Preparing to go off on a big trip may seem daunting but with an easy to follow International Travel Checklist you’ll find that heading overseas to new adventures is not as challenging as you might think.
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International Travel Checklist
4 to 6 Months Out
The sooner you get started the better. This is especially true for longer trips or if you’re new to travel hacking. Early planning means you’ll find more opportunities and often extra savings. Just leave some room for spontaneity!
Travel Hack Your Way to Cheaper Flights
Deciding when to book your flights can be a huge source of uncertainty. Airfare can be one of the most expensive parts of travel and prices fluctuate greatly. But there are ways to sidestep much of the costs.
Knowing when to buy your tickets is important. Book too early or too late and you might miss out on the best fares to your destination. Several studies indicate the optimal time to book international flights is four to six months and six weeks out. This varies depending on your destination and season of travel, so being flexible while planning ahead is key to saving money.
Sites like Kayak, Skyscanner, and Google Flights are a good place to start. But you should always double check the price directly on the airline’s website as they sometimes have the same ticket for less.
Savvy travelers know how to fly for (nearly) free with some great travel hacking techniques which you can learn about here.
This often involves taking advantage of frequent flier programs and travel rewards through credit cards. If you plan well enough in advance, there is no reason why expensive airfares should keep you from visiting your dream destination.
There are tons of cards and programs to choose from, so check out our top picks here.
If you’re new to airline points, start building these up as soon as you can. It can take several months to get your card and earn what you need for many long flights, so get started today.
Did you know that you can often add a destination to your itinerary without buying an extra flight? Check this out to learn about stopovers and how they can kick your itinerary up to the next level!
Decide when to travel
It won’t take you long to notice that it’s often less expensive to travel during certain times of year than others. The best weather and major holidays bring with them mobs of selfie-stick wielding tourists, inflated hotel prices, and fewer choices.
Consider traveling during the shoulder seasons (usually spring and fall) to avoid higher prices and crowds while still enjoying decent weather. When the high-season hordes have left, you’ll be better positioned to take advantage of discounts and more availability in accommodations.
Local holidays offer great opportunities to experience a new culture and traditions, but they also can impact your transportation and mean that certain attractions are closed. Keep this in mind when deciding when to travel.
If you must travel over a major holiday or during high season or a school break, make your arrangements as early as possible and be prepared to spend more than you might otherwise on activities and accommodations.
Figure out where to stay
Speaking of accommodations, this is the next big expense when traveling. What’s great is that there are places to stay out there for every comfort level and budget. You can choose from swanky hotels, to party hostels, to campgrounds, to homestays and everything in between. Think about where you fit into this and what type of experience you’d prefer.
Even if you’re the go-with-the-flow type of traveler, it’s a good idea to have at least a few nights’ accommodation set up at in your destination ahead of time. From there, you’ll be well positioned to explore without the stress of figuring out where you’re going to sleep the night you arrive.
Did you know that it’s possible to score FREE accommodations? If you’re traveling long term (at least several months) and are flexible with where you go, you can join the growing worldwide house sitter community. For simply watching someone’s house and taking care of a few furry friends, you can be living like a local without spending a dime on housing. This guide will tell you all you need to know!
Stay healthy and safe
It’s easy to overlook the most important thing when preparing to travel — your health.
Trust me, it’s impossible to enjoy that perfect trip to the beach or museum when you’ve picked up a virus or other nasty bug as an unwanted souvenir. But you can prepare ahead of time by letting your doctor know of your upcoming travels and visiting your local travel clinic. Some vaccinations take months to complete, so looking into this early will give you enough time to protect yourself.
6 Weeks Out
Check passports and other important documents
There’s a tiny little booklet that has the power to open doors and transport you to faraway places. I’m talking about your passport of course, and you’ll need one or you won’t get very far.
If don’t have a valid passport (and two-thirds of Americans don’t), getting one is not something to procrastinate on. In the US, It can take as many as six weeks for the government to process your passport application, but they can rush it to you in two to three weeks for an extra $60.
