So you’re packing your bags and hitting the vast open road, skies, ocean or other escape. Worried you’ve forgotten to do something? Maybe you aren’t so sure that everything you’ll need is packed in that suitcase of yours? Perhaps most importantly, how do you prevent the trip from becoming a Griswold-level fiasco of just trying to survive a seemingly simple trip? Worry no more—this post has you covered.
Here’s what you need to remember before booking a trip, before leaving your home and while you’re away traveling (expand each for details):
Before making a decision on any trip, you’ll want to consider any required visas, the expiration date of your passport, travel advisories, safety concerns and potentially inclement weather:
- Visas: Determine whether you need to obtain a travel visa for the countries you plan to visit. Simply search for your country destination on the US Department of State’s country information.
- Passport: Check the expiration date of your passport! Even if your passport does not expire until soon after your trip, many countries will not allow you to enter their country unless your passport is set to expire at least six months after the final day of travel.
- Safety & travel advisories: Reference any travel advisories from the US Department of State. The Bureau of Consular Affairs maintains a color-coded map for a quick reference of travel advisory levels by country. For instance, you would see that right now is not the ideal time to take a leisurely stroll through Syria.
- Weather: Research the best times of the year to travel to your desired destination to make sure you aren’t traveling during the peak of monsoon season or sub-zero temperatures.
This one is pretty obvious: make sure you have sufficient funds, vacation days and availability for a trip, and then lock down the location and dates.
Start monitoring flight prices several months in advance. You’ll generally find the cheapest domestic flights a few weeks to a few months before you travel. For international flights, you’ll need to book even earlier, typically at least a few months in advance, for that lower rate.
However, there’s no tried-and-true method to finding the cheapest flight: once you identify your dates and locations, sign up for free airfare alerts to notify you when prices fall. Also make sure you consider any extra airline charges, such as carry-on or checked baggage fees, which could change the value of a particular ticket price.
Many people are willing to “wing” their trips, but you’ll want to do some basic planning to get the most value out of your travel dollars. For each day of your trip, list the following:
- Location: Where you’ll be that day.
- Lodging: Where you’ll spend the night.
- Transportation: How you’ll get from A to B (e.g., flight, train, shuttle, taxi).
- Activities & Food: What you’ll be doing and where you’ll be eating (or options).
It’s in your best interest to research and book, if possible, your lodging, transportation, activities and restaurant reservations ahead of time.
Research whether you should obtain any vaccines or medications to avoid illnesses in your destination countries. Maybe you need a yellow fever shot, altitude pills or, who knows, even a shot of vodka to get over your fear of flying?
Access the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s traveler’s health website for lists of recommended vaccinations and other travel health precautions by country. Simply select your destination country and your type of travel and voilà…the site provides you a list of recommended vaccines and medications, travel health notices and other tips on how to stay healthy while abroad.
Depending on your country of origin, you may even be required to carry an International Certificate of Vaccination (i.e., a Yellow Card) or other proof of vaccinations or medical tests before entering a country. You don’t want to learn of this upon arrival!
A trip to the hospital likely isn’t on your itinerary, but what happens if you face an extreme injury or illness? Does your health insurance cover you overseas? How do you even know where to receive care?
Before you leave on your trip, take a look at your health insurance plan or call up your provider to determine what coverage you have abroad. In most cases, your health insurance will NOT completely cover you overseas. Most standard health insurance plans provide either partial or not coverage outside of the US (for Medicare and Medicaid, there generally is none). While a country with a universal health care system might cover your minor needs, there is no guarantee, and they definitely won’t pay to evacuate you home. High or ongoing medical expenses can quickly leave you SOL.
Depending on your type of trip and risk tolerance, consider purchasing travel medical insurance prior to your trip. For reference, travel insurance typically costs a couple hundred dollars.
Regardless of what insurance you have, bring your proof of insurance and know that medical billing procedures can work differently overseas. Doctors and hospitals might expect you to pay up front before starting treatment, so make sure you maintain careful records and submit documentation for reimbursement when you get back home.
Research the answers to the following questions about your destination countries:
- Tap water: Can you drink the tap water, or do you need to buy bottled water? This site will tell you.
- Power sockets: What type of electric plug is used, and do you need to bring an adaptor? This site offers a world map detailing the type of plug(s) by country.
