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First-Time Traveler

Planning your first international travel experience can be exciting, but you also have a lot to consider. From smart packing and planning the perfect itinerary to managing travel logistics and avoiding cross-cultural faux pas, it may get a little overwhelming. While researching your specific destination is the first step to planning an unforgettable trip – and let’s face it, it’s the most enjoyable part of planning – we’re highlighting a few crucial items that require attention while you’re still on American soil.

Get a Passport

All travelers must present a valid U.S. passport for international air travel … even infants! Ready to apply for your first passport? Here is a simple checklist to obtaining one:

Plan ahead: Applying for a passport can be a long process. Allow at least 10 weeks to process your application, or you could face steep fees and last-minute approvals that could have you sweating it out right before you’re supposed to depart.

Have important documents ready: You need proof of citizenship (i.e., a birth certificate) and proof of identity (i.e., your driver’s license or government-issued ID). Send in original copies of these documents with your passport application.

Get photo-ready: A passport photo must be provided with your application. Among other specifications, it needs to be a specific size (2x2 inches), taken within the last six months and feature a neutral expression. No smiling! While you can take the photo yourself, we recommend putting the smartphone away and having a professional passport photo service take it for you. Most chain drugstores offer this service at a very reasonable price.

Complete the paperwork: Fill out the DS-11 form and bring it to the nearest acceptance facility. You must apply in person if it’s your first passport and if you’re traveling with children under 16.

Calculate the fees: For adults, your first passport book will cost $135. A minor (under age 16) passport book is $105. Passport card options are less but can only be used when traveling to certain countries by land or sea.

Track the application: You can easily keep track of your application’s status online.

Your passport is valid for 10 years if it was issued after you turned 16 years old; if you were under 16 it is good for five years. Keep in mind the expiration date on your passport can be deceiving since many countries deny travelers entry if the passport expires in less than six months. To avoid any issues, consider renewing your passport nine months before the expiration date.

Money Matters

Almost as important as your passport is understanding how to manage your money overseas. Credit cards, cash and traveler’s checks are all options, but the right choice for you should be based on where you’re going. Below is a list of some pros and cons of each option, but you should always research the country and/or city to which you’re traveling to understand your options fully.

Credit Cards


  • Credit cards typically offer the best-possible exchange rate.
  • You can cancel the card easily if it is lost or stolen.
  • You can review your purchases when you return home to avoid fraud or identity theft.


  • Some cards aren’t universally accepted. Always check to ensure your card is accepted before you try to make a purchase.
  • Also, make sure you call your credit card provider before you leave to alert the company that, yes, the Parisian pastry will be an authorized transaction.



  • Cash (in the country’s currency) is accepted anywhere, whether you’re at a small vendor’s booth or a nice restaurant.
  • If you have a few small coins or bills leftover, you can take them home as inexpensive souvenirs.


  • Currency conversion fees can change frequently and are dependent on where the money is being exchanged. Research ahead of time and exchange or withdraw from an ATM large amounts to cut down on the number of fees.
  • If you misplace your wallet or your purse is stolen, you are not able recover any of your cash.

Traveler's checks


  • They can be replaced within 24 hours if lost or stolen.
  • Traveler’s “checks,” which are now in the form of pre-paid cards, are a great item to stow in a safe place – in case of emergencies.


  • Many vendors do not accept traveler’s checks.
  • Exchange rates are not as good as credit cards or cash.



Be Alert

While many international travel advisories and alerts often appear in the news, you can enroll in the lesser-known Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a State Department resource. Enroll in the program once your airfare and hotel accommodations are in place by contacting the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate and providing the following information: name, date of birth, passport number, travel dates, email address, phone number and emergency contact. Not only will you receive warnings, alerts and news about your destination, family members also can use the program to contact you if they’re having difficulty getting ahold of you.