Travelling By Yourself 101: Tips For First-Time Wanderers

Travelling by yourself for the first time is so exciting!

If you’re reading this, you must be planning a trip and I’m so excited for you and you’ll have the best time. Ever. Ever ever. Buuut you’ve probably realised there’s a lot of information to wrap your head around (when’s the best time to book flights? Should you get an international money card?) – it can be overwhelming, so I’ve broken the hard bits down for you to make it all a bit easier to digest.

I know there’s a *heap* of information about this on the world wide web and what constitutes as the ‘best’ or ‘most-useful’ is in the eye of the beholder, but on a personal note, my little brother and sister have separately been jet-setting around Europe over the last few months, and ended up asking me for quite a bit of information before and during their trips, and it was a refreshing reminder of how little I knew when I was planning my first trips many moons ago.

It was nice to know they could use this site as a way of finding info on the different flight and hostel booking sites, route planners, insurance companies, equipment, and a range of other things, but I also found myself giving advice that doesn’t exist on this site, which is where this comes in!

I started thinking about the quantity, quality, and usability of advice for first-time travellers – how do you know where to start? How do you know where to stay? Is a bank-issued international money card really the best way of accessing cash overseas? Should you really be booking flights as far in advance as possible? 

I’ve compiled a list of basic how-to’s inspired by my own experience, their experiences, and a range of questions I see all the time by first-time solo travellers – I hope you get something out of it (let me know in the comments!) and when you’re ready to learn all about actual booking tools and resources, head to Travel Resources

what do you actually need to prepare before leaving?

It can feel like you’re never prepared enough before leaving the country (especially if it’s your first solo trip!) but, believe it or not, there’s actually only a few things you really, really need to do before leaving. It probably feels like this list isn’t long enough, but I’m serious when I say if you have these things sorted, the rest will fall in to place.

1. Passport
This probably goes without saying, but you need a valid passport with around four-to-six blank pages. Make sure it has at least six-months left (depending on how long you’re travelling for) before expiring, or you might have trouble getting in to some countries.

2. Visas
The need for a visa will depend on what country you’re from, and what country you’re going to, but never assume you don’t need one. Even people with powerful passports need visas sometimes, so make sure you check before booking flights to avoid longer visa processing times when applying in advance, being charged more for a visa at the border, or being refused entry.

It’s also worth noting that some visas will start on the date of issue (this can apply to you if you arrange the visa in advance), and some will start on the date of arrival in that country – make sure you know which one you’re getting, and plan your trip accordingly to avoid prematurely running out of time. Because that would suck.

3. Arrival Permits
Some countries require visitors to obtain arrival permits. These are slightly different to visas – they’re usually inexpensive (under $20) and last for a number of years, no matter how many times you land in that country within the validity period. For example, to land in the US most people are required to have an ESTA, and to land in Canada you’ll probably need an ETA. Like visas, they’re attached to your passport number so border security can see if you have one when your passport is scanned.

NOTE: Make sure you do not purchase these from third-party websites. These companies usually charge a premium (more than $90 in some cases) and claim they can get the approval to you faster or more easily than you could if you organised it yourself. This is almost always not true. When I applied for an ESTA through the official US Customs and Border Protection site, I paid around 17 CAD and was approved within one-minute. If you’re being charged processing fees or anything above the cost of the actual permit, it’s probably a third-party website. Always get these through the official government website for the country you’re visiting.

4. Return Tickets
The days of whimsical one-way tickets to anywhere are, sadly, over and have been replaced with intensely bureaucratic and regimented systems designed to stop people from absconding (entering and never leaving). This just means you should always have a ticket out of the country you’re visiting to prove you’re not planning on staying illegally.

