How to Get Ready for International Travel

One day in March of this year, I drove by Stonehenge three times. It would have been four, had my GPS not gotten me lost after the last driveby. This was one result of a poorly-planned trip to England. I drove by Stonehenge because I hadn’t thought to check that Stonehenge might close (at 5pm, no less) and the closest we could get was the freeway situated a few hundred meters away. I went to Big Ben, only to find it was under construction; I travelled at 70mph down a freeway at night without my lights on because I assumed the rental car would have automatic lights; I went to Liverpool and got a massage before getting to the Beatles Exhibit as they were locking the gates. I took the trip to tour Master’s Degree Programs, and did a great job planning that, but I left everything else fall to the wayside.

Normally, my trips are immaculate. I’ve been flying since I was 4 months old, took my first international flight when I was 5, moved international when I was 6, and was first an unaccompanied minor when I was 10. By now, with 20 years of travel under my belt, I thought I was untouchable in the air. But this trip reminded me that what can go wrong, will, if you don’t plan for it—and I hadn’t.

Despite my usual comfort, it’s not surprising that most people get at least a little bit stressed around the premise of travel. Even the most veteran traveler can succumb to the seemingly endless list of tasks to complete before departure—and that list only gets longer when you’re going international. This stress is what derailed my 11 day tour of England. I was doing things last minute while nervous about meeting the potential schools of my future, and the details slipped.

With hopes that others may avoid my same mistakes, I present my (updated) week-by-week prep plan.

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Month+ Out:

Check that your passport is up to date. If it expires within the next six months, you’ll want to get it renewed before you leave for your trip. Expedited renewal takes 21 days—as in, they won’t let you send in your current passport for renewal if you leave within 21 days. It only took two weeks for my renewed passport to get shipped back to me.

This is also around the time that you might want to start saving your expendable money. By this point, you’ve  (hopefully) already purchased tickets, booked hotel rooms, set up car rentals, and covered all of the expensive required parts of traveling. But we can often forget about all the little things, and the desire to just spend money when we’re traveling takes over. You’ll likely be eating out a lot, visiting a lot of tourist destinations, going on tours, seeing new forms of entertainment, and just shopping, in general. You don’t want to miss out on any of these, but they can be easy to forget as expenses, so saving is crucial.

Week+ Out:

Writing out an itinerary can be helpful. Google Sheets and Google Docs both have really helpful, pre-made formats for travel itineraries. Include your your planned activities and what type of clothing you’ll need for each of those, as well as anything you may need to remember that’s not obvious. For example, on a trip to Italy, I wasn’t able to go into any of the cathedrals one day because it was hot, and I’d forgotten that you have to dress modestly. Look up what times things close. I also recommend checking the average weather for that time of year in that place. You’ll be able to find last year’s weather and can begin preparing for the expected weather conditions.

Going through the effort to write out an itinerary may feel like an unnecessary step—you’ll have all the information in your email, so why write it out? But there were countless times on the England trip where I needed information at a moments notice, and all I had to do was open my “downloaded offline” Google Sheet. Things like hotel and rental car confirmation numbers, flight times, and appointment locations, were all accessible even if I didn’t have wifi and couldn’t access my full email account (which was more often than you’d think).

Check if the country you’re visiting has different charging ports. You can buy some really great multiway adapters online or at a place like Best Buy. It’s also a good idea to get a portable charger that you can use on the go during your travels.

Few Days to a Week Out:

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok

Make a pile of everything you want to bring, at least a few days before. I took a week. À la Marie Kondo, realize how much that all is and internalize the need to pare down. Edit your pile to your favorite and most versatile pieces. My trick is to choose tops and bottoms that all look good together—you have way more outfit options that way, but it usually means you’re limiting yourself to mostly solids or basic prints.

Let your slightly edited pile sit, muse over it, and remember things as they come out of the laundry in the coming days. Add them to the pile.

Few Days:

As soon as you’re close enough, check actual forecast. Edit your clothes again to make sure they’re suitable.

Size up your final picks and choose your carry-ons. Autumn, a Delta flight attendant who didn’t wish to disclose her last name, suggested you pack light. She said, “It just makes the trip so much easier, if you’re not carrying six bags and rolling a suitcase.” I agree with her, and things like knowing what clothing will be required for your activities, as well as making sure all of your clothes look good together (like I mentioned before) can aid in that “pack light” suggestion.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done, and most of us are regularly stuffing as much as we possibly can into those tiny carry-on bags. Here are my best “cheat the carry-on system” tips for when you can’t “pack light” and can’t afford that $90 checked bag:

  1. Overstuff your roller carry-on. If you can zip it easily, you can fit more inside.

  2. Your goal should be to carry as little on your back as possible, but if you just need to have more than you can fit in your roller bag, choose a large “personal item.” If you’re being safe, this could be a backpack or a large purse. If you’re really tight for space, go for a soft side duffle bag. It’ll be heavy and a pain to carry compared to a backpack, but you’ll be carrying it and it’s malleable so 99% of the time the flight attendants will let it slide, no matter how absurd.

