Overseas Travel: 50 Things to Know Before You Go Abroad

Overseas travel brings with it so many challenges and rewards. If this is your first time traveling overseas, you probably have already felt the fear and elation that come with it. International travel can be hard to navigate for a first timer, or even your second or third trp. There are cultural, social and etiquette differences that you really need to know, or you risk looking like a (-gasp-) tourist, or worse!

Seasoned travelers know that it pays to be educated and do your research before you go abroad so you don’t offend, embarrass or find yourself in a pickle. You can learn more about the country you’re visiting on our Destinations page – just choose your city or country.

Here are 50 things every traveler should know about overseas travel before leaving the country to travel abroad.

Dealing With Money on Vacation

Choose the right travel credit card for overseas travel
Choose the right travel credit card

1. Most countries use credit cards with chip and PIN technology. Most U.S. cards now have a chip, but no PIN. Don’t worry, your card can still be used with a signature in most places (except usually in train/metro station vending machines) Make sure you have cash on hand, just in case.

2. When processing your credit card, the merchant should bring the card reader to you. Your card shouldn’t need to leave your sight. Whatever you do, be sure you get the card back after the transaction. There’s nothing worse than leaving your card behind by accident.

3. Many credit cards charge a ~3% international transaction fee, even when you book your travel with an international company or hotel while still at home. Apply for a card that doesn’t charge that fee to save $$. You can use that card exclusively for travel and often gain loyalty points for all of your transactions that can help pay for future travel.

4. Don’t use traveler’s cheques. They are outdated and an unnecessary hassle. Use a credit card instead. Some merchants will ask if you want to be charged in local currency, or your own country’s currency when paying with a credit card. You always get a better rate in the local currency.

5. ATMs are the best way to get the cash you’ll need (see the next tip for why!). Try to calculate your costs in advance so you don’t take our too much or have to pay another fee to get more. You can find ATMs in almost every overseas airport (unless it’s really small).

6. Avoid exchange bureaus. They often charge exorbitant fees and give bad exchange rates. Use the ATM instead.

7. Spend loose change before going back home, because you can’t sell it back at many currency exchange desks so you’ll have to come back home with a pocket full of useless coins.

8. Know the currency conversion rate and carry a calculator so you don’t get taken advantage of.

9. Haggling is expected in most bazaars and markets around the world. But don’t start too low or you’ll insult the storekeeper. Start negotiations with a reasonable amount and be prepared to pay up to 85% o f the original cost.

Bathroom Matters While Traveling Abroad

WC stands for Water Closet (aka the bathroom)
WC stands for Water Closet (aka the bathroom)

10. WC stands for water closet and is the acceptable symbol for a bathroom in many countries. Be aware that most countries don’t refer to it as the bathroom or washroom. You may have to ask for the “toilets”, “the ladies”, or “the loo”.

11. Always carry small change if possible. You may need it in some countries to use the WC (bathroom), especially in train stations.

12. When using a street bathroom where you pay with coins in the door, beware that there is a time limit and the door may pop open before you’re finished.

13. Always carry your own toilet paper. Some bathrooms don’t offer free or any paper. You may be able to pay at the door for a small square of paper.

14. Be prepared to squat! Many non-Western countries use squat toilets and it’s definitely a learned skill. I’ve even seen some older bathrooms in France that are just a hole in the ground!

15. Some countries/cities have older plumbing that can’t handle toilet paper. Usually there’s a sign asking you to place toilet paper (and other personal hygiene items) in the waste basket and not in the toilet.

Dining Around the World

Hotel breakfasts can be highly overpriced.
Hotel breakfasts can be highly overpriced.

16. In some countries (Argentina & Spain, for example), dinner doesn’t start until at least 9pm. If you show up before that, you might be the only person in the restaurant. If you want to eat as early as 6 or 7pm, you might need to find a cafe instead of a restaurant. Try to make reservations for 9:30 or 10 pm if you want some atmosphere while you dine.

17. Tipping isn’t required or expected in restaurants or taxis in most countries outside the U.S. Rounding up is usually enough. A nice restaurant may warrant 10%. However, always tip the bell boy in a hotel if they take your luggage to your room.

18. When in China or Japan, rest chopsticks on your plate or on a chopstick rest, but never across the bowl.

19. Some Muslim countries have strict alcohol consumption rules. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are completely dry! Before you travel, check the calendar for religious holidays (especially Ramadan) in the country you’re traveling to. Restaurants can be closed during these times, and alcohol can be forbidden.

20. Hotel breakfasts are often overpriced and underwhelming. If it’s not included in your rate, grab a croissant and coffee at the corner cafe instead. You can often get a full breakfast at a nearby restaurant for half the price of the hotel’s meager buffet.

21. Be aware of the price of the water you’re being served. If it’s from a bottle, it’s likely not free, and it can be quite overpriced. Ask for tap water if you’re in a country that has good water. Also, outside the U.S. water isn’t typically served automatically. You have to ask for it.

