Planning My First Trip Abroad

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Published 6/14/19
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A collection of random tips and tricks for first-time international travelers… like me!

About six months ago, my boyfriend and I were invited to a July destination wedding in Italy by some of our closest friends. Initially, I was ecstatic to say the least. I told anyone that would listen that I was FINALLY going to travel outside of the United States! Then, as the weeks went on, my excitement turned to gut-wrenching anxiety. As someone who had barely traveled within the United States, I didn’t know the first thing about traveling abroad! Luckily, here at Miles Partnership, I am surrounded by expert traveling fanatics who have been more than willing to share some of their international traveling tips. So, I felt that I owed it to any other nervous first-timers to share what I have learned so far.

Passport: The Key to Becoming a World Traveler

Now I know what you’re thinking: Everyone knows that if you want to travel anywhere outside of the U.S., you have to have a passport. Before you judge me, know that I was well aware of this fact, BUT I was naively unaware of the numerous steps that had to be taken to get said passport. Below is the process we went through to get ours.

You can find the appropriate application for first-time applicants at travel.state.gov. The application requests information about you, your spouse and your parents. There are also a variety of documents needed to accompany your application:

  • Approved Photo. I suggest going to your local Walgreens as we did. It was only $15, and they not only took our photo, but developed it in about 20 minutes as well. They know exactly what the specifications for a passport photo is, such as no smiling, a white background and the tops of your ears must be visible. (I don’t quite understand that last rule, but it is a thing). I’m sure there are other options, but Walgreens worked well for us.
  • Certified Birth Certificate. A copy of an original won’t do. Side note: They will send off your original birth certificate with the passport application, but you do get it back. Ours was sent back with our passports.
  • Driver’s License AND Secondary Photo ID. I used my Sam’s Club Membership card and my boyfriend used his old college ID, so I think pretty much anything will work, but just another random necessity.
  • Marriage License/Divorce Decree. If you have a different name than you were born with, make sure to take any and all documentation to prove how and why, because they will ask. If you marked “Divorced” on your application, they will want to see that documentation as well.
  • Payment. A check or money order has to be used so it can be sent in with your application and documentation.
  • Apply in Person. When you finally have your application filled out correctly, all of your necessary documentation together and your passport photo in hand, the next step is submitting it all. I made the mistake of thinking I could send it all in via snail mail; I was wrong. For first-time passport applicants, you MUST apply IN PERSON. If you live in a more rural area, finding a participating place might be a little more difficult, but in a big city you have plenty of options. You want to look for the closest Acceptance Facility near you.

Booking Flights: A Few Friendly Suggestions

As you begin scheduling your trip, keep in mind that international travel will likely take two days just to get to your desired location, and probably the same coming home. If you’re crossing the Atlantic, it’s going to take at least 10 hours. If you’re flying over the Pacific, you’re spending close to an entire day in the air. Also, depending on where you live, you will likely have a layover either in the U.S. or abroad. Keep in mind an international layover will very likely lead to another bag check and going through customs; therefore; if you only have two hours between flights and the international airport takes their time getting you through customs and baggage check, you’re going to miss your connecting flight. My point being: having more time than necessary is much better than not enough.

If you’re like me and get overwhelmed with planning flights in general, then you can always use one of the below options, in addition to your traditional air carriers, to find a roundtrip option that fits your dates:

I’m sure that there are many others, but these are the ones that I have been tracking for the best deal for our flight.

International Currency: Money, Money, Money!

Unfortunately, with all of the advances we have made in our modern society, a universal currency is not one of them. Even credit cards are not accepted everywhere so be sure to take plenty of “cash” with you just in case.

First things first: figure out what country you’re traveling to and what type of currency they use. For example, if you’re traveling to Europe as we are, you will need to exchange your USD for euros. If you decide that Chile is more your style, you will need pesos. Even Canada has their own currency, the Canadian Dollar. You get the point. 

Now, there are few different options to exchanging your hard-earned Benjamins for your foreign currency:

  • Destination ATM. Waiting until you arrive to your destination and finding an ATM is an option but, depending on your bank, the foreign withdrawal fees could be pricey, and you have to hope you can find an ATM when you land.
  • Your Bank or Credit Union. Another option is to reach out to your bank and find out how much they would charge to do the exchange and how long it will take to process.
  • Online Conversion Site. Not a huge fan of this idea since some sites are bogus and very well disguised in this day and age, but that’s just my personal opinion.
  • AAA. One of my experienced travel buddies uses AAA for all of her currency exchanges. It takes about a week and if you’re a member, you get an awesome deal.  

Where you’re going and what you plan to do while you’re there will likely determine how much currency you need to take with you.

To wrap things up, just remember that although traveling abroad for your first time seems daunting, it is TOTALLY going to be worth it! Plan ahead, research where you’re going, figure out where you’re staying (there are Airbnbs all over the world now, just saying) and use the tips above that I have found so useful, and I guarantee you will be just fine.

I hope that sharing my newfound knowledge will calm your nerves, our wanderlust readers, and will inspire you to go see and experience the world. Adventure awaits!!