International Travel Checklist: The Non-Essential Essentials

January 23, 2017

If you’re like most travelers, you’ve experienced that dreaded sensation we all strive to avoid while sitting, back straight-as-a-board with a tray table folded out and nearly touching your sternum onboard a long international flight somewhere.

Did I forget to pack that one thing?

It’s no use now, of course. Your bag is already deep in the belly of the airplane and you’re never going to recall for certain if you remembered to pack that one thing sitting on your desk next to the computer.

With that feeling of panic in mind, I decided to put together a top list of essential items that me or my friends have too often forgotten over the years. The following International Travel checklist contains the items you either leave behind accidentally or never think of in the first place that also happen to be the most advantageous to have while traveling abroad.

The core necessities of what you should bring on a trip overseas are pretty obvious, so I won’t waste your time stating the obvious (except right now) about packing the right clothes for the climate or an entry visa so that you won’t get sent right back where you came from. But please don’t forget either of those two items, either.

I’ve tested this list on countless long and short-term trips abroad to find items that are the most invaluable to have in environments both challenging and pampered in whatever foreign land you find yourself.

So, if you’re getting ready to head abroad for an extended period of time (Basically, longer than would be tolerable to be a tad uncomfortable and disconnected), the following International Travel Checklist is yours to consult for optimal preparation.

Introducing… the International Travel Checklist

1. A No-Fee ATM Card (with a travel alert)

If you’ve ever spent any time changing currency at a money-changer in a foreign country, you might understand why Jesus flipped their tables over at King Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem a few years back. Nothing says exotic vacation quite like hanging around shabby-looking, quasi-legal money-changer stalls.

Any situation that involves you being in an area where lots of money is known to be, standing around as the solitary foreigner looking confused and a little lost… is a situation you shouldn’t be in. Assuming you don’t get pick-pocketed by a passing thief, you’re likely to be equally taken by the changer from not understanding the exchange rate.

I’ve been there. Better to change cold hard cash at our destination that pay outrageous ATM fees designed to gouge foreigners, right?

Not anymore. Now there’s a solution, and a free one at that. The Charles Schwab High-Yield Investor Checking Account debit card will reimburse you for any ATM fees you incur while traveling abroad worldwide (or at home in the U.S., I might add). And no, you don’t have to “invest” any money with Charles Schwab to get an account. There may be others out there, but I’ve found this one hard to beat. As an added bonus, it comes embedded with an internationally-recognized chip. For obvious reasons, this is one of the most versatile items on our International Travel Checklist.

2. Virtual Private Network (VPN)

If you haven’t noticed by now, the world out there isn’t quite as free as we’re lucky enough to be in the West. In the U.S., we enjoy largely unfettered access to the internet, but in many foreign countries there are significant barriers to what you can access on the web. The Great Firewall of China is the most well-known effort to curtail your activities online, (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and numerous apps are unavailable in China), but plenty of other governments block websites that don’t meet their approval in one way or another.

Additionally, many of the live-streaming websites you might enjoy at home like Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, and others are also inaccessible overseas.

Your best solution is to get a reliable Virtual Private Network (VPN) that allows you to pretend you’re still in the free world. They usually cost under $10 a month, but if you want a decent free version, the browser extension known as Hola Better Internet works pretty well.

3. Universal Outlet Adaptor

You arrive at your hotel, hostel, or Air BnB in some faraway land, exhausted and with your phone or laptop battery at a critical low. You grab your charger and attempt to plug it in the wall when you realize the outlets aren’t designed to accommodate your plug.

We like to be connected (most of the time), especially to let everyone know we arrived alive and well at our destination. This is a simple, easy, and cheap fix. Before you go, find a universal travel adaptor with multiple variations depending on whichever country you are in. You might still find one in your destination country, but the quality will likely be inferior and you likely won’t find any bargains.

Of all the items on our International Travel Checklist, I’ve found this one to be the most overlooked yet essential item to have given all the electronics we lug around everywhere these days.

4. International Driver’s License

Despite having some of the lowest standards for handing out driver’s licenses, the U.S. driver’s license is viewed around the world as a positive affirmation of your driving ability. Strange, but I’m going to complain.

Because of that, it’s a relatively simple process for Americans with driver’s licenses to get international permits for driving in most countries. Triple A has somehow become the internationally-recognized dealer of these licenses. Fortunately, there is no requirement whatsoever that I’ve found apart from paying 15USD and providing two passport-sized photos.

