Ultimate Guide to Preparing for International Travel

March 14, 2019


Getting ready for a trip abroad can be an anxiety-inducing experience. From the initial planning stages to the final preparations - there's a lot to think about! Usually, I jot down a bunch of to-do lists on random pieces of paper which I throw out after completing them. Then, I do it all over again for the next trip. Since I've been traveling a lot recently, I've gotten into a rhythm. So, as I prepare for my next trip, I’m sharing my ultimate guide to preparing for an international trip complete with sample packing lists.

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Although this article focuses on preparations for international travel, you can easily modify these to-do lists for domestic travel. 

Several Months Before Your Trip

Most of these items should be done several months before you plan to travel to ensure that you will be able to take the trip. Also, you'll lock in the best prices by planning ahead. If you find a last-minute deal though, it pays off to be up-to-date on the other items on the list.

Passport check

Certain countries require that you have at least 6 months validity remaining on your passport beyond your travel dates. It’s important to check the requirements for the countries you’ll visit on your trip with enough time to spare to renew your passport, if necessary.

Tip:  Always be aware of your passport’s expiration date. If you have less than a year before it expires, put it on your to-do list to renew it. It can take several weeks from the time you mail it in before it is renewed and returned to you (at least in the U.S.). It's best to plan ahead so that you don't miss out on a trip because your passport isn't available or expires too soon. 

Look up visa requirements and fees

When you start to plan your trip, always check the visa requirements for your nationality for the countries you'll visit. While some countries require either in-person visa appointments or e-visas that you must apply for ahead of time, others have visas you can apply for at the airport. Sometimes when you apply for a visa at the airport, you must submit passport photos and pay fees with your application. My favorite type of visa is the free visa-on-arrival that they give you as you go through immigration. Regardless of what the requirements are, it’s good to know these upfront so you know how to best prepare.

Ensure vaccines are up-to-date

Check the CDC website for a comprehensive list by country of vaccines recommended for travelers. I recommend tracking which vaccines you've received and when you received them for your records. Some vaccines must be taken every few years (i.e. Typhoid) to be effective. Travel clinics will provide vaccinations as well as a consultation if you are not sure which vaccines you should get.

Contact pet sitter or kennel

Before you begin making reservations, be sure that you contact your pet sitter or kennel to ensure they are available/have space on the dates you wish to travel.

Orange cat and black cat atop black cat tree furniture

Book your flights, hotels, rental car, tours, etc.

As your itinerary comes together, start making reservations. Booking 4-6 weeks ahead of your trip, you can usually find good prices. I generally book refundable hotels to lock in prices. As a result, I have the option to shift my plans later and cancel without incurring fees. Just be aware of the last date you can cancel for free.

1 Week Before Your Trip

A week before a trip, I start some practical trip preparations. Completing these tasks not only helps me prepare me for the trip, reducing my stress, but makes life easier on the trip and after I return.

Finances

Pay bills

Is your rent due while you’re away? Utilities? Credit card bills? Pay all of those before you leave, or schedule payments, so you don’t have to worry about them (or incur late fees) while you’re away.

Set a travel alert for bank and credit card companies

It’s the worst when you go to withdraw money or use your credit card and you receive the “denied” message. Notifying your bank and credit card companies of your trip dates and locations can help avoid that awkwardness.

Consult checking account and withdraw some cash 

Always ensure that you have enough money in your checking account to be able to withdraw cash from ATMs throughout your trip. Some countries are more cash-based than others (also, more expensive) so the amount you should have available will vary depending on where you’re going.

You should also withdraw some cash at home to take with you in case you need to exchange money. Depending on where you're going, ATMs could be out of service when you arrive. Then, if you don't have cash to exchange, things could get complicated (looking at you, Mandalay!).

Local currency check

Since I travel frequently around the region, when I have leftover local currency, I rarely exchange it when I leave. Instead, I put it in a currency wallet at home. Whenever I go on a new trip, I double-check to see if I already have some local currency that I should take with me on the upcoming trip. As you can see, the wallet is getting a bit out of control...

preparing for trip - many local currencies set up in color wheel

Currency Color Wheel

Prepare travel wallet

Living in the U.S., I had a million cards in my wallet –grocery discount cards (Safeway, Giant, etc.), store credit cards, gift cards, etc. When you travel, there’s no need to cart all those things around with you. Pare down your wallet to the essentials:

  • Debit card
  • Credit cards with no international fees
  • Health insurance card
  • Metro card (to get to/from the airport)
  • Driver's license or other ID card
  • Cash

Preparing your Home

Clean out the refrigerator

If you’re traveling for more than a weekend get-away, be sure to use up your produce and other perishable items before going on your trip. It will save you from fuzzy surprises in your fridge when you return.

Do laundry

As you’re packing, you’re wondering – where is that shirt I want to bring? Then you realize, it’s in the laundry…. Don’t let this happen to you - do your laundry first! Also, since you’ll come home with a suitcase full of dirty clothes, wouldn’t you rather not have a pile already sitting at home?

