Practical Travel Tips: First Time International Travel

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Travel has its challenges but when you’re going to a foreign destination for the first time, it can feel a bit daunting. If you’re prepared ahead of time, you can concentrate on just having fun and enjoying yourself. Here are some practical travel tips for first-time international travelers.

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Passport & Visas

Being American citizens, we are lucky to be from a country that allows us to visit so many other countries with just a passport in hand. If you are a US Citizen and don’t have a passport, apply for one. First, fill out the form at the US State Department Travel passport site and then bring it to a fulfillment site – most post offices can handle this for you. Remember to get the 48-page version versus the standard 24-page passport. The price for the two versions is exactly the same and you’d be surprised at how many visas and stamps you can accumulate in 10 years!

Now that you have a passport, check whether or not you need a visa for the country you are visiting. Go to US State Department Travel site and search for the country you intend to visit to review the entry requirements.

Always get the 48 Page Passport.- Photo: (c) The Flight Deal

Always get the 48 Page Passport.- Photo: (c) The Flight Deal

Remember to scan the picture page of your passport; print out a copy for yourself and also send a digital copy to yourself via email. We always keep a physical copy on us and in multiple email accounts in case we lose our passport and need access to a copy somewhere. We suggest choosing an email account that you don’t mind being compromised (there’s a method to our madness). If you lose your passport or the paper copy while abroad, you can access the original passport scan from a public computer. This is why we recommend that you use an account that you don’t mind being compromised. Having the copy on hand will help you get into a local consulate and on your way with a replacement passport much sooner.

General Safety

For peace of mind (for either yourself or perhaps your family), you can enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). It does not cost anything but it allows you to register at the US consulate and/or embassy. You would need to create an account and simply type in the details of your trip (i.e. city/country, accommodations, etc.).  You would also be able to subscribe for relevant travel warnings and alerts. We would recommend doing this if you are going to a politically unstable country.

Itinerary

Most of us only have our itineraries in an email on our phone. We would advise against doing that. We always print out our itineraries when we travel. Make sure you print the confirmation with the ticket number, not just the confirmation number. Here are some real-life instances that this tip has has saved us:

  • While checking in for a flight from Hanoi to Luang Prabang, the computers were not talking to each other; however, the agent was able to find our reservation using the ticket number.
  • At Colombo airport, security wanted to see our physical itinerary before letting us into the main terminal.
  • At Madrid, the Iberia agent couldn’t find our reservation without the ticket number; the print out saved a lot of time tracking it down.

Money and Credit Cards

We never exchange money before going to any destination. We carry maybe five $20 bills in our wallet. Upon landing, we will immediately use our debit card to take cash out at the ATM in the airport (usually located in the Arrivals Hall). The exchange rate that you get at the local ATM will likely be better than the rate offered at either the cash exchange kiosks or any exchange place in the US. If you plan on frequent international travel, we recommend you get a Charles Schwab checking account and their ATM card as they will reimburse you for the fees. We recommend this even if you don’t travel frequently – don’t allow your primary bank account to be compromised while traveling.

Always get your local currency at the ATM Photo: (c) The Flight Deal

Always get your local currency at the ATM Photo: (c) The Flight Deal

We rely on our credit card whenever possible. It will give you the best rate – just make sure you use one without a foreign exchange fee. One thing to always remember:  when given the option to pay in US Dollars (USD) or the local currency — ALWAYS PICK the LOCAL CURRENCY option. The USD option is always a rip-off. It is a fake rate that the bank made up and is never in your favor. It is called dynamic currency conversion and you can read more about it here on our post.

Get a credit card that is PIN enabled. Many kiosks (like train stations) require you to have a PIN enabled credit card to buy tickets. This will save you time versus having to talk to an agent to buy a ticket.

Bring the credit card you used to purchase your tickets with you. It is not uncommon in some Asian and African countries to request seeing the original credit card when your ticket was booked. We once ran into some difficulty because the expiration date was different – it took awhile for them to see that the credit card we used had expired and this was the new one

Transportation and Navigation

We rely heavily on Google Maps when we travel. If you do not have international data, download the offline map of the area you are going to. Here is the Google Maps offline instructions for Android devices and iPhone/iPad devices. Another app with offline access we’ve had success with is “maps.me”.

Technology and Technology Security

Technology:

Make sure you have an international power adapter. We carry the Mudder International Adapter with 2 USB ports, which you can buy for about $10 at Amazon. Additionally, you may want to check to see if you need a travel converter in case the country you are visiting uses a different voltage. (Ladies, be careful with this one, especially if you are bringing something like a hair dryer, which can easily either knock out the electricity or burn out your dryer!)

We also take pictures of the serial number of each gadget we bring with us — in case it gets stolen and we have to file a report.

Security:

If you are accessing your account via public WiFi, remember to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to provide an extra layer of security. You can sign up for a free VPN service like TunnelBear, which gives you 500MB per month and, if you tweet once a month promoting them, you’ll get an extra 1 to 1.5GB a month for free. They have an app for Android and iPhone. Install it.

