So you’re getting ready to see the world? Or at least another little piece of it! Whether you’re traveling for a week or three months, there are some things you will need to take care of prior to leaving.
1. Passport - Obviously having a passport enables you to travel to other countries. If you don’t already have one, you will need to start the process of obtaining one, well in advance to your trip. Putting this off could end up costing you extra money to expedite services, or possibly having to cancel your trip because your passport didn’t arrive in time. Save yourself the headache, and extra money, and just get this process going first.
If you already have a passport, make sure it isn’t going to expire while you are on your trip and that you have enough pages for stamps. I have heard that some countries can stop you from entering if your passport is going to expire within six months. My girlfriend’s passport was like this and we traveled for almost 3 months all around Europe with no issues. She was even told by passport control in England, before heading to Europe, the same thing. Better safe than not getting to travel because of a piece of paper.
You will also want to make copies of your passport in the chance that you lose yours. You will also want to bring your drivers license (car rental) and a certified birth certificate with you so that you can prove who you are at the embassy. For those that just acquired their passport, you can use the certified birth certificate you got back from when you applied. I also made digital copies of everything and had them on an SD card that I had on me at all times.
2. Transportation - How do you plan on getting to your destination? And, when at your destination, how do you plan on getting around? Most of you will be taking a plane to your destination, but others may be taking a car, train, ferry or a combination of these.
If you’re flying to your destination, there are a few things you will want to think about. Once you decide on which airline and what flight you will be taking, you may want to entertain the idea of flight insurance. Life is a funny thing. It doesn’t really care too much about your personal plans. Two major things come to mind when I mention flight insurance. Becoming physically sick and having to cut your trip short. This happens more than we like to think. Also, and this happened to my girlfriend, if you’re flying somewhere to take a cruise, what happens if the cruise ship has major mechanical issues and there are no other ships that they can put you on? They say sorry, and you have to somehow arrange for other travel arrangements!
You will need to check with your airline on luggage fees and carry on size allowances. Some airlines are very strict on what they allow. Fees can start adding up quickly if you try to ‘work’ the system. More on luggage just after this section.
If you’re taking a car, train, or ferry you will want to make sure you make reservations, if needed. Also, on trains, I would suggest opting for first class if you can. For an additional fee, which usually isn’t astronomical, it can be the difference of enjoying your travel or not! And with reservations, you will have an assigned seat.
Once at your destination, you will need to know how to navigate the city and get to where you need to be going. A little research beforehand can go a long way! Some will exit the airport or station and look for a taxi. Which there are signs all over the place indicating where the taxi stands are. Other may choose to take a tram or metro, and walk to their destination. Previewing transportation maps and how to obtain a ticket/pass can save you time and frustration upon arrival.
Lastly, how many time zones will you be crossing and how does that affect jet lag? The more time zones you cross, the more jet lag you will have. Some say it worse going one way than the other. There are all sorts of advice and pills on how to minimize jet lag. I can only suggest you read about them, choose one, and see how it works for you. Everybody deals with it differently.
(If you plan on traveling Europe by train, I highly recommend buying a Eurail Pass!)
3. Luggage - Travel light! I can’t emphasize this enough. I have been to many airports and train stations and have seen just about every kind of traveler there is. If you decide to go with the traditional wheeled luggage, I suggest that it be carry on size. Yes, you can travel for months out of a carry on size piece of luggage! There are a lot of stairs, cobblestones, unpaved roads, and various other obstacles out there. You don’t want to have to manage a 50 lb (22 kg) suitcase through any of those obstacles. Not to mention if you have multiple pieces to carry/wheel. Check out Rick Steves’ site and One Bag. Make sure you buy quality luggage. Those little wheels take quite a beating from everything as does the slide out handle. Make sure the luggage you are going to use is up to the task. I have seen too many people dragging their busted luggage down the street. Some end up carry it in their arms because the handle broke!
If you go down the backpack road, make sure the pack is the correct size for your torso. Most outdoor shops have experts there that can help you measure and fit the correct pack to your body. A lot of the newer packs have adjustments to fit multiple size torsos. Do yourself a favor and go to the store, get fitted, fill up the pack with a bunch of the stores stuff, and walk around for about 15-20 minutes to get a feel for the pack. Size is a factor as well and is hard to figure out if you haven’t traveled with a backpack before. As with wheeled luggage, pack light! I used an 82L (5000 cu in) pack for 3 months in Europe and it wasway too much! Just the size of the pack when fully loaded was a disadvantage. Getting on the metro I was knocking people over. I couldn’t sit in a seat. It didn’t fit in the overhead storage on most trains, and I was in 1st class! Then the weight was a whole other thing. When the pack is bigger, you tend to fill it up! I have downsized dramatically to a 51L (3100 cu in) pack and couldn’t be happier. You may or may not be able to carry on your pack depending on it’s size. If you cannot, be aware that the straps can get stuck in conveyor belts at most airports. You can either wrap it in plastic, which certain airports provide, or you have to go to another special luggage area after checking in. I recommend becoming a member at REI and getting your pack there. It only costs $20 for a lifetime membership and once you’re a member, you can return items without receipt or reason. So, if you think the pack will work and after you return from your trip you decide that the pack didn’t do what you expected, you can return it and try another.
