Mongolian Family with their livestock


Pre Departure Checklist

Y ou’ve picked your travel destination and now you want your trip to be a golden success. Any strategies that can increase the odds of success are worth examining. In my experience, pre-departure planning goes a long way to increasing the odds of a great trip. As a photographer, the more I plan and prepare for a shoot (without being obsessive…over planning can hinder as well), the easier it goes. So, too, it goes with travel. In this article, I present my international travel tips that I’ve picked up along the way. 

But, remember, too, that despite all your planning, the unexpected can and probably will, occur. Life is like that. Things happen. It’s then about how we deal with it and the calmer you are, the better the decisions you will make.


Before you travel — critical items

  1. Passport validity. Make sure your passport has more than 6 months validity remaining (from the date-of-entry into your destination). Some countries will not allow entry if the passport expires in less than 6 months. 
  2. Vaccines & other travel meds. Check out the CDC, WHO Travel Health Advisories and your country’s guidelines for international travelers. Some treatments require boosters so make sure you give yourself ample time to get this sorted. Ideally, you want to be fully protected before you travel. 
  3. Dental checkup. For long-haul travel and travel to remote places, this is always a good thing to check off your list. Give yourself sufficient time just in case you need to have some work done. 
  4. Research any security advisories. This travel map is a useful place to start when considering a new destination.
  5. Visas. Start this process early as some countries are slow to process applications. You can also use the services of a professional visa provider. These companies will get your visa for a fee. In my former travel company, we used the services of these companies for complex travel visas, visas for groups and for visas that required a quick turnaround.
  6. Health insurance. Check your coverage with your credit card provider and if it isn’t sufficient, purchase additional health insurance.
  7. Trip Cancellation / Interruption / Baggage Insurance. This is different from health Insurance and optional depending on your risk tolerance. One frequent traveler I know, never purchased this type of insurance at all; since she only cancelled one trip in her entire travel history, she figured she saved money in the end. Good credit cards offer this insurance as well. 
photo of old maps on a table

Photo, Andrew Neel

  1. Give a rough itinerary to someone else. This is especially important, if you are travelling alone or you plan off-the-beaten-path escapes. Remember to update your contact(s) back home with major itinerary changes once you’re in-country.
  2. Packing. As a general rule, pack less than you think. Instead of five pairs of socks, go with three. Repeat with all other clothing. If you take clothing that is easy to hand wash, your travels will be that much easier. Bring a plastic bag for your laundry. 
  3. Photocopy your passport and other essential documents & protect them. Put them in a ziploc bag, separate from the originals. 
  4. Take pictures of all important docs. Store them on your phone and in the cloud.
  5. Take pictures of your bags. Save them to the cloud and to your phone for quick reference. This may aid airport staff help them locate your luggage. 
  6. Carry some USD. USD is the world’s most universal currency. USD can work to change money quickly, get a taxi, tip, etc. I carry at least $200 USD in 1, 5, 10 & 20s. Some countries will not accept worn or torn US bills, so make sure to get clean bills.
  7. Carry-on luggage if possible. Without saying. But since I did, I’ll add that not only will you never lose your bag, but airport wait times and transit issues, in general, are reduced. You’re also allowed an additional, smaller bag such as a purse, a small camera bag, etc. That said, sometimes a small carry-on bag just won’t cut it and you’ll need to check your bags. See strategies below. 
  8. Checked bags.Try to keep it to one checked bag. You can check in one bag online saving you time at the airport; if you need to check in more than one, you will have to check it at the airport.
  9. Airtags. These may help you to track down your bags if they really go missing and airline remedies fail. 
  10. Consider a roaming package or purchase an eSim before you travel. Travel can present many unfamiliar challenges; having a way to communicate immediately can aid your peace of mind. Have your roaming package activated prior to travel, or use one of the increasingly popular eSims (electronic Sim chips) so that you have service on arrival.
  11. Consider prebooking a hotel transfer / arrival hotel. Make your transition to the hotel or start-point as easy as possible. This can be extremely helpful when visiting a country for the first time or if arriving at night.
  12. Try to arrive during daylight hours. A new destination can be a bit wooly at first encounter, especially if you are traveling alone. Try to arrive when the sun is still up. Travel can be more complex and uncertain at night.
  13. Book a transfer or taxi from within the airport. Avoid dodgy taxis and drivers outside the terminal who may not be authorized to work at the airport. Often, you can book a transfer to get to your arrival hotel. On arrival, book a taxi before you exit the passenger area, or just outside immigrations/customs area at one of the taxi kiosks. 
Mongolian woman getting water for her tea

