It’s been a while since most of us have spread our metal wings and experienced international travel. After all, there was that little bump called a global pandemic that had the majority of us grounded for two years, so it makes sense that as international travel restarts that some of us, well all of us really, are a little rusty. Our passports are expired and we can’t seem to remember that you don’t actually need to pack five pairs of shoes, six shorts, and four dresses for a month and a half in Europe – that last one may have been just me, but hey no one’s perfect. It’s normal to have forgotten a few of the finer points of international travel while COVID had us all home bound; so, if your memory is as faulty as mine, here’s a bit of a refresher on how to take that dream trip with minimal fuss.
Check Your Passport
The first thing you should do when planning any international travel is to check your passport’s expiration date and how many blank pages you have left in it. You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget this step, especially if you were used to traveling a lot pre-COVID, because they are generally valid for a decade and most people, myself included, assume they will be fine. In this post-COVID world, many people have only realised their passports are expired after starting to plan their big trip – the consequences of which can range from stress inducing at the best to trip ending at the worst. Personally, mine didn’t expire, but it’s getting a bit close for comfort with how much international travel I have planned in the next six months (and now I have to figure out what 4-6 week period I can be passport-less for while it is being renewed – US passports must be mailed in to be renewed from abroad). Remember, depending on what country you are traveling to, you will need at least 30 days of time left before your expiration date and most countries require more. I often assume 90 days validity is pretty good, but some countries need as much as 180 days validity. I strongly recommend checking your intended destination’s requirements on the Country Information section of the US State Department’s website to make sure the information you are finding is up to date and compatible with a US passport. Make sure to check those blank pages as some countries needed up to two entire blank pages left to allow you entry (some countries like to slap giant sticker visas on there that cover a whole page – Vietnam, I’m looking at you). Do this well ahead of your intended travel as passport processing times can be long, with an expedited US passport renewal still taking more than 5 weeks (normal is 8-11 weeks).
|British Virgin Islands
|Central African Republic
|United Arab Emirates
|Papua New Guinea
Look into Visa Requirements
In continuing with the theme of outing myself for my international travel mistakes, some of you may remember when I mentioned that in all the COVID hubbub Kane and I forgot to check if we needed visas to enter Malaysia until we were literally sitting at our boarding gate in Brisbane. This was stupid. Do not be like us and make assumptions that could end with your sorry ass being unceremoniously drop kicked onto a departing plane moments after arrival in your dream destination (overly dramatic alert…you will likely avoid being drop kicked, but you may be deported if you enter without a valid visa). Due to the strength of the Australian and USA passports, we got lucky and did not get deported (yay for visas on arrival), but this is not a great strategy. Always, always, look into visa requirements as soon as you begin planning your trip, because even if you don’t have to apply for anything ahead of time, you will need to understand how long you are allowed to stay. For example, the Schengen Zone visa that all Australians and Americans get upon arrival in the EU (plus some additional countries) only allows 90 days of travel within the Schengen Zone during any 180 day period. Visa overstays should be avoided at all costs as they risk more than just your ability to ever enter that country again, they may make you ineligible for other countries visas as well.
Think About Money
This is a broad category that has two main categories: 1) how much money you have to spend on your trip and 2) how you will access money while you are abroad. The first question of budget will inform where you choose to travel, because not all destinations are created equal when it comes to finances and while $5,000 AUD can cover your couple’s month in Malaysia just fine, you will likely find your funds running short if you except to be able to explore all of Norway on that budget. In general, Europe is not a budget destination (though Eastern Europe is more affordable than Western Europe), but places like Southeast Asia often are (Singapore aside).
Now that you know how much money you want to spend, you need to figure out how to use that money on your trip in the most effective way. The reason I say most effective can be summed up in one word…fees (and poor exchange rates). International fees on normal credit cards can be killer, so check with your bank before you leave. You will also need to place travel notices on all your cards, even those you don’t expect to use, so that the bank doesn’t see that first ATM withdrawal in Rome and assume your card has been stolen by someone with an unhealthy gelato addiction. Banks cancel cards all the time due to people forgetting to notify them of their international travel plans, don’t let yourself be one of them. I strongly recommend you also bring a debit card that has low to no international travel withdrawal fees to take out cash when you are abroad. I have the Charles Schwab debit card and absolutely love it, I get the correct exchange rate every time (poor exchange rates are a place banks like to screw you, you could lose up to 20% each withdrawal using a bank with a poor exchange rate) and they even reimburse the ATM fee that the foreign bank charges. One final point on ATMs, in Europe they will ask you if you would like the amount debited in euros or in your currency – do not pick euros as if you look at the exchange rate they are offering, it is atrocious, just click decline conversion and debit the money in the foreign currency letting your bank do the conversion..
