23 Incredibly Valuable Tips for the First Time International Traveler

Ready to travel abroad? Check out these international travel tips before leaving the country so you know how to prepare.
Last updated Aug 27, 2021 | By Ben Walker | Edited By Jess Ullrich
Young traveler

FinanceBuzz is reader-supported. We may receive compensation from the products and services mentioned in this story, but the opinions are the author's own. Compensation may impact where offers appear. We have not included all available products or offers. Learn more about how we make money and our editorial policies.

If you’ve traveled domestically, you know there’s typically not much to worry about other than remembering to pack everything and knowing your flight information or road trip itinerary. But for international travel, you might want to keep several things in mind for planning purposes and to ease money anxiety abroad.

In this checklist of international travel tips, we cover everything from knowing how to exchange currency to having one of the best travel credit cards. Let’s see which tips you need to add to your list!

Check on your passport

A valid U.S. passport allows you to travel to well over one hundred countries worldwide, making it one of the most valuable passports in the world. But it won’t be worth much if you let it expire. If you’re planning an international trip, make sure you know the expiration date on your passport well in advance of your travels.

This will give you plenty of time to renew it if needed, which may be required even if your passport isn’t going to expire during your travels. The general recommendation from U.S. Customs and Border Protection is to have at least six months of validity left on your passport when you start your international travels. Some countries require this, and an airline could prevent you from boarding a flight to an applicable country if your passport information doesn’t comply.

In addition, it’s best to order a passport or go through the renewal process well before you plan to travel internationally. This can help to ensure you receive your passport in time to travel while accounting for potential delays in the process. The passport process can sometimes take up to 18 weeks or more.

Check visa requirements

While checking over your passport and making sure it’s not going to expire, review requirements for the countries you’re planning to visit abroad. For many countries, you won’t need more than your U.S. passport to get through the border. But some countries require a visa for entrance.

A visa grants you authorization, along with your passport, to enter a specific country. Each country that requires a visa typically has its own process for obtaining one. You can often apply online, and you’ll typically have to pay a fee to get a visa and then wait for it to arrive.

To find out more about visa requirements, visit the Travel.State.Gov site and search for your destination country in the search box. Then check the “Entry, Exit and Visa Requirements” section of the country’s page.

Review vaccination requirements

We may live in a modern world, but we still need to be careful about certain diseases while traveling abroad. It’s recommended to get specific vaccinations before you travel, depending on the countries you’re going to visit.

To check vaccination requirements by country, visit the CDC destinations page. Here, you can select a worldwide destination and be brought to a page with information about that destination. For example, if you visit the Vietnam page, you’ll see recommended vaccinations and medicines for Japanese encephalitis, malaria, and other diseases.

It’s typically best to visit your doctor or a travel clinic a few months before traveling, so you have time to schedule and receive your vaccinations. Keep in mind that some countries require proof of vaccination for certain diseases to be admitted into the country.

Be on the lookout for travel advisories

The U.S. Department of State offers travel advisories for countries and areas worldwide. This can be a helpful resource to see if it’s safe to travel to certain countries. All countries are given a travel advisory level, ranging from Level 1 to Level 4, with Level 1 meaning “Exercise Normal Precautions” and Level 4 meaning “Do Not Travel.” You can also click on individual countries to see specific information about the travel situation and when the travel advisory was last updated.

For further information, sign up for the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive updates on safety conditions in your destination countries. Being a member of this program can also help the U.S. Embassy, friends, and family contact you if there’s an emergency.

Learn about cultural differences

Doing some research on the cultures of the countries you’re planning to visit could help you avoid unfortunate circumstances while you’re there. It can also help you stand out less like a tourist.

For example, we’re used to giving tips to restaurant staff in the U.S., but this isn’t a common practice in many countries worldwide — though it has become more popular in touristy locations. Or maybe you’re not used to having much physical contact when you greet people, but it’s an everyday custom for others.

“Research your destination and get excited,” says Kayla Anzalone, director of special projects at Rustic Pathways. “Practice the basic phrases you’ll use in the country you’re traveling to and prepare your mind for new and exciting experiences.”

Whatever your thoughts on traveling, it’s typically best to align yourself with the culture and customs of the country you’re visiting, at least to a certain extent.

Get the right credit card(s)

It’s amazing how useful having the right credit card can be when traveling internationally. This could be for specific travel benefits, such as airport lounge access or expedited security screening, or simply because you don’t have to pay foreign transaction fees on purchases made abroad.

If you compare credit cards, not every card offers the benefit of no foreign transaction fees, which means you could be stuck paying around 3% more on all your foreign credit card purchases. To avoid these fees, get a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or The Platinum Card® from American Express.

Consider travel insurance

It’s typically always worth it to consider travel insurance if you’re traveling abroad because you never know what kinds of situations you might find yourself in. And, many travel insurance plans are fairly cheap, even if you’re traveling for an extended period of time or visiting multiple countries.

