Foreign Travel Advice for Americans

Recently my amazing nephew contacted me for travel advice. I have been to 19 countries to date, so he figured I’d have some useful information. I’d forgotten what it was like, planning my first overseas trip. Those were the days. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, but I’d like to think I’ve learned from them. I specify that this advice is for Americans, but that’s only because the links I provide are for American sites. But really, I think this would help any traveler.  Having said that, here are a few basic tips and links for the foreign travel newbie.

  • First and foremost, before deciding what country to visit, check out the US Department of State’s website to find out just what you’re getting yourself into. They have up to date country specific information. Getting kidnapped or stumbling into a war zone will definitely put a damper on your travel plans. Some countries are very safe except in certain regions. Know your geography and avoid hot spots. Nothing can guarantee your safety 100 percent, but it would be foolish to not make an effort to mitigate your risks at the very least.
  • Once you’ve decided upon a country (or countries), make the effort to educate yourself about them in advance. At a bare minimum, get a CURRENT guidebook. My absolute favorites are the Lonely Planet Guides, or, if you’re traveling in Europe, Rick Steves has some great books as well. But read those guides in advance, because there’s nothing more annoying than getting back home and discovering that there was something really cool that you could have done while there that you didn’t know about. If you are lucky enough to be in a foreign country for a long time and language will be an issue, I also highly recommend the Berlitz phrasebooks.
  • My favorite site for finding the cheapest airfare is kayak.com. They compare hundreds of sites. It’s always cheaper if you buy your tickets well in advance and travel mid-week, and your guidebooks will tell you what is low, shoulder and high season for your destination. That will impact your price, too.
  • Read up on the history and culture, too. Learn about their art, their music, their archeology, their architecture, their food. It will only make your experience richer. And if you can ask the locals educated questions, it will show people that you respect their country and want to know what it’s all about. It’s a great way to make lifelong friends.
  • Whatever you do, do NOT wait until the last minute to get your passport. It will always take longer than you think and trust me, you don’t need that type of stress.
  • Many countries require inoculations. Check with your local purveyor of overseas immunizations to see what’s required. And some things aren’t required, they’re just recommended. If that’s the case, get them, too, because once you get some exotic disease, there’s no turning back. Also, have your doctor prescribe a strong diarrhea medicine to take with you just in case. The prescription kind is more effective than anything you can get over the counter. You won’t regret having it.
  • If you have any valuable electronics that you’re planning to bring with you and they’re not obviously old and ratty, take them to your local customs and border protection office and fill out form 4457, “Certificate of Registration for Personal Effects Taken Abroad” or risk having people assume you bought them in country and face having to pay a duty fee at customs. This goes for cameras, cell phones, laptops, etc.
  • Make three photocopies of your passport, credit cards, identification, and any other documentation (like those customs receipts I mentioned above). Keep one copy in your checked baggage, one in your carry on baggage, and one copy with a trusted friend or family member whom you’d be able to reach by phone if necessary. Also include your name and address not only on your luggage tags, but also on a 3×5 card taped INSIDE your luggage in case those tags get ripped off.
  • Create an in case of emergency card for your wallet which includes your name, date of birth, medical allergies, blood type, medical conditions, physician’s name and phone number, emergency contact name and how this person is related to you, plus their phone numbers.
  • Make it a point to get about 100 dollars in the local currency, because there’s nothing worse than arriving in a foreign country after a long exhausting flight only to find that all the money exchange places are closed and your taxi driver only accepts cash. Thomas Cook is a great resource for advance currency exchange. The rest of the time, in this day and age, (unless you’re going to the back of beyond) you’ll be able to survive by using a credit card. But make sure you have a card that does not charge foreign exchange fees, because if you get home and discover you’ve been charged 10 dollars per transaction, you will have a heart attack. As of this writing, Capital One credit cards do not charge foreign exchange fees, but double check, because that could change.
  • Once you’ve decided which credit cards to take, call the companies and tell them in which countries you’ll be traveling and when. Otherwise they may think it’s suspicious activity and block it, and that’s a nightmare to untangle long distance. Also, they then WILL be able to block suspicious activity. For example, I bought a souvenir in Turkey, and within 24 hours, some loser in Israel had stolen my identity, and since I’d given the credit card company my itinerary, they were able to block the Israel transactions before I was wiped out, but didn’t block my Turkey transactions. Also, confirm the pin numbers for your credit cards before you go.
  • A lot of travel sites will suggest that you get a money belt to avoid pickpockets. I have always found this to be an unnecessary expense. Instead, I do the following: Carry a small amount of cash and one credit card in your wallet. Put that wallet in a fanny pack, keep the pouch portion of the fanny pack in the front at all times, and walk with your hand resting on top of it. Then, Take a sock, cut off some of the length, then use the toe part as a home made pouch. Put additional money and your passport and another credit card in it, then pin it to the inside of your pants with a couple safety pins. If you need to access these funds, you just step into the nearest bathroom, and there you have it.
  • This will be evidence of my anal retentive personality, but over the years I’ve created a master packing list (which can be found here). Whenever I’ve discovered that I’ve forgotten something, I add it to the list for the next time. When I’m about to take a trip, I copy that list, then remove the items that don’t apply to this particular trip (like winter coats for trips to the tropics, for example) and then I have a pretty comprehensive list of what to pack. But don’t overdo it. Travel as lightly as you can. Lugging a lot of unnecessary crap will just make your trip a lot less enjoyable, especially now that airlines are charging luggage fees. If you absolutely need something that you’ve forgotten to pack, you can always buy it in country. If it’s not available in country, that means an entire country has learned to live without it, and that means you can, too.
