Edited by: Stella Shon
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When you travel abroad, there are a lot of things you’ll need to remember. From understanding customs and import restrictions to taking a pet abroad, this guide will provide you with all the important information you need to know. With these handy tips, you can make sure your next trip abroad is a safe and enjoyable one!
Tip #1: Getting the Cheapest Price for Your Flights
To start your holiday in the best way possible, you’re going to want to find the cheapest available flights. There are a number of different ways you can do this, including:
- The ITA Matrix – This search tool will help you to find the cheapest tickets and work out an itinerary, which is particularly useful if your route is complex.
- Google Flights – This is a fantastic tool created by Google that can save you time and energy when searching for flights. It allows you to do a basic flight search; discover destinations by entering dates, places, or interests; explore their destination map to see flights all over the country you’re traveling to; and save flights so you can compare them (great if you’re switching between devices).
Tip #2: How To Make Sure You Have a Safe Trip
Even though it’s unlikely that anything will happen while you’re on holiday, it’s best to prepare for all eventualities. There are a few things you can do to prepare yourself for an emergency:
- Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program – Run by the U.S. government, this is a free online service that will let you know if there are any family emergencies back in the U.S. while you’re abroad. It will also update you if there are any crises in the area where you’re traveling.
- Fill in your passport details – Make sure you’ve filled out the emergency information in your passport and signed it.
- Leave a copy of your passport and itinerary with family or friends – This can help them contact you if there’s an emergency. It’s also worth leaving copies of your credit cards, airline tickets and any traveler’s checks that you may have.
- Check you have the right travel insurance. Speak to your insurance provider to make sure your medical insurance covers you overseas, and that you’re covered for any emergency expenses, e.g. medical evacuation. Don’t forget to check your credit cards to see which ones include travel insurance.
- Keep valuables out of sight – Even if you’re traveling to a relatively safe area, it’s important that you keep all of your valuables out of sight when in public. Don’t carry too much money on you, and never leave your bag unattended.
Tip #3: Understanding Custom and Import Restrictions
You will find that different countries have different policies when it comes to what you can bring into and take out of the country. It’s crucial that you’ve familiarized yourself with these before you go, and you can check with the foreign embassy of any country you’re traveling to just to be sure. Common restrictions include (but aren’t limited to):
- Precious metals, including gold
- Ivory jewelry
- Religious artifacts
- Animal skins
- Electronic equipment that hasn’t been declared when you arrive
- Precious and semi-precious stones
- Fresh produce
- Untreated wooden products
- Certain medications, even if they are prescribed
Travelers that don’t abide by the custom and import laws of a country may have the item confiscated, and they may also be fined. In some more serious cases, prison sentences can be issued.
When returning to the U.S., there are also restrictions as to what you can bring back with you. These rules have been put in place to enforce laws that have been introduced by various agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Items to be aware of include:
- The majority of coral items, either in jewelry or chunks
- Most caiman or crocodile leather
- Feather products and feathers from wild birds
- Marine mammal furs
- Spotted cat furs
- Ivory that is under 100 years old. You will need to provide documentation to prove that any ivory you have purchased is older than this. The same goes for other antiques that contain wildlife parts
- Products made from sea turtles
Tip #4: Taking a Pet Abroad
It’s important that you check with the embassy of the country you are traveling to before you take your pet abroad. A lot of countries will have restrictions on whether you can bring your pet to their country. Equally, if there is a state of emergency and you’re evacuated from the country, pets won’t always be permitted in the carrier (except service animals like guide dogs), so this is always worth bearing in mind too. For most places, your pets will need to be up to date with all their vaccinations, and all pet identification will need to be in order.
Tip #5: Taking Care of Your Health Before You Travel
Before traveling, you should visit the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website to find out what potential health precautions you need to take in the country you are traveling to. This will include whether you should take any precautions with the food or water. It will also detail whether you need any vaccinations before you travel there.
If you are traveling with an existing medical condition, you should carry a letter from your physician. Detail what prescription medications you are taking and details of the condition you are suffering from. You should also check with the foreign embassy of your destination to see if there are any restrictions on your prescription medication.
Finally, always pack necessary medication in your hand luggage in case you lose your suitcase, and if you wear glasses, try to pack a spare pair.
