Sometimes, the most valuable travel advice is the simplest to implement.
Like most seasoned travelers, I carry around a seemingly endless and constantly growing mental inventory of things I know I should do before, during, and even after I travel. Theoretically, I should be able to handle every major travel calamity from losing an ATM card to escaping a military coup, but in culling all that obscure insider wisdom over the years, I’ve managed to ignore some really obvious, incredibly simple advice.
Bring Two Extra Pictures of Yourself That Adhere to the Passport Regulations of *Your Own* Country
When my passport was stolen during a trip to London, I learned the hard way that different countries have different size regulations when it comes to passport pictures. Although I managed to get a relatively fast appointment at the U.S. Embassy to replace my passport, somehow the logistics of printing out a simple 2” x 2” photo became shockingly complicated and I can’t imagine how much more difficult this would have been in a less metropolitan area.
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Since it’s easier than ever to take and print your own passport pictures, there’s no reason you should be traveling without a few extras. As terrible travel experiences go, a stolen or lost passport is easily among the most frustrating and eats up valuable vacation time like almost nothing else, so don’t spend more of it on something that should take minutes.
INSIDER TIPIf you do decide to take and print your passport photos on your own, be sure you’re following your country’s requirements to the letter.
Before You Even Step on the Plane, Your Hotel’s Information in the Local Language
I’m constantly cautioning people never to rely on their electronics alone to store important travel information, especially when visiting destinations where it can be all but impossible to get a decent internet connection. Before I leave home, I always print out the name of my hotel along with a map indicating its location, both to show taxi drivers and just as a general safety precaution.
In preparation for a recent trip to Bangkok, I did just that, but it wasn’t until I presented my map to Cab Driver Number One that I realized I had printed out the map in English. I literally got in and out of no less than three cabs before finding a driver who managed to figure things out, not a fun process to go through late at night after a long, long series of flights.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re traveling in a place with which you are completely unfamiliar, keep that print out on your person until you get the lay of the land.
Just Because a Booking Platform Will *Let* You Book the Ticket, Doesn’t Mean You *Should*
Now that most people have essentially become their own travel agents, it seems as if travel websites and airlines would provide at least some level of adult supervision when you use their platforms, but unfortunately, most sites will let you book just about anything even if it has the potential to cause great strife.
Although it might feel as if it should be, it’s not the responsibility of those sites to warn you about things like insufficient connection times or the visa requirements of the country to which you are traveling. While many platforms might provide a link to visa information or suggest checking with the airlines about visas, these warnings can be easy to miss or might appear only after you’ve booked.
A little pre-booking homework along with a second pair of eyes on your itinerary could potentially save you a lot of stress. If you’re really new to the process, a quick, pre-purchase call to the airline to go over your booking can help set your mind at ease.
Make Sure Someone at Home Has a Valid Passport and All Your Travel Information
While it’s rare, the fact is, stuff happens when you travel. Big, ugly stuff that might necessitate help with your return (or frankly, even small stuff that just puts you out of commission). You do not want to be floating alone in the world with no one to come get you if you need help so make sure someone in your life—who has agreed in advance to be your emergency contact—has a valid passport.
Make Sure Your Passport Is Travel Ready
Most people aren’t really aware of all the rules there are regarding passports but indeed, there are plenty. For instance, it’s not enough to make sure your passport is current. Many countries require passport validity for up to six months from your date of entry or departure, not the date you book the trip. Even if you’re just a few days shy of six months, some countries will deny you entry so it’s worth doing a little counting to make sure you’re within the timeline.
Also, make sure your passport is in decent shape. This is a bit subjective, but if your passport looks like it’s on its last legs, think about replacing it. While a battered passport may feel like an accomplishment, if it has tears or holes or your personal information isn’t readable, you probably won’t be allowed on your flight. And a word of preventive advice: when you get back home, make sure you know where your passport is before you do the laundry. Water-damaged passports are considered invalid.
Another condition most people aren’t aware of is being current on child support. If you’re more than $2,500 behind in payments, you won’t be able to renew so get that squared away if you’re planning on traveling soon.
Finally, make sure you have enough pages in your passport to travel. In a not-so-distant universe frequent travelers used to be able to order extra passport pages. Not anymore. Now you must completely replace your passport if you need more pages. Although if you think you’ll be traveling frequently, you can order one with 52, rather than the standard, 28 pages. Different countries have different page requirements for visas so be sure to check the requirements of the country to which you are going before you decide if you need a replacement.
And, as with all plans involving passports, make sure to do this sooner rather than later as last-minute passports not only mean extra fees but a lot of extra worries.
INSIDER TIPYou do not have to wait until your passport expires to renew it so if you’re nearing your six-month expiration date, why not go ahead and renew now?
Carry Two Different Luggage Tags
Anyone who’s ever traveled with any frequency has had the experience of hastily filling out a flimsy, airline-provided luggage tag while a line of annoyed passengers stands behind them. If you scribble out your home address on one of those tags, that’s exactly where your luggage is going to go if it gets lost. Home. This is fine if you’re on your way back, not so much if you’re headed to your vacation.
Given how cheap even a good set of tags costs, we recommend investing in a set of two and filling out one with your home address and one with the address of where you’re staying on vacation. That way you’ll be ready both to and from your trip.
