If you want to travel, the first step is to figure out the reason you want to leave. Know in your heart why you’re doing it. That doesn’t mean you need to know yourself deep down or have a master plan, it could be as simple as, “I want to see the Milky Way,” or “I want to go where I’ve never been.” You’ll also want to know what your main focus will be, usually either sightseeing, culture, or adventure. To make that more clear, “Do you want to see new things, eat and drink new things, or do new things?” Or you may not want to do anything new at all, and just be in a new place. Although your actual trip will probably have a mixture of all these things, it’s very important that you know your goal, because everything else will stem from that. It’ll determine where you’ll go, how much money you’ll need, and how to legally and medically prepare for what’s ahead.
International travel is a true adventure. Adventure by definition is, “to engage in hazardous and exciting activity, especially the exploration of unknown territory.” Some people want to go full throttle and risk their lives into the unknown with all the dangers and mysteries still present. Although that might be what you desire, that’s not what I’m going to suggest, and it’s not what I’ll be explaining. What I’d like to explain are the steps to experience international travel like it’s a rollercoaster in which you can experience the invigorating sensations and adrenaline all while knowing you’re still strapped into the ride, and that no real danger is present. That being said, there will always be a danger, because the real world doesn’t allow you to strap into safety. Poverty can be a harsh reality; political uprisings, military coups, war, violent crime, parasites, disease and natural disasters are inevitable, but precautions and preparations can be taken.
BUDGETING and CHOOSING A LOCATION
With international travel you’re going to have a few unavoidable major purchases, and then the rest will be determined by what you want and what you need. The main purchase is plane tickets. Almost all international plane tickets one way in or out of the U.S. are going to be between $400-$2000 with an average of $700 on any given day. Many times if you frequently use certain travel websites or travel a certain airline regularly, these prices will go down. The easiest way to see your approximate pricing will be to use Google Flights. This will show you what major airlines have available on any given day and how much they’ll charge. Once you figure out a possible flight plan, you can click on the link and Google will redirect you to the airline’s own website where you can start booking your ticket. Many times, buying directly from the airline is cheaper than buying through a travel website such as Priceline, but this isn’t always the case. So check both.
Regardless of websites and deals, the two main things that will determine ticket pricing are: the length of your time window, and your willingness to take the “long way.” The long way involves lay overs and multiple planes. For example, let’s say you want to go to Germany for Oktoberfest next year. Oktoberfest only happens on one day a year, so your window is pretty small. You go to Google Flights and find that you could either spend $1,500 dollars (one-way) to take two planes: one from St. Louis to New York, and another from New York to Stuttgart, all in one day. Or, you could spend $700 to go two days earlier, but you’ll have to stop in Chicago before going to New York, and you’ll have to stop in London before getting to Stuttgart and each layover is 8 hours which doesn’t even give you enough time to sleep in a hotel. This is the kind of trade off you can expect and it’s almost never easy.
So, this comes back into choosing your location and why you’re traveling. Maybe you’ll decide that Oktoberfest is too expensive for such a short amount of time but you still want to go to an international party. Others such as Thailand’s Full Moon Party happen every month and last a week at a time, so your window of opportunity is much larger. It’s also a cheaper flight to Asia than it is to Europe. The downside is that it’s a little more dangerous and the travel time is quite a bit longer. This kind of figuring out stage of the trip is a big reason people hire travel guides. In the end you may decide to skip the planning and pay a one-time all-inclusive fee for a week-long trip to Tomorrowland (a music festival in Belgium), which does all the transportation and lodging prep for you.
LEGAL, MONETARY, and MEDICAL STEPS
Once you’ve decided that you’re going overseas, it’s time to get a passport. Once you apply for one, it could take up to a month to receive, so you’ll want apply for it well before your trip begins. These aren’t very expensive, and once you have one, they last for 10 years (5 if you’re under 18) before you have to renew them. You can estimate around $160 for a brand new passport including the cost of your picture. Getting one is just two steps: sending the application and getting the picture. You can apply for a passport online at pptform.state.gov, or you can also get the physical paperwork from your local post office. For your picture, it’s best to get your picture taken professionally or with someone who knows the precise guidelines and measurements. This can be done in just a few minutes at pharmacies such as Walgreens or CVS for around $15.
As a form of personal insurance, you’ll want to have reserve money. This is money that you don’t plan to spend, but that’s there in case you need it for emergencies like getting robbed or flying home unexpectedly. The amount you’ll want is really determined by you but depending on where you go, it should be at least $1000 to $2000. Keep this money in your bank account or on a credit card, never on you.
Another form of insurance money you’ll need is travel insurance. A $100,000 insurance plan will cost you between $120-$200 a month. You’ll want it though. This is for emergencies such as major injuries that would require helicopters and ambulances. Those aren’t cheap by any means, and the last thing you want to know after a terrifying ordeal involving one is that you’re now in debt to a foreign country. You can apply for these online through travel companies such as World Nomads in just a few minutes and you can pay for it with a credit card.
