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Tips for International Travel

Here are the best tips and tricks I have come up with before you depart on your international adventure!  

Before You Go!

Research Vaccine & Medicine Recommendations

The CDC is a great resource, as is Passport Health. You can make an appointment with a local Passport Health office for a nurse consultation to determine which vaccines and medicines are appropriate for your trip. The cost of the visit and supplies can be paid with your HSA card.

Smart Traveler Enrollment Program 

Consider registering for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program which is a free service that allows U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. https://step.state.gov/step/

International Driver Permit

Will you be renting a car?  Then you need to get an International Driver Permit.  I used to think that this step was unnecessary until we were unable to rent cars at two locations during our last trip to Greece.  Luckily, my dad was traveling with us and had an International Driver Permit. We were not even planning to rent a car on this trip, so it may be a good idea to get an International Driver Permit if there is any chance of renting a vehicle. 

Contact Your Bank and Credit Card Customer Service

You need to let your bank and credit card company know that you are leaving the country. If you forget, they may block your card overseas and you’ll have to get it fixed from abroad. Many times this step can be handled through your online login, but if all else is fails, call the number on the back of your card.  You should also find out what the foreign transaction fees are for your different cards and choose the card with the lowest fees. Most travel reward cards do not charge foreign transaction fees, but many others charge about 3%. Most bank ATMs charge 1% for withdrawals in addition to any ATM fees.

It is worth mentioning that we have had issues with our USAA debit card at ATM machines during our last couple of trips to Europe. We were told it was an issue with the type of Visa debit card that it was.  We had to call internationally from Europe and were given a list of very specific ATM locations where the card would work. Finding specific addresses while traveling is not easy nor a way you would want to spend your vacation time.  It would have been easier for us to get our cash from the ATM at the airport, but we did not think about cash at that point since we planned to use our credit card for most ourchases since our credit card has no foreign transaction fees. Figuring all of this out before we left would have saved precious vacation hours.

Research Your Credit Card Travel Insurance

I wholeheartedly believe you should purchase third-party travel insurance to protect you during your travel since the coverage is much more comprehensive than what some travel credit cards offer. However, you should still find out as much as you can about what your credit card does offer and how to ensure you are covered.  For example, some credit cards offer rental car coverage, but only if you decline any insurance offered by the rental car company and if you charge the entire rental on that card. If you have any questions on why you should still buy third party travel insurance even though you have some coverage with your credit card, please contact me.

Research Your Rental Car Coverage

Check with your private auto insurance carrier to see if you are covered when renting a car. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, your credit card may also cover your rental car. Be prepared before you approach the car rental counter as many companies try to force you to take their insurance. In some countries, the car rental company will make you feel like it is a requirement, while in other countries it actually is a requirement. In Ireland for example, unlimited Third Party Liability Insurance is a legal requirement as included in the pre-paid price of all car rentals. You need to make sure you understand what you have to accept and what not to accept before arriving at the car rental counter.

Research the Currency

Just because you are traveling to Europe does not mean you understand how much you will be spending.  While many of the countries use the euro, the prices for goods and services within each country vary greatly, so it is helpful to arrive prepared for how much you are going to spend for meals, taxis, souvenirs, etc. 

In many third world countries I have visited, there is an official currency, but US dollars are widely accepted, so you could bring money with you and not worry about finicky ATM machines.  Make sure to count your cash after withdrawing from an ATM. I have been shorted money twice. It was not a fun process to recoup my money. Once I was reimbursed and the other time I was not.

Research Tipping Etiquette

While still on the subject of money, make sure you know the tipping culture before your first meal.  We have spent many minutes in a restaurant trying to get on wifi to determine if we need to tip at the end of our meal.  Some countries, like Australia, pay servers a living wage, so the service is part of the overall cost of the meal. Try to do the research before you leave.

International phone plan/SIM card

Are you planning to use your phone while traveling?  Then you really need to figure our your international plan before you leave.  I *thought* I had done what I needed to do before a recent trip to Italy because I logged into my account online and clicked a few boxes after searching international data plan tabs.  I went to use my phone upon arrival, and it did not work.

Apparently, I only signed up to be able to use it at a per-minute rate and I had to turn on the service within my cellular settings on my phone once I arrived.  I was expecting my phone to work as it does at home as soon as I turned it on. Apparently, there was an additional step I needed to take to sign up for international service at either $10 a day or a certain amount of data over 30 days for $60.  It may be worth an online chat or phone call with your service provider before you leave to ensure you did everything correctly.

Check the weather

You make assumptions about the weather in the places you will visit and sometimes you forget to check to see if your assumptions may be off.  Sometimes there are heatwaves or cold snaps, so you need to be prepared. I was always told that Ireland in May was cool and rainy. I scoffed at my husband when he packed shorts for our trip, but luckily he packed two pair because I had to borrow them a couple of days of our trip!  We were wearing fleeces one day and the next day we were wearing short sleeves and shorts. Always pack a jacket, a pair of shorts, and a bathing suit. You just never know!

