What to do before travelling abroad for the first time
It's happening. You've decided. You've saved up and you're finally going to put your passport to use and take that trip you've been dreaming about! It's exciting (yay for adventure!), but if it's your first time travelling abroad, it can also be a bit overwhelming.
Do you need a visa? How do you apply for one? How will you get your hands on some local currency, or find a good place to stay? What do you pack?
While you've probably heard stories and about must-see attractions and the most authentic local cuisine from those who've ventured out of the country, the actual planning of your overseas trip can require a lot of organising and research. It's (unfortunately) not as simple as just buying a ticket and stepping on the plane. Darn it.
In this mini series, I hope to make your first adventure outside your home country a little bit smoother. This post (part one) focuses on preparing before you leave home, and the second post (part two) is all about what to do while you're on your trip.
It took me more than a dozen international trips on five continents (most involving multiple cities or countries) to learn all this the hard way, but hopefully I can help save you time and effort by sharing what I've found works for me when travelling abroad!
Six months or more before your trip
This is the time you want to start shortlisting your options, even if you only book closer to your departure date.
Research your destination
Yes, you probably know a lot about it already, but look around for more specific travel guides, reviews and tips that can help you plan where you want to stay and what to do when you're there.
Perhaps there is an area that's close to the main sites you want to see that may have some accommodation options too? Would it help to be near an airport or public transport route? Where is a good place to eat like a local? Do you have to pay an additional city tax on top of room rates at your hotel? Do you need a vaccination certificate or to take medication before you travel?
In a lot of cities, the main attractions may be relatively close together -- so it doesn't make sense staying far out of town. Don't discount the area around your accommodation either -- it may just be where you sleep, or it could be where you hang out after a day of exploring. If you're visiting major museums, resorts, parks or events, research the cost of tickets too.
Look out for holiday packages
While many people prefer the freedom of planning their own itinerary, operators like Contiki, TourRadar and StudentFlights can make sure you see all the main sites without having to worry about booking individual hotels or day trips. All you have to do is get to the tour meeting place, and they'll take care of you from there.
Sign up to their newsletters to find out about sales or discounts, browse their websites to get an idea of related attractions and what you may need to budget for, and check if there are any loyalty programmes or memberships you already have (or can sign up for) to earn points or pay a reduced fee.
Some airlines may also have partnerships with local hospitality chains or car hire companies, allowing you to book a few things at once at a discount. But don't assume these are the best options by default - do some cost comparisons and read reviews first to see if it's better to book it all separately.
Investigate flights and transport options
Depending on how far you want to travel, you're probably going to need to take an international flight or train. Start your search using a site like SkyScanner or TravelStart, which can show you the costs of flights from multiple airlines offering trips to your destination.
If you know where you want to go but the 'when' is a bit more open, widen your search. Flights tend to sell out faster (at least, the cheapest seats) around major religious and cultural events (Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, Eid) and school or summer holidays (so June to August in parts of the northern hemisphere, and December to late January in areas in the south).
Many of the cheaper flights may involve longer layovers (stops between flights) - so always check the total number of hours you'll be in the air or at an airport. Some may be too short or at an odd time for you to leave the airport and explore the city before your onward journey, but too long to hang around on the airport floor.
Don't let layovers put you off booking the flights though - generally, anything from 2-4 hours passes quite quickly and is manageable. If you can find a place to sleep, a 6-8 hour wait can be fine too. If it's longer than that, check if your airline will put you up in a hotel while you wait.
For example, Emirates will organise you a hotel room in Dubai if you've got a stop longer than 8 hours and a ticket over a certain price (anything over the lowest tier economy seats on longer flights) - it's called 'Dubai Connect' and you just have to book it in advance.
There may be other events influencing the demand for flights or trains that you may not even be aware of - think major concerts, sporting events and local public holidays. If you want to travel internally in a country (or a close-knit continent like Europe), you could take a long-distance train or one of the budget airlines like Easy Jet.
Just remember that some national airlines may have different luggage and weight restrictions than the bigger international flights - so your 30kg bag may be fine for your long haul flight from home, but land you with overweight luggage and additional charges for domestic flights.
The way around this is to book all your flights with the same airline (or partner airlines) on one booking. If you book them separately with different providers, the internal airline won't recognise that it's a step towards an international flight, and will stick to the domestic rules.
