When you’re planning to travel, especially abroad, there are many things to consider and be excited about! I’ll be honest, on my first trip abroad, all I planned was to get there and have fun. I didn’t prepare for anything! I never looked into travel insurance or vaccines and didn’t even have a duplicate copy of my travel documents. I’ve learned a lot in the last few years, mostly from other travelers.
Now I make sure I am prepared with these essential travel tips.
This list aims to get you thinking about what you might need to do to prepare for the worst, expect the best, and be a responsible traveler. Travel is a privilege, one that we take seriously. While many travel without doing a single thing on this list, you tax resources, time and people if something unfortunate happens on your trip and you are not adequately prepared. This can range from a mild inconvenience to burdening another country’s healthcare system. While you can’t anticipate accidents, you can make life easier for all with a few simple steps. Travel preparation is the best defense.
Here are 13 essential travel tips:
Trip Insurance — One of the most essential travel tips – get insurance. Most people think it’s to cover the cost of the trip in the event that it gets canceled, but it covers so much more! Reasons you could end up needing travel insurance:
- Medical emergency: This would be the number one reason. I have read about many people who got very ill in other countries. Things happened, from the flu to an ovarian cyst the size of a cantaloupe that had to be removed abroad. It could be something as small as twisting an ankle dancing on a bar or tripping on a cobblestone walkway. If you need to see a doctor, get crutches or require more lengthy care, your travel insurance provider may reimburse your costs, as well as any additional days you might need to stay in a hotel before you travel or the cost to move a flight. Read the exclusions carefully. Even if you’re traveling domestically, this can help offset those out-of-network costs.
- Lost or stolen items or baggage.
- Trip delays due to weather or other natural disasters.
- Trip delays due to illness — check the COVID policy!
- Death: If something unfortunate happens, it’s costly to ship you home, and that is not a burden you want to put on your family. Travel insurance should cover this cost. Again, read the policy carefully!
Leave a copy of your trip insurance information with a trusted family member or friend. Please read your policy carefully; they vary quite a bit. I exclusively use Allianz. I have never had to use it, thankfully, but I always feel better knowing it’s there, and it’s a huge relief to my adult children. Peace of mind is important! This is the number one thing we suggest when you prepare for a trip.
Share your Itinerary — Share your travel itinerary with your family or close friends. I’ve gone on adventures, and no one knew where I was going, where I was staying or how long I’d be gone. If I had gone missing, no one would have known for days. Share where you are traveling, how you are getting there, accommodations, tours you have planned or other information that would help people track you down. This is also important if you must be reached by someone back home. Even though we all have cell phones, there are still places where service can be hit or miss, especially if you are going into remote areas. If you’re going overseas, register your itinerary with the State Department as well, for all the reasons we describe.
Travel Documents — I keep my travel documents with me in three forms: printed, in photos on my phone, and on a tiny flash drive. (Julianne uses Evernote, a web-based note-taking and image-storage platform that syncs across devices upon sign-in, as her third means of storage vs. a flash drive.) These are the documents I carry:
- Passport If traveling abroad
- Driver’s license
- TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry card
- Travel insurance information
- Health insurance card
- Vaccine card — both my COVID vaccine card and, if traveling to an area where I need it, my Yellow Card (the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis necessary in some countries)
- Itinerary — This is for me more than anything. If all of my digital devices fail, I like having a paper copy of all of my pertinent information, reservation numbers, addresses, etc.
Yes, I take my travel preparation seriously. I carry two state-issued IDs; I always keep one on me in my phone case and leave one at my accommodations. That is one thing I have to have if I’m flying home — if one gets misplaced, I have a backup AND a paper copy! I might be paranoid, but I like to call it prepared! If you are overseas and have your passport, leave it at your accommodations, don’t carry it with you on excursions. Be sure you have a photo of it, however, in case a bank needs it for a transaction.
Technology — What is your plan if your phone gets swiped, lost, left in an Uber or accidentally submerged in the ocean? Do you know your carrier information? Do you have all of your passwords? All of this should be stored on a document you can share with a friend or family member whose number you know by heart. I’ve had my phone stolen TWICE when on vacation (both domestically and my fault). As a result, I now travel with a spare phone. The last time I upgraded, I kept my old phone; if something happens to my new phone, I can buy a local sim card, put it in my old phone, and I’m up and running. I also travel with my laptop as a backup. Don’t forget to download a good VPN to keep your information private and protect yourself from having your personal data compromised when using unsecured wifi networks.
Curious about what to do if your phone gets dropped in salt water? Learn from Julianne’s painful mistake.
