If you’re preparing for your first big trip overseas (or just any trip overseas!), the thought of planning a multi-week international trip can be quite daunting. Where do you start? What do you need to take care of before you go? What if you forget something?
As daunting as the task of planning a trip may seem, it can be easily tackled with just a little bit of organization and an intentional effort to start planning in advance. That’s why I’ve compiled the following list of steps you need to take and questions you need to ask to help you plan your international trip easily and efficiently.
(NOTE: Before you read all the nitty-gritty details of trip planning below, be sure to download this trip planning checklist I created that will help you track your progress regarding everything I mention below.)
Decide where you want to go.
Make a list of the top places in the world you would like to travel and why you want to go there. Are you motivated by history? By architecture? By culture, outdoor adventure, or relaxation? Prioritize. Don’t feel pressured to make a rushed decision. You may not have the chance to travel outside of your home country every year, and you want to make every opportunity for travel count. Are you traveling with a group of friends? Are they influencing the decision or do you have an equal say in the process? As fun as it can be to travel with others, it can also be a great adventure to travel solo, especially if it means you get to travel where you want. Make sure you go to the destination that is most important to you. This is your trip.
When should you travel?
Keep in mind the impact of seasons and holidays on your travel plans. What’s the best season to go to your chosen destination? If you’re visiting South Africa so you can go on safaris, then you may want to travel during South Africa’s winter months, as the vegetation cover is less dense and it is easier to spot the animals. Are there any festivals or elections during that time that you may want to avoid or try to be there for? When are the prices the cheapest, and why? Did you find a great deal on cheap airfare because your trip lands right in the middle of monsoon season? If that’s the case, you may want to consider spending more on your trip to go during a time when you’ll be better able to enjoy it. Finally, consider the expectations of your employer. Are there any times of the year that are better for you to take time off than others?
What is the current political or security situation of that country?
I am not exactly one to avoid a destination simply because there is a perception that a place is unsafe. However, I don’t just commit to traveling to a destination without doing due diligence in my research first. Is it safe to travel to this destination? Will there be protests that you want to avoid? Do you research and learn about where you’ll be traveling. Check U.S. State Department’s travel warnings frequently, or your country’s equivalent, and don’t be afraid to cancel or reschedule a trip if your government is strongly cautioning you to avoid traveling there.
Will you have the vacation time available?
How much time is needed to really due justice to the place you are planning to visit? Can you really see enough on the amount of time you are planning to spend there? I don’t recommend you travel all the way from the United States to China or to South Africa only to spend a week there. A trip to France, however? That’s a different story. Make sure that you have enough vacation time available to travel to your intended destination. When you’re ready, ask your employer for the time off. Do not purchase your ticket or make a hotel reservation until your employer has approved the dates of your trip.
Estimate how much your trip will cost
Once you decide where you’ll be traveling, it’s important to start estimating how much your trip will cost and thinking about how to save for your trip. Some factors to consider when outlining your trip costs include:
- Cost of flights (both to your destination and once you are there)
- Cost of accommodation
- Cost of in-country transportation
- Entry fees to sights you plan to see
- Travel insurance
You’ll want to start saving for your trip as soon as possible. I’ve compiled a list of some great ways to save for travel. You may also want to get a travel budget app like Trail Wallet to help you monitor and track your expenses while you’re on your trip.
Get your passport.
Don’t wait on this one. If you think there is even a possibility that you will take an international trip sometime over the next year, start your passport application process today, as it can take a few months (in the worst cases) to process, if you are a US citizen. I am not familiar with the application processes in other countries, but I advise starting as soon as possible. I also recommend not booking your flight until you have secured your passport. I once traveled with someone who had to renew a passport, and due to a clerical error, her passport application got lost in the shuffle and she only received her new passport two days before we were scheduled to leave for our trip. Save yourself unnecessary stress and take care of this early on.
Will you need a visa?
Will the country you are traveling to require you to obtain a visa to enter? Do you need to apply for that visa in advance, or will it be issued to you upon arrival? If you must apply in advance, is it possible to do an online application (as it was when I traveled to Cambodia) or do you need to take or send your passport to the country’s embassy (as I had to when I was moving to China). What is the fee for the visa? Research all of this information well in advance of your trip.
Sign up for a travel credit card.
There are a few things to consider when looking for the best credit card for travel. Do you want a card that gives you air miles as a sign-on bonus? Do you want a card that has a low or no annual fee? Do you want a card with a low foreign transaction fee? Should you really use a credit card instead of cash when you travel? For me, I don’t like to have a lot of different credit cards (something you may choose to do to accumulate more mileage points), so for me, my priority is a low foreign transaction fee and no annual fee. If I am not going to be gaining enough on mileage points to save myself well beyond the cost of the annual fee in flight discounts, then it’s not really beneficial to me. Others, however, prefer to hold multiple cards, even if they pay an annual fee, just so they can accumulate bonus mileage. The Points Guy is really the best resource to consult when looking for a travel credit card.
Start planning your itinerary.
