I can’t wait to introduce you to the steps I take to travel smarter. All of the information detailed below comes from my own experience and mishaps abroad.
Planning an international trip to a country you have never visited before is like coordinating a circus act. You have to make sure the acrobats catch their aerial hoops, the clowns all fit into their tiny car, all while you don’t get eaten by a tiger.
Translating this to planning a successful international trip means ensuring you know the country visa requirements, don’t miss your train connection, all while knowing which parts of town to avoid.
From self-driving across Morocco to hiking unmarked trails in Norway, anything is possible with the correct planning, knowledge, and organization. Why not travel smarter with my proven travel planning steps?
Let me show you how to travel smarter with the exact steps that I follow to plan a successful international trip anywhere!
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- Step 1: Decide on the Trip Pace & Style
- Step 2: Decide Where You Want to Go
- Step 3: Know the Country’s Entry & Exit Requirements
- Step 4: Draft the Itinerary
- Step 5: Book the Flight
- Step 6: Book Accommodations
- Step 7: Plan How You’ll Be Getting Around
- Step 8: Pre-trip Considerations to Travel Smarter
- Step 9: During the Trip Considerations
Step 1: Decide on the Trip Pace & Style
Understand your Desired Trip Pace
Understanding your desired trip pace is a very important first step in planning.
Is it important to you that you see as much as possible during your trip?
Or are you intending to come back home rested and rejuvenated?
If your desired pace could be described as slow and relaxing, you won’t want to be moving cities every two days. Most likely you have a set number of days for your trip, and your desired trip pace will dictate how you allocate those days.
Your desired trip pace is going to be important to understand before drafting your itinerary in Step 4.
Understand your Desired Trip Style
Especially if you are planning a trip with others, it is very important to understand what everyone places value on while traveling.
Are fancy dinners the most important? Is budget friendly accommodation a must?
Do you place more value on tours of historical landmarks and museums or are you more interested in food and cultural experiences?
Your desired trip style is going to be important to understand before drafting your itinerary in Step 4. This way you know what to focus on when researching activities and accommodations to book.
Step 2: Decide Where You Want to Go
Is It Safe To Travel There?
Make sure you stay alert to current events when planning a trip internationally. When there isn’t a global pandemic, you can check the US Department of State website for realistic travel advisories by country.
Even if you are already on your international trip, it’s smart to stay alert to the current news and events. Even in the safest cities abroad, protests in the streets or transportation strikes can occur at any time. Read below for more tips on how to stay safe once already on your international trip.
Is This The Right Time to Go There?
Are you wanting to do something that is particularly weather dependent? Do you know if you are in the right season for what you are wanting to see? One time, I planned a whole trip around hiking the famous trails in Zermatt, Switzerland. We wanted to see the Matterhorn so bad, only to find it was still snowing in the mountains in June and the trails were closed.
Also, don’t plan to go to Norway in the summer and catch the Northern Lights.
You catch my drift?
It’s also a good idea to be aware of Public holidays or planned festivals. These two events usually dramatically affect what is open and what you may be able to see while you are there.
Step 3: Know the Country’s Entry & Exit Requirements
After living abroad in Germany for two years and traveling extensively around the Europe’s Schengen area, which is open borders to most EU countries, remembering to check visa requirements was almost like an “oh shit” moment as a trip would near. Depending on where you are traveling from and the country on your Passport, the visa requirements can vary greatly.
Some visas you can get on arrival (and if it isn’t free on arrival make sure you have cash in local currency to pay for the visa upon arrival at customs). Others must be applied for in advance online or through a consulate office. Knowing these requirements before you start booking travel will make sure that you have what you need in time for your trip.
If you hold an American passport, the best resource to check the visa requirements where ever you are going is the US Department of State website.
Any Entry or Exit Requirements?
There are also requirements for each country regarding where visas on arrival are issued (only certain cities or airports) and additional fees to enter/exit through certain country entry points. The most intricate rules around border crossings and extra fees where while traveling in Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Again you can reference the US Department of State website to look up these requirements by country.
