On Facebook, I participate in a few travel groups. A few months ago, a family member tagged me in a post asking for international travel tips. While looking through all of my old posts, I realised….I’ve never written an in-depth guide for international travel. I have been fortunate enough over the last 4 years to have traveled around the world, so that should have been a no-brainer, but apologies, it wasn’t…Until now!
This post is going to be long, so if you’re reading straight through, grab a cup of coffee and get comfy! If not, I’m breaking it into segments to make it easier to navigate! In addition, it will be regularly updated with new information, so keep coming back! If you want to skip to a specific segment, feel free to use this table of contents to make your search easier. I hope you enjoy and if you have questions or suggestions, leave them in the comments!
Accessories || Accommodations || Airfare Tips || Budgeting || Cash vs. Credit || Customs & Laws || Dress Codes || Excursions & Activities|| Food Restrictions || Getting Around|| Itineraries || Languages || Outlets and Power Converters || Packing || Photography and Camera Gear || Tipping & Restaurants || Travel Documents || Travel Insurance || Safety & Security
I love having a good bag as much as everyone else, especially a backpack. The problem with accessories is they’re prime targets for theft. I prefer to strike a balance with accessories: comfort and functionality. Backpacks are great to carry and distribute the weight over long distances. In a metropolitan city, it’s a lot harder to keep track of items in the backpack unless you carry it at an angle. Crossbodies are functional, but can dig into your shoulder after a while.
I always swing my bag off my shoulder and into my field of vision to avoid pickpockets. Buying travel accessories also requires you to think about luggage restrictions. The collapsable cute tote bag can lie flat at the bottom of any suitcase or bag, but the hard sided Chanel takes up space you may not have in your suitcase. Plus, anything you take to use while traveling is just something else you have to prepare to lug to your accommodation, so be careful of weight and number. Accessories are great, so be sure to find something that will work for all of your needs while you travel.
The beautiful thing about travel is the wide array of accommodation environments. In the past, it was only CouchSurfing or work-stay schemes if you wanted to save money. Today, you have hostels, hotels, AirBnB, HomeAway, and many other options. If you’re cutting costs, a hostel is the way to go. You may end up compromising space and security as you may have to share a small space with other individuals. A handy luggage lock can really handle this problem. In addition, shared Airbnb spaces also can help cut down on costs, but they require a lot of research to make sure the place you’re staying is sound!
I’ve stayed in both and never had an issue, and you end up meeting amazing people. No matter what you choose, do your research. I traveled to Belgium, the Netherlands, and more, and each time, I’ve done extensive research. While it doesn’t have to be a 5* space each time, by doing your research, you don’t have to compromise cost for security or quality. It will also help you decide where you want to be in a city, which can help expose you to as much as possible during your travels.
My most requested question is always how do I pay for my travel. I pay for it all myself, but I make the most of the tools at my disposal. Airfare is one of the easiest places to cut costs, but it requires real planning. I use Google Flights to monitor the cost of flights, setting alerts for specific days I know I am free and sometimes a day before and after. By using these alerts, I can know exactly when the flight from ATL-LHR goes from $1600 to $763, buy it immediately, and take advantage of the ups and downs of airfare costs.
Being flexible with flights is also a major advantage, even if you don’t want to get up at 6AM. There are often small sacrifices, but an extra $250 for an excursion or a good meal is a good sacrifice. Sunday is also apparently the best day to buy a flight, but Incognito mode also does help for some strange reason. It may have to do with cookies and airlines monitoring your traffic, but by turning it on, I’ve cut as much as $100 off the price at times. Sites like Airfare Spot or Airfare Watchdog publicize error fares or cheap deals, so if you’re up for that spur trip, they’re definitely a good place to start.
Budgeting. The most important part of any trip. It can make or break your time wherever you go. You have to be prepared to budget properly and stick with your budget. If not, you may find yourself without disposable cash or racking up credit card debt. One of the most important things to do is to look at conversion rates. That necklace in London is only £22, but in USD that is $26. The conversion rate is much lower than the first time I went to London, when it was 1.5 USD to GBP. It is always important to know and budget for a few cents increase while you’re traveling.
You can be broke and still have an enjoyable trip anywhere. You may not be able to get that massage you want or drink though. The first thing is to budget essentials: airfare, lodging, food, travel (ex. public transport, intercity transit). Once you’re done, see how much you have left and pick your activities. Almost everything is cheaper when booked in advance. I always round up to the nearest $150 or add on a couple hundred for discretionary costs, because I love to shop, but also because life happens.
A budget has to have a small fund for those unexpected costs, so just planning that out in advance can budgeting. Look for free activities, museums, galleries, etc. that can keep you entertained, while not putting a dent in your pockets. Do your research and see if you can fill your time with free things before moving onto the bigger expenses. Walking also helps lower your costs, as public transport can be steep in metropolitan areas like London or Paris. Instead of using data, I use apps like WhatsApp to keep in contact with friends, via video chatting and messaging, while using Wifi instead of data.