In addition, consider paying for airfare and car rentals with credit cards that offer certain types of coverage. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers primary car insurance coverage for eligible rental vehicles you pay for with your card. It also offers trip cancellation and interruption insurance, trip delay reimbursement, and lost luggage reimbursement.

Use points to save on international flights

Many of the best rewards credit cards make it easy to earn points or miles on all your purchases. This includes your everyday expenses, such as groceries, gas, or eating out. Some of these cards let you redeem points for travel, often including flights and hotel stays.

If you save up enough points, your normal purchases could earn you cheap flights and award nights at hotels. Then, you wouldn’t have to shell out as much or any cash for some of the biggest expenses on your travels. In other words, using points for travel could help save you money.

Figure out if you need adapters

This may come as a surprise, but electrical plugs and outlets tend to be different around the world. Knowing this, you’ll have to do some research on what kind of plug you need, depending on the countries you’re planning to visit. Otherwise, you might not be able to plug in any of your devices, including your phone charger.

To find what kind of adapter you need, search Google for the name of a country in your plans and then add the word “adapter.” Or you can Google search something along the lines of, “does [country] need an adapter,” and put in the name of the applicable country.

You should quickly get results on whether a country requires an adapter, and then it’s easy to search Amazon or other stores for the specific adapter you need. In some cases, you may be able to use an all-in-one adapter that works for multiple countries. Just be careful with some adapters that aren’t meant to be used with high-power devices, such as hair dryers or irons.

Work out a plan with your cell phone provider

You might be wondering how or if you can use your phone for calls and texts while traveling abroad. Fortunately, most cell phones can still work in other countries, though you need to be careful with rules about international use with your mobile provider.

For example, your cell phone plan may or may not include international texting, data, and calling. If it does, check to see where you can use your phone without being charged. If your plan doesn’t include these features, check with your provider to see if they can be added. It’s not uncommon to be able to pay for an international pass that lets you use data and calling services for a set time period, such as a day or up to a month.

If you aren’t planning on having an international data plan, remember to turn off data roaming and cellular data on your cell phone, or you could be charged. Also, make the most of Wi-Fi to save money. Use Wi-Fi calling to make calls and do research, such as downloading maps for offline use on Google Maps, while on Wi-Fi.

Download communication apps

You might be comfortable using certain communication apps in the U.S., but other countries could rely on different apps to communicate. WhatsApp is a popular messaging app that many people use worldwide. It’s free to download and use and can be helpful for communicating with locals or people in your party if you’re not able to text or make normal phone calls.

If you have Wi-Fi, WhatsApp and similar apps like Facebook Messenger, make it easy to communicate through Wi-Fi calling and messaging.

Determine the best way to exchange money

Chances are, the currency in your destination country is different from the U.S. dollar, so you’ll likely have to exchange some dollars for the local currency. This can be confusing if you’re not familiar with exchanging money and finding the best exchange rates.

When possible, it’s best to use a credit card that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees. Then you don’t have to worry about losing money through an exchange. But it’s also a good idea to have some local cash, which you can get through money exchanges, ATMs, and banks.

One important tip from Jurga Rubinovaite, travel blogger for Full Suitcase: “Always choose local currency when using an ATM or paying by credit card abroad. One of the most common travel mistakes you can make when traveling internationally is choosing to see the amounts in your own currency when you withdraw money from an ATM or pay by card. I once made this mistake when traveling to London, and it cost me over 15%. Never again.”

In addition, money exchanges at airports often have the worst exchange rates, but be sure to research rates yourself to see if they’re fair or not. ATMs and banks typically have fairer rates, but ATMs can charge fees for the service. Having a bank card that doesn’t charge ATM fees or refunds international ATM fees, such as a Charles Schwab debit card, is handy for using ATMs to get local currency without having to pay an added cost.

Know the locations of local banks and ATMs

Just in case, it could be useful to know where local banks and ATMs are in the areas you’re visiting. You never know when you might need to stop by to withdraw some extra cash, which could turn into a hassle if you haven’t already done the research and aren’t able to use your phone until you find Wi-Fi.

Google Maps makes it easy to mark specific locations in its app so you can quickly find them if you need to. And if you download maps while you’re on Wi-Fi, you can look at them later while you’re offline.

Make copies of important documents

“Secure copies of important documents, IDs, and your passport in case of emergencies,” says Aman Saxena, a content strategist at Trip101. While copies of important documents aren’t as good as the real thing, they can be helpful if you lose your passport, driver’s license, or something similar while traveling.

If your passport is lost or stolen, you’ll still need one to get back to the U.S., which is a bit of a scary situation. But having copies of your passport or birth certificate can help when you go to the nearest U.S. embassy to replace it.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a replacement without this information, but it will likely speed up the process so you can get back to your vacation or get your new passport in time to travel.

Know the location of the nearest U.S. embassy

U.S. embassies and consulate offices are located worldwide. They can assist traveling U.S. citizens with different things, such as helping during emergency situations within the country, advocating for your rights if you’re arrested or detained, and replacing lost or stolen passports.

