How to prepare for international travel

4WD in Namibia

This guide will teach you how to make your dreams about self directed international traveling come true.. We give detailed guide lines for every single step of the planning process. Completing this list ensures you can fully enjoy your travel.

We believe in active traveling - see our about page for more details - and that we can enjoy traveling the most when only planning the basics for our trips. This allows for a maximum of flexibility and limits unwanted surprises.

Nothing spoils your four week inter rail trip through southern Europe more than the passport of your companion expiering in three months. Instead of having the possibility to visit Morocco you are suddenly stuck in Portugal. It took me almost twenty years to finally visit this country.

On the contrary, planning every detail of your trip will kill flexibility and give you the notion of being trapped in your own plans. Therefore this guide only concentrates on the main topics like visa & passport, airline booking or vaccination. While you want to know where to go in general, it usually pays to decide upon detailed locations while you are on the road.

The page you are reading is the entry page to our travel guide, giving an introduction to each of the main topics. For more complex topics like car rental, the guide links you to additional articles, covering their specific details. Use the table of contents on the right to select a specific article.

To ensure you do not start with the wrong topic, the list starts with the tasks taking the longest, .

How early should I start planning?

The time you need to organize your trip roughly depends on three variables:

  • The further and the longer your trip, the more planning is necessary.
  • The first self directed holiday will require the most time and effort.
  • It helps if you are good in setting yourself a dead line and if you are able to finish a specific task on time.

As a rough guide line, we suggest to start your travel preparations at least 6 months before your envisioned departure.

Tell your boss about your plans (18 - 6 months prior to departure)

Depending on how long you want to travel, you should allow your manager to prepare for your absence. Holidays of two to three weeks, at least in western Europe, should be straight forward. Anything above four weeks needs some planning on how and when to ask for. Read more about this topic in our article on sabbaticals.

Vaccination & Malaria prevention (6 months prior to departure)

Never underestimate the health risks related to exploring other parts of the world.  Nature has some nasty diseases up her sleeve which easily leave you paralyzed, crippled or simply dead unless you take necessary precaution. Depending on your vaccination history it can take up to 6 months to get your immune system prepared.

As a first step, pay your doctor a visit. Ensure you have the base immunization suggested by your local health care system and ask her about necessary immunizations for your destination.

A first idea on the number of injections and the overall time frame is available on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For every destination they list the recommended vaccinations and Non-Vaccine-Preventable diseases. Factors determining the overall time for immunization are destination, age and planned activities.

Please note that the existence of a Non-Vaccine-Preventable disease does not necessarily mean the disease cannot be prevented. For Malaria several drugs (most prominent Malarone) exists which inhibit an infection.

The best way to prevent many of these diseases is to reduce the probability of getting bitten by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are most active during dusk and dawn. Wear long sleeved clothes, apply insect repellant and use a mosquito net while sleeping.

Besides the points mentioned above, no matter where you go, there are a few simple things you can always do to reduce health risks:

  • Don't drink tap water unless you know for sure it is safe. Otherwise boil it or drink bottled water.
  • Follow this simple rule for food: Peel it, boil it, cook it - or forget it
  • Don't touch wild animals
  • Use condoms

What to do with your apartment while you are away (6-3 months prior to departure)

Unless you own the place or you want to return after your journey, moving out is the easiest option. Sell your belongings or find a place to store them and you cut the biggest cost block from your monthly expenses. Taking into account the effort it takes to move, we consider this to be worth only for trips longer than 6 months.

An alternative to moving is to rent out your home. If you find someone renting it fully furnished, your plants, pets etc. are taken care of and your monthly expenses are still reduced. There are a few things to consider to not turn this deal into a nightmare.

  • Get help
    Laws differ significantly across the world, therefor - if you are not the owner -  ensure you are allowed to rent out the apartment. In any case ensure you understand your obligation as landlord. If in doubt contact an attorney before taking action. Should you now flinch because of the money you have to pay in the first place, better stop thinking about renting out your apartment. Without setting things up properly you are not in control and chances are high you will regret renting out after your return.
  • Duration
    You do not want someone occupying your apartment when your trip ends. Explicitly state in the rental contract, that the rent is temporary and ends prior to your return.
  • Know your client
    Understand whom you are renting the apartment to. Where is the person working, what are the motives for a temporary rental. Try to get in touch with people who can give reference. You want to be super picky here especially when renting your apartment fully furnished. If things go from bad to worse you not only have to renovate the place but you might also loose personal items stored in the house.
  • Take your time
    Do nut rush things because you already see the money you can earn. Finding the right person to rent your apartment to takes time. Better not renting out then risking additional costs and stress after your return.

