There are many things you have to take into consideration before and when you travel somewhere. This article presents travel basics and is geared towards people with comparatively little travel experience — this is not to say that experienced voyagers could not find it useful as well. More thorough information is available in the linked travel topic articles and in the destination articles.
When you travel, expect things not to be like they are "back home". Manners, laws, food, traffic, lodging, standards, language and so on will to some extent differ from where you live. This is something you always need to keep in mind, to avoid disappointment or perhaps even distaste over local ways to do things. When you communicate with locals it is often easy to utter remarks like "back in the US, UK, Australia, Europe (you get the point) we do it like this...." Avoid this, as it will make you a representative of everything your home country stands for, whether you want this or not.
If this is the first time you're travelling abroad or indeed anywhere away from home, it may be worth considering paying a premium to get problems solved for you. It may mean letting a travel agency take care of your bookings or going on a package tour where you travel with a group, transport is taken care of by others and perhaps even your meals are included. Also, if there isn't a common language for you and the locals, a group tour may be advisable.
Studying your destination beforehand is very advisable; in addition to Wikivoyage articles, Wikipedia articles and sites of local tourist offices, sights and businesses are good for this. In addition the destination country's embassy is often happy to help you with travel information. Depending on the country you may have to contact the embassy in any case to apply for a visa. Fiction books may also help to get a feeling for the place. Frequent travellers are often tempted to forego all planning, in particular if they've been to the place before. However, you never know if something has changed there or even at your home airport or railway station. It's useful to make a checklist to make sure you aren't forgetting something.
Pick your destination
Among Japanese tourists there is a well known phenomenon called "Paris syndrome" which basically boils down to people coming to an overhyped destination - classically Paris - with unrealistic expectations and then being disappointed to find that the hyper romantic "best place on earth" image in their head doesn't match up with the often dirty, congested real city full of rude people. Doing proper research before travel and having more realistic expectations can limit the risk of "Paris syndrome" but especially first time travelers should always be prepared to have things be wildly better or worse than expected.
Where you choose to travel to of course depends on your own tastes and preferences. Though, if you travel with others you likely will also have to take their wishes into consideration. If you will travel with children, you probably want to go somewhere where children are welcome and where there are no unnecessary risks like crime, diseases, extreme weather and such. If you travel with friends it's advisable to discuss your travel plans a couple of times, allow each one to have their say and be prepared to compromise. Friends at the departure may in the worst case have become enemies at return. Also, everyone doesn't have to do the same thing at the same place all the time. Disabled travelers should inquire about the possibilities of transporting aids such as wheelchairs or crutches as well as the overall disability-friendliness of the destination. Finally, if you travel alone, remember that should something bad happen you will have to cope with it on your own.
It's not advisable to go to places where you don't want to follow local customs and laws. For instance if you as a woman don't want to wear covering clothing, some Muslim countries may not be advisable to visit. Furthermore, some countries have stringent and even unbelievable LGBT laws. Certain political systems like say — North Korea might clash with your views on how things "ought to be" done. Overall, things that are perfectly legal at home may be outlawed in your destination country (and of course the other way around). You should also check the safety situation in the country. In particular, if your embassy in said country has issued a travel warning, you should probably not travel there.
The local culture affects more than just your safety. Going to an environment radically different from your own may give you quite a cultural shock if you haven't traveled very much before (and even then) — keep this in mind when you choose where to travel. Language may also be an issue; as widespread as English is, there are many parts of the world where virtually nobody understands it. And even where "everybody speaks English" there can be countless nuances you miss by not bothering with the local language(s).
The difficulty of border crossing varies a lot. For most cases, travellers need a passport - travel by EU citizens within the European Union being one of the few exceptions. If you have one, check that it will be valid at the time you travel, moreover many countries require your passport to be valid for three or even six months after the date you expect to leave the country. If you need a visa, in the best case the visa application and issuance process will take a couple of days. There is often a possibility to have your visa processed faster (for a relatively steep fee), but if you can apply for a visa early enough, do so and save the money for something fun on the trip instead. In the case of small, less traveled countries with the nearest embassy located in another country than yours, don't be surprised if it will take over a month. If your trip includes several countries where a visa is required, remember that your passport can be at just one embassy at a time.
Sadly some places cannot be visited easily after one another or by nationals of certain countries. This mostly concerns Americans in Cuba and travel to and from Israel in combination to travel to certain Arab and Muslim states. Our article on visa trouble has more.
Get in and around
- See also: Transportation
There are as many ways of traveling as there are destinations. Usually you will travel with a combination of modes of transport, and it's very useful to have some idea about routes, fares and schedules beforehand.
