If you're planning your first vacation beyond American borders, you're probably feeling overwhelmed. After all, there are so many factors to consider. Should you book a hotel or will a hostel provide a more authentic experience? Should you sign up for guided tours or be adventurous and explore on your own? Is it safe to use your credit card? And perhaps the most important question, where should you go? From choosing a destination to prepping your smartphone, use this simple checklist to prepare for your first trip abroad.
1. Rein in your wanderlust.
Before you put on a blindfold and throw darts at the globe, determine how much money you're willing to spend on this trip. Also, think about how much time you can afford to spend away from your day job. Factoring in your schedule will rein in some of your wanderlust and force you to put far-flung destinations like Bali and Fiji on the bucket list. Not only do these trips cost a pretty penny, but they require at least six to 10 days to make the most of the destination. If you only have a four-day window, it's not worth the 20-hour flight.
Aside from the money you'll spend on flights and lodging, you should also consider the incidental costs of your trip. For instance, will you have to budget for pet boarding or a house sitter? And don't forget about the money you'll spend en route to your destination, including the meals and drinks you'll purchase at the airport and on the flight. The cost of ground transportation from departure city and in the destination is often overlooked, as well as petty cash for tips for shuttles drivers, taxis, hotel staff and tour guides.
2. Consider your personality when choosing a destination.
For risk takers, you may try the strategy of random selection. If you take this route, consider using a travel search engine like Skyscanner. You can put "everywhere" in the destination box, and it will sort flights according to prices (lowest to highest) to literally anywhere in the world based on the dates you entered. This will get your wheels spinning for your new adventure.
If you'd rather play it safe,select a destination that speaks a language that you're familiar with or uses your native language regularly. If you're most comfortable with English that may be regions like the U.K., South Africa and the Caribbean. But doesn't mean you should restrict yourself to English-speaking countries. The Philippines are an example of a destination that has acclimated its English-speaking travelers. Though Filipino is the official language, there are signs in Tagalog, Spanish and English in main cities like Manila, meaning you should still feel comfortable getting around and interacting with locals.
3. Research, research, research.
So you've picked a destination, now what? Find out as much information as you can. Check the U.S. Department of State for any travel warnings and sign up for its free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). STEP allows U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. By signing up for the service, you'll receive updates about safety conditions from the U.S. Embassy during events like natural disasters, civil unrest or family emergencies. The State Department is also the place to find out if you need a visa for the country you're traveling to. Some countries require you to have a visa, in addition to your passport (which is an additional cost). Keep in mind: some visas can take up to a month to process.
4. Consider alternative lodging options.
If you're headed to a tropical locale, the simplest option -- especially if you're just getting your feet wet with international travel -- is to book an all-inclusive resort. These resorts are practically set up for tourists, as they make it easy to plan off-property activities and often feature multiple eateries located on site. Packages can vary, but you'll most likely pay in advance for your meals and some activities on the resort and be given a wristband in exchange. That is your ticket to roam the property and take advantage of all its amenities.
If you're on a tight budget or traveling to a destination that doesn't offer all-inclusive resorts, consider booking a hostel. No longer just a haven for backpackers and college students, the modern hostel is more high-end, with private rooms, complimentary breakfast and on-site language classes. Renting a room or apartment with a home-sharing site like Airbnb or VRBO is another option worth considering, especially if you want to feel more like a local and less like a tourist.
5. Prep your smartphone.
Just a few years ago, the most affordable way to use your cellphone abroad was to buy a prepaid SIM card and insert it to your phone. But since smartphones now allow for Wi-Fi communication, you can virtually check in with your friends and family for free. Check with your carrier and plan to see if it allows free Wi-Fi calling because that means you can do it anywhere in the world.
If your plan doesn't allow for that, but you can still connect to the Internet, there are a number of chat services (i.e. Skype, Google Hangout, Facebook, Tango) that allow you to connect with your family back home. And internationally, it's easy to find a signal -- from hotel lobbies to coffee shops -- just look for the Wi-Fi sticker on the door.
6. Plan for the worst-case scenario.
Planning for the worst-case scenario will ultimately give you the most peace of mind. Before you embark on your trip, take pictures of your passport, photo I.D., medical cards, travel itinerary and contacts, and email them to yourself, along with a couple of family members or friends back home. If any of items are stolen or misplaced, you can use any computer from anywhere to retrieve what you need. Also, your friends and family at home can alert authorities on your behalf with your information.
Carrying only the necessary amount of cash will also make you feel more secure. Other than the petty cash you need for on-the-spot services, try to expense the bulk of the trip on a credit card. And if you have a credit card that also gives you reward points that's even better.
Plus, expensing your trip on a credit card is a good way to keep track of the total costs, and a great way to protect your funds while traveling. See if your credit card provider offers a card with embedded chip-and-PIN technology, which minimizes the chances of your card being rejected and helps protect it from fraud.