Embrace the unexpected. Things won’t always go according to plan, and that’s part of what makes traveling fun. Use these occasions as a chance to meet a new person, explore a new city, or try a new experience. Regardless of what happens, stay calm - respect begets respect.
Learn to say at least “hello” and “thank you” in the local language of every country you will visit. This shows respect and will help you make connections, even if you only know 2-3 words of the local language.
Carry US$100 in $20 bills (or, alternatively, the local equivalent). Cash can get you out of a lot of challenging situations.
Obey the laws and customs of the place you’re visiting.
Don’t be an outlier. If you’re on a quiet bus, be quiet. If you’re in a lively nightclub, dance.
Ask locals what they like to do for fun and where/what they like to eat.
Use booking.com, hostelworld.com, etc. to research accommodations and then book directly with the accommodation through their website or email. The price will usually be as cheap or cheaper, you’ll have one less party to deal with, and the place you’re staying will be happy because they won’t owe a fee to the third-party website.
When in doubt, pack less. In most cases, you’ll be able to purchase items you may have forgotten once you reach your destination. You’ll want to have plenty of room to bring cool stuff home.
If checking a bag, consider packing a change of clothes (or at least underwear) in your carry-on bag in case of delays or unexpected overnight stays in airport hotels.
Keep important medications, valuables, keys, and batteries in your carry-on bag.
Research airline luggage fees and size restrictions, and weigh and measure your suitcase before departing. If traveling with multiple airlines over the course of your trip, ensure your luggage meets all restrictions.
Roll your clothing to make the best use of space and prevent wrinkling. If you need to pack a special item such as a suit, look online for tips specific to that article of clothing.
Research weather and local customs to get an idea of what type of clothing that you will need. Not all places are hot in July and cold in December. If you plan to visit very religious countries, ensure that your clothing will not stick out from that worn by locals. In addition, many places of worship that you may want to visit have dress codes.
Pack a few extra plastic resealable zipper bags of varying sizes. They’re good to have around in case you have to pack a damp swimsuit, a leaky toiletry container, etc.
Bring some first aid supplies such as bandages. If visiting a country with limited access to modern pharmacies, also bring along common over-the-counter medications such as painkillers (Advil, Tylenol), antidiarrheals (Imodium), and antihistamines (Benadryl). Sunscreen can be surprisingly difficult to locate in some countries, so bring that along, too.
If visiting countries with active public health concerns, obtain recommended immunizations and preventive medications (such as antimalarial treatment) prior to departure.
Bring a plastic shopping bag or trash bag to separate dirty clothes in your suitcase.
Many, but not all, hostels charge for towels, so try to bring your own to save money. You can find many compact, quick-trying towels online.
If staying in a communal room, pack earplugs in case you have loud roommates and a lock to keep your valuables safe. (Some hostels provide earplugs and electronic lockers.)
Regardless of whether you plan to use it for everyday purchases, having a credit card with a high credit limit is useful in case of emergencies. In addition, many hotels and rental car companies require a card on file for incidentals or to issue you a vehicle, even if you plan to pay with cash.
If you’re going to a country with lots of ATMs (that is, most of the world), consider using your debit card to withdraw local currency at your destination rather than bringing that country’s currency from home or bringing cash/traveler’s checks in your native currency to exchange. In addition to increasing the potential for theft, exchanging large amounts of your native currency for local currency at your destination is often more expensive.
Many financial institutions, including Charles Schwab, Ally Bank, and some local banks and credit unions, offer at least some reimbursement for out-of-network ATM fees. Depending on how often you travel, it may be worth it to open a bank account that offers ATM fee reimbursement or at least does not impose an additional fee on out-of-network withdrawals.
Before you leave, call or email your bank to inform them of your international travel plans to avoid having your card shut off due to suspected fraud. This can be done online for many banks, too.
For currency conversion on the fly (helpful for countries where currency conversion to U.S. dollars in your head isn’t simple), I use the XE Currency app. This app allows you to do quick conversion of multiple currencies at once even if your phone is offline.
Most major cities around the world have some sort of public transportation. Even in smaller cities, public transit, combined with taxis and Uber or the local equivalent, is often cheaper and less of a hassle than renting a car (and dealing with parking, navigation, etc.). It can also be a chance to get around like a local.
I often search the app store for a local transit map prior to leaving (e.g. “Athens transport”). Even if you use Google Maps offline (below) for actual directions, I like to be able to view the city’s subway and bus routes at a glance.
Google Maps provides comprehensive public transit and driving directions in many countries. In addition, you can download cities (or parts of cities) offline that will allow you to view the map and navigate without using cellular data. Consider downloading the cities you will visit prior to departing. More information can be found here.
Uber and Lyft are available in many larger cities internationally. In addition, many counties such as India and China have similar competitors that may be cheaper.
