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14 Top Tips for Traveling Abroad for the First Time

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If you are learning about international travel for beginners, these top tips for traveling abroad for the first time will fully prepare you for your trip overseas.

International travel hacks and tricks

I first traveled abroad for my 2019 honeymoon in Italy (Venice, Florence, Sorrento and Rome), and I did a ton of research beforehand to make sure I knew everything I really needed to know ahead of time to stay safe and not make any costly mistakes. Leaving the U.S.A. is scary!

My husband had been out of the country before, but only as a teen, when his parents had done all the leg work for him, so if you are in the same circumstance as him, you should also find these tips helpful.

Along the way, I kept a list of all my tips on international travel for beginners, and now I am sharing my tips for traveling abroad for the first time with you!

Tips for Traveling Abroad for the First Time

Contact your cellphone carrier to make sure you have proper international coverage.

When I went on my Italian honeymoon in 2019, I contacted my cellphone provider AT&T and arranged for an international plan for the time period in which we would be traveling abroad for the first time. It wasn’t too expensive, and it worked perfectly!

Get information about your cellphone carrier:

Call your credit card companies and advise them of your travel plans.

You don’t want you credit cards to not work when you are in a foreign country. And, if you don’t advise your credit card company of your travel prior to your trip, they may deem charges to be fraudulent and decline them.

You will also want to ask if there are any added fees for international purchases.

Buy travel insurance.

My mother-in-law gave me a huge “international travel for beginners” tip — to buy travel insurance to cover both travel AND medical expenses. She advised me that some medical insurers don’t cover medical expenses abroad and that she knew someone who got burned by this when she broke her leg in Spain. We purchased insurance through our travel agent and enjoyed the peace of mind.

Save money with the VAT tax.

Since I’m not a numbers gal, I’ll rely on The Points Guy to explain the VAT tax to you:

If you bought something overseas, especially in Europe, you likely paid a value added tax, or VAT. The good news is that visitors to the European Union (EU) may be able to get a refund on that tax.

It’s similar to an American sales tax, but MUCH higher. Of note, prices in the EU have the VAT included. 

The Points Guy describes the rules for getting a VAT refund this way:

There are quite a few requirements. For instance, you must take your new item or items home with you within three months of the purchase. You can’t get VAT refunds for large goods like cars. If you’re an EU visitor, you can’t get a VAT refund for services like hotel stays and meals.

In some countries, your purchase must exceed a certain amount to be eligible for a VAT refund. […]

Also, the goods must be new and in their packaging when you leave Europe. They can’t be unpacked, consumed or worn. So wait until you get back home to rock that shiny new European outfit.

When you make a purchase that exceeds the minimum eligibility requirements for the country you are visiting, you can ask for VAT tax paperwork. It only takes them a few minutes to give this to you. You will likely need to show them your passport.

Then, you can obtain the refund at a special station at the airport.

This may sound complicated, but it really isn’t too bad, and it can be well worth it!

I purchased a Gucci purse and a Prada wallet in Florence, and I received a couple of hundred dollars back in about 20 minutes at the airport.

Just make sure you research the VAT tax rules for the country you are visiting before you travel abroad for the first time.

Get local currency.

Before we went to Italy, we obtained some Euros from our bank. We found this to be cheap and easy. While we did use ATMs in Europe to obtain Euros as well, the fees were more expensive.

I have also heard that the fees for getting Euros at the airport tend to be the highest. I hope that makes for one of the most cost-effective tips for traveling abroad for the first time!

Make sure your passport is valid for at least six more months.

Go check your passport now. No, really. Don’t be THAT person!

Stock up on medication.

I asked my pharmacy for extra medication due to long term international travel before we went to Italy for our honeymoon, and they quickly and easily obliged. This is another task that just gives you peace of mind.

Have your mail held by the post office.

You can apply for a mail hold with the United States post office so that your mail isn’t piling up while you are away. It worked perfectly for us.

Register your trip with U.S. Embassy.

According to the U.S. State Department:

The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

The benefits of enrollment include:

  • Receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country, helping you make informed decisions about your travel plans.
  • Help the U.S. Embassy contact you in an emergency, whether natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency.
  • Help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.

There’s simply no harm in acting on this “international travel for beginners” tip, so you can’t go wrong in taking a few minutes to register your trip with the U.S. State Department.

Download Google Translate.

Google Translate is such a helpful app! One of the coolest features is that you can hold your camera lens over something in a different language, and it translates the words for you right on the screen instantly! How cool is that?! We used it several times, especially when reading menus. And sometimes just for fun…

Book transportation ahead if you can.

Our travel agent suggested that we book our travel transportation, especially train rides, ahead of time, as they can sell out. She did it for us, and it was an absolute breeze for us to board at an otherwise hectic train station in Florence.

Research the rules for tipping in the country you are visiting.

Prior to visiting Italy, we learned that tipping (i.e., at restaurants, in cabs) was generally not customary, and so we saved a lot of money (and didn’t look *as much* like American tourists) when we traveled abroad for the first time.

Buy adapters and a travel steamer.

Two of the most helpful tips for traveling abroad for the first time that I can give you are to buy an international travel adapter and a dual voltage travel steamer (if they are recommended for the country to which you are traveling).

Or, you *WILL* blow out your steamer on its first use and be forced to hang your clothes in a hot bathroom to steam them for the rest of your trip. Yes, this happened to us. And for the next ten days, we could not find a replacement ANYWHERE.

So, trust me on this one.

Shop the following on Amazon:

Buy a travel wallet.

#1 best seller on Amazon

Before I traveled abroad for the first time, a friend suggested I purchase this specific international travel wallet, which is really cheap AND holds EVERYTHING you need when traveling overseas, all in one space: passport, boarding passes, phone, credit cards, keys, SIM cards, ID, a pen, money and more.

It comes in 30+ colors, but I personally picked rose gold.

Those are my best tips for traveling abroad for the first time.

If you’re traveling for business, check out my business travel essentials for even more national and international travel tips.

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