It's best to book your flights as far in advance as possible - so as soon as you know exactly where and when you want to go. Besides saving you money on the tickets, securing them early also lets you pre-book the best seats (depending on the airline) and gives you the proof of transport you'll require to apply for some visas, as well as a framework to plan your trip.
I'd also recommend signing up to the airline's frequent flier programme, even if you don't think you'll travel again soon - you never know what will happen in the future, and you'll want to earn miles as soon as possible, especially if you can claim them for flights on partner airlines too.
Track down your accommodation
Ah, where to stay? Don't think expensive hotels are the only option. Depending on where you're going, guesthouses, B&Bs, budget hotels, modern hostels or house-sharing services like Airbnb may be a better choice.
Also, beware thinking that because somewhere is expensive it will be luxurious -- location can play a big part in room rates. As a general rule, accommodation with a view, or that is close to major tourist attractions, nightlife districts or the city centre can be more expensive than somewhere further out.
Make sure that the place you're staying is close to (safe) public transport routes (metro, bus, overland rail) or central enough to be frequented often by taxis. You'll also thank your past self for booking somewhere close to a shopping street or restaurant when you're looking for sustenance after a full day of touring.
Chains like Ibis, Ibis Budget and Travelodge are plentiful and safe bets in Europe and the UK. If in doubt, use Google Street View to check out the area and see if it's somewhere you'd like to walk around and explore.
Check out visa requirements
If you are blessed with a strong passport (think US, UK, Europe), you probably won't need to apply for a visa before your visit - but always double check. Sites like Visa Mapper can help (remember, this is crowd-sourced, and information can change) or just hit up Google to find your local embassy or consulate's details.
If you do need a visa (hi! Welcome to the club), try to get your hands on a document check-list before you book your appointment.
You'll usually need two facing blank pages in your passport (in a passport that's still valid for at least 6 months after your return), along with passport photos and supporting documents.
Be careful with the photos - there are different standards for different embassies, and they're generally quite fussy regarding the size of the photos, background colour and anything that obstructs your face.
Documents can vary depending on the length of your stay and the type of visa you're applying for, but they are ones that can help prove you can afford the trip, won't overstay and have something to return home to.
These include bank statements (usually three months), proof of transport (whatever you're using to enter and exit the country e.g. plane tickets), proof of employment (or studies if you're a student), proof of accommodation and travel insurance.
Some visas require an inviting letter from a host (person or organisation), an itinerary of your trip, contact details for where you'll be staying and general background on your family or relations in the country.
Find out what you need early, so when it's time to book a visa appointment (generally a month or two before your departure -- don't leave it too late) you have all the required documents ready to go. If you're worried about securing your visa, Aileen has a good guide here.
Calibrate the costs with your budget
Now that you've got a rough idea about the type of accommodation, flights and holiday you want (as well as any visa requirements), you can draw up a rough estimate of how much your trip will cost and compare it with your savings. Keep in mind that you'll also need to pay for taxi fare or public transport tickets, food and tips for wait staff, the inevitable forgotten or broken item, entrance fees, souvenirs and gifts.
While it's difficult to predict how much you'll need exactly, it's always a good idea to have a savings pocket to bail you out in case of emergencies. You never know when an unexpected expense or currency fluctuation will pop up, and you don't want to be left without the means to reach your flight home.
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3 months before your trip
Book all the things
Yay! You know where you're going and what you want to see - now's the time to make sure it's all secured (if it isn't already).
Besides the big ones (flights, accommodation), you may also want to pre-book tickets to shows, concerts, theme parks or major attractions. Many sites have a dedicated queue for advance online bookings, which lets you skip past the people who decided to visit on the day (bonus!).
Two months before your trip
Apply for your visa
While you can leave this a bit later (you don't want the stress, believe me), 6-8 weeks before your departure is a good time to book your visa appointment. You should have all your big bookings done by then, and you may have to go into the embassy in person or courier your documents there if you live in a different town, (or resubmit your documents if your visa is denied the first time) so it pays to plan ahead.
Depending on the country, you will either need to deal with the embassy of your destination country in your current country, or a visa service operating on their behalf. Once you've booked your appointment and submitted your documents, it can take anywhere from two days to two weeks to get your passport back with your lovely visa inside.
Start gathering your travel kit
Even if you're not doing something as extreme as leaving a seaside town in the middle of summer for a ski holiday in the mountains, you'll need a few things for your trip. Research what the average weather is like there around the time you'll visit (I like to add the destination to my weather app on my phone to see what's happening that side) and figure out if you'll need warmer or cooler clothes.