For example, I had a terrible time at Heathrow Airport because I wanted to spend a week in London before going on to Reykjavik, Iceland. I showed them the ticket I’d pre-booked from London to Iceland, and I was still questioned heavily about where I was staying, what I was doing in Europe, how I could afford to go to Iceland, and a bunch of questions that basically whittled down to them profiling me based on my blue hair, nose ring and age, and therefore assumed lack of proper funds. After a range of questions designed to trip me up and reveal any inconsistencies in my ‘story’, they let me in, but if I could do it again I’d have a few more tickets booked to prove I had no intention of staying illegally. I don’t know anyone else who’s had this experience, but thought I’d throw it in to show that it can happen to anyone.

5. Insurance
It’s always tempting not to get insurance.

It’s a huge expense that’s purely based on a mix of fear and ‘what if?’ scenarios that all sound pretty unlikely, but no matter how expensive it is, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of seeing a doctor or going to hospital in a foreign country where you don’t have access to local health care. If you find yourself in this situation without insurance, the costs can be exponential.

I know it’s easy to think ‘that won’t happen to me’ or ‘I don’t get sick’, but not only do people tend to put themselves at more risk when they travel (I’ve never ridden a motorbike at home, for example, but I have in India), but you’re exposing your immune system to a whole environment that your body has never had to deal with before – you don’t know how it will react, and it’s better to err on the side of caution (see Travel Resources for my recommendations). Just trust me when I say you shouldn’t travel without it.

when to book flights

I used to think booking flights as far in advance as possible was the best way of ensuring I got the best deal, until I worked for a travel company and realised that’s not entirely true. This is not to say booking in advance is a bad thing – it’s not, and it ensures you don’t pay an inflated price, but it also means you don’t pay a reduced price, or the best price.

Airlines have pretty consistent prices up to six-weeks before departure. Because tickets go on sale so far in advance, airlines know they have ample time to sell a certain amount of seats at a comfortable price. If a flight isn’t booked out at the six-week mark, prices will begin to fluctuate pretty dramatically as they try and fill the seats – this is the magical sweet-spot you should try and wait for.

Having said that, the six-week mark is also where things can get a little complicated. In short, waiting for a flight to drop in price can a bit like waiting for the stock market to fall – it’s a bit of a gamble, and waiting too long can be a costly decision. After the six-week mark is where people start getting desperate, and prices will rise. Airlines know they can start charging more for the flight because anyone booking with such short notice must really need to be on that plane, and will pay whatever it costs (I know it sounds unethical, but unfortunately, this tends to be how big business works).

My Recommendation
If waiting too long to book freaks you out, book in advance and rest-assured you haven’t paid a premium – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and it takes risk out of the equation. If you’re ok with waiting until the six-week mark, test it out and see what happens – you could get a great deal! In any case, I do not advise waiting beyond the six-week mark unless you’re really confident and don’t mind potentially paying more.

how to access money overseas

This may be a controversial thing to say, but cash cards/cash passports spruiked by banks and credit card companies aren’t the best way to go – they usually end up charging you a range of different fees that result in you spending a lot more than you would have had you not used the card (find out why in the next section!).

So what should you use? Your debit card!

How do you avoid international exchange fees? It depends what country you’re in, but the bank you choose will be key. The most important feature of a bank here is to pick one that supports international travel. This means you should be able to call and tell them you will be using your card to travel and where you’ll be using it. If you don’t do this step, the bank will probably assume your card has been stolen and freeze your accounts. 

Now that the crucial factor is out of the way, you also want to ensure your bank has as many of the following features as possible:

- No monthly fees.

- No ATM fees.

- No international exchange fees.

It might be difficult to find a bank with all those features (particularly if you’re in Canada…), but try and find one that at least has low or no international exchange fees. This basically means they won’t charge you a fee for currency conversion – for example, if your account is full is GBP but you’re in Iceland and withdrawing ISK, they wouldn’t charge you to make the exchange.  

I know what you’re thinking. It sounds risky, but if you have a decent bank with customer service and emergency phone numbers, it’s no more risky than a travel cash card.

