Everything you need to know for International Travel

So you’ve decided to travel out of the country. Way to go! But now what? It’s a little bit daunting thinking about everything you have to do to prepare. I’ve taken all of the stress out of researching everything by creating this complete step-by-step guide and timeline for getting ready to leave the country. Here you will find everything I wish someone had told me before I traveled out of the country.

As soon as you book your plane tickets:

Start looking at accommodations. You have three basic options for what type of place to stay.

  • Hotel
  • Hostel
  • Homestay (like Airbnb, Homeaway or VRBO)

We personally prefer doing Airbnb when we travel because you get to stay in a place that feels like a home. You often have a kitchen to prepare some of your own meals, and you can get a lot of cool local tips from the host! If you decide to stay in an Airbnb, book it as soon as possible. I have found good, affordable options even a month before our trip, but there will be more to choose from the sooner you look. Some Airbnb rentals are full houses/apartments, and others are a room rental where the host is in the house still. Both are great options, depending on what type of experience you want.

On the other hand, hostels are a great option if you want to stay somewhere cheaper and be around other travelers. A lot of hostels even offer private accommodations.

If there are no affordable homestays in the area, like the center of a big city, a hotel may be the better option. Look for hotel deals, and try to choose one that comes with breakfast to save on the cost of a meal.

**If you have time before you make your reservations, it’s a good idea to do some research to see what sort of activities or excursions you are wanting to do. It’s most convenient to choose a place to stay that is close to the things you want to do to save time on transportation. 

Arrange any additional transportation. Going to multiple cities/countries? Is your hotel far from the airport? You’re going to want to book your transportation, or at least have an idea of what you will do and what is available.

From city to city, depending where you travel, you can take a train, bus or plane. Things to consider are the cost of the transportation and the time. For example, it may be cheaper to take a train than fly from one city to another, but can take more time. You have to decide what’s more valuable: your time or money. For us, we love the experience of riding on a train! Maybe it’s because we don’t take trains from city to city in the US, so it’s an exciting, rare event for us. So when we travel, if we have the option to take a train (even if it takes a little longer), we usually go for the train.

As for transportation from the airport, you can plan to take a taxi, but a lot of times there is a cheaper option if you book it ahead of time. I can’t tell you how nice it feels to get off of an airplane, exhausted, and not have to wait in the taxi line because we had the forethought to book our transfer ahead of time. If  you are traveling to a big city with a good public transportation system, you may even be able to take the subway or underground to your hotel. If this is what you end up doing, you can look online to see if buying a multi-day/multi-ride pass is going to be cheaper. I would recommend for the city your are visiting to do a Google search for “city name transportation.” That should bring up information on what transportation is in place and what to expect for pricing.

3 months before your trip:

Get your passport. Be aware that getting a passport for the first time is a process and it typically takes 4-6 weeks to get it in the mail. You can pay an extra fee to have it rushed (2-3 weeks), but do it as early as possible to prevent extra cost and stress. Five easy steps to get your passport:

  1. Print and fill out the passport application form.
  2. Collect your supporting documents. You will need: Identification, proof of citizenship, and proof of relationship (for travelers under the age of 16)
  3. Get your photo taken. You have to have a special photo taken for the passport. You can view the rules here. You can go pretty much anywhere that prints photos to have your passport photo taken. Walgreens, Costco and AAA are all good options (with AAA the photo is free if you are a member.)
  4. Calculate your fees. Use this website to calculate how much your passport will cost.  For most passport applications, you will need a check or money order payable to “U.S. Department of State.”
  5. Consider getting the passport card as well. It is useful to cross land boarders and is a form of federal identification. This means you can use it to board an airplane if their state does not have a REAL ID-compliant license. In retrospect, I wish we had gotten these to begin with. If you decide you want it later, you have to mail your passports back and wait the same amount of time.
  6. Submit your application! For first time passport you will need to submit in person at a specific facility. Search here to find the closest place to you.
I love this super cute passport case by Visconti.

