Beginner’s Guide To International Travel

international travel

As a photographer I’ve been fortunate to visit and shoot in some amazing places but I’ve definitely learned a lot along the way! Below are my top tips for anyone hoping to begin the addiction of international travel.

1.) Plan ahead

The second you arrive at your destination you want to hit the ground running. You’ve done a lot of work to get to this point, and you definitely don’t want to spend precious hours waiting in line at the museum or googling the best place to eat. Research everything beforehand, then map out all your stops in Google maps (like I did for Paris, Salzburg, Trieste, Venice, Copenhagen and Malmö). Before you head out, drop a pin on your starting spot and no matter where you go you’ll be able to see how far you are from your hotel and be able to pull up the address for any ubers or taxis. 

If you know where you absolutely want to go, purchase your tickets beforehand. You can find great deals online months in advance, and a lot of times they can ship them to your house or email you the printout version. Just pack it in your bag and you can head straight to your favorite places for cheaper than a walk-in ticket and you’ll skip the long lines. 

Don’t forget to check out city passes as well. Many cities offer a pass to all of the tourist spots. But one pass, get into everything! Click here for the Paris museum pass, or here for a Salzburg card! You don’t have to stick to the plan if something fun comes up, but it’s always nice to have one!

2.) Have the right documents

If you’re leaving the country, you’ll need a passport. That goes for the little ones too; even babies need a passport! If you don’t have your passport already, or if your current one expires within six months, you’ll need a new one. Plan at least 8 weeks to get it taken care of. The process is a little different depending on where you live, but it’s usually a stop in at your local government office. Our passport office is attached to our post office. It takes about 20 minutes to fill out the paperwork and get the photos done, then it’s just a waiting game! Sometimes you can expedite the process but it’ll cost a bit extra. 

Certain countries also require a visa, depending on your reason for visiting and how long you’ll be in the country. Usually any kind of tourist trip under 90 days won’t require a visa, but every country is different. Here is a good quick reference for US citizens, and here another for citizens of any country. It takes roughly 4-6 weeks to process your application, but the timeline is different for every country. 

You’ll also want to make sure you have copies of all additional relevant documents (hotel registration confirmation, travel insurance, etc.). For a full list check out my blog post here! 

3.) Update yours and your kids’ vaccinations

Speaking of medicines, you’ll want to make sure your entire family is up to date on all your vaccinations. Your doctor should be able to tell you what you need for your trip, but you should also check the travel alerts to if anything new is in the area. This website is a great resource for any vaccinations and health information you’ll need depending on your destination. 

Keep in mind, certain circumstances are different depending the person. Babies are especially susceptible to new diseases, as are the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. Depending on the situation, some trips may just be off limits. I had to cancel a trip to Brazil once I found out I was pregnant due to a Zika virus outbreak. It’s important to trust your family physician in these circumstances. They know what they’re doing!

4.) Get your money ready in advance

To avoid extra fees and hassle, you’ll want to exchange your currency beforehand at your local bank. This will give you the best exchange rate and save you time and stress trying to hunt down a place to do it overseas. 

You’ll also want to notify your credit and debit card providers that you’ll be traveling, so they don’t freeze your card the first time you try and use it. Sometimes you have to let them know each country you’ll be traveling to, and if that’s the case, don’t forget about stopover countries! If you’re flight is delayed and you need to stay the night you’ll want to make sure you can use your credit card to pay for a hotel room, a taxi and a couple meals. 

Click here to read more about money tips when traveling overseas, like pre-paying your bills and avoiding getting stuck with leftover local currency. 

5.) Learn a little of the language

Depending on where you are going, your native language may or may not be spoken. You also have to keep into account your own accent. I’ve been told my accent is very strong no matter where I go, and I speak incredibly fast, so even though I may be in a country that speaks English that doesn’t guarantee I’ll be able to communicate properly. It’s actually easier for me to learn the basics of the local language instead of trying to speak English. Some key phrases to learn are, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Can you help” “Do you speak (insert your language here)”, “I do not understand”, “Excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, and “Where is the bathroom?”.

If you’re bringing kids, teach them a few of these phrases as well! Nothing gets you a better welcome than a 3 year old saying “Please” and “Thank you” in the native tongue. The first thing my 2 and 1/2 year old learned in France was “Merci Beaucoup” and it melted hearts (and got us admitted to a lot of bathrooms). Kids are sponges when it comes to languages. Feed the fire!

6.) Budget for airport pickup

If there’s any shortcut I gladly take when traveling, it’s the ride to and from the airport/main train station. Unless you’re staying in a hotel with a hotel shuttle that will pick you up and drop you off, call an uber or a taxi. They’ll pick up everyone in your party, along with all your luggage, and drop you off right on your front doorstep. It’ll cost barely more than what it would cost with public transportation and it saves you hours of time and frustration waiting for trains and busses, lugging all your luggage around, only to still have to walk 12 blocks to your hotel. 

