The Bankrate promise
At Bankrate we strive to help you make smarter financial decisions. While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here's an explanation for . The content on this page is accurate as of the posting date; however, some of the offers mentioned may have expired. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.
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.
Check your documents
Before you start booking flights, you need to make sure certain documents are in order. For starters, international travel requires an updated passport. You’ll 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.
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.
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. This is a great time to sign up for one of these Trusted Traveler Programs to 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.
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. 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.
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, 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.
Consider the not-so-common essentials
Whether or not you’re the type who spends hours contemplating the clothes to take on your travels, there are some essentials you’ll definitely want to bring along. For starters, a digital luggage scale 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.
You’ll also want to pick up a universal power adapter to keep all your electronic devices charged — just in case the place you’re staying doesn’t have one. Lastly, bring a sturdy pair of walking shoes. 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.
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 and an empty water bottle to fill up once you’re in the airport terminal. (Airport security will make you toss any full bottles.)
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.
Give a heads up to your credit card issuer
Here’s a scenario you’d probably prefer to avoid: You’ve finally arrived at your destination and begun making purchases with your credit card — and your card is declined. It’s possible this happened for your own protection without your knowledge.
Credit card companies take foreign transactions 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 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.
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.
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.