The urge to travel has been part of my DNA since I can remember and there's not much I enjoy more than planning for and taking an international trip. I get a thrill boarding the plane knowing that in several hours (usually more) I'll be somewhere far from home, and sometimes far outside my comfort zone.
At the same time, being far from home can be stressful, especially if you're worried that you may have forgotten to bring something or neglected to do something before you left. Covering your bases before you leave will make your trip more enjoyable.
The pre-trip planning is time-consuming and can be stressful, and that has increased exponentially in the age of Covid-19 which, as I write this article, continues to rear its ugly head more than two years into the pandemic. We optimistically hoped that it would be behind us by now but not only is it still going strong, it looks like there's no end in sight in the foreseeable future.
I'm not sure that preparing for an international trip can be completely stress-free, but this article will outline how Paul and I prepare, and I'll add Covid-19 information separately at the end in the hope that one day I'll be able to delete it. Many of these tips also apply to traveling domestically, no matter what country you live in.
Be sure to review all your reservations. We normally book our flights months in advance and I look at them regularly to make sure I haven't missed a schedule change. Recently there were major changes to an itinerary which the airline hadn't advised us of and which would have caused us to misconnect had I not been looking. Choose "flexible options" if you have flexibility in dates to see the lowest fares.
2. The Airport
Most airports let you in the "front door" freely, but some require proof of travel on that day, so be sure to have a screen shot of your reservation or have your boarding pass ready when you arrive so you won't have to spend time looking for it and holding up a long line.
If you travel enough, you're bound to experience long layovers. You can take advantage of them in many places by going into the city. Most major airports have luggage storage and many airports are a short distance from the center of the city. A friend of our daughter Katie had a 10-hour layover in Dubai while traveling to South Africa. She booked a half-day walking tour and felt that she got a good taste of the city. Of course, make sure you have enough time to return to the airport once you leave; you'll have to go through security and jump through all the other hoops when you return.
If you have access to your airline's lounge, that's a good place to relax pre-trip or during a layover. My daughter-in-law frequently travels internationally for business and she takes advantage of the lounge's showers upon arrival to freshen up before starting her meetings.
If you live near a major airport, you might consider getting CLEAR which will expedite your transit through security. CLEAR uses biometrics to scan your eyes and you'll be able to go to the front of the security line. Read about it here.
If you don't have Global Entry and you travel internationally more than a couple times a year, I strongly urge you to get it. You will be able to bypass the long customs lines when you return to the US. It includes TSA PreCheck and it's one of the best things we've done to make travel easier! Read about it here.
If you don't have Global Entry or are ineligible for it, consider Mobile Passport. It's an app, it's free, and it also lets you bypass the long customs lines at the airport. Not all airports accept mobile passports, so check first. Read about it here.
Read the Fine Print
My heart stopped (almost) in 2019 while checking in for a flight to Hanoi at Seoul's Incheon airport. I take my MacBook when I travel to download photos each day. I had read something about Macs in Vietnam, but didn't pay much attention to it. Turns out that, due to a battery issue, Vietnam was banning Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro laptops produced between September 2015 and February 2017 on flights to the country. I knew that mine was manufactured during those dates, but I couldn't remember the other specs. I had visions of having to go to DHL to ship my computer home at the beginning of a long Asian trip (and possibly missing our flight). Fortunately the computer gods were looking favorably upon me as mine was an Air, so all was well. My point here is to read everything from your airline!
This probably goes without saying, but leave plenty of time to get to the airport. You never know when road construction or an accident will delay you. Not long ago Katie and I took a taxi from our central Paris hotel to one of the major train stations. The hotel staff suggested a time to leave and I added about 30 minutes which was fortunate because there was a large protest along our route which caused a long delay as we detoured around it in heavy midday traffic. I'd rather wait at the airport or train station than worry that I'll miss my flight or train.
I tend to book lodging fairly far in advance and I always choose the refundable option. It's a little more expensive, but much safer if you need to cancel, especially in light of Covid-19.
Make sure you have access to hotel and other confirmations in case there's an issue when you check in. I organize all my travel information online, but as a Baby Boomer, I also print it out. Katie reminds me that it's old-fashioned and uses more paper than necessary (yes, true), but especially for itineraries with multiple cities, transfers, etc., I keep a folder with all confirmations by city. I put it in my backpack so I can get to it easily. In Copenhagen the lady at the hotel's front desk told us we didn't have a reservation. I pulled out the confirmation and she realized she was putting our name into her system incorrectly. Could I have pulled it up on my phone? Yes, I'm trying to become more comfortable being paperless. If you choose not to print anything, be sure your phone battery is charged so you can pull up needed information when you arrive at your destination.
