Ten Tips for Americans Who Travel Abroad for the First Time

The first time you travel outside the United States will most certainly be a learning experience. Things will happen that you never even thought of before hand. Sometimes you get swindled by others taking advantage of clueless Americans. Most of the time, though, there are kind strangers who help you find your way or give you honest advice that ends up saving the day.

Over the years of traveling abroad, beginning when I was a college student, I’ve certainly learned along the way. By sharing a few things here that I’ve learned I will hopefully spare you some grief and stress, making your travels more enjoyable and save you some money while you’re at it.

1. Check out transportation options ahead of time

Depending on where you’re going, driving a rental car may be your best option or it may be a nightmare if parking is at a premium and/or you would be terrified to drive in the area because of overly aggressive drivers or roads so narrow you question whether they’re really even roads. You may want to take a taxi to get around or you may be in an area where walking really is the best option. Buses can also be a great option but can take much longer to get places if they have a lot of stops. To easily compare your options, check out Rome 2 Rio. For example, if you’re staying at the San Theodore Palace apartments in Venice you can see your options for getting there from the airport, factoring in time and cost.

Make sure driving really is the best option before renting a car!

 2. Check Museum or Sight-Seeing Hours and Buy Tickets in Advance

Don’t make the mistake of just showing up at a place to take a tour without getting tickets or reservations in advance or you may be disappointed. Check the website hours well in advance (sometimes months in advance, depending on where you’re going and how busy it will be) and buy tickets ahead of time. This can also save you time of standing in line, by just walking up to pick up your tickets and being able to skip the line to buy tickets, plus you often get a discount by buying your tickets in advance.

3. Eat Where the Locals Eat

I’ve learned the hard way on this one. The bottom line is if you see that a restaurant has a menu in five different languages, that means they cater to tourists, not locals, and inevitably the food will not be that good and/or the food will be over-priced. There are exceptions of course, but in general, try to find a place that’s not near tourist hot spots if you can. Sometimes just walking a couple of blocks further away is all it takes to find a restaurant full of locals instead of tourists. If everyone turns and looks at you when you walk in and you feel a bit out of place, you’re in the right place. Just be sure to learn a few key food-related words before you go (or use Google translate on your phone) and you’ll be fine. I’ve found that even if your server doesn’t know much English, they’ll know enough to serve you a meal and drink, especially if you in turn know enough key words and phrases.

A beautiful presentation of a meal in the Canary Islands

4. Paying for Things

Check well in advance to see if you have a credit card with no foreign transaction fees; if not, get one because otherwise you’ll end up paying a fortune in fees when you get home and get your credit card bill (that happened to me on my first trip to Mexico many years ago). Visa and MasterCard are accepted at many places around the world but less so in more remote areas so don’t rely solely on using credit cards. When you get cash from an ATM, make sure the ATM is physically attached to a bank and only make withdrawals when the bank is open in case you have a problem (your card is taken for example). Also, use your bank debit card that’s linked to your checking account (as opposed to a credit card), as the fees should be lower through your bank versus a cash withdrawal through your credit card.

5. Learn Some Local Words and Phrases

I’m not saying you have to be fluent in the language where you’re going, but learning how to say hello, goodbye, thank you, please, and some other key words and phrases can go a long way with locals. If you are at least making an attempt to speak the language, it shows you aren’t just another arrogant American who expects everyone to just speak English. A quick and easy way to pick up some language basics is with Duolingo, a free app that I often use for brushing up on my Spanish or picking up other words in other languages.

6. Check Your Cell Phone Plan then Rent a Mobile WiFi Hotspot

Check with your mobile carrier ahead of time to see if you have international roaming included in your plan and make sure you have data where you plan on going. If the fee for roaming internationally is exorbitant or nonexistent where you’ll be going, rent a mobile WiFi hotspot, or MiFi that you can use on your vacation. You can read about My First Experience with Mobile WiFi for International Travel. Since this time in Malta I’ve also used another company for MiFi abroad and was once again happy with my decision. If you’re like my family where everyone has their own phone plus a tablet or laptop and we’re all on different phone plans, it’s much easier to just rent a mobile WiFi where we all have coverage for all of our devices no matter where we are.

7. Bread and Water May Not Be Free

In the United States, most people are so accustomed to getting bread and water for free they assume that’s the case around the world, but not so. In fact, when I’m traveling, I assume the restaurant will charge for bread and/or water and decide ahead of time if I really want it. If you don’t want the bread or bottled water, by all means say so as soon as you sit down. In some areas of the world, tap water is unsafe for travelers so everyone drinks bottled water, and you can assume you’ll be paying for that, but in places where the water is safe to drink from the tap, just ask for a glass of water instead of bottled water. By all means do your research ahead of time so you don’t end up getting sick from the water (including ice cubes, fresh fruit and vegetables, and anything that might have been rinsed off).

I carried my nuun water bottle all over the Canary Islands with me so I never had to buy bottled water.

8. Pack a Few Health Items

If you have an upset stomach, one of the last things you’re going to feel like doing is finding a pharmacy and trying to find medicine, most likely speaking to someone who doesn’t know much English. Pack some Immodium, Tylenol or Ibuprofen, Pepto Bismol, Tums, and band-aids in your carry-on and you’ll have a good start to a small first aid kit perfect for travel.

