How To Plan A Trip Abroad

Excellent travel abroad is not accidental, but instead results from smart planning before you go. You’ll have weighed your options by now, perhaps answering a call to adventure: will you boldly travel to a distant land, and wander off the beaten path for an immersive experience in another culture? Or do your prefer to play it safe in a destination where English is spoken in the primary venues, and where you’ll enjoy the luxury amenities typical in large vacation resorts? Whatever kind of international travel you’re after—whether it’s a bucket list fly-fishing trip or a beachy family vacation abroad—you want the experience to be superlative.

Now it’s time to get your ducks in a row. Use this helpful checklist to plan ahead so your mind is at ease when you cast off, and your unforgettable journey can take center stage.

Gather Your Travel Documents

  1. Passport If this is your first passport, you’ll need four to six weeks’ lead time. Otherwise, check your existing passport’s expiration date; some countries insist on a passport valid six months beyond the date of return travel. And it’s a good practice in general to routinely update your passport.
  2. Visa/s Then visit the U.S. State Department’s website to learn the specific visa requirements for your destination country, and for any other countries you’re visiting or passing through. Visas can be costly and time-consuming to acquire—some can take up to a month to process; plan well in advance. Some countries offer multi-year visas, so if you think there’s any chance you might repeat your trip in the future, this type of visa can save you time and money. While you’re on the State Department’s website, register your trip in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP); this action will notify the U.S. Embassy or Consulate nearest your destination of your travel plans, and allow the State Department to help you in the event of an emergency. Look up and record relevant embassy or consulate addresses and phone numbers and add them to your phone contacts so they’re handy while you travel.
  3. Driver’s License If you plan to rent a car, find out whether you’ll need an international driving permit where you’re going—many countries do not recognize U.S. driver’s licenses; the rental car company will handle the insurance. And familiarize yourself with the road rules before you go; foreign embassies in the United States can help.

Make Copies Of Your Travel Documents

Make copies of your travel documents (passport, photo ID, medical cards, travel itinerary, and contacts)—you can simply photograph them if you wish. Store them digitally, but also make sure you have local copies on an electronic device in case there’s no web access where you’re going. Email them to yourself, and to a family member in the U.S. If any of these important travel documents is lost or stolen, you can still access them via computer, and your contacts at home can alert the authorities on your behalf. Also make copies of hotel reservations, train ticket confirmations, and all other travel documents.

Travel Planning Tip: Consider using one of the many excellent apps that keep all your travel documents and reservations in order for you. Browse the web and read user reviews of the various electronic travel planning services to find the one that’s best for you.

Money Matters: Tell The Bank Where You’re Going

Ditto the credit card institutions that hold your accounts, and let them know how long you’ll be traveling overseas. If you fail to do this, there’s an excellent chance the bank and credit card companies will slap your accounts with fraud alerts and freeze them, leaving you without the use of your ATM or credit cards when you need them most. And ask your bank if they’ll reimburse you for heavy out-of-network ATM fees at the end of your trip—some will.

Buy a little foreign currency ahead of time if you can; if you wait to withdraw cash from the airport ATM you risk finding an empty machine or a faulty chip reader. (Carry and use only credit cards with smart chip technology; most have them now.) But do use your ATM card abroad if you can—some banks give you a better foreign exchange rate than those offered by currency exchange bureaus.

Also know how much things generally cost in the country where you’re headed to help you plan. Be advised that traveler’s checks are not widely accepted and where they are, cost more to exchange than what you’ll be charged at an ATM. Likewise, call your credit card companies and find out in advance whether to expect foreign transaction fees on your credit card: you’ll probably use credit cards frequently because it’s safer to limit the amount of cash you carry during travel abroad. Consider getting a credit card with no foreign transaction fees if the answer is yes.

Travel Planning Tip: On the last night of your stay figure how much foreign currency you’ll need for the duration, and then set aside the rest. At checkout, ask the hotel to apply the rest of the currency to your hotel bill and pay the balance with a no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card.

Check Your Smartphone Carrier Plan

Ask your cell provider whether they’ll charge you for data roaming fees abroad, and consider purchasing an international calling and data plan if they do. But if your plan includes free Wi-Fi calling, you can check in with friends and family anywhere in the world without additional fees (assuming you have web access). And if your plan does not include this service, you can still use other chat services, including Skype, Google Hangout, and Facebook to stay connected.

Travel Planning Tip: If you have no data plan for using your phone abroad, you can still use Google Maps. Using the Wi-Fi in your hotel, plot out the routes for the day, and take a screenshot of the maps; later you can call up the screenshot and zoom in on the area you want. It’s a little clumsy, but works in a pinch.

Learn The Language

This is obviously essential where English is not the primary language spoken. If you don’t speak the language, learn key phrases at least: “hello,” “how are you,” “how much is this,” “where is the bathroom,” and “thank you” are important to be sure, but the more you can learn before you go the better. If you have a food allergy or a serious medical problem, for example, it’s important to be able to communicate that to the locals. If you must, bring flash cards or a cheat sheet for smoother sailing abroad. And of course read up on your destination country before you go: understanding local customs and norms will help you fit in.

Get Vaccinated

Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website to find out which vaccinations are advised for where you’re going, and to learn about health alerts in your destination country. Because access to medications abroad may be limited, stock up on all the prescription and over-the-counter meds you’ll need and pack them. Include Advil, Nyquil, Immodium, and Tums in your kit—this is an important strategy for any destination overseas, but especially in a developing country like Cuba. And it never hurts to talk to your private physician if you’re headed off the beaten path.

Be Adequately ‘Wired’

This has nothing to do with caffeine and everything to do with electricity. You’ll probably need adapters for the electrical outlets; come prepared so you can use small appliances and electronic devices when you get there. Look for an adapter with multiple settings that adjusts to most foreign outlet types—that way you’ll be covered if your travel takes you through multiple countries. Also find out whether your electronics are compatible with a higher or lower current; cell phones and laptops are usually okay, but if you have an appliance that is not, you’ll need to leave it home or buy a transformer for it.

Buy Health Insurance And Travel Insurance

Not all health insurance policies cover you abroad, so check with your carrier in advance and buy a short-term policy if you need one. And buying travel insurance is always a good idea to anticipate postponements or cancellations—you’ll get your money back if your trip is insured.

Enjoy Your Trip Abroad

Finally, give yourself the peace of mind that comes from knowing all is well on the home front in your absence. Pay all your bills before you go. Put your mail on hold. Arrange for house sitters and pet sitters if you need them in your absence. Alert your friends and families to your travel plans. The point of traveling abroad after all is to get away for a while, without constantly checking the rearview mirror: planning ahead will help you embrace your unforgettable overseas adventure worry free.

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