22. You shouldn’t drink the water unless you’re sure it’s safe to drink, or you’ll risk traveler’s stomach! In many cases, it’s not that the water isn’t clean, but that your stomach isn’t equipped to handle the different bacteria.

23. When you’re ready to get your bill in a restaurant, you’ll have to ask for it. If you wait for it, you might be there all night. Here’s a great opportunity to learn a few words in the language. Always know how to ask for the check.

Safety on the Road

How to Deal With Illness and Injury While Traveling
How to Deal With Illness and Injury While Traveling

24. Know how to stay safe on vacation. Be aware of commotion, people bumping into you, beggars hanging around. Pick pockets are smarter and better at what they do than you think. Check out these common scams.

25. Don’t wear your backpack on your back, especially if you’re carrying expensive items. It’s easy for a thief to unzip a pocket and take something without you noticing. Carry it on your front, or lock the compartments. Also, read about these top 10 travel scams to watch out for.

26. Be prepared for illness and injury while traveling overseas. Confirm that you have medical coverage where you’re headed, before you leave home, and know important numbers. *Click here for more information on staying safe while on vacation.

Packing for International Travel

Download a Free Packing Checklist
Click to download a Free Packing Checklist

27. Packing light – only taking a carry-on — will save you from the dreaded “lost luggage” scenario. Here’s a list of our favorite carry-on luggage  and carry-on backpacks that meets International carry on standards.

28. If you must take a checked bag, make sure you have at least a change of clothes and any necessities, such as medications, stored in your carry on. If your luggage is lost, it could take days to get it back.

29. Use a toiletry bag to store all of your little items, like make up, band aids, medicine, tweezers. Toiletry bags keep everything neatly packed in one spot and make transporting it to the bathroom in the hotel very easy.

30. Save space by packing dual-purpose clothes that can be re-worn and mix-and-matched. There’s no need to take multiple pairs of travel shoes and jackets. Purchase lightweight, comfortable travel pants to wear instead of bulky jeans.

31. Wrap wine and liquor bottles in clothes so they don’t break in your luggage. There are also protective and leak-proof wine sleeves you can get to transport bottles in your luggage.

32. We love packing cubes. They make packing SO EASY. The cubes compress your clothing so it fits in a smaller space and it keeps everything packed in nicely, so your underwear don’t go flying when the TSA agent looks through your bag.

33. Do laundry in the sink, or give it to your hotel to do. You could even take along the awesome Scrubba Wash Bag that allows you to do laundry easily while on the road. The bag itself is a tiny travel-sized bag, but fits 3-4 shirts/pants in each wash. The time and energy you’ll save not having to lug around baggage is so worth it.

34. Know the airline’s baggage policy and buy the right size luggage. Some U.S. carry-on bags are too big in Europe. Low cost airlines always have stricter limits. Know before you go.

Transportation

airplane
Print boarding passes and verify seat assignments

35. Travel in the off- or shoulder-season to cut down on costs and avoid crowds. High season for overseas travel typically extends through the summer months and during Christmas and Spring Break.

36. Use a local airline to book short flights in country. Ryanair or Easy Jet will save you tons of money when flying in Europe. It’s also wise to look into free stopovers offered by various airlines that will give you two destinations for the price of one.

37. Know whether you need an International driver’s license to rent a car (like in Italy). Showing up to the rental car counter without one can ruin your vacation before it even starts.

38. Always ask for an estimate on the cab fare before getting in. You should know what the expected rate is so you don’t get overcharged. If the fare doesn’t sound reasonable, use a different taxi.

39. Only rent a car if it’s absolutely necessary. Take the train, bus or walk around cities instead. It offers more culture, opportunity to see the countryside and less hassle: parking, theft and extra costs aren’t worth it.

40. Know how to drive a stick shift. Manual transmission is standard at rental car agencies almost everywhere outside the U.S. and it costs a lot more to rent an automatic.

41. If you’re going to rent a car, you better know how to change a tire! Also beware that some countries require you to carry chains the car during some months of the year (also Italy).

General Travel Tips

Passports
Passports

42. Know at least a few words in the language. You should at least know how to stay yes, no and thank you in the language. One of the most important to know: Thank You. Here’s how to say thank you in 65 languages.

43. Don’t walk around with your passport. Keep a copy of the first page with you, and store your passport in the hotel safe (unless it’s required by the country that you carry it). Also give a copy of the first page to someone back home, just in case.

44. Never point at someone with your index finger, or any finger, really. It’s rude.

45. Know your passport number by heart, in case it gets lost.

46. Sign up for Global Entry (or Nexus) to speed through customs when returning to the U.S.

47. Sign up for STEP with the U.S. Embassy when traveling abroad and check international travel alerts and safety notices from the Embassy before you go. Once you sign up for STEP, you will be notified of any issues via email.

48. Know how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, if you want to know what the temperature is. An easy formula: deduct 32, then multiply by 5, then divide by 9.

