Rushing to make a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong that was already boarding, I finally made it to the end of the security check. I shoved my boarding pass into the hands of the security guard and slid my carry-on into the X-ray machine. Cue the panic. A red light flashed on the machine when my baggage emerged from the other side, and a man insisted on running it through again. The red lights continued to flash. He quickly unzipped my carry-on and began rummaging through its contents.
The security guard’s hands stopped on a small, silver canister. He immediately drew my bag away to a private counter while I followed, attempting to explain to him in broken Chinese that the little spray can was for personal protection.
Not understanding me, the security guard drew the pepper spray up to his mouth, making like it was mouth spray. I wildly waved my hands, shouting ‘spicy, spicy!’ in Chinese. I panicked as I tried to tell him that I was late for my plane and insisted that he could just throw it away.
After he retrieved a second opinion from another security guard and I consented to their confiscation of my pepper spray, I was finally able to take off to find my terminal.
Let’s just say that the plane was already boarded by the time I made it to the terminal and I barely made my seat. Making that flight was a miracle.
That was last summer, but I recently traveled in Asia for a couple of weeks by myself. As always, it was a series of learning through mistakes. This personal crash course in all of the nuances of travel inspired me to compile this comprehensive list for tips on all things international travel.
For starters, never pack pepper spray in your carry-on. (To be fair, I don’t even recall packing pepper spray in my carry-on!)
Anyways, grab your passport and read ahead!
Before you go-go
Passports & Visas
Like I said, grab your passport! If you don’t already have one, follow this link to learn more about applying. It takes about six weeks for your passport application to be processed, so be sure to submit the necessary materials with ample time before your international departure date.
If you already have your passport, great! But when does it expire? While the U.S. recognizes passports as valid through the date on the inside cover, some other countries will reject passports that expire in less than six months. So try to renew your passport about nine months ahead.
If you travel internationally more than a handful of times a decade, look into Global Entry. With a simple background check, a Global Entry pass gives you an expedited clearance upon arrival in the United States at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in select airports.
Double check the visa requirements of the countries you intend on traveling to. The U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs allows you to quickly and easily verify the tourist visa requirements of any country. Their Passports & International Travel page is chock-full of other useful information, so take the time to learn a little bit more about going abroad and your travel destination.
For your personal safety, remember to check the State Department’s travel warnings. These advisories are just that, advisories. If your destination is marked with the little ‘Travel Warning’ or ‘Travel Alert’ icon, take that into consideration. Putting in your own research is the best way to understand the risks of travel.
You should also lookup and save the local emergency and police numbers.
Once you’ve identified the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate locations, save their contact information into your phone. To get in touch with the general Overseas Citizen Service, you can call 1 (800) 407–4747 domestically or 1 (202) 501–4444 internationally.
That departure card they give you when you land? Yeah, don’t lose that. Fill it out and keep it with your passport. But don’t worry if you do end up misplacing it, just grab another one and fill it out while you’re standing in the customs line.
Do you need a check-up? Give your primary doctor a call to verify the necessary immunizations or any other information you may need before going abroad.
Call your health insurance provider to check your policy coverage when you go abroad. If your coverage is lacking, you can look into international health insurance.
Schedule your mail drop-off and trash-pickup services to be placed on-hold for your travel dates. Try to either pay bills ahead of time, or set them to auto-pay, and save yourself some stress down the line.
Unlock your cellphone, this is incredibly important. Many American phones are locked, making use of international SIM card impossible. Contact your phone carrier to see if your device can be unlocked in the first place. If not, ask about their international roaming charges or data plans. Otherwise, it can be very inexpensive to buy a simple burner phone in the new county.
Call your bank and open your credit & debit cards for your intended travel destinations, keeping in mind any potential layover destinations. Withdraw at least a couple hundred dollars in cash.
Write down and save the customer service numbers of your phone carrier, bank, credit and debit cards.
Call me, maybe
If you managed to get that cellphone unlocked, buy a new SIM card when you land at your destination and store your original SIM card in a safe place. Want to stay in-touch back home? Google Voice, Skype and Talkatone are all simple applications that allow you to make cheap international calls via the internet while you’re abroad. Also, for about $20, Google Voice has a number docking service where you can port your domestic cell number to temporarily make and receive texts and calls over the internet from your own number.
Let’s get social
Check the most popular social media application of your travel destination to stay in touch with all of the new friends you make!
Research your destination to determine whether or not you’ll need a Virtual Personal Network on your devices to accessing internet without restrictions. Installing a VPN isn’t a bad idea, even if internet access isn’t restricted. It’s more secure than web surfing raw over public wifi. For your reference, Comparitech ranked the best VPN services for 2018 in this article.
