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An Expert Traveler’s Complete International Travel Checklist

An Expert Traveler’s Complete International Travel Checklist

Not all packing lists are created equal. An international travel checklist is a completely different beast than when traveling domestically. Creating a checklist for your international trip is a great way to rev up your excitement and cover your bases.

No matter if it is a short trip with a pre-booked hotel or you’re changing time zones three times, you can’t forget to book the pet sitter and should never leave home without travel insurance.  I love VisitorsCoverage, but there are a lot of good companies worth looking into.

A travel checklist will make your life easier. I have been to nearly 50 countries, and every time I have planned, I remember the right shoes, wear the right clothes, and bring the right daypack in case I want to hike or take a day trip.

Let’s use the daypack as an example; when planning for scorching Egypt, I chose a saddlebag to keep my items close at all times while keeping my core free of extra weight and pressing surfaces.

The author Douglas Weissman Wearing Bag in Egypt
Douglas Weissman / ViaTravelers

It worked a treat because I didn’t have a backpack sweating up my spine, and all I’d need to do was reach down and grab whatever I needed from my nifty daysack instead of trying to win a wrestling match with my own shoulders getting a rucksack off in the blazing sun to find my keys.

It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time flying abroad or you take an international trip abroad every year; plan in advance as much as you can. The adage “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” may as well be about travel!

On the other hand, when I don’t plan… During my trip to Ecuador, I left my toothpaste at home and forget to check what currency they use in the country. I arrived, didn’t take any money out at the airport, and considered using leaves in the Amazon basin to clean my teeth because I didn’t have any currency in U.S. dollars lower than a 20-dollar bill.

Traveling internationally is a joy. But without a packing list, it quickly devolves into stress, freaking out, and using leaves for dental care. Planning is everything.

International Traveler’s Checklist

luggage packed inside the trunk of a vehicle
Kim Magaraci / ViaTravelers

No international trip is the same, no destination is the same. This means what you take with you and why will be different than your neighbor, your best friend, or Karen in the office who took a bedazzled eye mask on her flight to Fiji last year. 

Travelers need to keep in mind where they will visit, during what season, and how they prefer to travel. Beyond, that, I have compiled some of the most important things you need to consider before leaving for your destination any time you take to the skies. 

When preparing for travel abroad, you have five main considerations. At face value, it’s quite simple:

  1. Travel Documents
  2. Luggage Type
  3. Clothing
  4. Travel Insurance
  5. Power Adapters 

If you can master these five considerations, you’re traveling on Easy Street. But these are broad considerations. So, the rest of this article will explore all of this, as well as tips to make life safer and easier on your travels.

Organize Your Travel Documents

Getting your travel documents in order is crucial for your smooth, hassle-free international trip. Failing to have them in order can lead to unnecessary stress, delays, and even cancelations. 

What are the essential documents for your travel checklist?

  • Passport
  • Visa
  • Travel Insurance
  • International driving permit
  • Debit Card
  • Credit card
  • Travel itinerary
  • Medical information

Let’s take a closer look at these:

Passport

United States Passport and map of Central America
Kim Magaraci / ViaTravelers

Your passport is the most important document you have on your international travel checklist. Your passport is your primary identification anywhere in the world. 

It’s required for entry and exit in the majority of countries. You usually need to have a valid passport for at least six months before your return date, but many countries have their own rules and regulations

Visa

Depending on where you are from and where you are visiting, a visa may be necessary to enter the country. Always check visa requirements long before your departure date to avoid last-minute complications. 

I ran into this problem when traveling from Argentina to Paraguay. I didn’t realize I needed a visa, the immigration offices were closed for the weekend, and I almost missed my international flight.

Requirements for each country can change; a visa could take weeks to months to procure for one destination, while other countries may give you the visa when your flight arrives at the airport. 

See Related: Countries With Digital Nomad Visas

Travel Insurance

screenshot of rental car travel insurance through Generali Global Assistance
Kim Magaraci / ViaTravelers

In the same way people keep their homeowner’s insurance safe but accessible at home, you should always keep your travel insurance documents safe and accessible when traveling. That means having printed and electronic copies of your policy for both trip insurance and rental car insurance. 

Have you ever tried to pull up an important document on your phone only to have your phone die in the process? Printed copies serve as physical backups to use when your phone dies or is lost, stolen, or misplaced. 

