What to know before you go

According to the Huffington Post, only 10% of Americans have passports and only about 3.5% of Americans travel abroad. Congratulations on joining this tiny club!  Is it your first trip out of the country?  In some ways, this is not that different from domestic travel.  In other ways, it will be a festival of strange new experiences.  Of course you know you need a passport…but what else separates this from more local travel? Here are some things to be aware of that you might not have considered.  Several of these are taken from Smarter Travel’s article on this topic.

  1. Wifi.  Unless you purchase an international plan for your cell phone, or you just love paying roaming charges, you may not have the kind of internet access you’ve become used to here.  This is NOT a reminder to get an international cell service…you’re spending lots of money for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, so take those Snap Streaks and just let ’em go, man.  This is, however, a reminder that your access to online maps and such will also be less.  If you want to watch a movie or listen to a podcast, be sure it’s downloaded to your device before you go, when you know the high-speed internet is really high-speed.
    But if you want international service on your phone? You’ll pay for it.  And it isn’t available to the same degree in all countries. Here are the rates I could find from major US carriers, as of April 2018:
    AT&T – $10/day to continue your regular plan, or $60/month for a limited call/data plan ($50 fee for every GB you go over the limit).
    Sprint – Free “basic” data, or $25/week extra if you want faster data. $.20/minute talk
    Verizon – $5 (Mexico or Canada) or $10 (other places)/day for basic call/text/data.  Monthly plans available with charges for calls & texts, and limits on data.
    T-Mobile – Depends on your plan.  Data could be included or cost $15/MB.
    US Cellular – $35/month for 50MB of data
  2. Sleep.  Somehow, at some point during the trip, you’re gonna miss out on sleep.  Or miss out on a day.  You’ll fly a red-eye.  You’ll have an early morning flight and land in the evening.  Look at your travel schedule and think ahead.  A 7pm flight that lands in France at 1pm (local time)…when your body will think it’s 7am…may not be the great deal it seems at first look.
  3.  Shoes.  Wear comfy shoes.  NEVER EVER EVER plan on new shoes making their debut on a trip.  Even if you’ve worn the same style and size for years, this pair could be the one that missed a quality control step and rubs your foot just a little bit.  That little bit could be the difference between good memories and limping through a cathedral.  It isn’t a bad idea to have 2 different shoes.  That way if one starts to rub funny, the other hopefully won’t irritate the same spot.
  4. Pack light.  This is something I always tell kids I travel with.  Sometimes sidewalks aren’t even.  Sometimes you’ll need to go up a flight of stairs.  The more able you are to lift your bag, the better. There are people in this world who travel for weeks or months with just a backpack.  Come as close as you personally can to being those people.  See my packing tips posts for more ideas about doing this.
  5. Using ATMs.  Often the cheapest and easiest way to get local currency.  Just make sure you call your bank ahead of time and let them know you’re going to travel. Otherwise they may think it’s a suspicious charge and lock you out of your own card!
  6. Unplug.  Much like #1 above, realize that being disconnected from all your tech can be a little uncomfortable at first.  It is for me too.  But soon, if you just go with it, the peace and calm that comes from just being in the moment will be something you come to enjoy.  You can have real experiences with real people.  Think of it as Facetime version 1.0…people whose faces are near you at that time.
  7. Language.  If you’re one of my students, you’ve had at least 3 years of Spanish before coming on the trip.  While you may feel like you don’t know enough language, you really do.  Did you know that complete mastery of typical level 2 material (not that many people actually master it during level 2) is enough language to earn a passing score on the AP Langauge exam?  If you can use polite greetings and expressions (please & thank you), handle numbers (even if you have to think about some of them), and use some other basic conversation bits, you’ll be fine.  You just FEEL you’re not good enough because your English is so much better, and odds are you have never HAD to use your Spanish.  Even if you have spoken here with people that only speak Spanish, you were doing it as an “extra” or a favor.  There was no expectation anyone would speak Spanish, so you were going above and beyond by using the language at all.  TRUST ME.  I’ve done this a lot.  You’ll be fine.  Would I lie to you?
  8. No really, what if I don’t understand?  Okay, legit concern.  I get it.  You can’t just signal them to stop and ask “¿Qué quiere decir…?” like you can in class.  First, I recommend trying harder in class to not ask for a translation, but to ask for more description in Spanish.  Get used to hearing things defined/described in Spanish.  Heck, you may even need to ask your teacher to stay in Spanish for this.  DO IT.  Second, try to build your tolerance for not understanding EVERY. SINGLE. WORD.  If you can get the gist of the message, then you’re fine.  It may not be completely okay to let some ambiguity go in class, and you’ll get a feel for when understanding every word is necessary and when you can get by with just a general understanding.  Try to be more and more okay with that second situation.  It isn’t comfortable at first but it bothers you less and less as you do it more and more.  In the moment, sometimes it may help if a person writes it out.  In preparation for my trip to France this summer I am making sure I can tell people, “My French isn’t great. Please write it.  I understand it better.”  Because I can read at my own pace (not the pace someone speaks) and I can be sure I’m not distracted by an accent.  I can truly recognize words I know once they are not all smushed together with all the surrounding words.

