Planning for international travel can be complicated and overwhelming. Even experienced travelers can find themselves in a panic after forgetting an important step in the planning process. But traveling abroad doesn’t have to be that stressful.
So forget the gut-wrenching realization that you’ve forgotten to print copies of your travel information or purchase travel health insurance. This comprehensive, step-by-step guide to traveling abroad is all you need to make sure you’ve checked all your boxes before jetting out.
You’ll discover budget travel hacks, helpful sites for deciding where to travel, apps to keep you organized, and so much more to help you plan a trip by yourself—or with the help of a travel agent.
Step 1: Do You Need A Travel Agent?
Before beginning your preparations for travel, consider whether you would benefit from hiring a travel agent to help plan your trip. Travel agents aren’t needed for every trip, but they can be a valuable resource for complicated trips or travelers who don’t have the time to plan a trip themselves.
Here are three important questions to help you decide whether to hire a travel agent.
Is Cost a Concern?
Most travel agents charge a fee for their services, but they can also save you money by finding the best discounts and negotiating prices.
Travel agent fees for booking airline tickets average around $20 and around $50 for cruises according to the American Society of Travel Agents. A full itinerary could cost you between $100 and $200 according to Angie’s List.
However, travel agents can also save you money by finding the best discounts and by negotiating prices. You could save $500 on airfare with the right agent according to U.S. News.
The cost of booking often totals about the same when booking it by yourself or booking through a travel agent (including fees). It’s best to consider how you like to travel and how you like to plan to determine whether you want a travel agent.
How Complicated Will Your Trip Be?
Various moving parts in a trip, like multiple destinations or a large group of people, can quickly complicate the planning process. This is where skilled travel agents can make a difference.
For example, travel agents can ensure you don’t forget to book a flight for yourself after booking them for your parents and your three siblings. They can also ensure you get tickets for everyone to that award-winning new musical before it’s sold out.
Not every trip will be complicated enough to require a travel agent, but feeling very overwhelmed may be a sign that you could use some extra help.
Do You Have the Time to Plan?
Not having the time to plan a trip abroad doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take one at all. One study about traveling abroad found that people spend about 30 hours planning a vacation. A Travel Attribution Study for Expedia Media Solutions found that people, on average, visit 38 different websites when planning. Handing the reigns over to an expert can provide you the luxury of an enjoyable trip without having to spend months pre-planning.
But if you like the excitement of planning a trip by yourself and doing your own research, skip out on the travel agent fees and follow the steps below to planning your trip abroad.
Step 2: Pick A Destination
You might already have a destination or two in mind and a crew to travel along with you, but maybe you’re open to discovering someplace new and exciting too. Now is your time to do a little personal investigating into the countries and cities where you’ve always wanted to travel.
Search the most popular travel destinations in the world if you’re looking to hit tourist hotspots and be impressed. Or consider the most underrated travel destinations if exploring the path less traveled is more your style.
Do you have any hobbies like skiing or surfing? Search the top destinations for these activities. History buffs can visit the sites of important battles or castles of iconic kings and queens of the past. Escape your hometown geography and check out famous mountain ranges, a tropical forest, or beaches with crisp, blue water.
Keep a running list of your favorite destinations as well as events and activities you’d like to do there. Then begin to narrow down that list by deciding how far you’re willing to travel, how much you’re willing to spend, the safety and climate of each destination, and your must-do activities.
Explore the 35 least-photographed places in the world you need to see.
Check Travel Advisories
Take a look through the U.S. Department of State’s travel advisories before settling on a destination. These are regularly updated safety rankings assigned to every country in the world. Advisories are divided into four levels based on the presence of certain safety and security risk indicators, such as crime, terrorism, civil unrest, health, and natural disaster.
Travel advisories also list important travel information, such as entry and exit requirements, local laws and customs, health conditions, transportation, and more.
The U.S. Department of State encourages you to reconsider any destination under a level 3 “reconsider travel” advisory. Do NOT travel to any destination under a level 4 “do not travel” advisory.
IMPORTANT! Travel advisories are not only issued on a country-wide level. A country may have an overall travel advisory of level 2, but with elevated advisory levels for certain high-risk parts of the country. That’s why it’s vital that you read the entire travel advisory before choosing your destination
Step 3: Build a Budget
It’s no secret that traveling across international borders can be pricier than a day trip within your own country, especially if you’ll be booking flights or renting cars. It’s important to consider how much you are willing to spend before you start booking reservations.
Setting a budget for your trip can help you determine:
- Where you can afford to go
- How much money you need to save
Consider setting a budget for your trip if you recently got a bonus at work or a big tax return that you want to spend on a vacation, or if you’ve already factored a vacation into your yearly finances.
Explore these ways to save up for your trip and make extra money if you don’t have the funds available right this second.
How to Create Your Own Travel Budget
Any good budget travel guide will tell you that creating a realistic budget requires a little extra research on the average prices for a location.