If you already have a passport, make sure it’s valid for at least six months beyond your travel dates and has enough blank pages for all the cool stamps and visas you’ll be getting. Otherwise, you’re travel may be cut short before you even leave the airport. For more passport information, check out the State Department’s website.
Many countries require that you have a special visa before you arrive. Find out if your destination requires one and apply as soon as you can as this can sometimes be a lengthy process. If filling out the right paperwork in triplicate seems too overwhelming or bothersome, consider using a visa services business to streamline that process for you.
If you’ll be taking to the open road while abroad you may need an international driver’s permit (IDP). This is essentially a translation of your current driver’s license issued by AAA and is a good thing to carry with you if you’ll be behind the wheel anywhere English is not spoken.
In some countries, such as Japan, you’ll face a hefty fine if caught driving without this little booklet. In others, you might just find yourself desperately trying to explain to local police that your Wisconsin ID is indeed valid in their country. With a price-tag of only $20, an IDP can save you a lot of trouble and peace of mind.
While we’re talking about protecting yourself, don’t neglect to get travel insurance. Yeah, I know this isn’t the sexiest part of travel planning, but it’s important. For a relatively modest cost, you can protect yourself in case of something expensive and unfortunate like a robbery or accident.
I’m sure you’d rather be planning fun excursions than reading though pages of fine-print legalese. So use this guide to cut through the BS and find the right plan for you.
4 Weeks Out
Your trip is just a month away! Getting excited? Before your departure date gets too close, knock out the following items.
Get your money ready
You’re going to be dealing in another currency than you’re used to, so use the weeks before your travel to get ready.
Handling money overseas can be a big source of confusion. However, it’s simpler than many think. There are a few things to know ahead of time though.
Are credit cards widely accepted at your destination, or is cash the name of the game?
Will your own currency be accepted anywhere or will you need lots of local cash?
Fortunately, credit and ATM cards are accepted in most other countries. Make sure to call your financial institution to let them know where you’re going. Otherwise, they might think that your card has been stolen and shut it off creating a whole new headache for you.
Many banks and credit cards charge fees for overseas transactions. However, many US banks have partnerships with foreign banks where they’ll wave some of the fees. Call your bank to see if they do this with any of the banks at your destination. Consider getting a credit card without international fees.
It may look like it came from a Monopoly game, but foreign cash is real money and should be treated as such. Even before you get your fistful of dinar or yuan, you should familiarize yourself with what it looks like. A simple Google image search should do the trick.
Get your gear
Overpacking is perhaps the number one mistake that newbie travelers make. We have the tendency to want to pack for every conceivable occasion, whether we need to or not.
Resist the urge!
Schlepping 50 pounds of luggage up stairs and onto and off of buses is a real drag and limits your mobility. Not to mention pricey checked-luggage fees.
Experienced travelers aim to travel with carry-on luggage only, and so should you.
To maximize your carry-on capabilities, use a durable pack that fits within airline carry-on requirements, like the Tortuga Outbreaker.
What you pack will largely depend on the climate you’re going to and the activities you plan to take part in, so researching your destination’s climate will give you a good idea of what clothing to bring.
A good rule of thumb is to pack no more than a week’s worth of clothing. This is true even if you’re heading abroad for months. You can often take advantage of laundry services and even rinse your clothes off in the hostel sink if it comes to that.
Unless you’re heading to a remote mountaintop or across the desert, you can likely find whatever it is you need at your destination. So don’t sweat it if you didn’t pack enough underwear — go shopping. They make a great souvenir.
Also, forget any expectations you may have about bathrooms and come prepared for anything from a nearly sentient space-age commode to a simple hole in the ground. I recommend that you don’t leave your hotel without some sanitizing wipes and tissues should you encounter the latter.
