As I’m preparing to head back to Europe in a few months, I’ve been thinking back to my first trip “abroad” and I thought I could share some advice, so I’ve compiled a list of 50 tips that I would give to someone heading out for their first international trip!
#1: Pick somewhere on the beaten path.
I know, I know, everyone’s always telling you to get “off the beaten path”! But for your first international trip, it’s probably best not to go somewhere with next to no tourist infrastructure, like, say, Madagascar. The last thing you want is to end up in a tough situation or have a bad first experience abroad! For your first trip, pick somewhere with more tourism. Lots of destinations in Europe or the Caribbean would qualify, as well as some in other parts of the world. It also might help if you have friends or relatives who have been there and can advise you, or even if you have family in that part of the world! If your dream locale really is way off the beaten path, it’s still a good idea to work your way up to it.
#2: Get your passport, visa and other “red tape” figured out early.
The last thing you want is to be stressing out about being allowed into the country right before your trip! If you have a passport, be sure it won’t expire within six months of your trip. If you don’t have a passport, get one — the earlier the better! Be sure to figure out any other entry requirements early on too, like visas, fees, and any immunizations you might need.
#3: Let your bank now where you’re going and for how long.
You don’t want your card shut down while you’re on vacation because they think someone stole it and fled the country!
#4: Figure out what kind of foreign transaction fees your bank or credit card charges.
Most decent banks, credit unions, or travel credit cards will charge a low fee–somewhere around 1%. But you don’t want to wait until you’re on vacation to find out that the fee is much more than that! So while you’re telling the bank about your vacation plans, go ahead and ask them about this too.
#5: Plan to use an ATM or Visa card for most purchases.
If you’re bank does charge a high foreign transaction fee, consider getting a travel Visa card with a better rate and using that while abroad. MasterCard is also pretty widely accepted, but I wouldn’t plan on trying to use Discover or any other ones. As far as getting cash, if your bank or credit card fee is 1% just withdrawing from an ATM is your best bet!
#6: DON’T get cash from airport exchange if you can avoid it!
As a follow up on my last tip, avoid the airport money exchange desk! The exchange rates are usually terrible and you end up getting a raw deal. ATM is definitely your best bet, or using your low foreign transaction fee credit card on most purchases.
#7: Come up with an easy-to-calculate exchange rate between your currency and the foreign one.
When I was first in London, £10 was roughly equivalent to $15, so it was really easy to overspend! You might see something for £50 and think, “Hey, $50 isn’t bad for that!”, but the item would really cost $75! Therefore it’s too your benefit to come up with an easy way for you to convert prices in your head. During this London example it was easy because I just had to remember to add 50% to any price. To save yourself some money you could even inflate the rate a little. Let’s say €10 at the current exchange rate is $10.79… if you equate it to $12 instead, the math will be easier and you might end up saving a bit! If percentages aren’t your thing, just figure out the rate for a few basic increments–5, 10, 20–and add them together as needed.
#8: Remember to budget “at home” expenses into your trip.
Do you need to pay to board a pet? To have someone house sit? To park your car at the airport? Don’t forget to budget in these domestic expenses when planning!
#9: But also, give yourself a break!
Figure out how much money you would normally spend on living expenses–groceries, restaurants, entertainment, etc.–during the length of your trip, and go ahead and add that to your travel budget!
#10: Focus on getting a “good deal” on flights, not the absolute best possible.
Generally it’s good to check out flights about six months ahead of time so you have a baseline for how much they can cost, then, around the three month mark start checking in on your flights a few times a week and if you see a good deal, take it. Everybody wants to know how to get the very cheapest flights, but there really isn’t a magic formula, so focus on the money you are saving and not the possibility of saving even more. Prices often go down midweek–Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays–but there are no set-in-stone rules. However, last minute deals on flights are a thing of the past, so don’t wait too long to buy!
#11: When you check on flights, be sure to clear your cookies or go incognito!
