International travel tips – 7 things to do before you go

International Travel

Even if you’re a seasoned domestic traveler, planning a trip overseas adds an additional layer of complexity. Having the right gear, tools, and documentation can set your trip up for success.

Let’s take a look at seven different areas you should ensure you cover before you leave.

1. Passport and identification documents


First and foremost, you have to be able to prove you are who you say you are. Be sure to make paper and digital copies of all your passport and identifications. These should be carried separately from the originals so you will have redundancy built into your system. You should also email yourself copies as an additional level of security.

This will allow you to access them in the event you have lost all your physical copies but you are able to access email. In addition, be sure to leave a copy with a friend or family member. Your passport and identification are your lifelines when traveling abroad. You can’t be too careful in this regard.

You should also make copies of your entire itinerary, as well as any travel partners you may be meeting up with. Be sure to include phone numbers and addresses for hotels, transportation, etc. Also, don’t forget any country codes you may need for making calls. It can be quite difficult to obtain those codes without the power of Google at your fingertips.

What we are trying to do is create a layer of protection in case your electronic device fails. Many folks, myself included, take advantage of the many apps, etc., that make our travel easier. Boarding passes, hotel reservations, and the like, all live on our phones. What happens if that device fails? That’s what we are trying to safeguard against.

Another important thing you can do is share your travel plans with family and friends. This should be done ahead of time and you should stick to the dates you have provided. If something changes, let people know.

Once you have all your travel documents squared away, consider registering with your nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. To do this, you can take advantage of the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which is operated underneath the U.S. State Department. There are a number of benefits of this service, including:

  • Being able to receive safety updates
  • Having a method of contact for the Embassy to reach you in case of various emergencies
  • Allows family and friends an easier way to contact you in an emergency

2. Packing considerations

Now it’s time to think about what to pack, how to pack, etc. With that in mind, let’s look at clothing. As mentioned in our article,  Being a gray man: clothing and gear, when you are traveling somewhere, pay attention to what people are wearing in that geographic area. Be cognizant of what stands out. Make a mental note and be sure to avoid those triggers if you are trying to avoid unnecessary attention.

We all have physical attributes we cannot change and those attributes may draw the attention of certain people. Don’t stress, there is nothing you can do about that. However, your clothing is something you have total control over. We cannot say it enough, be intentional and put thought into everything you do.

In addition, you also have to pack with the environment, elements, and activities, in mind. Don’t risk exposure to the elements because you are trying to dress so mundane you are not prepared for Mother Nature. The idea is to dress appropriately when needed based on the information you have at hand.

If you are checking luggage, be sure to carry an extra set of clothes in your carry-on bag. It would be wise to carry an extra set of clothes in your travel partner’s bag as well. Luggage can get delayed or even lost and nothing is worse than arriving at your destination with nothing but the clothes on your back. Having a spare set of clothing makes a big difference in your mental well-being when dealing with airline mishaps.

Even if you already have a method of packing your carry-on, here are items I consider important to have with you Consider adding them to your carry-on for your next trip:

  • Medical Kit (learn basic first aid prior to travel)
  • Tourniquet
  • Medication
    • Certain over the counter medications may not be permitted in various countries; however, I’ve found most of the time you will not get hassled for it. Just make sure you don’t have 20 boxes of ephedrine and you shouldn’t have a problem. Plan for any pre-existing medical conditions you may have
  • Duct tape
  • Super Glue
  • Bladeless multitool
  • Lighters per TSA requirements
  • Water filter/purifier
  • Pocket Flashlight
  • Paracord (25 ft.)
  • Poncho
  • Baby wipes

For more ideas, read our article about how to build a TSA-friendly EDC kit.

In addition to the items above and depending on the local laws of the area you are traveling, I always like to carry an inexpensive folding knife (<$50) in my checked bag. Some knives look more “aggressive” than others so I would err on the side of caution and go with a blade that doesn’t give the folks in positions of authority a bad vibe. While you are at it, throw in a flashlight which can be used as a method of self-defense if you find yourself in a bad spot with no other alternatives.

3. Electronic power

Another area of importance in terms of international travel is dealing with travel adapters, converters, and transformers. The first thing you should do is assess your electronics to determine their voltage. Ideally, your device will be multi-voltage or dual-voltage and you won’t have any issues. If not, you may need a transformer or converter. If you need one and things get too confusing, just buy an adapter that will convert the voltage for you.