Douglas Adams fans know that no interstellar hitchhiker should leave home without a towel. Well this is still true for earthbound travelers as you’ll find it’s the most versatile thing you can pack. Leave the terry cloth at home in favor of lightweight and packable microfiber.
To do your part in the fight against waste, bring your own water bottle and refill it with clean H2O whenever you can instead of drinking from disposable bottles. A water purification system like SteriPEN will let you safely drink almost any water, even when it comes from a non-potable source. If the moral satisfaction of creating less waste isn’t enough motivation, consider the cost savings and convenience of not needing to go to the store to buy your water whenever you’re out and about.
Technology can be helpful when traveling, but it can also be a liability. Your camera, computer, and phone can be fragile and also a target of thieves. Don’t bring more than you need, and be mindful about where you use it.
Take care of your house and car
While you’re busy planning what you’re going to do during your trip, it’s important to take care of what you leave behind. Luckily there are many different options for making sure your home is taken care of so that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you left the oven on as your plane takes off.
This can be as simple as asking a neighbor or friend to periodically check in on your home. (Bringing them a thoughtful souvenir from your trip is a nice way to say thanks).
Likewise, consider having a housesitter look after your home and pets through the same companies that help travelers like you find places to stay.
You can even put your house to work while you’re away. Renting it out on airbnb is a great way to earn money while you travel. Learn how to turn your home into a money making machine here!
If you’re heading out on a longer trip, it may make the most sense to put your car in storage. There’s no need to pay insurance during this period, so call your insurance company and have them put your policy on hold. Now you have more to spend on your trip!
Nothing says, “nobody’s home” like an overflowing mailbox. Either have a trusted neighbor collect it or have the post office hold your mail for you while you’re away. If you’re going to be away for an extended amount of time (a month or more), you should consider a mail service which will scan and email you your mail so you’ll always have access to a virtual mailbox.
You don’t want to use your valuable vacation time to deal with pesky matters like paying your bills. If you haven’t already, set up autopayments for your credit cards and other recurring payments. That way you can rest assured that everything will get taken care of while you’re away.
Some of us can’t afford to fully unplug while we travel. If you’ll be working remotely while overseas, then you’ll likely need some tech with you. You’ll need to decide if it’s worth bringing your laptop or if you can get away with a tablet or even just your phone. Whatever the case, remember that you’ll be carrying this expensive tech with you.
Travel is all about discovering differences. In addition to language, cuisine, and culture, you may find that even electrical outlets are not what you’re used to. If your destination uses a different voltage, you’ll need an adapter to plug in any of your gadgets.
You know Murphy’s Law that states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong? Well, Murphy was an optimist. Have a backup solution in place before you need it. Cloud storage services like Dropbox and Crash Plan means that important files are safe even if your laptop is stolen off a train or you drop your phone off a waterfall.
Pack your apps
21st Century technology means that traveling the world has never been easier! With all the information you need literally at your fingertips, you’ll never be truly lost.
There are scores of apps out there that are as helpful as any guidebook but won’t add any extra weight to your luggage. Check out this podcast to get a good understanding of some digital products that will help you level up your travel game.
This includes helpful tools for learning some of the local language. No one expects you to be fluent, but apps like apps like Pimsleur, Duolingo, Memrise are surprisingly fun and painless ways to learn the basics. You can learn more about language learning apps here.
While you’re at it, download Google Translate along with an offline dictionary of the local language at your destination. With both text and speech translation capabilities, this free app will have you “speaking” the local language from the moment you arrive.
Google can also keep you from getting lost (unless that’s your intention). Use Google Maps to download a map of your destination ahead of time, so that you can find your way whether you have cell service or not.
A virtual private network (VPN) is a great tool for any overseas traveler. This powerful tool is your personal and secret tunnel to the internet. It adds an essential layer of protection when using wifi, allows you to access your bank no matter where you are, and even lets you watch media that’s not available in your country.