Some travel and airline websites will keep track of the flights you’ve searched and actually increase prices if you search for the same one too many times! They will assume you really need it and jack it up. You can get around this by browsing incognito, clearing your cookies before searching, or using Google Flights to track prices. They even have a feature where they’ll email you if a particular flight gets cheaper!
#12: Research public transportation, as it’s usually the best/cheapest option!
Think about it–people live where you’re going, and regular people aren’t going to pay $50 for a cab every time they need to go somewhere! Many places (especially on-the-beaten-path ones) have excellent public transportation that can get you where you’re going quickly and cheaply.
#13: Prioritize location, especially in “walkable” cities.
In many places I go, my number one priority for the hotel is location! Lots of destinations are walkable, and if you’re well located in the city it’ll save you money on transportation, help with safety concerns if you want to go out at night, and save you a lot of time that you’d otherwise spend going to and from your hotel. Sometimes it’s worth it to pay just a bit more for a great location!
#14: Consider hotel alternatives.
Hotels aren’t the only option anymore. If you can’t find a hotel in your price range, check out a hostel, Airbnb, or rental property in your destination. Sometimes you can save quite a bit of money versus a traditional hotel.
#15: Remember that your at-hotel time will be minimal.
Whether you’re going to Paris, Seoul, or Cancun, you probably won’t be spending all day at the hotel! Don’t get too caught up in amenities and think about the things that are really important — location, price, and safety.
Rewards & Points
#16: Sign up for frequent flyer miles through whatever airline you’ll be using.
If anything takes the sting out of the cost of airline tickets, it’s the fact that airlines will reward you for the miles you rack up with free travel! Don’t miss out on this benefit and be sure to sign up for the airline’s miles program before you book your flight.
#17: Consider a travel rewards credit card
Will you be spending a good chunk of money on this trip? Most likely. Make it count with a travel credit card, and you could end up with part of your next trip paid for with points!
#18: Sign up for travel website points too, but don’t expect much.
I generally use Expedia, but they’re rewards honestly aren’t great. It is nice that you can get triple impact though. If you use your frequent flyer number and your travel credit card to book a flight through a site like Expedia, you’re basically getting triple points! I’ve heard good things about Hotels.com too–they have a simpler system where you get a free hotel night after staying so many nights.
#19: Don’t overlook electricity!
One thing that many people forget? To bring outlet converters/transformers when they travel! In most cases you probably won’t actually need a transformer to step down the voltage. Most things like phone chargers, computer chargers, even curling irons, will be rated for 110-240V. However you will very likely need a converter so that your US-plug devices can plug into the outlets they have abroad!
#20: Decide what tech you’ll bring.
Figure out what kind of technology you want with you, whether it’s just your cell phone or you need the whole shebang–laptop, camera, phone, iPad, etc. Generally a “less is more” approach is good. And don’t forget to account for the chargers for all of those devices when making your packing list!
#21: Decide if a SIM card is worth it or if you can get by with wifi.
I personally have never used a SIM card when I traveled internationally, but you may find that it’s worth it depending on the length of your trip and how much you need to stay in touch with people back home. If you need one, be sure you know how to get one (and how much your network will charge) while abroad! However, remember that free wifi is pretty widespread, especially in tourist hot spots, and it might save hassle and expense to just use the internet!
#22: Figure out a social media plan before you leave.
Maybe this sounds ridiculous to you, because you’re the kind who drops off the face of the cybernet when you travel, and if so, I salute you! However, many people like to share their travels on social media as well, but you need to figure out what balance works for you. Being on Facebook during your whole vacation likely won’t make for a memorable trip, and worse, it can tip criminals off to the fact that your home is currently vacant! Figure out how you’ll balance communicating with friends back home with your enjoyment of the trip and security.
#23: Make a rough itinerary and list of your “unmissable” things.
Ah, the fun part. Make a list of the places you really, really want to see–those places that you couldn’t forgive yourself for missing after traveling that far. Then sketch those out into a rough itinerary based on when those attractions are open (and, if you’re feeling ambitious, you could figure out lower-crowd days to go to the most popular attractions on your list).
