I’ve just begun a week-long trip to visit family in Brazil and I could not be more excited to escape this horrendously cold weather (remember, I hate winter). I have been incredibly #blessed throughout my life to have traveled as much as I have. I have been going to Brazil every two years or so since I was 5, have a grandmother that is a diplomat whom I’ve had the privilege of traveling to Austria, Rome, and Slovenjia with, godparents that have taken me to Bermuda, Canada, and the Phillippines, and went to a college that requires every undergraduate student to study abroad. Domestically, I have been to 18 states – not as impressive as I’d like but I am working on it. I have been on my fair share of flights and have only learned from my experiences. For example, I do not care where you are going or who you are – you do not need to bring eight different pairs of shoes with you (unless you are Beyoncé. Beyoncé, you can do whatever the hell you want. Just keep being you). International travel can be an incredibly daunting experience and I feel very fortunate that at the prime age of twenty-three I have left the country well over a dozen times – at this point I am generally comfortable with it. That being said, it is still a daunting experience that you should be well prepared for. My hope with this post is to share what I’ve learned to make those international journeys a little bit easy for you all.
Step One: Choose Your Destination
This may seem obvious, but there should be great care in your decision on where to go. Do you want to go abroad but still want to be in the “developed” world? Maybe a trip to England would suit you best. Loath pho/rice/fish? A tour around Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos may not be in your best interest. Hate winter? Let’s not go to Moscow then. Also, I always like to go places where I know someone who lives in my travel destination so I’m not traveling blindly. With the exception of my cruise to Bermuda when I was 12, I have always been able to connect with someone local on every international trip I have taken – as well as most of my domestic trips. It’s very comforting to know that there is someone you can address questions to and who can show you the ins and outs of a place. It also may result in a place to stay. More on that later.
Step Two: Get Your Documents In Order
This is probably the most important part of your trip and should be done as early as possible – I would say two months before you plan to fly out AT MINIMUM. Get your plane tickets early – I prefer to use click-and-fly for mine. Although they make you email a photo of your credit card and driver’s license, I found tickets for this trip that were $300 less than through the airline. You are not done when you get your tickets – in fact, you may be just getting started. Now, you need to think about passports, vaccines, and visas. Is your passport up to date? Oh shit, it expired?? GO FILE FOR A NEW ONE ASAP. THIS PROCESS CAN BE VERY FRUSTRATING. Even ‘expidited’ delivery can feel like an eternity. Do you need shots for the country you’re visiting? Better call your doctor. Do you need a visa to enter the country you are going to? Look it up, find the nearest consolate, and make sure you do everything you need to so that they will let you into your dream destination. I’m lucky enough to have never had to get a visa but I’ve heard it can be a long and frustrating processes from many friends who needed it for their times studying abroad in college.
Step Three: Design Your Travel Itinerary
I always try to fly direct as running around various airports is never fun and is even less fun when you’re traveling abroad – I’m not tryna be on a plane for 9 hours, grab my luggage, go through customs, and then get on another 3 hour flight to my destination. This is sometimes unavoidable and in that case – may the force be with you. I’ve done it: it’s do-able but not ideal. In the case of this trip, I opted to take Amtrak up to JFK so I could fly direct and I find the extra land travel to be worth it. I also prefer to take a red-eye flight so as to not waste precious daytime hours up in the air. Once you’ve figured out what type of flight you’ll be on and how you’re getting to the airport, you must now figure out how you are getting from the airport. If you’ve managed to travel to a place to visit folks you know, ask as nicely as possible for a ride from the airport. If not, take a cab WITH A METER. Learn how to say the name of your final destination in the local language and pray that you are not taken the longest way possible (but keep in mind in may happen. After all, you are foreign and cab drivers are great at detecting that). Cabs with meters are held to a standard and you can visually see how much money you owe and when you’re exhausted, the less stress the better. If you’ve opted for a hotel, it is very possible that the place you’ve chosen has an airport shuttle service. Make sure this is all in place before you even begin to think about packing(/shopping). What good is that new sunhat you bought if you don’t have a way to get to the beach?
Also, this is the point where you should start learning a thing or two about the country you are going to. Do some research – is it rude to wear your shoes inside? To eat with your hands? Do certain hand gestures mean different things in the country you are visiting than they do in the country you live in? Do some research and do your best to not unintentionally offend the locals but know that if it happens accidentally, you’ll be forgiven eventually. It’s a good idea to pick up some key phrases in the local language as well. Here is a quick list of words/phrases to jot down before you head out: Hello. Goodbye. Thank you. You’re welcome. Where is the bathroom? Where is x street? Where can I get a taxi? Yes. No. How are you? Two beers, please. Want to come back to my hotel? I’m not interested. Go away.
Step Four: Money and Budgeting
Make a budget. I know this is not fun but it will make your trip a much greater success. This is also where knowing people where you are going – you can save on land travel, food, and a place to rest your head. Plan for meals out, shopping, and other activities. Headed to Rome? Look up ahead of time how much it costs to get into the Colosseum, etc. Plan for the unexpected by following my mother’s advice. She states, ” I usually go knowing my budget will need to double”. This is excellent advice; you don’t want to find yourself with 3 days left in Morocco with $50 to your name. Figure out how you will access your funds. I typically bring cash and exchange in once I am at my destination (do not do this at the airport. Those exchange rates are the worst). I also make sure to call my bank and get my debit and credit card authorized for international use in case of emergency. Make sure you understand the exchange rate and a general idea of what certain things cost. Now spend that money, you’ve worked hard for it at your desk/sales floor/coffee shop/restaurant.
Step Five: Prepare & Pack Your Checked Luggage
Ok, now you are ready to start figuring out what to bring with you. At least two weeks before, you should create some sort of packing list (however vague it may be) so you can run to Target or wherever else to grab whatever you may need that you don’t already own (like the sunhat mentioned above). Start checking the weather a week or two before you leave so you can get an idea of the climate trends of your destination. Pack an umbrella. I’ve never once regretted bringing an umbrella. It’s a good idea to start actually packing a few days before you’re trip but if you are anything like me, this part will happen the night before – and that is okay.
Once you’ve figured out what you need, it’s a good idea to find out what your chosen airline’s policies are for luggage. Do you get to check a free bag? What about two? Is there a weight limit (hint: most likely there is). I am not above whipping out my scale before a trip to make sure I have not gone over, and those times I forgot to do so I’ve literally held my breath when the airport attendant weighs it for me (I got dangerously close on my last trip coming home from Rio… I thought my mother was going to kill me but in my defense I was bringing alcohol back home). Pack as light as possible in as small of a bag as you can. This is especially important if you’re taking a page from the book of Jules and traveling to the airport by way of city bus ride from boyfriend (thanks, bae) to Amtrak to NYC subway to JFK airtrain. Remember, unless you are Beyoncé you can leave your entire shoe collection at home and opt for the basics (shoes to walk in, shoes to go out in, and weather permitting, shoes to go to the beach in). Bring some sort of light jacket even if it is summer as evening temperatures can vary drastically. If you’re picky about the products you put in your hair/on your body, get some travel sized bottles to save space. If not, the local equivelent of Pantine Pro-V/Dove will do. That all being said, it is extremely important to make sure there is room in your bag to bring shit back with you, because you are traveling and you are going to go shopping.
Now all that’s left is getting ready for your day of travel! Come back tomorrow – I’ll share my tips for your carry-on luggage, ideas for good travel outfits, and ways to rely as little as possible on airplane food.
Happy travel planning!