Cash vs. Credit:
CALL YOUR CARD COMPANY BEFORE YOU LEAVE. PERIOD.
When your card gets blocked after 2 days and it’s a $30 phone call, you will regret not calling before. Also, find out overseas fees for cash withdrawals. Certain cards have fees and some do not. I’ve had the most success with Capital One, AMEX’s Delta Card, and Charles Schwab. Bank cards are slightly different as some banks will waive ATM fees, depending on the issuer. I highly suggest carrying cash with you at all times because taxis, smaller shops, and street vendors do not always take cards. Stay aware of exchange rates, which can honestly hurt you or help you depending on where you go. The Euro vs. Pound vs. Dollar rate can be really high, so I looking at it every day helps me make the most of my money.
Customs & Laws:
This is not the border agents who will take your coconut when you come through the airport. This is more of the actual customs and laws that govern each country. Before you travel, look into the customs of where you are visiting. Dubai has much different laws and customs than Stockholm. Instead of standing out and opening yourself up to the risk of arrest, be diligent and do your research. Laws are very specific and written down, so they’re easy to find. Customs are not, and will require some research on travel blogs, government sites, or just word of mouth in order to stay compliant. Being respectful of customs will help in instances like tipping or dressing, saving you a headache down the road so you can enjoy your trip.
Dress codes are more important than you think. Again, each country is different and Western dress codes can be much less strict than other places. I always say air on the side of caution. If you’re a woman, cover up when you don’t know. Shoulders, collarbones, pants, and leggings over shorts. For men, shorts that are over the knees and a nicer shirt. You should be sensitive over being offensive. Women can carry a pashmina or larger scarf to cover up quickly, which can help in places like Rome’s Altare della Patria/ Vittorio Emanuele II Monument or Bangkok’s Was Phra Kaew. It’s easy to find a do’s and don’ts list for countries with a google search, but Conde Nast Traveler has a great resource on what to wear around the world.
Excursions & Activities:
For people visiting new cities, I understand the allure of city passes. You pay a premium to see all of those attractions in one spot. I’ve only used them once with my family in Barcelona. I’ve never been so tired and frustrated because everything was so rushed. Those city pass things are a waste of money unless you’re up at 7 and out till close, doing things all day. Just get the individual tickets for museums and you’ll be better off. While this is a personal opinion, I’ve heard from many people that it truly does pay off in the end. If you’re under 25 and go museums, tell them you’re a student and show your id. Most of the time, you’ll get reduced/free tickets for just about everything. Bring a student ID even if it’s expired, because honestly, they don’t look too hard.
Food restrictions are hard outside of home if you make it. In places like Paris that are more traditional, you’re going to have a hard time with veganism and honestly, vegetarianism as well.While there are many places that simply do not have food that works within gluten free, veganism, or dairy free due to the local diet, full of milk, cheese, sausage, seafood, and bread, there are definitely ways to get around it. Look for restaurants with extensive lists for appetizers or sides and mix and match. For anyone with allergies, just make sure to ask in restaurants and be willing to try multiple restaurants, especially in countries where food sensitivity issues are not as prevalent as in the US.
Getting around most cities can be difficult. In small European cities, there won’t be rapid transit like you may find in Paris or London, and rarely an Uber. You’ll have to rely on taxis or your feet. While getting around, try and wear comfortable shoes. Your feet will thank you on day 5 of walking multiple miles a day. There may be an option to bike, but be careful. The rules at home may not be the same as abroad, so learn the rules of the road before you hop on.
If you are in a city with a rapid transit system, chances are you won’t be using a standard monthly user pass like the Navigo in Paris, but you may look into a weekly/daily pass. Those can be helpful if you feel like you’ll be using it multiple times a day and more cost-effective. If you’re only on it once or twice a day, I suggest just putting a set amount on a card. Depending on the city, you’ll have the option to get a card or ticket, which you can “top up”. If you have a little metro ticket, try not to lose the little ticket until you’re off. Sometimes they check and you don’t want to be stuck with a 10 euro fine because you threw it away. Never put anything valuable in your outer pockets like back pockets or backpack pouches.
If you’re a walker, I highly suggest downloading the Google Maps map of your city before you go. I’ve used their offline feature many times and it really does help on a night out when I’m lost. I can get walking, bike, metro, and car directions without using data. In addition, try to download a metro map if possible. Many times, these will help you look less touristy and blend in. I’ve used Citymapper in the US and internationally. I know they don’t have every city available, so I wouldn’t rely on it unless you know your city is on their list, but they are great in most metropolitan places.