Debit Card

Close-up of a lot of plastic bank cards
SKfoto / Adobe Stock

If you use debit cards at home, they are equally valid and useful on your trip abroad. They give you accessibility, control over your expenses, and access to local currency by withdrawing money from ATMs. 

The best debit cards for a trip abroad will have low or no foreign withdrawal fees, so you can avoid unnecessary charges. Plenty of credit card companies have reliable networks linked to debit cards, which can help ensure you have widespread ATM acceptance when you travel abroad. 

Always let your card company know you are traveling abroad ahead of time, or they may lock your card, thinking it’s fraudulent activity.

Credit Card

Holding the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card in front of Chase Bank
Nicole Glass Photography / Shutterstock

Credit cards when you travel abroad are convenient and secure. You have a safer alternative to carrying large amounts of cash and can book your accommodations, pay for your dining, and possibly get better rates when shopping

Transaction fees on regular credit cards add up quickly. Instead, carry a credit card with no international fees or find a credit card with travel benefits included, such as travel insurance, airport lounge access, and rewards points. 

Again, let your card company know you are traveling abroad ahead of time.

See Related: Best Credit Cards For Travel Perks (This Year, Ranked!)

Travel Itinerary

Travelers planning trips and use mobile phones to book hotels, buy plane tickets, search map, or find travel routes
Charnchai saeheng / Adobe Stock

Your boarding pass, hotel reservations, and an international phone plan are all part of your travel plans. Your itinerary is full of important documents for your time traveling abroad. 

Whether you’re going to Iceland for a couple of days and staying at a single hotel or taking a luxury train ride through the French countryside, make sure you have electronic and printed copies of your travel documents.

There are a few things worse than running late for your flight and trying to pull up the boarding pass on your phone only to realize at security that the airport does not have free Wi-Fi and your boarding pass is stuck in your email.

International Driving Permit 

Collection of Travel Documents - Passport, International Driving Permit, International Vaccination Certificate and Airline Boarding Passes
Ken Durden / Shutterstock

Your national driver’s license may not be recognized in a foreign country. If you want to drive when traveling abroad, you need an International Driving Permit or IDP. 

The vital document is internationally recognized and includes key information in multiple languages for authorities to understand your driving qualifications.

The IDP is often required by rental car agencies and traffic authorities now, as it demonstrates compliance with local regulations. 

See Related: Things to Know as an American Driving in the U.K.

Medical Information

Tripped Travel Gear tech pouch
Kim Magaraci / ViaTravelers

Your medical information is crucial to your well-being when you travel abroad.

Prescription medications can save your life at home but may get confiscated by the immigration officer at your chosen destination. Not all prescription medications are equal in the eyes of the country you’re visiting. 

Obtain a doctor’s note, research the regulations of your destination to avoid any legal issues, and carry your medical information in a physical and electronic form to help you with any unexpected health issues.

See Related: Tips for Flying with Vitamins

Choose Your Luggage Wisely

Gregory Jade backpack packed for traveling
Kim Magaraci / ViaTravelers

The luggage you carry on your trip is as important as what you fill it with. Your bags can affect your travel plans, and your comfort along the way.

Want a five-day hike in Patagonia? Change out the rolling suitcase for a stylish backpack. Want a luxury hotel on the Amalfi Coast? They will look at you awkwardly if you show up with a torn and raggedy backpack; opt instead for a quality Samsonite or LEVEL8 travel piece.

When considering your international travel checklist, the type of luggage you choose is directly correlated with the type of trip you want. 

Your travel gear will impact how fast you can move, how much space you take up, what you can take with you, and whether or not you eventually have to check what you had intended as a carry-on bag for your long-haul flight.

ViaTravelers Top Picks for Luggage

Pack Clothing for the Right Place and Time

Douglas Weissman in Egypt With Scarf
Douglas Weissman / ViaTravelers

Many people will give you advice to pack light when traveling abroad. I don’t completely disagree, especially if you’re a single-bag or digital nomad type of traveler, but I’ve also had the experience of not packing enough.

I ended up in Kashmir last February. I was in the Himalayas, ankle-deep in snow, wearing three layers of t-shirts, three pairs of pants, two socks, and a light hoodie because I had wanted to “pack light.” I nearly died.

It makes sense to think less about how much you pack and more about why you pack. If traveling to the Himalayas in winter, you should pack appropriately with a padded and down jacket or water-resistant, insulated pants.

