Heading off on a big adventure? Then it pays to prepare properly!
Mind you, that doesn’t mean stuffing your luggage with a billion items you don’t need, or meticulously pre-planning an itinerary that maybe could be left a little more spontanious. Being overprepared is a thing.
Still, years of traveling taught me there are some essential steps to take before every trip…
Gearing up for a big trip?
I wrote an definitive and inspiring guidebook, which covers the whole planning process from A to Z. It’s helped thousands of travelers like you prepare for their trip!
1. Remember the most important items
I’m sure you’ve got this covered, but just to be sure…
- Your passport (duh!)
- Your bank- or credit cards
- Your driving license, if you have one
These are the only items that are 100% essential. If you forget anything else you can still buy it there, but without ID or payment methods you literally can’t travel.
Store them securely! And put your bank cards in different spots.
2. Leave all the crap you don’t need
Are you pouring over tons of packing lists and obsessing over your gear?
Then maybe you’re at risk of overpacking.
Many packing lists try to be the most ‘complete’ but list tons of stuff you might not really need. Some lists are aimed at road trips or wilderness trekking and not for general travel.
Chances are you won’t need half the gear you think you’ll need!
If you are going on an active trip where you move location often, then always try to pack as light as you can. Everything just becomes so much easier on the road when you’re not traveling like a mule. You’re more mobile and it’s easier to use every mode of transportation.
For an example of how you can pack efficiently, read my ultimate guide to packing light.
The above photo shows what I usually pack for a trip in summer or to a tropical destination.
Consider traveling with just a carry-on backpack (around 40 liters) to force yourself to pack lighter.
3. Get a debit card with free ATM withdrawals
ATMs abroad are evil.
They often add hefty foreign transaction and currency exchange fees. And your bank at home? They often get in on the action too.
Get a travel debit card with better currency exchange rates or free ATM withdrawals. I’ve used many and think Wise is awesome. It allows some ATM withdrawals for free every month and the exchange rates are fantastic. It’s completely free to sign up for Wise.
(They also give you a bunch of international bank accounts which is really cool. This will be useful if you end up working abroad or running an online business. Most of my Indie Traveller transactions go via Wise.)
Even if you already have a card you can use, it’s a great idea to have a backup, in case your primary doesn’t work for any reason.
It’s essential to be able to use ATMs. Many countries still mainly use cash, even developed ones like Japan, so don’t rely solely on credit cards, contactless payments, or more specific systems like Apple Pay.
Whatever card you use, make sure you can block it instantly in your app if needed. Hacking and ATM fraud does sometimes happen in developing countries (I’ve had issues with it a few times). Wise has this handy feature.
4. Check the validity of your IDs
Does your passport need updating? Many countries won’t issue a visa if you have less than 6 months left on your passport, so it’s worth checking if your documents are up to date.
If you’ll be driving abroad, you may need an International Driver’s License. In practice, rental companies don’t check this in less strict countries (such as Thailand or Vietnam), but this can be a big problem when dealing with the police or when making insurance claims.
Speaking of which…
5. Get travel insurance
Despite the added expense, I always recommend getting travel insurance.
It’s not so much for things like theft or trip cancellation coverage. Sure, that’s nice to have, but it’s really about the unlikely (but potentially financially devastating) emergencies. Medical, accident, and liability coverage is what it’s all about.
There are many insurers to choose from. World Nomads gets mentioned a lot, but these days I go with Heymondo. They have packages for short and long trips, as well as annual plans. You can view a detailed comparison of travel insurance to find one that suits your needs.
Because I’m partnered with Heymondo you can get a small discount if you get a quote through the links here.
6. Get your vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis
Going to Belgium? Then congrats, you can skip this section!
You probably won’t be getting malaria while filling up on waffles in Bruges.
But it’ll be different if you’re going to, say, the remote rainforests of Borneo.
For any tropical destination or developing country, you may need to get vaccinations or malaria medication. Some countries (mainly in Latin America) also officially require proof of yellow fever vaccination. Malaria prevention medicine is only rarely needed these days, but it might be if you’re going to very off-the-grid places.
Check with your local doctor ahead of time (4-6 weeks before your trip).
7. Know your budget
I’ve met a few travelers who ended up stuck in a place with no money, having blasted through their budget way too quickly. Oops.
Even if you’re not on a tight budget — and won’t be stuck forever stuck working in a grimy bar in Kathmandu to earn your return if you’ve overspent — it still sucks to have to break open your savings account.
It’s impossible to predict all your expenses exactly, of course, but it’s good to make some rough pre-trip estimates. Add 10-15% extra for unexpected expenses and keep some backup budget available.
8. Request any visas you need
A.k.a. “can you actually legally enter the country you’re going to?”.
Often it’s possible to get a visa-on-arrival at the destination airport, but there are plenty of exceptions. It depends hugely on the country you’re going and what nationality you have.