Itineraries are dependent upon each person. I’m not really one to make a step by step plan because I like flexibility. While I am very detail oriented, I’ll often pick a range of activities and dedicate specific days to things around one location. Plans are great, but they often go awry at major tourist attractions. If the line is too long, sometimes it is good to leave and come back later. Your budget will love having an itinerary, but don’t get upset if you can’t do everything. Life happens, and sometimes, plans just don’t work.
At times, I just lose track of time and wander the cities I visit, taking it all in. Schedule some free time if you’re making an itinerary and try that, you’ll learn and experience from a more local perspective. If you do wander, be sure not to get lost…because it can be expensive to get back. Sometimes, places like Intrepid do organised tours, so you don’t have to make the budget yourself, but tours can be extremely limiting in what you see and how you spend your time.
Language can be tricky. As someone who speaks English and French, with the occasional Spanish and Italian, I can get around most of Europe without hassle. In some places, they will let you try, but if they can tell you’re struggling, they will speak English to you. Don’t take it personally, they just have ten million tourists come through a day and it gets tiring. In larger cities, the default may be English, especially if the city is very touristy like Paris. In smaller cities, you may be hard pressed to find a lot of people who speak English, so be prepared to be stuck behind a bit of a language barrier.
Look up the essential phrases for where you’re going, for example: in Paris, the essentials for the city are: Ou sont les toilettes (where’s the bathroom), bonjour/salut (hello), je ne parle beaucoup de français (I don’t speak a lot of French), Combien coûte ça (how much is this), une table pour deux personnes (a table for two), nous sommes perdus (we are lost). Having a little knowledge of these phrases will help you in a bind.
Outlets & Power Converters:
Outlets can be funky so find one that is a voltage adapter and not just the end. If not, it may blow the fuse and you don’t want to be SOL. It can blow a fuse in your apartment and blow out the power for the entire room/apartment….I have done this more than I want to admit. Often, I will bring voltage strips so I can charge cameras and phones at once, so it is a frequent occurrence. I bought a universal voltage strip which allows me to travel and still charge multiple devices at once, like this one I bought off Amazon.
Packing can be a pain, but it doesn’t have to be. In the past three years, I have become a master packer of carry-on luggage, even making a Youtube video about it. As a result, I’m able to carry my bags across cobblestones easier than I can lug a suitcase. One of my biggest tips is to reduce, reuse, recycle. Yes, that is the recycling motto, but it’s perfect for packing.
Reduce how much you pack. You don’t need 7 tops, 3 dresses, 6 pairs of pants, 4 skirts, and 2 pairs of jeans for a weekend trip. That’s an extrapolation, but reduce what you bring. Reuse your clothes. Bring things that don’t wrinkle easily or catch a lot of odor. If it doesn’t smell or if you can wash it, reuse clothes with other items and mix & match. Recycle items from your wardrobe because it will make your life easier.
In addition, PACK SNACKS. You will thank me later when you’re on the plane. Snacks are life and don’t take up too much space if you do it the right way. Packing cubes will change your life and you’ll thank me later. They’re a great organizational and packing tool, so do your research and do it! Toiletries take up space, but buy little containers depending on how long your trip is. For liquids, pro tip: USE SARAN WRAP AND A PLASTIC BAG! It will save you when TSA messes with your luggage and nothing is closed so your liquids leak everywhere.
Photography & Camera Gear:
Unless you’re a travel photographer or plan on doing multiple photoshoots, less is more. Instead of traveling with your bulky DSLR with three lenses, invest in a mirrorless camera. I have an Olympus PEN that I take when I’m traveling for pleasure and not business and it gets the job done. For example, I used that camera for everything while I was in Tunisia. I travel solo, so I needed one that had wifi capabilities, so I could take my own photos easily. One of the best things about this camera is that it fits in any bag, especially broken down into lens and body. It doesn’t require a massive purse or backpack like a DSLR and the photo quality is nearly the same.
The more gear you have, the less space you have for anything else. I always will recommend packing it in your hand luggage, so be conscious about space. Bringing a spare hard drive like the Rugged hard drive will make sure you can free up space where necessary. 32GB and 64GB disks are your new best friend if you shoot digitally. Invest in a wire camera strap because they’re much harder to cut through for pickpockets. A friend got me one for my birthday and I’ve used it ever since. You can get them off Amazon for cheap and they will save you a lot of heartaches while traveling.
I’m a photography nerd, so all I do is carry my camera with me. When I’m not using it, it is in my bag and safely tucked away. By keeping it up, I don’t attract the typical pickpockets who target tourists with bulky camera gear. Always have a charged spare battery because camera batteries always die at the worst time. I normally travel with one or two lenses: one fixed and one one zoom lens. In reality, you really only need a good zoom one or your iPhone. I only travel with what I use, leaving me with more space for a book or snacks.