Step 4: Draft the Itinerary
Now that you know where you are going and you have all the entry requirements to actually get there lined up, you can start to plan your itinerary. I do this step even before booking flights. You don’t want to solidify your itinerary before you’ve done enough research to know how long you want to spend in each city or country.
There is nothing worse that booking your flights first and realizing afterwards that you actually wanted to spend 4 days in Rome and only 3 days in Florence.
Lay Out the Number of Days
If you have a 14 day international trip to plan, that can seem overwhelming at first. However, with any task, you just need to break it down into smaller manageable tasks.
I start by laying out each day of the trip in an Excel file, so I can begin to plan activities, accommodations, travel days, and points of interest. This way it’s easy to update or change as your research continues.
Travel Smarter Pro Tip: Use a daily itinerary planner to layout your ideal international trip. Get my online template here for free!
Research, research, research, because you don’t know what you don’t know! My itineraries are usually packed full with as much as possible. If I am able to add another city as a stop from getting from A to B, I don’t want to miss that opportunity.
For example, while on a road trip from Split, Croatia to Dubrovnik, Croatia we stopped for lunch in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I usually do extensive research on google reading other’s blogs, Pinterest, and Instagram.
Don’t Forget to Plan Travel Days
Unfortunately, teleportation isn’t a thing. Yet.
That means if you have 3 – 4 cities or countries in your itinerary, you need to make sure you have budgeted for travel time.
This is where you need to decide how much you value your time on your trip. The cheapest way to travel (bus or over-night train) are going to be the longest time investment. You have to decide if you are willing to sacrifice time for money.
Also, if you miss a train connection or a flight, this will through off your planned itinerary. If this happens, relax. You can only control what you can control.
In order to reduce the chance that I miss something I really want to do, I don’t plan to many non-negotiable activities on travel days. Read the next section for more on how to plane non-negotiables into your itinerary!
Add Your Non-Negotiables First
Think about what you cannot leave without doing. This is your non-negotiable during your international trip.
Using your daily itinerary planner, add your non-negotiables to your itinerary first. A non-negotiable can range from a city, to an activities to a restaurant. These are going to be the anchors for your trip and will dictate how long you stay where.
It is smart not to plan your non-negotiable activities during travel days. This is incase any delays happen from trains or planes, that you are not missing your non-negotiable.
Once you have your non-negotiables anchored to your itinerary, you can full in the spaces with others from your research.
Generally people don’t wake up early while traveling. Unless something is known for their sunrises or being extra busy during the day. Use this to your advantage and plan your non-negotiable activities for as early in the day as possible.
Travel Smarter Pro Tip: Try to plan your non-negotiable activities for as early in the day as possible.
Pre-Purchase any Museum, Tour or Event Tickets
Pre-purchasing tickets is going to save you hours of precious time on your international trip. Any activity that you put on your draft itinerary as a “non-negotiable” you should research whether or not you can pre-purchase tickets.
For example, if you are planning a trip to Rome, know that tickets to see the inside of the Colosseum will sell out months in advance. And even better, with pre-purchased tickets you are usually able to skip the lines as your ticket will have a tour or entrance time.
Once you pre-book tickets, print and PDF the tickets. Add the electronic version to my international trip planning template for the date and time of the booking in case you need to print later.
Make Dinner Reservations
I like to have a handful of lunch and dinner recommendations pre-planned before we travel somewhere new. Having a recommendation in your back pocket for a good restaurant is so much better than stopping into the first place that you see because you are tired and hungry from a day of sight seeing.
From my experience, most of these spontaneous restaurant decisions are made out of pure hunger, and those decisions usually turn out to be the ones I regret.
We don’t always make dinner reservations unless its required or the restaurant is a must for us. For example, if there is somewhere that you cannot leave Paris without eating at, make a reservation in advance.
Once you make a reservation add the time and restaurant address to your daily travel planner.
