Oh, the anticipation of traveling abroad for the first time!
You’re excited, obviously. Not only that you’re about to head off for your first overseas trip, but you’re also about to unlock a life achievement that will make you check that item off your bucket list. It’s probably one of the most amazing feelings you’ll have in years. And the best part? It’s just the beginning!
I can still remember that mixed feeling of being excited and daunted but nevertheless “thrilled and a little panicky inside” that I had when I finally purchased my first airline ticket for my travel abroad. Traveling is not a new thing to me. I’ve been to a few domestic destinations in the Philippines before going internationally. My first plane ride was for a trip going to Boracay in 2009 (yep, several years ago before President Duterte ordered to close the tourist destination for rehabilitation). But still, nothing beats that “oh my gosh, I’m finally traveling abroad!” feeling.
Now I understand that since it will be your first time going abroad, a lot of your anxiety may come from not knowing the logistics of how it will be overseas. That’s okay. We all went through that. Getting ready for that first trip abroad can be a little intimidating. But let me tell you, the more you travel, the more you will feel comfortable adapting to the dynamics of traveling abroad.
Here, allow me to give you some travel hacks to help you ease your mind.
1. ORGANIZE YOUR PASSPORT
Your passport is the most important thing you will carry while traveling. More than money, more than your phone, more than your favorite whatever-collection-you-have at home. Without your passport, you will not be able to leave your home country.
Make sure you have extra copies of your passport. Leave a copy of your passport at home or with someone you trust. I highly suggest to also make an electronic copy that you can store and easily retrieve both online and offline whether on your phone, email account, or in a safe cloud-based storage. And if you happen to lose your physical passport while you are away because God forbid, it got stolen or lost, having a copy of your passport helps to easily prove your citizenship and might also expedite the issuance of the emergency travel document going back to your home country. Again, knock on wood, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
It also helps if you can memorize your passport number and expiry date. Not only that it has several other practical benefits in the future, but it is also useful for check-in at hostels/hotels, at train and bus stations, and all those occasions where you only need to fill out a form with your details, including passport number.
Check how long until your passport expires. Some countries won’t allow entry with less than 6 months and in some cases, 3 months validity remaining. To be on the safe side, always make sure that your passport is still valid for six months or more after your date of arrival in your country of destination.
TRAVEL HACK: Consider storing your passport separate from your other important belongings. Personally, I have a waterproof travel belt bag that I bought from Lazada. This bag can be discreetly worn underneath my shirt/blouse. Yep, you should keep your passport close to you.
2. CHECK TRAVEL VISA REQUIREMENT
Next to passport, obtaining a visa should be on your travel checklist. It is important to cross-check the visa requirements of your nationality with the countries you intend to visit. Every country is different when it comes to entry and exit conditions. For Philippine passport holders, there are over 60 countries we can visit either visa-free or visa on arrival. Check out my article where I featured the list of countries that Filipinos can enter either visa-free or visa on arrival. Still, I strongly recommend that you double check with the consulate or embassy of the countries you plan on visiting to ensure you are receiving accurate information. If a visa is not required, then good for you.
TRAVEL HACK: For your first travel abroad, I suggest that you go to a visa-free country to avoid the hassle of visa fees and applications. My first travel abroad was in Malaysia which I happened to blend in really well, by the way. Most often than not, locals think I’m Chinese-Malaysian until I open my mouth and start talking. Had I known that it’s gonna blow up my cover, I should’ve attended Mandarin classes before.
3. PREPARE YOUR FINANCIALS
Now, let’s talk about money. It is common sense to look up the monetary conversion before you go. The last thing you want is to be surprised by the conversion rate once you do the math because you didn’t do your research beforehand.
Activate your ATM card’s international withdrawal feature. It actually dawned on me recently that ATMs are the cheapest way to exchange currency compared to money changer centers in the airport or around the city which tend to be huge rip-offs. And besides, you won’t get charged as much fees at the ATM, and the conversion will be exact. So, make sure that your card’s capacity for international withdrawal is activated and bring it with you to the country you’re visiting.
