Before You Go: Advice & Resources
So: you're going on an international trip! That's exciting. Before you head off for distant horizons, though, there are some things I could recommend. Forewarning: this is a long article, feel free to skip sections that don't interest/apply to you.
- Booking Flights or Rail Travel
- When booking flights, I tend to check both Google Flight Matrix and Kayak. With the Google Matrix, you can't book directly but it does allow for comparison of prices. With Kayak, you can book a flight through their site but it might not be a good idea (hidden fees or getting referred to sketchy third part sites. I've also heard decent things about using STA Travel's flight search for student discounts if that applies to you.
- If you're travelling in Europe, I highly recommended rail travel. Emmett and I got two-month "youth" Eurail passes before we went and we were so glad we did. Not only did we save money, but the flexibility of the passes was a huge plus for us as we tend not to do too much specific advance planning. If you get a Eurail pass like ours, you should be able to spontaneously walk on any commuter train going to whichever city you'd like and get there hassle-free. Just have your passport and your Eurail Pass for the ticketer to check out. In Norway, there were quite a few trains that we wanted to take where we ended up paying a small fee to reserve seats. I've heard it can be similar, especially in Southwestern Europe during high travel season (summer). Just make sure you check seat availability and rail-specific rules on each individual country's national rail website i.e. Deutschebahn in Germany.
- I've also heard good things about (but not personally used yet) Japan Rail Passes and Australia Rail Passes.
- Travel Guides
- Guidebooks are great resources to glance through and get an idea of what to expect from your destination. A lot of people swear by the physical Lonely Planet guidebooks. Lonely Planet does have guidebooks to almost everywhere you could ever want to go, more so than other companies. They are pretty pricey, though, in my opinion. Pro tip: your local library has a current copy of most region-based Lonely Planet books or can find one for you. (Or, if you're coming here to New Zealand, most hostels have a copy of the New Zealand LP in their book exchange in English and German). The library probably also has Rough Guides or Let's Go or Moon Guides as well. Furthermore, the websites of all of these books have plenty of the same info as the books themselves.
- I prefer to search for travel bloggers who've been to the places I'm going or I use Wikivoyage. Lonely Planet books are very, very popular; any hostel or restaurant mentioned there is probably going to be crowded. If you want to get somewhat off the beaten path, eat somewhere that's full of a line of locals or just wander until you find a hostel that looks nice.
- Will you need a visa for your destination(s)? Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive and up-to-date list of visa requirements for every country by nationality. (Here's the one for Americans). Make sure you double check visa requirements, though. For instance, nearly every country I've been to allows you to just show up with your passport and get a visitor visa (typically 90 days) without applying beforehand. Except China, which I expected, and Australia, which I did not expect. If you are an American travelling to Australia, you have to apply for a visitor's visa online and pay a small-ish fee before you arrive. Most Brits & Europeans qualify for a free e-visa also available online before arrival.
- If you plan to stay, study, or work in one country** for longer than 90 days, go to that country's immigration website to see what sort of application process and fees are required of you.
- Traveling in Europe long-term? Be aware that many countries in Europe are members of the Schengen Agreement, which means that countries within the Schengen area are all part of the same visitor visa. You can't stay more than 90 days in any of those countries combined. That's what allows for border-free travel within Europe.
- Traveling in Costa Rica long-term? If you want to stay more than 90 days in Costa Rica, all you have to do is leave the country for 72 hours (hop over the border to Panama or Nicaragua) and then you can come back for a new visitor's visa for 90 days more.
**See my post on doing a New Zealand Working Holiday for more info on that specific visa.
- A few months before your trip, you might want to look into whether or not you'll be needing vaccinations or medicine to prevent infectious diseases and viruses in your ultimate destination(s). A helpful country-by-country guide is on the CDC website. Most "first world" countries don't necessitate a vaccination but places in Central & South America, Africa, and Asia most likely will require at least anti-malarial pills.
- Visit a health clinic or your primary doctor and tell them where you're going. Not only will they give you your necessary vaccines, but they can also hook you up with (very important) antibiotics in case of traveler's diarrhea and a little something called the International Certificate of Vaccination, aka the Yellow Card. Some countries require you to have a yellow card to prove that you have been vaccinated against Yellow Fever. More than that, though, it can be useful to have in any country, as it details (in a few languages) your vaccination and general medical history as well as current prescriptions. This could be key if you end up hospitalized in a foreign country. Also: don't forget to ask for copies of prescriptions you might need to fill abroad or an extra few months worth of pills if there's a medicine you take daily.
- Consider opening up a Travel Rewards credit card to make any big travel purchases
- If you open a Travel Rewards credit card before you purchase anything travel-related, you can have the opportunity to earn extra points to use later towards even more travel-related purchases. There are tons of helpful sites out there that compare the best cards, just do a cursory search. There's also an intense system of opening multiple cards called churning that supposedly can allow people to travel across the world only on rewards but it seems super risky and time-consuming.
- Personally, I have the Bank of America Travel Rewards card. It's not necessarily "the best" but it was one of the only cards I qualified for when I had no credit after graduating university. I earn rewards on anything "travel" - even not-so-distant travel like concerts - and can use the points to pay for expenses equivalent to the amount of points I've earned. It's pretty straightforward, which is all I need.