#24: Don’t overschedule yourself.
While making your itinerary, keep in mind that the majority of “itineraries” you see in travel magazines, on blogs, etc. are WAY overdoing it. You really just can’t see eight things in a day and still have a fun vacation. (Also, why are so many of the itineraries full of food? Do you really need three meals and three snacks a day? How do they have time for anything else!?) Pick two or three of your highest-priority attractions, and then maybe have a few backups in mind if they don’t take too long. Or, you know, just embrace spontaneity and see what sounds fun when you’re there!
#25: Look into passes and memberships to save some moolah.
If, say, you want to see a good number of museums or popular attractions where you’re going, be sure to look into city/museum passes or memberships to save some money. Just be sure to add up how much you’d spend on your own and what the pass can do for you, as some of them can be quite deceiving!
#26: Don’t forget to research free attractions!
Travel can get pricey, so free is always good. Lots of fun things–sightseeing, architecture appreciation, lounging around in parks, people-watching in main squares, enjoying nature, museums, etc.–can be free, so make sure you do a bit of research to see what you can do that won’t cost you extra on your trip!
#27: Start a trip notebook.
When it comes to attractions, I like to be organized. I always have a trip notebook in which I write down the basic itinerary, along with other attractions we may want to check out. I include opening times and hours, addresses, and admission fees, so it makes it easier when you’re on the trip to say, “Hey, this cool museum is nearby and is cheap. It’s open right now, too–let’s go check it out!”
Packing & Preparation
#28: Make a photocopy of your passport.
Email it to yourself and also put a copy in your suitcase–just in case!
#29: Write down confirmation numbers, addresses of hotels, etc. in trip notebook.
Sometimes technology fails us, so I like to have all of this information written down in my trip notebook before I fly out.
#30: If possible, try to fit everything you need between a carry-on bag and “personal item”/backpack.
I know it’s a challenge, but it’s so worth it. Think about it–no waiting around at baggage claim at the airport. Instead, you can head right out and start having adventures right away! Also, no need to worry about lost or delayed luggage, checked baggage fees, accidentally putting something you need in checked baggage, etc. Trust me, it’s great! Use the clothes-rolling method to make all your clothes fit in the carry on and prevent wrinkles.
#31: Consider bringing a backup duffel bag.
If you can squeeze it in, bringing an extra bag stuffed inside your carry on is awesome. Then, if you just happen to buy a ton of souvenirs, you can throw all your dirty laundry in the duffel bag and check that on the way back, bringing your precious (sometimes breakable!) souvenirs with you on the plane!
#32: Think about what you’ll wear, and consider dressing up a little.
Okay, everyone knows Americans are about the most casual dressers out there. But consider dressing up a bit on your trip. Your vacation photos will look so much better if you’re wearing a cute dress than if you’re wearing a ratty old t-shirt and jeans! Plus, you will be much less likely to be immediately labeled as a tourist and targeted by touts and pickpockets if you at least somewhat blend in with the crowd.
#33: Remember that laundry happens in other countries, too.
Wondering about how to fit two weeks in a carry-on? Remember that you can rewear some clothes, and even better, you can do laundry during your trip if need be! Voila–you only need half as much clothing if you’re willing to do laundry once, and only 1/3 as much if you’re willing to do it twice on your trip!
#34: Look for a good map and guidebook.
If you’re somewhere on the beaten path you probably don’t need a guidebook or map–in fact, your hotel will probably supply you with one of those fun, colorful tourist maps–but it doesn’t hurt to read up a bit before you go and have a map for navigating while you’re in a new place!
#35: Think about what things you’ll need on the plane, too.
Sometimes you have to spend a lot of time on a plane–or a train–to get somewhere interesting. Don’t forget to pack things to take care of yourself during the “travel” part of traveling too! Check out some ideas here.
#36: Find a way to make your luggage more recognizable.