It’ not about the money, money
(O.K., but it kind of is)
Use the XE.com app compatible with your phone or device to check currency exchange rates and get the most up-to-date conversions. You can even compare the rates and fees offline at the counters in the airport. Try to exchange the lowest necessary amount in the airport, like the amount of the taxi ride to your hotel, with some room for error. Banks are better than the airport, but the fees are usually lowest at ATM machines. And the conversion should be exact.
Great exchange rates can also be found using your credit card. To avoid the foreign transaction fee, which can be as high as 3 percent, look into credit cards that wave such fees, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred card or Platinum American Express. Charles Schwab and Fidelity also both offer checking accounts that reimburse you for all ATM fees.
Know the fees and charges associated with withdrawing from your debit/credit cards internationally. Also, do you remember your PINs? Double check.
Try to exchange and withdraw about as much money at a time as you think you’ll need. Budget yourself. You lose money on the initial exchange, and will subsequently lose value on the cash you convert back into USD.
To rack up some miles, sign up for an airline credit card. I know, they’re gimmicky. But, if you find one with a promotional first year that’s free-of-charge, you can just set an alarm in your phone to remind yourself to cancel the card before you’re charged the first annual fee.
Make sure you have all your batteries and charging necessities for your electronic devices. Remember to bring extra batteries and SD cards for your camera.
Check the electricity and outlet voltage in your destination country to determine whether or not your devices will require a transformer/converter. Hint: this also requires checking the voltage of your own devices.
Someplace to sleep
I think staying in hostels or other shared spaces is the best way to meet people when traveling, so I use Tripadvisor to compare the most popular hostel in an area. You can also check Airbnb or booking.com for other listings. Consider the cost and location of venues, and always book ahead of time.
Bring along a lock and key if you do plan on staying in any hostels. They usually have lockers for you to store your valuables.
Once you settle into your abode, remember to grab a few hotel business cards for your logging’s name and address before you venture out sight-seeing. Your taxi driver will thank you.
Download the maps of the countries you’re traveling on maps.me, a really convenient app. Of course, Google Maps is also popular. Look up the public transportation of your destination country for the cheapest, most convenient travel. It’s not a bad method of sight-seeing, either, whether its a bus, ferry or train ride.
Use your phone to screenshot boarding passes, bus routes and train ticketsfor easy reference.
Check your destination’s weather, plan to dress accordingly.
If you’re looking for something resembling comfort on that long train ride,book your long-distance train ticket ahead of time to ensure yourself a spot in the sleeper car.
For flights, booking through foreign airline sites can be cheaper. It doesn’t hurt to look. If you’re not committed to any specific destination, Skyscanner has a cool feature where you can select a specific airport and organize flights according to the cheapest destination.
If you have the time and want to save money, consider long layovers. They’re oftentimes overnight, but it’s enough time to get a taste of a new city. Stay in a convenient hostel or look up “The Guide to Sleeping in Airports” for best spots.
If you’re traveling internationally, it’s likely that your flight is quite lengthy.Sign up for airline miles for this trip and work towards a future trip!
Solidify plans before booking flights, rooms, etc. Otherwise there can be hefty cancellation fees.
Do Your Research
Google common scams in your destination country so you can quickly identify and avoid them.
If you don’t know the quality or worth of something, ask someone who does or simply don’t buy it.
Know the bartering/bargaining/tipping expectations of the culture.
Try to travel with someone familiar with the area, it’s the best way to go deeper than the touristy attractions.
Pack your toiletries, valuables and an extra set of clothes in your carry-on luggage. Verify the cost of checking luggage. For international travel, many airlines often give you one free checked bag, but keep in mind that you may take domestic flights that do charge a fee once in-country.
For long layovers, many airports have luggage storage where you can leave your bags for a few hours, up to a few days, if you would like to exit the airport to explore the new city unburdened.
Food, Drink & Festivities
Don’t drink any iced beverages, and always use a straw when you drink from a can. Research the best food to try in your destination country and know any upcoming holidays or festivals being celebrated during your stay.
To make for smoother travel, try to keep the contents of your purse as de-cluttered as possible.
♣ Paper/Small Notebook
♣ Pepper Spray
♣ A snack bar or two
♣ Facial Tissues
♣ Copies of the customer service numbers of your phone carrier, bank, credit & debit cards
♣ Paper copy of your passport & visas
Things you probably won’t think about, but may want
♣ A compact umbrella
♣ Bug spray
♣ Water bottle
♣ Hand Wipes
♣ An extra phone/burner phone for emergencies
♣ A pair of flats in addition to tennis/hiking shoes
Plan things out, but be flexible. Don’t be afraid to go down a new street or take a wrong turn. Getting a little lost is a part of the fun. It’s O.K. to make mistakes!
Be safe, have fun. And never pack pepper spray in your carry-on.