Be prepared for medical emergencies. What will you do if you have a major medical emergency on your trip? We already mentioned travel insurance. If you buy travel insurance, find out what the coverage is for medical, and what it looks like in action. Some cover medical care, but reimburse you later. Some travel credit cards include medical coverage and some health insurance plans will reimburse you for medical care in a foreign country. As someone who travels with diabetes, I understand how important it is to have these questions answered and know what my back-up plan is going to be. Make some calls. Know what your options are if you find yourself in that situation. It would be a major bummer to get injured or sick in a foreign country and end up with a ton of medical bills.

Buy travel insurance. You are probably investing a lot of money into this trip, it would be a major financial loss if you weren’t able to go or something happened on the trip. Be aware of what your travel insurance actually covers. When we travel internationally, we use Travelsafe. This site is user friendly and affordable.

A short story about how I didn’t have travel insurance, then dropped all of my diabetes supplies in the ocean in Mexico:

Our first trip out of the country was a cruise to Belize, Honduras and Cozumel. We were inexperienced travelers at this point, and I didn’t do anything to prepare for a diabetes emergency. I mean, I had my basic stuff: Glucagon, long acting insulin in case my pump broke, etc. Anyways, we were on a snorkel excursion in Belize and I was sea shell hunting along the beach. While I was looking at sea shells, I was not paying attention tom my over-the-shoulder bag floating in the water next to me. The bag that happened to have all of my diabetes devices in it..

Insulin pump: ruined. Continuous glucose meter: ruined.

We got back on the cruise ship and I, thankfully, had my back-up insulin, but no back-up meter. As a last resort, I knew I could go to the cruise ship doctor, but I hadn’t checked with  my health insurance company to see if they covered health care costs on a cruise ship. (Now I know that many don’t and you have to pay the high fees out of pocket.)

So what did I end up doing, you ask? I knew that statistically 1% of the general population has type 1 diabetes, so on a ship of 3,650 people, there should be 35 other people on the ship with type 1 diabetes. I ended up wandering through the dining hall looking for someone with an insulin pump. (I know, it sounds kinda creepy.) And I found someone! He was a really nice guy from Canada and he was totally understanding. I asked him if I could check my blood sugar on his meter to get a baseline blood sugar until we docked at another port to buy a meter. When I checked my blood sugar it came up as 4. Thankfully he was quick to share that they use mmol/L for blood sugars and that 4 is the same as a blood sugar of 72 mg/dl in the states.

I had a good baseline blood sugar for the night, then the next day in Cozumel I bought a meter and test strips at the Supermercado for ~$70. I ended up making it work, and coming out of it without any major issues or expenses, but it would have been so much easier if I had gotten travel insurance and thought of a back-up plan!

My “uh-oh” face when I realized everything in the purse was wet.

Order any medications you will need. You don’t want to realize right before your big trip that you are out of medications or medical supplies! If you take medications, check to make sure your prescriptions are going to be filled before your trip so that you will have plenty and not have to be in a time crunch to get them filled.

2 months before:

Get immunized. Depending on where you are going, you may need to get certain immunizations for travel. There are travel clinics that you can go to, but often times your primary care doctor can help you with this. On the CDC website, you can enter your destination and see what recommendations are for immunizations and health concerns.

Learn the language. If you haven’t already, start studying basic phrases and useful travel knowledge in the language of the country you are visiting. Another option is to use Google Translate on your phone. You can download your language of choice to have it on your phone when you don’t have internet access. Most guide books and travel language references will suggest common phrases like “Where is the bus station” and “How much does this cost.” In addition to those phrases, I would also recommend you learning phrases for emergencies like “I need the hospital,” or those specific to medical conditions, like for me with my diabetes “It’s an emergency: I need sugar.”

Look up the weather. Do some research to find out what the weather is usually like in the area at the time you are visiting. If you are going to need to buy a heavy duty winter coat (writes the Arizona native who still doesn’t own a heavy duty winter coat), you don’t want to have to find something at the last minute. And pack an umbrella! You never know when you’ll get caught in the rain.