Upload your itinerary and all other documents to the cloud which will enable you to access it from any device if for any reason you don't otherwise have access to it. Share your itinerary with a family member or friend so they know where you are on any given date.
4. Passport and Visas
Especially during this time when we may not be traveling as much internationally, it's easy to forget to check your passport. Make sure you know its expiration date.
If you are thinking of traveling internationally and you don't have a passport, don't delay in applying for one as processing in the US can take up to three months. If you have one that's going to expire within the next year, start the renewal process as soon as you can. Most people can renew by mail rather than in person, but you need to submit your current passport, so you won't be able to travel internationally during that time. If you are a US citizen, this is a good site: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports.html.
Make sure the expiration date on your passport is at least six months beyond the date of your trip. Six months is the most common, but the requirements vary by country. You may not be able to board your flight if your passport expires in less than six months. Also make sure there are some blank pages. It's possible to order a passport with extra pages if that's important to you.
Is your passport damaged? This could include water damage or torn or missing pages. If so, you will need to replace it. Don't risk traveling with a damaged passport. The US State Department has guidance on what to do if your passport is damaged.
Before we leave we always make sure a copy of our passport is available for our family - just in case. I speak from personal experience as mine was stolen abroad many years ago. Believe me, it's not a fun experience. You should also take a copy of the photo page with you, but be sure to keep it separately from the original document in a secure place.
Know whether you'll need a visa to enter the countries you want to visit. This is a good site for visa and other information or simply Google "Do I need a visa for XXX (country)?" https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages.html
Many visas are quick and easy to acquire online and others such as for Russia are more complex and take considerable time. Some countries actually keep your passport to process your visa, however many countries let you obtain your visa online or at the airport when you arrive. When we traveled to Vietnam several years ago, for example, we were able to get our visa as we arrived, but they only accepted American currency. Fortunately we had done our homework and carried the right amount of cash with us.
If you know that you'll be traveling to a country more than once that requires a visa, consider getting a visa for several years rather than the normal 90 days. It may cost more initially, but it will enable you to re-enter during the duration of the visa without having to obtain a new one each time.
Visit the State Department's Travel Site
If you’re American, visit the State Department’s travel site, Travel.State.Gov for up-to-date information. We’ve registered with STEP, the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program which will send us security updates while we’re traveling. Not only is it beneficial for us as travelers, the State Department likes to know how many citizens are in-country in case of a security or other issue.
5. Medication and Vaccinations (non-Covid-19)
Many of us have prescription medication which we need to take regularly. First, be sure you have enough to last you as long as you're away; you may not be able to find your prescription abroad, or it may not be the quality you need. Common, over the counter drugs may be available in the country you're visiting, but some countries don't have what we expect to find at our local drug store. Secondly, know if there are any requirements to bring medication into the country you're visiting. Some countries require that your medication be in its original container, and controlled substances such as certain sleep aids may not be allowed at all, even with a prescription. And be sure to pack it in your carryon and not in a checked bag. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is an excellent resource: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/travel-abroad-with-medicine.
Again, do your research so you won't be unpleasantly surprised upon arrival.
If you need vaccinations (non-Covid in this case), you'll likely be given a yellow World Health Organization booklet where all vaccinations can be noted in one place. I keep it with my passport. Again, do your homework early so you have enough time before your trip to be vaccinated.
If we're going somewhere where the water and/or food may be an issue, we ask our doctor for a prescription for Cipro (ciprofloxacin). We've only had to use it a couple of times, but we were sure glad we had it when we needed it! Even if you don't have Cipro, it's good to take some Imodium, Tums, etc. for those pesky tummy issues.
6. Credit Cards
Some credit card companies don't require you to notify them before you travel internationally, but some still do. In our town we still actually talk to a live person at our local bank to make sure our debit card will work during our trip. I'm probably in the minority, but I find that rather endearing. Be sure to check and if necessary, notify the bank or credit card company before you leave. The last thing you want is for a charge or an ATM withdrawal to be denied while you're thousands of miles away from home. If there are cards you know you won't use while abroad, leave them at home. Also, some cards aren't accepted throughout the world; know what cards are accepted in the country(ies) you'll visit.