For our three months leave we did not rent our house for two reasons. With a surgery coming up 6 weeks prior to departure we did not have the time and energy to properly look for someone trustworthy. In addition, after renovating our house one year earlier we were not willing to take the risk having to renovating the place again.

Passport & Visa (3 months prior to departure)

Note: Be sure to understand the timeline and restrictions if you need to apply for a visa before starting any other preparations

No matter where you want to go, your passport & visa is the most important item for traveling.

If you never applied for a passport, this is the first thing to do. Otherwise check its expiration date and the requirements of your travel destination. Many countries require your passport to be valid an additional three to six months from the date you leave the country. Should your passport expire earlier you need to have it renewed before your travel. Airlines might even refuse transportation if your passport is expiring soon.

Plan 8 weeks to get a new pass. Processing time is around 6 weeks (depending on your nationality and country of residence it might be more or less) but you need to do some paper work, get a new picture and maybe even an appointment at the public office.

While waiting for your passport you should check the conditions of entry for your destination. Depending on your nationality and duration of your visit you might qualify for a visa waiver program. Even if qualifying for a waiver program, check if an additional electronic visa (e.g. USA & Australia) is required.

If you need a visa, we suggest to plan for a minimum of two weeks for the application. You will have to fill out additional paper work and arrange for an appointment at the embassy. Even if they grant you the visa, it first has to be printed and glued on a free page. You therefore have to leave your passport at the embassy and it will be returned to you via mail.

With regulations and security checks getting ever stricter, ensure you follow the instructions for your destination country by the book. Being lazy just does not pay unless you enjoy getting grilled by the immigration officer and you do not mind to miss your connecting flight.

Missing a flight due to delays at immigration is considered your own fault and nobody will return you any money.

If you -  even after all the points mentioned above - manage to have your passport expired while abroad, there exists the option to extend your passport at your nations embassy.

Flight booking & car rental (3 months prior to departure)

Besides food and accommodation, transportation is one of the major cost blocks.

To enable you to make the right decision when it comes to flights and car rental, this article provides the basic information to start a first price check. You will find detailed information what to look out for in the dedicated articles linked below.

When is the right time to book the cheapest flights?

Over at www.cheapair.com they analyzed a heap of data to identify the best time to buy plane tickets. The result: For domestic flights get your tickets 12 weeks in advance, for international flights 14 weeks.

It is a simple rule of thumb to which we add a few points you might want to consider when searching for a cheap flight:

  • Search engine
    Using the right tool makes the search easier. Skyscanner offers a website dedicated to easily search for the booking best fitting your needs. It allows you to set price alarms, provides a whole month overview and more.
  • Flexibility
    Chances for a cheaper flight increase if you are flexible on the date: The 'month view' on Skyscanner allows you to identify on which days your flight will be the cheapest. Avoiding main holidays and week ends can work wonders.
  • Connecting flights
    If you have the option, add some buffer to have lay overs of 3 hours or more. This increases your chances to get your connecting flight even if the first one is delayed. In addition, stay with one airline for connecting flights. If you miss your connecting flight due to their shortcomings they will take care of you. If you book on different airlines, it is considered to be your fault to have missed the connecting flight.
  • Price 
    When comparing prices, ensure it contains taxes and any additional fees. Especially camping gear and camera equipment add to the weight of your bags quickly. And any kg exceeding your baggage allowance will be charged. 

Read our dedicated article on flight booking to learn more on how to find cheap flights and additional tips to make any flight more comfortable.

When is the right time for car rental?

When looking for a regular car, it pays to reserve a car early and recheck the rates once in a while. If they drop, cancel your reservation and open a new one. In addition, not picking up on the airport saves you money as well. You will find more details in our article on car rental.  

If you consider renting a camper van or a four wheel drive, things get more complicated.

In general it helps to book as early as possible. Three months or more before the season starts is a good rule of thumb. Mostly this allows for an early bird rebate. In addition, booking at the beginning or end of season allows for cheaper rates. Be sure to read our article on car rental to learn what type of car you really need for your holiday, what to look out for in car insurance and understand the hidden costs of individual rental firms.

Insurance (2 months prior to departure)

Besides passport and vaccination it is mandatory to look for proper insurance coverage. We can assure you, this topic is a beast. There are tons of companies out there trying to sell you policies no body needs or policies not living up to their promises.

With a matter so complex, this section will tell you what type of insurance is necessary in the first place and what coverage to look out for. We provide a separate comparison and evaluation of different health insurance companies in a separate article. You will be astonished how many tiny pitfalls exist, you never thought about.

Let us first identify the types of insurance you definitely need when touring the world and why.

