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.
If you would like to write about your recent travel experiences on The Flight Deal, submit your pitch here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Drink bottled or filtered water whenever possible.
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.
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.
A sense of humor goes a long way. Smile!
About the Author
Follow our travel and eating adventures on The Flight Deal instagram page.
The Flight Deal does not sell travel products or services. We provide you with information about third-party travel suppliers’ offers, and link you to their sites. The information posted by The Flight Deal is valid at the time of publication. However, we have no control over the suppliers, and we therefore do not warrant or guarantee that their offers will not change or become unavailable. Nor are we responsible for their products, services or site content. Please see their sites for their most up-to-date offer information and all applicable terms and conditions.