Keep the credit card company phone numbers separately in case you need to call for any reason, including for a lost or stolen card. We always photograph the front and back of our cards for the same reason. Take more than one card if possible and keep at least one separate from the others in case of theft.
I usually don't carry cash at home, but before I travel I make sure I know if I'll need some in-country. You might need a little for the housekeeping staff at your hotel or for other occasional tips and there are still taxi companies that don't accept credit cards. You probably won't need much, but it's good to have an idea of what you'll need once you arrive so you can hit the ATM at the airport if necessary. Be sure to use a major bank ATM and not a currency exchange. Every time I come home from Europe I bring some Euros and take them back with me when I return.
If you plan to carry on your luggage, be sure you know what the airlines' carry-on restrictions are. Many international carriers have different (read: more restrictive) measurement policies than US airlines do, so even if your carry-on is an acceptable size for US carriers, you may have to check it on international airlines. There are a lot of sites you can check; this is one which is current as of 2021, but use it only as a guide and do your own research with the airline you're using to be sure.
Put a luggage tag on all your bags, but don't include your home address. Your name, email and phone (with country code) are enough information. As tempting as artistic, individualized luggage tags are, our experience is that they tend to disappear by the time we reach our destination so we've abandoned those in favor of the uninteresting and much cheaper ones. It's also a good idea to put this information inside your luggage in case the tag becomes permanently separated.
Since so much luggage looks alike, we put a strip of brightly colored duct tape on our bags so we can spot them easily on the baggage belt. It's not pretty, but it works. Also be sure when you pull your bag off the belt that you double check the luggage tag to make sure it's yours. Recently our relatives grabbed their bag off the belt after a late night flight only to receive a call from the airline that they had grabbed the wrong bag, requiring them to turn around for the hourlong trip back to the airport in the middle of the night.
Lost or delayed luggage isn't common nowadays, but it does happen occasionally. Take a photo of your luggage on your phone so if it is lost or delayed, you can better describe it to the airline. Pack one change of clothes in your carryon just in case.
I normally don't take pictures of our luggage when we arrive at our destination, but I had been without my bag for 72 hours after we arrived in Naples, so it was a sweet reunion!
Download your airline's app and track your luggage during your trip.
9. Travel Insurance (Non-Covid-19)
Buy it. When I book an international flight on Delta, it gives me the option to purchase through Allianz at the end of the booking process. It includes coverage for medical costs, trip interruption and transportation back home in the case of a medical or other unforeseen emergency. If there is anything else that is especially important to you, make sure you choose the proper coverage. There are dozens of other vendors to choose from. It's good peace of mind, especially if you're of a certain age as we are! See also the Covid-19 section below.
10. Getting Your House Ready
Depending on where you live, the time of year you'll be traveling and how long you'll be gone, make sure you prepare accordingly.
Have the post office hold your mail or have someone take it in. Nothing screams "We're Away!" more than a pile of mail at your front door! And if you still have a newspaper delivered to your house, be sure to stop that during your trip.
Notify Your Neighbors
If, like us, you're fortunate to have great neighbors, ask them to keep an eye on your house and give them a key so they can get in if necessary.
If you have a home alarm, notify the company that you'll be away. If your system isn't monitored by a company, be sure that the cameras are pointed at what you want to see when you're gone. You may also want to notify your local police; sometimes they'll occasionally drive by your house while you're gone.
Set the thermostats so that your house doesn't get too cold or too hot and consider a "smart" program that lets you adjust it from anywhere.
I do post photos on social media during an international (or any) trip. It's a calculated risk that I'm willing to take because we live in a relatively safe community, and our neighbors watch our house, or we have a house/cat sitter there. Think about it and determine if you're comfortable with the world knowing you're not home.
The Everything Book
This is one of the most important things we do before leaving on a trip. It contains all our passwords, bank account numbers and other information our family might need. We make sure it's up to date and easily accessible.
Arrange a house/pet sitter well in advance if this is necessary.
Arrange for someone to mow and/or water your lawn if you're away in the summer and like us, you normally mow your own lawn. Likewise for snow removal, leaf raking, etc.
Set light timers if no one will be in the house.
Clean out your fridge!
As you leave the house, double check that your stove, oven and all other appliances are off and that all your doors are locked.
As we get into our car or an Uber or taxi to the airport, we always eyeball our passports, phones and credit cards.
