By Sharyn Alden
Taking your first trip abroad is an incredible thrill. First-time international travelers can get absolutely giddy with anticipation at the thought of finally seeing world-famous sights like the Acropolis, Rome’s Trevi Fountain or Prague’s moody Charles Bridge.
However, having the time of your life starts with good planning long before your trip begins.
Here are seven planning tips that’ll make your first international trip one to remember – for all the right reasons.
- Get a grip on your priorities: Early in the process, you need to figure out what gets you going when you get up in the morning, and then look for places that mirror your interests, your physical capabilities, and your wallet. Are you primarily interested in a destination’s history, art and culture? Then look for cultural-awareness tours or destinations with plenty to see. Are you an explorer? Maybe you’d enjoy renting a home in the Tuscany countryside and using that as a base for exploration. Don’t let a glossy travel brochure distract you from the real reasons why you travel.
- Research your trip like you’re preparing for a test: Put time — a lot of time — into researching not just where you want to go, but what you want to see when you get there. If your first trip is to a place like Sydney, Berlin, Madrid, or Hong Kong, consume information that will help you understand what makes these places what they are — their distinct architecture, art, food, culture, and language. Before I traveled to Russia for the first time, I spent a summer reading its literature, learning about its history, and re-watching movies like Reds and (yes!) Dr. Zhivago. This helped amplify my on-the-ground experiences and helped me better understand some of the country’s touchstones — like that giant statue of Tolstoy in Moscow.
- How real is your reality? After you’ve narrowed down your list of potential destinations to one or two, ask yourself how realistic those places are for you. Are you okay traveling to a destination where there are few English speakers? Would you be more comfortable in English-speaking regions like the U.K., South Africa and the Caribbean? Match how much time you have with the vacation time you have available. If you’ve got 10 days for a getaway, you’re not going to have much time to enjoy New Zealand or Bora Bora — where, depending on where you live, there may be 20-hour flights (or more) each way. Before committing to a destination, check with the State Department for travel advisories and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for health advisories. Sign up for the State Department’s STEP program and bookmark the CDC website. If you’re not up-to-date on your vaccinations, this is time to get it done.
- Allow enough time to get a passport: There’s always someone who does tons of research for their trip and then, oops, doesn’t quite get that whole passport thing. Travel abroad requires a passport, and a passport takes time. Six weeks is routine, and three weeks is the norm for an expedited passport. Fortunately, you can complete several steps in the application process online. Also, depending on where you’re going, you may also need to apply for a visa. That Russia trip, for example, required a long, detailed visa form that took several weeks to turn around. Remember: There’s no such thing as a true online application process for passports and visas. You download application forms and take them to official passport agencies (such as U.S Post Offices). Passport renewals require the form, fee and current passport to be mailed in. Visas have to be sent to various diplomatic agencies in the U.S.; for my Russia trip, the packets were sent to Russian-approved agencies in Washington D.C. for examination and final approval.
- Research all the costs: Once you’ve decided to spend two weeks hiking the Swiss Alps, figure out what the whole thing – and I mean the whole thing — is going to cost. Factor in travel to the airport, and maybe a hotel stay going or coming. Also factor in transportation costs—buses, cabs, trains. Don’t forget your kennel bill if you have pets. Then give yourself a food budget, like $75 a day. Besides these costs, make sure you take along a mix of money for tips and spending, and then set aside way more than you think for a contingency fund. This can be in the form of access to money — credit cards, cash or ATM withdrawals. Remember: There are always unexpected expenses when you travel.
- Due diligence before heading out: Put your smart traveler hat with these tips:
- See if you have free Wi-Fi through your phone carrier. You can buy a phone package or keep in touch with folks at home for free through Skype, Google Hangout, Facebook or Tango.
- Take photos of your important documents. Take pics of your passport, medical cards, and travel documents like airline tickets and email them to yourself. Make photocopies and carry them with you in a place other than in your wallet. Leave copies with trusted family or friends at home.
- Switch to no-fee ATM cards.
- Make sure your credit cards have chip-and-PIN technology.
- Call your credit-card companies and tell them where you’re traveling.
- Buy travel insurance: There’s nothing worse than being in a foreign country and having an accident or injury, especially if you aren’t well-versed in the local language. When I broke my kneecap in Croatia, it quickly stopped me from traveling any further. But my trip insurance helped expedite my speedy return home. Plus, most expenses associated with this high-priced evacuation were paid. ExactCare from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection is reasonably priced and has emergency medical and evacuation protection.
If you’re fully prepared for your first trip abroad, give yourself a pat on the back. Now it’s time to enjoy the journey!
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis. Contact her at email@example.com.