9. Don’t Pack Too Much

Do you really think you’ll wear all four pairs of shoes plus the 20 different outfits you packed for that 7 day trip to Barcelona? Maybe a better question is “Do you really need to pack all of that stuff?” Don’t fall into the “just in case” trap, packing clothing or shoes just in case you decide to wear them. When you’re packing, choose tops and pants or shorts that all match each other and pack one pair of shoes that go with everything (you’ll be wearing your second pair of shoes for your trip). Packing cubes are amazing in that I can always put way more into my bag with packing cubes than without them, plus they keep everything more organized. Finally, roll  your clothes. I have a whole post on packing, Never Check a Bag with an Airline Again so please check that out for more information on packing.

10. Dress for the Weather

When you check the weather forecast before you pack, look at the daily highs and lows and chance of rain or snow for each day. This might seem like a silly thing, but I’ve traveled to places where I never thought I’d need anything more than short sleeves and shorts, only to find out the nights were much cooler than I had expected. Now I always wear a jacket or light sweater on the airplane for three reasons:  1) It’s almost always freezing cold on airplanes,  2) Even in the summer, many places get chilly at night or restaurants or other places that are indoors are often really cold to me because of air conditioning and 3) I always wear more bulky clothing on the plane like a jacket so I don’t have to pack them. If you’ll be hiking up a mountain with a big increase in elevation, you should know that even in the summer there might be snow at the top, so you’ll want proper clothing and shoes for that. Again, just do some research in advance to check the conditions.

Learn from my mistakes- I had to buy that pullover I’m wearing because I didn’t pack a warm jacket for our day trip to Mount Teide, the highest point in Spain!

Those are my top ten tips for Americans who travel internationally for the first time. What about you all? What tips would you pass along?

Happy travels!



Author: runningtotravel

I'm a long distance runner with a goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states in the US. I also love to travel so I travel to other places when I'm not running races. Half the fun is planning where I'm going to go next!

20 thoughts on “Ten Tips for Americans Who Travel Abroad for the First Time”

  1. Another tip for ATM withdrawals, check to see if your bank is partnered with other banks in the country you’ll be traveling in. For example, Bank of America is partnered with Scotiabank in Canada so BofA fees are waived. I still pay the Scotiabank fees, but it’s cheaper to get $$ from Scotiabank than other banks in Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. These are great tips!!! I would add let your banks/credit card companies know about your travels in advance. Also, keep a “dummy” card that you use just for traveling. Both of those tips saved me during a trip to Panama and Costa Rica. The funny thing is I was a victim of fraud before I left the U.S. Someone mirrored my debit card in JFK airport (note to self, never use an ATM in an airport). That person then cleaned out my bank account, while I was travelling and partying in the rain forest. When I realized and called the bank, the representative was like “How could you be using the card in Costa Rica AND in Queens, NY?” Bank of America was really cool and put all the money back into my account within 24 hours.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! The last time I went out of the country, my credit card company sent me a notification saying they knew I had an upcoming international vacation and I didn’t need to notify them. I guess big brother is watching and keeping tabs but I’m sure not all credit card companies do that. Good idea about the card just for travel. I’ve done that in the past and it’s a good tip. I’ve heard great things about Bank of America. That’s great they responded so quickly to you.


  3. Excellent tips! Definitely eating where the locals eat is the best. One of our favorite meals in Italy was suggested by a local. The restaurant was packed with locals, the food was absolutely delicious, and the check was not bad at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing! I’ve only traveled internationally to Canada so far on a cruise but these tips will certainly help when I venture to Europe someday.

    You are so experienced in traveling I was hoping you might help me out with a flying question (I’ve only ever flown twice and this October to Chicago will be my 3rd time). When I first flew in 2011 I had a small duffel bag as my carry on item. I had made sure its measurements were under the limits for a carry on and I was able to stow it at my feet/partially under the seat in front of me with no issues. In 2016 Jason and I had a small carry on suitcase that again met the size requirements for a carry on. Before we even boarded the plane we were told there was no room in overheard compartments and were required to check the bag (fortunately at no cost) which really upset us as we had to scrambled to take out a few items we wanted to keep with us on the plane. I had planned to just keep the suitcase at my feet again but it seemed like that was not an option? We’re just going away for the weekend again to Chicago and I wanted to take that same carry on suitcase but I don’t want it taken from me again. Do you know if backpacks count as a carry on item? Would it be smarter for each of us to take a backpack instead – is there less risk of it being taken from us?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome!

      My husband, our daughter, and I have flown with only carry-on bags for the last several years. My daughter and I each have a small backpack and a soft over-the-shoulder bag. My husband has a backpack and he’s traveled with two different wheeled small bags. Of the three of us, he’s been told to check his bag at the gate a few times due to lack of space in the overhead bins, but my daughter and I have never had to check our bags at the gate. This seems to indicate that you’re more likely to get pulled out if you have a wheeled carry-on. I count my backpack as my “personal item” and my other bag is my carry-on and I’ve never been challenged by any airline, international or domestic. I always stick my carry-on bag in the overhead bin and my backpack under the seat in front of me, if you’re wondering. I can’t imagine any airline would make you check a backpack if that’s the only thing you’re bringing on-board, assuming it fits under the seat in front of you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for the insight! It sounds like the actual suitcases are more of the issue; I’m assuming because you can’t “squish” them to fit under the seat as easily as a backpack or softer bag. I didn’t realize backpacks could count as a personal item; I thought only purses or laptop bags could so that’s good to know. We may just go the backpack route this trip and save ourselves some potential hassle!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yep! I thought I’d try having my backpack as my personal item many years ago (so no purse) and it’s worked for me! If you can fit everything into a backpack, that’s definitely your best bet.


      1. Actually that wasn’t always the case. As more and more tourists come to visit they have to do that for crowd control. I miss those days when you could just go on the day and get tickets

        Liked by 1 person

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