Language — If you are traveling to a country where the predominant language is different than the one you know, make sure to learn a few words. I love Google Translate for helping me with language when I travel; it has many great features. You can download a language and use it even when you are offline. You can also store multiple words and sayings and have them easily accessible right in the app. Here are some key phrases that I found helpful; I added a few after being in an emergency in Portugal!
- Thank you
- Check, please
- Beer (always important!)
It’s great to practice these phrases before you travel, as well. We both like Duolingo and Memrise.
Emergency Services — In Europe, 112 is the emergency number, but if you are in the Maldives, Mexico or Morocco, do you know the number? This handy link will show you the emergency number for any country worldwide.
Legal Documents — This piece of travel preparation often gets missed, but these are all excellent items to have for your family’s peace of mind regardless of age.
- Will: If you own property, have funds or have young children, it’s important to have a will.
- Power of Attorney: If you plan on traveling long-term, having a Power of Attorney will allow you to make business transactions back home without being physically present. If you own property, a home or a car or want to purchase these things while abroad, a Power of Attorney will allow someone back home to handle your affairs for you.
- Advanced Medical Directives: This legal document explains what you want to do in case of a medical emergency where you cannot make those decisions for yourself. This includes do-not-resuscitate directives.
We are not lawyers — please consult your attorney to determine what best suits your needs.
Banking Information — Make a list of your credit cards and bank accounts and leave them with a family member or friend you trust. Make sure they have account numbers, logins and passwords so that if you have an emergency, you can call and have them get you this information should you need it. I have my banking apps on my phone, and if I lose a card or it is compromised in any way, I can easily report it right through the app!
Money — Make sure you know what the currency is where you are going and find out if you will need cash. When I recently traveled to Ireland, I only encountered one situation where I couldn’t use my credit card. I didn’t withdraw money for the entire trip! Conversely, when I was recently on the island of Madeira, the taxis only took cash. I recommend getting cash before you go, even if it’s only $50, so you have it. Do some research on the best place to get some money. Exchange offices are tricky, and there are a lot of scams. Your bank may be able to order the currency for you, but it may take a few days to get it in, so allow extra time. I also use a currency conversion app on my phone, so I can always easily see the conversion rates. Split up your money and cards. I carry several cards and split them up. One stays in my suitcase, one in my purse, one in my backpack, and one in my phone case. If you have cash, keep some at your accommodations and some with you.
Customs, Culture and Tipping — Take the time to read up on a country’s customs, culture and tipping practices. Being a good traveler means doing your best to blend in, to follow local practices. Areas to consider:
- Dress: Is modesty something you need to consider?
- Dining: What is the standard practice for ordering, dining and asking for the check?
- Should you tip?
I have sometimes skipped this travel preparation step myself. It wasn’t until I sat in a restaurant in Paris for two hours, drinking my third glass of wine, that I realized I’d never looked up the proper way to ask for the check, which is how I ended up getting a third glass and not my bill! So now I always prepare by looking up the basics before I go!
Register Your Trip (If Traveling Abroad) — Check out our blog on Reasons Why You Should Register Your Trip with the State Department. It can help you learn what vaccines and health precautions are necessary (see also our blog on What You Need to Know About Getting Vaccinated Before Traveling) and what kinds of crime or social unrest you need to be aware of. It also makes getting help from the embassy easier, should you need it, and for U.S. officials to track you down in an emergency. Try not to let travel warnings scare you too much, but be aware of what is happening in the location you are traveling to. This one bit of travel preparation can have a big impact in times of social and civil unrest.
Location Sharing — In Google Maps, you can turn on the “share your location” feature and send it to a friend. I’ve done this when hiking solo, when I’ve entered an area of a city I’m not sure about, or even when I was out on a date in Ireland! Let your friend know before you add them. I didn’t do this on one of my trips and freaked out my best friend when I suddenly turned on my sharing while at a bar while abroad, and then turned it off without telling her! Read more about real-time location sharing here. Warning: This will drain your battery, so make sure you have an extra battery pack.
Other Travel Preparation Resources — Don’t put rescue teams at risk when you could have been smarter or more self-reliant. In the Rocky Mountains, these are usually volunteers, and a fair number have died trying to save people who failed to plan or prepare or follow local safety precautions. What’s in My Road Trip Emergency Kit; The 10 Essentials for Hiking, Plus a Few Pro Tips; and Basic Solo Travel Safety Tips You Need to Know. Be a good traveler and minimize your impact on people and services whenever possible!
Travel preparation means being prepared, having insurance, knowing where all of your important documents are and how to access your information in an emergency. With these essential travel tips, you can put your mind, and the minds of those who love you, to rest while you are off having your next great adventure. Travel preparation requires a small amount of effort, but peace of mind is priceless.
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