Trying out local taxi-like options such as rickshaws and tuk tuks can be a fun experience, too.
There are several options to stay connected on your phone while outside of the country. The cheapest option is to put your phone on airplane mode and hope for free hotspots. Sometimes it’s nice to be off the grid a bit.
Look into international options from your cellular carrier: these vary widely. My rule of thumb is if the estimated cost per day is more than $5, look at the options below.
Some U.S. carriers, such as T-Mobile, offer excellent international roaming options. As of fall 2018, Verizon now offers plans that include free usage of your regular plan in Mexico and Canada.
Buy a local SIM card: a great option if your phone is unlocked (outside of contract) and you’ll be staying in a single country for at least a few days. In many countries, you can buy a SIM card and a package of data in a vending machine or convenience store very cheaply. For trips of more than a few days in one country, this is often the least expensive option, even if it means buying multiple SIM cards in one trip.
Use a Skyroam hotspot: this device can be purchased for $150 and provides service in 100+ countries for around $9/GB; you can also rent one for $10/day. This is a good option if you will visit many countries (each for a short period) in a single trip. You can also connect multiple devices to it at one time. I own one and have found it to be very useful to have on hand just in case.
Regardless of which option you choose, be sure to leave your phone on airplane mode or turn off roaming while outside the U.S. (if needed) to avoid charges.
Use WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, or other chat applications to stay in touch (all can be used over wifi even if you keep your phone on airplane mode).
If visiting a country with restricted Internet access (China is a notable example; sites such as Facebook and The New York Times are blocked there), consider obtaining a VPN prior to your trip. A VPN will allow you to use the Internet as if you were in the United States and will be much easier to install prior to arriving at your destination.
Customs and Immigration
Apply for any necessary entry visas as far in advance as possible. A Google search will help you determine whether you will need a visa to enter a given country; most airlines will also alert you of any necessary visas when booking (but it’s good to double-check yourself). Many but not all countries waive visa requirements for U.S. and EU citizens; notable exceptions include China, Russia, and India. If you do not have the proper visa upon arrival, you will almost always be refused entry.
When entering a country, you should be prepared to state the purpose and duration of your visit (with return ticket, if applicable), present the name and address of the place you will be staying, show proof of having enough money to support yourself (if on a longer trip, print a bank statement), and show your passport and visa, if applicable.
Many countries require that your passport be valid for at least 6 months beyond your arrival date. Check the specifics of the place(s) you plan to visit and renew your passport well in advance of your departure if needed.
Be aware of customs restrictions of the countries you will visit, as well as your home country. Don't assume that you can bring back whatever you want.
In the event that things don’t go as planned, stay calm and courteous at all times.
A good general introduction to travel insurance can be found here.
Before departing, ensure that your U.S. health insurance has coverage for emergency treatment outside of the United States. Even if it does, in most cases, you will have to pay for treatment upfront and then file a claim upon your return to the U.S. Regardless, bring your U.S. insurance card and contact your carrier as soon as possible in the event of an emergency.
In addition, check whether your U.S. health insurance covers medical evacuation (especially important if the country you’re visiting does not have modern medical infrastructure). If you don’t have coverage for medical evacuation through your health insurance, investigate whether you might have coverage for evacuation through your credit card or purchase separate “medevac” insurance.
I rarely purchase general travel insurance (“package” insurance) because I usually make my travel plans as cheap and flexible as possible, but if you’re going on a cruise or some other type of non-flexible, expensive trip, consider purchasing it. This type of insurance can cover things such as trip cancellation due to illness, missed flights, delayed or lost baggage, and other scenarios (including emergency medical treatment and evacuation). However, cost and coverage (i.e. which circumstances your insurance will protect you from, and to what extent) vary widely, so it’s a good idea to shop around. You often do not have to buy this insurance from the same company you purchase your trip, but note that you often must purchase it at least some amount of time prior to departure for your trip or after purchasing your trip, so start shopping around as early as possible.
Many credit cards offer some level of coverage for common travel issues (with the exception of emergency medical treatment), so make sure to explore these benefits prior to buying third-party travel insurance. Note that such credit card benefits generally only apply if you book your travel or accommodations using the credit card that offers the benefits.
Take a photo of your passport and keep a printed copy in your luggage separate from your passport. Also, keep a copy in the cloud or in your email. I also do this with important items from my wallet, including credit cards and my driver’s license.
Keep a printed or digital folder with flight details, hotel confirmations, etc. that you can access quickly.
Enroll your trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate (can be done here). This free service provides you with important travel alerts and can help the government and your family contact you in the event of an emergency.
Ensure that your family or friends have a copy of your itinerary in case of emergencies.
Thank you to all those who contributed their advice. This list was last updated on Jan. 12, 2019.