Key takeaways

  • Traveling internationally is often a lot easier with the right preparation.
  • Make sure you have all of your documents in order, especially when it comes to passports, visas and medication prescriptions, before you leave.
  • Consider also signing up for a travel rewards credit card so that you can take advantage of its travel insurance perks and won’t have to worry about foreign transaction fees.

International travel can be stressful, even for a seasoned globetrotter. But for a first-timer, it can feel outright overwhelming. After a long flight, you have to orient yourself in a foreign country, where the time zone, language and currency may be different from what you’re used to — not to mention any surprises that are likely to pop up along the way.

With this in mind, preparing for international travel ahead of time will make for a smoother journey. Here are some tips to get yourself ready for your first trip abroad:

1. Check your documents

Before you start booking flights, you need to make sure certain documents are in order.

Passports and visas

For starters, international travel requires an updated passport. You’ll also need enough pages in your passport for visa stamps. While most countries only require a quarter page for their stamp, others require a half page or more. If this is your first trip abroad, that shouldn’t be an issue, since you’ll have a brand new passport with plenty of blank pages.

Once you have your passport sorted, it’s time to check on visas. Many countries will offer U.S. passport holders a tourist visa on arrival. However, other destinations, like Australia or Vietnam, require you to apply ahead of time and often charge a fee. Make sure you check the visa requirements for your final destination and take care of any paperwork.

Medical and emergency information

You never know what kind of emergency you might run into while traveling abroad. Copies of your prescription medications and any known allergies, as well as emergency contacts, are also a smart thing to pack.

Consider jotting down the addresses and numbers of all of the places you’re staying, as well as the nearest U.S. embassies in the countries you’re visiting, too. If something happens — like you lose your passport, for example — the embassy can help. You can print paper copies to keep with you and also include digital copies in your phone.

2. Consider signing up for a travel rewards card

You’re about to rack up some serious travel expenses, so why not use them as an opportunity to earn a sign-up bonus? With a card that rewards travel purchases, you’ll get extra points in the bargain — and a slew of useful benefits, including travel insurance.

Although this is pretty standard for travel rewards credit cards, you should make sure the card you use for this trip does not charge foreign transaction fees. You should also make sure your credit card works abroad, meaning your issuer should be widely accepted in the country you’re traveling to, and your card should have up-to-date technology, like a chip and not just a magnetic strip.

Some travel rewards cards, including the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve®, offer up to a $100 credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. These programs can help speed you through airport security lines. Since you’re traveling abroad, you’re probably better off with Global Entry.

Once you have the perfect card for your trip, make sure you use it to maximize rewards on your international trip.

3. Give yourself a long booking window

It’s important to book international travel at least a month ahead of time (preferably 60 days if possible) to get the best ticket prices. Start looking for flights as soon as you have an idea of when you want to travel. You can use an app like Hopper to keep track of flight deals for your desired destination.

Make sure you’re taking advantage of mileage loyalty programs and travel rewards cards to get the most out of your flight. If you’re a loyalty member of an airline or hotel chain, especially if you have a co-branded airline card or hotel credit card, look into promotions and special offers to see if you can get in on some deals.

4. Be selective about lodging

Your flights are booked, and now it’s time to find a place to stay. Look for lodging that’s in or near the city center so you can walk to places of interest.

Airbnb and VRBO

A great way to find affordable places abroad is through Airbnb, and you can get bonus rewards for Airbnb bookings on many travel cards. A perk of using Airbnb is that your host will often serve as a local connection who can help you find your way around and make suggestions for things to do. VRBO is another popular platform that has multiple international properties available on its site.

Hotels and resorts

If you prefer using hotels or want to enjoy a resort, try to save up points and pay for all or some of your stay using those. Many hotel companies have international branches and and their own co-branded hotel loyalty program credit cards, like the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card*, which offers automatic Silver Elite status to all cardholders.

