You are about to start a journey, one that may change the way you live and think forever. Doing a little travel preparation at home is important so that you can confidently step into the unknown with less stress.
Preparing the Paperwork
Create a folder or binder for your family, roommate, or whoever you trust to look after your business at home while you are gone. Consolidate things in one place. Inside, put important documents like your flight itinerary, travel insurance policy, account numbers, blank checks, etc. This will enable them to have everything in one place in case you have a request or emergency and have to ask for help via an international call.
Things to put inside your travel binder:
- Your flight itinerary
- Phone numbers for embassies for all the countries you might be visiting
- Copies of your credit cards that you are carrying, front and back
- Serial numbers for any traveler’s checks that you are carrying
- A couple of signed, blank checks for unexpected bills that come while you are away
- Your travel insurance policy and information
- A copy of your passport ID page
- Your vaccinations records
- Copies of prescriptions for any medications you are carrying
- Phone number for your usual veterinarian if you have any pets
- Any misc instructions to handle affairs while you are gone
Leave the binder at home with a very trustworthy person that you can contact during an emergency.
Preparing Paperwork to Carry
- Make copies of your travel insurance contact information if they don’t send you a card, passport identity page, and traveler’s checks. Alternatively, you can take digital photos of cards and other numbers that you may need — just hide the files well in a secure place! Don’t upload this stuff to a cloud (e.g., Dropbox, Google Drive, etc)
- Put a copy of your passport somewhere (in your backpack, etc) in case your actual passport gets lost or stolen. On the back of the copy, write the embassy phone numbers for all your destinations. Carry a couple of other copies. Sometimes you can provide a copy rather than your actual passport when a guesthouse or rental agency wants to keep your passport.
- If necessary, put in a forwarding order or hold your mail at the post office. This may take a few days to go through. A full mailbox is a sure sign that no one is home.
Setting Up Finances for Travel
- Visa and Mastercard are more widely accepted abroad than the other cards. Don’t plan on making this your main source of cash because many businesses will charge you a hefty commission for using plastic. Also, your card could become compromised and deactivated. Card number theft is a problem in many countries. Plan to use your cards mainly for booking flights and handling emergencies; stick to cash for everything else. Remember: some airlines require the same credit card used to book your flight when you check in at the airport.
- Contact the customer support for any debit and credit cards that you intend to carry and tell them to put on record that you will be traveling abroad. This will keep them from suspending the card for fraud because they see suspicious charges popping up on the other side of the planet! Ask what the international fees are for using the card abroad.
- Ask your credit card issuers for international contact numbers (you may not be able to dial 1-800 numbers while overseas). If the card gets lost or stolen, you will need these to cancel it as soon as possible.
- Set up online bill paying for your cards so that you can manage your accounts online while you are gone. Be careful about doing this on public computers and Wi-Fi!
- If possible, set up automatic billing for any regular monthly bills you receive. Have them billed directly to a credit card that you can manage and pay online. Not only will you accumulate points for freebies later, it eliminates the need for someone to write checks for you.
ATM cards are the best way to get local currency in almost every country. You will usually get the current exchange rate with only a small fee added on. The machines themselves may charge you a hefty fee: the ATM fee in Thailand is over US $6 per transaction!
Try to use only “safe” ATMs that are located inside banks or in well-lit places with guards. These machines are less likely to have card skimming devices installed — a serious problem in many countries.
A Travel Bank Account
Some travelers opt to open a new bank account specifically for travel that is not tied to other accounts. If you connect it to your other accounts, opt out of overdraft protection. You can use online banking to transfer money from your “real” account to the travel account as you need it.
Traveler’s checks are a good option if you need to carry a large amount of backup cash, don’t have a credit card, or just want to diversify your finances a little.
I once found myself on an island with no cash because the network link to all the ATMs was down for three days! Traveler’s checks came to the rescue. If you decide to take them, buy larger denominations (US $50) because you are charged a fee for every check that you cash. Record the serial numbers and keep them somewhere safe (e.g., in a hidden email) in case they are lost or stolen.
For the most part, traveler’s checks are becoming archaic. Few travelers bother anymore because cashing them isn’t always convenient.