4. Hold Mail or House Sitter - I recommend you put a hold on your mail, which can be done online in most countries or having a house sitter. If mail is the only thing that needs to be taken care of while you’re away, then go for putting a hold on it. If you have pets that you don’t want in the kennel, a garden that needs tending, or whatever else, you may want to get a house sitter.
I would also suggest getting a couple of outlet timers so you can have some lights on during evening hours while you’re away. The lights deter would-be thieves.
5. Mobile Phone - There are a lot of options here. You will definitely need to speak to your carrier on what those may be. As for me, I suspended my service for the entire time I was traveling. I still brought my iPhone with me and just connected to wifi to check e-mails, look up places to go, mobile banking, and whatever else you do with your smartphone. If you suspend your phone service, you will not be able to text message. There are, however, apps that allow you to video conference and text message. I use Tango to keep in touch with my friends and family. I was able to show my mom and dad the Duomo in Firenze!
I also bought an ‘unlocked’ phone. All that means is that it doesn’t have to be on a certain network. You buy SIM cards and swap them out in whatever country you’re in. Don’t worry about buying the unlocked phone until you get to your destination. They cost much less there and SIM cards are usually fairly inexpensive and can be found in all sorts of night shops, smoke shops, and convenient stores.
6. Check The Weather - Yes, checking the weather makes my list. Why? It helps you in figuring out what to pack. It also helps you in determining what you need on your travel day. If you arrive and it’s raining, you’ll have the proper attire and an umbrella! Simple, yet effective.
7. Accommodations - You’ll need to setup a place to stay prior to arriving at your destination. Even if you’re traveling to many different places, your initial place is one of the most important and that you want in-order to make your travel day less stressful and more enjoyable. Whether it’s a hotel, hostel,CouchSurfing, or camp site, make sure you know where it is, have a reservation number, and how to get there. I mainly use HostelWorld for my travels. One thing to keep in mind when staying at a hostel is to know when check-in is. Sometimes they don’t have 24 hr reception. You may show up late and not have a way in to a nice cozy bed. Then you’re left paying for that night, and trying to find another place to stay…adding an unwanted cost and inconvenience to your trip.
8. Language - Make it a priority to learn some basics of the language(s) you will be encountering. It will help you, and those around you, immensely. Whilst traveling through 13 different countries in Europe, I made it a point, the night before traveling to a new country, to learn how to say a few basic things. This is my ‘must be able to speak’ list:
Yes, no, hello, goodbye, please, and thank you.
You can learn more, of course, but by learning these six simple sayings, it let’s the people you meet know that you are trying. In most places, that gives the locals a sense of pride. While visiting Praha, I was considered a bit of a local at the market next to where I was staying. I would walk in and say “Ahoj!”, grab what I needed, have my money ready to check out, and they would tell me how much it was in Czech. I just looked at the register to see what it was, pay them, and say, “Děkuji. Na shle!” Luckily they didn’t try striking up a conversation because then my facade would have been up!
9. Bank and Credit Cards - You will need to notify your bank and credit card companies of your travel dates and the countries you’ll be visiting so that they don’t lock your accounts for suspicious activity. It’s quite simple and painless. For my bank I had to call and speak to a representative but for my credit cards I was able to do it online. Another thing that is recent in Europe is what they call a chip. All of their cards have security chips in them now. This creates a but of an issue with most other cards because the readers are different. If your credit card or bank offers this option, go for it. I was able to use my cards at most ATM’s and retail shops. I was not able to use them at grocery stores, night shops, or convenient stores. So, I always had to make sure I had cash on me. Which is always to good to have anyway.
10. Take Care of Bills - The last thing you want to come home to after your fabulous trip is a home with no lights. Most banks offer a Bill Pay option at no charge. You can setup all of your payments ahead of time and not have to worry about them while your discovering new lands!
There are many other things I do before I travel, but these are the ones that make my Top 10. And remember, the journey starts with just one step. When will you be taking yours?