Expert Tips on Traveling for the First Time
Here are 8 things you should think about to get you prepared for your first international trip (assuming you've already gotten your passport and it will be valid six months from your return date).
1. Deciding Factors Before Booking Your Plane Ticket
Decide on where you want to go for your first international trip. What is most important to you? For me I seek sun and beaches everywhere I go, so those are a no brainer.
For first timers, choose locations that generally speak your language (it doesn't need to be their official language) and are popular tourist areas, just so you can wean into learning about local customs, people, and safety tips.
I mean, if you want to jump all in, you can do that too but for those who are nervous this might be a good route.
My number one deciding factor: flight cost. Even when I had a decent paying 9-6 job I was always on the hunt for a good flight deal.
Keep your schedule flexible and track international flights from your hometown and surrounding airports. I hardly EVER book a flight over $550. Fly.com is my favorite website to begin checking out the cheapest flights from my city.
Once you see a few affordable destinations, check out Booking.com to gauge what the hotel prices are. Sometimes the flight is cheap but the accommodation costs are outrageous. Here is my Booking.com affiliate link if you want to check out the site. I use them ALL the time.
Lastly, make sure you check the weather there! I know of someone who found (and booked) a great deal to Chile in July and didn't put together that it was their WINTER.
Research, people. Re-search.
2. Choosing your accommodations (hostel vs. hotel)
If you are planning an indefinite backpacking trip, at least book your first accommodation. It will give you piece of mind. Like I mentioned previously, go find your hotel or hostel on Booking.com, which works really well throughout the world.
Hostels vs. Hotels:
If you are traveling solo, I would 100% recommend booking a hostel if you want to meet new people. I am so shy that if I book a nice hotel, I will never leave it - let alone go out of my way to make friends.
By staying in a hostel you can still purchase a private room (or a dorm bed) and have access to a common area with a kitchen and friendly staff (usually in their 20-30s). Your new friends might also have great activity recommendations that they heard about from other travelers, and you might even find a travel partner.
Sometimes though, you need to treat yo' self. So don't be afraid to splurge a bit for the sake of a good night's sleep. Your body will thank you.
Note: safety is always a concern but I've never had an issue. Ways I stay safe and smart is to always let someone know where I am going, never flash money or valuables, and don't accept drugs. Your instincts should be on fleek (eww did I just write that?) and when they alarm, know to leave immediately.
3. Your Pre-Departure Essentials
Passports and back up plans:
Make sure you keep a photo copy of your passport / ID in your luggage and take a photo of it to save on your phone (my affiliate recommendation: I've been using dropbox.com's cloud for all of my important documents since 2012. I also upload my vacation photos there so if I ever lose my phone, I can access dropbox anywhere in the world from any device. And they give you 2GB free space so you don't need a credit card unless you want even more space.)
Additionally, go to your nearest drugstore or photo shop and get an extra set of passport photos just in case you need them (ie. if your passport is lost or stolen, or if you need a last minute visa).
Find out if your destination requires travelers from your country to have a visa and if visas are available on arrival. Many countries offer both and sometimes it is cheaper to get the visa when you get there.
Check the CDC.gov website to find out if you need any vaccinations before your trip. Don't assume that your primary doctor will be able to quickly give you the shots or that your insurance will cover it. Many of these vaccinations need to be special ordered and some even need follow-up procedures.
Give yourself at least six weeks to get all of your vaccinations and seek out travel or infectious diseases doctors in your city to have a better chance of finding the vaccines. Lastly make sure your doctor actually stamps/signs your immunization card so that you have proof of the vaccination at the border.
I will admit, I hardly ever had insurance when I was traveling but that's because I'm waiting for some dramatic accident so I can have fresh blog content to share with you guys. Just kidding.
I am a fool. And I don't recommend traveling without insurance. Although, depending on the country you are in, sometimes it is cheaper to get procedures done there and pay out of pocket. I know plenty of people who have.
That being said, if you already have medical insurance, call them to find out what their international coverage is like. If they do not provide coverage, call your credit card company that you booked your trip with and find out how much they cover. No luck? Then consider taking out travel insurance.
A lot of backpackers use World Nomads, but I haven't tried them so I can't say. I know that their age limit is 66 years old and they don't cover pre-existing conditions, so that probably wouldn't work for me and my lupus. But check it out and see if it is right for you.
Let your bank know that you are traveling. Using your app, online banking, or a phone call, activate your travel alert and let them know every city, state or country you'll be in (you might need to call for each card if they are not linked).
4. Master Packing Light
I am a major advocate for packing light. One: because holy back pain. Two: because if you are considering public transportation having a large bag (or multiple small bags) will be more of a hassle than its worth. And it makes you more of a target for sticky fingers. Let's not mention the ridiculous airline baggage fees for being too heavy.
So how do you pack light when you feel like you need to bring your whole bedroom and bathroom with you? In my blog post on how to master traveling light, I highlight my essential tips. Here are some of my favorites:
- Stick to a carry-on only bag: the airline won't lose your luggage and you're more likely to zip through security.
- Strategically pack your carry-on bag: pack your liquids and possible suspicious items in a small front pocket for easy access. Only clothing should be tightly stacked. Any other items: keep them in clear Ziploc bags and organize them by material. Metals in one bag; liquids, creams, and gels in another bag; shady items like your shaving razor, nail clippers, and tweezers in another.