There are about 15 different outlet configurations in the world and they can vary greatly. Be sure to do your homework and determine what you will need prior to leaving. Most universal adapters cover a lot of the common outlet types, but I don’t believe there is one that does it all. Spend a few minutes and make sure you have what you need.

4. Money

When it comes to finances and how you will be paying for things, start out by checking current currency conversion rates. You need to shop around in advance and don’t forget to add in any applicable fees when doing your calculations. Be cognizant when using credit cards as well. They aren’t always reliably accepted and you can often run into technical issues when trying to use U.S. cards overseas. These can equate to periodic rejections or declinations, which can be inconvenient at best.

You also run the risk of stacking up percentage-based surcharges, so you should check your credit card’s foreign fee policy prior to travel. Don’t forget to notify your bank and credit card companies prior to your trip. The last thing you want is for your cards to be shut down due to suspected fraud.

Any easy way to obtain cash prior to travel is to simply order it at your local bank and pick it before your trip. Again, be sure to factor in any fees, charges, etc., when deciding which exchange rate is the best.

You can also exchange your currency at the airport at your destination for ultimate convenience. But again, be sure to research commission fees, surcharges, transaction charges, etc., prior to arrival.

Carry a small amount of local currency and home currency in case of losing your credit cards or in the instance the business doesn’t accept the credit card you are carrying. If you have to carry a large amount of cash for whatever reason, be sure to conceal it as well as possible. Be sure to check out our article on carrying cash for a more detailed look at a few different ways to carry and conceal cash.

5. Transportation and navigation

foreign taxi

I always recommend using authorized public transportation when possible. This helps avoid being scammed after grabbing a ride from a local. It’s common for fares to double or triple the expected cost once you arrive at your destination. Be sure to agree on a rate prior to getting a lift to avoid any awkward situations.

In reference to local travel upon your arrival, you need to load maps, city guides, etc., onto your phone or device in advance of your trip. What if you lose service and there is no wifi available? In addition, carry paper maps as a backup. It can be extremely hard to navigate a foreign city when your phone dies or something else happens to it. Add in a foreign language and it is really difficult. A paper map and a small compass will serve you well in terms of helping you get to your destination with minimal problems.

6. Safety considerations

When you are out and about, don’t get drunk. Bad guys prey on the weak and vulnerable and nothing spells out vulnerability more than someone who can’t stand up on their own two feet. Keep a solid head on your shoulders and enjoy yourself responsibly. Don’t make it easier for someone else to make a bad decision.

Read advisories and travel warnings ahead of time via the State Department website. I would also try to research “local” reporting from the area you are traveling to get an idea of more specific things that are occurring. Sometimes, these two sources don’t match up. Use your best judgment to get a solid perspective as to what is going on. Focus in on the cities and areas you will be traveling. Issues in one area of a country don’t always represent the country as a whole. Do your homework and determine if tourists are specifically being targeted. This may or may not be the case.

7. Gear

When it comes to “gear”, don’t take anything you don’t mind losing. Sometimes things get confiscated at the discretion of a security screener and there is nothing we can do about it. Don’t let it ruin your trip. Be prepared to do without and carry on with your plans.

You won’t use everything you carry on your trip, but that’s not the point. The point is to be intentional about preparing for those micro-events that can ruin a trip. You also want to have the proper mental EDC to deal with the rare macro event that may occur. When traveling internationally, incidents such as vehicle breakdowns, employee strikes or extreme weather events can really throw a wrench in your plans. Solid preparedness combined with a strong mental EDC will get you through just about anything.

It’s important to remember preparedness is not to let it consume your mind, your thoughts, and your trip. The purpose is to allow you to have the peace of mind to enjoy what you are doing with the confidence to take care of whatever may happen. Be flexible and embrace change. This is the whole idea behind being intentional. Don’t let preparation and planning consume you. Take care of business ahead of time and go enjoy yourself.

Cody Martin

With over 18 years of federal law enforcement, training, and physical security experience, Cody focuses his time nowadays on both consulting and training. He regularly advises individuals, groups, multinational corporations, schools, houses of worship, and NGOs on security threats while conducting customized training as needed.

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