International travel can be challenging on a number of levels. There are visas to apply for, foreign languages and currencies, time changes and minutiae of every kind to deal with. With all those moving parts, even seasoned travelers make mistakes from time to time. Here are some of the most common pitfalls travelers fall prey to when traveling abroad, and the checklist of things you can do to avoid them.
1. Verify visas.There are so many countries U.S. travelers don’t need visas to enter, including our closest neighbors, Mexico and Canada, as well as most countries in Europe. However, many nations do require U.S. travelers to obtain visas, and getting them can take anywhere from 10 minutes filling out an online form to several weeks as you send in your physical passport and application materials and wait for them to come back.
Luckily, you don’t have to remember which countries are which, or what the requirements of specific ones are. Instead, you can just check the State Department site and read the entry and exit requirements of the specific country or countries which you plan to visit. Do this every time you travel abroad. Period.
2. Plan for the process.
Speaking of which, some visas take time to process, so be sure you start your planning several weeks or even months out to ensure you’re not in a rush (and have to pay exorbitant expedite fees) leading up to your trip. If you’re cutting it close, consider enlisting the help of a visa service like Allied Passport & Visa or Travisa to help you get your paperwork done in time.
3. Examine your expiration.
Like all forms of identification, passports have expiration dates. U.S. passports are good for 10 years, and that’s both good and bad. It means you’re not stuck renewing it every couple years. But because you don’t have to do that, you might forget when it’s time to pose for some hideous headshots and send them into the passport office. If you have a trip coming up, it doesn’t hurt to remind yourself of when your passport is up for renewal and make sure you’ll be back in the U.S. by then.
4. Note your six-month window.
Although some countries will allow you to travel right up to the date of your passport’s expiration, many others require that your passport be good for at least six months past the end of your trip. If you’re thinking about a honeymoon in Bali, for example, be sure your passport has at least six months of life left in it, or you might get turned back around at the airport. You can find these rules on the same country-specific pages of the State Department website.
5. Draw a blank.
Just as your passport might need to be good well beyond the end of your trip, some countries are divas about their visas and stamps, and require your passport to have a full blank page just for them to deface. If your book is getting full (and it might be since the State Department no longer issues extra pages to passport holders) double check your upcoming travel plans and the entry requirements of your destinations to make sure you have enough real estate left.
6. Do some shots.
Along with countries’ entry and exit requirements, the State Department site also has suggestions for immunizations and other medications you might want to stock up on before a trip to a particular country. Look at it then plan a visit to your doctor to see what shots and medications you might need before your trip. If your regular physician does not specialize in travel medicine, it’ll help to be prepared with questions to ask and information about the specific regions you will visit.
7. Skirt foreign exchange fees.
Unfortunately, many credit cards charge what are called foreign exchange fees when you use them abroad. That typically amounts to a one to three percent surcharge on all your purchases. Frankly, it’s highway robbery. But luckily, many issuers now field credit cards that do not levy these fees. If you’re planning to travel a lot internationally, it’s well worth applying for one of these cards and carrying it with you on your trips so you can save that extra spending money on more fun experiences or a nicer hotel room!
8. Get the rate update.
Currency exchange rates can vary day-to-day or even minute to minute, so they’re hard to keep track of. That’s even truer if you’re ping-ponging from country to country and trying to keep all the tallies in your head. Save yourself the headache and download an app like XE, which has up-to-the-minute exchange rates that you can access even while offline.
9. Pack smart.
You don’t need four of the same V-neck T-shirts or that extra evening outfit. Figure you’ll wear everything at least twice, and anything that doesn’t make the cut gets left at home. Channel your inner Chanel and take out the last few things you put in your suitcase. That way, you’ll also have enough room to pack any souvenirs you pick up along the way.
10. Watch your weight.
Speaking of luggage, not only domestic but also foreign airlines are getting stricter and stricter about adhering to weight limits on bags, both checked suitcases and carry-ons. Read the fine print of your ticket and make sure you’re not overdoing it in terms of dimensions or weight, or you could end up paying hundreds of dollars in extra fees. If you think you’re close to the limit, weigh your bag before departing.
