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10 Ways to Minimize Mix-Ups on Your First Trip Abroad

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Get a handle on the details of your first international trip.
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If you’re planning to travel outside of the country for the first time, the details can seem overwhelming. You can’t always anticipate which questions to ask, or even what to Google.

After all, different destinations may require different preparations. And between foreign transaction fees, electrical adapters, cell phone roaming plans and more, it’s easy to miss a critical step.

But a checklist can minimize hiccups during your international trip. Add these 10 steps to yours for a smoother experience.

1. Apply for a passport and visas early

The State Department’s website suggests applying for a new passport several months in advance. Current passports must have at least two blank pages and must be valid for at least six months after you get back, depending on the destination.

Make two copies of your passport and other documents you might need, such as a visa. Leave one copy with someone you trust. Travel with the second copy, and keep it separate from the originals.

Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program so that the State Department can find you in the event of a natural disaster, civil unrest or other emergency.

2. Prepare your medications for travel

Check with your destination’s embassy for specific instructions related to medications. Some countries prohibit medications or have strict requirements.

Get a letter from your doctor for any prescription and over-the-counter medications. The State Department suggests traveling with medications in originally labeled containers.

Olivia Christine Perez, travel blogger at O.Christine, lives with lupus and always carries her prescription on her travels.

“I try my best to look up what my illness is or how to explain it in the language of that country just in case there is a language barrier,” Perez says. Consider looking up the foreign name for your medications as well.

3. Determine whether you need vaccinations

Check with your destination’s embassy about vaccinations required for entry. An International Certificate of Vaccination, known as a Yellow Card, or other proof can show you’ve met this requirement.  

4. Get to know your destination’s laws

Understanding the laws of the country can keep you out of trouble. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, travelers have received lengthy jail terms for kissing in public.

“There is no PDA. You can hold hands if you’re married and that’s it. You cannot be drunk publicly,” says Jennifer Elliott, a travel agent who runs the blog Travel Agent Jen. “If you’re an adventurous traveler and you’re going to a place like that, you have to do extensive research on what you can and cannot do.”

If you lack a travel agent, then a travel guide and reputable travel websites can get you acquainted with your destination. The State Department’s travel website offers general information about threat levels, alerts, laws and more.

5. Consider travel insurance

For help with the unexpected, travel insurance might be beneficial. Depending on the policy, it can cover medical emergencies, lost or stolen luggage, trip cancellations and more.

Find out which medical services your primary health insurance covers abroad, and consider adding whatever it doesn’t cover to the travel insurance policy’s medical plan. Regardless, carry your health insurance policy identity card and a claim form as proof that you have international coverage. 

6. Prepare your debit and credit cards for travel

Travel with three or more cards, ideally one debit card (in case you need to access cash), and at least two credit cards (in case one isn’t accepted). Notify your bank that you’re leaving the country to avoid declined transactions.

Also, travel with debit and credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees. Cards that charge these fees can cost you, generally 1% to 3% for every international transaction. 

And save money on dynamic currency conversion charges by requesting to pay in local currency wherever you make a transaction.

7. Find out if your cell phone plan will work

Determine whether your wireless service works at your destination. Learn what your plan offers and the cost for coverage at your destination. With Wi-Fi access, apps like Viber and WhatsApp allow texts or calls to folks in the United States for free. Another option under certain conditions could be a prepaid phone or SIM card.

8. Get an adapter

Electrical outlets look different abroad. Find out which adapter you’ll need to charge your phone and other devices. If you’re visiting several countries, a universal charger is best.

9. Order foreign currency and find ATMs

Order foreign currency through your bank before your trip to get the best exchange rate. Map out your bank’s ATM network at your destination in case you need more cash. Ask whether your bank charges international ATM fees and foreign transaction fees for withdrawing cash abroad.

If your bank has a limited ATM network at your destination or no network presence at all, consider opening an account — preferably one without a monthly fee — at a bank that does have an ATM network in the area you’re visiting.

10. Plan to beat jet lag

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website suggests preparing for jet lag a few days before the big trip by changing your bedtime. Go to bed an hour or two later if you’re traveling west; earlier if you’re traveling east. Consider how long it takes for your body to adjust to a new bedtime, and plan to get the new routine started a few days or a week before your trip.

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