The Author backpacking the Inca Trail in Peru
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

If traveling to the Mediterranean in summer, a lightweight cotton button-down shirt, shorts, and flip-flops are an excellent choice. I always travel with a scarf. It keeps me warm in the winter and protects my neck in the summer. For true versatility, go for a tube scarf or a traditional cotton shemagh.

Here is the base for a failsafe packing list that will keep you comfortable on the plane and on the ground. Modulate how much you pack based on your specific trip:

Additional items like packing cubes can keep you organized during your trip. When you are organized, you spend less time repacking and more time exploring.

Away Packing Cubes and Toiletry Bag
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

When wanting to pack light, you can still bring heavier items. Wear them on the plane to keep your bag lighter and easier to manage. Having a jacket or sweater on the plane will also keep you warm or give you an extra pillow.

If you are traveling for longer than seven days, you may need to pack more than the suggested amount, or you could pack less and wash your clothes while traveling abroad. You will most likely be able to find a replacement for an item you forgot.

It’s also a good idea to carry a first aid kit with you. You may never need it, but if you don’t know the local language or are miles away from a pharmacy, it can come in handy. Plus, it’s never a bad idea to include a refillable water bottle.

See Related: Ways to Luggage-Free Travel (Yes, It’s Possible)

Check Bags vs. Carry-on for an International Trip

Young man passenger in his 20s with carry-on backpack waiting at conveyor belt to pick his luggage in baggage claim of airport terminal building
fizkes / Shutterstock

Checked bags are easier to live with, but carry-on is faster. Those are the major differences between whether you should check your bag or pack for carry-on. And worry not; the horror stories about rough baggage handlers and luggage bound for your destination ending up 3,000 miles away are few and far between in reality.

But it does happen. And it has happened to me – twice.

When checking bags, you can still focus on the economy of packing and be prepared in case things do go wrong. You should also carry certain items with you in case there are issues along the way, such as a delayed flight or lost bags. When checking luggage, always carry with you:

Bring these in a carry-on bag or on your person. Doing this saved my skin the second time (and meant I didn’t have to go another round of using leaves as toothbrushes).

Protect Yourself With Travel Insurance

Your health and safety have several considerations during your international travel plans. Travel insurance and communication can protect you from unforeseen circumstances. 

How Travel Insurance Keeps You Safe

Travel insurance form put on a wood table
William Potter / Shutterstock

So many people avoid the cost of travel insurance, but some countries are encouraging or even requiring travelers to purchase some form of insurance for their international travel. It safeguards your plans against unforeseen events and covers medical emergencies, trip cancellations, lost luggage, and more. 

I was lucky to have travel insurance in 2011 when the Grímsvötn volcano erupted in Iceland. My flight from Italy to Portugal got canceled. Luckily, my travel insurance helped me with accommodations while I waited for a new flight back to the U.S. 

Comprehensive coverage gives you peace of mind because you are shielded from unexpected mishaps, including flight delays, but also illness and the financial implications it can incur. It’s well worth shopping around for travel insurance. I’ve recently been using SafetyWing, which makes great policies for frequent travelers and digital nomads.

See Related: Best Travel Insurance for Digital Nomads

Other Safety Considerations: Get an International Cell Phone Plan

Google Translate being used on a phone to navigate the Montreal metro
Kim Magaraci / ViaTravelers

Your cell phone is probably a part of your existence at home. When traveling, it can act as your camera as much as your lifeline to the outside world. But finding international coverage for your cell phone is also a great way to keep you safe.

Banking apps, travel apps, translations, but also wi-fi, and connection to emergency services are all benefits when traveling abroad. Check with your carrier before leaving; they may have a great international plan option.

If you forget to speak with your carrier, you can also try the following:

  • International roaming
  • Local SIM Card
  • Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot
  • eSim

International roaming means you can use your phone while abroad, staying connected and accessible. It’s great for emergencies, navigation, and staying in touch with people back home.

It also means high costs due to data and call charges. A local SIM card is cost-effective, gives you affordable data, and a local number for access to local services.

It might involve language barriers and the inconvenience of a locked smartphone. Compatibility issues and limited coverage can also pose challenges.

A portable Wi-Fi hotspot is convenient because it ensures connectivity, but it can be pricey to rent depending on the length of your trip. An eSim subscription works similarly without needing to carry extra hardware with you. The only catch is that eSims are not available in every country and are only compatible with certain phone systems established after 2019.

You should always protect your device but remember that your device is also part of your protection. You can sign up for emergency alerts in the country in case of natural disasters or other critical situations. You can also connect to family and friends back home, obviously to send pictures of your trip but also in case of emergency. 