Tipping & Restaurants:
Tipping is one of those things that varies country by country. I can give a great break down of the tipping structure in France vs. the UK vs. the US because I’ve spent so much time in each place, BUT tipping varies by country. In France, if the bill says “service compris”, you DO NOT have to leave a tip, it’s included in the bill. Sometimes, they will target you to get you to pay an extra tip on top if they can tell you’re foreign. If the service is good, feel free to. Never let them pressure you into extra tipping. In Japan, tipping is considered rude because good service is already expected. In Cuba and the US, always add a tip. Just be sure to check, and Conde Nast has a pretty solid guide to check out if you have a trip coming up soon!
Travel documents will get you out of the country and to your destination, and you can’t travel without them. Whether that be a visa, passport, ID card, etc, be prepared. A quick search for countries can let you know that (coming from the US) for Ghana, you need a passport, tourist visa or business visa, and vaccinations list. But for the UK, you only need a passport for a short trip. Each country has a list of entry requirements and some countries cost more than others.
Be sure to factor Visas into essential costs, because you will not be let into certain countries without this visa. Plan a few weeks in advance, as visas take a long time to process. When you have to get vaccinations, be sure to have the necessary documentation from your doctors before leaving. With your passport, make sure it is valid for at least 6 months after you arrive and leave the country. If not, they may not allow you entry once you arrive.
For passports and visas, I always have multiple copies in addition to the actual document: one on my phone/email/Google Drive, one printed copy, and one printed copy left with my mom/brother/family member who can send it to me. In addition, I have 4 copies of my passport photo, just in case I need one when I arrive.
In case my passport is stolen or lost during my travels, these will be a big help in order to get an emergency document from the Embassy and drastically speed up the process so I can continue my travels. A drivers license or student ID never hurts, and can help get me into attractions for cheap or free. Paper copies of your airline/train tickets help when machines don’t work or if they refuse e-tickets, so print it out in advance.
Not everyone likes travel insurance or sees the need in it. Say you’re on a trip and fall, causing you to break your ankle, but no insurance. Now you’re faced with the choice of limping for 4 days and causing further damage or footing a few thousand dollars in medical expenses. The cheap cost of travel insurance comes in handy, especially in those situations. I recently purchased it on a whim for a trip that I was expecting to take. Due to unexpected circumstances, I had to cancel three days before. My insurance refunded me the entire cost for the flight and accommodation, saving me a world of headaches.
Insurance can help in case of stolen cards, camera insurance, flight delays, and unexpected costs, not just health insurance. I’ve heard stories about how much insurance can help when you get hurt unexpectedly on a trip. A charter or helicopter to the US covered by insurance is a lot nicer than paying out of pocket. Plus, if your baggage gets lost, some will reimburse the loss so you can buy new clothes. Nomadic Matt and Rick Steves have the best guides to travel insurance if you want more information on specific plans and the little details.
Safety & Security:
Safety is one of the biggest concerns for most people. I do monitor the US DOS’ travel advisories, but it doesn’t necessarily deter me from going certain places. If a country is flagged as a level a level 4, obviously, I will be staying put. A level 2 and 3 requires a certain level of caution. Looking up the status before traveling can be a big help, but it doesn’t cover everything. Registering with the Embassy is helpful. The STEP program will send updates when things go on while I’m traveling to keep safe. This can range from acts of terror to mass protests.
Security goes much further than making sure that pickpockets don’t take my wallet, but also my personal safety. As a woman who travels alone, safety is a big concern. I don’t always stay in a group, so I don’t have that additional safety of being in groups. At times, I’ll wear a ring on my ring finger, just to deter men who try to make advances. I don’t make eye contact with strangers and just keep my head up and aware of my surroundings. In terms of important documents, keeping a record, just like with travel documents, can be helpful in sticky situations.
Writing down bank card numbers and essential phone numbers in my phone and on paper is an extra precaution. If you lose your cards, the numbers will not be the same. Checking the card readers at ATMs takes two seconds, but saves you a world of pain. Being careless in those instances can have serious consequences when you let your guard down. Be safe and keep your guard up.
A small lesson in self-defense can be the difference between life and death. Under no circumstances should you engage unless absolutely necessary. Don’t fight a mugger, because you never know if they have weapons. You would rather call and get a new card and cash than lose your life over $50.
Have a little first aid kit just in case, even for little bumps and bruises. Sending your itinerary to loved ones who will check up on you can keep you safe in case of emergency. Apps like Trip Whistle and bSafe will give you the 911 in the country or update your friends that you’re leaving a safe space and walking around, but let them know if something goes wrong.
Blending in and being aware of dress and sticking out can help a lot down the road. Do a little research and be prepared for the environment you will be entering. The biggest safety tip I can ever give anyone, just trust yourself. If something doesn’t seem off, just leave the situation. You are your own best friend, so trust your instincts and be safe.