August 2016 I took my first trip to Europe. My sister and I begin planning this trip over a year before we planned to leave. And a LOT of planning went into this trip. It's a little nerve-wracking to fly overseas. At least for me it was. So, here is my list of things I recommend you do before heading out on your international trip.
1. Your Passport
Ok, first things first. Do you have a passport? Is it current? Has your name, address, or photo changed? Listen, getting a passport can take as long as people warn you. Now, that's not to say you can't get lucky and get yours back in two weeks like I did. HOWEVER, I am not married, and never have been. But if you have you need a marriage certificate; if you've been divorced you need that paperwork. So, prepare yourself that it could take months to get your passport. Or it could take 2 weeks. Prepare yourself.
Photos from Costco are pretty cheap and they give you like 4 copies, so you have plenty if something happens to one. It only takes about 15 minutes or so to interview at the Post Office.
Speaking of passport, "keep it secret, keep it safe." I got this really cute holder from Kate Spade, that also had pockets for my money and cards. Now, I went to a part of the world that isn't known to be unsafe; I didn't really feel the need to worry about pick-pockets. Regardless, keep your passport with you and keep it close to you (nowhere someone can snatch it from you).
I am not a suitcase girl. As in, I prefer a rolling duffel bag to a hard-sided suitcase. Personally, I think it's easier to shove into an overhead bin than a suitcase. And it can also be stuffed, if necessary. I also like a backpack for a carry-on. Anywhere I'm going, whether domestic or international, I will take items I really need out of my purse, pack my purse in my duffel, and keep my backpack with me at my seat. This is what I did, even for my international flight.
I love packing cubes!!! I got these ones on Amazon. They're really helpful. I use 1 for undergarments, 1 for shoes, 1 for tops, and 1 for bottoms. You could also do an outfit or two in each one. There's also enough to take empty ones along to put dirty laundry in.
How do I decide what to pack? What I like to do if it's going to be chilly, is pick a pair of jeans, a pair of black pants, and maybe a skirt and/or leggings. For me, packing just really depends on what I'm going to be doing. I don't have any hard-fast list I stick to every time. That being said, I will choose maybe 2 tshirts, 2 cardigan-like sweaters (of neutral color so that I can wear them with anything), and a light rain jacket. Again, I took a trip to Scotland, you just never know when it will rain. As far as shoes go, I pack 1 pair of tennis shoes (or for me I like Skechers Go Step-Marina) and 1 pair of waterproof shoes (I took rainboots from Sperry).
Packing is really up to you. I just recommend keeping it simple! If you are staying in Airbnbs, then most likely you will have access to a washer and dryer, so you can easily wear the same pants or shirt a bunch of times. People don't care what you wear either, your Instagram followers know you're trying to keep your packing light.
4. Planning Your Flight
Ok, so this is probably where my sister and I learned the most lessons. First of all, we flew United. Now, I know everyone has their opinions on airlines, and my opinion is that United is the WORST. This is my blog, I will be honest. Our flight from Louisville, KY to Newark, NJ was delayed over an hour. This cut our layover time immensely. The flight attendants didn't give us any hope of the plane being held for us in Newark. So, I got off the plane and ran through Newark airport. Our flight to Dublin was pretty uneventful. I do wish they had some better food on planes. Then on the way home, I got delayed twice in Washington, D.C. (my sister and her husband's flight got canceled completely when they came home). Needless to say, I'm not impressed with United Airlines.
I recommend doing your research with international flights. Fortunately now, there are airlines like Icelandic Air and Wow Air that have awesome international flights. Read reviews. Price shop. Also, look into flights inside the country you are visiting. Many people like to take trains because it's cool, but is it really cheaper? The flights over in Europe are pretty inexpensive.
5. On the Plane
An international flight can be anywhere from 6-14 hours, or more, of flying. Thankfully, I only had a maximum of 8 hours over the ocean.