Worried about it getting lost or stolen? Get a second backup debit card before you leave and don’t keep them together. Worried about ATM skimmers? Look up reputable banks wherever you’re going, do one large withdrawal at their ATM, and try to pay for everything with cash.

My Recommendation
Personally, I use Citi Bank when I travel. It’s a little annoying because money can take three-days to get from my normal ING bank account to my Citi Bank account so you have to plan in advance, but it’s ultimately worth it because they don’t charge any international fees whatsoever. No ATM fees, monthly fees, exchange fees, and I was able to call them easily and let them know I was travelling. I used pay-wave all over Iceland (converting from AUD to ISK every time) and I never had any additional fees taken from my account. Citi Bank is international, and available in many countries.

the truth about money cards

I know there’s a lot of financial security that comes with special international money cards, which makes it pretty tempting to get one, but they’re largely designed to profit the credit card companies, not you, so I urge you to consider some alternatives.

Here’s why:

For example’s sake, we’re going to use the Mastercard ‘Cash Passport’ because it’s available in a huge range of countries. Each country is subject to different fees that vary dramatically, but in short, you will probably be charged for the following things:

Obtaining the card.
Some countries require you to buy the card from the get-go. In Canada it’s $15, in the US it’s $9.50, and in Australia and the UK it’s free.

Loading fees.
The first time you load money on to the card is free in some nations and costly in others, but either way, the idea of being charged to add your money to a card that you own seems odd. This doesn’t happen with a debit card.

Reload fees.
Even if loading cash to the card for the first time is free in your country, Mastercard takes a cut each additional time you load money on to the card, no matter where you’re from.

Minimum reload amount.
There is a minimum reload amount of a few hundred dollars in almost all countries. For example, if you’re from the US you couldn’t load $50 on to the card if that’s all you had – you’d have to load $200 because that’s the minimum, and that’s before Mastercard takes their cut so you don’t get the full $200.

Cash withdrawal fees.
Want to take some cash out at the ATM with your card? You’ll probably be charged a premium for it. It could cost you around $3 at an ATM, but if you withdraw from a teller at a bank, it’ll cost you nothing if you’re from the US, or 150-pounds if you’re from the UK.

Spending limitations.
Want to book a few flights and accommodations on the same day? The spending limit on your card might not let you do that due to daily spending limitations – again, they vary in each country, but the limit can be around $1,000 – it might sound like a lot, but that money goes quickly when you’re making bookings.

That’s just an example of some of the fees these cards incur (there are more I haven’t listed), but there are ultimately more fees with a Cash Passport than with a regular credit card. The bank’s cut might not look like a lot on paper, but keep in mind there are multiple fees for multiple things, and it really adds up – it’s money you don’t need to be spending. 

It might sound like I’m trying to talk you out of a Cash Passport, and I’m not necessarily – I don’t personally have anything against them, I just take issue with the sheer amount of money they take from you for giving them business. If you feel a money card is the best option for you, go for it! I just think it’s important that you’re properly informed about what signing up entails, because the companies aren’t always transparent.

how do you know where to go?

There’s a great big world out there, how do you know where to go to make the most of your trip?

I know I have a travel blog, buuut sifting through multiple blogs to find the best spots to hit up can be overwhelming, so I recommend Lonely Planet.

While they also provide a heap of information that could be overwhelming, they also break it down in a way that’s really easy to understand, and suits all sorts of travel styles, interests, and trip lengths. Only spending a few days or a week in one country or region? Get the relevant Lonely Planet guide (I usually get the PDF version online to avoid the weight of a whole book), look at the ‘Highlights’ section or the itinerary section, check out their their recommendations and decide which ones take your fancy.

While it may not feel like you’re finding off-the-beaten-path locations, I followed this method in a few countries around Eastern Europe and ended up in places other travellers (and some locals) hadn’t heard of, so you never know!

Ready for a run-down of the best booking tools, insurance companies, and recommended travel must-haves? Hit the button below!

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Travelling By Yourself 101: Tips For First-Time Wanderers | The Global Shuffle

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