  • Give your loved ones your itinerary so they can contact you in an emergency, but also register your itinerary on line with the State Department. If you do nothing else, do that, because if things turn unexpectedly ugly, for example, if war is declared, you want the good guys to know where you are.
  • If you’re driving yourself to the airport, make sure you get gas for your vehicle, top off your fluids, and get air in your tires the day before. Nothing is worse than missing your flight because of a flat tire. That would spell the destruction of your holiday.
  • If there’s any way to get a ride to the airport, do so, because long term parking fees are obscene. If you have absolutely no choice, research the park and ride shuttle companies near your airport, and then make reservations to leave your car with them. Slightly cheaper, at least.
  • It is recommended that you arrive at the airport two hours early for international flights, but don’t assume that is the rule of thumb on the way back. If I hadn’t arrived 4 hours early to the airport in Istanbul, I’d still be sitting in that airport right now.
  • Upon your return, pack all your souvenirs and receipts separately for customs. They always appreciate it when you make life easier for them.
  • For the love of god, if you have even the tiniest brain in your head, DO NOT SMUGGLE ANYTHING into or out of a foreign country!!!!!!! Go to youtube and look up any episode of “Locked Up Abroad” if you want to see how incredibly stupid it is to take that sort of risk. Don’t want to wind up in a foreign prison? Simple. Respect the laws of the country that you’re in.
  • If you’re going to be renting a car, get an international driver’s license from AAA, and print out the international traffic signs so you know what they mean. You can find them on Google. The life you save could be your own. Check to see if your auto insurance will cover your rental, because if it does, it will be a lot cheaper than taking out the rental agency’s insurance. They won’t like it if you waive their insurance, but you are within your rights to do so. But make sure you’re covered.
  • If you have a student ID, bring it with you. You never know when you can take advantage of a student discount.
  • Check to see if the country of your choice requires visas. If you can obtain them in advance, do so.
  • If you are bringing anything irreplaceable with you, such as glasses, camera, etc, put that in your carry on luggage. Do not check it. Murphy’s law dictates that it will disappear. Also, bring a copy of your glasses prescription in case they get broken during your travels.
  • Put a temporary hold on your mail, and if possible, get someone to occasionally go by and check on your house. Put timers on your lights so that your place will appear inhabited. Turn off your water heater and unplug everything you can. Adjust your thermostat.
  • It makes me sick to have to say this, but if you are an unmarried woman and will be traveling in a conservative country, go to the flea market and buy yourself some wedding rings. You will be treated with much more respect. And unfortunately, as liberated as you may be, there are places in the world where a woman should just not go alone, especially at night. Research the countries customs and beliefs, and whether you agree with them or not, take them seriously.
  • Also, if you are traveling to a country where Americans are not appreciated which is pretty much everywhere these days, you may want to consider getting Canadian flag patches to sew on your backpacks and Canadian flag luggage tags. Everybody loves Canadians. And although they put out a quality product, American Tourister is probably not the brand of luggage you want to use in this day and age.
  • Make sure you keep  your prescription medication in its prescription packaging. And if it’s anything that has any type of street value, do not leave it in the hotel for the maids.
  • If you are going to an area known for malaria, you need mosquito repellant with DEET. The best for anti-malaria is Sawyer Controlled Release DEET formula.
  • When you know the exchange rate, calculate things out so you know what equals a dollar, 5 dollars, 10 dollars, etc, and write them down on a 3×5 card so you can quickly know how expensive things are.
  • A note about reservations: It’s good to have reservations at the beginning of your trip when you’re tired, and at the end of your trip when you’ve got to make sure nothing goes wrong, or if you’re arriving in a city late at night. But if you are brave, you can often get a better deal by finding places as you travel around so you can be more flexible. On the other hand, youth hostels, which I HIGHLY recommend if you are not completely wedded to the concept of privacy, often require reservations. Print out your reservation documentation. Don’t be surprised if reservations get lost, or if your room turns out not to be available or if you’re suddenly charged a higher rate. It happens ALL THE TIME. Stand your ground. Have your documentation. Be polite, but don’t take any crap.
  • If you’re bringing anything that requires a charger, make sure you purchase adapters if the country in question uses a different currency or plug.
  • Bring a small box of powdered detergent so you can do hand wash in the hotel sinks. That way you can pack fewer clothes. And pack lighter weight things, such as khakis instead of blue jeans, because they dry faster. You can always layer if need be.
  • Bring extra batteries, but know that the airlines will require that you pack them separately from the devices. In fact, it’s a good idea to check out your airline’s luggage policies in general.
  • Remove perishables from your fridge and take out your garbage so you don’t come home to a  stinky house.
  • The more you plan on the front end, the more you’ll be able to relax and have fun when you’re there, so make a to do list and cover all the bases. Enjoy your trip!

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10 thoughts on “Foreign Travel Advice for Americans

  1. Wow… awesome. I thought the buying wedding rings advice was really good. We all know Americans should have Canadian flag patches all over themselves, but the wedding ring thing is so obvious for single women.

  2. Vicky

    Good job! Makes me want to pack up and go. I love the way your mind works, you need to have your own business. I never knew about the certificate for personal effects, I worry about that sometimes. Hey, if you’re not wearing it when you board the ship in the welcome aboard photo, you’re up the creek. I would hate to have to prove some of that stuff.

  3. Carole Lewis

    Thank You so much. I have no traveling plans in the future, But this is the best tips I have ever seen. I did watch as my camera bag was tossed by the handlers and hit the pavement, cracked the lens and chipped the case, they say they are not liable, so now I carry it on board. So many great tips. specially leaving itinery with the State Dept.

  4. Pingback: Foreign Travel 101 – The View from a Drawbridge

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