A Comment On Cash
When I am in the US or Australia (countries that I have bank accounts in), I hardly use cash. I am always swiping or tapping that little bit of plastic that passes for money in the modern world, but that changes when I travel. See, cash is king, especially in the developing world where it is highly unlikely that they will have ever heard of, let alone accept, your Discover card. Most places do accept MasterCard or Visa, but often at high fees for foreign cards. Another risk of using cards as your main method of payment is the increased risk of theft that you expose yourself to. When you take out larger sums at ATMs, you use your card less, thus creating less opportunities for someone to swipe the data. It is unlikely that your card will be skimmed, but not impossible (it happened to us in Nicaragua) and if it does happen it really can ruin your trip (you need to call your bank and cancel your card, thus leaving you with one less way to access money abroad). I also do not feel comfortable handing my card to a waiter who then walks away with it to charge it, I personally feel much more comfortable with cash in these situations. I know my opinion on this differs from some travelers who feel uncomfortable carrying cash, because, yes, if your wallet gets stolen that cash is gone; however, I have never once had cash or my wallet stolen abroad where as I have had my credit card data swiped and stolen twice (once in Nicaragua and once actually in Australia). The best way to protect yourself from credit card theft is to use your card less (see above) and to routinely check your online banking (while using a secure VPN – more about this below) so that you can quickly catch any unauthorised transactions and cancel your card before any more damage is done.
Money Changers Are Glorified Con Men
I know I’m going on a bit about money, but it will make or break your trip, as you need money to do literally everything, at home and abroad. Never, I repeat, never use money changers as your main method of accessing money; they give horrible rates that can cost you hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars over the course of a trip. I would only recommend using them for changing a small bit of your currency into the local currency prior to your trip if this makes you more comfortable – personally, I don’t bother with this step and generally rely on airport ATMs to get out local currency on arrival. I find airports to be reliable, safe places to use ATMs; but, as with everything in travel, go with your gut on the safety of a particular ATM location – if it’s dark and dodgy, wait to withdraw until you find a nice, well lit one during daylight hours. Also, always cover your hand when you type in your pin as occasionally the less than scrupulous amongst us can put cameras on ATMs to record PIN numbers – this step also stops any prying eyes from peeking at this important little code.
SIM Cards, Wifi, and VPNs oh my!
When I started traveling internationally over a decade ago there was no cheap way to use your phone abroad. Back then, if you turned off airplane mode once you crossed the border and your oh so well meaning momma decided to call you’d be in for a world of financial pain courtesy of roaming charges. On my first big foray into international travel in Europe in 2015, I relied heavily on WIFI in hostels and cafes. I would download sections of maps I needed ahead of time and be back to the pre-cell phone age the minute I left my hostel. Looking back, it was wonderful to completely disconnect and have no pull of social media or email when soaking in the sights, but also stressful (my mom and I had a particularly memorable failure of communication when trying to find the polo ranch we were staying at in Las Pampas Argentina – long story short the man who was supposed to meet us at the bus station didn’t and the bus station didn’t have WIFI to email the ranch owners the issues, so we gamely hailed a taxi and tried to navigate the Argentinian countryside by ourselves without a proper address and with such glorious directions as ‘turn left at the chickens’…we got there eventually and soothed our wounded egos with a marvellous Malbec).
How to Unlock Your Phone and Use a Local SIM Card
Roaming charges are still a bitch (so unless you know your plan is good, still avoid turning your phone off airplane mode until you have a local SIM installed), but times have changed when it comes to connectivity abroad, specifically in regards to cheap data available through pre-paid local phone plans. These days you can have the complete functionality of your phone at all times for as little as the cost of meal out (we got 45 GB for $15 in Malaysia and never ran out, despite the fact that *shock horror* we occasionally watched Netflix). All you need is an unlocked phone and to do a little research about local cell phone providers prior to your trip. A note on unlocked phones – this used to be harder in the US, but thanks to a favourable ruling in 2015, all cell phone providers must unlock your phone at your request, just remember to do this before your trip as it cannot be done from abroad.
Once you are abroad, the local provider will install your newly purchased SIM for you, but it always helps to put a safety pin or paper clip in your wallet for on the go SIM card swaps. Speaking of SIM cards, there’s a new player in this connection game that may even render my good old wallet safety pin irrelevant, and that is the eSIM card. I have not used one yet, as you need a iPhone XS or newer and my 8 doesn’t cut it, but I can imagine how convenient it would be to buy your phone plan from the comfort of your home and have it all ready to go the minute you touch down. If you have a newer phone, watch this eSIM card space, right now they look a bit more expensive than the traditional local option, but as they become more widely used they may come down in price.
Browse Securely with a VPN
With that glimpse into the future, let’s swing back to the past and talk about WIFI. WIFI was the workhorse of my international travel connectivity in the early 2010s and still has a place in any traveler’s connection repertoire, but it does require a few safety considerations before use. Nowadays it is very easy for any hacker or bored teenager to access the computers of those who are using public WIFI, even if that WIFI is password protected, like hostel WIFI. This hasn’t happened to me, thank goodness, but anytime you use a public WIFI network unprotected you are opening yourself, and your data, up to risk. We mitigate this through the use of a VPN that we turn on anytime we are using public WIFI, either on your laptop or on your phone. It encrypts your data and protects your connection so you can surf with confidence. This is especially important if you are logging onto websites with sensitive information, such as your online banking. We use SurfShark VPN and have been very happy with its functionality and affordability, at only $2.50 USD per month it costs less than half of a coffee to protect your sensitive data. As we use SurfShark, they have provided us with this link so that anyone who buys it through that will get 30 days free. Beyond cyber security, VPNs are also great at getting around geo-restrictions that cause annoyances such as certain movies and shows being blocked on Netflix in certain countries or the frustrating inability for American’s to use Venmo abroad.