Re-confirm pet sitter and check pet supplies

We have a cat sitter come to our apartment while we’re away. The week before a trip, I re-confirm our travel dates with her and make sure everything is ready. I also update our instructions (mostly about all the medications my cat is on!) and stock up on extra food and litter. Plus, I put the vet’s business card on the refrigerator in case of emergencies.

Trip Items

Monitor the weather

In order to help me decide what I should pack for the trip, I start checking the weather in the places I’ll visit regularly. Is it raining a lot? Is it much warmer during the day than night (so I'll need 2 outfits per day)? Is it warm enough to bring a swimsuit? 

Decide on your luggage

How many free pieces of luggage does the airline allow for my route? What is the weight limit? How long is the trip? Is it a cold or hot weather trip? Will I be using public transportation with my suitcase in my destination? These are some of the questions I ask myself when deciding what kind of luggage to bring.

For a hot weather trip, Jeremy and I can generally share one 25” expandable spinner suitcase, plus a small duffel carry-on with a few outfits. For winter destinations, we need more luggage since we’ll bring sweaters and coats. Sometimes we also bring a foldable duffel in case we buy too many souvenirs and need another checked bag on the return trip!

Shop for snacks for the plane

Save some money by shopping for your snacks, gum, and mints ahead of time at the grocery store versus buying them in the airport. It’s amazing how much cheaper they are! 

1-2 Days Before Your Trip

Getting down to the wire, it's time to start packing and organizing the final details.

Trip Logistics

Figure out how to get from the airport to your hotel

Many airport websites have instructions on how to get from there to the downtown area. I always check there because it includes information on public transportation options which can save big money. Your hotel may also offer suggestions on its website.

If all else fails and you forget to do this, just jump in the taxi queue. Be sure to have cash on hand in case the local taxis do not accept credit cards (looking at you, Hong Kong!).

Download offline maps

I don’t have an international phone plan, so I rely on access to Wi-Fi and offline maps to get around when I travel. Google Maps has a handy feature that allows you to download a map so you can access it while you’re offline.

How to download offline maps: In the Google Maps app, enter the location you’d like to download (i.e. Istanbul, Turkey) and search. Then click on the 3 lines in the upper left corner beside the name of the city. In the menu, you’ll see an option for Offline maps. When you click it, you’ll be able to download the Istanbul map or choose your map.

Charge all your electronics

Camera, GoPro, Kindle, etc. – charge them up before you leave to make sure they’re ready to go when you want to use them. 

Put liquids into small, re-usable containers

Shampoos, conditioners, and laundry detergent. Since most hotels we stay in have amenities like shampoo, I rarely bring these. Sometimes if I’m staying in lodge accommodations though, I’ll bring some just in case.

Generally, if we’re going on a hot vacation, I bring a small container of Woolite laundry detergent with me. I’ll use it to wash my swimsuit and/or sweaty clothes that I need to re-wear in the bathroom sink. Then I hang the clothes around the bathroom/room to dry with varying degrees of success.

Start Packing

I don’t usually start packing for the trip until the day before I leave on the trip. Sometimes I don’t start until the day of the trip if I’m leaving at night. This is for two main reasons: 1) I don’t want my clothes wrinkled in the suitcase for longer than necessary; 2) I live in Hong Kong and the suitcase would be in the way. Because of this, I need detailed packing lists which I double-check a million times before zipping up the suitcase.

Sample Packing Lists

Checked Luggage

Remember to only put items in checked luggage that you can live without for a couple days (or longer) if your luggage is delayed or lost.

packing list for checked luggage with items listed
Carry-On Luggage

I have a “Go Bag” as I term it that I take with me on every trip. I leave most of my carry-on supplies in there between trips so it’s easier for me to re-pack. The items below are usually dispersed over 2-3 carry-on bags shared between Jeremy and me.

sample packing list for carry-on luggage to help prepare for trip - items listed

Want to see why I recommend taking 1-2 days change of clothes in the carry-on? Check out my post 'Lost Luggage in Lebanon (And How We Handled It)'!

Weigh your luggage

Once zipped, weigh your suitcase if you think it might be close to the weight limit to avoid baggage fees at the airport. Investing in a luggage scale is a great idea since they’re fairly cheap and could save you money in the long run.

Before Leaving Home

My final list is always about what I need to remember to do right before I walk out the door. Making sure these items are checked off the list gives me peace of mind and lets me relax on my trip.

Empty trash

Nothing’s worse than coming home and realizing that those onion peels you left in the garbage are smelling up your entire home. Best to take out the garbage before you leave.

Turn off lights, stove, electronics - double-check!

Did I turn off the stove…? This should never be a question you ask yourself when arriving at the airport – check before you leave! For those of you in suburbia – double check that your garage door is closed as you pull away from your house!

Final pet preparations

Before I leave, I empty the litter box, refill the food and water bowls, and set out the medications on the kitchen counter for our cat sitter. I also explain to my fur baby that we will be back soon and she shouldn’t worry.   

DO YOU HAVE YOUR PASSPORT? 

I’ve found that you can forget a lot of things and still have a great trip. The one thing that will stop you in your tracks though, is forgetting your passport. So always, double-check before you step out your door, that you have your passport in your carry-on bag!


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