In general, I would suggest investing in a lightweight rain jacket (one of the roll-up ones that won't take up too much space), comfortable walking shoes, adapters for your electronics (research what outlets or plugs they have where you're going) and a neck pillow and eye mask for the plane.
A good backpack or cross-body satchel (more difficult to snatch than a handbag dangling off your shoulder), a lightweight carry-on bag, snacks for the plane, a plastic bag for carry-on liquids, locks for your bag (try get TSA-accepted ones if you're travelling to or from the United States) and travel-sized containers or toiletries are also good basics to have sorted out early. You can buy a lot of these at airports, but it's cheaper not to.
I also prefer flying with a travel wallet - it's great to know that your boarding passes and passport will always be in one easy-to-reach place, especially if you're moving through multiple airports and don't want to keep fishing in your bag.
Learn some of the local language
Headed out to a country whose primary language is different from your own? Now's a good time to start familiarising yourself with some basic words and phrases.
I've found that it's much easier to get around if you know even the tiniest bit of the local language. People are generally more likely to try to assist or understand you in shops or restaurants if you at least start the conversation with a 'hello, how are you?' in their vernacular, instead of going straight to English (you can save that for when your vocabulary runs out).
Some basic phrases you may need are: hello, how are you, goodbye, thank you, no thank you, how much does it cost and where is . The local words for 'entrance', 'exit' and 'stop' are also useful when navigating public transport.
If you really want to make a serious attempt at learning the language, apps like Duolingo are brilliant for newbies.
1 week before your trip
Confirm how you'll pay for things abroad
This one's all about the money - mainly, how you'll be accessing it while you're overseas. I wouldn't suggest traveller's cheques (who does that anymore?) but you have some other options.
The easiest would probably be to use your existing card (chipped debit or credit cards generally work fine) - just check that it is accepted where you'll be travelling and if you need to let your bank know where you'll be using it in advance.
Be careful - some card providers want you to contact them and tell them the dates and country of your travel before you depart. If you don't, they may think the card has been compromised or stolen if it's suddenly accessed in a strange country, and may block it and set the fraud division on you.
Other options include buying foreign currency (you generally get better rates with a local bank than at the airport) or getting a travel card, which can be loaded with the currency you'll need and which you can use like a normal debit card to pay for items or draw cash at an ATM.
Figure out how you're going to get around
Yes, you know you'll fly in to the airport... and then what? How will you get to your accommodation, and from there to all the sites you want to see? While you can do this sort of thing on the go on your phone (especially if there is wifi around or you have a local sim card), plan this in advance in case there is no signal or your phone battery dies.
I recommend making a short list of metro or bus stops close to the spots you'll be visiting - you can do this on your phone or in a paper notebook. Depending on where you're going, the crime rate in the area and if you're travelling alone, it may be safer for you to be glancing at a notebook than walking around with your smartphone out in a strange place.
If you want to use your phone, I highly recommend screen-shotting routes on Google Maps or saving them offline. International roaming costs can be crazy (especially for data) so you want to prepare for the times you're out of wifi range.
Gather and back up all your documents and files
You never know what will happen or what you might need on your trip - so prepare, just in case.
I always take a folder with all the documents I may need -- like a copy of my travel insurance, passport, hotel bookings, employment letter and flight confirmations. They've come in handy when my flight booking didn't show up on the airline's system at the check-in desk, and when passport control officials at arrivals wanted to check where I was staying.
I'd also suggest scanning in your passport or country ID and keeping them somewhere safe you can access online, as well as sending details about your flights and accommodation to someone back home. Apps like TripIt are also great for keeping track of your accommodation and flight bookings.
If you're taking your tablet, laptop or phone on your trip, back up the files and photos before you head out, in case they get lost, stolen or damaged while you're abroad.
Find a way to make your luggage stand out
In a world of black suitcases, you should be able to immediately spot your bag. Looking for nondescript luggage in the baggage claim area after your flight is not only difficult, but increases the chances someone else could take your bag by accident.
Find some way to mark your bag on every side or handle (you don't know which way it will land on the conveyer belt) so it's easy to spot and you can get out of the airport faster. Try colourful ribbons, straps, washi tape, designs in paint or nail polish or anything else that makes your bag distinctive and that won't break or fall off during handling.
Draw up a packing list
While chucking pieces from your wardrobe randomly into your suitcase is fine for some, you may need a bit more of an organised approach when travelling abroad. Try to take clothes that can be worn with multiple other items or for more than one occasion (e.g. a day tour and a nice dinner) and that won't wrinkle or need ironing.