Don’t Wait to Fill Your Prescriptions
Somehow the act of dropping off and picking up prescriptions always gets lumped in with all the little last-minute things we do right before going on vacation like returning library books or picking up dry cleaning. Given how often pharmacies have low stock on certain meds or how frequently insurance companies screw things up, collecting even the seemingly simplest of scripts can get difficult. Do yourself a favor and sort out your prescriptions at least a week in advance of your departure date, especially if you take something that will severely affect your health if you suddenly stop taking it.
Similarly, make sure you know what your health insurance benefits are in another state or country before you leave town as your policy may change or be completely invalid in all but your own state.
INSIDER TIPIf you have any kind of chronic condition, ask your doctor for a current prescription even if you aren’t currently experiencing a flare up. As someone who can catch tonsillitis over the phone, I would never think of leaving the country without a Z-Pak, even though I haven’t had so much as a sore throat in years.
If You Can, Try Not to Start New Medication Just Before or While Traveling
This is pretty self-explanatory but not necessarily obvious–especially if you’re someone who isn’t used to taking meds in general, a vacation isn’t the time to experiment as new meds can cause everything from nausea to depression. It may be unavoidable, but if you’re prescribed something new, make sure your doctor knows you’re about to start traveling and ask if it’s possible to start your treatment after your return.
Make Sure You Have Your Vaccination Schedule Straight
While most people are generally aware that vaccinations are necessary for travel to some countries, many have no idea that some vaccines require four-to-six weeks to become effective, thus it’s crucial to speak with your doctor as soon as you know you’ll be traveling. Some vaccines also require more than one dose and while there are accelerated vaccine schedules, it’s much better not to take the risk of missing a dose given that this is a health issue.
INSIDER TIPTraveling to South America or Africa? According to the CDC website, some nations within those continents require proof that you’ve been vaccinated for yellow fever, but as the proof is not valid until ten days after you’ve gotten the shot, if you wait too long, you won’t be able to go.
If You’re Crossing the International Dateline, Check, Check, and Double-Check Your Itinerary Again
Although it’s a fairly simple concept it’s astounding how many travelers have stories that begin: “I could have sworn I read the dates right, but we showed up to the airport a day late and…”
Generally speaking, it’s not that people don’t know they should double-check their arrival and departure dates, it’s that they get confused about how to read the itinerary, especially since some schedules involve leaving one day and technically arriving two (“+2”) days later. Especially if you’re bad with numbers, do yourself a favor and lay it all out in a calendar program or just by hand on paper.
INSIDER TIPSome very, very smart people have a rough time remembering the difference between a.m. and p.m. when reading itinerary schedules. For the record, 12 am is midnight, 12 pm is noon. Also, remember that if you’re crossing the dateline from east to west, you’ll go one day forward. You’ll go one day back when you travel west to east.
Check Your Pockets, Especially if It’s a Piece of Clothing or Bag You Haven’t Used in a While
It seems trite, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to inadvertently arrive at the airport with something you’re not supposed to have. Substances, self-defense weapons, or even certain toys can detain you for hours so why not do a quick check of your belongings (coats, purses, and computer bags) and just make sure there’s nothing that might get you into trouble.
INSIDER TIPFor a good laugh, have a look at what the TSA has to say about bringing a Magic 8 Ball on your trip.
Have More Than One Source for Funds
While most banks and credit card companies actually make it pretty easy these days to deal with a lost or stolen card, it’s not a great idea to rely solely on one card for purchases or to obtain cash, especially if you’re traveling in a place where communication might be challenging. Even if you have to open a secondary account before you go, it could save you a lot of time and frustration to have a second credit or debit card on hand when you travel. Just remember to keep it physically separate from your primary card.
Make Sure Your Phone Plan Has International Calling (or at Least Know That It Doesn’t)
International calling plans are a bit like earthquake insurance. You don’t really need either until you do, and at that point, you might not even know whether you actually have it. Of course, there are all kinds of ways to communicate without a phone, but if it’s important for you to be able to make calls, check to see if you have it.
Don’t Automatically Assume That What’s Allowed in This Country Is Allowed or Tolerated in Another
Although many people assume the opposite to be true, your rights as a citizen of your country don’t necessarily go with you when you go abroad which is why it’s a good idea to brief yourself on the laws and even mores of your destination. Seemingly minor offenses (like bringing more than two packs of gum into Singapore) could get you huge fines or even jail time (like public drunkenness in Dubai) if you commit them abroad. If you do get detained or arrested, there’s no guarantee the U.S. State Department can help you.
INSIDER TIPItems that can be brought on U.S. domestic flights like seeds or knitting needles may not be allowed on international flights, especially in carry-on luggage, so be sure to check the rules and regulations for the country you’re visiting.
Make Sure You Have Enough Money in the Bank to Cover Your Expenses if Anything Goes Wrong
For novice travelers, in particular, traveling by the skin of your financial teeth can bring a certain pride and even excitement, but the truth is, traveling with so little money that you might end up on the street or unable to get home if you have an emergency is a really, really bad idea.
When putting together your travel budget, factor in at least a few extra nights in a hotel as well as a few hundred bucks for airplane change fees. Hopefully, the only thing for which you’ll need those funds will be your next adventure, but if you do run into issues, you’ll be glad you prepared for the worst.