Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about travel but it’s apropos nonetheless. It’s the little things that you do up front that can make a difference when you’re on the road. While I can’t guarantee you won’t hit bumps along the way, following this pre trip checklist before you leave will pave the way to stress free travel.
Research your destination
I’m all about serendipity and exploration, but nothing is worse than returning home to find that just 2 miles from where you were staying there was something amazing that you missed. A little research is the best way to hedge your bets. Start with the classics: word of mouth and a straightforward Google search. Then take that list and dig a little deeper: use terms like “Most unusual experiences in [name of place]”, “Most photogenic”, “Must-see” or “Best,” and you’ll find a list of articles that will likely give you wonderful nuggets of information.
For more practical info, search local tourism board websites for city or regional facts, local apps (see below), and don’t forget to look at the sites of any tourist attractions you plan to visit. In addition to information on hours and location, you’ll discover whether there are special events, lectures, or VIP tours available.
Let the 5 star hotels point you in the right direction
Search online for 4-5 star hotels in the area you’ll be in and look at their sites under “activities”, “around town” or “Things to do”. Many times I’ll find great ideas for restaurants, things to do or non-touristy experiences I don’t find anywhere else.
Download local apps
Modern technology puts the world at your feet. Why not make it work for you? I search the mobile app store and download and review the most relevant local apps based on my itinerary. Look for subway apps, stores maps, museum or airport layouts, travel guides, you name it. It takes very little time, most cost are free, and you’ll love having the information at your fingertips when you reach your destination.
Confirm that your hotel has WiFi
Sometimes the realities of work and life don’t allow me to be off the grid when I travel. Therefore, when I know I’ll need to connect, I double-check that my hotel has WiFi before I walk out your door. It may be the 21st century but I can’t assume that my accommodation lives in it, especially if I’m traveling to a developing country. Even if it does, access could be limited, or cost extra. If everything else is pretty much equal, I’ll choose one hotel over another if the WiFi is free.
Double-check your mobile carrier’s international plans
I came home after a trip to Kenya with a $675 mobile phone bill and wanted to throw up. I didn’t research how Verizon would calculate my data plan and while I assumed it would be pricey, I was blown away by the fact that 20 minutes of 3G at the Nairobi airport netted out to almost $700. Every carrier has different rates for different countries and its best to assess what your costs could be at the get-go. I manage my fees by fanatically engaging airplane mode on my phone which only lets me access the web via WiFi. But now and then I have to venture into the great data plan vortex and knowing what I’m in for keeps me on the straight and narrow.
Assess your needs two weeks before you leave
When I started to travel I would pack the day before I went on a holiday and invariably realize that I’d forgotten something I needed to buy. I spent the few hours I had left squeezing in a last-minute shopping trip. Finally, after years of making myself crazy, I started a new tradition. Fourteen days before any major trip I go through my belongings and put aside the items I’ll pack for my journey. If there’s something I need, the two-week window gives me plenty of time to order it online and have it shipped directly. With Amazon Prime I don’t even pay for shipping. I’m not saying this doesn’t require extra effort, it does, but when the time comes to walk out the door, it’s smooth sailing.
Invest in Travel Insurance
Don’t take a chance on losing a lot of money (or in extreme cases going into debt) when you don’t have to. Invest in travel insurance. Why? Let me tell you a couple of true stories.
- My father and stepmother were going on a big luxury vacation to Russia. A few days before they were to leave their dear friend fell critically ill and was in the hospital. They didn’t want to leave. Because they invested in travel insurance they recouped all their money. Happy days!
- A professional blogger and his wife were on a cruise in the Amazon and he broke his back slipping on some stairs. If they hadn’t had travel insurance they would have paid a minimum of $50,000 to cover the costs of the two medevac units they needed to get him out of the Amazon, the week-long stay in a Peru hospital to get him stabilized, and the air ambulance back home afterward.
At the very least, spend money on a policy that covers you for medevac expenses so that if you’re in a third world or developing country you can be airlifted to a location with better healthcare.
If you’re not sure what kind of insurance or the company to go with I recommend using Insuremytrip.com to compare and contrast different policies from the worlds best insurance companies.
Determine whether there are any vaccinations required or health alerts associated with your destination
As a precaution, check to see if there are any vaccinations or medications required or suggested for your destination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an easy-to-use Traveler’s Health webpage to help you out. It provides recommendations and requirements of the destination country. You can also filter your results based on whether you’re traveling with children, living with a chronic disease, immune compromised or participating in mission/disaster relief, among other options.