- Language: What languages are spoken? How do you say, “hello,” “thank you,” “yes,” “no,” “help” and, of course, “beer!”?
- Currency: What is the primary currency and approximate exchange rate against the US dollar?
- Emergency number: What number do you call if you face an emergency? If you’re outside of the US, “911” is not always the answer. Make sure you know the number from this site ahead of time.
Decide on what phone to bring and what plan to use, if any.
One of your easiest and cheapest options is to bring your smartphone and leave it on airplane mode—this disables your phone’s wireless connections and services (i.e., cellular data, GPS location services and Bluetooth), but you can still access Wi-Fi, take pictures and send iMessages (for iPhone), Facetime and Skype with friends and family back home.
If you (1) don’t expect to have easily-accessible Wi-Fi options, (2) need GPS location data to navigate yourself around and/or (3) don’t have the patience to wait for Wi-Fi to communicate or post pictures, you have various options for cell phone plans abroad:
- Your own phone with international add-on plan: Cell phone companies offer a wide range of international plans for various periods of time (e.g., monthly, daily). This is a good option if you want a convenient way to use your own phone abroad, even at a higher cost.
- Your own phone with local SIM card: If you have an unlocked phone, you can purchase a prepaid local Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card and pop it right into your own phone. This option can provide you low local rates for calls, texts and data and stronger cell signals in the international country, but beware that calls back to the United States can be expensive.
- Purchase/rent a prepaid international phone: Leave your phone at home and purchase or rent a prepaid international phone. While the phone likely won’t be as technologically savvy and you’ll need to transfer over your contacts, this is a cheap option offering you data without the fear of roaming or other costly fees.
No matter which plan you choose, be mindful of the cell phone charges that can pile up quickly. If you don’t have any sort of international plan, make sure you turn off the cellular data and roaming on your phone (or just set it to airplane mode) BEFORE you land in a foreign country. If you have some sort of prepaid or limited plan, be sure to monitor your use so that you don’t incur overages.
How will you make payments abroad? Cash? Debit card? Credit card? Cleaning dishes?? Your best option depends on your debit/credit cards’ foreign transaction fees, the accessibility to ATMs at your destination and just how much cash you want to carry. Decide your game plan beforehand based on the following options:
- Credit card: If you have a card with zero or low foreign transaction fees, this is my recommended payment method. Credit cards typically offer you the best exchange rates, earn you credit card rewards, allow you to dispute charges on a lost or stolen card and give you the peace of mind of not protecting a full wallet or purse of cash. To be sure, check your cards’ foreign transaction fees! Withdrawing cash from an ATM at a 1% fee is better than using your credit card with a 3% fee. Also, beware of relying on American Express—many stores and restaurants do not accept it, so make sure you have another payment option handy.
- Cash (via ATM): If you want to pay with cash, this is likely your best option. While arriving without currency can be unsettling, you’ll undoubtedly be able to find an ATM at the airport, your hotel or around the block. And while you may be charged a small fee, the better exchange rate compared to banks or currency exchange kiosks typically more than offsets that fee. Check your foreign currency withdrawal fee and compare that to the fee on your credit card payments.
- Cash (on person): If you bring the foreign currency with you ahead of time, you avoid foreign transaction fees and the pain of finding an ATM. The downsides are the added effort up front (with typically worse exchange rates), the effort to keep your cash safe and the risk of having extra unspent currency that you’ll have to exchange following your trip.
- Debit card: Another option, but once again check your fees. Most have foreign transaction fees, but a select few have none at all.
- Travelers’ checks: Don’t bother—nowadays, you risk finding someone who will even accept them. No need to be Uncle Frank (props if you understand that reference).
Have a backup plan, and make sure you notify your card issuers (or update your travel plans in your online account) before you depart so that your transactions don’t trigger fraud alerts and freeze your account.
If all hell broke loose, who you would you call? Mom, Dad, sibling, child, Aunt Bethany, your cousin Vinny? Whoever it is, make sure they’re aware of your travel plans (consider providing an itinerary), how you can be reached and if/how you plan to provide updates (e.g., emails, texts).
Tell everyone to buzz off so that you can enjoy your vacation!