A few factors to include in your travel budget are:
- Up-front costs (i.e. travel documents / identification)
A vacation cost calculator can provide per-person, per-day cost estimates for each of these factors based on your destination and travel style. You can also do a quick Google search to find prices for specifics like the attractions you plan to visit.
PRO TIP: Overestimate costs so you have a financial cushion to lean back on if necessary.
Start saving once you’ve established your budget. Set monthly savings goals that will lead to your ideal savings for the trip.
Keep in mind there are numerous steps you can take along the way to make your trip more affordable, like traveling to more affordable destinations, taking public transit or walking, and seeking out free or affordable activities to do at your destinations.
Step 4: Set (Preliminary) Dates
Setting dates as far ahead as possible can provide you with ample time to plan, in addition to allowing you to schedule time off work farther ahead. Consider your best time to travel (i.e., when the kids are out of school, when work slows down, etc.).
Locations during peak season are typically tourist heavy and may be more expensive, but these times are often the best weather wise. You may also find that there are more activities and places to see during this time.
Avoiding the travel-heavy times can often be more affordable if you are on a tight budget. Just make sure the museums, tours, and activities you’re planning are still available during the off season. You’ll also need to consider that the weather may not be ideal in the off season.
Step 5: Settle Travel Documents
Get a jump start on settling your necessary travel documentation. This may include applying for a passport, a visa, and an International Driver’s License.
Ensuring that you have an up-to-date passport is necessary for any international travel you plan to do. It’s important to get the necessary paperwork in order as soon as possible because applying for a passport can be a lengthy process. The U.S. Department of State suggests applying for a new passport several months in advance.
Processing time for a passport can vary depending on your location and the time of year. For example, it takes 6-8 weeks to process in the U.S. Your passport may be expedited to 2-3 weeks or sooner with an additional charge ($60).
Some travelers may need travel visas before jetting off to different countries. A visa is an official authorization granted by a country that allows you to legally enter.
Visas are sometimes necessary for extended stays (often lasting longer than 30-180 days), but every country has a different policy. For example, China requires all foreign visitors to have a visa, while France only requires visas for those staying longer than 90 days.
Check the guidelines for your destination country to learn its policy on visas while planning for your international vacation.
International Driver’s Permit (IDP)
Travelers who plan to drive in a foreign country may need to apply for an International Driver’s Permit, or IDP. This permit allows you to drive in over 175 countries around the world. To be eligible for an IDP, you must be over 18 and you must have held a valid license, issued by your home country, for six months or longer.
The application process can often take several weeks. IDPs are issued for a period of one year, so make sure to correctly align your application with your travel time.
There is no additional written or driving test required to obtain an IDP, but it’s important to research your destination’s driving laws beforehand to ensure that you abide by them.
Additionally, always carry your valid driver’s license along with your IDP, since your IDP is invalid without it.
Step 6: Check for Necessary Shots and Immunizations
Different countries may have different vaccine requirements before entry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend vaccinating at least a month before you travel to accommodate for time to get all required doses of the vaccine, time for the body to build up immunity, and unforeseen delays.
Don’t delay. Review the CDC’s "Travelers' Health" page for your destination to ensure you have all the necessary shots. Schedule an appointment with your doctor sooner rather than later, especially if you require an immunization not typically housed at your doctor’s office.
Step 7: Consider Accommodations
Now is a good time to decide on your ideal accommodations while on vacation. Resorts, hotels, Airbnbs, and hostels are just four of the most common accommodation options around the world. Let’s start by breaking each one down.
Resort / Hotel
This option is for the traveler who wants all-inclusive accommodation. Travelers willing to spend the extra money can enjoy various amenities as well as guaranteed privacy and security.
Resorts and hotels tend to be on the pricier side and don’t always provide the most authentic experience in a new city, but they often guarantee a comfortable and familiar stay in an unfamiliar place. Use sites like Trivago or Kayak to easily check prices from multiple websites before you book.
Vacation rentals are a middle-of-the-road option between hotels and hostels. They might be the way to go if you’re planning a trip with many people or plan to stay in the same location for an extended period.
Timeshares or Airbnbs provide a private space and the freedom to save money by cooking your own meals. Rentals are a great way to bring a big group together under one roof for quality time with family or friends.
Hostels are by far the most affordable means of accommodation, and a great choice for travelers wishing to socialize. Though amenities and privacy aren’t as plentiful, hostels can be a viable option for budget travelers and social butterflies who are comfortable with dorm-style bedrooms and shared bathrooms—or those who plan to spend very little time in their rooms and more time exploring.
Make sure to book through reputable sites like HostelWorld.com to ensure the hostel is legitimate.
Step 8: Decide on Transportation
It’s important to organize transportation to and from your destination as soon as possible to get the best rates. A study from CheapAir.com of over 1,000,000 international trips found that the best day to purchase airline tickets for the cheapest price is anywhere from 70 to 207 days prior to departure, depending on your destination.
