Pre-Trip Checklist: Everything You Need To Do Between Booking and Packing

Fred Perrotta

My most forgotten item when traveling is my phone charger. Even though I have an extra one specifically for traveling, I still forget both of them. My most almost-forgotten item is my passport. I usually remember that as I’m walking out of my apartment.

Even experienced travelers forget things and make mistakes. This checklist will help you catch your memory lapses. Since we already have so many authoritative packing lists, this article will cover everything else you need to do before leaving for your trip.

This is your new pre-trip checklist of everything you need to do after you’ve booked your trip but before you leave.

Paperwork

The first step to making your trip a success is to get your paperwork in order. This is not as simple as buying a plane ticket and making sure your passport is up to date, although those are a good start.

Pre-trip paperwork includes:

  • Passport
  • Making copies of important things
  • Visas
  • Insurance
  • Mail arriving at home

Passport

Check the expiration date on your passport and renew it if necessary.

The State Department’s website recommends you renew your passport nine months before it expires.

Many countries require that your passport be valid for six months beyond the end of your trip.

Copies of Important Documents

Make copies of all of your important documents including the information page of your passport, your credit and debit cards, and your insurance cards.

Stash a hard copy in your luggage (separate from the originals), save a copy online (your email, Dropbox, or Evernote), and send one to a trustworthy friend or family member in case of emergency.

Visas

Get the visas you need. Find the entry and exit requirements for US citizens by destination country on the State Department’s website.

Many countries have reciprocal “visa on arrival” (VOA) with each other, but don’t assume that. Sometimes “obvious” countries actually require an in-advance visa application process. Australia, for example, if you’re holding an American passport, will not let you board the plane without an approved visa. 

Other countries, like Thailand, or Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda (together as the East African Visa) incentivize getting your visa early by giving you more time in country, or shorter wait times upon arrival. Look into it!

Insurance

Travel insurance and travel health insurance are important and often overlooked. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you don’t need it… until you do. Travel insurance covers your trip and your stuff. Travel health insurance covers you in case of medical emergency or treatment.

Also look for a policy that includes emergency evacuation and repatriation of remains, because those things, they’re really expensive. 

If you’re a digital nomad, or taking a longer term trip of several months, you might want to look into health insurance specifically for long term travel.

Mail and Paperwork at Home

Place a stop on your mail or have it forwarded to someone else if you won’t have a permanent US address while traveling. In the latter case, you can also sign up for a virtual mail service like VirtualPostMail or Earth Class Mail.

Both services will receive your mail, scan the envelopes, and upload them to your online account. Then you can review your mail and choose to have each piece destroyed, forwarded to you, or scanned in full for viewing online.

As for email, write an email auto-responder letting people know that you are abroad and will be slow to respond. Provide a contact person and phone number in case of emergencies.

Money

Organizing your money for a trip isn’t difficult, but you can definitely save yourself stress while traveling by planning up front and setting up contingency plans for if something goes wrong.

Plan ahead for managing your money by:

  • Planning for fees
  • Getting a travel-friendly credit card
  • Getting a travel-friendly debit card
  • Operating in a cash-economy
  • Having a back up plan

Planning for Fees

There are fees associated with some trips that people forget to plan for. Like what? 

Entrance and Exit Fees

Did you know that some countries charge you a fee to arrive or depart? Yep. You can find the fees by country on the State Department’s website. Make sure you check before you travel and budget accordingly.

Baggage Fees

Of course we all know that in the modern era we’re going to pay to check a bag on most airlines. That’s why we don’t check bags, right? Carry on travelers know that their money is better spent on fun stuff when they get there than on lugging huge bags of stuff they don’t need.

But did you know that more and more airlines, particularly the budget airlines you might have booked in Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, or in Africa to bop around mid-trip are likely to charge you for your carry on? Sometimes even your personal item? Mmmhm. 

Check the website of every single airline you plan to fly on your trip and review their baggage fees policies. Check the bag weight and dimension restrictions while you’re at it.

Credit Card & ABM Fees

More on this below, but definitely look into the fees associated with the cards you use at home. Your “at home” banking cards may be charging you exorbitant fees abroad. Like that time I discovered my ATM card was incurring a $7 fee at home, on top of the local machine’s fee with every transaction?! Yeah. That sucked. 

Travel-Friendly Credit Card

Get a travel-friendly credit card. I use the Capital One Venture Card (no foreign transaction fees, easy to redeem points) and the Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express (20% transfer bonus) to rack up miles at home and avoid fees while abroad.

Nomadic Matt and The Points Guy offer even more suggestions depending on your spending habits and favorite travel brands.

There are lots of options, but you definitely want a travel credit card that:

  • Has no fees (or refunds them)
  • Accrues points for further travel, hotels, or whatever is important to you
  • Has insurance associated with it (for car rentals, or general travel insurance… read the fine print)
  • Has a card replacement policy that is travel-friendly (meaning they can get you a new card in a weird place)

Travel-Friendly Debit Card

If you travel enough, this can be worth changing banks over. At home, I use a Bank of America debit card, but on the road, I prefer the Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking Account. I use it because the debit card refunds any ATM fees that you accrue anywhere in the world. That means you can use any ATM you want, as often as you want, without racking up withdrawal or foreign ATM fees. That seven dollar charge I mentioned before? A thing of the past.

