International Travel Tips for Absolute Newbies

International Travel Tips for Absolute Newbies

Planning your first international vacation? Don’t miss these essential travel tips.

By: Eugene C.

My wife and I have taken our kids to about 15 countries – we love seeing new places and experiencing different cultures and food. But while the perks may seem obvious, planning your first international trip can be overwhelming. You might feel like you need to pack everything, or maybe you don’t know what to pack at all. What documents do you need? Will your credit card work? How will you get around or order food if you don't speak the language? I’d like to share some of my top tips to make your first international trip as smooth as if you have been traveling all of your life.

Pre-Trip Documents and Currency

When traveling internationally, you will need a passport that expires no earlier than six months after the end of your trip. Yes, you read that correctly – many countries have this requirement. Also, I recommend making a photocopy or PDF of your passport in case the original version is lost or stolen. If this happens, contact your local U.S. Embassy or consulate, or ask your hotel concierge for assistance. You’ll get a provisional passport in no time.

U.S. citizens can enter about 160 countries without a visa. It’s a privilege to be able to travel freely. For those countries that require visas, some require visiting their embassy or consulate about a month in advance. Some allow for online purchase. Others allow for payment when you arrive. Be sure to start checking online about two months before your trip.

Before traveling to riskier and sensitive countries, I enroll in the U.S. Department of State's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It’s a free service to let the U.S. Embassy or consulate know your travel plans in case they need to contact you.

Credit Cards and Local Currency
It’s best to notify your bank the week before you travel abroad to minimize your credit card or account from getting blocked by your own bank. If this happens, there is a U.S. number you can call collect on the back of the card. First, the best exchange rates will come from credit cards that do not charge foreign transaction fees. In general, if you can, use your credit card when abroad. When making a charge, sometimes you are asked if you want to charge it in U.S. currency. That conversion will cost you a few percent. Decline this option and make the charge in the local currency. Second, your next best option is to withdraw cash from an ATM with a debit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees. Third, I carry a couple hundred U.S. dollars as a last resort and in cases of emergency. I try not to exchange U.S. dollars into local currency as those rates and fees are almost always the highest.

There's only so much space in your suitcase! Here’s how I pack smart for an international trip.

Packing Cubes
I’ve learned a few packing hacks over the years: Travel with less, roll my clothes and stuff them in cubes. Packing light is difficult, but we have learned a few tricks and have our personal favorites. We traveled for three weeks to three countries in the Middle East where the temperature ranged from zero to 80 F. We walked on snow, in rain and in full sun. Each situation required different clothing, from layers of jackets to shorts and T-shirts. All of our clothing fit in our rolling, carry-on bags. For cold weather, layering is the way to go. I highly recommend down jackets that fold into a small size for light packing. Learn to roll instead of folding your clothes; packing them in cubes almost doubles the number of items you can bring!

Cold Medicine
When traveling domestically, there are plenty of drug stores where you can get familiar medicines for coughs and colds. Internationally, it can get downright confusing! Tiger Balm to release a fever? Coca tea to ease a headache? Our family drank it daily on the way to Machu Picchu. If you prefer more familiar medicines, it’s best to bring a small supply of cough, cold, fever and diarrhea medicines. For more complicated trips such as our hike to Machu Picchu in higher altitude, we called our health care provider and received altitude medication before leaving.

I’m a snacker when I get anxious. (It started in the labor and delivery room with my wife and a bag of pistachios. Comfort food.) We now bring snacks for the whole family. The kids get something they like on the plane and throughout the trip. We also love shopping locally for interesting treats!

Zip-Seal Bags
On a similar note, I like to bring both gallon- and sandwich-sized bags and keep them in my backpack. I use them for food and snack storage when we pick up things locally. On the road, the kids appreciate a goody when they get tired or hungry.

An international flight averages about 12 hours each way and the airplane cabin is usually cold and dry. The key to flying internationally is learning to make that long flight more comfortable and enjoyable for everyone.

Airplane Fleece or Pashmina
The temperature on international flights will vary from warm to cold over the course of the flight. I personally find it colder than warmer. For this reason, I always bring my light pullover fleece for international flights. It’s comfortable, and it keeps me at my ideal temperature on the plane. My wife prefers her pashmina, her go-to accessory on the daily train to work as well as on international trips. She has taken the pashmina to use as a head and shoulder covering in the Middle East and even as a leg covering for unexpected fine dining while traveling.

