The excitement of traveling abroad is tempered only by hiccups and catastrophes that derail our adventures unexpectedly. Don’t let these dastardly surprises ruin your vacation; peruse these 20 tips for traveling internationally so you’re prepared for the best, the worst, and everything in between.
1: Wear a sling bag or fanny pack.
These are becoming ever more popular, but instead of waist-slung verities, travelers are wearing them across their chests. The good news is, they’re relatively inexpensive with many models priced at under $25. Plus, they’re convenient, lightweight, and keep your money and important documents close to your chest at all times.
2: Always carry an ID with you.
Whether using a sling bag or other kind of tote, always keep your passport or internationally recognized ID on your person. You never know when local authorities will ask for it, or when trouble strikes and you need to confirm your identity with medical officials.
3: Get necessary vaccines.
While seldom needed for travel to western Europe, vaccines are often recommended — sometimes required — for travel to South America and Asia. The CDC offers a comprehensive guide to vaccines and health information for numerous international destinations; be sure you read up (and get your shots) well before you leave.
4: Research your arrival airport.
In the frenzy of preparation, many travelers forget to scope out the airport they’ll navigate when they arrive at their destination. In smaller cities, this isn’t usually a problem as the airport’s layout is quite simple, but for cities like London or Paris, it’s important to know where key locations are within the airport. At the very least, know your arrival gate and concourse, how to get to baggage claim, and where to grab transportation to your hotel.
5: Purchase both a phrasebook and a guidebook.
Wide-eyed Americans often think only to get guidebooks about their destination location and forego phrasebooks, thinking that natives will likely speak enough English for them to get by. Don’t assume; get a simple guidebook that walks you through basic phrases related to food/dining, hotels, transportation, and medical assistance. All the big-name travel guide companies (Rick Steves, for example) offer these for multiple destinations.It's important to know where key locations are within the airport. At the very least, know your arrival gate and concourse, how to get to baggage claim, and where to grab transportation to your hotel. Click To Tweet
6: Get local currency before arriving.
We mentioned this in a recent post about saving money while traveling, but it applies here, too: Go to your bank and order local currency before you head out. Not only will this make getting food and incidentals in your destination city that much easier, but it ensures you don’t have to swallow absurd exchange fees at the airport.
7: If heading to a theocracy, learn common customs — and prohibitions.
Certain countries in the Middle East are theocracies, wherein governments are run based on religious laws. Study these laws before you land so you avoid offending locals. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, it is improper to eat with your left hand or to greet women with a hug. If you have questions about etiquette, consult the tourism website for your destination or peek at this Condé Nast guide.
8: Don’t pack offensive (or possibly offensive) clothing.
While freedom of expression is cherished in the west, many countries are more conservative and strongly discourage inflammatory writing or images displayed in public. To avoid causing offense, don’t pack any clothes that might set someone off. If you aren’t sure whether or not an item will, play it safe and don’t pack it.
9: Know where you can and cannot take pictures.
Wherever you’re headed, be mindful of picture-taking rules and consider them carefully before whipping out your DSLR or smartphone camera. For instance, there are some spots in Dubai where picture-taking is discouraged or outright prohibited. It’s also forbidden for you to take pictures of people in the UAE.
10: Always try to greet locals in their language.
No one expects you to be fluent in the language of a foreign country, but most natives will love you if try to greet them in their native tongue. If that’s all you can do, make sure you let them know (in their language) that you speak English. Most will happily will switch to conversing in the English they know, but will be far more generous with you if you started the conversation in their language. This can pay off with directions, guidance, free food/drink, and other benefits.
11: If you have food allergies, bring documents with you explaining them that you can share with servers and restaurant owners.
Navigating foreign dining is hard enough without the added struggle of having to articulate food allergies. Don’t try to learn all the phraseology associated with this; instead, pick up a handy, one-page guide (like these for celiacs) and carry it with you. Whenever you drop by a restaurant or food stand, present it to the chef or server so they know what foods to avoid serving.
12: Scope out medical facilities and protocols.
Depending on your trek, you may or may not be able to pinpoint exact medical facilities in your destination city or location. It is advisable to try, however, and learn what is necessary to secure medical treatments if needed. This means knowing payment and documentation requirements, protocols, and likely treatments. The U.S. Department of State has tips around this that are worth taking a look at.
13: Confirm international medical coverage with your insurance company.
Speaking of medical support, check in with your health insurance company before you leave to see what kind of coverage you get in your destination country. You’ll have to request reimbursement for treatments after getting back to the U.S. of course, but this will help you map out costs in advance. (Oh, also: Be ready to pay full medical bills upfront. Just get a receipt so you can submit it with your insurance claim later.) Also, check out our piece on travel insurance, some policies may cover medical costs abroad, or you may be able to get supplemental coverage from your existing insurance company.
14: Don’t agree to unsanctioned tours.
Wide-eyed, idealistic tourists are a huge money grab for locals who like to congregate around monuments and landmarks, offering custom, one-on-one tours for a set price. Don’t fall for it. Always go with a sanctioned tour that is well vetted; most others are scams.
15: Vet street food vendors before buying.
Speaking of street food, be sure you carefully vet vendors before ordering. There are horror stories of travelers getting horrendous food poisoning from street food feasts, but this can be avoided fairly easily. First, research well-known street food vendors. In almost any location, there will be write-ups on the best ones that have been enjoyed by travelers before you. Next, pick one with an open kitchen or cooking facility so you can see the food being made. If a cook is tying his shoes while rubbing down a raw chicken, you might want to steer clear. Lastly, check for lines at mealtime. The safest bets — and likely the most delicious — are the ones with longer lines.
16: Register with your embassy wherever you’re headed.
Nobody assumes things will go wrong while you’re abroad, but it’s good to cover your bases. To keep the State Department apprised of your travels, register with the local embassy; this will ensure the government can step in as needed to help ensure your safe return to the U.S.
17: Notify your bank of travel dates and location.
Credit card not working? That’s the worst — especially if you’re in a foreign country where nobody speaks English. While you can avoid this problem by carrying local currency (see #7), also be sure you notify your bank of your travel plans. This will ensure they don’t automatically block payments on your card for what appears to be fraudulent use.
18: Leave a copy of your trip itinerary (with addresses and phone numbers of hotels) with a close friend or family member.
If you don’t notify your embassy of your travels, at least pass along a copy of your itinerary to someone who can step in as needed to locate you in the event of an emergency. Make sure you include contact information, both for yourself and for the hotels/hostels/room shares where you’ll be staying.
19: Bring a charge adapter.
Don’t assume the standard U.S. two-pronged cord will work in foreign outlets. Check this handy guide to see what kind of outlet your destination country uses and purchase an adapter in advance of your trip so you can juice up your electronics without issue.
20: Research the potability of local water; buy bottle water as needed.
This isn’t an issue in most western countries, but certain countries in Southeast Asia, South America, and the Middle East don’t offer entirely potable tap water. Know this in advance so you can have a bottle of your own water ready. Or, just be prepared to stock up on bottled water during your trip.
Keep an eye out for more tips for traveling internationally — we’ll be updating this list throughout the year. Got a tip of your own? Share it with us at email@example.com.