Here are some example itineraries, check these out:
- The Two Week Tour of the British Isles
- The Complete 1 – 2 Week Egypt Itinerary
- A Long Weekend in Barcelona: The 72 Hour Itinerary
- Alsace Wine Route in France: The One Day Itinerary
- Driving the Champagne Route in France
- London travel guide
- A Complete Guide to the Best of Paris
Step 5: Book the Flight
Once you have secured the dates for your international trip, and any flights required in between countries on your trip, you can start to book the flights! I will usually set up a tracker through Hopper or Google Flights in advance to begin tracking the flight prices for the specific dates.
Travel Smarter Pro Tip: Use the private web browsing options when using these sites so your searches aren’t tracked which can lead to increased flight prices for your destination based on search popularity.
Best Time to Book Flights
Studies say that the best time to buy an international plane ticket is between 120 to 160 days before departure. While this isn’t true for every destination, this is good rule of thumb for Asia and Europe. Of course, this is not a one size fits all approach.
If you’re a traveler who cares more about your airline, times, routing, or in-flight amenities than the cheapest way to travel, I recommend booking even earlier when you have the most options.
Do beware of seasonality when booking international flights. Unlike domestic flights, international flights are often much cheaper during the low tourist season. High season flights possibly going for double the price.
Step 6: Book Accommodations
Hotels or Airbnbs/VRBO
There are pro and cons to booking hotels versus airbnb-style properties. However, there is no one size fits all formula for which is better, as t is all based on personal preference. I have laid out a general guidelines below.
Airbnbs/VRBO are better when:
- You are looking for a more authentic experience
- Its an expensive city, hotels will be expensive but there will be a lot of cheap airbnb/VRBO options
- Your booking includes more than two people
Hotels are better when:
- You value the comforts of a standard hotel
- Utilize hotel loyalty / hotel points
- More flexibility to cancel
Last Minute Hotel Deals
Unless you are visiting Munich during Oktoberfest, or Austin during the ACL festival, it is likely that every accommodation in the city is not already booked.
If you are someone that is a more spontaneous traveler, you can grab a great last minute hotel deal using the website HotelTonight.
Step 7: Plan How You’ll Be Getting Around
There is nothing worse than landing in a foreign country, potentially not being able to read the signs at the train station or airport, and having no clue how to get to your hotel. One of the best travel apps and websites for the cheapest way to get from A to B is Rome2Rio.
This site will lay out all the different transportations options (car, flight, train, bus) by cost and estimated time. It is my go to when I don’t know the best way to get around a country.
Renting a Car Internationally
Renting a car and self-driving is my favorite way to get around abroad. This mode of transportation gives you so many opportunities to explore places off the beaten path, and on your own schedule.
However, it does require some extra pre-planning to make sure it goes smoothly. This isn’t hard as I’ve laid out all the considerations for you!
Booking with Foreign Rental Companies
Did you know Hertz in Morocco is not the same company as Hertz in the US? The customer service and booking policies are not consistent across borders.
You should always be skeptical of the cheapest rental car companies as they always have hidden fees. Many of the cheaper rental car companies will require very high deductibles that are held against your credit card until you return the car.
Things to consider when booking rental cars abroad:
- Book the car in advance, rates might be cheaper. If you’re traveling during the peak season, options might be limited, especially for automatic options.
- Look into bundles, it might be cheaper to rent a car when booking flights and a hotel at the same time.
- Book and pay before the trip, it’s easier. Just remember that you did so by adding the confirmation to my international trip planning template.
- Book from a reputable rental car agency. It might be seem more expensive up front, but the cheaper rental car companies will tack on charges for a variety of different things. Make sure you know exactly what’s included in the cost.
- Look for damage before you leave the lot! Take pictures of any damage you find. The last thing you want to pay for is any damage from previous renters that haven’t been noted in the paperwork.
- Make sure you have a copy of the car registration close by in case you’re stopped by the police
We always book our rental cars through Discover Cars due to the competitive pricing and free cancellation policy should plans change.
Should You Get the Additional Rental Car Insurance From the Rental Company?
When you go to pick up your rental car, I can guarantee you will be presented with the rental car companies insurance plans. Most of the time this throws people off. And then I can tell you exactly how it plays out.