Confirm you’ve completed the following to protect your home:
- Lock all windows & close curtains
- Secure valuables
- Preset the thermostat
- Take out trash, clean dishes & empty refrigerator of items that will spoil
- Turn off all lights & electronics
- Turn off water (if applicable)
- Set alarm and/or light timers
- Notify neighbors to collect your newspapers and/or mail
- Arrange lawn care (if applicable)
Safety step number 1: watch the movie Taken. Assuming you don’t have Liam Neeson’s “particular set of skills,” it’s best to remember the following:
- Memorize and/or write down emergency contact info: Is “911” the emergency number in your destination country? If not, memorize that number. If you were to lose your phone (and thus your contacts), how would you get into contact with your emergency contacts? Write down and/or memorize that info as well.
- Register with S.T.E.P.: The US Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (“S.T.E.P.”) allows you to enroll your trip with the nearest US embassy or consulate. Why do this? Because you’ll have help in case there’s an emergency. You’ll receive important updates on safety conditions in your destination country, help embassies contact you—either by email, phone or text—in an emergency (e.g., natural disaster, civil unrest, terrorist attack) and help family/friends get in touch with you as well. Access this website to register.
- Travel with groups, on crowded streets and in the daylight: Plan your routes and activities in advance to avoid walking alone, especially at night. If you do happen to be alone in a non-touristy area, try to find a couple or group to walk slowly behind (yes, it sounds creepy, but it’s a trick to help keep you safe).
- Don’t wear expensive jewelry: What have we been taught about wearing shiny jewelry in the ocean? Shark bait. The same concept applies when traveling—expensive or flashy jewelry calls attention to you and makes you a target. Leave the bling at home—it’s not worth the risk.
- Don’t take unsolicited rides: Try to plan your transportation in advance, and never take unsolicited rides from someone you don’t know (see reference to Taken, above). When you leave an airport, you’ll oftentimes be bombarded by people offering a taxi ride. Do not accept these rides. These “pirate” cabs are usually meter-less, unregistered, unlicensed and uninsured, putting you in a position to get ripped off or worse. If you must take one of these, be sure to agree on the fare ahead of time. Otherwise, always get a registered taxi from the official taxi rank.
- Don’t share personal information with strangers: This advice seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget when you meet friendly people overseas. Even if a gorgeous model is hitting on you, don’t volunteer information about your home address or your money. Also be extremely wary of those pushing for information on where you’re staying and your specific travel plans.
- Don’t leave your drink unattended: I doubt getting roofied is on your itinerary, so be cognizant of your drink and don’t leave it unattended to run to the restroom.
- Pay attention to traffic rules: If you’re in England and only look left before crossing the road, you may turn into roadkill.
- Avoid altercations: In the rare circumstance you get mugged or find yourself in a violent situation, don’t try to be Batman or Wonder Woman. Instead of fighting back, abide by the request and give up your belongings—your health and life are much more valuable than your cash, credit cards and ID. Once you’re out of danger, head straight to the nearest US embassy/consulate or appropriate authority to report the incident.
- Beware of whom you trust: Trust your gut, not strangers. Don’t share with strangers your life story, valuables or personal information.
- Protect your passport: Besides the safety and wellbeing of you and your travel companions, your passport is likely the most important item you’re taking on your trip. Lose it and you’ll be in a world of trouble getting back home. Take the following steps to protect it:
- Passport belt: As lame as it sounds, this thing is great. Not only does it prevent anyone from having any chance to steal your passport, but you can’t even notice it if you tuck it under your beltline. Heck, put some of your cash and a credit card in there too just to diversify your risk in case your wallet or purse gets lost or stolen.
- Make a copy: Photocopy your passport ID page and save copies in your luggage, at home and digitally via email. If you’re abroad and your passport gets lost or stolen, the copy will only speed up the process of proving your citizenship, replacing your passport and getting you on your merry way.
- Beware of pickpockets: There’s a special place in hell for these crooks. Some locations are more notorious than others (looking at you, Rome and Barcelona), but you should be cognizant of pickpockets wherever you travel. Typically the perpetrator will bump into you, crowd your space, pat you down after spilling something on you, cover your handbag/purse with a map while “asking for directions” (aka stealing an item under the map) or even work with a partner to create a distraction while the other person swoops in. How to prevent this? Be mindful of your valuables at all times, zip your bag/purse, carry items in your front pockets or passport belt and be very wary when someone bumps into you or invades your personal space.