Call your bank. Besides activating the international withdrawal feature of your card, it’s always a good idea to inform your bank or credit card provider that you’re traveling abroad. Sometimes banks think that fraud may be occurring if transactions are suddenly happening on the other side of the world when you’re from Kuala Lumpur or Manila. The tendency is, they will “freeze” your card as a security measure, leaving you stuck without money.
Always have a cash of local currency on hand. Does “credit is good but we need cash” ring to a bell to you? Not all establishments accept cards, especially small-scale businesses. And if they do, sometimes there should be a minimum amount spent before they accept a card. What if you only need to buy a bottle of water? Just saying.
TRAVEL HACK: I always stash a certain amount of money somewhere other than my purse or wallet (if you prefer using it). That will be my emergency stash for worst-case scenarios. Advance ako mag-isip minsan. Perhaps a shoe or even a brassiere – just a suggestion, but not necessarily where I put mine. Of course, I won’t reveal mine!
4. PACK LIGHT AND PRACTICAL
You don’t need to bring your entire closet or even your entire house with you when you go travel. I know, everyone’s first instinct is to take everything they may need. But trust me, you will have a lot more fun if you pack less. It’s a rite of passage for travelers to slowly become better at packing less. Try to stick to one small suitcase or backpack with a small carry-on for the plane. You will probably be dragging that suitcase up and down the stairs and onto trains. You’ll get weighed down and it’s tiring.
Be sure to pack your carry-on with essential items (should be under 100ml each for liquid): toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, pen, and an extra set of clothes. Don’t put everything in your check-in luggage. Don’t be one of those travelers left with nothing else to use just because your check-in bag gets delayed or worse, the airline lost your luggage.
Bring a universal travel adapter and your own extension socket cord. Obviously, this is aside from bringing a handy power bank. Countries have different plug size and voltage. You don’t want to get stuck with a drained phone battery, digicam, or laptop just because the socket and plugs are not compatible. You can thank me later.
Pack clean underwear for every day that you’ll be gone. Pack a few pieces of clothing that can be mixed and matched. And don’t forget to bring big zip lock bags or any of those lightweight laundry bags that you can buy in Daiso or Mr. DIY. You’ll need it for your dirty clothes so they don’t affect your clean clothes that are yet to be worn. If you’ll be abroad longer, you can always wash as you go.
TRAVEL HACK: I like to pack items that have multiple uses such as a scarf or an oversized hoodie in my carry-on. They can be used as a blanket, pillow, eye-cover, or even make-shift towel. You’ll be surprised to know that they are useful when you least expect it.
5. PACK SMART AND PACK FOR COMFORT
This is part two of luggage and packing topic (see number 4) because someone just had to do it.
Did I mention that it’s recommended to pack less? Unless you’re Miss Universe Thailand 2018, you don’t need to show up at the airport with 17 large suitcases. Before putting that stuff in your bag, ask yourself this: Do I really need this there? Am I really going to use this there?
Do you really need to bring three pairs of shoes or seven pairs of jeans? And that pair of stilettos, do you really think you’ll able to use it there? Unless you have a cocktail party to attend to or other exceptional reasons to bring your high heels with you, I highly suggest that you pack comfortable sneakers or flats instead. Your first international trip would be more fun without the sore feet.
And if you won’t be out there for too long, two pairs of neutral colors will do. That way, it’s not going to take up much space in your luggage (just one pair if you’ll be wearing the other one) and it will be easy to match it with any of your outfit of the day (OOTD).
Bottom line is, just pack the stuff that you will REALLY need. Don’t pack too many clothes because you might be shopping for clothes while you travel anyway. And always pack for comfort first. You will never need as much stuff as you thought you did. You will rarely need more than one pair of shoes or more than one fancy outfit. And soon you will get used with wearing something more than once.
