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

Packing (Wine Optional)

I get questions regularly from family and friends on how to pack since I have evolved into a semi-pro.  Since I am packing for a 2.5 week vacation I thought this would be the perfect time to share my process.  This particular trip includes stops in DC, North Carolina, and a tour through California from San Fran to San Diego.  And I managed to pack in carry-on sized suitcase.  Full disclosure: this does not include cycling clothing & gear as that gets packed in the bags with our bikes but it does include my other “stuff” for the 2.5 weeks!

Minimal packing is a skill.  Seriously, I wish I had learned it years ago as I get flashbacks to my first trip to 10-day trip to Europe in which I took two massive suitcases that covered every single possibility that might occur and proceeded to haul them through planes, trains, and automobiles.  Across multiple countries.  And countless walk-up apartments in Europe.  This is the trip where I became intimate with packing regrets.  

In the many years since my packing style has been forced to evolve.  Forced.  

arrowReason 1: Years of being a business traveler made over-packed bags obnoxious. Especially when everyone else I was traveling with had carry-on luggage and had to stand around baggage claim impatiently waiting for my bag to arrive.  And then when I did have a carry-on I had to be sure I could lift it into the overhead compartment without giving an innocent bystander a concussion.  

arrowReason 2: Multi-week cycling trips in Europe in which we literally had to carry all our possessions on bikes from location to location.  The very first time I went on one of these trips and my hubby announced that I could only take 4 outfits for 2 weeks (2 cycling outfits, 2 regular outfits) I almost had a meltdown.  And you can just imagine what he said about my items for my daily beauty routine.  Our relationship almost came to an end over this discussion…but as usual in the end he was right.

And let’s be honest…I usually didn’t even use 50% of what was in my suitcase.

So after coming to grips with my ridiculous packing habits, I began to hone my skills in minimalist packing.  It took some trial and error to get it right…leaving out things I really did need and bringing things that I still didn’t use.  Today I am pretty good at efficient and minimal packing. I spent 3 months living in France in just one regular sized suitcase and a super small carry on (really backpack with wheels for my weekend excursions).  Even I was impressed with myself.  But I used everything I had and because of picking mix and match pieces never felt deprived with my outfit selection (and a few purchases in French boutiques helped :-).

arrowClothing

  1. Pick things that mix and match.  Everything should be able to be part of a least 2 outfits if not more.  So pick your colors and patterns carefully.  For example as my packing came together for this trip I ended up with a navy, off-white, and black theme with a few pops of color added by tank tops, scarves, and accessories.   
  2. Myth: Lose the idea that you can’t wear an outfit more than once during a trip.  Yes you can. Just plan the when carefully.
  3. Myth: You don’t need multiple outfits per day unless there are special events going on.  So pick clothing pieces that are versatile between activities.  
  4. Workout clothes take up a lot of space so be honest with yourself…are you really going to use them on this trip?  If you are definitely pack them, but if it is an overnight work trip jam packed with commitments you could probably save the space that those shoes will take.
  5. For longer trips, if possible choose an AirBnB or hotel that has easy access to a washing machine so that you can easily wash undergarments and work out clothes.  That means that you don’t have to pack multiples.  I generally keep a small packet of laundry detergent in my bag in case I have access to a washing machine (which sometimes turns out to be the bathroom sink in a pinch)
  6. Shoes, shoes, shoes.  Still my biggest challenge.  I just can never have enough shoes but gosh they take up sooo much room.  So keeping it to 2 – 3 pairs can be tough but this is where outfit coordination can also come in handy.   
    1. Formal Shoes: 1 pair of dress/work shoes or 2 if a multi-day trip.   
    2. Comfortable Shoes: Generally flats but something good for lots of walking in airports or events outside of work.     
    3. Flip-flops: Thin and bendable so they don’t take up much space but usually they are needed for hotel rooms.  Some people do pass on these but I have seen too many hotel rooms not to.  Or perhaps in the summer months or warm locations flip-flops and comfortable shoes can do double duty.
    4. Sneakers: If you are going to work out or perhaps these are another option to perform double with your comfortable shoes.  

Tip: To save space, if possible stuff the shoes with things like socks or tights.  Not only does this help keep the shape of the shoes it saves tons of space!