See Related: Cell Phones That Can Be Used in Canada

Bring The Correct Power Adapter

SublimeWare Universal Multi Port Travel Adapter
SublimeWare / Amazon

As part of your international travel checklist, Research the type of voltage the country uses. Different international regions use specific plug types and voltage levels that may be incompatible with your plug.

It isn’t only the voltage that differs; the prongs for the plugs take a different shape as well. A power adapter bridges the gap, so you can plug into foreign outlets safely or risk damaging your devices – or yourself! Being electrocuted is no joke!

The following table is a list of the regions of the world and the types of plugs they use:

Region Plugs Voltage Frequency
Africa C, D, F, G, M, N 230 V 50 Hz
East Asia and Southeast Asia A, B, C, D, F, I, M 220 V 50 Hz
Central Asia C, D, M 230 V 50 Hz
Oceania I 230 V 50 Hz
Central and Southern Europe C, E, F, L 230 V 50 Hz
Northern Europe C, F, E, K 230 V 50 Hz
United Kingdom G 230 V 50 Hz
South America A, B, C, I, N, L 220 V 50 Hz
Central America A, B, G 120 V, 220 V 60 Hz

Rather than searching, buying, and hoping you purchased the right adaptor, you could skip that step by bringing an international adapter plug kit with you. The right kit will have the variations of power adapters properly labeled for their region.

International Travel Checklist

Are you ready to set off? Run through our International Travel Checklist, which summarizes the above information I’ve pulled together. Of course, this is just a starting point, but it’s served me well over the years and in dozens of countries.

International Travelers Checklist from ViaTravelers

Before you zip up your suitcase, though, I do have one more tip for international travel, and in my opinion, it’s a point that belongs on every traveler’s checklist…

Accept Local Cultural Norms and Traditions

Every culture has unique etiquette. There is no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to every culture’s etiquette, heritage, or history. Different countries—even different neighborhoods—practice life in their own way.

By learning the local norms, you can avoid inadvertently offending people, and you will establish a good rapport. It’s like the advice of never refusing food when you are a guest in someone else’s home. 

The author Douglas Weissman Drinking Coffee in Costa Rica
Douglas Weissman / ViaTravelers

Respecting customs and restrictions is also about your safety. Many countries have strict regulations on items like food and plants not allowed into the country to protect local agriculture. Select countries also have laws against artifacts leaving the country to protect their heritage.

Make sure you understand the rules of what you can and cannot bring into or out of the country before you step foot on the plane. It will save you from making a serious faux pas far from home.

See Related: Things Not to Do In Germany

Try a New Language

The author Douglas Weissman in a Cafe in Costa Rica
Douglas Weissman / ViaTravelers

Learning a new language isn’t always necessary for your international travel checklist, but it goes a long way with locals. Learn simple words before you arrive or engage in conversation about daily life to demonstrate respect for the local culture. It will enhance your overall experience.

Learning the local language, even just a few random phrases, fosters better communication. I learned how to say “crazy goat” in Hindi when traveling around India

Did it ever help me buy a gift or get directions? No. But it did make a group of local school children laugh when I pointed to myself and said the magical words, paagal bakaree.

This simple act opened the door to meaningful interaction and even got me chosen for a game of street cricket, at which I was terrible. You never know what sort of travel stories you’ll come back with if you pick up a couple of phrases.

FAQs

How do I prepare my phone for international travel?

Always verify if your phone is compatible with other networks. If your device is locked into a specific carrier, consider unlocking it so you can use a local SIM card on arrival at your destination. 

Either way, you have options. You can purchase a local SIM card on arrival or opt for an international roaming plan from your home carrier. Don’t forget to download travel apps and organization apps that can assist you during your trip. 

If you forget to activate airplane mode, your battery will drain as it endlessly attempts to search for a wireless signal. This may also result in unintended roaming fees.

How early should I get to the airport for international flights?

Arrive at least three hours before your international flight‘s scheduled departure time. The extra time accounts for the length of check-in, the security line, any immigration procedures, and possible delays. 

Think about what is less complicated: running through the airport worried you’ll miss your flight because you didn’t have enough prep time or sitting in the waiting area relaxing with extra time before departure? 

Do I need travel insurance for international trips?

Travel insurance is recommended for international trips, but only a few countries require it. Whether it’s insurance that covers any possible medical expenses or coverage if your trip is upended, it’s always a good idea to find the insurance right for what you need. 

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