11 international travel tips for your first time abroad

Travel is one of life’s most exciting things—no matter where you’re headed. There are new sights to see, people to meet and foods to discover. 

If you’re traveling abroad, there’s more than just excitement to consider—especially if it’s your first time. Check out these international travel tips for ways to improve your planning, ease your stress and take on the world as a more confident traveler.

Key takeaways

  • Planning ahead can be a good idea, because tasks like mapping out an itinerary, applying for passports and getting vaccinations can take time. 

  • Budgeting for your trip might help you find a balance between enjoying your travels while keeping your spending in check.

  • Travel insurance may offer some financial protection if flights are canceled or medical emergencies happen.

  • A travel rewards credit card could help you earn rewards, enjoy perks and avoid foreign transaction fees when you make international purchases. 

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1. Learn about your destination

The U.S. Department of State offers resources for learning about the world’s countries, including detailed information on international travel. Its guide covers everything from documents you may need for international travel to tips for driving safely in other countries.

The State Department also offers a traveler’s checklist and recommendations related to:

  • Safety and security: Get information on general safety precautions for your destination country, including travel advisories and alerts, entry and exit requirements, and more.

  • Traveler information: You might encounter different types of travelers while you’re away, including student travelers, travelers with disabilities and older travelers. It may help to learn more about them.

  • Crisis planning: Review the agency’s recommendations on preparing yourself for a possible crisis while traveling abroad.

  • Health precautions: Check into health-related issues that could affect your international travels. They include things like getting required vaccinations, dealing with a health emergency and understanding what services your health insurance plan will cover.

Consider joining the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program

Before your trip, you may want to look into the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)

The free program provides U.S. citizens traveling abroad with security updates from the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to them. STEP can also help family and friends reach you with urgent news while you’re traveling.

2. Apply for or renew your passport

If you plan to travel internationally from the U.S., you’ll need a passport. There are two types of passports you might be able to use:

  • A passport book is required for traveling to an international destination by air, sea or land. 

  • A passport card is an option if you’re entering or exiting the U.S. at land border crossings and sea ports of entry with Canada, Mexico, Caribbean countries and Bermuda. But a passport card can’t be used for traveling internationally by air.

If you need to renew your passport, you can generally do so by mail. You’ll need to include things like the proper documents and a renewal fee. But if you meet certain conditions, you may need to visit a passport acceptance facility.

Apply for your passport well in advance

Because applying for a passport can take time, it may help to plan ahead. 

Here’s some information the State Department reported in November 2023 about processing times: 

  • Routine processing period for passports was 7-10 weeks. 

  • Mailing time for both your application and completed passport could add about 4 weeks to the process.

  • You can typically have your application expedited for a $60 fee, which might reduce processing time to 3-5 weeks. There are also options for urgent and emergency travel.

  • To have a passport expedited at an agency office, travelers “must have international travel within 14 calendar days.” The department says to call 877-487-2778 to make an appointment. 

A close-up photo of a person’s hand. They’re carrying a suitcase and a U.S. passport.

A passport is generally required to travel internationally from the U.S.

3. Gather other important travel documents

In addition to a passport, you may need other travel-related documents for your trip. These could include: 

  • Visas 

  • International driving permits 

  • Documents required for traveling with minor children 

  • Required vaccinations and supporting documents

To see if your destination requires a visa, use the State Department’s destination search tool. And for information about required vaccinations for your destination country, check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

4. Make a budget 

Another consideration for your trip: thinking about ways to travel economically. You could start by creating a budget for your trip using the pen-and-paper method or an online spreadsheet. 

Here are some expense categories to consider including in your budget:

  • Food: Consider how often you’ll dine out and whether you’ll be able to economize by occasionally making your own meals.

  • Travel: Airfare may be a considerable portion of your travel budget, especially if you’re headed overseas. You’ll also want to think about the cost of getting around once you arrive.

  • Accommodations: Whether you stay in hotels, hostels or a place you’ve found on a home-sharing site, accommodations can vary widely in price. 

  • Fees and paperwork: This category can include things like fees for vaccinations, passport costs and travel insurance. 

  • Unexpected expenses: While you can’t plan for everything, having a cushion for the unexpected—like medical emergencies or exchange rates—can help you stay ahead of the game.

5. Consider a travel rewards credit card

You might also consider a travel rewards credit card for your trip. They can offer a wide range of rewards. For instance, you can earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase you make with a Capital One Venture credit card. You can then redeem your rewards for travel expenses like flights and hotels.

