You’ve earned it.
You’ve worked so hard to save up for the trip of a lifetime. Maybe it’s a tour of Europe, sitting in cafés, visiting places you’ve only dreamed of or read about in books, and eating divine meal after meal.
Or maybe you have a Southeast Asia adventure planned—motorcycles in Vietnam, climbing up to Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan, and strolling the night markets in Bangkok.
Now you’re sitting back and hoping that nothing will go wrong.
But you don’t have to hope. With proper planning and preparation, you can avoid most of the major pitfalls that inexperienced travelers suffer during big trips.
Take it from me—someone who has made many mistakes on my journey to over 40 countries in the past, and two to three new ones each year. I’m writing this to you on the eve of one of my most epic journeys yet: 31 days through South Africa, Zimbabwe, Montenegro, Lithuania, and England.
There’s a lot that could go wrong.
Fortunately for both of us, I’ve got this travel thing down to a science. I know that the goal when you travel is to relax, rejuvenate, and make amazing memories. That’s why I’ve created systems and techniques for minimizing travel headaches and streamlining the logistics of getting around in different countries.
To start with…
Make the most of plane travel
If you’re making a transatlantic trip, especially going west to east, the best tip I can give you is to sleep as much as possible. When I fly from Toronto to Frankfurt, I put on my eye mask and pop in my earplugs as soon as the plane starts rumbling down the runway.
This gives me five or six hours of sleep overnight so that I can hit the ground running in the morning. If you sleep during the flight, you’ll avoid the temptations of being on an airplane—like drinking alcohol or caffeine that impair proper sleeping, binge eating unhealthy snacks, or staying awake for movie marathons until you’re a zombie.
If you plan for these airborne ZZZs (either by adjusting your normal sleep schedule or picking a flight at night), then you’ll land feeling refreshed and ready to enjoy a glorious vacation! If you don’t, you’ll waste your first day or two in your new location struggling with severe jet lag.
I made this mistake on one of my earlier trips to Europe, staying up all night on the flight from Toronto to Paris. After walking around the city for my first hour on the ground, I ended up sleeping from 4pm to 9pm and waking up totally bewildered. It wasn’t until day three of the trip that my sleep schedule was back to normal.
Parents might struggle with this sleeping strategy, of course. If you don’t think it’s a feasible option, I highly recommend bringing a number of different devices/toys with you to keep your kids occupied on the plane. You can also bring them along already in sleep mode (by skipping a nap, for instance), which might make it easier for them to zonk out mid-flight and give you some peace.
When you land, get on the local schedule as quickly as possible. Eat meals at the proper mealtimes in your new location. And stay awake until the local time reaches your normal bedtime back home. Then you can crash, and you’ll be able to wake up at a reasonable time in the morning—without losing any precious vacation time.
Plan for big impact (and don’t sweat the small stuff)
It may seem like a silly question, but ask yourself before you leave: “What do I want to get out of this trip?” Sure, the goal is to relax, but there are often other motivations, too.
For instance, foodies will often want to explore the restaurant culture in the cities they visit. Hikers might want to walk rural trails. History buffs are likely to be interested in architecture and museums. Keep these interests in mind as you consider the perfect vacation outcome.
I like to make sure that I plan a few excursions (I love hiking, so I’ll often try to do something outside), and then balance these with an open-ended schedule. It’s best to be flexible—both because you don’t want the stress of planning and organizing outing after outing, and because the nature of travel in a foreign place demands a bit of flexibility. You just don’t know what will happen.
A word of caution in all this new adventuring: If you’re a routine-focused person (like I am), you may find it difficult to live—even for a short while—in a place where your routines are challenging to maintain. Plan for this in advance; hold on to the most important parts of your routine, letting go of the elements that will just get in the way of your enjoyment.
And remember that things WILL go wrong and they WILL, at some point, be different than you had planned for or anticipated. Prepare yourself mentally for this and being flexible in the moment won’t be an issue. I like to say that adaptation to new surroundings and circumstances is all about mental expectations, so set the expectation early and all will go smoothly.
Have your papers ready
I have had friends turned away at borders because they didn’t have the right vaccinations. Another was sent home—after a 10-hour plane journey—because he didn’t have the correct visa. That’s extraordinarily frustrating after months of preparation and thousands of dollars spent on plane tickets.