Tip #6: Saving Time at the Airport
To help reduce the amount of time people must queue at airports for security checks, the U.S. government created the Global Entry Program. For low-risk travelers entering the U.S., this reduces their wait time by granting them pre-approved clearance. It’s available at more than 42 different airports, with 50,000 new applications per month and nearly 2 million people currently enrolled. There are also 9 other countries that are now part of this program:
- United Kingdom
- South Korea
- Canada (through the alternate NEXUS program)
- Germany (through their EasyPASS program)
This pre-approved entry can save you hours at an airport, and since all of the forms are electronic, you don’t have to fill in lots of paperwork. You’ll just need to be added to the traveler database through a Global Entry application. Then, when you travel, you’ll need to take your passport (or permanent residency card) with you to one of the airport’s Global Entry kiosks. There, you’ll provide your fingerprints and your passport before filling out an electronic customs declaration card. Once this is done you’ll be given a piece of paper which will tell you to see an agent at the booth or proceed to the baggage claim area.
To be eligible, you need to have:
- No criminal convictions, pending warrants, or criminal charges
- No violations on customs, immigration, or agriculture relations
- No current ongoing investigations with you as the subject
- An admission into the U.S. under immigration regulation
- Proof that you’re low-risk
Tip #7: Special Planning Considerations
There are certain groups that will need to take additional precautions when traveling abroad. Here are some of them and what you should look out for:
Students: When traveling, college students need to be aware of what laws there are in certain countries. Though most students enjoy safe trips, there are cases of students being arrested for underage drinking, public intoxication, and drunk driving. Be extra vigilant in foreign countries, and be sure to adhere to the rules in place.
LGBT: Persons who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) may find differing attitudes toward them in different countries, just as in different U.S. states. Try to do thorough research before you travel so you can be prepared for what tolerances are in the country you’re traveling to.
Older Americans: Before embarking on your journey, consult your physician. Take into consideration what the climate is like where you’re going in case this could affect your health. Don’t try to cram too much into your holiday itinerary!
Traveling With a Disability: Accessibility for disabled travelers will be different wherever you go. Some countries will have laws in place to protect disabled travelers, while others won’t. There’s a handy guide at Transportation.gov which covers various rules and guides relating to disabilities and aviation. Always plan ahead, consulting your physician about your trip and checking for the right accessibility at your hotel.
Hot Tip: We’ve also published an Ultimate Guide to Air Travel with a Disability with tons of information related to this topic.
Tip #8: Foreign Country Entry Requirements
Entry requirements will likely differ depending on your destination and home country. Some places may just accept your passport, while others may require a visa. To make sure you have the correct documentation, visit the embassy’s website to see what is required. You can also find country specific information here.
Visas: If you do require a visa, you will have to obtain this from the relevant foreign consular representative before you can visit this country. Always allow plenty of time to get this visa, as obtaining it may require visiting your local consular office. Once you’ve received it, make sure you check for any mistakes.
Work and Residency Permits: If you’re planning on working in the country you are traveling to, you will need to check to see if you’ll need any special documentation to do this. Check with a consulate in the U.S. or the country’s embassy.
Tip #9: Getting Assistance if There’s a Crisis While You’re Abroad
In the unlikely event that there’s a crisis while you are traveling, there are several things you can do:
Getting Assistance From American Consulates: There are over 260 foreign service posts where U.S. consular officers are located, with others located in 46 foreign cities that don’t have a U.S. embassy. They are on hand if any crises occur, like a natural disaster or political upheaval. During this time, they’ll help to locate Americans who are missing and will assist in getting them back to the U.S.
They’re also there to help give you advice if you find yourself in financial trouble, need medical or legal advice, or you have an emergency, such as a death or arrest.
If You’re a Victim of Crime: Consular officers are there to help assist you if you become a victim of crime while traveling. They’ll help to:
- Replace a passport that’s been stolen
- Contact family, friends, and employers
- Get you the appropriate medical care
- Organize any other emergency needs that arise
- Provide you with information about the criminal justice program in this area, what resources there are for victims, as well as compensation programs
- Get a list of local attorneys who speak English
If You’re a Victim of Passport Fraud: If you are worried that you’ve lost your passport or it has been stolen, contact the nearest American embassy or consulate, or a passport agency in the U.S.
If You’re Arrested While Abroad: Because you’re in a foreign country, you will have to adhere to their rules. If these rules are broken, American officials may be limited as to how they can help you. However, they will be able to provide you with a list of attorneys and help you contact your family at home. They can also help you get money from your family in the U.S. and will monitor the conditions you are being held in as well as your health and welfare.