Packing for Travel–Step #3: Pare down the list

I’ve said it before & will say it again.  There are 2 kinds of travelers.  Those who pack light and those who wish they had.  But how do you know what you’ll really need?!?


Just like using a grocery list helps you make sure you don’t forget something important for dinner, but keeps you from picking up a third bottle of ketchup because standing in the store you’re not sure if you have one at home, using a packing list is a great way to make sure you bring everything you need, and ONLY what you need.


Recently while planning a 4-day visit to my parents’ house during spring break, I put 4 pairs of pants into my pile to take.  Then I realized, the pants I was currently wearing were on their 3rd wear without being washed.  Ignoring my sketchy level of hygiene I might indicate by mentioning that, I clearly didn’t NEED 4 pairs of pants for 4 days.  I think everyone will agree you can get at least a second wear out of a pair of jeans.  If you do this regularly at home, there is no reason you should plan to pack more than one pair of jeans for every 2-3 days.  This is especially easy to do with pants.  Nobody notices a repeat.


If you don’t wear it here, you won’t wear it there.  It’s fine to think of options (on one day I can wear the blue shirt or the green one), but every outfit doesn’t need a contingency plan.  If you think it could be hot or chilly, pack ONE or TWO items that could be your “just in case” clothes for the whole trip.  I always bring an extra “just in case my bag gets lost or my flight is canceled” underwear with me. I always bring a zip-up sweater in case it gets chilly.  But I bring ONE extra.  Not an extra to coordinate with each outfit.  Which brings me to…


When I travel, my “uniform” is black bottoms and a shirt that match.  I am never stuck because I brought the blue pants, and only one shirt matches the blue ones but I accidentally wore it with the green pants and now I can’t match anything clean to the blue ones.  I will bring black pants, a black skirt, and shoes that match me wearing black.  Everything is interchangeable.  I decide to wear a skirt one day and it doesn’t throw off my plans to wear pants another. Sometimes, if I do a really good job of planning, all the shirts I pack will match my gray pants and I can bring those along to spice it up.  Yeah, it isn’t always my favorite items that I bring (I *love* my purple pants!) but it keeps packing simple and any “contingency” plan items like my zip-up sweater will match whatever I’m wearing on the day it gets cold.


The best example I can give of this is possibly more girl-specific, but also tends to be more of a problem for the girls.  If, for example, you usually wear one eye shadow, but sometimes you like to rock a smoky eye and need 4 additional colors…make the decision to go with your “normal” eye look during the trip.  If you have 2 different colors of flip flops, just suck it up and bring one.  Find ways that you’ll be okay with the pared down numbers.  Don’t pack for “just in case”…pack for “will I really use this enough to make it worth lugging around the world”.  In most cases, no.  Remember, we’re going to travel to a place where millions of people live.  They have stores.  If you really need more socks, or shampoo, or whatever, you can buy it there.