Choosing the mode of transportation is often a balancing act between expense and convenience. Budget airlines can offer cheap fares, but they often use airports further away (and in the worst case in the middle of nowhere). From there it may be both time-consuming, expensive and otherwise challenging to get to your destination. Also, if you are afraid of traveling with certain modes of transportation it may be possible to avoid it completely or alternatively attend a course for getting rid of your phobia. Wikivoyage has an article with some advice for nervous flyers, which you may want to take a look at if flying feels scary.
Always allow some extra time for getting to your point of departure, otherwise even a small surprise delay may get you stranded. If you need to transfer at an airport, check that your connection isn't too tight and when going to the airport, boat terminal, bus or railway station, better leave a little earlier than you think you need. This is especially true when flying — in particular when there are international flights involved. A rule of thumb says you should arrive at the airport an hour prior to boarding for short flights, two hours for longer flights (e.g. transatlantic) and an extra hour on top of that if going to or from someplace in the USA or Israel (due to their lengthy security procedures). Plan at least another half hour of buffer on top of that, especially if it is your first flight. Due to late departure, weather conditions and congested runways, don't count on your first plane landing as scheduled. Also, you will still have to stand in line for customs, immigration and security and going to your gate. Overall, unless it's a small airport, it's best to be at the airport at least two hours before departure. Don't worry about having to sit on the airport "for a whole extra hour" if you do get there in time and lines are short; if you miss your plane you will usually have to wait much longer (possibly have to pay for a hotel night or sleep at the airport) and in some cases have to buy a new ticket. Yes, you are able to book flight combinations that have just half an hour for transfer, but they are often a bad idea. Also if you, say, miss the day's last bus or train (in some cases you need to stand in line to the ticket counter...) into town, in the worst case you're in for an expensive taxi ride.
For some travellers, there might be a wish or a need to avoid entering the United States — even in transit. The Wikivoyage guide on this subject spells out the why and the how.
By definition, travel includes navigation which means you will need one or several maps of some kind. If going by car, a GPS navigation device can be practical, also a wide variety of online services (such as Wikivoyage's dynamic maps) and offline apps for smartphones and computers exist. Paper maps can also be an option, as they do not need electrical power or an Internet connection. They have the drawbacks of becoming outdated easier than online versions and easily marking you as a tourist; on the other hand flashing a (expensive) smart phone or tablet on the street may well attract opportunistic thieves. Even if you travel in a group and follow a guide all the time, it can still be interesting to know where you are and where you will go next.
Some parts of the world are better avoided during certain times of the year due to weather conditions. For instance areas in the tropics almost always have a rainy season (which means it rains a lot). Other parts of the world may have seasons for tornadoes or (while they not may be in the tropics themselves) tropical cyclones. Familiarize yourself with the local weather conditions for the time of the year you will travel. Remember that the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are reversed to the ones in the Northern Hemisphere.
Tourist seasons may also be a problematic thing. On one hand, during the main tourist season prices are often higher and everything is crowded and fully booked. During the low season, while accommodation may be cheaper, you may find that points of interest are closed or operate shorter hours. Also, the weather may not be very inviting during the low season. In addition, during the local holiday season especially small establishments are often closed. It is often wise to avoid local holidays, unless they are your reason for travel. Semana santa (Easter week) is a bad time to visit any beach destination in Latin America and Spain, as almost every local who can afford to travel will do so. Similar things can be said for Thanksgiving weekend in the US and the Chinese New Year in much of the Far East. When travelling in Europe, check out when schools are closed for vacation. Prices and the availability of hotels and tickets tend to reflect seasonal variation. On the other hand, the local holiday season may coincide with the overall best season or – for places with not too many international tourists – have most places closed outside this season.
Ticket prices also vary depending on when you travel and often also depending on when you book. This is especially true for plane tickets, but also long distance trains and buses can have vastly different prices depending on when you book (especially in some high income countries). If you're going for a short trip or will travel around a lot, ticket prices may make up the largest part of your budget. Also, rather than just going ahead and booking a trip it is certainly worth shopping around a bit. You can save a lot of money if you are a bit flexible with your dates. Also when booking plane tickets there are maddeningly diverse and sometimes logic-defying ways of saving money (or not getting overcharged), which are spelled out in greater detail in the Wikivoyage guides on budget travel and in our series on flying.
Having answered the questions where, how and when, it's time to make up a plan or schedule. The plan can look differently depending on how "complicated" your trip will be. A good basic travel plan is a list with times of arrival at and departure from the places you want to visit as well as details concerning your transportation. This can also function as a schedule; you may want to have an idea of how much time you want and need to spend at each destination before going onwards.
