Tips for your first time traveling abroad: how to be safe, smart, and prepared. Most importantly, have fun and don’t be afraid to try something new.
1. Don’t be scared
Traveling to another country for the first time is intimidating for anyone, but don’t let your fear hold you back. Think about how many people travel all over the world every single day and have a great experience. No travel experience is guaranteed to be perfect, but being smart and informed as well as open-minded is the best recipe for a great first time traveling abroad. Don’t be afraid to try new things.
2. Read something about the place you are going before you go.
To many this is probably a no-brainer, but a lot of people just want to “show up and go where the wind blows them.” While this ideal notion of a spontaneous adventure may sound great, the reality can be very different and even dangerous. Pick up a guidebook, and read the general information about getting to your destination, getting around, customs and etiquette of the country you are going to, and basic advice on health, food, common tourist cons, and dangerous animals and insects. Make sure you know what gestures or behavior is considered rude at your destination and act accordingly.
Check up on current events in the country or city you are headed to. Find out if there are political protests, civil unrest, travel advisories, etc. Find out which neighborhoods are unsafe and be sure to avoid them. When we went to Thailand there were protests going on in Bangkok that included some grenades and gunfire on occasion. We followed the stories closely on the Bangkok Post and on Tripadvisor forums a few months before our trip, learned where the protest zones were and what areas to avoid, and we had no issues. Right before we went there was a story online in an Australian newspaper, where an Australian woman was interviewed in Bangkok. She was completely appalled that the Australian government had not warned her about the protests and that she had wandered into an area where people had been killed in a grenade blast the night before and she had no idea that was going on. “There should be signs at the airport,” she said. “Our government should have warned us.” Don’t be that lady. Take some responsibility and read the international news. The internet is a big place with a lot of news resources
3. Apply for your passport a minimum of 6 months before your travel dates, make sure you sign it
Passports take a month or so minimum to obtain, possibly longer if there is a back up in applications. To be safe, don’t wait any longer than 6 months before your trip to apply for one. They are good for 10 years, so applying a bit early isn’t going to make much of a difference. If you wear glasses, take them off for your passport photo, and be sure to sign your passport when you get it.
If you or anyone in your party already has a passport, check to make sure it expires more than 6 months after you plan on returning. Many countries will turn you away at the border if your passport expires within six months of your trip.
4. If a Visa is required for the country you are visiting, apply well in advance
If you are American or Western European, there is a pretty wide range of countries that don’t require visa applications to visit. However, it is always best to check as soon as you start planning your trip to find out. Americans can visit the State Department website for more info on specific countries.
5. Let your bank know where you are going and when
Do not forget to let your bank and credit card companies know that you are traveling out of the country. Call the numbers on the backs of your cards and tell them you would like to give them a travel notification. They will ask for the dates and for all countries you expect to be in during your trip. If you don’t warn your bank ahead of time, you may find your card(s) declined until you call them.
6. When visiting a city, map out the places you want to see and then look for a hotel close by.
Figure out what you want to see the most, and where the nightlife you are interested in is. Being able to walk places at your leisure instead of relying on public transportation is always nice. If you plan on going out drinking at night, you might consider getting a hotel close to the area you think you are going to be going. Public transportation is easier to come by during the day (and cheaper), and being able to walk back to your hotel tipsy at 2:00 AM instead of paying for an expensive cab ride is always a plus.
7. Use an RFID money belt or cross-shoulder purse, and use ATMS in banks if possible.
Keep your money hidden under your clothes with a money belt, and if you carry a purse make it small and able to be worn diagonal and not vertical over your shoulder. This will make it a lot more difficult to be snatched or pick pocketed. Use common sense and don’t flash any large wads of cash around.
The best way to get foreign currency is from an ATM (traveler’s checks are a thing of the past). Tell your bank and credit card company about your travel plans prior to leaving the country so that they don’t block your purchases and withdraws. In many countries, it is wise to withdraw cash from an ATM in a bank (preferably during banking hours so that you can get assistance if it eats your card) and pay cash wherever you go instead of using a debit card. Credit card fraud is extremely common in many places, and the poorer the country, the more cautious you should be.
If you need cash and a bank ATM isn’t available, look for ones that are part of the wall of a building and not a stand-alone. We’ve heard of instances of fake ATMs eating your card or stealing your card information and then telling you the ATM is out of order.
8. Take a copy of your passport and a secondary ID with you, packed separately from your passport
It’s a common notion to keep all your important papers and documents in one place, but you’ll want to keep a xerox copy of your passport in a separate place than your actual passport. It’s a good idea to keep your driver’s license or another form of ID along with it separate from your passport and money as well. If your purse or passport is stolen, it will be helpful to have a passport copy and extra identification to obtain a replacement from the nearest US Embassy.
It is also a good idea to have your credit card numbers and bank phone numbers written down somewhere separate as well, so that you can quickly call and cancel your cards if they are also stolen.
9. Avoid the tour buses if possible.
Yes, it’s easy to do a pre-packaged tour. In some places, it might be your best option. If it involves 40 other tourists from resorts in a huge tour bus though, try to avoid it. We managed to avoid a tour and take a shuttle to Chichen Itza in Mexico and it ended up being a fabulous trip. We got a photo of the pyramid with no one in it. Don’t be afraid to find your own transportation and see it on your own schedule. If it’s a big tourist attraction, get up early and get there when they open. The tour buses and crowds always start flowing in around 10:00 or 11:00, and if you can get most of the sightseeing done and move on to a less touristy location by then–bonus.