People start to get flustered and think, do I need this? The rent car agent starts to read this panic on your face. The agent then explains all the costs that you could be liable for if something bad happens to the car in your possession.
Right there, you start to imagine as if it is absolute reality, that you driven the rental car off the road and it’s engulfed in flames.
You panic and agreed to pay an extra 100$ a day in car insurance through the rental company, and 90% of the time nothing happens to your rental.
I’m going to let you in on my biggest secret to travel smarter. Most credit cards already have insurance to cover rental car incidents if you book the rental car reservation using that card. You will save so much money, and be able to confidently tell the agent – “No thanks, I am covered by my credit card”. This phrase will end their pursuits right away.
Travel Smarter Pro Tip: Make sure to book your international rental cars with a credit card that has rental insurance!
Do You Know If You Need an IDP?
An IDP is an International Drivers Permit, and it is required by a lot of car rental companies in foreign countries. An IDP is a valid form of driving identification in 150+ countries abroad that shows your name, photo and driver information.
If you are unsure if you need one or not, contact the rental car company you have booked with to clarify. However, for the price of $20, I would invest in one anyways if you planned to self-drive abroad. This will avoid any mishaps that could derail your trip.
Download Offline Maps
If you don’t plan on getting a data plan internationally, you can download offline maps in Google Maps so that you can have navigation through your phone while not connected to WiFi. Another option is to rent a navigation device through the rental car company. These are usually pretty cheap to rent.
Thought about How to Pump Gas into that Rental?
If you are planning to self-drive around it will save you a lot of headaches to research how to pump gas in another country. This is something you don’t know you need to know until it’s too late.
In Europe and many other countries abroad diesel gas is a lot more common than petroleum gas. From personal experience, I would urge you to confirm what type of gas your rental car takes, and make sure you know that word in the local language.
Also check out the gas pump tipping culture and if you are allowed to pump gas on your own. This might not be a new concept to some, as it is common in some US states to not pump gas yourself. However, it was a surprise to me the first time!
A good way to travel smarter if you are planning to rent a car and drive abroad is to understand the method for collecting tolls in that country. This could save you time if you get pulled over without a vignette and save money in avoiding costly penalties.
There are several different methods for collecting tolls while driving abroad. Fees are levied by a physical or electronic vignette (sticker for your car), or at toll gates directly on the road.
Travel Smarter Pro Tip: If the country requires a vignette, check with the rental car company if they are providing one for you.
Be very careful about researching vignette requirements if you are crossing international borders. For example, there are no toll roads or tolls required in Germany. However, if you have rented a car in Germany and plan to drive to Switzerland, then a vignette costing 40 CHF will be required. Even if you are just driving through the country.
Taking a Train Internationally
Train prices are pretty comparable to flight prices, however they generally less-stress than the airport. There is no security and you don’t have to arrive hours before your train departure time. If you are considering traveling by train by any country abroad, your best resource will be Seat 61. He details everything you need to know about train travel by country.
Taking a Plane Internationally
Plane travel within Europe and Asia is generally much cheaper than your initial flight from the states. This is due to the rise of budget airlines like Ryanair, TAP Air, Air India Express, Air Asia, and Eurowings.
Budget airlines are a very common way to travel in Europe and Asia, but there are a few things you should know beforehand:
- Reserving a seat will be an extra charge
- Make sure you are only taking a carry-on suitcase
- Check the carry-on suitcase weight restrictions, anything over will be an additional charge
- Expect to pay for everything on board (even water)
- Print your boarding pass ahead of time, even this can have an extra charge (your hotel can help you with this)
- Don’t expect good customer service
Despite all the cons, the price of these budget airlines is usually a great way to travel within Europe or Asia.
Step 8: Pre-trip Considerations to Travel Smarter
Now that you have your transportation and accommodations booked, there are a few more things you should consider before taking off on your international trip.
You need consider the different local currencies you will need in the countries you are traveling. How much cash do you want to take out before you leave? Will you be using a credit card on your international trip as well?
The number of activities or accommodations have you already pre-paid for will greatly impact these answers.