  3. Bring a full-sized pillow. You can carry it on separately and slip things inside the pillowcase. Plus, it’ll help you sleep on long international flights (more than those terrible travel pillows will).

  4. Bring a plastic “food” bag. Probably good to actually keep some food in it—snacks are important—but you can also fill it with extra things. I often throw things like chargers, headphones, magazines, or toiletries; things that make sense to have easily accessible.

  5. Wear your bulkiest shoes, clothes, and jackets. It’ll leave more room in your carry-on, and then you can take your jackets off and use them to cover (hide) as many of the extra bags as possible.

Few Days Cont.:

Decide which toiletries you’re bringing. Limit yourself to the essentials as much as possible. Toiletries can be one of the biggest places we overpack, and one of the easiest to cut down on. Also, most hotels will have extras of things like razors or lotion, so you can often get away with not packing those. You should do this days in advance so you have time to get travel- or sample-size versions if you need to. If you’re carrying your products on with you, they have to be under 3 oz. Larger products can go in a checked bag, if you’re bringing one.

If you’re worried about bringing fewer products, it may be worth getting some beauty treatments that supplement those products you’re excluding. Getting things like a haircut, lash extensions, or a brow tint greatly reduced the number of products I brought with me and the time it took me to get ready in the morning on the actual trip.

Choose your travel outfit. This outfit should be picked out at least a few days ahead of time so you can make sure you don’t pack it or wear any of it in the prior days.

Regardless of which airport you take, or where you’re going, your outfit should be comfortable. Don’t choose denim. Leggings, sweatpants, or sweat slacks are all reasonable options. Wear a normal shirt or sweater on top. Wear jackets to the airport if you’re pressed for space. If you have room to spare, just choose one comfortable jacket you can easily layer over things and use as a blanket on the plane (you never know what the temperature in the cabin will be). Wear your bulkiest shoes if you need the extra room in your bag, if not, wear the shoes that are easiest to take off and put on. Wear socks.

Day and Night Before:

Check-in to your flight. Most airlines open check-in 24 hours in advance. Doing so ahead of time means you don’t have to get to the airport as early, and you can choose to print out your boarding pass at home (or have it sent to your phone). Early check-in can also sometimes make you eligible for better seat assignments or even class upgrades.

Camille, another Delta flight attendant, suggested you download your airline’s app. This can give you the most up to date information about your flight, and can get you access to some in-flight entertainment once you’re in the air.

Charge all of your electronics and put them in the same place. Assemble all of your toiletries in one place, ready to get packed as soon as you use them in the morning. Choose the entertainment material you’ll want on the plane and put them in your personal item. Check and double check that your passport, ID, and wallet are already in your personal item and accessible. Try to get to bed at a reasonable hour, everything is more stressful when you’re running on low sleep.

Day Of:

Photo By Oleksandr Pidvalnyi

Finish packing your personal item. Ideally, this is a backpack or purse with organizable compartments. This is the best place to pack your electronics (computer, tablet, camera, and chargers to them) and toiletries, because you’ll have to take them out for security and you want them to be easily accessible. Also use this personal item to carry your books, magazines, snacks, or anything else you’ll want to use during the flight. Pack an empty water bottle to fill up once you’re through security. Check again that all of your important documents are in your bag. Just remember, you have to carry this item, so try and keep it light if you can.

Dress in your pre-determined airport outfit. Eat a good meal so you don’t have to pay upcharged airport prices.

Get to the airport at least two hours ahead of time, ideally three. International security checks can take longer than domestic. You’ll likely have extra time to hang out at the gate, but it’s better to have extra time than to miss your flight.

At the Gate:

Once you’re settled at the right gate, take some time to check in with yourself. Fill up your water bottle, make sure you have all the magazines you want; charge your phone and laptop while you wait so they don’t die once you’re on the plane.

You can also use this time to download any language translator apps you may need—Google has a good one that works offline, the app store will have many other options. I also suggest downloading Google Maps. They have a great feature where you can download a particular map and access it offline, meaning you can navigate and get directions even if you’ve already left the airport or hotel. It’s really great for cities in particular.

On the Plane:

Photo by C. Cagnin

You’ve made it this far, now all there’s left is to fill up your time on the long flight. Read through the books and magazines you brought, do any work you may have on your computer so you don’t have to do it during your vacation (most international flights have wifi on board now), stand up every once in a while so your legs don’t cramp up.

Stay hydrated. Flying can be stressful, and we often get so caught up in everything (and maybe so unwilling to ask our seat neighbor to more) that we forget to drink water and go to the bathroom. But drinking adequate water is so important to staying fresh and healthy on the plane, and in the new country.

After all that, sit back, relax, and enjoy the trip.

You’ve planned to the best of your (and my) ability. Some things will probably still go wrong, but hopefully you’ll be prepared for them. And even if you’re not, a few mistakes won’t be the end of the world. The things that go wrong make the best stories. You’ve done your best, it’s time now to just take your vacation.