Travelling to a new and exotic place seems like such a magical and romantic notion... and it really is! There really is nothing quite like experiencing a new place in the world for the first time. Having said that, many things can go wrong unless you take the proper precautions. When you go somewhere new, you want to be able to enjoy it for all it's worth, so it's better to be prepared before you get there. Then, when you finally arrive, you can relax and enjoy the experience. I have compiled a little checklist, based on my own experiences, to help you prepare.
Register with your nation's government before you go
Most countries have a government website which allows you to register your travel plans with them. This is a fantastic idea and is particularly helpful if, for instance, a natural disaster or other emergency situation arises in the area you are visiting. You will be on your government's database, they will be aware that you are there and will be looking out for you. There are also links and emergency phone numbers listed on their website for consular help and information if you have a situation arise such as your passports being stolen whilst you are on holiday.
This service usually also provides services such as emails containing travel advice, warnings and bulletins sent to you if a situation is deteriorating in the area you are visiting - for example, if riots have broken out on a particular road or in a certain town, your government will send you an email detailing which areas to avoid.
We were in Mozambique a few years ago when political unrest escalated into fighting along the main national highway in certain areas. We received an email immediately from our government letting us know what the situation was and which areas to avoid. There have been a few instances where this service has proved invaluable to us.
Research the laws of the nation you are travelling to
Different nations can have completely different laws to the ones you are used to. Don't make the mistake of assuming your nation's laws are the same all over the world. People have ended up in jail for making that mistake.
Things to particularly take note are information such as where you are and are not allowed to take photos. Some countries have very strict laws on taking photos in public places, and the penalty usually involves confiscation of your camera or device, fines, and possibly even jail time. Many countries are particularly strict where government buildings and personnel are involved.
Some countries will even fine you or penalise you just for stopping in front of a government building. We were once driving through a small town in rural Mozambique when we got a flat tyre. We pulled over to the side of the road, parking in front of a nondescript looking house when a police car suddenly pulled up behind us. Six policemen carrying machine guns piled out of the car and began yelling at us. It was a harrowing experience. They demanded that we get back into our car and follow them to the police station. When we asked them why they told us that we were parked in front of a government building. There were no signs or markings anywhere to state that it was a government building. After speaking and pleading with them respectfully, they finally let us go, but our hearts were pounding a little bit faster by the time we left.
Some countries have very strict rules concerning religious or cultural beliefs, for instance, what you can or cannot wear in certain places. It pays to be well informed before you go. Foreign prisons aren't fun and even being detained at a police station for hours is a very distressing experience.
Ah, that dirty little four letter word! Always check visa requirements before you travel to a country, even if you are just in transit there between countries. Don't get stuck or sent back because you didn't research and prepare. Customs officers won't accept the excuse of "I didn't know."
Travel agents aren't responsible for organising your visas. It is up to you to check and organise so make sure you know the requirements before you travel.
My family and I, who are Australians, were once travelling with a Mozambican son we had unofficially adopted into our family to America via Fiji. We had organised an American visa for our Mozambican son and had assumed because we would only be in transit through Fiji for a few hours that he wouldn't require a visa for Fiji. We weren't even going to leave the airport so surely not! Something made me look up the visa requirements a day before we travelled and it was a good thing I did because sure enough, Mozambicans were required to obtain a transit visa before travelling through Fiji, even if they planned to stay in the airport. Unfortunately, visas weren't available on arrival. They had to be obtained before travel at the Fijian Embassy in the country they were travelling from. When I phoned the Fijian embassy in Australia, they informed me that it would take two weeks to process the visa! We were supposed to leave the next day! We ended up having to change our tickets to a direct flight from Australia to America, losing money in the process.
You can obtain visas on arrival in some countries, whereas for others, you need to apply before you travel. Some countries only make visas available on arrival at certain border posts but not others, so always check specifically at the border post you plan to enter at. Also, check what type of visa they offer at the border. Too much planning is never wrong when it comes to visas. Customs officers can be sticklers for the details and will have no qualms in denying you entry if something is wrong with your visa.
If you are road tripping between nations, check border times between countries. Not all borders are open 24 hours a day and you don't want to be stuck at a border, sleeping in the car. Trust me! You can read about one of our adventures involving border timing here.
Some border posts change their hours of operation depending on the time of year so just because you have travelled through a certain border at 1 am once doesn't guarantee it will still be open during the night a few months later. Always check and make sure each time you travel the route, no matter how many times you've travelled it before.
We have travelled between Mozambique and South Africa dozens of times, using the main border post between Maputo, Mozambique and Nelspruit, South Africa, and my head spins with the number of times that border post has changed its hours of operation. We have had to sleep in the car whilst waiting for the border to open a few times there! It would have been much easier just to check beforehand. We've learned our lesson now.
Notify your bank at home which nations you intend to visit before you go
Most banks have a great security system whereby they will block your bank card if there is suspicious activity, including purchases being made in a different country. This is fantastic, but not so much when you are in a foreign country and suddenly your card isn't working anywhere. You don't want to be stuck in a foreign country with no access to money.
This problem is easily solved though. All you have to do is inform your bank of all the places you intend to visit before you leave. They will make a note of it in their system and you're good to go. It's much better to be prepared before you go than trying to phone your bank and fix the problem from another country where you have to worry about time differences, bad phone reception and the like.
Our bank also has a partner service with some foreign banks, providing us with lower fees when we take cash from an ATM. It's always a good idea to check if your bank has that same service because fees for international transactions can become quite hefty! Another alternative is to click on the link at the bottom of this page which will take you to 'TransferWise' - a service providing very competitive prices on international bank transfers. It is a great way to send money overseas for a minimum price at the currency exchange rate without any hidden costs.
Time to fly
You are prepared now. You've researched your intended destination, checked visa requirements, registered with your government and informed your bank. All that's left to do now is pack your bags, take off and enjoy the wonders of travel. Be dazzled by the exotic tastes, sounds and vibes of a foreign place. Take in the breath-taking scenery. Learn how to say "Hi, how are you?" in a strange and wonderful new language. Be in the moment. Let the wonders of the world be opened up to you and have the time of your life! It's worth it.