For an international trip, you might think about a travel rewards card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees when you make purchases outside the U.S. A card that will reimburse you for TSA PreCheck® or Global Entry might be helpful too. 

6. Book your flight

There’s typically a lot to learn about flight availability and pricing. Factors like seasonality, inflation and competition between airlines can affect costs. 

Flight prices may also fluctuate based on when you book your ticket. That’s why leaving yourself time to monitor pricing could help you get a better deal. Check out the best time to book a flight for more ideas for saving on airfare.

If you’re a cardholder, you might think about booking your flight through Capital One Travel. It’s an online booking experience for eligible Capital One cardholders that’s designed to make planning travel enjoyable. Capital One Travel sorts through thousands of options to help you get our best prices for flights, hotels and car rentals.1 Eligible cardholders can even earn extra rewards when they book through Capital One Travel.

Don’t forget about jet lag

According to Mayo Clinic, jet lag is “a temporary sleep problem that can affect anyone who quickly travels across several time zones.” If you’re traveling internationally, there’s naturally a chance you could experience it.

Mayo Clinic has tips for dealing with jet lag. They include arriving at your destination early to adjust, especially if you’re there for an important event. Getting lots of rest before you travel could also help since lack of sleep may make jet lag feel even worse.

A photo of an espresso sitting on a small table. The table is situated on a hillside overlooking blue water filled with boats.

Part of the appeal of international travel is that there are new places to see, people to meet and cuisines to discover.

7. Compare accommodations

Comparing the cost of hotel rooms with the prices of lodging like hostels or home-sharing services is a good place to start. 

You could also check out tips from the State Department on lodging safety. For example, the agency recommends staying near transportation and public services as well as being aware of the area’s crime rate.

When it comes to booking accommodations, a travel rewards credit card could help. Remember, Capital One cardholders have access to Capital One Travel. It can help eligible cardholders book confidently and manage their hotel, flight and car rental bookings.

8. Explore travel insurance

Travel insurance may help provide financial protection in situations like:

  • Trip cancellation 

  • Loss of baggage and personal effects 

  • Medical expenses 

  • Accidental death or flight accident

Some credit cards include travel insurance as a benefit. For example, some Capital One reward cards feature travel accident insurance and lost luggage reimbursement.2 Some of these benefits are provided by Visa® or Mastercard® and may vary depending on the card.

9. Check whether you should notify your bank and credit card company

People used to be encouraged to contact their banks and credit card issuers before traveling. That was to help prevent purchases made with debit or credit cards from being declined due to concerns about identity theft. 

Thanks to improvements in fraud detection technology, that may not be as necessary today. For instance, there’s no need to alert Capital One about your travel plans. 

If you’re planning to use a debit card on your trip, be sure you understand things like your daily spending limit, daily withdrawal limit and out-of-network ATM fees.

A photo of a person in a dress who’s sitting beside their luggage. They’re holding their mobile phone in one hand and a credit card in the other.

Before you travel internationally, it could help to make sure your contact information is up to date with your bank and credit card companies.

10. Check your cellphone plan 

Rates and rules for roaming can vary among mobile service providers and may get more complex when you’re traveling internationally. That’s why it could help to check on things like its international roaming rates and tracking your usage. If you can’t find the information you’re looking for, you could try contacting your cellphone provider directly.

11. Pack your bags

When packing your bags, check with the airline you’re flying about its baggage restrictions. Maximum allowable carry-ons and checked bags might differ from one carrier to the next. 

You’ll also want to think about travel accessories that could add to the security and convenience of international travel. They could include things like anti-theft gear to keep your cash and cards safe while you’re in public areas. With today’s credit card security features, you might decide to avoid carrying cash altogether. For instance, Capital One credit card security features include instant purchase notifications and card lock. 

Noise-canceling headphones can be another good idea. So can universal power adapters for charging your devices when you’re on the go.

What isn’t allowed in a carry-on bag?

The Transportation Security Administration provides a list of what’s allowed in carry-ons. Airline passengers generally aren’t allowed to carry on items like firearms, pocketknives and wine corkscrews. 

Most liquids, including hand sanitizers and liquid medications, are approved for carry-ons. Typically, liquids are allowed if they’re in quantities less than or equal to 3.4 fluid ounces or 100 milliliters. Some exceptions to the maximum apply, including baby formula.

Tips for traveling internationally in a nutshell

From budgeting to booking, there’s a lot to think about when making international travel plans. Remember, a travel rewards credit card could also be part of your plan. And it might help you earn rewards and access benefits along the way. Consider Capital One’s Venture travel cards to earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase—at home and abroad.

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