Example: when we landed in Paris we were told to take the train into town, then the bus to the Opera, then metro line 3 until our street and then walk 2 blocks to the house. Or we could just take a 30 minute uber for all three of us and our luggage straight from Charles de Gaulle airport to the front step for $35. Budget for a ride directly to and from the airport and save the public transportation for when you aren’t jet lagged and dragging a couple suitcases. 

7.) Update your phone plan

Each cell service provider is different, so you’ll need to call and talk to a representative to choose the best option. Rather die than do this? I know. It sucks. Just do it. A lot of times the representative will be able to help you depending on where you’re going and how long you’ll be there. 

You can also get around texting or calling as long as you have internet service. You can Facetime instead of call, and use Kik or Facebook messenger instead of texting. If you’re staying at a hotel, use their phone to make local calls. If your service provider is charging you an arm and a leg, just get a prepaid phone and use your regular phone only where there’s free WIFI. If you don’t want to use any data, you can set up a Google map of all the locations you want to go and then download it to your phone. It won’t show you your location in real time, but it’ll provide a great reference without having to access your data plan!

8.) Pack some basic medications. 

The only thing that will give you more anxiety than having to track down some diarrhea medicine in the middle of the night in a foreign country is having to explain the word ‘diarrhea’ to a counter clerk who may not speak your language. Pack a few extra medications, like some Imodium, some antacid, and an antihistamine, just in case that Thai food doesn’t quite agree with you later. 

If you have kids, this is also incredibly important. When Leila was 1 year old in Hawaii, she got a horrible fever (turns out it was Roseola), and my husband had to spend all night bouncing from gas station to gas station trying to track down some Children’s Tylenol. He finally got back to the house with some kind of Ibuprofen they don’t even make anymore. The instructions didn’t make sense (hence why they probably don’t make it anymore), we had to call the hospital to clarify, and even they couldn’t figure it out. It was complete chaos at 3:00 in the morning trying to break her poor fever. If we had just packed a damn bottle of Children’t Tylenol the whole mess could’ve been avoided. You never know when a sudden fever or teething issues will arise, so be prepared. 

For prescription medications, it’s smart to check with the embassy of the country you’re visiting to make sure the prescriptions you’re bringing along are legal, and make sure to pack photocopies of your prescriptions, just in case. 

9.) Pack less than you need

One of the sneakiest ways to spoil your trip is to overpack. You’ll pay a ton in checked luggage fees, struggle with cars that can fit all the members of your family and the luggage, and stress yourself out trying to get your kids and bags through airports and train stations (and keep in mind, not all train stations have convenient ramps and lifts). 

We assume the more we pack the more prepared we’ll be and the more options we’ll have, but the truth is the exact opposite: the more luggage you have the bigger ball and chain you’ll be working with. 

This doesn’t mean you don’t can’t have options; there’s just a method to the madness! Check out my post on exactly how to get the most out of your suitcase and travel wardrobe!

10.) Research local customs

Just because something is allowed in your home country does not mean it’s allowed in others. If you’re looking to visit a church, shrine or temple, for example, you might not be allowed entrance if you’re wearing open toed shoes, ripped jeans, or a sleeveless shirt. If you’re hoping to visit a religious institution in Cairo, women are required to have their legs fully covered, but even tight pants may be seen as immodest, so a long skirt might be your only option to getting in. Some cultures have specific guidelines as to which colors to wear and which ones to avoid. avoid. Central Africans, for example, avoid wearing dark blue, since it attracts biting tsetse flies. 

Be careful of where you take photos too. Some places do not allow photographs, and you could even get arrested for attempting to snap a pic. You don’t want to risk getting thrown in jail for the sake of an Instagram shot. 

11.) Go for it!

Travel isn’t just about wandering around a new place and taking pictures, it’s about experiencing a new place, including it’s people, food and culture! Don’t sit back in the shadows, get out there and make some friends! Sit at the bar with the locals and ask their advice on what to do and where to go. They’ll direct you to that random street dance happening later that night, in which case throw back a beer, and go dance! 

After striking up a conversation with a local woman who sold us some tea, we learned we happened to be in Sweden during Warpurgis Eve, a night when there would be huge bonfires and music going on all throughout Malmö. It was a tradition, she told us to welcome spring, and for some, to ward off witches. We had no idea!

When we’re home it’s easy to put off new experiences until “next time”, but when you’re traveling there may not be a “next time”. It’s easy to stay on the sidelines and take a few photos, but travel isn’t about staying on the sidelines, it’s about the joining in the experience! Get out there! 

What travel tips have worked best for you? I’d love to read about them in the comments!