Carrying Cash While Traveling Internationally
First, you should NEVER carry all your cash on your person at any time. Instead assume the amount of cash you are carrying on you person at any time could get lost or stolen.
First consider spreading out cash between multiple people will reduce the chances of loss.
I also like to leave a certain amount of cash back at the accommodation in my locked suitcase.
Travel Smarter Pro Tip: Get a debit card with free international ATM withdrawals to reduce cash carried on your person
Withdrawing Money Internationally
I cannot recommend enough traveling light on cash for all of the reasons described above. Instead, skip the standard banking fees for converting money at home and get a checking account with a bank who provides free ATM withdrawals in foreign currencies.
Our favorite checking accounting for international travel is Ally. Because they don’t have any brick and mortar stores, and no ATMs, all ATM withdrawal fees are reimbursed to you from any ATM around the world. In addition, they give you a rate dangerously close to the spot rate.
While traveling abroad internationally, we always stop at the ATM at the airport when we first arrive to take out just enough cash for the next couple of days. Armed with our no fee, no exchange-rate debit card, we are able to reduce our cash carrying risks.
When we run out, we just make another ATM stop. The great thing about this approach, is the checking and savings account at Ally bank have very high interest rates for you as well!
Travel Smarter Pro Tip: While traveling internationally, stop at an ATM at the airport when you first arrive and take out just enough cash for the next couple of days.
Cash is still king in most European and African countries. In 2018, 86% of transactions in Italy, and 80% of transactions in Germany were made with cash. Where as Asian countries have embraced cashless payment the most.
While you not have as many opportunities to use your credit card internationally, you want to be have one handy that is compatible with international travel. The best travel credit card won’t have foreign transaction fees and rewards you for travel related purchases. The Chase Sapphire and the Capital One Venture card have been rated very highly for travel related purchases and do not incur foreign transactions fees!
It will go so far with the locals to learn a couple words for your trip in the native language. While English is very prevalent around the world, locals are going to respect your efforts to try to say “hello”, “thank you”, and “goodbye” in their language.
Alternatively, even though English is prevalent, don’t assume that everyone speaks English. And don’t get frustrated when someone doesn’t understand you. It is not their responsibility to know English.
Here are some tools I use to communicate when there are language barriers.
Google Translate App
The Google Translate is one of the best travel apps and is wonderful for translating short words in a pinch. There is even a feature where you can hold up your phone to text, and it will translate from a foreign language to English (or visa versa, of course).
Travel Smarter Pro Tip: Plan ahead by downloading a language offline within the Google Translate app, so that you can utilize these features without WiFi.
Use Non-verbal Signals
Fumbling your way through a few very bad sentences in a foreign language at a restaurant, and then pointing to what you want on the menu usually works perfectly. First you are showing the waiter or server that you care, and then you are showing them exactly what you want to avoid confusion.
Smiling is also a very effective and largely over-looked non-verbal signal. While many Europeans don’t walk around smiling at strangers like we do in the South of the United States, it shows you are relaxed and not angry at the situation.
Save your self a lot of awkward moments and be well versed on tipping culture before you land in a new country.
The world does not operate on the same tipping culture as Americans. For example, in Germany (and most of Europe), it is rude to tip 20% at a meal because it is perceived as showing off. In Egypt or Morocco, if someone takes the time to give you directions, you are expected to give them a tip.
You can see how tipping culture is vastly different across the world. Having done your research ahead of your international trip is going to be key to getting this right.
What to Wear
What to wear 100% depends on where you are going, and at what time of year. However, the one general rule of thumb is to be respectful of local culture.
If you are going to a predominately Muslim country, you will need to dress more conservatively. Head coverings may be required to visit mosques and men cannot enter in shorts. No latter how hot it may be.
Even if you are not going to a conservative country, it is still wise to bring long sleeves/shawl and a long skirt for visiting some churches where this is required. For example, in order to visit the inside of the famous Dom cathedral in the very liberal city of Cologne, Germany you are required to cover your shoulders.
Should you get travel insurance for your international trip? Travel insurance is something to consider, however we personally never buy it.
