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What I Wish I’d Known Before My First International Trip

Preparing for your first international trip is an exciting time, but it’s also stressful. Should you create an hour-by-hour itinerary or wing it? When and where should you exchange money? Jet lag can’t be that bad, right?

We asked our staff and other experienced travelers what they wish they had known before their first trip abroad. Learn from their mistakes—while knowing you’ll make some of your own. It’s all a part of the journey.

Lessons Learned from a First International Trip

“You will arrive, in most instances, on a red-eye flight feeling utterly bewildered, off-key, and just plain tired because of a foreshortened night’s sleep. Your hotel room won’t be ready when you arrive, sounds will bounce off the city as if you’re inside a tin can, and for that first meal, just for that very important first meal, you’ll want to find home food. Sometimes, McDonald’s is a life saver.” —Carolyn Spencer Brown, Cruise Critic

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“I wish I knew (even though I sort of thought about it) to bring more than one pair of comfortable shoes. My first international trip would have been more fun without the sore feet.” —Rachele Concep

“Renting an apartment away from the tourist centers is a great way to get some R&R while enjoying a taste of the way locals live.” —Jan Harding

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“Wi-Fi! I wish I realized that when you don’t have Wi-Fi or cellular data while traveling internationally, you also don’t have maps, apps and Google. Remembering to do the research while you have the use of Wi-Fi is key when traveling internationally. Or purchase a SIM card and you don’t have to worry about it.” —Courtney Elko, Family Vacation Critic

“You can’t do it all in one trip, so don’t try. I spent my first few vacations in Europe sprinting from one major attraction to the next, which was fun but exhausting. In retrospect I wish I’d chosen fewer sights to see and spent a little more time at each place.” —Sarah Schlichter, SmarterTravel

“Pack light! You will probably be dragging that suitcase up and down stairs and onto trains.” —Kathy Keevan

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“I learned to bring my own medicines pretty quickly because even if they do have meds that would work (which they might or might not), they’re probably named something different and if I don’t know the language, it’s hard to explain what I need.” —Dori Saltzman, Cruise Critic

“I wish I had known that ATMs are often the cheapest way to exchange currency. I made the mistake of doing it at the airport, and I got totally ripped off with the surcharges.” —Ashley Kosciolek, Cruise Critic

“Get a free Schwab account so you can use ATMs fee-free worldwide. Best exchange rate.” —2BTraveling

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“Remember to check hours for major attractions like museums/cathedrals—many are closed on Mondays, and there might be a local holiday or something you didn’t account for.” —Brittany Chrusciel, Cruise Critic

“There’s an assumption that airports will sell useful things—whereas a traveler knows they sell some useful things, but not all and it’s always expensive, even food. People are still quite shocked by that—and don’t realize they can simply [pack their own] snack or sandwich.” —Carrie Gonzalez

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“I wish I had known not to take a nap on my first day abroad. Power through the jet lag.” —Amanda Geronikos Norcross, Family Vacation Critic

“Even if you tend to have a ‘wing it’ mentality, do your research on the area (local attractions, hiking trails, etc.) before you go. If you do plan to go on some kind of offbeat excursion, look up top-rated outfitters in the area to ensure you get the most bang for your buck.” —Gina Kramer, Cruise Critic

“The baggage doesn’t necessarily arrive when you do.” —Irene Keel

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“If you plan to wing it with accommodations (i.e., not book in advance), find out when local holidays and school breaks are. I got screwed over in Granada when I showed up looking for a hostel and discovered it was a long weekend and everything was booked.” —Erica Silverstein, Cruise Critic

“The point of the trip, no matter how far from home or for how long, is to enjoy life. Sometimes trying to see everything and do everything takes away from the joy of the experience. Remember to relax and revel in the present moment. Remember to slow down, pack less, and eat local. Remember to sleep when you feel tired and be spontaneous if you feel like it.” —Lora Gilchrist Coonce

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“I wish I’d known how easy it was.” —Landra Haber

What do you wish you’d known before your first international trip? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

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—written by Amanda Geronikos Norcross

By Sarah Schlichter

Deputy Executive Editor Sarah Schlichter's idea of a perfect trip includes spotting exotic animals, hiking through pristine landscapes, exploring new neighborhoods on foot, and soaking up as much art as she can. She often attempts to recreate recipes from her international travels after she gets home (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires—no humans or animals were harmed).

Sarah joined the SmarterTravel team in 2017 after more than a decade at the helm of IndependentTraveler.com. Sarah's practical travel advice has been featured in dozens of news outlets including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Budget Travel, and Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "A journal. Even years later, reading my notes from a trip can bring back incredibly vivid memories."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Road tripping and hiking through the rugged mountains of Patagonia."

Travel Motto: "'To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.'—Freya Stark"

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle. I get restless on long flights and like to be able to move around without disturbing anyone else."

Email Sarah at sschlichter@smartertravel.com.

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