Fantastic Musingsour blog
The International Travel Checklist: Know Before You Go
1) Prepare to deal with the things you can't prepare for
Be ready, in case the unexpected happens.
An easy, but often overlooked, way to help ensure that you’re prepared for the unexpected when traveling internationally is to subscribe to STEP alerts for your destinations. STEP stands for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. This is a free service offered by the United States Department of State. Once you enroll in the program with your trip information, you receive information for the U.S. Embassy in your destination country, including important safety updates. It allows helps the U.S. Embassy contact you in the case of an emergency and assists family and friends in reaching you in an emergency.
Another important way to prepare for the unexpected is to purchase travel insurance. While we are happy to sell travel insurance to our guests, we care more that you purchase it than that you buy it from us. As with any insurance, one hopes never to have to use travel insurance. We recommend building the cost of the insurance in to your travel budget just as you would the cost of any other travel component. While it may tempting to cut that corner and save the money, if you’re in Paris ready to start your tour and your luggage somehow ended up in Istanbul, you’ll be glad you have it.
2) Double-check your travel paperwork
Passports & Visas
First, make sure your passport hasn’t expired. If you first acquired your passport as an adult, it’s valid for 10 years. But if you first got your passport for a school trip in high school, and you were younger than 16 at the time, it was only valid for five years. Even if your passport is not yet expired, you need to confirm the rules imposed by both the country you are visiting AND the airline on which you are flying. Many countries require that your passport be valid for at least six months after your scheduled return before they will admit you to their country. And in some cases, in order to avoid having to deal with passengers that are sent back to them from customs, airlines will require passengers to show that their passport is valid for six months beyond their scheduled return date before issuing boarding passes even if the country to which the plane is traveling does not require it.
While many countries will allow U.S. citizens to visit just by showing a passport, other countries have additional requirements. Some countries require visitors to purchase a simple tourist card (and those often end up being handled in advance, and incorporated into the cost of your airfare by the airline, such as in the Dominican Republic). But other countries require United States citizens to acquire a visa before they are permitted to enter. A visa is essentially a visitor’s license. Some of the more common international travel destinations that require a visa include: China, Turkey, Russia, India, Vietnam, Australia, Egypt, Brazil and Cambodia (among others). In most cases, a visa is not difficult to acquire. But it can be time consuming. The farther in advance you begin the process, the easier it is.
3) Prepare for international financial transactions
Currencies, Chip & PIN, and Transaction Fees
Check with your financial institutions in advance. Ideally, you’ll want to use a credit card that does not charge an additional fee on International transactions. It’s a good idea to be prepared with more than one credit card that you can use while traveling, just in case one card is disabled or does not work for some reason. Some countries have been combating forgery and credit card fraud by requiring credit card transactions to be authorized by a “chip and PIN” system, rather than the usual U.S. solution of “chip and sign.” Check with your credit card company and see whether chip and PIN acceptance can be set up for your card – there are only a few places where there isn’t a workaround, but they tend to be particularly annoying places (like trying to buy a transit card in Europe).
Most of the time, the best way to handle currency exchange is to use your credit card at an ATM in the country whose currency you need. On average, you’ll end up with better exchange rates, and you’ll avoid many of the additional fees that are charged at currency exchange desks. The good news is that, these days, most merchants in foreign countries can process credit card transactions against U.S. cards (this is where having a card that doesn’t charge an international transaction fee is helpful).
Even if you don’t like to use credit, and you never carry a balance, when traveling internationally you are MUCH better off using a credit card than a debit card. Credit card transactions are afforded a much higher level of consumer protection than are debit cards. Credit card companies have legal obligations with regard to reimbursing cardholders for fraudulent transactions that occur after a card has been reported stolen or compromised. Any accommodations provided to a debit card user are purely a matter of bank policy and can be ignored at the discretion of the bank. Carry a credit card doesn’t have to mean carrying a balance – pay it off every month, and there’s not really any difference between a credit card and a debit card, except for the level of security and protection you have as a consumer.
Finally, let your bank and your credit card companies know that you are traveling. Tell them when and where you will be traveling. If you don’t give them the heads up, international transactions will likely begin tripping fraud alerts and causing your cards to be cut off. Depending on how aggressive the particular company’s fraud protocol is, once the card is cut off it may not be possible to re-enable it. Even with express delivery services, it can take a couple of days to get a new card to you (longer if you’re traveling in more remote areas). This headache can be readily avoided with a little advance notice to the financial institutions.
4) Make and Keep Backups
Be redundant – digital AND paper copies
Make copies of important travel documents. This includes your passport, visa (if needed), travel itinerary, any travel confirmation documents (hotel, airline, tour), travel insurance emergency contact card, emergency contacts. PRINT OUT copies of these documents and keep them in secure parts of your carry-on luggage, in addition to storing them on your computer and/or phone.
I can hear you now, saying, “I have all of the confirmation Emails. I can just look them up on my phone. I don’t need to waste those trees!” That’s great – until you’re in the basement of an airport in line for customs and have no cellular or wifi signal. And it’s terrific, until your phone battery dies thanks to your child’s Bejeweled Blitz addiction on the plane. And it’s great, until your phone falls out of your pocket into the beautiful Seine as your river cruise floats by. Seriously. You need backups. The whole point of the backup is that it’s there to protect you when the things you’re used to working correctly simply don’t. That’s why we specifically recommend having a hard copy of your emergency contact telephone numbers. Most of us use our smartphones for calling so much, are you really sure that you could remember your best friend’s telephone number, from memory, in the kind of high-stress circumstances that would necessitate an emergency call? PRINT IT OUT!
5) Prepare for unique health issues
Staying healthy is about more than vaccinations
Vaccinations are an important first step. If you’re traveling to high-risk areas, many countries will require that you show proof of your yellow-fever vaccine. Check with the Centers for Disease Control for recommendations regarding vaccines, based on the destinations you’ll be visiting.
But vaccines are only the first step. Think about the things that you will be doing on this trip. Will you be hiking through amazing archaelogical ruins? COOL! Now, when was the last time you walked more than a mile in a day? Start taking daily walks at home to get used to it, and to build up your stamina. You’ll enjoy the experience much more if you’re not gasping for your breath when you get there. (And keep things like unique climate and altitude in mind as well. You might be perfectly comfortable walking TEN miles at sea level. But you still might want to do some extra training if you’ll be hiking in a mountainous region where high elevation offers a less oxygen-rich environment). It’s also a good idea to talk with your doctor about taking a probiotic for a week or so leading up to your international vacation. There’s a wonderful world of amazing food out there – building up a probiotic base can help keep your stomach from being upset by it.
6) Decide how you want to handle connectivity
Wi-fi, International calling and data plan, Swap-out a SIM card
There’s no one answer that’s right for everyone when it comes to staying connected while traveling. Your decision will be affected by a LOT of variables. How connected do you want to be while on vacation? Will you be traveling to destinations where public Wifi networks are readily available? Will your cell phone work on the network in your destination country? Is swapping out your SIM card an option? What does your carrier charge for international calling? What about data? We can’t give you a one-size-fits-all answer. The best we can do is to remind you to ask the questions so you can figure out what works for you.
Regardless of what method of connectivity you choose, using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is STRONGLY recommended, especially if you plan on utilizing public WiFi networks. For more on this topic, check out our article on using public WiFi networks while traveling.