Here are some quick tips for when you should not consider travel insurance:
- If you credit card includes it – for example the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card offers built-in trip interruption insurance that reimburses up to $10,000 per person if your trip is cancelled or cut short because of situations such as an illness or severe weather.
- Flights – basic flight insurance polices are not worth the money to insure just your flight.
- General flexibility – trip insurance should not be used to just so you can keep your options open. Some people make that mistake. They think of it as kind of a cancellation policy.
- Domestic travel – short trips within the US are usually low-risk and not worth the cost of travel insurance.
Here are some quick tips for when you should consider travel insurance:
- International trips – Due to the advanced planning and the cost, you should consider spending additional money for comprehensive coverage that will cover you in a wide range of situations. If you’re paying for 70 percent to 80 percent of a trip upfront, it’s a good idea to consider trip insurance.
- Medical reasons – Most people’s medical insurance will cover “customary and reasonable” hospital costs internationally. However, if you run into a serious issue, the bills can add up quick. If you have an existing medical condition, it will be wise to consider the added risks.
Outlets & Converters
You would not imagine how many different types of outlets there are around the world. One time we got all the way to Norway thinking that the outlets would be the same as the ones in Germany, but we were very wrong.
The best way to be a smarter traveler is to grab a set of international plug adapters. This specific set is so compact, that it doesn’t take up much space and you will be set for most countries you plan to visit on this trip and on future trips as well.
Another mistake I have made in the past was buying an electricity converter and carrying that all over Europe in a backpack. Converters change electrical currents from 120V to 220V or vice versa. The only time you’ll need an international converter is if you’re traveling with a device that is not dual voltage.
Unless you have packed your hairdryer and electric razor from home, you can ditch the electricity converter. Yes, even laptops and phone chargers DO NOT need a converter. Converters are quite heavy, so I wouldn’t carry one unless you absolutely need one.
Travel Packing List
Backpacking around Europe taught me the benefits of traveling lighter. When you have to pick up your suitcase and run up a flight of stairs to barely make your train connection, you will be thankful for a light suitcase.
Here are some of my suggestions for what to pack for every international trip:
- Small, carry-on suitcase
- Passport copies
- Pen for forms
- Address where you are staying
- Travel organizer for documents and reservations
- Packing pods
- Travel water bottle
- Wine opener
- Small pair of scissors
- Noise cancelling headphones
- Safe backpack
- Essential prescriptions
Staying Safe Abroad
You can be in the safest city in the world and have something unfortunate happen. Really you can only plan so much, and I would not over-think it which could take away from your experience.
However, it is important to educate yourself on certain areas that are more dangerous or where the risks of pickpocketing are higher. For example, Barcelona is an extremely safe city, but the main street, La Rambla, and crowded metros are known for higher-levels of pickpocketing and theft.
A good resource for up to date safety considerations can be found on the WorldNomad website.
Step 9: During the Trip Considerations
Abide by the Local Laws and Customs
Did you know that in Norway it is illegal to drive with more than a 0.02 (grams) blood alcohol content? While the rest of Europe is illegal greater than 0.08.
In Switzerland and Germany, it is forbidden to jaywalk or cross the street on a red light. If you are caught by the police, a fine for jaywalking will be imposed on the spot.
To avoid unintentional police trouble or stares from locals, make sure to read up on the local laws and customs by country you are visiting.
Go With the Flow
No amount of pre-planning in the world is going to ensure that your trip is flawless. In fact, some of our most memorable moments traveling internationally are from situations where nothing went according to plan.
It may be uncomfortable in the moment, but that is when you grow the most as a traveler and as a person. Those situations also make for the best memories and stories!
After all the research and itinerary planning, remember to go with the flow! If you made dinner reservations here, but something you discovered during the day looks better, don’t be afraid to switch it up! Leave room in your itinerary to be spontaneous and to try new things as the opportunities are presented.
Most importantly just have fun. You spent a lot of time and money planning this international trip, so relax and enjoy it!
If you can think of any tips to travel smarter from your own travels, leave a comment below!