Be sure to let your bank know where you’re going. Simply go to your bank, walk up to the teller, and say, “I’m going overseas.” They’ll give you some paper work to fill out. Let them know whatever they ask for. This is so that they don’t get alarmed when they see unusual banking activity and freeze your account. Also, figure out what International banks they are associated with so that you know what ATMs to go to when you’re there. When you get to where you’re going, test out an ATM immediately. Make sure you don’t have any problems getting cash. There will be places to do this at the airport and in heavily populated areas such as train stations, malls, and tourist attractions. If you have a problem getting cash, your first priority should be to fix that problem, or find someone who can spot you some cash until it’s solved. It’s not that you’re going to die without money, it can just be a real hassle trying to do anything without it.
Have both a banking check card (debit card) and a credit card. Cash is necessary but you don’t want to have too much on you, ever. You’ll also want a credit card for bigger purchases and online purchases. Keep your cash for buying meals and taxis and use your credit card for booking hotels or renting cars. Make sure you don’t dip into your reserve fund.
If you’re going to a really wild place, tell your doctor. They should know of certain health risks that are in the location(s) you’re heading, and they’re going to suggest that you get certain vaccinations. In some countries, it’s a requirement to get them before you arrive. If you’re unsure if your country has required vaccines, check on their government website in the “Travel” or “Immigration” section. Even though it’s rarely a legal requirement, you’ll want to get certain vaccinations in high risk places such as India and Africa where infectious diseases such as Malaria and parasites are common.
For me and probably most of you, robbery and pick-pocketing are fairly common occurrences yet still not embedded in our minds as an everyday worry. Words like “war-zone” and “riot” are almost never thrown in front of us as a realistic thing to avoid. Overseas, these are realistic things you may have to deal with. Although that should be understood, it shouldn’t deter you, because when you’re actually confronted with these things, you’ll find that they really aren’t as frightening as they sound, and that for the most part, they are about as avoidable as staying out of dark alleys and abiding by warning signs. Before you leave for your trip, do some research on the political standings in the countries you’re going.
THE FUN PART
Now that all your planning, legal, monetary, and safety preparations are done, you can move on to the fun parts! You’ve landed, you’re here. What are you going to do?
Lodging is one of the easiest things to figure out. Where to go and how much you’ll want to spend is really up to you. It’s not as important to book a room in advance as it is to know the area you’ll want to stay in. Generally, you’ll only want to book a room in advance for the first night you arrive overseas. There’s a tremendous sense of comfort that comes from being able to take a load off and lay down after a long plane ride. After that, you can get a little more creative. Nice hotels are something that can be avoided unless you’re in a hazardous area. Rather than a hotel, look for a hostel. Hostels are generally cheaper because they’re locally owned and operated. Most likely the staff is small; consisting of only a few people or even just one person who deals with everything on their own from management down to housekeeping. They also will offer group or dorm housing if you’re willing to stay with strangers.
Make friends. Making friends is practically a necessity, and is not only for safety, but for fun as well. One of the best experiences is finding someone (especially a possible romantic interest) who is just like you, alone in the wild. If you can, find a trustworthy local or an experienced traveler (preferably someone who is bi-lingual) who you can collaborate with on your activities.
Prepare to Eat. Eating large amounts of great food while spending very little money is one of the best parts about world travel. For the most part, almost everywhere you go, everybody will want to feed you. No matter what you do, food is more than likely going to be involved all throughout your day. Skip fancy restaurants and chain restaurants. Ask around for good recommendations, search online for good reviews, and of course, try new things. Find local vendors who you can watch cook your meal.
Prepare to Drink. If you’re going to party, prepare for memory loss. If you’re in a foreign country, write down the name of your hotel on a piece of paper in both English and the foreign language, or make sure to get a business card of the hotel you’re staying at when you check in. Keep this paper or card in your purse or wallet. This is so your taxi driver or local friend doesn’t have a problem finding your hotel. More than likely, especially after a night of drinking, you won’t have any idea where you are or where you’re going.
Prepare to play. Collect brochures, research online, and find locals who really know and love the area they live in. This is where your adventure becomes a ride. Climb a mountain. Take a wind-surfing lesson. Visit castles. No matter what your reason for traveling is, these activities are the things you’re going to tell people you did. So, make sure to have fun.
In reality though, this isn’t where your memories will stem from. When you finally come home, it’s not going to be about the animals you saw or the waves you hit. You’ll remember the people you met, the strange encounters you had, and the unexpected breakdowns. You’ll remember the foods you tried and things you lost, and you’ll probably forget the souvenirs you bought.
If you want some quick inspiration for international travel, there is a novel I’d suggest which is written by the now famous screenwriter Alex Garland titled, The Beach, which is a fictional story inspired by his own traveling experiences.