Tips for International Travel

First time overseas? Follow these steps and you'll be good to go.
By Catharine Fleury
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Image of Eiffel Tower in Paris, France
Whether you’re going to see the great sights of Europe or to a tiny village in the South Pacific, traveling internationally takes some planning.  (Andrew Ward/Life File/Photodisc)

Visas, vaccinations, teeny-tiny rental cars—international travel sure sounds daunting, but it doesn't have to be. The key lies in good planning. "I recommend keeping a list of how you did it the first time and improve it every other time," says Cassandra Wallace, a seasoned Intrepid Travel employee with an impressive 82 countries under her belt. "I can be out the door in half an hour now if I need to." Here are our seven essential steps to guide your research.

1. Get your paperwork in order
When: Eight to 12 weeks before departure
It's never too early to start thinking about passports and visas. Ideally, you should do this as soon as you make your travel arrangements, but if you give yourself two to three months, you should be in good shape.

The very first question to ask yourself: Does everyone in my travel group have a passport—including the kids? All minors, even newborns and infants, must have their own passports when traveling internationally by air. Question two: When does my passport expire? Certain countries require visitors' passports to be valid for at least six months beyond the dates of their trip. Finally: How many blank visa pages are left in my passport book? Some countries require a minimum of two to four. And watch out for those "endorsements" pages at the very back of your passport book. They may look like blank visa pages, but they're not. Once you've collected this information, visit the State Department's passport page for detailed instructions on how to apply for, renew, or add pages to a passport. Note that these services typically take four to six weeks to come through (two to three weeks if you cough up an extra $60 plus overnight delivery charges for expedited processing).

Visas take a bit more research. Some countries require them, others do not; some take weeks to process applications, others can turn them around within 24 hours. Your job is to find out: Does my destination country require a visa? If so, how long will it take to obtain one? How long will it remain valid? This last question is an important one, as certain countries require you to apply months prior to visiting the location. Get the visa too early and it could expire before you even depart. Start with the State Department's Country Specific Information sheets and skip to the "Entry/Exit Requirements" section, which provides a detailed overview of your country's passport and visa requirements, as well as a link to its embassy website. Be sure to confirm everything with the embassy directly.

"It can be a bit of a juggling act as to what to organize first," admits Intrepid's Wallace. "So that's why the more preparation, the better—to save those desperate minutes waiting at the postbox for your passport to come back. I don't want to go through that again."

2. Pay the doctor a visit
When: Four to six weeks before departure
The single most important resource for planning a healthy trip abroad is the "Destinations" section of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Travelers' Health website. Pull up the health information page for the country you plan to visit and read it from top to bottom, paying special attention to the list of recommended vaccines. Note that all international travelers should be up to date on routine shots (tetanus, measles, etc.), so if you don't know your immunization history by heart, now is the time to dig it up. You should also contact your insurance company, as many do not offer full coverage for vaccines like yellow fever and rabies.

Next, schedule an appointment with a health-care provider, ideally four to six weeks before your departure. "If you have complicated health histories, start with your primary-care doctor," advises Dr. Lin Chen, a member of the International Society of Travel Medicine (ISTM) executive governing board and director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But if your overall health is good, consider a travel medicine specialist. ISTM has a useful global travel clinic directory on its website, as does the CDC Travelers' Health site.

Be sure to provide your doctor with your itinerary as well.

3. Learn the roads
When: The same time you book your other travel arrangements
Did you know that the Czech Republic is one of the most lethal places to drive in Europe? Or that Belizeans pull to the right before making a left turn? Before you decide to rent wheels abroad, read up on the driving scene in your destination. The Country Specific Information sheets on the U.S. State Department's International Travel website offer detailed overviews of local driving conditions, laws, and customs (scroll down to "Traffic Safety and Road Conditions").

Still game? "You definitely should book the car before you get there," says Jill Rosenberg, the manager of group and executive travel services for AAA. Early birds tend to score lower rates and a better selection (i.e., your family of five won't get stuck with a subcompact). Be very specific about your needs: How much space will you require? Can you drive manual transmission? Do you want liability insurance in addition to a collision damage waiver (highly recommended)?

Many countries do not recognize regular U.S. driver's licenses but will honor an International Driving Permit (IDP), which is essentially a translation of your license into ten languages. Only two agencies are authorized to issue IDPs: AAA and the National Automobile Club (be aware that there are many scammers out there). AAA has a useful description of the IDP and application process here: Give yourself a month if applying by mail, or just drop into a local agency office for same-day service. Lastly, make sure you fill out the forms correctly—AAA's New York office alone sends back 30 percent of its IDP applications due to incomplete submissions.

Published: 13 Apr 2009 | Last Updated: 6 Jan 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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