With the ever-growing popularity of international travel we see more and more people visiting countries and experiencing cultures that are wholly unfamiliar to them. Some are even venturing out without fully being prepared for what they should know, what they should have and what they should be prepared to encounter. There are so many stories about people getting arrested or detained or, like me, kicked off a flight because they don’t fully understand what they’re getting into when they start their international journey.
While you can never fully prepare to make those first steps into an unknown world, there are some things you can do to get prepared for your journey and make life less crazy once you’re on your way.
This is the most important thing you will need for your journey because without it, you can’t go. It may seem like common sense that you need a passport to travel outside the US, but I’ve run across a few people who didn’t realize they’d need one to go anywhere outside North America.
Your US passport is issued by the US government and comes in two forms: a standalone passport ($135) and an optional passport card ($30). The passport card can be used to travel to Mexico and Canada, but can’t be used to go anywhere else. For your passport application along with photo information, visit the government’s passport information page.
You can expect your passport in about 6-8 week from the day you turn your application in. The best time to get one is as soon as you start talking about going on an international trip, but if you want to wait, I’d recommend sending in your application 8 weeks before you leave. Anything under 5 weeks you should probably use the the expedited 8-day service, which costs an additional $60.
If you already have a passport, check to make sure it does not expire in the next 6 months. Some countries will not allow you to enter the country with less than 6 months validity between entrance and departure and you certainly don’t want to have your passport expire before you get back to the US. Be sure to check each country you plan on visiting to see what length they require. If you’re using a travel agency, don’t just assume they’ll do that. I heard a really sad story about a woman who planned a trip through a travel agency and wasn’t allowed to board her airplane because her passport expired in 3 months and another one where a woman arrived at her destination, but wasn’t permitted into the country because she only had 5 months left on her passport. Check and double-check this.
Most countries require at least two blank pages for their exit and entry stamps, but some countries require four. It’s a good idea to check each country you plan to visit and make sure you have enough blank pages to satisfy ALL of the requirements before you leave. The US no longer adds additional passport pages, so if you don’t have enough blank pages to satisfy your entire trip, you’ll need a new passport.
If you do have enough blank pages, you may want to try this trick. Since entry stamps are placed on whatever random page the clerk flips to, it’s a good idea to place sticky notes over however many blank pages you’re required to have for the length of your trip. I’ve noticed that instead of taking the time to pull the sticky note off, the clerks will just flip to another page.
There are a variety of different ways to procure visas, so it’s a good idea to research what you need to do for each country you plan on visiting. Visa requirements vary from none at all to getting them in the airport to needing one at least 30 days before your departure date. Some countries (like China and Vietnam) will want to know several details about where you’re staying and how you plan to transit from one city to the next when you apply, so be sure you are familiar with the visa requirements before applying.
When getting a visa prior to arrival, always check the validity date of the visa and make sure you are leaving the country before it expires. Wikipedia has a pretty good list of which countries require visas and how long they’re valid for. That can help you plan your travel dates, but don’t rely on that information entirely. Check the visa in case rules have changed or there was an error.
If you plan on staying in a country longer than the visa is valid, be sure you know the visa extension procedures before you leave on your trip.
The next thing you need to do is figure out how much money you need for your trip and create a budget. You’ll need to figure out an overall estimated total for airfare, visas, exit fees, hotel charges, attraction prices, currency exchange fees, food, tips, bribes, internet access fees, SIM cards, car rentals, gas, parking, tolls, public transportation, bars, clubs, spa treatments or whatever it is you plan on doing on your trip along with travel insurance, vaccinations, pet care while you’re gone and extra for emergencies.
When we first started traveling, we didn’t pay much attention to these things. We were just having a blast exploring the world. Our first trip after moving to Malaysia was a week in Thailand. The exchange rate at the time was 30 baht to $1, so any time we saw something we wanted to do or buy, we converted it in our heads and just thought, “Wow, this is so much cheaper than in the US. We should buy this.” Or, “This isn’t that expensive, we should do it.” By the end of our trip, we’d spent almost $1,000 on Muy Thai boxing matches, tuk-tuk rides, river trips, temple tours, city tours, room service and souvenirs.
So, before every trip you go on, make sure you know how much it’s going to cost, what the exchange rate is and what your budget is. You can blow through a lot of money really fast if you don’t have a budget and hold yourself to it.
Once you’ve figured out how much money you’ll need for your trip, you’ll want to look into what currency you’ll need in the countries you are visiting and where to exchange your currency. A lot of people we’ve run into just exchange their currency at a bank before they depart, but this practice can actually cost you more. In Asia we found we got a better exchange rate in-country than at a bank in the US. Different banks or exchange centers have different rates, so it would be wise to do a little research and figure out where you will get the best value for your exchange. It was pretty fantastic when we were on our way back to the US and needed to exchange our ringgit for USD and found an exchange place that had a surplus of USD. The surplus pushed their exchange rate lower, so we ended up making a little bit of money off the deal. That won’t always happen, but when it does it’s pretty great.