- Keep money and valuables in multiple locations: You may find it appealing to keep all of your cash and credit cards in one bag while traveling abroad. But what if you leave said bag on a train as the doors shut behind you? Not good. To avoid this possible scenario, hedge your bets by divvying up your cash and credit cards amongst your travel companions and securing them in different locations (e.g., on person, in a bag, in a hotel safe).
- Keep backpacks and bags zipped: No need to offer an open invitation.
- Use your senses: Use those God-given senses of touch and sight with your luggage and valuables: when you’re in public, rather than setting your valuables behind you, keep them in front of you or at your feet where you can see and/or feel them.
Raise your hand if you think you’re too smart to get scammed? Yeah, yeah; put your hand down. The sad truth is that scams happen, even to frequent travelers. The world is filled with good-hearted, honest people, but it unfortunately also has its share of bad eggs. Beware of these all-to-common scams to put these two-faced assholes in their place:
- Broken taxi meter: When you get in a taxi, the driver notifies you that the meter is broken (or simply leaves it turned off). Once you arrive at your destination, the driver charges you some absurd amount and won’t let you leave until you pay. To avoid this, ask the driver to turn on the meter, negotiate rates ahead of time or simply find another cab (preferably registered) that uses a working meter.
- Gift trap: You’re walking around, minding your own business, when someone walks up and hands you a “free” flower, makes you a bracelet or forces upon you another gift as a seemingly kind gesture. The problem is that once you take the item, they will demand money and make a scene if you don’t pay. To avoid this, simply ignore the person (or say “no thank you”) and keep walking.
- Fake tickets: You arrive at a ticket booth and someone offers to sell you tickets at a discount or even a higher price to let you avoid the line. Seems like a deal, right? Wrongo. You purchase the tickets only to realize they’re fakes when you reach the ticket gate, and Mr. Scammer is long gone with your money. To avoid this, buy from the official ticket booth or website unless you’re absolutely willing to take the risk.
- Incorrect change: You pay for a good or service with a 100-currency bill. The scammer returns very little change, claiming you in fact paid with a 50-currency bill. This inevitably turns into a futile argument and you begrudgingly walking away with less money. To avoid this, clearly state the value of the bill when you hand it over. Cashiers also frequently target tourists by taking a pause when returning change, hoping you will be in a rush and bolt with less change than you are owed.
- Fake po-po: This one is typically a team effort. First, one person will approach you to implicate you in a supposed crime, such as offering you drugs. Right on cue, one or more fake police officers approach you and assert that you have broken a law and are required to present your passport, wallet or even a fee. In this scenario, be sure to ask the police officer(s) to see their identification and/or call the police to confirm they are genuine. Another option is to say that you left your passport and wallet in a safe at home and would like to be escorted there. If they resist for any reason, try walking away or calling the (real) police.
- “Helpful” local: You’re lost in a train station when a kind person offers to escort you to your gate, only to demand money for the “service” when you arrive. Or a local directs you to a specific ATM or locker, only to later find fraudulent charges on your card (from a skimmer on the ATM machine) or your locked valuables missing (because the local had an extra key to the locker). While there are genuine, kind-hearted locals, be cautious with overly kind or pushy locals.
Keep your family and friends updated on your location and wellbeing. The easiest way is to email your itinerary (including your planned location on each day) to at least a few of your contacts before your trip. Then, while you’re on your trip, send a quick text or email to them at least once every few days. Doing so allows your family or friends to contact local authorities or the embassy/consulate to help you quicker in case you go M.I.A. or face an emergency.
If you have a layover, you might need to pick up your luggage at your layover stop. This is a lesson you don’t want to learn the hard way. Here’s what to remember:
- Domestic layovers: No need to worry here. Your checked luggage will go straight to your final destination (i.e., your bags will be taken off your first flight and loaded onto your second).
- International layovers: When you have a layover on an international flight, always ask the agent at check-in if you need to collect your luggage at the layover airport. The general rule of thumb is that if you fly from somewhere outside of the US or Canada and have a layover in the US or Canada, you will need to pick up your baggage upon arrival at your layover stop. If you fly to other countries, you typically don’t need to pick up your baggage at your layover destination if your flights are on the same airline or partner airlines. When in doubt, just ask the check-in or gate agent.