I tried to sleep. I took some natural sleeping pills called Luna, and it didn't really help. Let me clarify, though, and say that I'm a really light sleeper and I toss and turn a lot at home, trying to get comfortable. So, needless to say, I struggled to sleep in a narrow airplane seat with a neck pillow that didn't help. This might not be the same for you. So, if you have an overnight flight, I suggest taking something to sleep and bringing a neck pillow so you aren’t paralyzed the rest of your trip.
As far as things to do on the plane (if you aren’t just passed out the whole time), I like to bring my iPad, phone, headphones, and maybe a notebook. I can pretty much do anything on my iPad, but sometimes I just like to write. Now, I have ADD, so I will read for about 30 minutes, then listen to a podcast/play a game, then sleep, and then repeat. I know. My sister will read a whole book on a flight. I cannot. Make sure you pack your carry-on with as much care as your suitcase. You don’t want to get on the plane and realized you forgot headphones, or that your iPad isn’t charged.
I’m not one to pay for the Wi-Fi on a plane. I’m not important enough that I need to check emails that can’t wait until I land. I do like to watch movies, though, so I will watch either the screen on the back of the seat or downloaded movies on my iPad.
6. Where to stay
I am an ardent advocate for Airbnb. I have only had one bad experience, which in defense of the hosts it was probably because I was one of the first people to stay there. And the circumstances were just weird. When my sister and I were planning our international vacation, we decided to stay in a few different Airbnb rentals. We also stayed in three different Bed and Breakfasts in Scotland.
One thing to consider with Airbnb is that you have to pay for everything ahead of time. This can be a good thing- pay and forget about it- or a bad thing- you are out money if you have to cancel. With bed and breakfasts, you can reserve the date, but not pay until after the stay, or maybe a short time before.
Again, read reviews. Do your research.
7. Make a list/Be spontaneous
That seems like an oxymoron. However, Jessica and I are list-makers that love spontaneity. Does that even make sense? It works for us. What we typically do is make a list of things we really want to see in a certain city or town or area then when we leave in the morning we at least have a direction. But then when we're heading to one of those places we could see something cool off the side of the road, and we'll stop. If you make a list and are adamant to sticking to it, you can lose out on things that may be just five minutes off the highway, and be totally worth the detour. This is how we discovered The Newton Arms, O'Neill's Pub, Oink, Old Inverlochy Castle, just to name a few.
I guess I really can't say this enough: do your research! My debit card and credit card do not have international fees. BUT does yours? Did you check? Check! People think that they can just go over and use their credit/debit card with no problems. Well, most places will take them, but you will also get charged for the exchange. So, check for fees. You can get cash from an ATM in Euros or Pounds in most places in Europe. The exchange kiosks will charge you to exchange your money. You can look online for the exchange rate, which will tell you how much they are actually charging you for your money. Yeah, it's stupid. Just be smart about how you're using your money.
9. Cell phones
My sister, my brother-in-law, and I are all on the same phone plan. They were staying a week longer than me, so we all decided that they would have an international phone plan and I wouldn't. I was pretty disappointed I didn't. Granted the service isn't great, but it comes in handy. For instance, when touring the Edinburgh Castle, we all got separated. Needless to say, my sister had a mini panic attack when she couldn't find me in the crowd of people and had no way of getting a hold of me. So, if you are with other people and may be separated from them, get a phone plan. There's nothing scarier than being stuck in a foreign country with no way of getting a hold of people. I can only imagine how much scarier if I couldn't communicate with others around me.
10. Take it all in!!!
Who knows when you’ll be back to see the Eiffel Tower, Blarney Castle, the Isle of Skye, the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, or the beaches of New Zealand. So, take it all in!!! Don’t miss out on something you really want to do. That’s the point of that vacation. You are there to do as much as you can. Take photos like a tourist, ask the locals for suggestions, get lost, talk to strangers. Remember this is your trip; who cares if you look stupid (trust me most of the time the locals have seen worse).