If you know where the embassy is ahead of time and have its contact information, you won’t have to spend time doing this research if you’re in the middle of a situation.

Have a plan in case you get sick

Traveling abroad doesn’t make you immune to getting sick or ill. What’s your plan if you get sick or sustain an injury? Your medical insurance may provide limited coverage if you’re out of the country, so check with your provider before you travel. If they don’t provide coverage, consider getting travel insurance that comes with medical coverage.

Remember to take a comprehensive look at what applicable plans cover, so you understand what you’re getting. For example, you may or may not have coverage for dental work.

Let your credit card company know you’re traveling

It would be a shame if you went to use your shiny new travel credit card to make a purchase in another country, and it was declined. It could be declined for multiple reasons, including suspected fraud, which might be the case if your credit card company doesn’t know you’re traveling. Give your card issuer a call before you leave the country so they can make a note of when and where you’ll be traveling.

Pack extra clothes in your carry-on bag

Most of your travel items will likely get packed into your checked luggage. But keep some spare clothes in your carry-on as well, just in case your checked bags are lost. Certain credit cards, such as the United Explorer Card, offer baggage delay insurance and lost luggage reimbursement for these types of situations.

Pack essentials and comfort items for the plane

What items do you absolutely need while you’re on the plane? Necessities could include medication and a water bottle (fill it up after security), or a diaper bag if you have a small child. But you want to make sure you have items to make the flight more comfortable as well.

“In your carry-on, pack necessary medications, a blindfold and earplugs, chargers, electronics, essential toiletries, an extra pair of underwear, a water bottle, extra masks, and a snack,” says Michelle Facos, a professor of art history at Indiana University-Bloomington. “Also, bring a sweater or jacket.”

Research airline and airport policies

To avoid confusion and frustration at the airport, check the policies for TSA security screening, as well as the policies of the airline you’re flying before packing. This could include what types of items you’re allowed to bring through security, such as liquids, and how big their containers can be.

Also, every airline has its own baggage restrictions, including specific dimensions and limitations for weight and size. Knowing the policies could help you learn how to avoid baggage fees. Certain credit cards, such as the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card, also offer free baggage perks with specific carriers. While others, like the Amex Platinum, offer travel credits that could offset baggage costs.

Be prepared to deal with jet lag

If you’re traveling far away, you’re likely going to have some jet lag, which is typically a temporary disorder caused by moving across multiple time zones quickly. This could cause you to not be able to sleep at your normal time and make you fatigued because your internal clock is off. Consider avoiding any big plans upon arrival and giving yourself a day to check in at your hotel and relax.

Figure out your transportation

How are you going to get around the area you’re traveling to? How will you get from the airport to your hotel? Or your hotel to different attractions?

Every destination has methods of transportation, whether it’s buses, trains, subways, taxis, rideshares, or something else. If you search through online travel websites and forums, you’ll be able to find actual travelers sharing their opinions and advice on how to get around in specific areas.

This can be extremely helpful if you don’t know how the public transportation system works or need to download an app for local taxis. In addition, you might learn you can (or need to) book bus tickets ahead of time.

Keep your hotel’s contact information with you

If you get lost but have your hotel’s contact information on hand, you should be able to get back to your room. Having this information could come in handy if you’re trying to explain where you want to go to a taxi or rideshare driver, but neither of you speaks the other’s language. Showing them the hotel address or contact information allows them to look it up themselves or call the hotel to see how to get there.

Bottom line

International travel is often eye-opening, exciting, and fun. Most experienced travelers recommend it because it often gives you a taste of something new and wonderful. But it makes sense to approach it with an attitude of preparation, especially if you’re going abroad for the first time.

This way, you won’t be caught off guard by certain things you haven’t experienced before, such as getting sick in a foreign country or dealing with a lost or stolen passport. A little preparation and research can go a long way in helping to ensure your international experience is successful, rewarding, and stress-free.

New, Higher Sign Up Bonus - Worth $1250 Toward Travel

Intro Offer

100,000 points

Annual Fee

$95

Rewards Rate

up to 5X points

Benefits and Drawbacks

Benefits

  • Best offer ever! 100,000 point sign-up bonus
  • 5X points on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • 25% more value when redeeming rewards for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • 10% anniversary point bonus each year
  • $50 annual credit on hotel stays booked through Ultimate Rewards
  • Premium travel protection benefits

Drawbacks

  • Has annual fee
  • Typically need to spend thousands to reap rewards
Card Details
  • Earn 100,000 points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months
  • 5X points on Lyft rides (through March 2022) and travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards; 3X points on eligible dining, select streaming services, and online grocery purchases; 2X points on travel; and 1X points per $1 on all other eligible purchases

Author Details

Ben Walker Ben Walker is a credit cards and travel writer at FinanceBuzz who loves helping others achieve their travel goals through financially-sound decisions. For nearly a decade, he has been using credit card points and miles for the sole purpose of traveling the world. Ben has been featured in The Washington Post, MSN, Debt.com, and Finder.com.