The most important of all tips for first-time international travelers? Avoid unnecessary stress by applying for a passport well before your expected departure. Don’t book a flight or make any arrangements that can’t be changed until you have that little book that opens doors around the globe in your hand. Some international flights require that you enter your passport number when booking or during online check-in, so it's best to just have it first before you start booking anything..
As of 2019, the application fee for U.S. passports is $145 for adults and $115 if you’re under 16. If you’ve already gone ahead and started booking and paying for your trip you can pay an extra fee for your passport if you need it in a jiffy (the official term is "expedited"). Usually, you can receive an expedited passport within 2 weeks of your application.
Once your passport arrives, make paper and digital copies of the identification page. Give one to your parents to keep safe and keep another in your wallet. Take a photo on your phone and keep a quality digital copy on your Google Docs. Once you get your visa stamp, take a picture of that as well.
You’ll need your passport more often than you might think -- not just during flights! Many hotels are required to take a scan of your passport identification page. Don’t be alarmed by this, it’s totally normal. Some may even hold your passport during your stay as collateral to ensure you pay for your accommodation but also to keep it safe from theft. (This isn't as common as it used to be before the days of online booking, but don't be surprised if it happens in some far-flung countries.)
While most countries technically do require that foreigners have their passport on them at all times this isn’t the most advisable thing to do as there are pickpockets and bag snatchers all over the globe. This is where that paper copy you made comes in handy. Should you have any encounters with foreign law enforcement it’s pretty standard to show them the picture of your passport and visa on your phone and then explain that the physical copy is back at your hotel -- just offer to go retrieve it if they need to see it.
Never keep your passport in an easy-to-access pocket on your bag. The absolute best place for your passport to be is in a safe at a hotel or in your locker at a hostel.
Perhaps you’ve been dreaming for a long time about seeing elephants in Thailand or visiting the pyramids in Egypt. Maybe you don't know where exactly, but you just know you need to go. If you’re overwhelmed by all the incredible places you can see now that you have a passport then it may be hard to choose which destination to visit on your first international trip.
Here are some important things to ask yourself as you narrow down a literal world of choices:
Once you've thought about these questions, hopefully, you can narrow down your choices to one or two countries, depending on how much time you’ve allocated for your first international trip. In case you're still unsure, a good recommendation for first-time travelers is to visit Western Europe or the United Kingdom. Most people speak English (even if it's not the national language), there are good transportation options (buses, trains, and airplanes), and lots of unique cultures to experience. Australia and New Zealand are equally easy, but slightly more adventurous destinations as they require long-haul flights and a bit more strategic planning as they’re quite large and offer so many exciting things to do.
If you really want to go somewhere that’s completely different from the States, consider a trip to some locations that are familiar and used to travelers such as Costa Rica or Thailand. I’m always amazed when I meet young travelers who are overseas for the first time in Morocco or India-two of my favorite countries -- but places I could not have handled when I was an experienced traveler at 19.
As you book your trip, make sure you check to see whether or not you'll need a visa to travel. A visa is a document issued by the country or countries you're visiting, which grants you permission to travel there for a certain number of days.
For most of Europe, the U.K., and many countries in Asia and Latin America, U.S. passport holders can travel without a visa or receive one on arrival. But, if you do need a visa and you show up for your flight without it you won’t be allowed to board the plane which will be a major bummer and loss of your hard earned money.
Gone are the days when you need to carry cash or travelers cheques (what are those?!) to travel overseas. Now, thanks to the internet, it's much easier to manage and access money while traveling all over the world.
Check in with your bank to see if you need to set up a travel alert while you’re abroad so your bank knows when and where you're traveling. You can also inquire about international fees, and whether they have partner banks in the destination that will help you save money on costly "foreign transaction" ATM fees. Or, you can avoid all of that by opening a free checking account with Charles Schwab or Ally. These are two banks that have no foreign transaction fees and reimburse ATM fees -- even while traveling!
Though your debit card will probably work everywhere on this first trip, it's important to have a good back-up plan. Try to take at least $100, a debit card, and a credit card with you on your first international trip. Always leave one card in your hotel room in case your wallet gets stolen -- this has happened to me way too many times. If your wallet gets stolen it’s not the end of the world because you’ll still have another way to access money!