Charge Electronics

Most international flights these days have that lovely little screen on the back of the seat in front of you.  However, you may have a short-haul flight en route to your international flight. You’ll likely want to use your electronics at the airport and a place to charge your electronics is not always readily available.  Therefore, it is always a good idea to have all of your electronics charged before a trip. Make sure to turn your phone to Airplane Mode once onboard to conserve your battery.

You should also charge items that you will not necessarily use on the plane like your camera battery. You may feel like sightseeing as soon as you arrive and definitely will not want to wait around for your camera battery to charge.

Device Storage

Make sure you have enough storage on your phone or camera memory card for photos.  The last thing you want to do is miss that perfect shot because you have no storage left and have to go through and decide which photos to delete to make more room.  While you are at it, go ahead and back up existing contacts and photos on your phone and cameras before departure in case you lose it while traveling.

Adaptors and Converters

The outlets are most likely going to look different than the ones you are used to.  If you do not have a universal converter, get one! Also, check to see if your appliances are dual voltage.  If they are not, you will also need a converter. Most current electronics like your phone, computer, tablets, and cameras will have dual voltage, but make sure.  Older camera model battery chargers or hair appliances like hair dryers or straighteners may not. Most hotels and even vacation rentals provide hairdryers these days, but double check before you leave!

Arrange Transportation from Arrival Airport

Have a game plan ready for your arrival. I encourage my clients to be picked up from the airport. Looking for a taxi outside of an airport in a foreign country is one of the most intimidating parts of a trip for me. I always feel like I am being ripped off even if I am sure that I am not. I would much rather have one of those people holding a sign with my name on it. It is such a welcoming feeling after a long flight and being in an unfamiliar place.

Make Copies

A lot of people make this recommendation, but I am a little torn.  I am a tree hugger and do not like the idea of wasting paper. However, I realize you could lose your phone with all of your travel docs via the Travefy app where I keep all of your travel information, so if you are traveling with others, make sure everyone has the app.  Of course, you can contact me if you lose any docs because I have copies of everything, so make sure you write my number somewhere safe. I would also recommend bringing copies of your credit card numbers and phone numbers, your passport, and your insurance policy contact numbers.

Checked Baggage

Baggage fees vary dramatically between carriers and fare codes.  Before checking a bag, research the costs so you are not caught off guard.   If you can not limit yourself to a carry-on, it might make more sense to check a large suitcase versus two smaller ones to save the per bag fees.  The standard checked luggage size is 27 x 21 x 14, but many airlines allow larger.

Pay for checked bags online to save significantly over at airport prices. Also, do not assume you have until two hours before the flight to check your bags online. On a recent Norwegian Air flight, I found out the hard way that they cut off check in and online checked baggage six hours before check in. This meant I had to check my bag at the airport and was shocked at the $100+ price. Luckily, the lady at the desk took mercy on me and charged me half of that, but it was still more than what I would have paid online.

You will need to weigh your checked bags to make sure it is not over fifty pounds since that is the weight limit before being charged with additional fees.  However, each airline in Europe has its own weight rules so check the airline rules before you fly. Some have lower than 50 lbs max weights before their overweight baggage fees kick in, while others charge for checked bags on a sliding scale based on weight. 

Speaking of Europe, your carry on bag in the U.S. may not be considered carry on size in Europe. See below section for more details. 

If you are checking a bag, make sure your baggage has tags and that the information is up to date.  It’s actually a good idea to do this for your carry on bags as well in case the flight runs out of overhead space.

Carry On Bags

Standard carry on size for US domestic flights is 22”X14”X9”. In Europe, the standard rule of thumb is 21”X14”X9”, but again it varies by airline.  There are also some European airlines that only allow one carry on bag versus a carry on bag and personal item bag. So always check before you go and plan accordingly!

Follow the 3-1-1 Rule for packing any liquids in your carry on:

3-1-1 for carry-ons = 3.4 ounce (100ml) bottle or less (by volume) ; 1 quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag; 1 bag per passenger placed in screening bin. One-quart bag per person limits the total liquid volume each traveler can bring. 3.4 ounce (100ml) container size is a security measure.

Check Out The Parking Situation At Departure Airport

Figure out where you will park before you arrive.  Many airports have private parking companies on the perimeter of airports where you can park much cheaper than parking at the airport and then ride a shuttle to the airport.  Many of these private parking companies offer savings for those who book online ahead of time.

Check-In To Your Flight!

This can be done 24 hours before your flight departure.  If you are flying on an Economy Light fare, it is particularly important to do this as close to 24 hours as possible since this is your first chance to select your seats.  You will be assigned seats at check-in, but if you want to improve them, this is your best chance.

