27 steps I follow when planning for a long trip. They are all legit, I promise.
I try not to over-prepare for my travels so I don’t restrict myself to a set itinerary, but there are some necessary preparations to avoid ruining your trip (especially international ones).
Initially, I wrote this guide for myself but thought it would useful to share with others. You’ll find similar guidance on other websites but it doesn’t hurt to repeat!
Preparations 6 to 12 months in advance
1. Check your passport expiration date and renew if needed. Also sign your passport!
Make sure your passport is at least 9 months active before the date of your flight. If you are traveling for more than six months, you should have at least a year’s worth of time before expiration. If at any time during your travels your passport is within six months of expiration, it’s possible you will be denied boarding a flight. It happens, trust me.
Renew your passport ASAP because you cannot apply for a visa without submitting your passport. You’re also supposed to sign your passport.
Tip: You don't have to pay the $15 for a passport photo at a FedEx Office. There are plenty of mobile apps that will help you take passport-compliant photos that you can print for 50 cents at a Wal-mart or drug store. You just need a white background and a friend to help take the photo.
2. Identify required travel visas and apply
Russia, Vietnam and Bolivia require travel visas. Some countries require registration months in advance, and others allow for visa registrations when arriving in the country. You may also need to submit your passport with the application. I would guess all visa applications require proof of residence, so book a hostel using Hostelworld and include the e-mail confirmation as part of your application.
I watched a friend apply for a Bolivian visa at the border between Chile and Bolivia, and it was an unnecessarily chaotic experience. They wanted $160 US dollars, in crisp, unbent bills, and so my friend had to ask people in line to exchange bills with him. It didn’t help that the armed guards were waving their rifles and yelling at him, an unarmed foreigner.
Here is an unofficial list of countries requiring visas for U.S. citizens from Wikipedia.
3. Look up any required vaccinations and GET VACCINATED NOW!
When I was preparing to travel to South America, I knew I needed vaccinations but didn’t realize how long it took for vaccines to become effective. Some vaccines take over six months to become effective! Bolivia requires proof of Yellow Fever vaccination, so it’s important to get the vaccination done in order to submit the visa.
For some vaccines like rabies, the timing is CRITICAL, as the initial vaccine dose becomes ineffective if you wait even a week longer than expected next dose.
And go get your flu vaccine now if you haven’t already. Why do you want to get the flu while traveling? Here’s a pretty table explaining vaccination periods. Do your own research–I can’t claim this is 100% accurate.
|Vaccine||Time Period / Requirements|
|Routine vaccines (measles, chickenpox, flu)||You should already have these vaccines.|
|Yellow Fever||Takes 10 days after injection for full immunity|
|Hepatitis B||2, 3 or 4 shots over 1 to 6 months|
|Typhoid||Oral doses must be refrigerated. Takes about four doses if using Vivotif.|
|Rabies||3 doses: given on first day, 7 days and 21 or 28 days after Dose 1.|
|Malaria||Get antimalarial drugs and start taking drugs as directed–usually a week before arrival, during stay, and week after leaving.|
4. Sign up for a no-foreign-transaction-fee credit card and debit card
If you’re in the U.S., there are several excellent and free debit and credit options to choose from. For debit card/ATM, I think the Charles Schwab checking account is the best debit card. It is completely free–no annual fee, no minimum balance, no ATM fees, and the exchange rates closely matches the rates listed on XE. The travelers I met were surprised I didn’t have to worry about finding the ATMs with the lowest fees. The only downside is that you have to open a Schwab brokerage account (also free), and getting the debit card can take a few weeks, in my experience.
For credit cards, I previously used the Capital One Quicksilver credit card, which doesn’t have an annual fee or foreign transaction fees, and didn’t have a problem using it. I use the Chase Sapphire card right now, which has the same benefits except the annual fee.
There’s no guarantee the bank ATM you use will work, even if you set up travel notifications with your bank. Try using your card with a different ATM and bank, or have a friend you can borrow money from will save you in these situations.
5. Start buying (or borrowing) your travel gear during annual sales
If you plan to do some extensive hiking on your trip, then you need to be aware of REI sales! You can also ask your friends to borrow useful hiking gear (except for hiking underwear). In any case, now is the time to brainstorm the gear you will need on your journey.
If bringing along hiking sticks, make sure it is stored in your check-in luggage and is collapsible.
I will make a comprehensive post of necessary travel belongings in a later post, but here is a quick list of what I think everyone needs:
- Hiking socks
- Moisture wicking underwear and shirts (Uniqlo has decent, affordable clothing)
- USB portable battery and set of USB cables (more than one). Should be USB-C battery as those can charge phones much quicker than micro-USB.
- Quick drying towel
- Travel packing cubes
- Ear plugs
- Medications (Nyquil, Dayquil, allergy)
- Hiking backpack or luggage (55L or less is optimal as carry-on luggage)
- Small day backpack
- Durable water repellant (DWR) pants
- High SPF sunblock
- Small lock (nothing big, like those high school locker ones)
If hiking in rainy conditions:
- Waterproof backpack covers (so many people I met had these!)
- Energy chews
- Collapsible hiking stick.
- Pain medication (Tylenol, aspirin) for intense hikes
- Water-proof or resistant shoes. Gore-Tex hiking shoes
- swimming trunks (if you’re visiting a country with hot springs, bring them)
Preparations 3-6 months in advance
1. Check travel advisories from the U.S. Department of State and adjust plans if necessary
There is danger everywhere in the world and it’s important to be aware of current events that may make some areas unsafe. The U.S. State Department travel advisories website is a good resource to evaluate any dangers of countries you’re visiting.
2. Make reservations at non-local restaurants using credit card concierge services
Don’t speak Japanese? No problem! Use American Express services to help book reservations at restaurants where English is not the native language. The Points Guy has a good article about this.
