Foreign Travel for the First Timer

New Year, new adventures, right? If you’re ready to pop your international travel cherry, I’m here to help with some quick tips!

Passport

A few things to keep in mind…

  • Apply for a passport as soon as you know you might be traveling. They take at least 2 weeks to get to you. If you need it in under 2 weeks, you can pay for expedited shipping.
  • Yes, there is a fee. But what’s a little $$ for priceless experiences?
  • There is currently no online application, so you have to go to in person to a facility, most of the time a post office.

I think the the site that best outlines the process to get a passport is: https://www.usa.gov/passport.

Visas

Something else you’ll need to enter other countries is a Visa. With an American passport, we’re lucky in that many countries will just let us in. Many European countries are this way and a couple of Asian countries. From my experiences, (of the countries Americans visit often) China and Brazil have more complicated Visa processes to go through. Look up the Visa status of the country you’re going to on the Internet. This is something that could take more than a week, so plan ahead! The State Department lists all that’s needed for each country.

Get a Travel Credit Card

Travel credit cards will essentially give you free money and perks to travel. They also don’t incur foreign transaction fees (which will save you from wasting your money). I’m so passionate about getting my friends to get a good credit card with good perks. When you mix that and responsibility together, you get so many rewards, like:

  • Free checked baggage
  • Early boarding or sometimes class upgrades
  • Free entry to airport lounges (which are fancy!)
  • Free miles for flying or getting free stuff
  • Travel credit to use on anything travel
  • Mad respect

I can’t give you advice on which card to choose because that’s not my specialty, but refer to The Points Guy for information on that.

*Even if you end up traveling without a travel credit card, be aware that you’ll foreign transaction fees. Also, travel with Visa or Mastercard because they’re the most widely accepted.

If you’re asked whether you want to be charged in the local currency or USD, always always choose local currency – the conversion rate that the banks charge if a foreign swipe charges USD is a total rip-off. Choosing local currency will allow a more accurate conversion later.

Research your Itinerary

After choosing your itinerary, do some research! You’ll save time by finding things you want to do beforehand because you’ll soon learn that playing the “What do you wanna do” card takes up super valuable exploring time. It’ll give you some ease of mind if you have an outline of the day and then go with the flow once you’re in country.

TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, and travel blogs like this one will give you more than enough material to work with. I like using Google Docs to organize my thoughts and if I’m traveling with a group, it makes it convenient for everyone to view and edit. Even if you’re not a planner, put a little effort in getting to know your destination – it will pay off.

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Goofing around in the Bangkok train station in Thailand

Packing Must-Haves and Should-Haves

  • Portable charger or solar charger
    • For your full-day excursions…you’ll need juice for your electronics for picture taking, directions, and any documents you have saved
  • Outlet adapter
    • For your charging needs…some people don’t know that different countries have different outlet shapes/voltages. This is something that can be researched beforehand because sometimes adapters are cheaper in the country you’re going to (a lot of Asian countries). For countries with different voltages, hair dryers and straighteners will burn out or short circuit the electricity. If this is a must for you, purchase them in country.
  • Versatile clothes
    • For your transportation ease…lugging around large and heavy luggage can become a drag really quickly, so PACK LIGHT. I also prefer to only travel with carry-on when I have the choice, this eliminates the possibility of my luggage getting lost or having to wait for my luggage at the airport. Versatile clothes that you can wear as different outfits is the first step to packing light. I’ve been able to fit 2.5 weeks of clothes for my European trip in a carry-on and wear different outfits every day. If you want to hear more about how to pull that off, leave a comment!
  • Sensible shoes
    • For your walking comfort…chances are you’ll be walking around a lot. This is a big part of exploring, a lot of cool places are best reached by foot and taxis can add up quickly. This can also alleviate the packing issue I mentioned above. Save space by packing just the shoes you need.
  • Copies of passport
    • For your ease of mind…just in case your passport is lost.
  • Printed versions of tickets you may have bought beforehand
    • If you’ve booked any tours beforehand, keep printed versions of the confirmation to show the tour operators in case you run out of battery in your phone (and didn’t listen to me about bringing a portable charger…)

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The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul Turkey…first stop of a full day of walking in nippy weather!

Things to Know

  1. Your own preferences
    • Know what your priorities are: adventure, history, food, shopping, culture, etc. This will help you manage your time.
  2. Currency conversion rate
    • If quick math isn’t your thing, download an app!
  3. Safety
    • Do you have to always travel with a companion? Do you need to keep your pockets and bags close and secure? Or can you walk alone at any time and not have to worry about anything?
  4. Your budget
  5. Water drinkability
    • A lot of countries don’t have drinkable tap water for American standards. Knowing this can save you from being sick or save you money (if you happen to be in a country where tap water is okay, you don’t have to waste money on bottled water).
  6. A few words in the local language
    • Hello, Thank you, Excuse Me are the most important.
    • Cheers is a great addition for going out drinking and making friends
  7. How/If you’re supposed to haggle (if you’re going to Asia)
  8. You may get sick of your traveling companions because of contradicting preferences or just being around the same person 24/7…don’t let this ruin your time.
    • Find some time to be alone if you need it.
  9. Tour company ethics/quality
    • Every country has their own regulations on what’s allowed, especially in regards to treatment of animals and workers…make sure that whatever company you’re giving your hard earned money to doesn’t mistreat their animals or employees
    • You can find reviews on almost every legitimate company online nowadays. If they’re not online, make sure you vet them some other way!
    • For example, never ride an elephant with a box seat on its back. This is incredibly painful and cruel to the elephants, but is sadly still practiced throughout Asia.
  10. Always carry a smile, you’re a visitor to another country and should approach every situation with a lighthearted appreciation

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Exit sign of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, UAE

How to Save Money While Traveling

A few hacks to saving money that I personally use are:

  • Eat in supermarkets to hold yourself over for the really good meals. If you don’t have time to cook for yourself, using grab n go sandwiches are a great option
  • Choose lodging wisely – this is in line with your preferences. Hostels are a wonderful way of lodging and opens a lot of opportunities to meet other travelers. AirBnb is another favorite of mine. I rarely stay in hotels because there can be so much more experience in a local stay and with Hostels and AirBnb, you can still be near a city center and pay far less.
  • Eat street food! (If you’re in a place with safe street food). Not only are these bites cheaper than sit-down restaurants, they’re usually so delicious and fresh. This is a must in most Asian countries!
  • Free walking tours are abundant and covers great history of the town, just google it!
  • Haggling! Don’t overwork this with vendors because chances are you make way more than they will in a lifetime, but you can talk with them and feel out how much you’d comfortable pay for something. Some of my favorite interactions have been with store and restaurant owners because they’ve been so welcoming. If I click with a vendor, I’ll usually give them more for the item because they’ve made my experience that much better.
  • Be prepared with your packing. Anything you don’t need to buy extra of is money saved!

It’s natural to be nervous on your first trip, but it holds the potential for so much growth and amazement. Traveling is a luxury that most people can’t afford, so take the time to appreciate even the awkward situations. Enjoy and please share your experiences with me in the comments section!

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The Louvre in Paris, France


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