First make a list of what you want to see or do in your destination. What places or experiences are most important to you? Rank them in order of priority. How many days will be required for each? How close are they to each other geographically? What’s the best way to travel to and from each in order to maximize your time in the destination? Which order does it make the most sense to visit them in? If you have to cross anything off your list due to time constraints, what are you ok leaving off the itinerary? These are some of the key questions you will want to ask yourself as you start planning what to do on your trip. Resources you can use to start planning your trip include:
Purchase a guidebook.
The first thing I do after I select a destination for my next adventure is to purchase a guidebook. I almost exclusively use Lonely Planet’s guidebooks, and I highly recommend them for you. They don’t necessarily include the best selection of photos to help give you an idea of the types of places you will want to visit, but if you can use blogs and travel websites to find out where to travel, then you can use your Lonely Planet to help you really dig into the details of exploring all that your destination has to explore. I’ve never had a Lonely Planet let me down yet, but there are many other great guidebooks out there to choose from.
Book your flight.
There is a lot of back and forth about when is the best time to book a flight, and in my experience, I have found my best strategy to be to monitor flights to my selected destination across multiple days for several weeks before I book. I also find it can be helpful to use different flight scanning tools to do this. As a general rule, it is recommended that you book your trip eight weeks in advance, but I have honestly booked as short as two or three weeks from my departure date and still received the same rate quote as I did two months out. Online tools I use to research and book my flights include:
An online flight search engine, free to use, that will help you find the cheapest deals on flights. They are not a booking site, so they don’t charge a processing fee for your booking. They’ll help you identify the cheapest fare and then connect you with the airline or booking site directly.
I often end up booking many of my flights through Travelocity.
Book your accommodation.
I use a number of online booking sites to reserve my accommodation, depending on where I am traveling and who I am traveling with. Are you looking for an upscale hotel, something mid-range, or a budget-friendly hotel or even a hostel? Are you ok sharing a room to save money? Would you prefer to stay in a private residence. My go-to booking sites are:
They’re known for providing the best deals when traveling to Asia, and I used them extensively during my two years living in China. If you’re traveling anywhere in Asia, or even elsewhere, Agoda is a great place to go to find the cheapest deals. They are owned by Priceline and have an extensive network of hotels in Asia and across the globe.
This is a good option to help you find hotels in your area, as you are unlikely to know which hotel you want to stay in for a place you’ve never traveled before. I prefer to use online booking sites because they give me such a wide selection, and they allow me to compare hotel prices and weigh the cost/benefits of the hotel’s location verses more expensive options.
Hostels are a great option, no matter what your age. Most hostels now have private room, double bed, and even sometimes family options to accommodate a wide mix of travelers. What’s great about hostels is not just that you can find cheap accommodation, but that you can also build in a way to meet other travelers on your trip. This is especially beneficial if you’re traveling alone. I’ve met people at hostels all across the world that I still keep in touch with today!
This is a great option if you are looking to rent a private residence, such as a house or apartment for a couple of days to a couple of weeks. It affords you more privacy, more space, and units often have access to kitchens, which can allow you to reduce your expenses if you decide to cook your own food.
Similar accommodation to AirBnB, with the option to stay in locals’ homes.
Plan your means of in-country transportation.
Once you arrive in the country, how will you get around? Is it easier to fly internally? Take the train? Or rent a car and drive yourself? Trains and buses tend to be the cheapest. Cars tend to be the most comfortable. And planes are the fastest. I prefer trains, but if you’re looking to maximize your time, you may want to consider flying. Renting a car is also a great way to help you get around to some of the more off-the-beaten track places in your destination.
Start studying your destination.
Before I leave for a trip, I try to learn as much about the destination as possible to help me prepare. I identify online news sources from the country and then follow them on Facebook to get an idea of the current political climate or pressing issues facing the country. I may read some history books, geopolitical books, and guide books, as well. Blogs are also a great source, especially if you’re pressed for time or are looking to save money.
Consider a guided tour.
If you’re looking for a way to save time planning your trip and to have a more relaxing trip while you’re there, you may want to consider letting someone else handle both the planning and the logistics of traveling around on your trip. Although I enjoy traveling independently, I also really appreciate guide tours. There are some definite benefits of traveling with a tour that are worth consideration.
Notify your friends and family when and where you will be traveling and where you will be staying.
It’s always a good idea to notify someone where you will be, just in the event something happens.
Figure out your cell phone / data plan.
Does your current plan support internationally calls? Do you need to add this? What about your data plan? What will it cost to use overseas? Get an international SIM card for your phone.
Get your travel gear.
If this is your first international trip, it may require some up-front investment on your part for this first trip. The good news is, most of these items will last you for years. When I travel, I end up doing a lot of walking, I take public transportation, and I need to travel as light as possible. I also don’t necessarily stay in places where I can easily do laundry, so I travel with clothes that can easily be washed in the sink and hung to dry. You can check out my ultimate guide to travel gear here.
Notify your credit card / debit card companies of your travel dates and locations.