When we travel, students are in groups of at least 2, sometimes 3.  Odds are, within a pair or group, you don’t need 3 tubes of toothpaste.  Or 3 shampoo bottles.  Or 3 hair dryers.  Figure out what you can do to split the load of what you all bring.  This is called “buddy packing”.  Another recommendation?  Put some of your clothes into a friend’s bag also.  That way, if your luggage is lost, you’ll only be missing half of your stuff until the bag finds its way to you.

Packing for Travel–Step #2: Luggage

Luggage.  There is SO much luggage out there!  Odds are, your family has a suitcase or two laying around the house.  My parents have a TON of luggage.  Some old, some new, some big, some small, some giant.  This post is going to help lead you through the pros/cons of different types of luggage, from the perspective that you might be looking to buy a new bag for the trip, or at least trying to figure out which of the bags you have access to would be best for you to take.  Of course, you don’t need to buy new luggage to travel.  And you may be stuck with whatever your family has, like it or not.  Still, thinking about how to get your stuff from here to there is important.

Baggage limits for our trip

Students are allowed ONE checked bag and ONE carry-on bag, plus a small personal item.  While each airline makes its own rules, here is the general low-down:

Bag Type Measurements MAX Weight Max
Checked Bag 27” x 21” x 14” is a typical size.  Many will simply say 62 linear inches. Normally 50lbs.
Carry-On Bag (must be able to fit in overhead bin or under seat in front of you) 21.5” x 14” x 9”, give or take a bit here or there. Some will simply say “45 linear inches” which means add length + width + height 15-22lbs or so.  Some have no specific limits, some are as much as 35lb.
Small Personal Item (must be able to fit under seat in front of you) Often about 9” x 10” x 17”.  Again, give or take an inch, if measurements are specified. Usually not specifically stated, but this should be a SMALL item.

A comparison of common US airlines can be found here.  Some international airlines are more generous, some are famous for having very strict policies.

Styles of Luggage – Pro/Con List

There are several types of luggage on the market, each with its own pros/cons.

1. Hard-Side Luggage

PRO:  Items inside are less likely to get crushed or damaged.  Offers somewhat more water resistance, easier to clean.  Four-wheeled ones are easier to maneuver than ones with two wheels.

CON:  Hard bags are heavier.  And the more wheels, the more weight that is added. The shape can’t flex easily.

2. Soft-Side Luggage

PRO:  Lighter. Pockets on the outside allow for access to smaller items & possibly more organization.  Possibly more durable for longer periods of time.  Can compact & stretch a bit.  Same Pro/Con with wheels.

CON:  Not water resistant.  Same pro/con with wheels.

3. Backpack or Duffle Bags

PRO:  Lightest of all.  Flexible soft size to compress/expand. Easy to maneuver over rough terrain (carried as a backpack).

CON: Usually don’t have wheels.

The most important thing about luggage is psychological.

If you start with a large bag, you will often feel free to FILL that large bag. When planning to pack, start with the smallest bag you think MIGHT be okay.  And then only move to a larger bag if and when you absolutely need to.

Packing for Travel – Step #1: Use a List

If you talk to any travel experts, the one thing they will always tell you is to use a packing list.  Why? Because travel itself can be stressful and a packing list will take away one giant source of stress–the worry about forgetting something you will need.

So, how do you come up with a packing list?  Here are some simple steps to developing a list that will work for you.

