As a family we LOVE to travel overseas. We get that invigorating feeling of adventure and excitement heading into the unknown. We are also grateful for the opportunity to visit amazing ancient monuments, incredible thriving cities and places of breathtaking natural beauty while experiencing new cultures and languages. Best of all we get concentrated time together as a family in inspiring, interesting and new environments. Exploring the world has resulted in some extraordinary experiences and lasting memories. Needless to say but we have a bad case of wanderlust!
For us, planning and preparation lays the groundwork for a successful holiday. As we’re in the process of working out details of our next trip, I thought it would be useful sharing our top tips for overseas travel preparation.
(1) Ensure you have a valid passport and necessary visas
Hopefully it goes without saying that you need a passport to travel internationally. What many people aren’t aware of though is that passports must be valid past your intended return date. You’ll need to check the specific requirements of any country that you’re traveling to, but as a general rule ensure that everyone in the family has a valid passport for at least the next six months.
Also check you have the appropriate visas (if required) to visit that country. You don’t want the nightmare scenario of being denied boarding to the plane or entry on arrival to your dream destination. We have had several friends go through this drama.
(2) Decide where and when you want to go
Generally we have a pretty good idea as to what countries we want to visit. Our next step is typically to borrow lots of books from the library (Lonely Planet, DK, Insight Guides etc.) and do online research (eg. TripAdvisor Top Things To Do) to get ideas of what we want to see and to help create a rough itinerary. Whatever your source of inspiration, create a comprehensive list of “must see” things as this will help enormously during the rest of the planning process.
Also give serious consideration to the time of year you might like to visit. This will determine the weather you’re likely to experience, what’s open or closed, how big the crowds will be, what clothes you need to pack, and ultimately how expensive the trip will be.
(3) Save in advance and don’t borrow to fund your adventure
Memories may last forever, but your actual vacation will be over in the blink of an eye. As the saying goes “time flies when you’re having fun” and this is especially true when it comes to travel. You really don’t want to be paying off that credit card bill or personal loan 3 years after the holiday well and truly ended. Not only is this a tad depressing but it also impacts your ability to head off on the next adventure. I’m not a believer in that one “trip of a lifetime” and think it’s far better to travel regularly and often.
Only travel in a way that is sustainable for your personal circumstances and budget. Ideally you want to save in advance and make sure your likely expenses are covered before jumping on the plane. We still use credit cards (especially those with travel rewards) but have the money set aside to pay them off. Obviously this is a personal choice but we’d recommend doing the same.
(4) Budget appropriately
You don’t need to go to extremes (we sometimes do!), but for us this process typically turns into a pretty detailed spreadsheet where we consolidate our research into costs for all flights, insurance, parking, trains, museums, national parks, shows, food and accommodation. Update your spreadsheet as you lock-in actual costs and work out a daily food allowance and sightseeing budget.
Pre-thinking about costs avoids having to make a disappointing decision when confronted by reality. When in Switzerland, for instance, we wanted to catch the train up the Jungfraujoch in the Alps. This was over $400 which we would have thought twice normally. Instead we were mentally prepared and had an unforgettable time knowing this was already budgeted for.
While we are in this phase we might also pre-book some things, which locks in the cost and helps us avoid long lines at the more popular tourist destinations.
(5) Do your research to find the best deals and optimize your time
Research, research, research! Yes, more preparation work is needed. You’ll thank me though, because doing this will prevent unnecessary stress and save you time and money.
For instance, look into whether the Tourist Attraction/City Pass makes sense vs. the individual cost of seeing things on your “must do” list (quick tip: they rarely do unless you feel the need to see another generic aquarium or zoo). See what other vouchers and discount offers are available.
Know where attractions are located and what time they are open. That then gives you the option of making the most of your day by grouping things together on your itinerary. You don’t need a regimented minute by minute plan, but at least be aware of your options for each area you visit. There is nothing worse that catching public transport across the city to get to a world famous art gallery only to find it is closed on Mondays (which a lot of them are).
Planning lets us find balance between spontaneity and ensuring we leave a city, region or country with no regrets. To reinforce that idea, we also have an unwritten rule that we won’t visit the same place again for at least 10 years (so much to see around the world and so little time), so we had better make the most of it.
(6) Download helpful apps and guides before you leave home
Phone data when traveling overseas is normally prohibitively expensive (especially with teenagers permanently attached to their phones!). If you can’t get a local sim or rent a portable WiFi device, then you’ll need to get organized. We typically download offline Google Maps and Google Translate, both of which are super useful and normally get used daily when we travel. We normally also load our phones up with destination specific transit apps and digital travel guides.
(7) Have copies of your key documents
This is a “just in case” tip. You probably won’t need to refer to the copies but you also don’t want a stolen or lost wallet to ruin your trip. Be prepared. We keep scanned copies of our passports, credit cards and other key documents in a secure password protected app on our phones and laptop.
(8) Ensure you have the right power plugs or adaptors
We travel with a host of devices needing power or charging including phones, a laptop, camera, hairdryer etc. Make sure that you have country specific power plugs or a universal adaptor. We also have a travel power board which only requires one adaptor to charge up to six devices. It’s better to get these before you leave. The airport is super expensive and they can be hard to find at your destination. You don’t want to spend your first few hours in a new country hunting down stuff like this.
(9) Life goes on at home, so get organized
This is especially important if you are going on a long trip. You might want to consider putting your mail on hold, pre-paying bills (especially if you’ve traveling to a destination with poor Internet access) and arranging for a friend to check in on your house while you are away.
(10) Think about what you really need and pack lightly
If you have ever visited Europe, you’ll know that you really don’t want to be hauling heavy suitcases up endless stairs from underground train stations or dragging luggage across cobble stone streets. Been there, done that and it’s not fun !!
The reality is that you will wear and use less than you think. Bring layers rather than big jackets, minimize pairs of shoes, bring clothing items that complement each other and consider travel specific gear (light, easy to wash and quick to dry).
The ultimate goal is to bring only carry-on luggage. That way it can’t get lost or damaged, you aren’t wasting time waiting for your bag to get offloaded from the plane, and you won’t be struggling with luggage while catching public transport or navigating a new city. We haven’t yet managed carry-on-only travel but every holiday we realize that we can strip things back even further and take less and less each trip. Our best effort to date was 10 weeks traveling around Europe with backpacks and one pair of shoes each.
(11) Cash and cards
Make sure you have debit and credit cards that work (you might need a PIN) and let your bank know that you are traveling overseas so that they won’t put a stop on your cards.
In terms of cash, pre-planning will depend on where you are going. Some countries have limited ATM/bank access so you’ll need to get cash before hand. In other countries it’s fine to turn up with none as it’s easy to access. Where possible avoid avoid getting your cash at the airport at exchange counters.
Another thing to be aware of for those American Express credit card users is that this card is often not useable because of the high vendor fees.
(12) Medical Essentials
Pack a small first aid kit. Be prepared for someone in the family to be struck down by a headache, stomach bug or need a BandAid. It’s easier to carry these essentials rather than hunt for them when traveling, especially in non-English speaking countries.
(13) Buy travel insurance
Our final tip is to always get travel insurance. Yes it’s another cost but you don’t want an emergency to wipe out all your savings or worse. Buying travel insurance is a relatively small cost for peace of mind, especially when it comes to potential medical costs if something serious goes wrong.
I hope this helps. If you have any other tips and trips for preparing for overseas travel, please share them by leaving a comment.
As always, thanks for reading
Mr Simple Life