This is important to my strategy of using ATMs to get local currencies (instead of paying currency exchangers) and keeping my cash on hand to a minimum (in case of loss or theft).

Operating in a Cash Economy

As I mentioned above, I prefer to pay cash when I’m traveling. Simply put, your card is at risk every time you use it. Use it less, lower your risk. Use it only at reputable bank ATMs and your risk is lower than handing it to strangers in every hole in the wall where you eat a meal, lay your head, or buy a souvenir.

Strategies for operating in a cash economy:

  • Carry cash, but not all in one place: divide it between your wallet and a couple of hiding places in your bag
  • Use an ATM card that refunds your fees
  • Spend coins first: they’re harder to exchange at the end of your trip

Have a Back Up Plan

What happens if your wallet is stolen? What happens if the ATM machines quit working? What happens if your trip is delayed or cancelled because of circumstances beyond your control? If you travel long enough, some of these will happen to you.

Savvy travelers know to:

  • Carry emergency credit cards separately from your everyday cards
  • Carry a stash of cash in a secret place in each bag you carry
  • Always have enough cash on hand to last three days
  • Make sure you’ve got a stash of “points” on your hotel card account so that you can bail yourself out with free room if you need to
  • Take photographs of every card you have, front and back, and travel with your bank account numbers and info written down somewhere

Health

Often we overlook our healthcare in trip planning. This isn’t just about whether or not you need a yellow fever vaccination to visit Peru. This is about making sure that you enjoy your trip to the max because you’re healthy when you leave and stay that way. And it’s about what happens in an emergency.

Before every trip:

  • Visit your doctor
  • Buy travel health insurance
  • Pack a health kit
  • Build your health

Visit Your Doctor

Visit your doctor for a checkup and any necessary vaccines. Find vaccine recommendations by country on the Centers for Disease Control’s website. If your doctor doesn’t offer travel vaccines, no problem; find a travel clinic and go there.

  • Remember that most insurance policies are not going to cover travel vaccinations
  • Some vaccinations take several doses over months: plan ahead

Ask your doctor for copies of all of your prescriptions and to write any medical notes that you might need to aid treatment on your trip.

Travel Health Insurance

Purchase travel insurance. I have yet to buy it myself, but both Nomadic Matt and Clint from TripHackr recommend World Nomads. That’s a good enough endorsement for me. Be sure that what you’re buying is travel health insurance and not just baggage coverage or travel interruption. 

Carry paper copies of your insurance policy and make sure the phone number is written down and you understand the claims process. If you’re headed to the hospital, do you have to call the insurance company FIRST? Or is it okay to call them after treatment. Those details can mean thousands of dollars when you need it. 

I mentioned it above, but it bears mentioning again: Be sure that your health insurance covers emergency evacuation and repatriation of remains. God forbid. Those are really expensive items.

Plan for Health & Pack a First Aid Kit

The best way to avoid needing that health insurance you just purchased, is not to get sick. How do you not get sick? 

  • Eat healthy foods
  • Drink plenty of water 
  • Drink less alcohol
  • Get regular sleep
  • Treat your body, while traveling, like you would at home

If you do get sick or injured, most things can be treated with a basic first aid kit. Pack one. Include extras of the things unique to your health needs, like a rescue inhaler or an Epi-pen. Yes, you can get almost any medication you need while you’re traveling, but when you’re sick it’s no fun to go hunting an a foreign language. Carry your own basics.

Technology

The phone in your pocket is the most powerful travel tool you have. Learn how to leverage the internet for as much, or as little travel help as you want. 

Use your phone for:

  • Travel planning and journalling
  • Free communication
  • App based on the fly travel support
  • Connecting to home and work

Travel Planning and Journalling

Make an Evernote notebook for your trip. Add your travel documents and research to the notebook to create a personalized guidebook. If you’re an Evernote Premium subscriber, you can sync that notebook to your phone to access all of your trip’s info even when you’re offline.

Use Evernote, or some other app based tool to take your journalling to the next level without the hassle and weight of traveling with a notebook.

Free Communication

If you’re not using Whatsapp you’re paying too much for communication while you travel. Free texts, the ability to do voice or video calls with data. It’s a great tool for making and keeping friends on the road. 

Re-up your Skype account for international calls. Buy Skype credit here. Then download the Skype app for your phone.

If you’re interested in clear video calls, even when the internet is iffy, Zoom makes efficient use of available bandwidth and is free.

App Based Travel Support

Create accounts on any booking sites that you plan to use as you travel and download their apps. For any services that require validation, you should open an account before your trip. This includes Couchsurfing and Airbnb.

Download, set up, and familiarize yourself with any travel apps you plan to use. 

Our favorites include apps for booking accommodations and flights, finding stuff to do, getting around, and finding Wi-Fi.

Set up a TripIt account and forward all of your confirmation emails to plans@tripit.com. Then you can access everything you need, including confirmation numbers and addresses, from the TripIt app or website. You can even sync your itinerary with your favorite calendar app.

If you upgrade to TripIt Pro, you will get text messages with flight updates in case of delays or gate changes. Kayak’s app is a good alternative with similar features.

Do you use two-factor authentication for Google or any other websites? If so, print out extra codes before you leave for when you don’t have cellular service.

Ready to Go!

If you’ve checked everything off of the list above, you’re ready to pack your bags and hit the road.

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