If you do end up checking a bag, try not to let it be a plain black suitcase–that makes it hard to pick it out of a luggage carousel! Buy a suitcase that’s a little more colorful (and while you’re at it, I’d recommend a “spinner” one with four wheels). If you already have a plain one, at least tie on a noticeable ribbon or luggage tag like this one!
#37: Download offline Google Maps for the area(s) you’re visiting.
This is something that I wish I’d known much sooner–you can download Google Maps of different areas to your phone so you can use it to navigate without a SIM card (don’t worry, your GPS will still work offline!). So far it only works for driving routes, so using it to walk is a little difficult, but hopefully they will come out with a walking-route version soon.
#38: Try to learn a little of the local language, but don’t stress yourself out about it.
In general, locals will be friendlier to you if you at least attempt to speak their language. However, don’t stress yourself out about becoming fluent–just a few key phrases will get you by. If you’ve followed tip #1 it’s likely that you won’t ever be too far from an English speaker anyhow!
#39: Research manners in that culture.
A few simple tidbits like hand gestures to avoid, how you should greet people, and table manners will help you avoid basic faux pas while traveling.
#40: Learn the names of a few dishes you may want to try while you’re there.
Seeing a menu in a different language for the first time can be daunting, but if you’ve done a little bit of advance research into some common dishes it can help you navigate the options a bit better. It’s also important to learn the names of any foods you may wish to avoid, for example if you have dietary restrictions or allergies, so that you can communicate that while abroad.
#41: Don’t be afraid to ask locals for restaurant recommendations.
Research into restaurants is one thing I almost always forget to do before I leave, but luckily it’s easy enough to ask locals for recommendations, and you can find some really great food! A few other things to look for–if the menus are in English (and that’s not the local language) it’s most likely a place that caters to tourists. This isn’t always a bad thing, but something to keep in mind. Try to watch where the middle-class or blue collar workers go at lunch if possible, as those restaurants are where you’ll find the best value!
#42: Consider finding art and media based on the country you’re visiting.
Before leaving, educate yourself on the culture a bit by sampling its music, food, etc. if possible. Find movies set in your destination to watch before you go, and books that would make sense to read during your trip. For example, for my trip to Cuba I read The Old Man and the Sea, which is set in Havana!
#43: Grab a hotel business card right away when you check in.
If you get lost when you’re out in the city, it’s much easier if you have the address of the hotel written down to ask someone for directions or ask a taxi driver to take you back to the hotel.
#44: Read up on scams/safety issues before you go.
Identify any common scams or current safety issues so you know what to watch out for!
#45: Try not to “look like a tourist”.
Confidence is key in not being a target for pickpockets or scams. If you’re wandering around looking confused with your map out, you’ll be spotted for a tourist right away. When you’re not using your camera, it’s also better to have it packed away than around your neck for the same reason!
#46: Watch your belongings in crowded areas.
Keep a close eye on you backpack/purse/etc. when you’re out and about. Don’t hang your purse on the back of your chair and be alert when you’re in a crowded place, like on a subway or bus. I like using crossbody bags especially because you always know where you’re things are and can rest your hand on your bag without looking paranoid. 🙂
#47: Consider using taxis when traveling from airport to hotel.
I generally don’t use taxis much while traveling, since they are expensive, but sometimes I deem it worth it when getting from the airport to the hotel. Dragging bags through subway tunnels or on buses can be a hassle, and there’s also a risk of your bags being stolen if you let your guard down while trying to find your hotel.
#48: Be a bit more cautious at night.
When going out at night, you’ll need to use a bit more caution. Stay in well-lit areas with other people around, and don’t get drunk or otherwise incapacitated. I usually carry less stuff with me at night as well, which makes things a little easier.
#49: Decide in the first few seconds if you can trust someone or not.
Listen to your gut while traveling! This is a tip I’d heard before and it really gives some peace of mind while traveling to trust yourself and your instincts.
#50: Enjoy yourself!!
Whoo. That was a lot of tips! I hope you’ve found something helpful in them, and most of all, that you enjoy yourself on your first trip abroad!