Tips for Traveling Abroad the First Time

So here you go!  Off on your first adventure abroad (gosh I remember mine like  yesterday) or maybe your first one in a long time.  But either way you are about to embark on a fabulous adventure.  And you are so excited!  Except for those few unknown things that just might be causing a bit of anxiety.  I remember those days and how I was so worried something would go wrong.  And some of them did go sideways!  But I have survived to tell the tale and hopefully share a few “first timer” tricks I have learned along the way.  Now these items are just part of my travel prep checklist and don’t steal any of my pre-trip zzzz’s.

arrowForeign Currency

My friend Ali is about to embark on her first trip abroad and her #1 stress is making sure she has access to money.  And for good reason, no one wants to spend part of their vacation hunting for a Western Union after a desperate phone call back home for funds.  So to help prevent being stranded without access to money:

arrowCredit & Debit Cards – Take more than one card so that if you do run into problems with any of your cards you have a back-up.  But there are a few tips to help prevent those problems:

  • Call your card providers before traveling abroad to inform them of your plans.  This will help prevent your transactions from being denied, flagged for fraud, or deactivated mid-trip.  With fraudulent activity on the rise financial institutions are constantly (and thankfully) on guard for flagging what appears to be fraudulent transactions.  But this also means they may shut down your card as a precaution especially if they are unaware of your travel plans.
  • Be sure to ask about all fees related to foreign transactions on your cards. Some cards can still have really steep fees when it comes to foreign transactions and you don’t want the unpleasant surprise once you are back home of unexpected and excessive fees.

Tip: Some cards are definitely more foreign fee friendly than others so if you are going to travel abroad regularly it might be worth checking into some other card options.

arrowCash & ATMs – While many places in the world (even some unexpectedly remote ones) accept credit or debit transactions there is always the chance of running into cash only situations or very limited access to ATMs.    

Bringing at least a bit of starter cash.  You have a few options for accessing foreign currency:

  • Visit your bank ahead of time to get cash in the foreign currency.  If you are going to a more remote location this might be the safest bet. .
  • Bring cash that you can convert at a Currency Exchange which are very easy to find in all major airports and cities.

ATM usage – not all cards can be used at an ATM and some have exorbitant fees if you do use them.  So make sure that you understand which cards can be used at an ATM and  the fees related to withdrawing cash vs just using it as a credit card.  

Even with as much as I travel and even though I notify my credit card companies in advance, I have had cards deactivated mid-trip.  This could have created panic except that I did have a reliable fallback card and access to some local currently.

Tip from reader Jenn BBI’d add to your credit card tips that once you’ve identified your Foreign transaction free card and notified your issuer of your travel plans never let a merchant convert the currency for you – let your card issuer do it! We were asked almost every transaction in Ireland which currency we wanted to use and hands down it was better to let them run it in Euros and let the bank do the fee conversion free.

arrowForeign Language 

Language is a barrier that can be very intimidating when traveling, but this definitely should not stop you!  If you really take the time to listen to people speaking in their native language it is beautiful and charming and one of the best things about traveling.  One of the most courteous things you can do when traveling abroad is to learn the basics of the native language.  

When traveling abroad Anglophones are pretty fortunate that in larger cities many people speak at least some English.  But do not take that for granted as in some more remote areas this may not be the case.  Plus your host country will appreciate the effort you put into learning some of their language.  A few apps that make learning the basics both easy and fun are:   

  • DuoLingo
  • Mosa Lingua
  • Tiny Cards

I also love that these apps make finding the time to take a lesson easy.  Only have 5 minutes, no problem!

In addition, make sure that you have a translation app, such as Google Translate, downloaded for those instances when you do need some help.  At least I know that I always want to know what I am ordering off of the menu or exactly how the metro works before hopping on!    

arrowPacking

Packing is one of the most dreaded parts of any trip and because of this 99.9999% of us over pack (guilty!).  But lugging around a huge suitcase can actually complicate your trip and make it more overwhelming than it needs to be (voice of experience).  This is really an area where the golden rule of “less is more” really does apply.  

Tip: Before you even start packing ditch the idea that you need a “new and fresh” set of clothes for each day.  It just simply is not true.

arrowClothes: Should mix and match and each piece used in a minimum of 2 outfits.

arrowShoes: take up way too much space so pack only 1-3 pairs.  And comfort is the most important feature of most vacation shoes.  It’s hard to spend a day exploring when your feel are screaming for mercy.  

arrowToiletries/Cosmetics: Simplify your routine as much as possible so that you are not lugging your whole bathroom with you.

arrowPlug-ins:  If you are bringing along items such as hair dryers, computers, phone chargers definitely make sure you check the electric voltage and pack the necessary converters.