Make sure you don't only have time to visit the sites you've planned to visit but also some time to spend on places you discover once you've arrived. Read up on your destination beforehand to avoid a bad surprise. It's not fun to realize that there are much more to see and experience than you'll have time to only once you've arrived. It can also be quite annoying to learn after your trip about some interesting site that was just a couple blocks away from your lodging, especially if you don't have time/money to return anytime soon. Also, you may want to have a list of daytrips if you find out that the attractions you've planned to go to are closed, otherwise inaccessible (e.g. astronomically long lines) or even don't live up to your expectations and you therefore wouldn't care to stay there for as long as initially planned.
A problem often arises from transportation tickets. On the one hand tickets for off-peak days and hours booked far in advance with little possibility of cancelation or change tend to be the cheapest option. On the other hand, you may want to cut your stay at some places short while extending it at others — which may mean in the worst case you'll have to buy new tickets at more expensive prices and lose the money already spent. Luckily there are rail passes like Interrail that allow quite extensive and flexible travel at relatively affordable prices. Both Japan and the US also have similar offers.
Also per above, it is useful to budget some extra time to get to flights.
Travel insurance may be part of your home insurance, but oftentimes this will be a very rudimentary travel insurance. Travels of several months, cancellations and medical evacuation are often things that are not covered — contact your insurance company well ahead and buy a proper travel insurance if needed. If you're not covered and have to pay out of your pocket, it is guaranteed to be more expensive than the price of one travel insurance, if something more serious has happened, easily several hundred times. Some credit cards also include travel insurance, but conditions often apply. Some countries require certain types of travel insurance with a minimum amount of coverage.
If you have medical insurance either from a national plan or a private insurer, see what their rules are for medical incidents while traveling. You may need to buy additional insurance. If you have any medical conditions, look into reasons that insurers might exclude you; for example, if you are taking a drug and the prescribed dose changed recently.
When travelling in countries that don't speak your native language, you could learn 10 basic phrases that could come in handy when you're travelling. Wikivoyage has a variety of phrasebooks to get you started. Using your hands, smiling and playing charades are other useful ways to communicate.
In addition to helping you learn some key phrases, a phrasebook can be used when you need to say something: when you find the right sentence you could either speak it out or (especially if you cannot pronounce it intelligibly) point at it. Have the names and addresses of your hotel and other important destinations written down to be shown for taxi drivers and the like.
Also where you know or can learn a usable language, there are some tips that may help you get along. See our Talk article.
The more "exotic" your destination is, the more likely it is that you will need one or several inoculations. Also countries that aren't tropical may carry risks such as hepatitis A or B or tuberculosis. Again, research beforehand.
Yellow fever vaccinations are required in quite a few countries as a precondition for being let in. Some groups are sometimes exempt from the duty to get vaccinated. In other countries prove of vaccination is required if you had previously been to an afflicted country.
If you need to use some kind of medication regularly, there are a couple of things you have to remember. Firstly, you should if possible bring the amount of medication you will need on your trip, as prescriptions are seldom valid abroad. Furthermore, you may need a certificate from your doctor and/or pharmacy to show the customs when entering the country. Some drugs may be entirely prohibited to import.
Trips to a time zone different from your own may cause jet lag. As your body is in sync with your home time zone, a difference of three or more hours (though this varies from person to person) can make you feel tired, give you sleeping difficulties at the destination and in the case of really large time differences — as in Europe to the US West Coast or Oceania in one flight or vice versa — may even make you think you've got some disease. Fortunately your body will eventually adjust to the local time (often about 1h difference/day), moreover this is seldom an issue when you travel overland as you travel much slower.
If you have pre-existing medical conditions, they may affect your travelling in many ways. Firstly, some destinations and environments may feel uncomfortable (problems including things like culture shock, steep terrain and strong sun). You may not be able to take care of your needs like at home. Even before you've started the trip you may stumble upon problems, getting proper travel insurance can be difficult. Finally, in visa applications for some countries like China and the USA applicants are asked if they have communicable diseases or mental health problems.
- See also: Money
If possible, it's good to get some local currency before your trip, if only to get from the airport to your hotel. You may not want to bring all the currency you need on your trip in cash, provided it is possible to use a credit or debit card at your destination. If you're going to a faraway and/or uncommon country, do contact your bank beforehand and inform them of your travels as sudden usage of your card in an entirely different part of the world may be interpreted as the card being used by someone else than you (and the card being blocked as a security precaution). Also, know that the risk of your card information getting into wrong hands may be greater than at home. If you have several payment cards, pack them at different places so that you in the case of theft or robbery still have one left.
