Congratulations! You’re about to embark upon one of the most eye-opening and rewarding experiences of your life. You should be proud of yourself—it takes a certain kind of courage to leave everything you know to live in an unfamiliar place. Not to mention all the time you probably spent filling out applications and paperwork, saving enough money, searching for the cheapest airfare…to put it simply, when leaving the country for several months or more, excitement can easily be muted by a seemingly never-ending to do list. Hopefully this article will help you collect your thoughts so you can relax and enjoy your adventures.
If you’re not already familiar with the language of your destination, start memorizing some basic phrases or carry a bilingual dictionary. Remember: you are a visitor. Don’t assume that anyone can speak your native language.
PASSPORTS & VISAS
Admittedly, I am habitually unprepared and running late, so I can sympathize with any procrastinators or unorganized readers. However, I can’t stress enough the importance of timeliness when it comes to passports and visas. Apply for both as early as possible. Visa types and requirements differ per country. In some cases, you may have to complete a follow-up visit upon your arrival. Research your visa’s stipulations and restrictions to avoid an impromptu trip home. More helpful info: USA passport site
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
Make one last trip to the dentist, eye doctor and your general practitioner. If you wear contacts, purchase enough lenses and solution to last through the trip. If you need to bring medication abroad, talk with your doctor about writing a prescription with enough refills. Get any necessary vaccinations at least a month before leaving in case of possible negative reactions and side effects.
HEALTH INSURANCE & MEDICATIONS
Contact your insurance company to let them know when you will leave, and ask them how you can receive a “vacation override” to purchase several month’s worth of medication at once. Verify that your policy covers expenses and emergencies abroad. If it doesn’t, many travel health insurance companies can provide you with coverage. When choosing read the fine print to ensure that emergency medical care and transport is covered.
Before applying for an international-friendly credit card, do some research. Companies may charge foreign currency conversion fees or international transaction fees. This article has great tips on cards with the lowest charges and best rewards. Call whichever credit card company you choose, as well as your bank, to let them know you’ll be out of the country. Otherwise they will freeze your account when they see foreign charges. Since European venues may not accept foreign credit cards, I suggest exchanging some money at the airport before leaving.
CELLPHONES AND COMMUNICATION
Keeping your old plan can lead to outrageous charges, and sorting through fraudulent international SIM card websites can get tricky, so be careful if you choose either of those two options. For a semester abroad, I recommend buying a pay-as-you-go phone: it’s neither expensive nor complicated. For longer stays, buying a SIM card and phone plan will probably be cheapest. You can possibly keep your current cell phone and just swap out SIM cards. Learn everything you need to know about unlocking iPhones here. The good news? Staying in touch with home is free, providing you have Internet access. Video chat and texting applications, such as Skype and TextNow, are free to join and use.
TYING LOOSE ENDS
Some things to think about:
- contact your car insurance to let them know you’ll be gone
- terminate all unnecessary services (cable, internet, cell phone etc.)
- sign up to receive all bills through email
- prepare an absentee ballot, if applicable
- leave copies of all important documents with a friend or family member
- ask someone to check on your house/mail/plants/animals
- have your mail forwarded to a new address
A good, light suitcase goes a long way. Literally. (One time I got stuck pulling a 70lb. suitcase with a broken wheel around Europe—never again). Always weigh your luggage to see if it meets baggage requirements and check if you can actually pull it. Where wardrobe is concerned, pack half of what you want to. And maybe even cut that pile in half again.
Other useful items to pack:
- travel power adapter
- over-the-counter medications
- flip-flops (for showering)
- extra copies of all important paperwork and passport photos
- student ID card (students and young adults between the ages of 18-26 receive discounts on almost everything in Europe)
- a few photos of family & friends
- something small yet comforting that reminds you of home
WHAT NOT TO BRING
- all unnecessary credit cards
- social security card
- anything you would hate to lose
- “what if” items (excess books, unnecessary gadgets, anything that can only be used in specific occasions)
- toiletries (unless they’re in travel-sized containers)
HAVE A PLAN
While the thought of buying a plane ticket on a whim and flying to a random city sounds awfully romantic, traveling impulsively or without some sort of plan can waste time and cost hundreds of dollars (unless you have unlimited time and money, in which case please contact me so we can travel together). Have a plan for when you get to the airport. Will someone pick you up, will you take public transportation, or will you need to call a taxi? Have a bus or metro map with you, as well as a phone number for a taxi service or whoever will be waiting for you.
Further reading: http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/tips_1232.html