Making Phone Calls on the Road
You will most likely want to call home at some point to check up on things. If not just for the sound of a familiar voice, then to make sure the zombies haven’t taken over.
If done incorrectly, making international calls can get expensive. Make all of your calls online! Use VoIP services such as Skype or WhatsApp. Get family members set up in advance so that you can call — with video, even — using WhatsApp. Now is a good time to teach family members who are less technically inclined.
- Read all about calling home from abroad.
Get a VPN
Traveling with a reliable VPN is a very good idea now days. Not only will it help you get around governmental firewalls (i.e., Wikipedia and many social media sites are blocked in China), a VPN encrypts your traffic across public networks and Wi-Fi.
In the U.S., Net Neutrality is under attack; internet providers are allowed to monitor your traffic (and throttle the speed if you’re watching movies, making calls, or doing anything they would rather sell you.
This is a big deal when using shared networks in hotels, hostels, cafes, airports, and such. Your traffic will be encrypted, and your source IP will be masked…making you harder to track. Before I became a traveler, I spent eight years as a network engineer at IBM with a focus on security. VPNs are definitely the way to go — even at home. Even Starbucks wants to know what sites you are visiting as you sit there using their free Wi-Fi.
I use Private Internet Access as my personal VPN provider while traveling. They have a lot of servers worldwide, so it’s fast and anonymous. You can pay by the month or get a 50 percent discount by purchasing a year. Both options are inexpensive and help prevent governments and corporations from spying on you, not to mention malicious types who may be trying to intercept your password or email.
Many countries monitor, censor, and block sites on the internet. China is no longer the only place! Sri Lanka and Thailand are cracking down, too.
Sharing Your Trip
The days of sending mass emails with attachments of your pictures are obviously long gone. But the problem with relying purely on social media for sharing and documenting your trip experience is that at any time Facebook, Instagram, or whoever can shut down your account. You’ll lose everything, probably without warning. Besides, who knows, maybe one day people will be on completely different platforms. Think of all the trips still documented and covered in dust over on MySpace.
There is one place where no one can ever touch your content. It will be yours forever, and you’ll have ultimate control over editing and sharing: a blog. Learning to transport readers to the place you are traveling can be addictive.
If you’ve got no plans to monetize, there are plenty of free blogging platforms and grab a witty name. My vagabonding blog actually began as a free blog on Bootsnall.com in 2005, but I moved to a my own domain and accidentally made a career out of it. Oops.
If you have the know-how, consider building a homepage about your travels. You can host your own blog, pictures, and whatever else you want without anyone else’s advertisements all over it. HostGator is a popular hosting choice, as is Bluehost.
Domain names are like online real-estate — once a name is taken, it is gone. Even if you do not have plans to build a website now, you might want to consider registering your name just to hold for later. Registering a name doesn’t cost much. The most popular place to register a domain name is GoDaddy.
Other Travel Preparations
- Make arrangements to park your car long term while you are gone. If you will be gone during hot weather, it may be worth buying a sun visor to put in the window to lower the temperature inside. It is best to park the vehicle with a full tank of gas and to add fuel stabilizer (available at any auto store) to the tank if you will be gone over a month.
- Contact your auto insurance and give them a date to put your policy into “park” mode. This will greatly reduce your premiums on a vehicle that is not being driven. In some U.S. states, you need to contact the local government to tell them that you will be suspending insurance on a vehicle, otherwise they may think that you are driving it without coverage. Cases vary, but it’s worth checking on if no one will be driving your car.
- Contact your mobile phone carrier to see if they can put your plan into a suspended mode. Don’t change your voicemail to a greeting bragging that you will be “out of the country for months” — potential thieves may be delighted.
- If someone is looking after your pets, start getting them together before you leave so the animals will be more comfortable with the new person before you exit.
If you are a U.S. citizen and happen to be traveling to a place with political unrest, a history of violence, or just want to play it super safe, go register your trip with the U.S. State Department. It only takes a few minutes and lets them have a general idea of who they would need to evacuate if something unexpected did go down in one of the countries you were visiting.
Record the phone numbers of the embassies in different places that you are going. Know who to call if you have a bad situation.