10. Don’t spend all your time in resorts.
Resorts are always enticing–huge beautiful swimming pools, beaches, fancy rooms and foo-foo cocktails. However, if you spend all your time at a resort you’ll miss out on a lot. We’ve stayed at a few and we always get annoyed with the fake, pre-packaged tourist show put on by the resort employees, and annoyed with our fellow resort patrons who are often rude to the staff and self-important. When we look back at all our trips, some of the best experiences were the mom-and-pop hotels and bungalows we stayed at where we met some locals or like-minded travelers and learned more about the culture and community.
11. Read reviews on www.tripadvisor.com before you book.
That fabulous deal on that hotel on Expedia? There’s often a reason it’s so cheap. Tripadvisor is a great way to read about other people’s experiences at a hotel or restaurant. You can tell when someone is being uppity (“there was a stain in the corner of the curtain”) vs. reporting a legitimate issue (“bedbugs!”). It’s also a good way to find out more information about the location of the hotel and what is nearby. We booked our resort in Bora Bora based on it’s walking distance to a convenience store and local restaurants to help us save money on food while we were there, and we learned all of that information by reading reviews. We’ve also discovered some really cool small hotels on Tripadvisor that we wouldn’t have seen as options on travel booking sites.
Another great thing about Tripadvisor is it’s forums. Ask a question and get answers from fellow travelers who have been there. Read other people’s questions and see answers. We’ve received a lot of good advice from fellow travelers on these forums and it really helped a lot with our planning. When you get back, post your reviews and photos and tell everyone what you thought about where you stayed.
12. Check with your cell phone carrier about using your phone outside of the country
More and more cell phone carriers will allow you to use your phone in certain countries outside the US. Some will allow you to turn on an international calling plan with unlimited data and texting in certain countries, with an extra fee per minute for phone calls. Always check with your carrier before traveling, you don’t want to end up with crazy cell phone bills when you get home.
If your carrier doesn’t have an economical international option for your phone, you can always put it in airplane mode and use hotel wifi to communicate back home.
13. If you have medications, be sure you have enough to cover your trip and a little extra. Take copies of your prescriptions from the doctor.
Some countries/customs officials may be strict about certain medications being brought into a country. To be on the safe side, take your prescriptions in the original prescription bottles with your name on them and get a copy of your prescription list from your doctor’s office. Always bring more than you think you might need in case your flight home gets delayed, but don’t bring too much more or they might think you’re trying to sell it. I have a couple common prescription drugs that I travel with, and I’ve never had a problem. It’s always best to be prepared for questions though.
14. Pack comfortable shoes suitable for the climate.
Bad shoes will absolutely ruin any trip. If you are able to walk a lot, then you will be doing some major walking. The best way to see sights is on foot. Make sure to bring comfortable shoes with good support. If you are going to a tropical climate, you may want to invest in some athletic water sandals that are good for hiking or water use. If you are traveling to Iceland or planning on being outdoors in a cold, rainy climate, waterproof hiking boots are a life-saver.
Personally, I gave up on high heels and uncomfortable shoes in my 20s. Now I’m all about quality, not quantity. I’ve found that with shoes, you get what you pay for. It’s worth the extra money to be comfortable and ready for any adventure.
15. Be an eco-conscious traveler.
Recycle whenever possible, and take all your trash with you when you leave a beach, park, or other destination. Don’t patronize restaurants that serve shark fin soup (more about this here). If going somewhere where animals are part of the attraction (such as riding elephants or whale watching), read up on companies and choose the ones that treat the animals well. Patronize tour companies that give wild animals their space and don’t encourage feeding them. Leave a small footprint, and don’t buy souvenirs consisting of animal parts such as ivory, shark jaws, or fur.
16. Pack light.
Yes, much easier said than done. I’ve kicked myself for not following this rule a few times. It’s always more difficult with cooler climates as well, because clothes are bulkier and take up more space. Take everything you think you need and then put half of it back. Tide makes great little travel-size packets of laundry detergent that are made for doing laundry in a hotel sink and we’ve used them quite a few times. Going for two weeks? Take one week’s worth of clothes and plan on doing some laundry when you get a hotel stay that is two nights or more. Trust us, it sucks lugging around a bunch of stuff and keeping track of it. If you can fit everything you are taking with you into a hiking backpack with some extra room for souvenirs to take home–you’ve done it right.
17. Learn how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in the language of the country you are visiting.
No one expects you to speak Swedish or Thai, but learning these basic courtesies in the language of the country you are going to will win you brownie points with the locals. It is also often polite to ask “Do you speak English?” to a stranger before you start rambling off your questions. If you’re going to a country with a more common language such as Spanish or French, try to learn a few more basic phrases. If you know some of the language, use it. Even if you’re embarrassed about your pronunciation or grammar, locals will appreciate the fact that you are trying (except for people in Paris, but I digress….).
18. Don’t be the guy with no shirt on in a restaurant.
You don’t need a sign that says “no shirt, no shoes, no service” to tell you that this is rude in most places. While in Thailand, a country that dresses fairly conservatively and tank tops are uncommon among locals, we visited a restaurant on the side of the highway for lunch. There we saw a fat European tourist in tiny short shorts, with no shirt on and his huge belly hanging over his waistband which looked like it was about to burst. The icing on the cake: black socks with sandals accompanied his outfit. Don’t be that guy. Just don’t.
With a little preparation and research, your first time traveling abroad should be a fun and exciting experience. Keep an open mind, and remember that you are a guest in the country you are traveling to. Don’t be afraid to venture out and learn about the world. I guarantee you won’t regret it.