Think you’re ready for that trip of a lifetime? Whether it’s study abroad, an international internship, work experience overseas, or just a well-deserved beach session on some exotic island, the amount of preparation you do before getting on the plane will make a big difference in your experience. Take the extra time now to prepare and plan, so you can maximize your time abroad. Wandering through side streets and munching on local delicacies sounds like a lot more fun than worrying about why your phone won’t connect to a foreign network.
To help you get prepared, here’s a checklist of things to keep in mind before heading to the airport:
1. Get a passport.
Before you can start collecting colorful stamps from all over the world, you need somewhere to put them first. Start your passport applications several months before your flight date, especially if you need visas from foreign embassies.
While the passport process is usually pretty simple, sometimes bureaucratic matters get in the way and cause everything to take much longer than you thought. (P.S. If you’re a student and need to book your flight soon, you can find discounted airfare on ScholarTrip!)
Most likely, you will need to apply in person at your local passport agency. Be prepared to provide proof of citizenship, an extra form of identity, and recent document photos. Check your local office for specific requirements before you head in to fill out that application!
As soon as you receive your passport, make a couple of copies of the front page. Take one copy with you when you travel, and leave another copy with someone you trust back home. Worst case scenario, if your passport gets stolen, this will help you out a lot.
And if you do already have a passport, double-check the expiration date! Even with a valid passport, most countries deny entry if it is due to expires within three to six months of travel. Travel plans have a tendency to change, and who wants to get stuck in Uzbekistan or Belarus (or even France, for that matter) because they cannot board an airplane with an expired ID?
2. Get any necessary visas.
Visa specifics vary for every country, but the bottom line is the same: it’s tedious and it takes a while.
Do some research and find out if your country of destination requires a visa. If so, what kind of visa will you need? Sixty percent of the world’s countries require visas for any length of stay, most of these as a regular visitor’s visa. However, if you will be studying or interning for more than a short semester, you might have to sign up for a student visa. If you are planning to work, you will need a work visa (though you may be able to work abroad without a visa, too).
In addition, some countries have different approaches to the above: in the United Kingdom, there are several Tiers of visas that you will need to declare. In Australia, you have the option of a working holiday visa. The types of this necessary evil are vast; find out the one that you qualify for.
Apply early for visas. If you get frustrated while waiting in link at the bank, just think about how long it can take for government institutions in several countries to get something done.
3. Visit the doctor.
This step might also not be fun, but just think about how much more tedious it can be to go get a check-up or tooth cleaning in a country where you don’t speak the language and the “office” is an untidy corner in someone’s living room. Get a medical check-up and a tooth-cleaning, so that you can run among the lions and lick those gelatos without any worries in the back of your head.
Also, be sure to check any necessary vaccinations that you might need. This is more common with third-world countries, where there are pesky diseases such as bird flu, chikungunya, dengue, malaria, typhoid fever, or zika. Believe me, these aren’t fun and will interrupt your planned trek to Machu Picchu or hike up Kilimanjaro. Get on top of your shots! Try not to leave this until the last minute either, as some vaccinations need a week or two to kick in fully (plus, who wants to board a plane when their arm feels like it’s swarming with medical bees?).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a great website that offers the most up-to-date information regarding vaccinations and shots that are needed or recommended.
4. Find out how to communicate with home.
Even if you’re going on a trip to get away from it all, it’s always good to know your options to get in touch with friends and family back home (for when you do end up in that dentist chair or get that unwanted mosquito bite). Plus, it’s nice to call and tell Mom and Pop that you made it to the other side of the ocean.
With modern technology, this is easier than ever. Try free services that you can use with an internet connection (such as Skype or WhatsApp) anywhere in the world. Check your cell phone plan; some can be activated abroad, but most will not function in other countries. If you’re not thrilled with the idea of buying and carrying around a phone card, check into the SIM card capabilities of your phone. GSM phones are SIM-card approved, which means that you can switch it out in every country (as long as the network is unlocked), which is great. With CDMA phones, it might be a bit more tricky.
5. Get insured.
Whether it’s health security, baggage protection, or travel insurance, make sure that you are covered while abroad. If you are traveling with an organized program, these usually offer you the option of buying an insurance package; if you do not have your own international coverage, these are great options.
6. Develop a budget.
This is particularly helpful if you will be spending extended time abroad with a study or volunteer program. Research the cost of living in that particular country, and see where your expenses will go every month: accommodation, food, transportation, entertainment. If you are merely taking a personal trip, make an educated guess about how much you will be spending on hotels, excursions, dinners out, etc.
Regardless, be realistic about the expenses and take more money with you than you think you will use. Not only because sometimes two glasses of vino verdhe will turn into three, but emergencies and unexpected opportunities always arise. Be prepared.
One more money tip: usually, it will be cheaper to use your credit card abroad for more purchases, and just take one big stack of cash out for cash-only purposes (street carts, bus fare, indie shops, tips). ATM fees add up!
7. Learn about your destination.
No matter how cool and open-minded you are, you’re probably going to experience culture shock (they eat what?!). No amount of research is going to change that. However, it’s always good to go prepared so that your time abroad can be spent exploring and enjoying instead of flipping through new guide books. Research the places you want to visit, any festivals that happen during the time you’ll be there, and events that you can participate in.
In addition, read up about the culture. If the country is more traditional, maybe you will need to pack clothing accordingly. If someone greets you with three kisses on each cheek, you will not gawk at them like a fish and take a big step back.
Furthermore, do memorize a few basic phrases in the language of your destination country. Hopefully, you will pick up many more words while there, but coming at least with a “ciao!” will make a good first impression (and will make asking for the loo a lot less awkward than pantomiming it).
You won’t need make-up in Nepal, your blow dryer won’t work in Madrid, you’ll probably never use your baseball glove in Botswana, and you can buy cheap sweaters in Ecuador. Pack light! Research your destination in advance, find out what kind of items you must bring (for example, mosquito netting or tampons) and find out what items you can purchase cheaply there. Leave extra space in your luggage for souvenirs!
Invest in practical luggage; unless you’re going to spend your entire time in a resort, you’ll probably be doing quite a bit of walking on your travels (weekend trips, at least!). Get a sturdy backpack and something that you can carry around easily, whether that is through bustling crowds of London or through dense jungles of Brazil.
Friendly reminder: don’t forget to pack a dose of patience and flexibility alongside the sunscreen and camera!
Now that you have organized paperwork thoroughly, completed the bureaucratic procedures, dusted off that high school bilingual dictionary, and wrapped up everything you need, you’re ready! The adventure awaits, eager to excite and throw some challenges your way. As a savvy traveller, you will embrace whatever comes, be open to growth, make the most of the experience, and conquer the world. Just don’t forget your passport at home!