Travel Info & Reviews Air travel

First-time International Travelers : 8 Essential Tips

This is the essential guide for all first-time international travelers. These tips target those living in the U.S. However the tips will apply to first-time travelers from any country.

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In the U.S. there are a lot of people that don’t travel internationally until they are well into adulthood. It’s difficult to travel to far away places from the U.S. It does not neighbor many countries. And many jobs don’t provide vacation time. I’m here to help you make the most out of your first international trip.

Tip 1: Long flights for first-time international travelers

First-time international travelers will experience this before even arriving at their destination. That dreaded long haul flight. The U.S. is far away from most countries. This is not Europe were so many countries are a train or car ride away. My biggest advice is to view the plane as a hotel. This is especially true for flights 8 hours plus. Expect a larger plane than the ones used in domestic flights. This means you can walk around, eat lots of food (See the food below from China Airlines.) and enjoy lots of on-screen entertainment options. You won’t be trapped in your seat for all that time.


I go more in detail about surviving a long haul flight in Economy Class in this post. Check out this post to make Economy Class feel like First Class.

As soon as you either book your flight or your accommodations, buy travel insurance. This is so important as you want to be protected should something serious happen while you’re in another country. Or it could be something less serious such as lost or damaged luggage. And the cost is usually much less than you’d expect.

Tip 2: Overcoming language barriers

Learn a few words in the language of your destination. Start with “good morning”, “excuse me” and “thank you.”

English is the international language. However, not everyone in other countries speaks English. We must remember we are in their country and adapt.

Google Translate and other translation apps are fine. Choose apps that do not require an internet connection because you may not always have a strong signal. It’s also good to have a small phrase book in case your phone dies.

Many hotels have cards that include the address in the local language. Then, if you get lost, someone can get you back to the hotel. If you’re staying in some place like a rental, try to get someone to write the location in the local language. This is also helpful because Google Maps does not work reliably in all countries. Many countries have their own local apps and you won’t know what those are unless you research them.

Tip 3: Differences in accommodations

Everything in the U.S. is big. Especially in the South. This is true of hotels and houses. First-time international travelers will realize the homes and hotels in a many countries are much smaller than in the U.S. This is the same for apartment rentals. Your large 30-inch suitcase may not fit so well in your hotel room.

Another reason to not bring that large suitcase is that there may not be an elevator. If there is an elevator, it may only fit your luggage and not you. (I had this experience in the hotel below, in South Korea.) The elevator takes up the suitcases and then you’re next. I sold my 30-inch suitcase because it just was not worth it.


Towels and sheets are not the same size universally. You may find the towels much smaller than you are used to. This goes for beds as well. If you’re used to spreading out on your California King you’ve been warned. A lot of the beds in other countries are smaller. I tried to buy sheets in Dubai. I brought them back and they did not fit. Even the pillowcase was too small for my pillow.

Tip 4: Restrooms

We expect to find toilet paper as well as soap in most public bathrooms in the United States. This is not the case in many countries. Carry a small pack of tissues so that you’re prepared. I also carry around a pack of soap sheets. Because a lot of places don’t have soap either.

Sometimes you will find bathrooms that are very different from what you’re used to. These may include squat toilets or places where you have to use the bathroom outside. Some public restrooms charge a fee. I have experienced this in Europe as well as Puerto Rico. There is an attendant that collects the fee and keeps the restroom clean. Be kind and respectful if the restrooms are different from what you are used to.

Tip 5: How to not get robbed/taken advantage of

Every country is different. In some places, your chance of getting robbed may be higher.

Don’t travel with very expensive items or things you cannot replace. This includes destinations considered relatively safe where lots of tourists visit. You don’t ever want to tempt someone. Don’t carry large wads of cash when you’re out and about. When you go to pay for things try and do it discreetly.

Don’t draw attention to yourself. There may be people watching you without you realizing it. They can spot a tourist a mile away. Even in Dubai (below) people walk up to you for you to buy things. Maybe it’s luxury knockoffs . Maybe it’s a boat tour. Never be rude, but go about your way. Or they’ll keep harassing you.


People may offer you services in exchange for money. This includes people trying to carry your luggage for you in exchange for a tip. You may go to a restaurant and someone tells you they’ll watch your car for you. They’re expecting a tip.

It’s not wise to travel to a foreign country with no one expecting you. You are easy prey for people who can do you harm. Let someone know where you are in your home country and have someone in the destination know that you are coming. If you are traveling alone and do not know anyone, find out how you can contact your Embassy in that country.

Do they barter in the country you’re going to? Find out. You’ll save yourself from overpaying on some items.

Tip 6: Money

Exchanging money can be tricky if this is your first time traveling internationally. In the past I would go to my local bank to exchange money. There’s nothing wrong with this. More recently I began withdrawing money from the local ATM in my destination. Only do this if it’s safe to do so.

Many places take credit cards (I prefer to not use a debit card to make purchases for security purposes. This is a personal choice.) Before I travel I call my bank and let them know where I’m going so they don’t think someone is making fraudulent charges on my credit card. This is especially important if this is your first time traveling out of the country.


I like using money as a souvenir. So much thought goes into the bills and they tell a lot about the country as well. (The bills above are from Costa Rica.)

Tip 7: Getting around

Be aware of your surroundings. In Europe there are a lot of trolleys in random places. You may walk off the edge of the sidewalk and there’s a trolley. This happened to me. So please be careful.

Places like South Korea and Japan have tactile strips on the ground. These are for blind people to keep them from walking into traffic or off of a train platform. But they are very much a trip hazard.

This brings me to the side of the street that cars drive. In the U.S. we drive on the right side. In the United Kingdom, Japan, Hong Kong and other places I can’t think of, they drive on the left side. When you step off a street corner you have to look both ways. And really look both ways, because the cars will come towards you the opposite way you’re expecting them to.

Learn which transportation to take. Uber is not available everywhere. In fact in some countries, like South Korea, taxi drivers protested to not have it. It is currently available, but that may change. Some places have different colored taxis and they are not all the same price.

In many places subway systems are the best means of transportation. First-time international travelers need not worry. Most subway maps can be found online (See the Seoul Subway map below). Familiarize yourself with the subway system of your destination before you arrive.

Seoul Metropolitan Subway Map (Credit: Seoul Metro) 

Tip 8: Eating out

You’re excited to try the local delicacies (Like the ones below from St. Kitts & Nevis). You’ve heard so much about the street food at your destination.

Only go to places with a lot of traffic. This means that the food is delicious, but also fresh. Carry things like ginger candies and anti-diarrheal medicine. The food may be perfectly fine and uncontaminated. But your body may not adjust well to food from a different area other than your home country.

To drink the water or not to drink the water. Do research before you arrive at your destination. Even when the water is safe to drink, be cautious. You may react differently to the levels of sodium. I noticed that in the Middle East the water would make my face very puffy and bloated. There was nothing wrong with the water. It was just different for me.

Tipping at restaurants is very common in the United States. This varies from country to country. Do your research beforehand to see what the policy is on tipping. In many countries they feel they will always give you good service and that a tip is insulting. This is another case of “When in Rome.”

These are my 8 tips for first-time international travelers. Were they helpful? If I missed anything, let me know in the comments.


  1. Nice informative piece…

    Also I would suggest to first time travelers to make note of landmarks and since most of us have our phones…take a picture or two of your surroundings and where your staying…in case you get turned around…show one of the locals your picture I’m sure they’ll be happy to help you out.

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