HEALTH & WELLNESS
Another item people don’t pay too much attention to is health insurance while you’re traveling. Whether or not you think you’ll need it, you will want to at least look into travel insurance and travel health insurance. We were quite fortunate that the only medical emergency we had during our 13 months in Asia was in Malaysia where Troy had health insurance through his work. Had he needed to go to the hospital in any other country it would have been an insurance nightmare. If you don’t want to splurge for the international health insurance, at least look into what your current health insurance will cover while you’re traveling and see if they have the option for short-term international coverage. Whichever way you go, be sure to make copies of all pertinent documents and keep it in your suitcase.
While we’re on the medical subject, I’ll give a quick tip about allergies. Not all countries have the same level of understanding about allergies and food sensitivities. Troy has asthma and is allergic to flour. We had such a hard time trying to communicate that in some countries. I finally had the epiphany to translate this information into different languages and hand those papers to servers at restaurants. Once we started doing that the level of understanding increased dramatically. If you have any type of allergy or medical issue, write up a little blurb about it, translate it into any language you may come across on your trip and make several copies to keep with you at all times. It really will make things much easier if you find you need to communicate your issue in a country that speaks limited English.
VACCINATIONS & MEDICATIONS
Speaking of things medical, some countries have requirements for certain vaccinations while others just recommend them. Be sure to look up which shots you need prior to starting your trip and get those as soon as possible. There are many travel medical clinics that can walk you through which vaccines you need and which are optional. I used Passport Health and they did a fantastic job of walking me through the different vaccines required for the countries we might visit and then administering the shots I decided to get.
On top of getting the required vaccines for you trip, you should also speak to your medical provider about any prescriptions you need to take with you. If you need an epi pen, inhaler or any other type of limited-use emergency equipment, ask if you can get an extra or see if your doctor can recommend a reputable place to get a refill overseas. Troy lost his only inhaler while snorkeling in Thailand and while we were fortunate enough to be in a country that didn’t require a prescription for an inhaler, it could have been worse had we been in Myanmar or Vietnam.
FIND THE EMBASSIES
It’s always helpful to know where the nearest embassy is and how to contact them. You never know when you’ll run into an issue and need help. Keep a list on you and in your suitcase.
COPY PERTINENT DOCUMENTS
Once you have a passport, visa, health insurance and vaccinations you will want to make copies of all of it. Make copies of your passport information page, your visa if you already have it, your health insurance information, your shot record and the front of all credit or debit cards you will be taking with you along with the international phone numbers for each bank. You should also make up a detailed itinerary including flight numbers, hotel confirmations, activities, your international contact information, emergency contacts and US embassy information for each country you will be in. Leave one copy with someone you trust back home and take at least one copy with you to keep in the hotel safe. This is important for if you lose your passport, your bank cards get stolen, there is a natural disaster, you go missing or any other type of emergency.
LAWS & CUSTOMS
Another important part of preparing for international travel is becoming familiar with local laws and customs. Certain hand gestures are offensive, or even illegal, in other countries. Some countries find certain behaviors distasteful while others are more accepting.
Did you know that in China it is offensive to offer to tip someone who has helped you? Or in Thailand it is offensive to sit with your feet facing a Buddha statue? And in many countries with monarchies they will be highly offended if you speak badly about their governing body.
It is also against the law to speak badly about the Chinese government, for foreigners to be in the vicinity of a political protest in Malaysia, to visit certain areas of Russia or to exchange money at any place other than government-sponsored establishments in Myanmar. In Malaysia it is also against the law for a Muslim to attend a Christian service or for a non-Muslim to proselyte in any way.
In some countries touching someone of the opposite gender who is not your relative is against the law, two persons sharing a hotel room who aren’t married is against the law and there are many common hand gestures in the US that are considered rude or offensive in other nations. Be sure to read up on the laws of the places you will visit in order to prevent an unfortunate altercation with local police.
With the variety of cultures and legal systems around the world, it’s definitely a must to research what to do and what not to do in regards to laws and customs.
Clothing is something we don’t always see as important when preparing for international travel. It really is, though, since some cultures are very strict about what women wear. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Iran, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries have very strict laws regarding female modesty. Even visitors are required to conform to some extent. Aside from that, keep in mind the weather may be quite different from where you live, so you’ll want to be sure you aren’t packing sweaters during December in Australia or any time of year in Malaysia.
Some other customs to keep in mind have to do with religious sites. We must keep in mind that we are visitors to these countries and even if we don’t agree with their customs, we must respect their culture. Arguing with them or demeaning their beliefs because you don’t agree with them will not make it so you can enter the establishment. In some cases it can result in your arrest or your being banned from entering no matter what you are wearing. The best thing to do is be familiar with what the requirements are and be prepared to abide by them.
Once you’ve gotten your passport, taken care of your visas, planned your itinerary, budgeted your trip, taken care of your vaccines, medications and health insurance and become familiar with local laws, customs and etiquette, you will be as ready as you can be for your first international adventure. There may be a lot of prep work that goes into getting ready for your trip, but once you get there all the prep work will be worth it. Be sure to be safe, have a fantastic time and take lots of pictures.