Do This, Not That: 8 (Avoidable) Mistakes Travelers Make Overseas

Are you fairly new to the world of travel…but don’t want to blow your cover? Or, maybe you’ve put in some serious frequent flier miles, but you still find yourself repeating the same mistakes over (and over) again? No one is a perfect traveler, but with a little extra preparation we can all get a little better at it (and save time, money and sanity in the process) – read these 8 avoidable mistakes we see travelers make, along with some advice on what to do instead.

1. Not getting your travel docs in order: Some countries have more red tape than others when it comes to entry/exit requirements, and the key is getting a jump start on the process to avoid headaches later. Apply early for a passport, or renew your old one—adult’s passports are valid for 10 years and children’s passports are only valid for five. It should be valid for at least 6 months pass the date of your return flight and have two more blank pages, otherwise some countries (such as Russia and China) may not let you enter. (Need a passport ASAP? Read our step by step guide) Also, many countries require you to obtain a travel visa regardless of whether the purpose of your trip is for work, study or for fun. Visit the U.S. Department of State’s Country Information pages at least three months prior to your departure date to determine the unique entry/exit requirements for your destination.

2. Not planning for unexpected medical emergencies: All too often we hear from travelers who find themselves at a facility that lacks the appropriate capabilities to treat their conditions. And not to mention, only some health insurance companies will pay for medical expenses abroad, and very few will pay for a medical evacuation back to the U.S. Before you leave home, make sure you have a firm grasp on the healthcare landscape of your destination, what your current health plan offers for international coverage and a corresponding action plan. If you’re not sure how you’ll find quality medical care, fill a prescription or even get transported back to your home hospital (without paying thousands of dollars out of pocket), then you’re not ready to step on that plane. On Call clients, don’t forget: from medical emergencies to personal safety concerns–and any travel problem big or small–we’re here to help 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

3. Not researching the best modes of transportation: Making assumptions about how you’ll actually get around in your destination is easy to do – after all, you can always hail a taxi or get an Uber ride, right? Well…not so fast. Road conditions, laws and transportation resources vary by country—one mode of transportation that is safe and reliable in one country may not be in another. For example, in some places, sharing economy services like Uber and Lyft may not be available, in other countries, certain types of taxis and public transport may not be safe for travelers and in some countries, you could be taking your life in your hands if you decide to rent a car. Long story short: get familiarized with the transportation landscape of your destination before you leave home. Visit the State Department’s Country Information pages, enter your destination in the box, select “go” and then scroll down to the Travel & Transportation section (or On Call clients can call us and we’ll do the research for you!).

4. Not enrolling in STEP: This is one of the easiest ways to help protect your safety overseas, yet so many people forget or don’t even know this program exists. The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service for U.S. citizens—simply download the app to enroll your trip with the U.S. State Department and you’ll have immediate access to country information, including U.S. embassy locations and detailed maps. It also provides you with the State Department’s latest travel alerts and warnings to help you make informed decisions about your travel plans. Most importantly, the app allows the U.S. government to send safety alerts directly to your phone and can also help them locate you in the event of an emergency.

5. Assuming everyone speaks English: When you travel to a new place, it’s like being a guest in someone else’s home. Would you show up to their house and start talking in a different language? Yes, English is the universal language, but making an effort to at least learn a few key phrases in your destination’s language is one of the best ways to show respect and make a great first impression. No need to take a take a college course before you leave (unless you’re feeling really ambitious!), but if you can at least say a greeting in the other person’s native tongue and ask if they speak English, they’ll appreciate your efforts.

6. Not checking your phone plan: In this day and age, putting your phone in airplane mode for the duration of your trip just doesn’t make sense (and what if there’s an emergency?).  The first thing you’ll need to consider is that your phone might not work. Your destination either has a GSM or CDMA network — GSM is the international standard and CDMA coverage tends to be less universally available. Check with your cell phone carrier—if your phone is not compatible with your destination’s network, they should be able to recommend logical next steps for making calls during your trip. What may work for one traveler, may not work for another—whether it’s getting a SIM card, opting for an international plan, renting (or buying) a phone or even taking advantage of free Wi-Fi, there are ways to stay connected overseas sans the avoid exorbitant cell phone bills.

7. Sticking out like a sore thumb: If you’re traveling abroad, learn everything you can about the country’s cultural norms, values and customs. How do the locals view individuals from the U.S.—and how should this affect your behavior? What are people’s attitudes on race, sexuality, gender relations, etc. and how are they reflected in local laws? This can also include local dress codes (when in doubt, it’s always best to dress conservatively), appropriate hand gestures, views on timeliness, eye contact and more. Another great way to blend in? Leave your fancy purses, flashy watches, and name brand clothing at home. Yes…you heard us! Packing the nicest things you own isn’t only unnecessary, but serves as a temptation to people who are up to no good. The U.S. State Department’s Country Specific Information pages and your travel risk management provider can also help you assess the political and cultural landscape of a particular destination—and how this could affect your personal safety.

8. Forgetting good, old common sense: Every traveler, regardless of age or experience, can use a reminder (or two!) on staying vigilant, being aware of their surroundings and trusting their gut instincts. If something feels uncomfortable, chances there’s good reason. And in most instances, personal safety often comes down to a little pre-planning and some good old common sense. Aside from brushing up on general safety precautions, use your best judgment when speaking with strangers, especially when it comes to personal information and details that could compromise your safety. Sometimes a casual conversation will lead to a question about which hotel you’re staying at or where you’re headed next. It’s wise to stay purposefully vague, or have a few faux backup responses in mind for those situations.

What are some of the worst (avoidable) mistakes you’ve ever made while traveling? Let us know in the comments below; we’d love to hear from you!

Safe Travels!