  1. Warm layer: Often it is necessary for a warmer layer in the plane, mornings and evenings.  So try to pick one scarf, jacket or sweater that will look nice with every outfit because like shoes they take up a lot of room.

arrowBeauty Items/Toiletries

I keep a permanent bag of toiletries ready to go so I just have to move it around between suitcases and never spend time putting it together.  This has been one of the practices that really lowered my stress for packing so I highly recommend it!

Tip: Buy a clear TSA compliant bag that you keep everything in so that you can just grab it and throw it in the security bin if carrying on your luggage.

arrowLiquids: Lotion, body wash, shampoo, conditioner, hair styling products, skin care products, toothpaste.

Tip: Regardless of if you are checking luggage or not the 3 oz rule is a good one for liquids to also minimize space.  So invest in lots of bottles and keep them full of your must have liquids.
Tip: Even though hotels usually have items such as body wash and lotion I still always transport with me for simplicity so that my toiletries bag does not have to be changed each trip.  Plus sometimes they just don’t and I am not willing to sacrifice my moisturizing routine.

arrowBeauty Routine: My on-the-road and at-home beauty routines vary.  My on-the-road routine is much simpler with fewer steps to save time and space.  However, If you are like me you are not willing to compromise on things such as skin care so find a good, but simpler set of beauty products for travel.  At home I use Rodan & Fields but when I travel I use the Josie Maran argan oil products.

Tip: Pick multi-functional products as much as possible.  One of the reasons I love the Josie Maran line is because in addition to simplicity they are also multi-functional.  I use the classic Argan oil as moisturizer for my face, hands, and lips but I also replace my Moroccan Oil hair product with the Argan oil and it works fabulously.  

arrowHair Styling Equipment: These take a lot of space so think about if you can substitute yours with the equipment from the hotel.  If you are staying in accommodations that don’t offer these items then pack as few as possible (do you really need a dryer, curling iron, and straightener).  Or if you travel enough I really suggest investing in travel size items.

arrowSuitcase Readiness

There are things that I just keep in my suitcases at all times so I don’t have to worry about forgetting them:

  • Umbrella
  • ID tags
  • Lint Roller
  • Dirty Clothes bag

arrowGeneral Tips

arrowIf you have a trip coming up that is creating packing stress (seriously, it’s a thing!) start pre-packing in advance, especially for big trips.  This way you can add items to the pile and take away as you change your mind.  When I recently took a trip to Iceland and was only taking a small carry-on I began pre-packing 2 weeks in advance as ideas came to mind.  When it was time to pack I just threw it all in the suitcase and zipped it up.  Bonus: No stress at all and I didn’t forget anything critical or pack anything unnecessary!

arrowKeep a master packing list so that you don’t have to recreate a list each time you travel desperately making sure you didn’t leave anything off.  I have multiple master packing lists depending on the types of trip: Business, Vacation, Camping, etc. and I cannot tell you how much easier they make my life when getting ready for a trip.

arrowIf you can’t carry it don’t pack it.  Seriously.  Do a weight test on your luggage before you walk out the door and if you cannot lift it enough to carry up a set of stairs…de-pack something.  Big mistake is to assume that someone will help you with it and then before you know it you in the metro station, after midnight, stuck at the bottom of the stairs because the escalator is broken and you have to figure out how to climb 57 stairs with a suitcase that feels like Shamu is stuffed in it.  Been there done that.  Not fun.   

Honestly packing is no one’s favorite activity and it creates stress, anxiety, bad moods, and excessive wine drinking.  So anything that eliminates stress is awesome because no one needs to start an important work trip or a fun vacation as a stress ball.  Minimal packing provides so many benefits that for me it is a no-brainer.  Easy-peasy to get around with my bags, daily outfit selection much easier each day when you have minimal choices, and you get to be creative and stretch your wardrobe limits!  

If anyone has any tips that make their packing process just a bit easier would love to hear them so I can steal them for my process and add to this suggestion list for others.

P.S. For anyone wondering how I survive 2 week cycling trips with only 4 pieces of clothes…there is a secret.  After my first melt down over the 2 outfits for 2 weeks rule my hubby gave me a compromise.  After the trip was over he would take me boutique shopping to buy new outfits.  DEAL!  Oh and I lose the hair routine…completely lose it…I refer to this time as “hair-cation” where anything can and will happen with my hair style.

bon voyage