8 things you need to know before traveling international for the first time

There's an entire world out there.
two hands holding us passports in a plaza in madrid spain
Time to use these little booklets. Spencer Davis / Unsplash

Traveling broadens the mind and drains your bank account—but it’s totally worth it. Even so, if you’ve never traveled outside your own country before or just put things on pause for the duration of the pandemic, your first international trip can be a bit intimidating.

But don’t worry, as there are plenty of things you can do to make sure this first great adventure goes smoothly. Or, at least as smoothly as you want—because, as you will soon learn, half the fun of traveling is that things sometimes don’t quite go according to plan.

Get excited

Seriously: travel is awesome. Wherever you’re going, things will be totally different in a good way. Even big cities that seem to have a lot in common, like London and New York City, have totally different vibes. For example, nothing I’d seen at home in Ireland prepared me for the wide-open nothingness of Montana or the sunny sprawl of Los Angeles. And you’re likely to have a similar experience.

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Before you go, take a moment to let yourself get excited about all the new things you’ll see, the people you’ll meet, and the food you’ll try. All this diversity might be overwhelming at first, but you shouldn’t worry—embrace it.

Research and plan—but not too much

There’s a fine line you have to walk when planning a trip: You have to learn enough so that you’re prepared, but not so much that you’re stuck with a rigid plan. 

If you don’t do enough research before you go, you’re likely to miss out on a lot. It’s easy to cross the big tourist highlights off your list no matter where you go, but the most fun things tend to be the smaller places you discover for yourself and cater to your specific interests. If you love photography, find a gallery that features local artists. If your thing is food, don’t just go to the high-end or tourist trap restaurant, and find some of the places that locals eat at. You can do all this on the ground, but it’s easier when you’re at home with a stable Wi-Fi connection and all the time in the world. 

On the other hand, you want to have a list of things your want to see or do, but not a tight schedule. If you’re rushing from one place to another, you won’t ever get time to enjoy the destination and experience serendipity, or happy accidents. You will meet interesting people you might want to chat with for a bit longer, take cool opportunities you didn’t know about, and at some point, you’ll just need a break. And to enjoy all of that, you’ll need a bit of flexibility.

I’ve found the best balance is to plan one big activity every day (like a museum visit, a hike, or a theater show), choose a restaurant nearby for a meal, and have a couple of ideas for things to do during the day. But leave the rest of the schedule somewhat open. This way you’re still going to have a good plan and you’ll cross all the big things you want to do off your list. But if someone invites you to do something epic, you’ll also have the time to say yes. 

Check the visa and Covid requirements

If you don’t have a passport, go and apply for one right now, as it’s a must-have for international travel. 

But while a passport is necessary, it’s not always enough. To enter many countries you’ll also need a visa, eVisa, electronic travel authorization, or pre-approved visa waiver. The easiest way to quickly find out exactly what you need is to visit The Passport Index. This site compares passports from all over the world and lists the entry requirements for any country you’d like to go to using that passport. 

Similarly, while the world is opening up, some countries still require negative COVID-19 tests or proof of vaccination for entry. Make sure to do your research to find out health guidelines at your destination, like mask mandates or local documentation to go to places like restaurants or theaters. Also, plan ahead if you find out you need to take a PCR test before your trip: some countries may require results within no more than 24 hours before departure, which could complicate matters if the lab or medical center you go to can’t assure you a quick turnaround.

Learn a bit of the lingo

If you’re traveling somewhere where English is not the primary language, don’t expect to be able to communicate with everyone. If it’s a big tourist destination, hotel staff and tourism workers will likely have some English skills, but normal people might not. 

Before you go, it’s worth using Duolingo (available for iOS and Android, and on the web) to pick up the very basics of the local language. Grab a phrasebook (or a guidebook with some handy phrases) as well so you can ask for directions, order a meal from a menu, or tell a taxi driver to take you to your hotel. Even just being able to say “Hello”, “Please”, and “Thank you”, in the local language will endear you to a lot of people, as there are few things more embarrassing than watching foreigners talk slowly and loudly at someone who clearly doesn’t understand a word they’re saying. 