Postcards are a nice way to send a little bit of love to family and friends back home. With apps like Touchnote you can send unique and personalized postcards that will actually arrive within a few days (rather than spending weeks in international mail).
For instant and free communication, apps like Whatsapp and Skype allow you to make free video and voice calls to anyone else with that app. Not too long ago this type of thing felt like the stuff of science-fiction, but now it’s wicked easy and accessible. If there’s anyone you know you’ll want to call during your trip, ask them to download one of these programs too.
Research what the most common calling app is at your destination. Whatsapp is one of the most popular apps worldwide, so make sure you have a way of making local phone calls wherever you go.
One week out
You’ve checked off all the steps above, you’ve got your tickets in hand, and your bags are packed. Now what?
Test drive your luggage
Try carrying your luggage around a bit. Can you easily go up and down stairs with it? Do you think you can carry it around and still be comfortable? Now is the time for any last minute adjustments.
Secure your documents
Have print-outs of your tickets, hotel information, and itinerary handy and know where you packed them.
Give yourself a safetynet by creating a backup file with secure copies of credit and bank card information. Include a copy of the photo page of your passport. This is sensitive stuff, so make this a password protected file. If you then email this doc to yourself, or put them in cloud storage, you’ll be able to access it in the unfortunate case that you lose the originals.
Also, for an extra level of protection, keep a paper copy of your passport’s photo page somewhere in your luggage, or better yet, a travel partner’s luggage. This will make getting a replacement a little bit easier.
Review your itinerary
This is also the time to review your itinerary. Build transition time that into your plans. Having a solid plan in place for when you arrive will remove unnecessary uncertainty and allow you more flexibility overall.
You should already have a place to stay for your first night or two. How are you going to get there though? Ask your hotel or host their recommendations for getting there from the airport. They may even be able to pick you up!
Your first days on the road
Woo-hoo! You did it!
Your first few days on the road are going to be amazing! They’ll also be tiring and hectic.
Use the following tips to make your arrival abroad all that more seamless.
Prepare for Customs and Immigration
There will be immigration and customs papers to fill out on the airplane. Bring a pen or two with you and you’ll be the hero of everyone who didn’t. Make sure everything is filled out completely and correctly. Your flight attendant can usually help you with this if something is unclear.
Unless you already came packing foreign cash, you’ll need to get your hands on it pretty quickly.
The easiest and best place to get cash will be at ATMs. They give the best exchange rate as banks trade currency based on the daily wholesale exchange rate.
Most airports will have ATMs (usually just outside of baggage claim). Grab some local cash here for your taxi and first couple days’ of expenses.
Don’t even bother with the money exchange bureaus in the airport. They will NEVER give you the best rate.
You’ll need to get to familiar with the current exchange rate. This will make you more confident knowing that you’re not getting ripped off or scammed and make everyday purchases easier. Apps like XE Currency show you up to the minute exchange rates so you’ll know exactly how much your sheckles, pesos, and yen are worth.
Be kind to yourself
And take it easy at first. As creatures of habit, novel experiences are exciting, but can also be exhausting as your senses are working overtime taking it all in. Limit yourself to just one or two easy activities before diving into something big and epic.
One last item: relax and enjoy the adventure!
Remember to go ahead and bookmark this page so you can easily come back here to find all these resources again!
4-6 Months Out
- Sign up for travel credit cards and start earning points
- Choose your destination and when to go
- Get your plane ticket
- Book your accommodations
- Talk to your doctor about vaccinations
6 Weeks Out
- Get your passport (and visa and driver’s permit if needed)
- Get travel insurance
4 Weeks Out
- Inform your bank/credit card companies about your travel
- Buy your gear and supplies
- Make car and house arrangements
- Download travel apps
One Week Out
- Pack your bags
- Make secure paper and digital copies of important docs
- Review your itinerary
- Make plans to get from the airport to your accommodations
First Days on the Road
- Get through customs/immigration
- Get local cash
- Have an epic adventure!
You're almost there!
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