This summer, whether you’re heading to Belize for a tropical vacation or to Japan for a trip to see the epic orange gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha, we don’t want you to forget any essentials.
Here are the items you simply can’t leave behind for your international vacation:
1. A Valid Passport
If you haven’t renewed your passport since that junior year study-abroad, take another look. U.S. adult passports are only valid for ten years, so renew yours at least nine months before its expiration date. This is important because if you want to go to a hot destination like the Galapagos, Tanzania or Israel, your passport needs to be valid for at least six months after your planned return to the States. Check out the U.S. Department of State for the passport requirements for your destination.
2. A Visa
And we’re not talking about the credit card. Want to samba in Rio de Janeiro or attend the ballet at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre? Brazil, Russia and many other countries require visas in advance. Some, including Turkey and Israel, issue visas upon arrival. Although visa requirements vary by destination, be prepared to pay a fee and submit your passport with additional passport photos, a travel itinerary, a blank page for the visa, and even an invitation letter to the consulate of the country.
3. A Visa—Or Two
This time we are talking about plastic. Most MasterCard and Visa credit cards provide currency exchange rates up to almost 8% lower than banks do. But check your card’s exchange rate policies before traveling so you avoid an unpleasant surprise, since most banks charge a 2-3% fee for foreign transactions—on top of the 1% currency-exchange fee automatically tacked on by Visa and MasterCard. Fortunately, an increasing number of banks are offering fee-free cards for international travel. (In particular, Capitol One doesn’t pass along that 1% fee). If you’re looking for a good rewards credit card, check out our top picks.
If you have the option to make your purchase in U.S. dollars, don't. Some merchants offer something called "dynamic currency conversion," which should be avoided at all costs. Rather than letting the banks do the conversion, this allows merchants to calculate your bill and charge you in U.S. dollars. Unless you ask, they won't even tell you the actual rate they've given you. This option is offered to merchants so they can pull a little extra coin out of the transaction. It has nothing to do with the consumer whatsoever. Your credit card will still charge you the same fees for the transaction, so don't choose this option!
Remember to notify your bank before your departure that you’ll be using your card abroad. And bring a backup card with plenty of available credit.
4. Some Foreign Currency
Never exit the airport at your destination without at least enough local currency to take a taxi to your hotel. Pick up that "starter cash" from your bank before you depart, but use foreign A.T.M.s from then on. Despite charging a fee, foreign A.T.M.s will almost always give you the best possible rate of exchange.
If you can find a foreign bank with which your own bank has a partnership, you'll get the best deal on cash. Even if you can't find a bank that's affiliated with yours from back home, A.T.M.s are still your best bet for picking up cash. Because of A.T.M. fees, you'll generally get the best value if you take out large sums at a time--but of course, don't take out so much that you'll feel unsafe walking around with it.
Whenever possible, avoid currency exchange kiosks, both those located in the airport and elsewhere. Exchanging currency at an airport kiosk will generally get you an unfavorable exchange rate and service fees of 5% or higher. "No fee" currency exchanges usually have the worst rates.
Check your health insurance policy to understand exactly where your international coverage ends. If your policy covers you outside the United States, bring your insurance policy identity card and a claim form.
For many of us, coverage ends the moment we enter international waters or airspace. If you’re one of the many for whom that’s true, consider travel medical insurance. For an additional 5-8% of your trip’s cost, you can have health coverage and maybe even medical evacuation coverage. For more about when to buy travel insurance, read this.
Although the only vaccine required by international health regulations is the yellow fever vaccine (if you’re going certain places in sub-Saharan Africa or tropical South America), we suggest getting all of the recommended shots and boosters for the region you’re traveling to.
Trust us, you don’t want to run around a strange city in the middle of the night looking for the international symbol for the pharmacy (a green cross). Pack all medicines in your carry-on luggage and plan to bring even over-the-counter meds with you. After all, there's nothing pleasant about struggling to read medical labels in a foreign language, even if you're just looking for basic aspirin. Keep medicines in their original bottles to avoid customs hassles. If you’re taking prescription meds, carry copies of your prescriptions and a doctor’s note describing your condition, as well as the generic names for your drugs.
8. Voltage Converter
Don’t ask us why, but every country seems to have a different plug containing different amounts of voltage. Our favorite adapters are Conair’s all-in-one adapter plug with surge protection (about $22) and Kensington’s travel plug adapter with USB charger (about $37), which works in more than 150 countries and will keep all your gadgets juiced.
You’re not going to master a foreign language in the two weeks before your trip, but with the right phrasebook you might be able to order Bordeaux for the table without the waiter giving you le stink eye. Lonely Planet offers talking phrasebooks apps for Android and iPhone with about 600 phrases for nearly every language you could come across.
10. VoIP Calling Card
If internet technology and traditional calling cards had a beautiful baby, it would be VoIP. Nowadays, your entire call—whether to a landline or mobile number—can be routed through the Web, which costs less. Pick up a landline, dial a local access number, enter an account and pin number, and then dial home. You can recharge your card online, so just log on before your trip and purchase credit. Here are three of our picks for VoIP carriers:
- Pingo.com: dependable and affordable Netherlands-operated company with 35 international destinations
- PennyTalk.com: another top carrier operated out of New Jersey
- EnjoyPrepaid.com: over 75 international access numbers
For More Travel Tips …
We did serious research to help you figure out the best way to use a phone abroad. Renting an international phone? GSM? Unlocked? Here’s a whole chart.
Check out our guide with tips for international travel. Click here.
Traveling domestically instead? Check out our domestic travel checklist, also from a Condé Nast Traveler editor.
Alex Pasquariello is an editor at Condé Nast Traveler and has traveled widely in his own right.