Or get caught in a windstorm…

Vienna, Austria

Stay Connected. Now is a good time to think about what you are going to do for internet and cell phone access. Planning to just fly by the seat of your pants and find WiFi where you can get it? That’s totally an option! But if you want to have a little more control over when you have connectivity, there are other options. You can get in touch with your service provider to see what options they have for internet and calls out of the country. You can also get a Jetpack, to carry around with you when you travel to always have internet access. As far as phone calls, a lot of cell phone messaging apps allow you to make calls over WiFi (just make sure your phone data is off). Our favorite calling app when traveling is Google Hangouts. Speaking of staying connected, I recommend bringing a portable charger. This is useful for keeping your phone/device charged on a long flight or if you are out and about it the city all day. Also consider what type of plugs are going to be available. Europe and the US use different plugs, so you will need to get outlet adapters. It’s much cheaper if you think of this before hand and buy it ahead of time.

Look into activities. If you are planning on doing any sort of tours, shows, excursions or experiences, those usually need to be booked in advance. One of my favorite websites is withlocals.com. This site offers a lot of off the beaten track,  less touristy experiences that are led by locals! When I am planning activities for us, I use Google Maps to keep track of them. I find cool places, stores, restaurants, attractions and sights and save them in Google Maps. This is nice because when you are in the city, you can glance at a certain area and see that there are 5 cool things to do right by you! Google maps is pretty cool because for some areas you can download the map to use offline in case you don’t have internet access when you’re out and about. I have found this true for the US and in Europe. Some places in Asia won’t let you download the map, so you may have to find directions the old fashioned way.

1 month before:

Sign up for the S.T.E.P Program. This program is a free service provided by the State Department that allows you to inform the US embassy in your travel location of your travel plans. If you are in the country at the time of a national emergency or disaster, they will know you are there and will reach out to you to give you instructions on what to do next.

Credit cards and Money. It’s pretty annoying when your card gets declined because your credit card company thinks it is a fraudulent charge. Avoid these issues by either calling or sending a message online to inform them of your travel dates and locations. Also be aware of which cards have foreign transaction fees and what you will need to do to exchange currencies. Using an international credit card in the currency of the country is going to save you the most money on exchange rates. If you don’t have a card like this, find out what fees you will have and see what is going to be the best option for exchanging or withdrawing cash when you get there.

Find someone to house-sit. Or dog-sit. Or cat-sit. Take the time now to figure out if you have a pet or home that needs to be cared for while you are gone.

2 weeks before:

Start packing. Make sure you have all of the key pieces you need. Do laundry so all of your clothes are clean, and ready to pack.

Set appointments. If you plan do get your hair done, nails done, anything else of that nature, set your appointments for next week.

Download apps and music onto your phone. If you need to download the language to Google Translate, save your Spotify playlists on your phone, or download games to play on the plane or in the airport, make sure to do it ahead of time instead of struggling while you don’t have reliable internet access. (Trust me, I’ve held my phone up in the airplane trying to have my wordsearch game finish downloading the last 3% before I have to switch to airplane mode.)

1 week before

Double check the weather. There may be a cold front that came in, or rain the whole time you’re there. Make sure everything you packed is appropriate for the weather.

Put a hold on your mail. You don’t want your mail to build up while you’re gone for two weeks, especially if you have important or valuable mail that comes. You can put a hold on your mail at the USPS website.

Pay upcoming bills. You don’t want to be trying to pay your credit card bill or rent while you are enjoying your vacation, so pay these in advance or set up auto-pay so you don’t have to worry about it.

Purchase last minute items. If you need snacks for the plane, miniature deodorant, unit dose allergy medications or any last minute items, keep a list and then a few days before you go make a run to the store to get everything.

The day before

Check in for your flight. And check to make sure there weren’t any changes with your flight times.

Triple check the weather. Once more for good measure.

Make sure your house is ready to be on it’s own. (Or not if you have someone house-sitting.) Unplug electronics, turn the AC/Heater down or off if no one will be there.

Make a short list. Make a small list of things to not forget the next morning as you are heading out the door to the airport. Things that are always on my short list are passport, chargers, insulin and toothbrush.

Charge stuff. Make sure your camera and any other electronics are charged and ready to go.

Be good to your body. Exercise the day before if you have time, eat a healthy meal and try to get a good night’s sleep. I know you’ll be super excited (and maybe a little stressed), but just relax because you’ve got everything ready and now it’s almost time to enjoy your vacation!

Thanks for reading. Have a great time on your trip! Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions for traveling internationally.

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