Look Up Average Weather
I live in Australia, I am from the US, I should not be surprised by the fact that it is summer in December when I cross the equator, but it is not always that simple and, no, I do not always get it right (it will always be a shock to the system to go from a 40 Celsius summer in Australia to a rainy, nose-freezing winter in Portland). See, weather is very important, as anyone who has ever had the misfortune of rain during their beach holiday can attest to, and it can really help to research overall trends before you decide on your travel dates. Some international travel destinations have more complicated weather patterns than summer = good and winter = bad (my sun bias is showing in that sentence), such as Malaysia where there are monsoons year round, but that differ in their location (the Southwest Monsoon runs from April to September while the Northeast Monsoon goes from October to March). In the Australian north, winter is by far the best time to go as this is the dry season so the humidity won’t be horrific and there’s minimal cyclone risk. Contrast this with southern Australian and, unless you like cold rain, you should go during the summer months of December to February. If you only have a specific time you can travel in, I suggest you look up where in the world the weather will be good for that time of year and use this information to start your destination research. Also, shoulder seasons (aka the seasons that bridge the high and low tourism seasons) can be very good times to travel as they will often be less busy, cheaper, and still have reasonable weather, just do your research first.
Finally, Flights and Accommodation
These are the biggest two things on this list and can take up an extraordinary amount of time to balance value for money with enjoyment (I estimate about 40 hours of work to plan a couple of weeks of travel). To be honest, they probably deserve their own post, but I will try to summarise here. First thing’s first, turn your VPN on when searching for flights as if you don’t the airlines cookies will track which destinations you research and will start showing you higher and higher prices to scare you into purchasing, for fear that the cost is rising. I like to start with a flight comparison website like Skyscanner to get a broad overview of all the carriers flying that particular route. Once I’ve narrowed in on a company and route that I like, I go to that website to book as, personally, I have found the cost savings of booking through a third party to not be worth the loss of security (when something goes wrong I have found I get much better service when I book directly through the airline’s website rather than a third party like Expedia).
Flights for international travel are not generally cheap, but you can decrease their cost by signing up for alerts on specific routes, signing up to airline’s rewards programs if you are a frequent flyer (we flew Sydney to LAX for $400 due to using points), and being willing to spend time instead of money. Direct flights will cost more than long layover flights and you can save even more money by booking your own connections. However, this does come with risk as if the first flight is delayed and you miss your second flight, the second carrier is unlikely to assist as you did not book the flight all the way through. You will also need to pick up and recheck your bags if you book your own connections, something that adds time as well. If we book our own connections to save money we give ourselves an ample amount of time to cover any delays, often as much as 8 hours.
Where to Stay
As for accommodation, this can be hard as it’s very personal. Some people want luxury, some people want location, some people want atmosphere. Almost everyone wants it to be cheap, but unless you are happy with hostel style shared bathrooms or a less than perfect location, you aren’t likely to find it all for nothing. When looking for accommodation I strongly recommend that you use review sites like Booking.com and Trip Advisor to see what other travellers had to say about the place. I filter for the things that I don’t like to go without, such as an 8+ average review on Booking, air conditioning, and location (do this by using the map to search so you don’t fall in love with a place that is inaccessible); then I read the reviews. I like to read the one and two star reviews first to see if there is a theme of something coming up again and again – there’s always going to be a one-off grumpy person that hates even then best place, but it is a red flag if something keeps coming up, like street noise or bed bugs (I take that back – if even one person says bed bugs I’m out of there).
Even with the best of research, you can still get it wrong, so this is when it’s helpful to book flexible stays, such as through a platform like AirBnB or Booking.com that makes cancellation easy and gets the refunds back to you straightaway. If you’ve realised at check in that your accommodation just isn’t going to work – like the beautiful 13th century villa without air conditioning that we accidentally booked during the height of the Italian summer – that you cut your loses and find somewhere else. Yes, it will cost money to walk away from a booking, but at the end of the day, you spent weeks planning this trip and probably months, even years dreaming about it, don’t let one bad stay ruin it for you. Eat the cost and find somewhere else where you can truly enjoy the destination that you spent a lot of time and money to reach.
International Travel: The Joy of the Unfamiliar
There’s more to it, hell there’s always more to it, but that should get you started on your international travel research; so go forth, my intrepid travellers, eat unfamiliar food, speak in a language you don’t understand, and get lost in our beautiful world. If you have any comments that would help someone just setting out on international travel either for the first time or for the first time in a long time, then leave a comment below so we can all share our knowledge and explore together.