Check your passport’s expiration date and paging and whether the country you’re visiting requires a Visa
If you’re traveling internationally, check your passport expiration date and make sure you don’t need to get a new one. Stress free travel starts with being able to get into the country you’re traveling to. Some countries require a passport to be valid at least 6 months prior to travel so its less about the actual expiration date as it is about the lead time you’ll need. There are also countries that want two empty facing pages for its customs’ stamps. If you’re an avid traveler and don’t have the space, make sure you get a new passport.
No matter where you live, to find out if you’ll need a visa to enter a country, you can do a quick check on TraVisa. This website will let you know based on your destination and your citizenship.
For American Citizens, a great resource is the U.S. Department of State’s website and Country information, it provides passport requirements and visa needs plus a lot of other great information.
Stock up on basic medications
There’s nothing worse than feeling ill on the road. Don’t make things worse by running around for meds while you’re sick. Pack a small Ziploc bag with the following over-the-counter medications.
- Products to relieve stomach upset/diarrhea/ constipation
- Aspirin or Ibuprofen for headaches and small aches and pains
- Antibacterial ointment for scrapes and cuts
- Antihistamine ointment for insect bites
- Eye drops for dry, dusty climates
As an extra precaution, speak to your doctor about prescribing an antibiotic you can take with you “just-in-case.” I spent an awful two days in Lima with a nasty something on my way to Machu Picchu, but it would have been so much longer if I hadn’t had antibiotics with me for just such an emergency.
Let your bank know where you’ll be
A few years ago I walked into a store in Cambodia to buy knickknacks and my debit card was declined. I didn’t have another credit card with me (Tip: always bring at least two credit cards with you), and I didn’t have enough cash for the rest of my trip. Ouch. It turns out that a scarf I’d bought the day before raised a red flag with the bank. Assuming I was at home in New York City, the the bank’s computer system assumed the purchase in Cambodia was fraudulent and froze my account. It took me three hours I could have used sightseeing to get it sorted out. Now I notify my bank via my bank’s online portal before every trip outlining the dates, countries and cities—including any layover city—I plan to visit. I haven’t had a problem since.
Organize your electronics
I am a technology freak but even I get overwhelmed sometimes by the number adapters and plugs needed to keep them going on the road. More than once I’ve looked at a pile of cords thinking I had everything only to learn too late that I didn’t.
In an effort gauge my needs, I like to lay out all my gadgets—cameras, iPhone, external hard drives, etc—on a table with their associated plugs and accessories. Then I figure what I need to take on the plane and what I will check, and place them into two piles. Next, I figure out my adapter needs for my destination and any layover countries I’ll be flying through. (Hint: if you buy a travel outlet strip, it makes things so much easier. You only need one adapter to charge 3 devices!). I separate cords that I will use more often (ie. my iPhone charger) and place them in a separate bag so they’re easier to find. I carry ALL my cords with me in my carry on bag
Photography enthusiasts: I bring at least two extra batteries per camera body and a lot of memory cards because I shoot RAW files. Nothing is worse than photographing something wonderful only to have your card run out unexpectedly. Be sure to reformat your memory cards before each trip. I remember shooting a wildebeest crossing in Kenya when my card ran out. I was certain it was fresh. NOPE. It was half wildebeest and half Myanmar—the trip before Kenya. I lost some great photo opportunities as I scrambled to change cards in the middle of the action. Never again.
Leave a detailed itinerary with a friend or family member
If you’re going some place remote leave a detailed itinerary with a friend or family member, especially if you can’t count on cell reception, and doubly so if you’re traveling solo. You want people to know where to find you if for some reason you go MIA or, God forbid, you’re sick or injured and cannot speak on your own behalf. It’s also critical if there’s a crisis back home and someone needs to reach you.
I give family members the following information broken down chronologically.
- Flight information
- Hotel information including dates and website addresses
- Local/emergency contacts if available
- My travel insurance policy number and contact information
Set/schedule your email Out of Office / Phone message
People hate it when they think you’re around and you answer. As soon as I know my travel dates I schedule my Out of Office message thru my Gmail settings. I also schedule a reminder to change my cell’s voicemail the morning of my departure. This is especially important when I’m going to destinations like Mongolia where I’m off the grid and can’t access my messages. In such cases, I leave instructions on my outgoing message detailing how to ahold of me in the case of an emergency.
Make copies of your most important information
Always take printed copies of your passport, credit card account numbers/emergency call numbers, itinerary and travel insurance details. My smartphone is my go-to device when I travel and where I store most of my information, but I always pack a printed backup. Why? Because why risk being up poop’s creek if I lose my phone or it’s stolen? Or, as I’ve done on several occasions, realized at the worst possible moment that I accidentally let the charge run.
What’s your favorite pre trip checklist advice ? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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