Follow these guidelines from U.S. News to save money when booking your flight:
- Fly out on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays
- Check airfare rates in the middle of the week instead of the weekend
- Book your flight at least 21 days before you plan to travel
Consider other means of transportation to your destination as well, including airplanes, cars, trains, and boats. Booking a flight may be the most convenient way to travel abroad, but driving or taking a train could be a more affordable mode of transportation.
Also consider how you plan to commute around your location once you arrive. Book your car rental or look up public transportation guides for your desired destination. (A simple Google search of your destination followed by “public transportation” will likely provide helpful resources.)
Walking might even be the best form of transportation if the attractions you want to visit are nearby.
Step 9: Research the Heck Out of Your Destination(s)
Create a Bucket List
Researching the cities you plan to visit can be the most exciting step of the planning process. This is the time to really discover all the memories you can make while at your destination.
Look up travel guides for your specific destination and start making a bucket list of activities you would like to do there. Seek advice from friends who have visited your destination to help you sort through the must-see spots.
You can also post questions on Trip Advisor’s “Travel Board” to get responses from locals and other travelers who have visited your intended destination.
Understand the Culture
It’s important to learn a bit more about the culture of your destination so you can be prepared for any culture shock and prevent inappropriate behaviors along the way. Customs like tipping, greetings, and even what’s appropriate to wear can vary greatly between cultures, so it’s best to do some research to learn about proper behaviors and attire in your destination.
Planning to visit the U.S. for the first time? Download our Guide to U.S. Cultures and Customs.
Learn the Language
Knowing the language can help you navigate your way through a new country, but don’t let lack of fluency detour you from a destination. Take time to learn some of the basic commands, like greetings and asking for directions, in order to better navigate your destination.
Download apps like Google Translate to help you read menus and signs while also quickly translating words or phrases in a pinch.
Step 10: Prioritize Last-Minute Logistics
There are a few last-minute steps to check off your list before jetting abroad. Make sure you have important elements like cell phone service and credit cards in order before you leave.
Be Wary of Cell Phone International Roaming Fees
Be aware of international roaming fees from your cell phone plan. Stick to mostly Wi-Fi to save money on those hefty fees. Download maps to destinations in advance so you don’t have to use your service to look them up.
Purchase a cheap phone at your destination if you don’t want to deal with those extra fees. You can pay only for the service you use during your trip and then return to your original phone when you get home.
Contact your current provider about roaming charges abroad so you are well informed and can make the best decision for yourself before leaving.
Notify Your Bank
Give your bank a call before you leave for your trip. New transactions from abroad when you haven’t notified your bank can seem suspicious and lead to frozen accounts.
Additionally, check into the fees your bank charges for transactions abroad. It may be helpful to apply for a credit card for international travel with minimal fees and additional deals, especially if you plan on spending a significant amount of time abroad.
Otherwise, be cautious of the additional fees charged for withdrawing from ATMs and exchange services. The highest fees are often at airports, so venture a bit farther into the city for a better deal.
Purchase Travel Health Insurance
When you cross international borders without adequate insurance, you may be vulnerable to expensive out-of-pocket costs. Don’t assume your current health insurance policy covers overseas medical expenses.
Learn whether you need travel medical insurance that can help mitigate costs from an unforeseen injury, illness, or other emergency. A plan like Atlas Travel insurance can provide coverage for unexpected expenses resulting from situations like:
- The eggnog you purchased from a Christmas market in Vienna results in a serious bout of food poisoning that requires inpatient hospitalization.
- You’re exploring the white-sand beaches of an Indonesian island when you fall and become seriously injured. You’re taken to the local emergency medical facility, but the facility cannot provide you with the life-saving medical treatment you need. You need to be evacuated to the nearest adequate hospital.
- You’ve just touched down in Japan when you receive the devastating news that your mother has passed away. You need to purchase a new flight to return home as soon as possible.
- After arriving at the airport for your initial departure, bad storms cause your evening flight to be delayed until the following morning. You must now pay for meals and accommodations you hadn’t planned for in your budget.
Learn more about how Atlas Travel can provide coverage in these scenarios.
Step 11: Start Packing
Now that you have all of your reservations and activities in order, you can start packing your suitcase. It might be helpful to make a list of all the items you need. There are a few important items that you want to remember to pack:
What to Bring When Traveling Internationally
- Prescription medications
- Electronics converter
- Emergency cash
- Copies of travel information (passport, visa, hotel reservations, travel tickets, travel health insurance ID card)
PRO TIP: Download the Ultimate Guide to International Travel. This resource contains even more advice for your next trip abroad!
Don’t miss out on the opportunity to explore new places and cultures. What’s stopping you? Start planning now so you can finally start checking your dream destinations off your bucket list.