Mongolian woman getting water for her tea


Before you travel — less than critical Items

    1. Get a good travel guide. Do your research ahead of time. The enjoyment of your trip will increase in direct proportion to your knowledge of the destination. 
    2. Install travel apps on your phone. Some examples: flight trackers, Timeshifter, Uber, Expedia, Trip Advisor, translators, maps, even games, etc. 
    3. Phone. Music, space to record videos and images, charger, earbuds / headphones (noise cancelling) 
    4. Carry a dummy wallet. Keep important I.D. and the bulk of your cash hidden, and use a dummy wallet with a small amount of cash for ready access. This is the wallet that I use for the bulk of my daily transactions. Nosey individuals will see a mostly empty wallet and, if you’re ever forced to hand it over, it will be much easier to part with this lesser wallet. 
    5. Pack some snacks and / or food with you. I carry roasted, salted almonds as my backup snack. Airport and airplane food lacks nutrients and plane travel is stressful on your body. Carry good snacks and food to make your transit, healthier and more enjoyable. 
    6. Carry an empty water bottle. You’ll never be dehydrated. You can also add a filter attachment so you have access to filtered water throughout your transit. 
    7. Check in 24 hours before your departure for the best seat selection. If you check in as soon as checkin opens, you will have the best choice of seats. You can often book emergency exits and bulkhead seats that offer more legroom. 
    8. Avoid seats near the washrooms. Avoid the lineups and extra noise that come with these seats.
    9. Carry a small dry bag. It’s great to have a bag that seals perfectly to protect from moisture, dust, etc. Pad it, if you are carrying sensitive electronic items inside. 
    10. Study the language and customs or your destination. Sometimes, even basic knowledge can be a win when in another country. Knowing the basics of a culture can open doors that might remain closed otherwise. The more you open to your destination, the more it will open to you.
    11. Cameras & lenses. If you carry camera gear, pack it carefully with padding. Remove lenses on interchangeable systems to protect them and pack them tighter.   
    12. Carry ear plugs & an eye cover. Some people carry a pillow for added comfort.
    13. Take a book or e-reader
    14. Load some movies on your laptop / device. For aircraft without inflight entertainment, having your own movies or music can make the long hours in an aircraft more bearable.
    15. Change some cash inside the airport. Having local cash immediately upon arrival can help with transport/taxis, tips, etc. I change a small amount of USD into local currency before I exit the airport. 
    16. Small first aid kit. Here’s a short list of important items that I have found useful: eye drops, anti-fungal, topical antibiotic, topical corticosteroid, bandaids, electrolytes, broad-spectrum antibiotic (self diagnosis is always risky; use only if you don’t have access to a medical doctor), tensor bandage. Add more items as you see necessary. 
    17. Clothing. Of course, clothing and accessories are very personal items, but I have found it useful to have a zippered  zippered pocket in at least one pair of pants / shorts / shirt. I use this pocket for my passport when moving through airports. 
    18. Banadana. Super useful as an additional sun protector, as an eye cover, etc. 
    19. Adopt an attitude of equanimity and practice patience. Travel rarely goes according to plan. When travel bumps occur,  try to stay calm, keep your wits about you (in guiding parlance, maintain situational awareness), and kick into problem-solving mode. Sometimes, shifts in one’s plan can lead to unexpected wonder.
Gordon on a boat in Fiji

When Things Go Sideways

My first extensive international trip was a 20-country voyage that took me around the world in just under four years. I went on to guide internationally, owned an international adventure travel company and ran a resort on a remote island in Fiji. As you might imagine, there were moments when it all unravelled. It’s one thing when it goes sideways on your personal travels; it’s another when you have a group with you. In these moments, use the mantra from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t Panic. And breathe deeply into your belly and know that this too shall pass.