TRAVEL HACK: Before packing my stuff, I make a list of my planned OOTDs based on the itinerary (considering the weather, geographical area, event, et cetera). That way, I won’t need to pack clothes that will end up unused for the duration of my trip.
6. CHECK AIRLINE RULES
Each airline has its own set of guidelines as to how many bags can be checked or carried on for free. Make sure to look up your airline rules to avoid any incremental fees. If you’re taking multiple flights with different carriers, check ALL the weight limits of your flights so you don’t get caught out.
Now, depending on which airline you fly with, check-in times can vary. I suggest that you check with the airline’s website if there’s an option for you to go on web check-in ahead of time and print your own boarding pass. I like doing web check-in especially when I don’t have any check-in luggage because that saves me time at the airport and I don’t have to wait in line.
TRAVEL HACK: Before baggage weigh-in, I would layer up with those coats or jackets or other wearable items that are substantially heavy and bulky and can add a considerable weight to my luggage. Either that or I’d put a piece or two on top of my carry-on bag. I would do this if I suspect (or I already know) that my luggage is overweight or close to it. Once I get through security and past the airline gate agents, I will take them off and put them back to my backpack/cabin luggage. It may give me minutes of discomfort but it definitely saved me big on those pesky baggage fees.
7. BE MORE THAN PUNCTUAL
“Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.”
― Eric Jerome Dickey, Sleeping with Strangers
As a general rule, you should be at the airport at least three hours prior to your international flight’s departure time. I know the airport is a dreaded place to spend a few extra hours, but believe me when I say it’s better to be too early than too late! The time at the airport is mostly taken for baggage clearance and security check. After all, it’s up to you whether you want to sit idle for a few hours at the airport or miss a flight because you reached too late at the airport.
If you prefer to check-in at the airport counter, being there early will give you peace of mind. And even if you did web check-in but you have check-in luggage, you still need to queue for the bag drop counter. You may also want to check the departure boards regularly to see what time your flight is expected to leave, what gate it is leaving from, and if there are any delays or gate changes that may come up. It’s not worth being stressed every step of the way just so you can save a few minutes. I once missed my flight, even if I already checked-in, simply because I was a little too late for boarding time.
Depending on your airline, your departure time – and everything else on your ticket – might be listed in 24-hour time format (military time). This doesn’t require the use of AM or PM. So if your booked ticket doesn’t indicate AM or PM on its flight schedule, most likely it’s on a 24-hour time format and always follow the local timezone. I hope you’ll never miss a flight just because you failed to determine the time format.
TRAVEL HACK: I know you’re super excited to board the plane and leave already, but as soon as boarding begins, don’t rush to the gate like everyone else. I’d rather wait until the queue is clear. Doing this will spare me the burden of carrying my heavy carry-on bag while standing on queue and waiting anxiously. So, chill and wait while seated. The plane won’t leave without you and you’ll have plenty of time to get on board.
8. ACE YOUR FIRST IMMIGRATION INTERVIEW
Flying internationally means you will be going through an immigration interview. Some people dread this. But it can’t be avoided. And besides, it’s easy to ace this even if it’s your first time.
When filling out a departure card (and later on an arrival card), make sure to write legibly (and I mean in capital letters). Answer all the fields that require your information. And for goodness’ sake, DO NOT use a red ink pen. Use only black or blue pen.
In order to avoid any unnecessary delays and to make a good impression at immigration, prepare hard copies of your return flight tickets and hotel reservations. Make sure that you also have your proof of financial capacity like a credit card (or some of the local currency), and your company ID or working visa/pass on hand to show just in case. Keep them together along with your passport and visa (to the country of destination, if applicable) for easy access when needed.
When talking to an immigration officer, remember three things: Be polite, be confident, and don’t panic. It is not cool to crack a joke with an IO, but it doesn’t hurt to smile at them. Give a brief and concise truthful answer to every question. Don’t open a can of worms. Avoid offering any excess information that will give them a reason to doubt you.