Internet Access

We rely on Google’s Project Fi and T-Mobile for free international roaming. If you don’t have either of them as your mobile provider, we would recommend getting your phone unlocked and buying a prepaid data SIM card when you arrive at your destination country. Many airports will offer this within the Arrivals Hall – usually in a convenience store. Be sure to ask them to install and set up the SIM for you if you are not very tech savvy, especially if you are in a country whose principal language is not English. This will give you internet access for a few dollars and will make life easier for you.

Language

Don’t worry about language – English is very useful everywhere. We haven’t gone to too many places where we couldn’t find an English speaker. But do learn some words in the language of the destination you are visiting – it goes a long way. Also don’t be that person who gets angry because someone can’t speak English when visiting a country that doesn’t use English as their official language. Be patient, be kind.

It may be helpful to ask your hotel concierge to email you the address in their local language. For example, if you are visiting China, ask them to send the hotel address in Chinese characters so you can show this to your taxi driver.

As we prepare to go about our day in a foreign country that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, we will ask the hotel concierge to write down, in the native language, our destinations for the day. This is especially helpful in Asia.

Food and Water

Our rule of thumb:

  • Street food – go for it if there’s a line; avoid it if there isn’t.
  • Fruit – we like to peel it ourselves.
  • Raw vegetables – know where you are; if you’re in a place where you’re supposed to be drinking bottled chances are the vegetables haven’t been washed with bottled water.

Water:

  • Drink bottled or filtered water whenever possible.

Tipping

We come from a country where tipping is not only customary but mandatory in certain places. However, this may not be the case in most other places (and can even be considered downright insulting in certain cultures). We recommend downloading the app “Piper – travel tipping” as you can use it offline and it’s free. You simply select the country and it will provide a summary of the tipping standards there. This comes in handy!  On that note, also be sure to keep small notes or change on you for these instances.

Medication

We usually try to carry a 3 day supply of penicillin just in case. If you’re in Southeast Asia fighting a stomach bug, you’ll be reaching for it! Simply tell your doctor you’re traveling abroad and would like a prescription for a “Z-Pack”. If you’re on any other medication make sure you bring extra. Also, since brand names vary by country make sure you know what the generic name of your drugs are. If you need to refill overseas, you’ll be able to ask for the right drug.

Make sure your OTC or prescription drug is legal where you are going. For example, Sudafed is banned in Japan.

Humor

A sense of humor goes a long way. Smile!

About the Author

Follow our travel and eating adventures on The Flight Deal instagram page.

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11 Responses to "Practical Travel Tips: First Time International Travel"

  1. Dale Sturm says:

    Please tell me more about the app “Tip” you mentioned. I cannot locate it in the App Store. Thanks

    Reply
  2. Kristin says:

    The tipping app is it for iPhone only? Did not find it in the Google play store

    Reply
    • The Flight Deal says:

      @Kristin – piper looks like its iPhone only. google for a tips app for android, they all have the same basic functionality.

      Reply
  3. Kara says:

    How about exchanging cash at destinations local bank? If CC has foreign transaction fees..

    Reply
  4. Jim says:

    Don’t trust your assumptions. I’ve had a diesel car for 16 years in the U.S. and always pull up to green pump. Tried that in Ireland and filled tank of diesel car with unleaded! And, if in Ireland, don’t call your rental car company. Local attendants see wrong fueling all the time and know who to call to pump out your tank and get you on the way. In Ireland it’s Fuel Rescue and we were back on the road in less than 2 hours. Their cost is about $200; however, Hertz tripled that because I called their road assistance number thinking they would need to tow the car somewhere to drain the tank. Hertz actually called Fuel Rescue. Lesson learned.

    Reply
  5. Maya says:

    A z-pack is not at all the same as penicillin! They are entirely different classes of antibiotics and work on different organisms. Medical advice should come straight from your doctor. Tell them where you are going and ask what they recommend, and s/he will prescribe you an antibiotic and tell you which symptoms necessitate it.

    Reply
  6. Lisa says:

    Don’t count on having an address in the local language. In Bangkok, we had a card from our hotel with the address in Thai, but the driver was illiterate. We managed to come up with a nearby tourist site he knew in English, otherwise we’d have been out of luck.

    Reply
  7. Burl says:

    1. Don’t forget to tell your bank and CC companies where and when you will be travelling. This includes countries you may only be transiting through.

    2. While on that call with your bank, find out how much cash you will be able to get from an ATM each day. Often, this can be quite low ($150 for me). If you happen to need more than that in the first few days, getting the currency ahead of time can be a life saver, even if costly. Additionally, this means you will be able to maximize ATM visits (to minimize international fees).

    3. Register with the US State Department’s STEP program. This will make life easier if anything happens while you are abroad (everything from medical help to evacuation assistance).

    4. Make sure that someone back home has that same printout of your full itinerary that you keep while travelling. When all else fails, even an expensive international phone call (unless you’re Project Fi/T-Mobile) to a friend is much easier then calling a customer service line.

    Reply
  8. John says:

    I thought it was really interesting how the article mentions printing out your flight itinerary. I think it’s really smart to be prepared for any situation when it comes to international airfare travel. My wife and I have been making plans for a trip abroad, so we’ll be sure to print our itinerary so as to avoid any delays or problems that may arise while we travel.

    Reply

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