And for emergencies, you can always count on Google Translate. Download the dictionary of the language spoken at your destination, and you’ll be able to translate text and speech in real-time and offline. Keep in mind that the platform is not perfect and might have a hard time translating slang or local turns of phrases, but it can certainly help you when basic phrases are just not enough. 

Get things on paper

If you think your smartphone’s battery doesn’t last long enough now, wait until you see how quickly it runs out when you use it to take photos and navigate all day and don’t have access to a charger.

Yes, you can carry around a power bank, but just in case, make sure you have a hard copy of everything important, like booking confirmation slips and a photocopy of your passport. Also, write down contact information for your hotel, recommended restaurants, and anything else you might want to reference. 

I can’t count the number of times my phone has run out of battery while I was exploring somewhere, and I was only able to get back to my hotel because I had the details written down. 

Decide how you’re going to pay

One surprisingly tricky part of travel is paying for things while not getting ripped off with charges and fees. 

Countries that widely use debit and credit cards accept both Visa and Mastercard pretty universally, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case with American Express cards. I’ve seen a lot of confused Americans in Dublin trying to pay for dinner with an Amex, not knowing that they’re usually not accepted anywhere that doesn’t explicitly cater to American tourists, and it’s the same in most of Europe

Whatever card you plan on using, make sure to check what are the foreign transaction and ATM withdrawal fees. You should also check what is your card’s exchange rate, as there’s often a mark-up that means paying with plastic will be more expensive than buying currency and paying in cash. And if you’re not careful, that difference can add up quickly and you can easily spend hundreds of dollars more than you need to. It might be worth talking to your bank to see if they offer a travel card with reduced fees. 

All that’s assuming you can even use a card. Some countries are still heavily cash-based and many small or local businesses won’t accept plastic. If that’s the case, you’ll need to make sure you carry enough cash with you to cover your daily expenses. This is good advice for most countries with a few exceptions—like Sweden, which is mostly cash-free.

Consider your phone

Unless you’re signed up to a (probably expensive) roaming plan, your phone won’t just keep working as usual as soon as you get off the plane, and you certainly won’t be able to rely on it for everything like you do at home. If you want your device to stay usable abroad, it’s worth doing a little bit of planning. 

The best way to use your phone while you’re away is to buy a cheap, local pay-as-you-go SIM card. For about $30 in most countries, you’ll get a gigabyte or two of data you can use to stay online on the go. But this only works if your phone is carrier unlocked. If you’ve been on your current contract for a while, contact your provider and see if you’re eligible to get your phone unlocked. 

If you’re planning to travel a lot, you could also consider switching to a plan with good roaming options. If you don’t know where to start, WhistleOut has a great breakdown of all the best options.

Prepare for the worst

Travel, for the most part, is really safe. You’re highly unlikely to die or lose a leg while you’re abroad, but that doesn’t mean it’s totally without risks. 

Before you go, check the Department of State’s travel advisories—they provide a good overview of everything you should know in terms of safety, including health advisories and the possibility for civil unrest. For example, the entry on France notes that the recent demonstrations and protests may affect your travel plans.

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And, while you’re physically likely to stay safe, your things might not be so lucky. Pickpockets in major cities target tourists, airlines routinely misplace bags, and it’s much easier to lose a phone when you’re out of your daily routine. You’ll have to exercise caution towards all these things but the simplest way to make sure some small problem doesn’t derail your whole trip is to get good travel insurance. If things go wrong, your flight gets canceled, or you have to come home prematurely, at least it won’t cost you too much. Your credit card might already come with a policy, so check that you’re not already insured before buying a one.

Travel insurance is particularly important these days when delayed and rescheduled flights commonly leave people stranded at airports and airlines refuse to refund tickets in case of cancellations. You should also keep in mind that some countries now require travelers to get insurance, as local state-sponsored care for severe cases of COVID-19 may not benefit foreigners. 

Exploring new places and having new experiences is what makes exploring new places so much fun. International travel is especially good because things can be so, well, foreign. Ideas and attitudes you take for granted at home might not exist at your destination, which may be challenging, but also absolutely eye-opening.