Health insurance & Accident insurance

Never ever underestimate this topic. Not having proper coverage can become a matter of life and death. Maybe not literally but easily financially. A medical emergency can  sum up to hundreds of thousands of Euros or Dollars.

Another crucial point to be aware of the distinction between health and accident insurance. You might find both coming together but please be on the look out for the details. Health insurance should cover any costs related to an illness, while accident insurance should cover all costs related to a sudden external impact on your body.

To give a short example: The health insurance covers the costs related to a heart attack, while the accident insurance covers your car accident.

The bare minimum any combination of these policies must cover are:

  • Medical emergency (accident and illness)
  • Pregnancy related expenses.
    Be sure to understand in which week of your pregnancy the coverage stops.
  • Emergency evacuation
  • Repatriation of remains
  • Return of a minor
  • Overseas funeral expenses

Even if we are repeating ourselves. Please do not underestimate the risks you are taking if you are going without an insurance. You'll be liable for all upcoming costs and it can happen so easily.

A few months before leaving on our trip, a colleague had a serious car accident over seas. They actually collided head first into an oncoming truck. Besides suffering from major injuries, he had to stay in hospital for several weeks before he could be flown back home. Just the flight back home cost him about 200.000 CHF.

Travel cancelation insurance

Live can take sudden turns and even if you planned your trip thoroughly you might need to postpone or cancel your vacation. In contrary to the health & accident insurance discussed above, we think you only need this coverage if you book every flight, train ride and hotel in advance. Should you go on a backpacking trip and only book the flight, it probably is not necessary.

On the other hand, travel cancelation insurances often include coverage for the liability for a car rental. Depending on the applied conditions this can come cheaper than the insurance offered by the rental company. Read our article on car hire for more details on this topic.

If you plan to pay with your credit card, check the coverage provided by your card company before getting your cancelation insurance.

Be careful when you get offered an insurance on booking portals. Having a separate insurance with your company of choice usually gives better coverage for less money.

Below you find an overview of the coverages we deem most important.

  • Trip cancelation
    Covering the costs for the whole trip when you have to cancel due to sickness or death of a family member. Pay special attendance to the conditions applying for pregnancy.
  • Travel interruption
    Reimbursing for all costs incurring due to travel interruption. This includes: the flight back home, reimbursing you for any pre booked packages not used yet (even partly) and booking a new flight to continue your travels.
  • Liability for car rental
    Renting a car with minimum insurance coverage usually requires you to pay a certain liability yourself in the case of an accident. This option will reimburse you for the liability.

To give you some numbers from our three months trip to New Zealand & Australia: We paid about 4500 € for our flights and 8000 € for the camper van rentals. The cancelation insurance covering up to 20.000 € cost us 100€ and allowed us to save 1000 € on car insurance.

Below the list of coverages you probably will not need

  • Lost, stolen or damaged baggage, personal effects or travel documents
    Two points why we don't think this is necessary:
    a) If you have a house hold insurance, this probably is already covered. Recheck for which countries it applies.
    b) If you follow the conditions applying for stolen luggage by the book the thief literaly has to steal the bag while you are sitting on it.
  • Delayed baggage (and emergency replacement of essential items)
    When traveling the world you have the most important items in your carry on bags and delayed bags usually arrive within 24 hours.
  • Flight connection missed due to airline schedule crash
    Usually the airline is taking care of you unless you book different airlines in your connection
  • Personal liability
    Unless you don not have a liability insurance with world wide coverage - which you should have - this is not needed.

Handling your mail (1 month prior to departure)

Most communication today is done via internet / e-mail, Nevertheless, you should take care of the regular mail when leaving your home for more than a few weeks .

This prevents an overflowing mail box (telling everyone nobody is home) and reduces the risk of missing a deadline or overseeing an important bill.

Below the two things we did while away for three months:

  • Pay bills in advance
    We looked through all our payments of the last years and identified bills to be arriving during our absence. Wherever possible we set up a direct debit mandate automatically deducting the money from our account. Where this was not possible we paid the bill in advance or contacted the counter party and asked them to postpone any demand notes until two weeks  after our return.
  • Retain your mail
    Any mail still to be sent to us was stored at the post office. For a small fee they usually retain your mail until the day after your return.

Conclusion

Flexibility and peace of mind during your travels go hand in hand with proper planing. If you follow the few simple guidelines we listed above, we are convinced you will do the right things in the right way to make your next trip unforgettable.

Travel preparation can be tricky. Please do not hessitate to contact us if you have a questions not covered in this article. 

On the other hand we love to hear about your experiences and any additional suggestions you have. Share your experience by adding a comment or use our contact page.