- Embrace your hair: I cannot stress enough how much you don't need all those hair products on your trip. And don't start whining about how frizzy or unmanageable your hair is -- have you seen mine? Start learning how to do low maintenance styles now so that you can easily do them abroad. And realize that unless you are going to the jungle, there will be beauty stores around the world for you to get some hair gel. Travel has helped me become very minimalist and my bank account is thankful.
- Learn to shower-wash your items: if you are traveling for 20 days there is no reason why you need to pack 20+ underwear. Whether you are staying for a week or a month you really don't need to bring clothes for more than seven days. When I shower, I wash the underwear I was just wearing and never have an issue with needing more. For extended trips I use an actual washing machine once a month for a deeper clean.
5. Prepare to Wake Up Early for Your Flight
People always ask me how I get the best deals on flights and to be honest, I don't have some life changing secrets. I am just flexible with dates and times and don't mind waking up at the butt-crack of dawn to do it.
That said, here is an article I wrote on how to prepare for a ridiculously early morning flight. I followed this procedure back when I was an event designer / planner (2010 - 2014) all the way until now! It works.
6. How to Have an Enjoyable (Flight) Journey
I love flying. A lot of people don't. Before you get on your flight - whether two hours long or a 29 hour flight - prepare yourself with these things:
- Exercise and stretch before your flight: get your blood flowing to reduce blood clotting and discomfort.
- Double check the departure board in case your flight gate changed and your current ticket doesn't reflect that.
- Bring ear plugs and an eye mask: you never know who you'll be sitting next to. And if you have a packed schedule, you'll need the sleep.
- Bring headphones: if you are lucky, you'll get a flight with TV and free movies. Unfortunately, many airlines provide (crappy) headphones for a fee (usually $5). Save your money.
- Pack a meal: depending on the flight and destination you choose, you may not get a free meal (if it is international, you probably will). Either way, pack a sandwich or snack in case you hate what is offered. Food is expensive in airports.
- Stay warm: it gets chilly on planes. Bring a scarf, sweater, and some extra socks if you get cold easily.
- Stow your personal bag under your seat and your carry-on in the overhead bin across from you. That way you can keep an eye on the bin and won't be paranoid worrying about your bag the whole time.
- Bring your medicines and menstrual products on the plane!
7. Arrive with Ease
When you arrive at your destination airport, you might feel a little bit nervous. Don't worry, just follow the crowd - it always gets you where you need to be.
If your destination does not use your local currency try not to exchange at the airport. You'll get the worst rate and the highest fees. If you absolutely need to (because taxis and shuttles may not take your home currency) then only exchange what you need for that transaction and wait to exchange the rest.
To be honest, I sometimes never exchange beyond that first bit because so many countries take credit cards. And our credit cards give the best exchange rates. Just make sure you have an international travel-friendly card that has low to no fees for international transactions, because that can get hefty.
Other options: use the local ATM for good exchange rates if you have low to no ATM transaction fees.
I always get nervous when I arrive in a new country because I don't know how nice they will be to me at the immigration check-point (call it fear of United States karma, if you know what I mean).
I've learned that they always ask the same questions:
- My occupation
- Duration of my stay
- Where I am staying
- Who I am traveling with
- How much money do I have in my bank account
- My itinerary while I am there (sometimes)
- Proof of return ticket (sometimes)
Prepare yourself with answers to these questions and remember that just because backpacking spontaneously without a plan is the fad right now, that ish is NAHT cute at immigrations. You better come up with some answers and do not use the "I quit my job to travel the world" speech. It is not the place.
Me? I don't even say I am a blogger. I am a marketing consultant, period. (Which I am, as well.) And if you have nowhere to stay yet, book a night at a random hotel or hostel just to give an address to the agents. If it is your first time traveling, you should probably at least have a place to stay for the first week so you can get your bearings.
They want to know that you have enough money to support your stay there and are not looking for an (illegal) job, and they often want to see a return ticket (a confirmation on your phone is fine).
Don't have a return ticket? Book one right before your flight and cancel within 24 hours (works with most airlines).
When you arrive you are going to be overwhelmed with the people picking up passengers. Tunnel vision, baby. Don't mind them.
Go to the taxi booth and get a taxi with a meter, or arrange a shuttle service if you are with a group. I love taking local buses so if you decide to do that, be sure to do all the research before you leave home because it'll be hard to find people willing to help (that won't try to sell you a ride in their vehicle instead).
8. Your Journey
I don't want to hijack your journey. This is yours. You made the decision to take the leap and you've done everything you can to prepare for this adventure. I encourage you to meet new people. Keep an open mind. Try new foods. And get dirty.
Leave your insecurities behind, leave your fears behind, and allow yourself to have the journey of a lifetime.
Here are some things I recommend to take along to help you fully embrace it:
- A Journal: to jot down your emotions and interesting facts (and words) you learn along the way
- Camera phone: to tag me on Instagram so I can stalk your journey ...hehe
- A book: for those long bus rides
- Language app or dictionary: I love to use Duolingo to learn new languages
- Google Hangouts, Whats App, FaceTime, Skype, or Facebook: to keep in touch with loved ones and new friends
- A converter: to charge all that electronic crap
- A money belt: to keep the bulk of your money and valuables safe (for more information read my tips on how to avoid getting your stuff stolen when traveling)
- An open mind: seriously. You'll love it. And you'll never want to come back home because you'll realize home is everywhere.
I really hope you found this useful. Leave any questions in the comment section below.
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