3. Learn the basics of the country’s language
If you’re pressed for time, I’ve found that learning numbers and phrases involving greetings, getting directions, and ordering food have been the most useful for me. Words like this, that, want, pronouns, are helpful when combined with the technique of finger-pointing. Basically, learn enough of the language so you can order food at a restaurant, buy goods at a store, and follow directions. You will feel like a pro when you start your trip.
As a backup measure, download the Google Translate app on your phone and any offline languages. The app works great with an internet connection, but can still work offline.
4. For extended trips, sign up for travel insurance
If you’re traveling for over a month, consider looking into travel insurance. I used World Nomads, per recommendation I heard from others. I didn’t have to use it, luckily, but I’ve heard from other travelers who have had good experiences using travel insurance.
A friend had her iPad stolen on a bus, and the travel insurance actually covered the replacement cost of it.
5. Look into international phone plans, preferably free or cheap
Having cellular data on your phone in an unknown part of the world will save you, one day. Luckily, there are good options today (in the U.S.), thanks to Google Fi and T-Mobile.
If you are on the T-Mobile One plan or a grandfathered unlimited plan, then you get free unlimited texting and 2G data. Check T-Mobile’s Country Checker to see if your plan offers 2G data in the country. Every country I visited in Europe and South America was covered by T-Mobile–even Bolivia.
Google Fi offers high speed data in over 200+ countries for just $10/GB. They recently expanded phone compatibility to include iPhones and newer Samsung, LG Android phones, though it lacks some features compared to “Designed for Fi” phones. You can create a new Gmail account specifically for Google Fi, in order to maintain separate phone #s specifically for travel.
If you refuse to pay for any data, then at least download map data from Google Maps or other offline maps so you’re not completely lost when taking public transportation.
In Japan and Korea, you can rent a portable Wi-Fi hotspot from the airport and share with your friends. Sometimes the Airbnb you stay at will provide a portable hotspot/router you can use, but the speed is usually slow, like 3G slow..
6. Think about donating old clothing, toys, electronics
Another way to do some good and travel lightly is to donate your clothing and electronics near the end of your trip. The extra space saved in your luggage can be used for the souvenirs you will undoubtedly collect during your trip.
For those returning home, some international airports have stations to donate loose change–it’s a smart idea considering you’re not likely to use that change any time soon.
A friend I met travelling in Peru brought duffel bags of clothing, toys and games to donate to a nearby village in the rainforest. I wasn’t able to do this as I was on a long-term journey, but I’ll definitely remember to do it the next time I’m travelling for a short international trip.
Preparations one month before leaving
1. Withdraw any U.S. cash needed to pay for visas, trips, cash-only restaurants
In case of emergency, I usually bring $200 of brand new, unfolded U.S. currency. In case the ATM at the airport fails to dispense cash, you can exchange enough money at a currency exchange to get a bus ride into the city, where you can try other ATMs. Just be sure that the bills are new and unfolded.
2. Download offline maps to your phone
Google Maps was useful for me, and if they don’t cover the areas you’re visiting, then Mapsme is another offline maps app I’ve seen travelers use.
3. Take phone photos, photo copies and scans of your passport, ID, credit cards and store at home and in your luggage.
You store a copy at home in case you lose your copies and your roommate can help out.
6. Purchase any vitamins and over-the-counter medicine (it’s usually cheaper in the U.S.)
You never know if you will get sick, and it’s hard to explain to a pharmacist what Emergen-C, Dayquil, or Nyquil is.
7. Notify banks and credit card companies of your upcoming travels
Reporting your upcoming travels on bank and credit card websites is usually an awful experience, but you have to do it. Worst case scenario, call them.
8. Update the U.S. Travel department of the countries you’re visiting
If there happens to be a terrorist attack in the country and city you’re visiting, it’s a good idea that the U.S. embassy knows you’re somewhere in the city and need to be accounted for. Enroll in STEP, aka the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, to get e-mail alerts of changes to travel advisories and other security events. I signed up and received notices of protests in Santiago, which helped me to replan my travel route to the airport.
9. Put a pen in your backpack or bag
You will need to fill out customs forms on the plane. With a pen!
10. Figure out travel routes from the airport, bus, or train station to your lodging
This is the minimum planning I always do, because I don’t want to arrive late at night at an airport and have no clue where I’m going. If you’re traveling in a group, then spend the money to take a taxi–just make sure it is a legitimate one.
11. Better yet, save all your hotel/hostel locations in an offline Google sheet or print it out
Lodging info is a requirement on customs forms, so have it ready.
12. Bring any leftover currency, transportation cards from previous visits
This is more of a reminder for me, as I did revisit a few countries that I still held some currency.
13. Buy a physical copy of a book you plan to read and donate it to a hostel or shared library when you’re done.
Many hostels offer a reading space for donated books, which is a sweet way to share your favorite stories with strangers and make a connection, albeit one you will never know about. Many long-term travelers (including me) read these books during travel downtime and it is definitely appreciated.
I took advantage at one of my extended stays in Peru to read an autobiographical graphic novel, Blankets by Craig Thompson. Short review: it was moving, and I thank whoever donated the book. I brought along a sci-fi book I was super interested in at the time, Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, that I gave to one of the hostel workers I met. I’ve found that books are also an easy conversation starter with strangers.
One day before your flight
1. Check-in to your flight
2. Don’t forget your passport!
3. Pay for an extra baggage fees online, not at the gate.
If you know you are checking in luggage, it is the cheapest to pay for the check-in fee when booking the flight. Though I have encountered instances on some smaller airlines where I was forced to pay for the check-in fee during boarding. If you don’t see an option to pay in advance online, then the airline is going to rip you off.