Whether or not you plan to use your credit cards or debit cards overseas, it is a good idea to notify your companies ahead of time that you will be traveling. Let them know your departure date and your return date, and be sure to list all countries you will be visiting on your trip. If you have a long stopover in Amsterdam, tell them you will be in the Netherlands, even if you never plan to leave the airport. If you plan to make any purchases while you’re in the airport, they could trigger a hold on your card if you haven’t notified your provider of your travel plans. If you have a spouse or a child on your account who will not be traveling with you, let your provider know. I have had many times where my card has been put on hold while I was traveling, despite having called ahead and told my card providers of my plans. It can be a very annoying challenge to deal with and is best to avoid.
Purchase travel insurance.
I never leave home without travel insurance, and I strongly recommend you don’t either. You will want a plan that will cover medical emergencies, emergency evacuation, repatriation (if you pass away overseas, this will pay for your body to be flown home), and trip cancellation or rescheduling. My go-to provider is World Nomads. They’re very affordable, comprehensive, and easy to navigate. As long as you book before you leave on your trip, you’ll be covered.
Schedule your immunizations.
Depending on where you’ll be traveling, you may require immunizations. American travelers can check the Centers for Disease Control website to find out which immunizations are required for your destination. Call your doctor or local public health department to set up an appointment. You will want to do this several months in advance of your trip, as some of the vaccines may take a few weeks to take affect, or you may need to start a medication several weeks before departure. Don’t wait on this!
Will you have dietary restrictions?
Research the local cuisine in your destination country to determine whether or not your health restrictions may conflict with your options there and be sure to plan accordingly by bringing plenty of non-perishable snacks. I always carry two Cliff Bars for each day, even though I don’t really like the taste or texture. They are great because they provide energy, they do not melt, and they don’t freeze. Perfect for any travel condition.
Do you need to learn any of the language?
Most places you travel will probably fairly accommodating to English-speaking travelers, but you may want to consider learning a bit of the local language before you leave. At the very least, you should use Google Translate.
What do you need to physically prepare?
If your trip will require tons of walking, please don’t neglect exercise and a healthy diet leading up to your trip. Start a daily exercise routine that at least incorporates walking into your schedule if your current situation does not allow you to get much exercise. If you are taking a two week trip to Europe and are planning to walk around most of every day, you will enjoy your trip much more if you are physically prepared for it.
What do you need to know and do to stay safe in your destination of choice?
In addition to following the latest State Department travel warnings, I recommend you (and anyone you will be traveling with), come up with a strategy to respond in various scenarios and be prepared to execute that strategy. Keep emergency phone numbers with you. Know how to contact your local embassy. Carry first-aid equipment. And if you are traveling with a group, always set a meeting location, in the event you become separated.
Make sure your passport is valid and not expired.
It’s good practice to make sure that your passport still has six months of validity remaining from the time you plan to return home from you trip. Some countries will actually require this.
If this is your first international trip, or your first trip for a long time, you may want to start packing a week or so in advance, just to ensure you don’t forget anything. You can check out my post on how to pack for your trip here. It’s full of great tips to help you stay organized and save you time as you prepare for your trip.
Print out your travel itinerary and return flight information.
Some countries will require you to present this information when you go through Passport Control. They are simply checking that you have a planned departure date from their country and are not planning to overstay your visa.
Print out all of your emergency health and contact information before you leave.
It’s a good idea to always have your primary health information with you, especially in the event an emergency happens and you are unable to provide medical personnel with your information. I always keep a list of the following in my travel backpack and on a notecard in my passport pouch:
- Blood Type
- Medical Allergies
- Current Medications (and dosage)
- Medical Conditions
Phone numbers of your country’s embassy in your host country.
Before you leave, visit the website of the US embassy (or your home country’s embassy) in the country you will be traveling in and record their address and telephone number. Make sure your family or friends also have this information.
Sign up for the State Department SMART Traveler program.
Before you leave for your trip, sign up for the State Department’s SMART Traveler program (US citizens). This will allow the embassy to notify you of any important updates regarding conditions in your destination country prior to your department. It will also allow the embassy to reach you should an emergency arise while you are in the country.
Pack all necessary medication.
It’s important that you bring any prescriptions with you that you are currently taking. Some doctors also may prescribe an anti-biotic in the event you come down with traveler’s diarrhea. You’ll also want to bring over-the-counter pain killers, anti-histamines, and first aid equipment. Don’t assume you will be able to access the same standard of medical care while you are traveling.
Photo copy your credit cards and passport.
Credit cards may end up stolen, lost, or damaged while traveling, so I recommend you photocopy them and also store them digitally on DropBox. I would recommend you do the same with your passport.
Pay your bills.
Don’t forget to pay any bills you will have while you are away before you leave for your trip. Or, schedule the payment to release on a certain date. This will help give you peace of mind while you travel.
Look after your home.
Finally, find someone who can check in on your home while you are away, depending on how many weeks you plan to be away. This may just involve taking care of the pets or watering the plants, but if you will be traveling for an extended period of time, you may want to have someone housesit for you to make sure your home does not become vulnerable to criminal activity.
That’s it! You’re ready for your trip! Although this guide is intended to be thorough, there may be things I have omitted, or special circumstances unique to your trip you will want to consider. Be sure to print off this checklist to use as your prepare for your trip
And now, enjoy yourself!