49. Learn to go with the flow. Don’t get uptight or stressed out when things don’t go right or you will ruin what little time you have on your overseas trip.

50. Cheers! Prost! Živjeli! Learn how to toast in different languages. It’s fun and helps you get in the right spirit.

Now that you know the 50 things every international traveler should know, you’ll be much better prepared to handle yourself in any situation when you go overseas. If you have additional things to add that we should know about overseas travel, let me know about them in the comments.

(Want more? Check out this list of 24 unusual travel words you should know)

Like this post? Why not share it on your Pinterest board with the following images:

Overseas travel information for first timers traveling abroad
Overseas travel information for first timers traveling abroad
Laura in the vineyards of New Zealand

Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.

Overseas Travel: 50 Things to Know Before You Go Abroad

35 thoughts on “Overseas Travel: 50 Things to Know Before You Go Abroad

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Thanks Jennifer. We learned many of these the hard way too! I guess that’s half the fun of being a traveler.

  1. Carol Colborn says:

    I usually buy pastries at night before going home so breakfast is ready in the morning! Never ear breakfast outside! Then I have a big lunch and just have cheese and wine at night!

    • Laura Lynch says:

      That’s a great way to do it! We often try to skip breakfast, just to cut down on those pesky “vacation” calories.

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Yeah, me too. I actually have a bag full of loose change from dozens of countries because of that.

  2. Jeremy Scott Foster says:

    Great collection of tips! I always try to travel in the off season–it’s the best way to keep your costs down.

  3. Claudia says:

    Lots of the things you mention may seem obvious or self explanatory, but they are not to many! I have worked as a tour leader in Central America and soooo many times I have had to give recommendations about NOT drinking tap water, or bringing change for the toilet… hehehe

    • Laura Lynch says:

      It does seem like common sense, but that’s probably just because we’re used to it now! There’s a lot to learn when you’re traveling overseas.

  4. Francesca @onegrloneworld says:

    That was a really great and practical list! Perfect for any first time traveler. I had to learn most of this the hard way… I was especially surprised by the squatting thing! It certainly is a skill!

  5. Uncover Your Caribbean says:

    Great tips! Learnt a few things. Don’t war your backpack on your back is a great one!

  6. Emme @ Green Global Travel says:

    “Learn to go with the flow” is a great one. People, especially Americans, tend to get caught up in the itinerary and don’t allow themselves to really experience a place. And great tip about rental cars and stick shift, I learned that myself the hard way in France! Thanks for the post.

  7. Sandy Hafey says:

    lots of good tips. Can’t believe your backpack actually fits under the seat though. I must be flying the wrong airline! I like to travel with “Lush” brand shampoo soap. It lasts for a month.

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Great tip, Sandy! Our bags fit because we pack super light. I always fear no overhead space will be left and our bags will be checked.

  8. Annie says:

    Citi Card doesn’t charge international fees when traveling (at least in Europe). Citi card has been wonderful to use while traveling. Wells Fargo on the other hand is ridiculous when it comes to fees, 3% per purchase and $5 when getting money out of an atm.

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Good to know that Citi Card doesn’t charge. We’ve been using Capital One, but I hear that the Barclay card doesn’t have fees and they offer a chip with pin, which is really rare for U.S. cards. Thinking about going with that one.

  9. Brad Frankel says:

    There are so many cultural differences and little tips that we should know for more enjoyable trips. Thanks for sharing.

    • Laura Lynch says:

      Yes, there are so many things to be aware of when traveling. It just makes you a more respectful traveler.

  10. Mar says:

    This is a very long and comprehensive list of things to know that are definitively to be taken into account. I always think that the best when in doubt is to see what others do

  11. Heather says:

    Should probably take off the store passport in hotel safe! In some countries you are required to keep it on your person and you will be detained if you don’t have it on you. Happened recently to nuns in Rome, Italy.

    • Laura Lynch says:

      It’s definitely wise to look up the requirements for carrying your passport before you go anywhere. In most countries, it’s best to keep the passport in your hotel safe and carry a copy of the information page, rather than carrying it around, but as you say, that’s not always the case.

  12. Samantha Orozco says:

    Number 17 and 28 are wrong, you should tip in most countries, definitely in France, England, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Cuba, to name a few I’ve been to 🙂 and there is nothing wrong with passing the food with either of your hands or eating with your hands under the table, I’m Mexican, live here and have traveled to latin american countries, and had never heard about that before. Don’t worry!!

  13. Agnes says:

    En Costa Rica puedes pasar la comida con ambas manos y deja tus manos donde quieras: arriba o abajo de la mesa! De verdad no se preocupen por eso y disfruten la hospitalidad latina.

  14. Cindy says:

    Your comment about tipping, Canada is exactly like the US when it comes to tipping, but as in both countries 15% is the starting point. If you really enjoyed your service then you can always tip more.

  15. Gail says:

    My formula for changing Celcius to Fahrenheit is easier. Just double the temp and add 30. ie: 22* x 2=44+30=74*. Close enough!

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