part of your trip booked on that credit card to qualify for the benefits if needed.  

Pack and Go!

Obviously your final step is to pack and go!  If you need ideas on the type of suitcase I use, please check out my post HERE.  Check the weather forecast and pack accordingly.  Although I preach packing light, I know that for your first trip, you’ll think you’re packing light but you’ll end up packing way more items than necessary.  Which is ok. There is a learning curve and you can’t be expected to know everything from the start.  

Final thoughts

Hopefully this gives you an in depth look as to what you should do and expect on your first international trip.  Once you do it a few times, you’ll get the hang of it and building more complex itineraries will become the norm. 

You’re about to take your first step on foreign soil.  Enjoy it. As long as you’ve done the planning, you’ll be fine.  Just remember that even if everything goes wrong that day, you’ll still have a safe place to sleep that night because you booked your hotel early.  You’ll still be able to come home because you’ll have your flight booked. All the major ticket items have been paid. So the only thing left is the daily expenses.  

This guide should help any beginner on their first international trip and should prepare you for all the controllable events that should arise.  The only thing left is to enjoy this trip and start planning for the next one. 

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