When you travel from one country to another and thus pass through customs, remember to take the process seriously. Getting fined or arrested when attempting to enter countries is much easier than you might expect.
Countries vary in the stringency of their questions and protocol, which also depend on your own nationality and travel history. In many countries, including the US, you must declare all products (including listing their value and origin) you are bringing into the country that you did not have when you left. When declaring items, carefully consider any souvenirs purchased, food in your carry-on (e.g., apple given to you on flight) or any other item added to your luggage after you left the country.
The key to remember is that there’s no penalty for declaring a prohibited item, even though you’ll still need to abandon it or have it confiscated. The real trouble arises when you get caught providing false information or failing to declare a restricted or prohibited item. Common restricted or prohibited items to avoid bringing into the US include:
- Fruits & vegetables: Due to risk of plant pests & diseases
- Meat & meat products: Including cured meats & broth
- Plants, seeds, soil & biological specimens: Requires a permit
- Alcohol: Limits vary by state, but no absinth is allowed
- Animal fur & hunting trophies: No products from dog or cat fur (other animals vary); hunting trophies only at certain ports & may require permit
- Endangered species & products made from them: Including products made from ivory, tortoiseshell, whalebone, ivory, skins or fur
- Cultural artifacts: Certain art/artifacts & archeological material without a permit
- Large amounts of currency: $10,000 or more of currency or monetary instruments (or foreign currency equivalent)
- Commercial merchandise: Articles for sale, samples used for soliciting orders or goods that are not considered personal effects
- Drug paraphernalia: Unless prescribed or medically necessary
- Narcotics & certain other drugs: Limits vary, & must be legally prescribed in US
- Weapons & ammunition: Only allowed through licensed importer, dealer or manufacturer
- Trademark & copyright-infringing articles: Including knockoff products or pirated software
- Products from embargoed countries: Requires a specific license
Your potential penalty in the US depends on the restricted or prohibited item, as follows:
(less than $2,500)
$300 fine for first-time offenders / $500 for second-time offenders, in addition to item being confiscated; civil penalty of up to $10,000 for certain food products
(more than $2,500)
Criminal fine up to $500,000 (or twice the value of the non-declared contraband, whichever is greater) and/or a maximum of 20 years in prison, in addition to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 (or the value of the non-declared contraband, whichever is greater)
*These penalties are general guidelines. Specific penalties can be found on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s website.
Here are some other tips to smooth over the customs process:
- Fill out customs form on plane: Even though that movie or a snooze sounds more appealing, filling out your form using your seat’s tray table is easier than scrambling to do so in a customs line.
- Walk quickly & delay restroom: Customs lines can get LONG. Do yourself a favor and at least get ahead of some of those on your own flight.
- Anticipate the officer’s questions: Customs officers will typically ask you about your citizenship, the nature of your trip and anything you are bringing into the country from abroad. Officers may also ask to search you, your belongings or vehicle (which is in their legal authority). Be prepared to answer these simple questions and abide by their search request.
- Know your rights: While customs officers don’t need probable cause to perform searches at the border, you still have rights. In particular, in the US you have a right to an attorney present during any secondary screening (non-US citizen rights vary); you can request to speak with a supervisor or attorney if questions become intrusive or improper; and you can request asylum if you fear persecution, death or violence when you return to the origin country. With this being said, however, the majority of customs interviews are simple and generally take no longer than a few minutes.
- Avoid bringing home items to declare: After your interview with the customs officer, you can typically walk straight through the “Nothing to Declare” line vs having your luggage screened/searched.
Common sense can’t be emphasized enough. Even if you forget everything in this post, just remember that the most serious problems on trips usually result from a lack of common sense.
There will always be portions of your trip that you can’t control—crappy weather, transportation delays, lost checked luggage, birds pooping on you and so forth. Make sure you control all other areas by using that brain of yours: don’t broadcast your location on social media if your home can easily be burglarized; don’t get drunk in a sketchy area of town when you’re traveling alone; don’t jump down onto train tracks to grab a dropped phone; and don’t trust a random stranger to safeguard your life savings. Always trust your gut, and remember that your health and safety take priority.
Bon voyage! Be safe out there.