What you need to pack depends on where you're going and for how long. Most travelers have a tendency of bringing more stuff than they really need. Bringing overweight luggage on board a plane is usually very expensive, you will also be surprised how heavy the bag you've hauled around for one hour has become (it wasn't so heavy when you lifted it off the floor for a second at home) and things are often possible to buy at the destination anyways. Remember that it's usually possible to do laundry during your trip. Travel lightly — that way you will also have room for some souvenirs to bring home.
If you travel internationally, check out the country article's article for regulations of the goods you may import. As already mentioned, bringing in medicines is usually heavily restricted but so are many foodstuffs — especially unprocessed food. Many Muslim countries prohibit bringing in alcohol, pork and religious material such as Bibles. In some cases "political" material from neighboring countries may be banned too, such as material from one of either Korea when visiting the other.
There may also be things that you may not bring home from your trips.
So, everything about the trip itself is set and ready. However, before you go, there are still a few things to do at home — see our getting ready to leave article for this.
Depending on how you travel, there may be things you need to know about your transportation and crossing borders, especially if you're flying. Have a look at those articles as well as the corresponding Wikivoyage article of your destination(s) and the country/countries it's/they're located in to avoid at least some surprises you may encounter. There are also things you need to keep in mind when arriving in a new city or any other new place for that matter. If you're an inexperienced traveler, you probably would like to have done your travel arrangements beforehand to avoid having to search for the safest way into town, lodging, and such after, say, a long flight and tiresome border check.
- See also: Shopping
If going someplace where a different currency is used, familiarize yourself with the exchange rate and what certain things usually cost. You don't want to fall out of the airport exhausted after a seven hour red eye flight and wonder whether 100 Nicaraguan Cordoba for a coke is getting overcharged (it is) or two Euros for a döner is a bargain (it is).
Don't buy souvenirs at the first place available, in particular if they are touted as "real antiquities". Most likely you'll be paying high prices for cheap copies or forgeries. Also a "special price" "discount" often means that you are being tricked. At the other end of the spectrum, if you've actually (whether you know it or not) purchased "real antiquities" you may face problems when bringing them out of the country. If you are interested in doing such purchases, do so only with established businesses and inquire if you need a permit from the government to export said artifacts from the country.
Some countries have a strong culture of bargaining. Read up on this beforehand, as the initial price may be several times the normal price.
Stay safe and healthy
Traffic accidents, sunburn and food poisoning may be risks in countries that are otherwise safe. Remember that medical help may not be as easily available as at home and often entails much more bureaucracy.
Unfortunately major tourist destinations often attract conmen and touts who cheat money out of gullible tourists. Read up on common scams and have a clue of where you're going and what things really (approximately) should cost.
Embassies and consulates often don't have any obligations helping you getting home if you've run out of money, lost your tickets or such. At the end of the day, expect you to be yourself entirely responsible for your actions. Even if the embassy would arrange you a trip home, they are still going to bill you afterwards.
Travelling with children
Travelling with kids raises a whole set of new issues. Check out our article for some helpful tips. It may be helpful to involve them in some of the planning in age-appropriate ways. If the children gripe a lot about something, you might be able to remind them that this or that is what they wanted after all.
As a traveller, you're a guest, and thus ought to respect the locals and their manners and laws. Even if you're at the most touristy resort and you've paid for your stay it doesn't mean that you'd have the right to do anything you please.
Avoid awkward situations and don't use words and expressions if you're unsure of their meaning or the appropriate situation to use them.
Remember that what's legal at home may be illegal abroad as well as the other way around. You may be sentenced in your home country for having committed a crime, even if it's legal in the country the deed has taken place.
- See also: Returning home
When shopping, remember that you may not be allowed to bring some things home, such as certain threatened animals and products thereof, antics, drugs that may be legal abroad, and pirated goods. Likewise, your country may restrict import of unprocessed food products from abroad. More often than not there is also a limit on the worth of the goods you are bringing in as well as separate restrictions on alcoholic beverages and tobacco. If you travel by plane, remember that liquids are not allowed in the hand luggage. Pack them in the checked luggage instead, and if you will be transiting somewhere where you need to exit the airside, forget about any purchases of liquids (beverages, perfumes etc.) from the tax free shops at your first airport.
As many currencies have coins that are worth nontrivial amounts (e.g. €2, CHF5, CAD2) you should know that coins cannot be exchanged and either spend them before you leave, donate them at your point of departure (airports often have special charity boxes for that purpose) or take them home as a souvenir (if and where legal; some countries ban export of their own currency or set laughably low limits for said export).
If you've used your credit or debit card during your travels, compare your receipts with your bank statement to make sure there have been no unauthorized charges.