6 things every new international traveler should know about before departure

betty ming liu Travel 11 Comments

Our India vacation is only my second trip abroad IN NEARLY 20 YEARS. A pathetic fact, I know.

But it gets worse…

My lack of experience with the real world has created stoopid, last-minute problems that have, thankfully, taught me a lot.


  • Problem #1: I needed to obtain a visa to enter India. Of course, I’ve always understood the concept of a visa. But when I was a kid and we went to Asia, my dad arranged everything. During my marriage, my husband took care of our travel stuff. When I went to China in 2005 with two girlfriends, one of them handled all the logistics. So I’ve never had to physically do the paperwork myself. Three days before our flight, a buddy asked me about my visa situation. Luckily, the Indian consulate in NYC can issue visas within 24 to 36 hours.
  • Solution: Before visiting a country, check its website for visa requirements.


  • Problem #2: Even on connecting flights, a customs form is still a must. I was the alleged adult who chaperoned my daughter and her two teen friends over to India. (The parents of the teen pals met us there later.) During our Continental Airlines flight, one attendant told me to fill out a single form to cover all four of us. But another attendant said not to bother with anything since we were making a connecting flight within India. Well, when we landed in Mumbai with no custom forms, it took us forever to clear customs before going on to Chennai.
  • Solution: Remember, each passenger needs to complete a customs form.


  • Problem #3: Using an American Express card overseas requires a PIN #. When I learned about the PIN number — again, a few days before departure — Amex issued me a number right away. But I can only find out what it is when I open the Amex letter snail mailed to my home. The company rep said it was against procedures to express mail me the letter overnight. So I boarded the plane with no PIN number and $1,500 in cash.
  • Solution: Don’t assume credit and ATM cards automatically work overseas.



  • Problem #4: The American Express customer service people are idiots. During my PIN number convo with Amex, I received a temporary PIN that was good for the next seven days. This number proved useless since I left home with plenty of cash. But Amex also assured me that if I needed money later, it could help. Guess what — I just called an Amex rep who apologized and noted that some of her colleagues “don’t have accurate information.”
  • Solution: Don’t trust anybody; companies just don’t train their people well.
  • Problem #5: I should have figured out my cell phone options before leaving. Yes, I know — roaming charges cost a fortune. So I don’t want to make unnecessary calls from India. But what if I need my phone in an emergency? Is there a way to use it? I haven’t a clue.
  • Solution: I should have called my carrier (Verizon) before departure.
  • Problem #6: Setting up Internet on my iPad is a pain. Speaking of phones, I am furious with AT&T. I signed up for Internet hookup on my 3G iPad. (The standard iPad relies on Wifi). But it turns out that I was supposed to call AT&T and request activation. This fact is not clearly explained in the AT&T service confirmation email. So here I am in India with a dead iPad. It was supposed to be a great research and blogging tool.  :-(
  • Solution: All I had to do was test drive my iPad before the trip.

If I was this dumb when I was younger, I’d be extremely embarrassed right now. Instead, I’m taking a deep breath, coping and moving on. I’m not out of cash yet. One of the parents on this trip has a working cell phone. But trust me, I’ll never make these same mistakes again. I also plan to put my new wisdom to use by getting out more. Gotta make up for a lost lifetime!

Comments 11

  1. Post

    if you have more advice, points to make for new travelers, or experiences to share, please do tell. the more useful information we can access, the better. :-)

  2. Don’t worry! That’s what you learned from your mistake and you will not repeat again.

    Like I mentioned in your another posting before, I don’t like AT&T and Apple only has contract with AT&T without other choices for their customers. That’s why I am never crazy about getting my iPhone or new toy besides my MacBook.