- Alert your bank and credit card companies
Tell your bank or credit card company which countries you'll be going to and if possible, exactly when you'll be there. This protects against credit card theft for when you're no longer in a country and also stops the bank or company freezing your card because you don't normally buy a sandwich in London or wherever.
- Travel Insurance
For international travel of any length, it's probably a good idea to get travel insurance. You never know when you might lose your baggage completely or go to the hospital or get robbed or have to be airlifted off of a remote hiking track. All of those things could happen. And all of those things can be covered by travel insurance. I use Allianz.
- Backup important documents in a secure cloud-based program.
- Worst case scenario, document-wise, you've lost your passport somehow. Apparently it's easier to get a new one from the nearest embassy if you can provide a copy of the one that's lost. It's easy to do if you just print a scan of your passport that you have saved in the cloud.
- Other important documents you might want to have saved in the cloud: a copy of your travel insurance policy, copies of prescriptions you might need - including optical scrips in case you lose your lenses, your "Yellow Card," copies of any full page visas you might have in your passport, and lastly consider making a document containing the serial numbers of any tech gear you bring along in case you need to file a police report for theft.
- Join a Frequent Flier program
- I made the mistake of not registering the airmiles I earned on a very long series of flights I took in 2014 (New York>Los Angeles>Shanghai and then Shanghai>Moscow>Paris). I covered a lot of distance and could have earned some miles to redeem for another international ticket later on. But I wasn't a part of a frequent flier program, and didn't join one before the opportunity to register the miles to a program passed. Don't make the same mistake I did.
- If there's an airline that you tend to fly with domestically, go ahead and sign up for their Frequent Flier program. Many national airlines are also members of international airline partnerships like Star Alliance or OneWorld; networks that share frequent flier points for airline travel redemption. For instance, I'm a member of American Airlines' Frequent Flier program but I can also earn miles on flights taken with any of the OneWorld member airlines.
- Americans: Enroll in STEP
- When I travel, I always make sure to enroll in the U.S. State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). It's free and all it does is notify the State Department and the local embassy at your destination to know that you're going to be in a specific country during a specific time period. It helps to be enrolled in case of a natural disaster or other national emergency in your destination. You tell them, for instance, you're going to New Zealand for 12 months. If you know the address of your accommodation, provide them with that as well. If your trip is more open-ended, you just have to give them your local cell phone number and email address. If, say, an earthquake occurs while you're in New Zealand, they will immediately provide you with the necessary information to say safe or if you're in danger, they will let your loved ones know and then they will try to get you out of said danger.
- International Driver's License
Do you plan on driving or renting a car in a country that doesn't speak English or might not recognize your national license as valid? You should probably apply for an international driver's license. They translate the details of your current license into 29 different languages. We got ours through AAA. You can get them by mail or walk into the nearest AAA storefront. Non-Americans: contact your national automotive association for more info.
- Americans: Sign up for the Talkatone App.
Talkatone is a great thing because it allows you to make calls within the U.S. from abroad for free with a WiFi connection. All you have to do is sign up, then Talkatone will provide you with another American phone number off of a list of available numbers (they only let you pick the area code) that will become your Talkatone phone number. Then, when you're abroad, you just open up the app, type the American number you want to call into the dial box and then click "Call" it will call your loved ones back home! For free! It's pretty awesome, actually. The quality is not always the best, but it's a pretty good service. I recently had trouble with my bank back home and the only way I could get it sorted was by calling toll-free from an American number.
- Leaving for a long-term trip?
Bring along a smartphone that has an unlocked SIM. Once you arrive, you can buy a cheap, prepaid SIM to use locally. There are usually kiosks offering cheap SIMs in airports' arrivals terminals. Some hostels or corner groceries will sell them as well as actual phone stores. In New Zealand, I recommend Spark Mobile.
- Consider downloading the following apps:
WhatsApp seems to be the best way to text, call, and send photos to any other smartphone in any other country. I know Apple users have iMessage, but that only works to & from apple devices. If someone you care about has Android or another OS, the only way you can text them for free from abroad is with an app like WhatsApp. (Americans: this is different from using Talkatone which I recommended above. Talkatone can connect you to any American phone number regardless of whether or not it's a smartphone or a landline. WhatsApp is only for smartphone users who have downloaded the app).
If you don't already use Uber, you might want to start. Uber is in 77 countries. If you're arriving at 4 AM in a foreign city and you just can't figure out how to get to your hostel that's an hour's drive across town, use Uber. You missed the last bus that's going to take you to a ferry ride that leaves in less than half an hour? Use Uber. And with Uber, you know that the driver's at least been vetted by an internationally recognized company versus just some random car on the street that might not even be a registered taxi. And you don't have to worry about having the right amount of cash to pay for the ride afterwards. ...It really is probably the best way to avoid taxi scams internationally, of which there are many.
-A currency and/or metric conversion app
Super helpful when you just can't remember what the cost would be if it were your home currency. And for us Americans, sometimes it's nice to have help remembering how many miles are in a kilometer, etc.
You don't have to have the app to use AirBnB but it is a lot easier. And AirBnB seems to frequently have cheaper and more private accommodation available than at local hostels or hotels in so many countries.
Maps.me allows you to have maps and route directions offline, which is awesome if you a) don't want to use data or b) don't have an international phone plan/or local SIM for your current country.