Originally published 08.10.2017
Passports.....you'll need one of these.
I’ve written travel blogs for our trips for five or six years. I have many more followers than I ever expected, and love sharing our adventures with them. I have had a few readers that have decided to venture out and travel internationally, some of them citing my blog as the reason.
I view this as a huge compliment. I’m very proud that sharing our trips has spurred this interest to explore the world in others. I also have people asking for advice on international travel, many of who have never travelled outside of the states. Recently, I had another person ask for travel advice for a first time international trip. Consequently, I’ve decided to write a series of pieces on the basics of heading out of our country, and going to another. It also gives me another chance to use my tablet/bluetooth keyboard setup before our next trip! Be aware, these are my opinions. Others may offer different advice.
I don’t include going to Canada or Mexico. If you get near the borders in the states, the cultures of the two countries intermingle. While the border with Mexico has issues we are all aware of, we have recently crossed at Nogales, the only place I was cautiously interested in doing a day visit.
The point is, the cultures of southern Arizona right on the border aren’t that different from Nogales, on the Mexican side. The same with Canada. With Canada, we share the same language (except for Quebec) and Spanish is spoken on both sides of the border with Mexico, and often mixed with English. I’m talking about going into a culture that is markedly different from our own and far from what is familiar. Europe is a fantastic choice and a great way to ease yourself into international travel.
First, start reading and researching. I like books, and you can leave them laying around and pick them up at any time. They’re always where you left them, and if you don’t have internet, they work quite well without wifi. Before traveling, I usually get several books on a place to be visited. Note that this does NOT mean that I take them with me.
For Europe, Rick Steves is a great resource. His books are very readable and very informative, and include a lot of "opinion" on what he personally finds appealing. They’re also very easy to find. Lonely Planet and Rough Guides are great books as well, but are a little more "nuts and bolts", tending to concentrate on the facts. I usually try to get at least two books, and possibly more. Different people have different experiences, and different perspectives. Get as much information as you can, then you can make your own choices. Books are money well spent.
While reading books and establishing a good foundation of where you want to go and what you want to see, APPLY FOR YOUR PASSPORT. This is an incredibly important part of this equation. Without a passport the airline won’t let you on and the countries you want to visit won’t let you in. It might create more than a little problem getting back into the United States as well.
Start by downloading the form on the State Department website. You can also read about the processes, fees, and such. Don’t use a "passport agency" that will come up online when you search. They will charge you fees to do what is basically a simple transaction. When dealing directly with the state department, your cost should be a total of $135.00. The web link for the state department website is:
You’ll have to get a couple of passport photos, and most drug store photo departments can do this for around $10. Be aware, you can’t just send in a photo. It has to have a certain background, it has to be framed a certain way, you can’t be wearing a hat or covering, there are lots of rules. You can probably do it yourself but I know no one who has tried. Pay the ten bucks and don’t worry about it.
The required documents are listed on the website as well. These are standard government issued documents (birth certificate or proof of citizenship and a photo I.D. usually) and will be presented with your completed application. You then submit your application, photos, documents at a passport acceptance facility. These are usually at the post office, county clerk office, or similar places. You can fill out the search form on the state department website and it will give you a list of where and phone numbers to contact them. Call, figure out when you need to come in, and do the application process. Your passport will arrive in four to six weeks, although in our experiences it took less. Renewals are easier and your passport is good for ten years.
This is my expired passport. I took out all the identity theft goodies.....even if it is expired. I have a new one now....and my hair isn't as brown anymore.
While you’re waiting on your passport, continue your reading, and start branching out into internet information sources. The books are great to start with as they are focused. When you head online it is easy to get bombarded with huge amounts of information and it is easy to get overwhelmed. That’s why I recommend reading to start with.
Rick Steves’ website https://www.ricksteves.com is a great source of information, as is the message board on it. Fodors, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and others have websites with loads of information as well. Don’t get overwhelmed. Take it slowly, read, research, and learn. Using blog sites such as this are a great resource as well, and a great place to get questions answered. Do be aware that just like everywhere else on the internet, free advice is often worth what you pay for it. Take a lot of things with a grain of salt. Also realize that you are often reading someone’s opinion of something, and opinions will vary widely.
Now it’s time to pick a destination! For most U.S. citizens, I recommend at least beginning your trip in an English speaking country. You don’t have to stay there, but when you’re jet lagged, trying to adjust to the new time zone, and learning a new culture, it’s just easier when you can understand those around you.
If you speak a foreign language, great! You can start out in a country that you have a language in common with. But most first time travellers don’t speak another language. For English speakers, I recommend the UK, Scotland, or Ireland. I haven’t been to Ireland yet, but the other two I can personally vouch for. They’re great places to visit, and a great place to decompress. From there, you can hop to other countries during your trip.