Pro tip: If you plan to ride motorcycles or motorbikes at your destination, the police in that country may want to see additional motorcycle certification on your actual American driver’s license.

5. Electronic book reader/tablet device

I’m biased in favor of paper books, but as travelers it’s important to have more convenient (read: lightweight) options. Since you only have so many pounds or kilograms you can haul for free without paying extra baggage fees, cutting deadweight from your hardback copies of Harry Potter is a wise move.

Having good books to read is a huge asset when traveling abroad. You’re likely going to have plenty of downtime and books are a perfect way to plug back into your native environment when culture shock or pure boredom set in.

For under $100, you can get a decent e-reader and a few books to get started. Pack it.

6. A multi-night sized backpack

Bad news for untrained travelers from the West, not every country in the world is wheelchair-accessible and equipped with functioning escalators, elevators, or even level sidewalks. If you’re traveling in a less-than-developed country, you’re going to learn quickly to keep an eye out for a few new things while walking about. Whether it’s mysterious dripping fluids from apartments, shops, or factories overhead, sidewalks with potholes the size of bowling balls, and broken everything.

In summary, your fancy pants suitcases with 360 degree rotating wheels that are so convenient in the West are an unwieldy physical burden in a lot of foreign countries. If you try to wheel them around everywhere, you’re liable to break the wheels clean off or break an arm trying to maneuver it. A backpack might not be stylish or the most business-like, but you’ll be happy you have it when you get off the subway to see a giant six story escalator that isn’t moving.

7. Power of Attorney

Whether you’re a business person or you just like to be prepared should inconvenience or disaster strike at while you’re traveling, a verified power of attorney might be a great asset. With a trusted agent at home, you might save yourself an expensive trip back home or a complicated (and sometimes equally expensive) trip to your nearest embassy.

There isn’t much these days that requires a wet signature but some of the most important legal or business documents still do. Having a trusted member of your family or a close friend with the ability to sign documents on your behalf can save you all kinds of time and trouble. If nothing else, it’s a convenient way to get things done that you’d otherwise put off until getting back.

8. A cheap burner phone

Not because you’re an international spy (Or maybe you are..), but a cheap and reliable SIM-based phone can make your transition to a foreign country a lot easier. In case you weren’t aware, just about every country has a number of different SIM-based wireless carriers, and many of them are subsidized to make than cheaper than what you’re probably accustomed to.

Calling cards are relics of the past and it’s a great advantage to you to be able to give new business or personal contacts a local number where they can reach you. SIM cards are incredibly cheap in most countries (I’ve found them for as little as $5) and you’ll feel a little more adapted with local digits.

Pro tip: Don’t forget your passport when you go to the wireless store as most countries require valid identification for purchasing SIM cards.

9. The fancy supplements we all love

You know the ones. Essential oils, 10,000% daily-value vitamin capsules and mixes, protein powders or any other great product you use to stay healthy or look good are mostly a phenomenon of the West. Even a lot of high-quality toiletries like facial scrubs, lotions, and hair products are difficult to find in many countries. We sometimes take for granted the fact that we have access to the absolute latest and greatest health supplements known to man, and for pretty cheap.

As a basic rule of thumb, assume that any health supplement or beauty product you’ve seen released in the past five years probably isn’t available where you’re headed. While you can find many things in speciality expat shops, you’re going to pay through the nose and may get an inferior export version. Our advice: Pack a few of your favorite supplements and beauty essentials and wait to buy the basic stuff (deodorant, toothpaste) when you arrive. Unless you have particular preferences for those, too, in which case you may want to bring it along. Staying healthy and looking your best is a must for your International Travel Checklist.

10. A Credit Card With a Great Rewards Program

Another card? Yes. Last but most definitely not least, consider getting a no-annual-fee credit card with a great rewards program. If you’re traveling abroad, you’re likely going to be shelling out a few dollars for lodging, plane tickets, and more. Get some of your investment back in the form of cash or travel-based rewards like airline miles.

It’s important to use these responsibly, though. And if you have any trouble paying off bills in full as soon as they come due, this non-essential essential on our International Travel Checklist probably isn’t for you. If you do decide to get one, try to find one that waives foreign transaction fees.

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