    Enjoy the rest of your summer! :)

  3. Rely on internet cafes and plan to email stuff to yourself.
    Bring your laptop but don’t expect to be able to get internet on it in a developing country
    Buy the cheapest crappiest cell phone you can find that works in multiple regions. The Nokia 1200 is a good option — does texts and phone calls, that’s all you really need unless you’re staying for months on end.
    Always pay for the multiple entry visa unless you like waiting on line for a visa application.
    Lie about what’s in your bags to the customs agents. Whatever you have is not worth more than US$10k.

    Under no circumstances whatsoever should expect to receive help from people at the airport without tipping them. It doens’t matter if they’re wearing a uniform from an airline. It’s a shakedown. Keep small bills on you for these occasions.

    1. Post

      thanks shirley. and laura, great advice on specific cell phone ideas. i won’t even get into the trouble i had getting the kids and me to the right terminal for the connecting flight. live and learn, right?

  4. Some of Shirley Bubbles International Travel Tips~
    1. Foreign currency and coins~
    I know many people rely on the Foreign Currency Exchange counter after the arrival in the airport. Some of my friends who travelled with me before had this habit. I never listened to them no matter how difference in currency rate before my departure. It ended up the airport’s Foreign Currency Exchange was closed after our late arrival or weekend, I had the foreign currency to pay for the taxi or public transportation to my destination. I was the one who saved them from the hassle. Don’t assume credit card is accepted everywhere.
    *** Don’t accept foreign currency exchange in the black market or from the stranger, it may end up the loss/fake bills even you are offered an attractive exchange rate.

    2. Always pack your comb, toothpaste, tooth brush, small towel or even light clothes in your hand carry if you can. In case the delay of flight or lost of baggage in between your trip, you can still maintain your personal hygiene. ^^

    3. Pepper Spray is banned in many countries’ custom so beware of don’t violate the law during the entry. Many years ago, I brought the pepper spray with me in the hand carry to HK. I did not realize it was illegal until almost got the custom.
    I threw away immediately or I may get into big trouble.

    4. Some of USA cellphones can be used in other Asian countries by removing your current SIM card and replaced by the prepaid SIM in the country you are traveling. e.g. HK. That can save you tons of $$$ for International phone call or roaming charge. Or you may purchase calling card from the local. Check it out before your departure.

    5. Making copies of your official documents (e.g. the passport) and credit cards including the toll free phone# for your travel destination. Put the copy away from your original stuff. In case you lose the wallet, you have a copy as the backup for emergency use.

    6. Don’t accept strangers offering for sampling perfumes or taking you to unknown destination in courtesy. Better safe than sorry! (I was naive when I was young in travel. Thank God I ran into good people most of the time so I was safe.)

    That’s it I can think of by now. ^^

  5. Re: American Express~ Beware of using American Express and other credit cards with pin#, for my understanding, you are using cash advances if you withdraw cash from the ATM machine in the foreign countries or even in USA. You will end up paying high interest rates instead of using your credit card in purchase.
    I never do that unless I have NO choice.

  6. My mom’s travel agent sad to make photocopy of the passports, put a copy of yours in your companion’s suitcase and visa versa.

  7. You know Betty, these “mistakes” may have given you a better vacation experience. No cell phone, no iPad and credit card makes you less likely to spend time being on the web and spending and more time exploring. That in turn leads to great blog posts like the last one.

  8. My dear hubby Eric just got back from his first business trip to India! He was in Hyderabad for nearly 4 weeks. While he had a more pampered corporate experience (and because it was for work, he didn’t have a lot of time to sightsee), he made some of the mistakes you did, so don’t beat yourself up. And after all, if you and I made our first trips to India when we were 21, we would only need to bring a backpack, toothbrush and cash — there’d be no issues over iPads, cell phones or WiFi! So have a wonderful journey and enjoy the experience.

  9. Post

    we got back on thursday morning in one piece. i’ve learned so much. the return through the various airports was pretty smooth because i already knew what to expect, what to fill out, how much to tip and who to tip. next trip, i’ll be ready. thanks to all of you for your great suggestions!

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