TRAVEL HACK: I always have my Detective Conan two-color pen with me anywhere I go. You’ll never know when a pen comes handy, right?
9. BREEZE THROUGH AIRPORT SECURITY CHECK
I’m not fond of going through airport security. But I perfectly understand that for everyone’s sake, both domestic and international air travel passengers need to go through inspections that involve metal detectors, baggage x-ray machines, and individual bag searches. These procedures can take quite some time, so again, being early is important.
Make sure that any liquid in your carry-on are in containers of 100ml or less and are put together in a transparent bag, preferably 1 liter or less in size. If you have laptop/tablet inside your bag, you will be asked to unpack those from your bag, as it goes through the scanner, so make sure they’re packed in such a way that you can easily take them out then place in one of those provided bins for x-ray scanning.
Take off any outerwear you’re on such as a jacket or coat. If your belt has a metal buckle, you also need to take it off. If you’re wearing a pair of boots with a metal heel or anything metal on it, I hope you’re wearing a decent pair of socks, because those boots need to be removed as well and should go through the x-ray machine. Fashion-wise, wearing boots is a yes. But if you need to go through airport security, it’s a no. Trust me, taking off your shoes and putting them back on is such a hassle. Especially when airport personnel is announcing your flight as “Final Call.” That happened to me during our departure for Japan. Since then, I always make sure to wear any non-metal footwear for an airport security check.
You will also need to empty your pockets of everything. Instead of fumbling around with coins, jewelry, watch, and belt, place all those items, including your phone, in your carry-on or purse prior to going through the security checkpoint. Don’t wait until you get to the front of the line to stow your stuff that security agents don’t like out of your pockets. Take care of it while winding through the inevitable security line. Don’t be the cause of delay.
Go against the tides and head furthest away from the lanes with the majority of people. Pick the lane with fewer speed bumps, the one without baby strollers, or passengers with a lot of baggage. I know this sounds odd, but according to research, left lines tend to be shorter because the majority of people always pick a line on the right due to being right-handed, therefore, options on the left are quieter and quicker. Well, I’m left-handed so I always tend to go left.
TRAVEL HACK: To avoid paying exorbitant price for bottled water at the airport, I’d pack an empty water bottle in my carry-on and fill it up at a water fountain after the checkpoint. Empty water bottle will go through security just fine, and it will save you a few bucks.
10. GET A TRAVEL INSURANCE
Okay, for this one, I have a confession to make.
I didn’t actually get a travel insurance the first time I went abroad. It was just a waste of money, I thought. My skeptical self, as a matter of fact, told me it was just a perfectly legal way for insurance companies to rip people off. I thought it was this and that blah blah blah. Simply not necessary. Period. I have a half-dozen reasons to convince myself that it’s not for me. I know, stubborn me.
One of the obvious reasons I thought I didn’t need it was because I was so sure I am healthy, I won’t get sick, and I am not afraid to take a risk. Sure, I wasn’t afraid to take a risk, hell yeah! And that was my mistake.
The cliche, “You’ll never understand until it happens to you” is so real. When I lost my personal belongings while abroad, my passport including, it was like a nightmare. Para akong binuhusan ng malamig na tubig. But I didn’t panic. I composed myself so I could think clearly. Of course I did what needs to be done and reported the incident and all. But that’s just it. It all went on record, sure. But there’s no way of retrieving them back. Although I was safe then, thank God, I don’t want it to happen again.
While the loss of personal belongings is often the main reason most people buy travel insurance, it’s actually the least important. The things I lost can be replaced but my health can’t. What if something happened to me then physically? What if those people hurt me? In most cases, my travels go smoothly without a hitch. But since I am overseas, miles away from my family, I want to spare them the burden, both emotionally and financially, in case something happens to me. Let’s face it. Things happen. For that alone, travel insurance is worth every cent.
If you can’t afford travel insurance, then you can’t afford to travel. Sorry for being blunt here, but this is true. You managed to spend thousands on your flight tickets, hotel reservations, souvenirs, and what-not, but you don’t want to spend a few extra bucks for a comprehensive travel insurance?
