Tips for first-time international travelers

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The Bank of America content in this post was last updated on 03.20.2020

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 the 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 seven tips to get you ready for your first trip abroad.

Check your documents

Before you start booking flights, there are certain documents you need to make sure are in order. For starters, international travel requires an updated passport. You’ll also want to make sure you have enough pages in your passport for visa stamps. While most countries only require a quarter page for their stamp, others may require a half of a page or more.

Once you have your passport sorted, it’s time to check on visas. Many countries will offer US 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.

This is also a good time to apply for TSA-precheck or Global Entry. These services help to cut down on your time in line at the airport. And if you use certain credit cards like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card or the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, you can receive credit towards reimbursement of your application fees.

Give yourself a long booking runway

It’s important to book international travel at least a month ahead of time 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. You may want to check out a card like the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card. Alaska and their partners fly to over 800 destinations worldwide, and for a limited time you’ll get a $100 statement credit, Alaska’s famous Companion Fare from $121 ($99 plus taxes and fees from $22) and 40,000 bonus miles if you spend $2,000 within the first 90 days of opening the account.

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. A great way to find affordable places abroad is through Airbnb. A perk of using Airbnb is that you will likely have a local connection who can help you find your way around, or at least make suggestions for things to do.

A great card to use for booking your Airbnb is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard®. This card offers two rewards miles per dollar spent on all purchases with no foreign transaction fees. Not to mention the hefty sign up bonus of 70,000 miles after spending $5,000 within the first 90 days of opening your account.

Consider the not-so-common essentials

Whether or not you’re the type who spends a lot of time thinking through what clothes you’re taking on your travels, there are some essentials that you’ll definitely want to bring along. For starters, a good item for any traveler to have is a digital luggage scale. This scale allows you to track the weight of your checked luggage. It comes in handy, especially on your return flight with all your souvenir purchases.

You’ll also want to pick up a universal power adapter. It will keep all your electronic devices charged. Lastly, having a good sturdy pair of walking shoes is key. You’ll likely be pounding the pavement during much of your sightseeing. A pair of all terrain walking sandals or trek shoes will keep you on the move, even if you get caught in the rain.

When you make these purchases, be sure to pay using a card like the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card. This card has no annual fee, no foreign transaction fee, 1.5 percent cash back on all purchases, and $150 cash back if you spend $500 in the first 3 months of opening the account.

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. And 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 and a water bottle to fill up once you’re in the airport terminal.

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 that this happens, you’ll be covered if you’ve purchased your ticket with a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. This card offers coverage of up to $500 for you and your immediate family in the event that your luggage is delayed.

Give a heads up to your credit card issuer

You’ve finally arrived at your destination, and have begun making purchases with a card like Discover it® Cash Back to earn 5% cash back on rotating categories (up to the quarterly maximum then 1%, activation required). Just as you’re starting to get on a role, your card is declined and you don’t know why. It turns out this may have happened for your own protection without your knowledge.

Credit card companies take foreign transactions pretty seriously. They want to make sure there’s no funny business 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 company know 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.

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. Many people scoff at this, but you really do need that extra time, especially when you’re heading back home. 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 wifi and grab a snack.

Bottom line

International travel has a few more moving parts than domestic travel does. But with these seven tips, you’ll be able to hit the ground running. A bonus tip would be to keep a travel rewards card on hand to make your purchases along the way. You’ll spend less time trying to figure out the currency exchange rates, and more time enjoying the new sights and sounds around you.

So go out and see the world! And if you want some more travel tips, check out 8 tips for first-time flyers.