First of all, know what documentation you need to enter and leave the country you’re planning to visit. Is your Passport current? Do you need a specific visa? Double and triple-check the requirements on the appropriate government websites. If it’s a complex trip to multiple countries, like mine, there’s no shame in using a travel agent and having them do the research.
Also, check to make sure you don’t need specific vaccinations for exotic locations. These change regularly, so it’s good to reference government or national medical websites to see what travel to these places requires.
Know where you’re staying—and what you can expect
Think carefully about lodging and transportation. Confirm everything in writing—including the capacity for your room, amenities, any costs (including what might be charged à la carte), location, meals that might be included, and so on. Questions that you think might not need to be asked become critical when you consider properties like hostels and Airbnbs. Some of them don’t even have bathrooms—but you wouldn’t know unless you ask.
As someone who racks up over 100 nights in hotels per year, you also need to be prepared for loud or bright rooms that can wreck havoc with your sleep. It’s likely that you’ll have to deal with both, so travel with an eye mask and earplugs so you can get a good night’s sleep.
Lastly, print out all materials you’ll need to reference—tickets, itineraries, reservation confirmations, insurance information, etc. Don’t rely on your phone, even if you do have an international or “vacation” plan in place. Always have a paper backup.
Consider transportation options early
Many of my friends choose to rent a car when they go on vacation—in large part because it offers flexibility and allows them to avoid the hassle (and complication) of public transportation.
But in many cases, renting a car doesn’t make good financial sense. If you’re heading to a big city and spending your vacation rolling from site to site within that city, walking and using buses/ride shares is likely a lot more affordable. Plus, the cost of parking a car in a big city can be ridiculous.
As part of your “vacation outcome” I mentioned above, consider what adventures you’re likely to go on and how you’ll get there. You don’t have to know every transportation need upfront, but you should have a good sense of whether or not the local transportation will work and/or if you want the flexibility of your own vehicle. Google to see if Uber is available in your port of call, or what the local equivalent might be. Doing this in advance takes a lot of stress out of landing in a foreign country when you’re tired, hungry, and just want to get cleaned up at a hotel.
Prep for tech differences
These days, everyone needs to charge something—a phone, a computer, a tablet, a camera. We hardly think about charging them at home, but when you’re abroad, you’ll need to be able to work with foreign outlets. Do some research online to determine what kind of chargers/cables you’ll need and order them online if you don’t already have them. (You can get most of them on amazon.com).
Another thing to consider: Mobile phone plans. It’s a good idea to have a worldwide phone data plan, because chances are you’re going to need to look up maps, check out tourist sites, review restaurants, and so on. If you’re trying to cut costs, don’t tell yourself that you’ll just “not use your phone” while you’re on vacation. You will. It’s second-nature. And it’s a lot less expensive to pay for a plan that covers your needs upfront than it is to suffer the ruinous expense of too-much-data-usage after the fact. Check with your carrier to see what plans they offer.
Prepare for emergency communication and home care
Nobody wants to think about something going seriously wrong while traveling, but it does. Be sure you share your full itinerary and the details of your vacation with a trusted friend or family member before you leave. Give them a way to contact you that will be reliable throughout your trip, and make sure you collect their contact information as well.
Also, since you’re going to be gone for a while, think about routine services that you enjoy at home that you won’t be using. Pause your milk delivery and mail. Reschedule lawn mowing. Double-check regular deliveries like those offered by meal services and any other mail-based subscriptions.
If you’re traveling during a season when you might have inclement weather, ask a neighbor to keep an eye on the house and give them permission to take action if there’s a crisis. (You might need to give them something in writing, too, should they need official permission from the homeowner.)
Most importantly: Be in the moment and capture the memories
When all of your preparation is done ahead of time, you can take time to really enjoy new experiences with loved ones. Remind yourself of the outcomes you established before you left. Be in the moment. Take pictures. Step outside your comfort zone and experience something new.
That’s what a vacation is all about, right?
If you want to hear stories from some of my most memorable travels, I recommend you tune in to episode 61 of ETR Radio. I share some amazing tales of adventure that might inspire your next vacation! And please, let me know what I missed. We can all use an extra travel tip or two to make sure our trip of a lifetime doesn’t have any hiccups (although sometimes these unexpected adventures make for the best stories). Bon voyage!