About a month ago I sat down to have lunch with a friend of mine who was planning a 6-week backpacking trek across Western Europe. Having done three solo overseas journeys myself over the past six years, I had a fair amount of advice for him based on my own experiences. Last week my friend finally departed for Europe and after he left I started thinking that it would be worthwhile for me to share these tips and suggestions online. Over the coming days I’ll be laying out my travel advice in what’s hopefully a coherent and useful format. Please keep in mind that this travel advice comes from the perspective of an American male whose experience is in solo backpacking through First World nations. A lot of what I’m going to say is applicable to anyone doing an extended journey overseas, but some of it will be particular to people doing something similar to what I’ve done in the past.
Today let’s start with some basics. Much of this should be common sense but it never hurts to reiterate important things.
Make sure your passport is in good order.
Obviously you need a passport before leaving the country, but even if you already have a passport you should check it to make sure it’s not expired or close to expiring. The general rule is that if your passport will be within 6 months of expiring at any point during your trip, then you should get the passport renewed before departure. For a description of how to get a passport issued or renewed, just do a quick Google search and the appropriate page on the State Department’s website should be among the top items to appear. If needed you can pay for a rush service on getting your passport issued or renewed faster, but as long as you submit the needed paperwork at least a month in advance you should be fine. Both the time I got my passport issued and the time I got my passport renewed I only had to wait about 2.5 to 3 weeks to get my passport in the mail.
Do you need a visa?
Depending on your nationality, where you intend on visiting, and how long you’re planning on staying, you may or may not need to get a visa before arriving overseas. In some countries you don’t need a visa as long as you don’t stay there longer than a certain time period, while others require a visa that’s effectively a token tourism tax, and others have more strict requirements. Go online and see if you need a visa and if you do be sure to submit the needed paperwork far in advance of your departure.
Make copies of your passport, driver’s license, emergency information, etc.
Chances are that everything will go just fine when you travel (assuming you’re not traveling somewhere dangerous) but as a precaution you should create copies of important documents before departure. Among these would be your passport, your drivers license, your tourist visa (if required for the country you’re visiting), your credit and debit card’s fraud services phone number, and other emergency contact information. Keep paper copies with you as you travel just in case the worst happens and you lose your passport, credit card, or anything else important. You can also store copies online with services like Google Drive and Dropbox as an additional safety measure, in case you happen to lose your paper copies.
Contact your bank and/or credit card companies and let them know about your travel plans
A few minutes on the phone with your bank and/or credit card company will make sure your credit and debit cards don’t get declined overseas and save you a ton of trouble and embarrassment. Tell them which countries you plan on being in and the exact dates you’ll be there. While you’re at it, adjust your credit and debit card’s daily limit if needed. This is particularly important for your debit card as it will help limit your losses if your debit card is stolen or a thief manages to somehow get your debit card information and makes a withdrawal before you’re able to call your debit card’s Fraud Services line to lock down the account. Where you set your daily limit is up to you and will depend on how often you intend to make withdrawals and how large you think you’ll need your individual withdrawals to be. Personally, my daily limit was set to about USD $300 to $350 on each of my overseas journeys, but keep in mind that I’m the sort of person who tries to travel cheaply whenever possible.
Heavily research the place(s) you’ll be visiting before departure
I firmly believe that when you’re on one of these sorts of trips your most valuable resource is time. Even if you’re one of the lucky few who get to go on overseas journeys on a regular or somewhat regular basis you want to make the most of each day that you’re over there. Invest the time to research your destination thoroughly and you’ll be handsomely rewarded. Every hour you spend figuring things out before you leave will translate into two to three hours (if not more) that you’ll be able to spend doing the things you want while on your journey. Figure out when the holidays are, what days attractions are open and closed, how to best get from Place A to Place B, any dangers you should know about, what the weather tends to be at the time of year you’ll be visiting, what’s worth seeing and what are the tourist traps, etc., etc.
Tell someone else your travel schedule
If the worst happens and you go missing, you want another person (or several people) to be able to realize that you should have returned from your journey by now and that they should start trying to find you. I can only imagine the horror of being in a bad spot somewhere in the world and nobody back home realizing that you might be in trouble.