As soon as you have been arrested, you should ask to speak to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, or a consular officer. You are entitled to this.
If a U.S. Citizen Dies While Abroad: Over 6,000 Americans die while they’re abroad each year, with a lot of these living overseas. However, it’s important you know what to do in this worst case scenario. When this happens, a consular office will:
- Confirm the death, U.S. citizenship, and identity of the deceased
- Notify the next-of-kin if necessary. They’ll also provide them with information about the deceased’s location and help advise on what funding is available
- Prepare documents for disposition of the remains, as instructed by the legal representative or next-of-kin before overseeing this
- Send signed copies of the Consular Report of Death of an American Citizen Abroad to the legal representative or next-of-kin
Tip #10: A Note on Drug Offenses Abroad
If you are caught with illegal drugs on your person in a foreign country, you will be subject to their laws, not those you find in the U.S. Several hundred Americans have drug charges brought against them each year, and the process of drug arrests can be very different from what they are in the U.S. For example:
- A jury trial isn’t provided in most countries
- A pre-trial release on bail isn’t permitted in most countries
- Pre-trial detention can last for several months, and will often be in solitary confinement
- Prisons may be missing some comforts, including washbasins, toilets, and beds
- Inadequate diets are often found, and friends and relatives have to provide supplements
- English may not be spoken by the officials
- Extortion, degrading treatment, confiscation of property, and physical abuse are possible
- Convictions may range from fines to jail time, while some countries sentence people to years of hard labor and even the death penalty
- Drug trafficking and drug possession penalties are often the same abroad
Tip #11: Taking Money Abroad
There are a number of different ways you can take money with you abroad, and it’s normally worth combining several of these methods (as opposed to just taking lots of cash with you).
- Credit Cards: These are ideal for larger purchases such as restaurant meals, car rentals, hotel bills and airline tickets. You’re more likely to get a better exchange rate when you pay by credit card than change cash at a change bureau. You’ve also got the added bonus of gaining travel points with many of these cards.
- Debit Cards: Again, these types of cards can often provide you with good exchange rates. With a lot of ATMs available all over the world, withdrawing cash in the local currency can be easy.
- Cash: It’s also worth carrying some cash on you when you’re traveling abroad, just in case the establishment you’re visiting doesn’t accept cards or checks. If you’re staying a long way from a town, having some cash to get by until you visit there again will be helpful. It’s important that you don’t carry too much cash on you at any time, though, and you should leave any spare cash in the safe at your hotel if you can. Don’t flash around your cash in public, as this could make you an easy target for thieves.
- Traveler’s Cheques and Prepaid Cards: These are a secure alternative to cash, and are perfect as a backup if you can’t find an ATM or the one nearest you is out of service. If these are lost or stolen, they can normally be replaced within 24 hours.
Tip #12: Accessing Funds From the U.S.
Should you find yourself in an unforeseen circumstance and temporarily destitute, U.S. consuls can assist you. In this situation, you should contact your nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, or the State Department’s Office of Overseas Citizens Services.
Consular officers can help you contact your family, bank, or employer to arrange for funds to be transferred. Sometimes, these can be wired through the Department of State.
Tip #13: Valuable Resources in an Emergency
The following resources are provided to assist you in the event of an emergency:
- Medical emergencies
- Victims of crime
- Natural disasters
- Parental child abductions
- Missing persons
- Lost or stolen passports
Part of the fun of traveling is the sense of adventure that stems from facing the unknown as we break away from our familiar surroundings and routine daily grind.
Unforeseen circumstances can always pop up during our travels, and a hardened traveler is simply someone who has learned to improvise when faced with these surprises.
Following well-established “best travel practices” and being aware of what to look out for when traveling are skills that grow with experience. Stay aware, be savvy, keep safety first, and enjoy your travels!
Featured Image Credit: sasint via Pixabay
Frequently Asked Questions
We recommend Google Flights and the Google ITA Matrix.
- The ITA Matrix – This search tool will help you to find the cheapest tickets and work out an itinerary, which is particularly useful if your route is complex.
- Google Flights – This is a fantastic tool created by Google that can save you time and energy when searching for flights. It allows you to do a basic flight search; discover destinations by entering dates, places, or interests; explore their destination map to see flights all over the country you’re traveling to, and save flights so you can compare them (great if you’re switching between devices).
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