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So you’ve decided to take your first trip abroad…congratulations! The whole world awaits you.
I’m from the USA. Earlier this year, I impulsively booked concert tickets in Stockholm, Sweden. A month later, I booked my flights. About 4 months later, I was on my way to way to Sweden and Denmark solo!
Booking a trip abroad can be a lot of work and preparation. There is so much to think about. Here’s how I start planning an international trip.
If you don’t have a passport, that’s your first step! US passports are $195. They must be renewed every 10 years. It usually takes 6-9 weeks to get your passport, but you may be able to get it expeditated for an extra fee.
Want to travel abroad? Here’s where to start.
1. Figure out when and where you want to go
Easier said than done, right? If there’s a country that you’ve been dying to visit, now is your chance! If you aren’t sure where to start, I use Scott’s Cheap Flights to find cheap flight deals and sometimes book flights based on cheap flight availability.
Here are some safety things to keep in mind. In general, for your first trips abroad, I recommend choosing a country with a relatively high tourist population and areas that speak a language you’re familiar with. For an American, getting lost in London will be a lot easier than getting lost in a remote village in China.
- Petty crime rates (pickpocketing)
- Violent crime rates (assault, murder)
- Natural disasters
- Level of English spoken
- How touristy or remote the country is
Most places have a “peak season” – where the demand for the area is highest. This is usually determined by the weather. As you narrow down the country you want to visit, weigh the pros and cons of visiting during the peak tourist season or off-season. There isn’t a right or wrong way.
If you’re going during peak tourist seasons:
- Usually the best weather
- Premium pricing
- Bookings fill up quickly (book in advance)
- More crowds
If you’re going during the off-season:
- Usually cheaper
- Fewer crowds
- Weather is a hit-or-miss
2. Book your flights and accommodations directly, not through a third party
If you run into problems, it is easier to handle them directly through the company instead of a third party. For example, let’s say you book a Delta flight through Booking.com. If you have an issue that needs to be resolved and you are at the Delta counter at the airport, sometimes they can’t do anything: Booking.com has to make the change. Save yourself the hassle and book directly after using the various trip planner tools out there.
I recommend booking at least 3-4 months in advance. (I know a lot of experienced travelers who book last minute!)
For flights, I usually use Kayak or Google flights. For accommodations, I usually use Google and Hostel World.
3. Register with your country’s embassy
For US citizens, you can register your travel plans with STEP, the Smart Traveler Enrollment Plan. Get updates and notifications about regulations.
4. Some countries require a visa, proof of COVID-19 vaccination, or other vaccinations
Check if the country you’re visiting requires either. If so, procure the medical documents, Covid vaccine password, and other vaccine paperwork. The CDC has lists of recommended vaccines and health precautions of each country.
5. Make copies of your personal documents and itinerary
Give your travel itinerary and a copy of your passport to a trusted friend or two. I also keep a copy of my passport on me and on my phone. When I had my backpack stolen in Seattle, it was incredibly handy to have a copy of my driver’s license.
6. Notify your banks of your travel plans
Getting locked out of your money isn’t any fun. Notify your banks when you’re traveling. In Europe, many places take Apple Pay. I have visited Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland and didn’t need to use the local currency.
7. Brush up on cultural norms
From tipping built-in in Europe to “no dar papaya” in Colombia, learn the cultural norms of the country you’re visiting. Blending in with the locals helps you stand out a little less.
8. Budget travel isn’t worth your life
From accommodations to travel, sometimes spending a little more is worth the peace of mind it gives you.
9. Pick up phrases from the local language
If you can, learn a bit of the local language. Basic phrases to help with reservations or directions can go a long way in showing locals you’re interested in learning about the culture.
Duolingo is a great free app. For more serious learners, I recommend practicing with a native speaker on iTalki.
In many major cities, there are signs written in the native language and in English.
10. Get an international phone plan
I use Google Fi, which allows me free international data. Previously, I was using Verizon, which charged $10/day for international data. It got very expensive very quickly!
Other options include:
- International SIM card
- Airalo app (this eSIM card came recommended by a couple people, but I haven’t used it yet)
Planning Your Trip
Now is the fun part – planning your trip! If I’m solo, I start making a list of everything I want to do, sort by location and prioritize by budget. Some tours only operate on certain days of the week or require advance reservations.
When I was in Iceland, there were dozens of spots we wanted to see. Because Iceland was so vast, we sorted them by location. You can create custom travel maps on Google Maps that sync with the Google Maps app.
I use Facebook groups to get travel advice and usually use Trip Advisor to find and book tours.
When I travel, I try to just take just a backpack. Backpacks are an easy way to get around quickly without being weighed down by luggage. Some hostels charge for linens and towels. I usually rent linens but bring a towel.
Other key items to bring are:
- Battery pack
- Shower shoes (hostel)
- Electrical converter/adapter
- Menstrual cup (I highly recommend this over disposable products…less items to pass!)
When it comes to clothing: less is more! I pack with minimalism in mind: I bring clothes that I can mix and match and that I can layer to account for multiple scenarios.