11. From the Airport to your Hotel or Apartment
Before you leave home, figure out transportation from the airport when you arrive. As we age, we tend to splurge and arrange transportation with the hotel or book a car service, especially if this is our first visit to that particular city. It costs more than taking a train or other public transportation, but it's nice to see our name as we exit passport control, especially when we're jet lagged. Most taxi companies in large cities accept credit cards, but as mentioned earlier, some don't, so be sure to stop at an ATM in the airport if this is the case.
Additionally, it's a good idea to have the address of your accommodations written in the language of the country you're visiting if you don't speak the language and/or if the language doesn't use the Roman alphabet. This can come in handy from the airport or even if just taking a taxi at any time during your trip. Hotels will be happy to give you their card; it came in handy for us in Thailand and other parts of Asia.
12. Keeping It All Organized
Especially when the trip includes multiple countries and cities which most of ours do, I keep a spreadsheet. Lodging and transportation information is on one page and visa requirements, if any, are on another page. It's a life saver, especially when most travel is booked months in advance. Have I booked a hotel in XX yet? Has Hotel X been paid in full or do we pay when we check out? It's also a good way to keep track of expenses prior to the trip - and to maintain my sanity! Be sure to also put the cancel-by date on your spreadsheet.
We also create a checklist of what to take which includes the obvious such as passport and medication, but also includes adapters, charging cords, etc.
Covid-19 has transformed how we travel and how we plan for travel. I keep my white CDC Covid card in a plastic holder so it won't get frayed and I keep it with my passport and WHO vaccination booklet when I travel. I also have a photo of it on my phone - just in case.
Covid-19 has also greatly changed how we make and manage reservations. Fortunately airlines have loosened their change requirements and most major airlines have guarded status. With the uncertainty of the virus and the resulting restrictions across the globe which seem to change daily, many people are understandably waiting to make reservations. As I write this, we're planning a major international trip in less than eight weeks. Hotels are booked, but I haven't made flight reservations yet - a first for me. I know Delta would let us rebook, but Covid fatigue has set in and I don't want to have to cancel - again. I'm checking the fares which have remained stable so far.
Delta has added helpful country-specific information to their site for each country it flies to, such as this below.
If there's a time to make refundable lodging reservations, this is it. I've read a lot of posts from people whose apartment owners/managers or hotels wouldn't give them a refund for Covid-related cancellations. Spend the additional money for the peace of mind for refundable lodging if you do have to cancel.
Epidemics usually aren't covered under standard travel insurance policies, but these days more and more companies are adding Covid-related coverage. Having travelled internationally several times during Covid, I can't imagine not buying insurance which covers Covid-related claims. Even if you're asymptomatic and need little or no medical care, you will need to quarantine if you test positive and you may have other costs which may be covered under such a policy. The thought of quarantining in a foreign country is bad enough, but add the cost and it's head-spinning (costs vary by country). Read carefully (and also look for the "Cancel for Any Reason" language) to ensure that the policy covers what you want and need. Forbes recently published a good article about travel policies that include Covid coverage and there are plenty more articles online.
Bring some with you. At least it will give you the option to do testing in your hotel or apartment vs. obtaining a test in the city. Make sure the test you ultimately take to return to the US is airline/CDC-approved.
Covid Spreadsheet Info
For an upcoming (maybe), rather complex international trip made infinitely more complex by Covid, I created an additional column for Covid-related requirements. I'll recheck it often prior to the trip to make sure requirements haven't changed.
I think the most important thing to keep in mind in the Covid-19 era is that requirements change daily. Stay on top of what's happening at your destination and don't assume that the rules on Monday will be the same rules on Friday. Airlines are a very good source of up-to-date information and many send you the required forms to download.
What do your travel preparations look like? We'd love to hear; add them in the comments, below!
Here's to brighter days ahead and happy, stress-free travels.
➜ Top Tips
Especially nowadays, don't assume that you know something; do your research and as boring as it might be, read the fine print.
Lists are your friend. Make as many lists as you need and check them.
Be flexible. Be prepared for the unexpected and roll with the punches to the extent you can, especially in the Covid-19 era.
Be sure to bring a back-up charger. I always keep one with me during the day in case my phone battery dies. I also bring the second battery for my DSLR camera when I know I'm going to be taking a lot of photos with it.
Be sure you know which adapter(s) you need for the countries you'll visit.
As mentioned above for Covid-related information, airlines are often an excellent resource.
You might also like to read our post on the top 10 travel mistakes to avoid.