  1. Know where you’re going, when, and the weather.  This is obviously important in deciding what sorts of clothing to bring.  You don’t need to know the exact daily forecast, but knowing if you should expect snow or sunbathing will have a huge impact on your list!  Think about what sorts of clothing and items you’d use around home in that weather.  Your packing will probably be somewhat similar.
  2. Know how long you’ll be gone.  Obviously, for many people, the longer you’ll be gone, the more likely it is you need more clothing.  For others, they pack the same and plan to do laundry on the road.
  3. Figure out how to set up your list.  Personally, I like using the packing list app “Packing”.  The icon is shown here. For most casual travelers, the free version of the app is sufficient.  Other people prefer good old paper, or even a Google doc or spreadsheet.  I like having a checklist on the app, and I also often write a list of my planned outfits on paper since the app isn’t that flexible. The nice thing about the app is that it has a database of all sorts of items you can just click to add to your list.  It’s nice because things you might have forgotten may be remembered when you see them on the app.                                                                                                                                    Image result for packing app
  4. Categorize your Items.  I recommend the categories of clothing, toiletries, and “other”. In the category of clothing, include everything you plan to wear on the trip.  Toiletries are all the things you use (often in the bathroom) to get yourself clean & pretty.   And “other” would be things like a notebook and pens, entertainment (movies downloaded to watch in flight).
  5. Think about clothes.  As you fill your categories, do so with specific numbers.  Writing “t-shirts” will let you know that you plan to bring some, but how many?  Which ones? Be as specific as you can.  Also, keep in mind that you will probably not regret having a suitcase that is too light and easy to manage, so consider using a few items as possible on your list.  So what quantities are recommended?  Well, look for another post about packing light, but this will help you figure out MAXIMUMS of what to bring.  Do NOT pack more than this. You’ll pretty much never be glad you did.  For every night you’re gone consider: 1 pair of pants/shorts/skirt/dress, 1 shirt, 1 pair of underwear (and 1 bra for the ladies), and 1 pair of socks.  Also, 1 “nice” outfit (depending on your plans), 1 pajama.  Whatever you’d wear to swim in.  Maximum of 4 pairs of shoes to allow you to look nice and/or walk comfortably.  I personally bring 1 pair of flip flops, a pair of Birkenstocks, a pair of tennis shoes (sometimes), and a pair of comfortable but dressier shoes.  NEVER bring a brand new pair of shoes you haven’t broken in.  NEVER. EVER.
  6. Think about toiletries. As you get ready for your day in the morning & ready for bed in the evening, notice what you use EVERY day.  Plan to pack those things.  Don’t pack any of the “sometimes” items (like a hair straightener you’re often too lazy or busy to use).  Ladies, don’t forget to pack feminine products you might need during the trip.  Include in this any prescription or routine medical items you may need (including things like pain reliever & band-aids).
  7. Think about entertainment/other. Remember you may not have data service on an international trip, so any digital things you’d want should be downloaded to your device (movies, podcasts, etc.).  Also, please remember that electronics & their cords/chargers are relatively heavy.  The more tech you bring, the more your bag will weigh.
  8. Special Activities–will there be anything special you’ll do on your trip itinerary that requires special items be packed?  For example, if you’re going SCUBA diving, you may want to bring your own wetsuit.  Think carefully about this.  Don’t pack special items for something you aren’t planning to do but could do.  If something like that comes up, plan to rent one at the destination.

Want to know where to start?  There are a few online packing list resources here that can get you started.  Many of them are somewhat “minimalist”.  I’ll talk about that in a later post.  You won’t believe what my bag for a 3-week trip to 2 conferences and a week of touring Spain looks like!  Also, feel free to scope out other parts on these sites, they’re all pretty solid travel blogs!

Her Packing List–from a woman’s travel blog but the advice and ideas are totally okay for boys to check out!

Rick Steves–this guy is famous for travel tips.  He mostly does Europe but certainly his stuff is good no matter where you go! He has separate packing lists for men and women.  On the tours his company leads, travelers are only allowed one carry-on bag.  That is it.

Smarter Travel–one of my favorite travel blogs.  They have their own ultimate travel list.

Tortuga Backpacks–another great light travel blog.