5. Consider the not-so-common essentials

You’re likely already thinking about the essentials you’ll need on your trip, like your toiletries, medication and documents, but what about items that are not-so-common — the items that can save you major headaches or make you more comfortable as you travel? Here’s a list of some uncommon items you should consider bringing:

  • A digital luggage scale: This will allow you to track the weight of your checked luggage. It comes in handy, especially on your return flight with all your souvenir purchases.
  • A universal power adapter: You’ll need to keep all your electronic devices charged, and the place you’re staying might not have one.
  • Portable batteries: A portable battery can help you keep your devices powered on the go or in a pinch.
  • Sturdy walking shoes: A pair of all-terrain walking sandals or trek shoes will keep you on the move during all of your sight-seeing, even if you get caught in the rain.
  • A door stop: This simple device can give you peace of mind wherever you travel. Put it beneath the door when you get into your room so that no one can come inside until you remove it.
  • A portable CO detector: Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can build up in a room and cause sickness or even death. While reports of tourists getting sick from CO poisoning are rare, it doesn’t hurt to bring a portable device along for peace of mind.
  • Filling snacks: Many countries have strict laws about what you can and can’t bring into the country, so check those before you fly. However, prepackaged snacks like protein bars or granola bars can really come in handy when you’ve been traveling all day and can’t stop yet for a real meal.
  • Resealable plastic bags: Bringing a few of varying sizes along with you can help you keep your valuables safe from the rain or just keep any liquids from bursting in your bags.

6. Pack right for the flight

Travel day is here, and you’ve arrived at the airport with your luggage. Most international flights will offer two checked bags. However, some destinations like Mexico or Canada only offer one. Check with your airline to be sure how many pieces of luggage are allowed. Also, check the weather at your destination before departing to make sure you’re prepared.

Remember to pack any liquids or creams over three ounces in your checked bags, but keep your passport and important travel documents on your person while you’re traveling. When packing your carry-on bag, be sure to pack:

  • Any medicines you’re taking
  • Something warm to wear for the flight
  • A travel pillow
  • Any entertainment for your flight (like a book or portable game console)
  • An empty water bottle (Airport security will make you toss any full bottles, so fill it up at the airport)

Also consider putting a toothbrush and a change of clothes in your carry-on bag, just in case your luggage doesn’t meet you at your destination. In the event this happens, you’ll be covered if you’ve purchased your ticket with a credit card that offers lost or delayed baggage insurance. One example is the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, which offers up to $100 per day for up to five days when your baggage is delayed for at least six hours.

7. Give a heads up to your credit card issuer

Here’s a scenario you’d probably prefer to avoid: You finally arrived at your destination and try making purchases with your credit card — but your card is declined. It’s possible this happened for your own protection without your knowledge.

Credit card issuers take foreign transactions seriously. They want to make sure there’s no fraud happening with your accounts. And if your issuer doesn’t know you’re the one suddenly making these foreign transactions, they could suspend your account.

So before you head out on your world tour, let your credit card issuer know when and where you will be traveling. A simple phone call beforehand will save you a lot of trouble on the road and free you up to make the purchases you need. Many issuers even allow you to set travel dates and destinations within their app.

8. Make the clock your friend

It’s recommended that you arrive at the airport at least three hours prior to when your international flight is scheduled to depart, especially if you don’t have Global Entry. Remember, when you travel internationally, you have to go through customs and immigration in addition to normal security. This process takes time. You don’t want to miss your flight because you’re stuck in a long line.

Give yourself the luxury of getting through the lines early so you can relax, enjoy some free Wi-Fi and grab a snack. Then, while you’re traveling, be sure to keep time zone changes in mind so that you don’t miss your flight or train due to a mix up.

The bottom line

International travel has a few more moving parts than domestic travel does. But with these tips, you’ll be able to hit the ground running. Having the right travel credit card can earn you rewards for your purchases and provide useful travel coverage. Relying on a credit card means you’ll spend less time trying to figure out the currency exchange rates and more time enjoying the sights and sounds around you.

*The information about the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card has been collected independently by Bankrate. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the issuer.