Download The Airline App

Although your Travefy app is supposed to warn you of any flight changes, it does not hurt to register your trip on the airline’s app.  Often the push notification to your phone via the app will reach you faster than a text or email. You will know to call the airline (or me!) so you do not show up at the airport for a delayed flight and can rebook if necessary.

Carry On Packing List

  • Passport and visa if necessary
  • Pen to fill out any customs or immigration forms upon arrival
  • Pack a change of clothes in whatever bag you keep on the airplane with you.  Include layers for drastic temperature fluctuations from no air on the ground if engines are not running yet to full blast air conditioning once in the air.
  • Any medications you take should go with you on the plane, this includes any sleep aid to help you sleep on the plane or to help fight jetlag once you arrive.
  • Headphones – noise-canceling headphones are recommended so you can sleep better on the plane
  • If you opt out of the headphones, at least pack some earplugs.  An eye mask is also helpful in getting some zzz’s on an airplane.
  • Travel Pillow
  • Electronics & Chargers – phone, tablet, computer, camera
  • Converters and adaptors
  • Reading materials
  • Copies of any important documents you plan to bring with you (see above)
  • Snacks
  • Antibacterial Wipes

The Day of Departure

Get To The Airport At Least Two Hours Before Your Flight

Do as I say, not as I do!  I am not always the best about this but have been much better since traveling with children.  Of course, with children, I probably should be getting to the airport three hours early. Most likely, you will not need this much time, but with travel, you should always expect the unexpected.

Don’t Forget Your Passport

I know this sounds silly, but I can not tell you how many stories I have heard about people getting to the airport with no identification.  This is another reason to get to the airport early in case you forget your passport or anything else for that matter.

Keep Security Items Easily Accessible

Make sure you can easily get to your liquids, laptops, and boarding passes (even if they are on your phone, make sure you have an easy to access screenshot in your most recent photos) so that you do not hold up the security line.

Once You are Passed Security

Check your gate assignment one last time, it can change even after you have your boarding pass.  Make your way near your gate so you can hear any announcements. If you are not happy with your seats or are trying to sit close to your travel partners, make one last appeal to the gate agent to see if they can help you.

Eating

Consider eating a meal before you board the plane.  The food on airplanes is high in sodium which causes dehydration and makes it harder to sleep.  They also say that drinking alcohol on the plane makes you dehydrated, but in my experience, it makes it easier to sleep, so I can not in good conscious tell you not to do that!

Bring snacks, especially if you are traveling with kids.

Drink Lots of Water

Not only does dehydration make it harder to sleep, but it also increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVP).  Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

Changing Seats

Once the boarding door closes, do not be shy to hop into another seat – particularly those coveted empty rows. I have made the mistake of hesitating then somebody beats me to it. The worst-case scenario is that the flight attendant asks you to move, but that has never happened to me. The only time I have had to move is when I jumped to an empty row when I thought the plane was done boarding, but it was worth the risk!

Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVP)

If you are at risk for DVPs (see list of risk factors here), make sure to avoid alcohol, drink plenty of water, wear loose and comfortable clothing, wear compression socks, and get up often during the flight to stretch which encourages blood flow.  Talk to your doctor about a possible prescription for blood-thinning medicine for your trip.

Adjust Your Watch

Once you are on the plane, adjust your watch to the time at your destination to try and help you adjust to the new time.

Arrival

Immigration

Have your documents ready for immigration.   Some countries allow Americans to enter the country through electronic border control.  Examples include eGates in Great Britain and Germany’s Easy Pass System. Research your destination to find out if ePassports are accepted to reduce your time in line on arrival.  Please note that if you are traveling with kids, you are not eligible to use some of these electronic border control systems.

Get Some Cash

When you arrive at your final destination, skip the currency desk and use your ATM at the airport to grab some cash because the last thing you want to do once you arrive at your accommodation is to look for an ATM that works with your debit card (see above section ‘Research the Currency’)!

Divide Your Cash

Cash makes me nervous.  I never use it at home. I know all of you Dave Ramsey followers are not going to like this, but I put everything on my credit card.  I download all of my transactions into Excel and it is easier for me to track that way. Even though using a credit card during travel is getting easier and easier, there are some places where you still need cash to operate.  To avoid fees or searching for ATMs, it may be easier to get out a lot at one time. Just make sure not to keep it all in one place. Divide it between you and your travel partners if possible or at least into different compartments of your baggage.  Just do not forget where you put it!

Jet Lag

Some people think that staying awake all day on arrival is the best option, but research states that you should get as much sleep as you normally do in a 24 hour period so a short nap during the day and an early bedtime are okay.  Try to be outdoors and keep moving as much as possible, these two things are your best tools for combating jet lag!


Hopefully, these tips will help you get through your flight with no issues and arrive feeling great and ready for your adventure!

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