You’ve done your research, have your passport, and have picked your place. Now it’s time to start shopping for airline tickets. There are many different airfare websites, but I’ve done quite well using Kayak. https://www.kayak.com Be aware that airfares are tricky. We have flown out of Nashville, transferred in Atlanta, and landed in London, and the cost was LESS than driving to Atlanta and getting on the exact same flight and skipping the connector.
Yes, this is weird, but a fact. Learn to think outside the box. Flying out of a nearby city can save you hundreds over flying out of your closest airport. Or it could cost more. Airfare pricing is all over the place. It’s best to pick a price point you’re willing to pay, and when it’s in that range, buy. We typically buy 3 to 6 months out, but you may or may not find better deals.
Another thing to be aware of are package deals. We like free form travel, picking where we want to stay, traveling where and when we want. Other people may feel more comfortable on a tour. Tours usually cost considerably more and you have someone else deciding where you’ll go and how long you’ll be there. You may like that, or you may like more flexibility. The choice is yours.
There are also hybrid options. Aer Lingus has incredible deals to Ireland, which may include a rental car and/or a choice of hotels. One of my readers recently did this and while I have not gotten a full report, he did mention that they loved it and it worked out well. The idea is to keep your options open and think outside the box.
You’ve got your passport, you’ve done your planning, and you’ve got your ticket. Now we wait.....actually, no we don’t! Continue reading and researching. Things change, they open, close, go out of business. Continue your studies and keep up with where you’ve chosen to go. Stay aware.
Should you use a backpack, or should you use a suitcase? These are personal preference and up to the individual traveler. We use backpacks, but others swear by roller bags or duffles. It’s up to you....do what works for you.
Laurie with our double pack setup in Switzerland
As for backpacks, that’s plural. We use an Eagle Creek pack that has a day pack that zips to the main pack. This allows us to keep prescriptions, electronics, and valuables with us, while checking everything else. We have important things with us, and we’re lighter to travel through airports, do transfers, and eat or drink.
We carry what is called a “pack duffle”, which is a bag that we put our packs in to check. It keeps baggage handling machinery from tearing the straps off or damaging your pack. When you retrieve it on the other end, you take your pack out, wad the duffle up and put it in your pack.
This is also a great time to put together a packing list. The websites (Fodor’s, Rick Steves, Lonely Planet, and others) will have sample packing lists. It is a great place to start. Get your list, put your things together, and try to fit them in your suitcase or backpack.
I’ll bet that it didn’t fit. And if it did, I’ll bet you’re over the 50 pounds. It’s time to pare things down so it’s easier to manage. We’ve found that it works best to take only what you KNOW you will need, not what you think you might. Remember, you’re not going to the the jungles of South America....unless you are going to the jungles of South America! Normally you will be able to buy what you forget or find a need for where you are going.
Plan on doing laundry on your trip, if your trip is over a week long. I bring two pairs of pants, 5 underwear, socks, shirts, etc. I wear high quality hiking boots and no longer carry backup shoes. I did the first trip and never used them. If I find myself in need, I’ll buy a pair where we are at. Doing laundry also puts you in amongst the locals. It’s a task that everyone does, and you can learn a lot about where you are by hanging out in the laundromats!
As for buying things while there, on one of our trips, we had one day to go before heading home from Munich and I had no clean underwear and socks. I stopped at a discount store by the train station and bought a pair of underwear and a pair of socks. This got us home and we didn’t spend time doing another laundry. Be flexible and think outside the box.
Every year our packs get lighter and we bring less. We have learned over time that if we didn’t use it last time, we’ll probably not use it next time. Pack light. If you’ve got your phone, a tablet or small laptop, camera, clothes, and toiletries, you’re most of the way there. And space left in your bags can be used to bring souvenirs from your travels.
One thing we have found worth their weight in gold are packing cubes. The cell phone is in the pic for scale. There are many brands, but we have found that ebags.com has an excellent selection and excellent prices. You take a packing cube and put your socks in it. Have one for underwear and a shirt. One for pants. One for cords and such. By using packing cubes, you can unload and reload your pack in a matter of seconds. If you need a pair of socks, you don’t have to dig. You pull out your sock cube, get a pair out, and put the cube back. These are a MUST HAVE. You’ll thank me later.
This is a moneybelt. Keep cash, credit cards, your passport, and other important things in here. Keep 50 euros/pounds in your front pants pocket and the bulk of your cash in the belt, next to your body and under your shirt. While it doesn't guarantee you won't lose it, it may make someone move on to easier pickings.
First aid kit
A small first aid kit does come in handy. Band aids, aspirin, wound care items, a few over the counter meds. You can get one cheap and it will get used.
You have your passport, your tickets, you’ve done your planning, you’re packed. You’re ready to go and waiting on your upcoming trip. I’m not sure what we’ll discuss next....maybe a few extra items packed, what to expect during your transatlantic flight.....I’ll figure that out. Feel free to ask me questions. If I don’t know, I’ll direct you to the boards or a better source than me. Start planning folks! Let’s travel!