Create a sub-section in your list for items you will be packing last minute and your carry-on bag (you can see my tips for what to pack in your hand luggage here). Things that are often forgotten are small but important - think device chargers, toothbrushes, pajamas and contact lens cases.
1 day before your trip
Charge all the things
It seems basic, but make sure all your devices are charged fully before you leave. While most planes and trains do have sockets for you to charge (usually via USB) in your seat, some may not.
There have also been some changes for certain countries (mainly the US and Canada) that may require you to turn on your devices for security purposes before boarding the plane. A flat battery could mean leaving your phone behind. Remember to take an adapter and charger, or a power bank, in your carry on in case you have to charge up on your layover too.
Pack and weigh your carry-on bag
Everything you want to take on the plane with you must weigh less than 7 kilograms. Accept the challenge? Great!
Try to pack your carry-on with everything you'll need for the flight and layover a little bit in advance, to avoid having to repack or leave things behind last minute. I suggest leaving it open on the floor in the corner of your bedroom, and gradually placing items you're worried you'll forget inside as you go through your day. Then when you have to pack, they're all in one spot.
You'll also need to get a ziplock or other sealable plastic bag for any liquids or gels you want to take in the cabin, which will need to be in containers of less than 100ml each.
If you're not taking a dedicated travel wallet, take out any loyalty cards, old receipts or local cash you won't be needing on your trip out of your purse, and store it somewhere safe for when you return. It seems minor, but when you're abroad in a new environment and sifting through multiple (strange) currencies while trying to order a sandwich in a foreign language, it will frustrate you to have all that stuff in there.
Pack and weigh your main check-in bag
Ready to get started? Grab that packing list and tackle your luggage. Try to fill the space between the inside bars of your bag with light clothing like t-shirts and roll your clothes -- it saves space and means no harsh wrinkles and fold lines.
I also suggest that you place smaller items like socks inside your shoes and wrap more delicate or breakable items in clothes and place them in the middle of your case, so they're cushioned and away from the edges.
Either take a dedicated water-tight toiletry bag or wrap items like face wash, shampoo, foundation and perfume bottles in plastic bags in case of leaks caused by the pressure changes in the plane.
Mesh laundry bags also help you compartmentalise and compact your clothing, and are good to have on longer trips to separate clean clothes from dirty ones.
Once you've got it all in your suitcase, step on the scale. Aim for a few kilograms under the weight limit if possible (in case you have a shopping spree or three and items to bring home) and make sure you can lift and carry your bag yourself, not just roll it on its wheels.
Plan your travel outfit
Try and locate your most comfortable clothes and use them as a base for what you'll wear while travelling. Try a long-sleeved t-shirt or light jersey and longer pants, since the air conditioning on planes is often two degrees shy of freezing.
You may have to wear or bring heavier items like coats and boots on the plane, but if you can, try to wear light canvas shoes or pumps. Bigger shoes usually need to be removed and scanned when you go through security, taking up time and requiring a walk about in your socks. Try not to wear a belt or chunky metal jewellery, to avoid setting off the metal detectors.
If you've got a long distance to fly and want to sleep on the journey or in the airport, what you wear is important too. Here are some of my tips for making sure you catch some shut-eye on your flight.
Check in to your flight
If you're flying internationally, you can usually check in to your flight online around 24 hours before your departure. I highly recommend doing this and am always surprised when I see how many people have waited until they're at the airport to check in. Most airports have a dedicated queue for bag drops and online checked in customers, so taking five minutes to check in the night before can save you time at the airport. I've also sat on packed planes that have waited with the doors open until the very last minutes before take off, just in case some lost online checked in customers appear. I'm not recommending that you arrive late and delay the flight, but just in case the airport is busy or you're unexpectedly held up, it's nice to know you're already checked in and have some breathing space.
Don't have a printer at home to print out your boarding pass? Ask the people at the check in desk to print one for you, or print your own at the self-service check in kiosk at the airport. Better yet, select a mobile boarding pass option if your airline offers it.
Enjoy your travels
All packed and ready to go? All the best for your adventure -- hopefully the first of many in your future!
Looking for tips on how to make the most of your trip while you're on it? Take a look at part two in this mini series ('What to do while travelling abroad for the first time'), or read my tips on how to avoid the impulse to over-schedule your trip and embrace a balanced travel style.