11. Get cash and carry.
Sure, you’ll usually get a better exchange rate at the ATM at the airport, but what if it’s not working or won’t accept your debit card? It never hurts to have a little of the local currency on hand when you land. That way, you can get wherever you need to go and look for an ATM or exchange bureau with favorable rates from there.
12. Print what's fit to print.
There’s an app for everything, but if you don’t have an internet connection and can’t pull up a reservation, you might end up stranded. While we’re all environmentalists at heart with an aversion to paper-wasting, there’s no substitute for a printed-out copy of a reservation or receipt to ensure you are allowed to board a plane, pick up that rental car, or check into a hotel room you know you’ve booked.
13. Avoid data drama.
We’ve all heard those horror stories about how someone thought they had an international data plan only to get hit with a thousand-dollar bill riddled with roaming charges when they got home. All for posting a few selfies on Instagram! Luckily, this is an easy one to avoid if you do a little homework. Research your mobile carrier’s international plans and data caps (you might think you get unlimited data, but in reality it might only be 100 MB), as well as whether they even cover the countries you’re traveling to. Also remember to find out which of your accommodations will have Wi-Fi so you can save your data for other moments.
14. Anticipate translation.
English is the lingua franca of the modern world, and you tend to find folks who speak it in most places. But you shouldn’t expect it. And hey, it’s fun to learn a few phrases in another language! Not to mention useful in case you need to get somewhere (like, ahem, el baño) in a hurry. For that reason, download an app like Google Translate so you have a few handy idioms in your back pocket in case you need them.
15. Mind the dress code.
Don’t forget to take culture into consideration when it comes to packing. You might plan on spending most of your time in Siem Reap around the pool, but if you also want to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, you’ll need some long sleeves and pants. Or you might plan on zipping around Rome on the back of your new Italian boyfriend’s Vespa dressed in a skimpy mini. But don’t plan on getting into St. Peter’s with your knees showing.
16. Carry on some clothes.
Lost luggage is getting rarer, but it still happens. If you plan to check a bag, pack at least one simple change of clothes in your carry-on. An extra pair of underwear and socks, not to mention a T-shirt, don’t take up much room in your carry-on but can be worth their weight in gold if your checked bag ends up lost. Plus, that supplemental set of clothes can keep you feeling fresh for the extra time it takes either to locate your bag or start charging new purchases to the airline who lost it.
17. Get an insurance policy.
Very few domestic insurance policies cover you when traveling out of the country. That’s why it’s good to check into travel insurance if you are taking a trip abroad. Not only do such policies cover medical care in foreign countries, but you can also purchase ones that will jet you back to the States for treatment if you need it. Just read the fine print because certain circumstances like participating in adventure activities (think bungee jumping), or political instability in your destination, are generally excluded from coverage.
18. ...with car coverage.
Car rentals are stressful, especially abroad. You’re picking up an unfamiliar vehicle, navigating strange roads with signs in a different language (not to mention all those roundabouts!), and avoiding mule-riding locals and death-defying Segway tours right and left. That’s why you need insurance for your car rental. Agencies will try to upsell you on their own insurance, and it can be worth it in some cases if it’s quite comprehensive. But your credit card likely offers car rental insurance as well, so check your benefits and make sure you have the coverage you need, but aren’t paying through the nose for it.
19. Snap documentation pics.
In the same vein, one of the most notorious cons in the travel industry are agents who try to scam you out of money for damage you supposedly caused. Cut the plotters off at the pass by making sure to take photos of the rental car both before you drive off and when you return it. That way, you have a record of what dings and scratches were already on the vehicle and evidence that you turned it back in in decent condition.
So yes, it’s a lot to remember, but keep this checklist on hand and it becomes a lot more manageable. It’s also helpful to accept that, from time to time, you will make mistakes. You’ll forget things, you’ll have to stand in line at a consulate for a visa, and you will ding that rental car. But don’t sweat the small stuff. Because travel, and especially foreign travel, is about expanding your mind, learning new things and generally taking another step toward becoming your best self… and all those character-building mistakes are part of the process.
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