One of the best pieces of advice given to me and I still recall when I am in a packing frenzy is don’t sweat it because if you forget it you can just buy it there.  The only thing you absolutely must have is yourself and your passport everything else is generally available at your destination.  Think of it as a perfect reason buy another super cool as a souvenir.  I love saying..”Oh these shoes?  I just grabbed them at a boutique in Paris..”!

For a more in-depth packing tips & tricks on each of these items, check out this earlier post.  

arrowAvoiding Jet Lag 

It’s real and if you are traveling more than a few hours in time zone differences you need to be prepared.  When doing an international trip to a vastly different timezone (4+ hours) sleep habits can definitely put a kink in your plans.  Heading out on a new adventure is so exciting and it can be hard to imagine falling asleep on the plane, but as much as possible use your plane time to adapt your internal clock.  

For example, most trips to Europe from North America are overnight flights that last 6 plus hours.  By sleeping on the plane (even staying awake for the airline meals is definitely not worth it) you will wake up in the morning hours of your destination and it will be easier for your body clock will be able to adapt to the new timey.  This will let you maximize your time exploring your new destination and prevent sleeping in until noon wasting half of your day.   

Tip: Pack a sleeping mask and ear plugs in your carry on bag make it feel cozy (or as cozy as possible when sleeping with 199 of your closest strangers).  

Tip: Once you arrive at your destination as tired as you may be try not to take a nap or go to sleep the first night before 9:00 pm local time to help keep your body in the correct timezone on day 2, 3….

arrowCell Phones & WiFi  

Although in my younger career days I was known to run around frantically looking for a cell phone signal, I am going to bet (or at least hope) that on vacation most are looking for a much needed break from having our noses glued to our phone.  On the other hand it is nice to still have access for staying connected to family, getting directions, or researching your next adventure.  While not so long ago this was quite difficult and expensive, now it is often easy and affordable to maintain connectivity with a bit of planning.    

arrowCell Phone Plans

  • Short term trips – Most major cell phone companies have very reasonable travel access or passes.  Just make sure you contact your provider to find out your options and pricing and select an option before leaving.
  • Long  term trips – When we are gone for more than a few weeks we often find the local cell provider and purchase SIM cards with set amounts of data.  For some people this might be a lot because it changes your phone number, but it can definitely be worth it for longer trips. 

Tip: Recommend that you buy your SIM card for a large local company and not one of the small options you see in the airport or on the street to ensure you get the proper support and installation of the SIM card.

Tip: For Canadian’s international or travel passes are notoriously expensive from Canadian providers so we have found that it is cheaper for my hubby (who has a Canadian plan) to buy a SIM card.  Since I have a US plan I have a bit more flexibility in choosing the best option than he does.

Tip: If you are planning to get a SIM card at your destination make sure that your phone is unlocked.  

arrowWiFi – Make sure you read about the level of connectivity for your destination, but so many places now have WiFi access.  In addition to public WiFi many shops and restaurants can have WiFi available for their customers.

arrowInstant Messengers – Make sure you have instant messengers installed that only require WiFi to communicate in case texting is not an option or you need to control your data.  Options such as i Messaging, Facebook Messenger, and Skype will work just fine.  

Tip: In Europe What’s App is wildly popular.  So if you are headed to Europe any local people (such as AirBnB hosts) will want to communicate on What’s App so worth downloading before you go.

arrowOther Tips

arrowInternational Drivers License – If you are planning to rent a car to get around make sure you check the requirements as many countries require an International Drivers License.  These are relatively easy to get and do not require a test, but do require a properly formatting photo.

Tip: In Canada you can get your International Drivers License at a CAA location and a bonus is that they are also equipped to take your pic in the proper format.  Plus you get your license on the spot!    

arrowReader Tip from Kim S: I find it handy to print addresses in which I need to know to show cab drivers, this is critical in non English speaking countries! Imagine ending up on the wrong side of Tokyo because you can’t pronounce the address correctly!

Tip from reader Philippe P: Another idea is to screen shot the addresses so they are available on your phone.

There you go!  The top items people ask me about when they are traveling abroad the first time.  But absolutely none of them should cause any anxiety if you take a few minutes to plan and prepare in advance of your trip so you can spend your energy on maximizing your adventure!  

bon voyage

P.S. If you have any other things that create stress for you when traveling abroad and how you handle them, would love it if you shared with me so I can update the list!

Siblings Tour Eiffel
My first trip abroad in 2009 began my love affair with Paris. What you don’t see in this pic are my bloody and bandaged feet, massive suitcase I had to haul around on the trains, and the stress of coordinating communications with myself and my siblings. #wishIknewthenwhatIknownow

4 thoughts on “Tips for Traveling Abroad the First Time

  1. I’d add to your credit card tips that once you’ve identified your Foreign transaction free card and notified your issuer of
    Your travel plans never let a merchant convert the currency for you – let your card issuer do it! We were asked almost every transaction in Ireland which currency we wanted to use and hands down it was better to let them run it in Euros and let Chase or Barclays do the fee free conversion.

    Like

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