The easiest place to check this is Visalist.io. You can get a visa yourself at the appropriate embassy or government web portal, or you can get a third-party service to help you for an extra fee.
9. Consider how to stay online abroad
Using your home phone’s mobile data abroad can incur very hefty roaming charges. That’s why it’s best to either disable the mobile data on your phone or to prepare a different solution.
Going on a trip can honestly be a great digital detox. I sometimes stay mostly offline, using offline map apps to find my way and using the occasional free WiFi signal. But if you want to stay online during your trip, it’s of great help to have a local SIM card.
If you have a phone with dual SIM capability, you can use your home SIM and a local SIM (just for data) concurrently. If your phone supports eSIMs (most new iPhones and Samsung phones do) you can also buy an eSIM for your destination to avoid huge bills for data roaming when you get back. I recommend using aloSIM which has eSIMs for countries all over the world.
10. Set up a backup service
I’m so sick of hearing sob stories from travelers who lost all their photos!
It’s not just theft that can ruin all your photo memories; cameras can overheat, fall into the ocean, corrupt their memory, or you can even press the Delete All button by accident. Don’t laugh, it actually happened to someone I traveled with.
Set up a cloud storage service before you go, such as iCloud or Google Drive. Or make manual copies to an extra SD card or portable hard drive. A stolen camera can be replaced but your photos can’t… so save them twice!
11. Keep a record of emergency details
Keep emergency details like travel insurance details, a copy/picture of your passport, your bank’s 24-hour helpline number (in case of a stolen card), or emergency contacts at home. Write it down or email it to yourself so you can always access it.
12. Download travel apps for your phone
There are some super useful apps that are worth having on your phone when you travel.
If you download just one, make sure it’s MAPS.ME. It has fantastic maps that are more detailed than Google Maps or Apple Maps in many countries and that show far more walking paths. You can also use them offline. Many travellers swear by it!
There are some other app suggestions here.
13. Research the local customs and language
Check if there are any cultural quirks to be aware of in your destination, and learn some useful phrases in the local language.
This can save you a bit of embarrassment and make your trip go a lot smoother. It’s often easier to learn these things now than during your travels.
Before travelling to South America, I spent a few weeks practicing Spanish on Duolingo, which helped me enormously when having to ask for directions or ordering food.
14. Get the right plug adaptor(s)
Different countries use different types of electrical sockets.
It’s often not too difficult to pick up a cheap converter at a market or electronics shop somewhere at your destination. You could also pack a universal all-in-one plug adaptor, so that you don’t need to worry about being able to charge your electronics anywhere in the world.
15. Get yourself a travel diary
If you’re going on a longer journey, I highly recommend keeping a journal. I’m so grateful for having done so.
The longer your trip the more details you are bound to forget. After a while, everything just starts to blur together. But even keeping some very simple notes can help you recall so much more later.
You don’t need to write deeply personal diaries or cringy poetry — just keep track of the things you did each day and people you’d like to remember. I find that this is often all that’s needed to hold onto many other details of your journey.
You can do it on your phone, but I think there’s something nice and tactile about getting a physical notebook. Don’t miss my 5 funs ways to document your travels.
16. Prepare a travel soundtrack
You might have some long journeys ahead of you, so get some playlists ready to keep yourself entertained. Whatever music you bring on your trip will surely become deeply associated with it in your memory. You can make things more fun by trying to find music that fits the theme of the destination(s) you’ll visit.
If you use streaming platforms like Spotify or Apple Music, then it might be worth downloading all your favorite tunes to your device, as you might not always have a reliable internet connection abroad.
17. Generally load up on content
If you use streaming apps, download episodes for offline viewing. Download plenty of podcasts, e-books, and other materials too. It’s often easier to do this at home than on the road.
Streaming apps may have different show selections when you’re abroad based on your location. Other content channels may also be restricted in different ways. You can still get around this by using a VPN but it’s nicer to have all your favorite content downloaded already.
Ensure there is still plenty of space left on your device(s) for photos or videos.
18. Leave your home in a good state
If you’ll be away for a while then be sure to clear the fridge, water the plants, turn off the heaters, arrange care for your pet, and make sure you leave your home secured.
19. Have a plan for after you land
As a frequent traveler, I honestly forget this point far too often! If you’re flying, check the situation at the destination airport, particularly with regard to onward travel.
Find out roughly what a taxi to the city costs, if ride-hailing apps are available, or what your public transportation options are. This ensures a smooth arrival and avoids getting scammed by taxi drivers.
20. Take a deep breath
Okay, you’ve got this.
Take your time to pack well (and ideally pack a few days in advance of your trip) but remember you can buy pretty much anything you might forget.
As long as you have money, identification, travel documents and travel insurance, you’ll be good.
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