Extra Clothing
Bring an extra set of pants and shirts for younger children; you never know when they might need a change of clothing on the plane. In addition, bring an extra shirt for yourself. When my son was an infant, he threw up on me while I was burping him. It completely missed the towel on my shoulder. Did I have an extra shirt? Nope. That’s why I’m sharing this with you now. I did have a sweatshirt, which I wore for the rest of the trip.

Toiletry Kit
I personally like to brush my teeth and wash my face on long flights. Bring what suits your needs. Maybe it’s a face towel or your favorite soap or lotion. I like to bring wet wipes to wipe my hands and face. Pack whatever you need to keep you feeling refreshed on those long, cold, dry flights.

For long flights, I will bring a water bottle, which I fill after getting through security. Drink plenty of water, and limit alcohol and caffeine. Your skin and brain will thank you when you arrive. I only start drinking caffeine an hour before arriving if necessary to start adjusting to the local time. Fruit is something you can bring from home, but be sure to eat it before landing.

My kids have been on international trips since they were in diapers, and we’ve brought everything from toys and books to games and personal tablets. Depending on your preference, I would recommend bringing things your kids can carry themselves. When they are old enough to carry a backpack or roll a suitcase, give them choices to pack and have them carry their own stuff. It will limit the overall weight, and it allows them to learn to make good choices early. My wife prefers her e-reader, while I like to catch up on movies either downloaded on my tablet or provided by the airplane.

Personal Comfort
I used to travel with large noise-canceling earphones. Now I just travel with cheap in-the-ear earphones that double as earplugs. I find them most useful on the plane when I want to sleep. Add eye covers and my fleece sweatshirt, and you have my travel trinity of personal comfort. After a trip or two, you will also figure out which items help you the most on these long plane rides.

Landing and Inner Ear Pressure
Chewing gum is something kids might need when flying. Wake them up and give them some gum about 20 to 30 minutes before landing. It may help relieve that inner ear pressure.

Apps and Electronics
Download these helpful apps onto your smartphone before your trip to help you get around and communicate.

Navigation App
No cell coverage? Don't want to pay for roaming? No worries. Most navigational apps allow you to download the map of your foreign city in advance using Wi-Fi. I did just that when we went to Petra, Jordan, and my cell plan did not cover the country at the time. We rented a car and used the navigational app offline. It worked perfectly.

Translation App
In foreign countries where English is not spoken, a translation app is your best friend. Don’t know how to ask about nuts because you have a food allergy? Need headache medicine at the local pharmacy? Download a translation app ahead of time in the local language.

Mobile Passport App
You might have heard of the program Global Entry. It’s the faster way to get through customs when you return from international trips. Now the U.S. Department of State is offering a free version called Mobile Passport. You no longer need to fill out the customs form on the plane when returning from abroad. I’ve used this app twice already. It’s free and faster than Global Entry, which I’ve used for a few years now. You can enter passport information for all family members on one phone. Download it and zip through customs.

Charging Kit
Over the years, the number of devices we travel with that require charging has exceeded the plugs available in a hotel room. My wife and I each carry a smartphone and an additional device like her e-reader and my laptop. My kids each carry a smartphone and have additional items such as a handheld video camera and charger for its batteries. We now travel with one or two thin power strips that charge up to six devices on each. For overseas trips, we also bring two international adapters.

Hotel Stays
The phrase “Location, location, location,” isn't just real estate wisdom – it also applies to hotel stays. I’ve learned the hard way that commuting from hotel to tourist destination is not worth the minimal savings in hotel expense. You don’t want to travel to a great destination and then spend half of your day commuting. The kids and family will thank you at the end of the day when they are not crying, “Daddy, I want to go home.” A second lesson I’ve learned from experience is family comfort. A good location is preferable, but comfort is a must. That could mean a clean room or bed. It could mean having enough beds so everyone sleeps well. I am a light sleeper, and the kind of air conditioning unit matters to me. You are taking your family on a vacation that will provide memories for the rest of your lives. Make it enjoyable. As a fan of Hilton Hotels & Resorts, location and comfort are two factors that make Hilton accomodations an easy choice for a great stay. Of course, free breakfast for Gold and Diamond members never hurts, either.

Happy traveling!

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Eugene writes for Hilton Mom Voyage and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He and his wife have taken their two children to about 15 countries for work and vacation. Eugene is a pastor by day and trip dreamer by night.

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