If you can afford to lose your money due to a canceled booking, interrupted flight, a lost bag, delayed trip, or emergency medical expense, by all means, skip the insurance. If you’re spending a relatively small sum on your trip, ensuring that investment is probably not worth it. That’s practical. I used to have the same mindset. But now I know better. Being a single mom, I no longer need a half-dozen reasons to convince myself to get a travel insurance. I only need one reason: for my daughter, Alpha.
TRAVEL HACK: Take a photo of your laptop, camera, and other valuables with you. You’ll need it once travel insurance plans ask you to specify these items to cover their higher value. Check your policy wording, schedule of benefits and description of coverage for any limits and exclusion. Don’t be lazy. Read those fine prints.
11. RELAX, DON’T TRY TO SEE EVERYTHING
The point of the trip, more than the instagrammable photos and cute souvenirs, is to enjoy life. I know this is your first trip overseas. You want to see as much as possible and you want to tick as many boxes as you physically can. But sometimes trying to see everything and do everything takes away the joy of the experience. Slow down. Don’t plan way too much. Sit down for a while. Take a pause. Sleep when you get tired. You just have to trust that you’ll travel again.
The best part of traveling, no matter the distance or the duration, is discovering the unexpected. So, have a plan and then improvise. Deviate from the usual travel tours. Take the off-beaten path. Truth is, you’ll have no idea what you’ll enjoy or who you’ll meet. Be spontaneous if you feel like it. And remember to relax and enjoy the present.
TRAVEL HACK: I always try to bring snacks with me when exploring places. Eating in a foreign country can sometimes become a task. It helps to bring small snacks that will tide me over until that perfect restaurant or cafe is found.
12. BREAK OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE
I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but traveling isn’t for the faint-hearted. Don’t expect things to be like they are at home, your comfortest of a comfort zone. Because then, what’s the point of traveling? Duh. Might as well, just stay at home.
Keep an open mind. Be open to learn and experience new things when you travel abroad. That includes trying new food dishes, no matter how bizarre they are. You’ll be surprised to know what a single bowl of noodles can tell you about a culture. And don’t be scared to eat that street food! Want to try the crunchy fried insects? Go ahead, take a bite. How about that skewered chili frog? Indulge. And if you want to eat balut, be my guest. I know just the right place to buy a dozen. The reason this works so well while traveling is because everything is already so different. One more new experience is just a drop in a bucket. So, might as well, bring it on! The more you do this, the more that anxiety will fade away.
There will be moments when other cultures will shock you. Don’t judge them. Don’t be so quick to judge the lifestyle of others if they’re different from your own. Listen to opinions you don’t agree with. Don’t be arrogant, or at least pretend not to be. Embrace different opportunities, people, suggestions, and interests. Ask questions. You don’t have to agree, but you may be surprised what you’ll learn from the people you meet during your travels. If you travel with an open mind you can have a much more enriching experience.
TRAVEL HACK: Whenever I’m traveling solo, I’d prefer checking in at hostels or dorm rooms. Not only because those can save me bucks for accommodation, but also because those are great places for meeting fellow like-minded travelers. Also, hostel workers are generally awesome for being source of information for things to do and see in the area.
So, feeling ready and inspired yet for your first international travel?
One thing is certain: your first time abroad is going to be a surprise. You can read every travel guide and blog written on your destination all you want; binge watch the Travel Channel or every YouTube video pertaining to your destination all day every day before your departure; or even talk to every friend who has been to your destination and ask for advice and travel tips, but really, nothing will prepare you for the full reality of being abroad. No one can tell you what it’s really going to be like traveling overseas for you. You will have your own individual experience.
The quest to find out what it’s like to be in a foreign place for the first time is deeply personal. And the fact that it’s unique for everyone makes it a more rewarding experience. It is best to let go of your expectations and break down your stereotypes so that you can experience what it’s actually like to be in that place.
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