While some things, like booking flights and hotel rooms, are obvious to-dos before a big trip, other tasks—like remembering to double-check whether you need a visa or an international driver’s permit—sometimes slip through the cracks. That’s why having a pretravel checklist can make for a smoother departure and reduce stress.
Here are nine things you should do in the run-up to your trip and before you leave for the airport, from preparing your home and choosing a phone plan to packing the essentials.
Make sure your passport is up to date
While a standard adult U.S. passport is valid for 10 years from the date of issue (or renewal), you should renew sooner than that.
Many countries (currently around 75 worldwide) require at least six months of passport validity beyond your departure date. If your passport is going to expire less than six months after you leave for your trip, you could be denied entry or deported. Additionally, some nations require that your passport have between one and three completely blank visa pages, so be sure to check the rules for your destination.
Similarly, if your passport has details that are no longer accurate (for instance, you’ve gotten married and changed your last name), you’ll want to have that corrected or have your airplane ticket changed to match the passport information.
Check if you need a visa and immunizations
Start by researching the entry requirements for your destination. Most governments have official websites or consular offices that provide detailed information about what is necessary to visit.
For visas, whether or not you need one often depends on your nationality and how long you plan to stay. Additionally, some countries have non-negotiable immunizations that need to be obtained before entry (for instance, a number of countries in Africa require yellow fever vaccinations and certifications). Other countries may have suggested, but not mandatory, requirements for medications (such as antimalarial tablets). It’s a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional or travel clinic for up-to-date information on vaccinations and health advisories.
Consider travel insurance
No matter how well you plan your vacation, there’s always the potential for accidents and unforeseen circumstances that can derail everything.
Travel insurance can help safeguard you against unexpected events, like trip cancellations, medical emergencies, lost luggage, or flight delays. Not only does it mitigate financial losses, but it also ensures you have someone to help you if things go wrong far from home.
In some scenarios, like an expedition cruise to a polar region, the company organizing the trip makes travel insurance mandatory, so be sure to check what requirements your tour has ahead of time. Some cruise lines offer insurance directly through their booking process, which makes it an easier—if not always the most economic—option.
Keep in mind that credit card insurance covers some things, but not all, and that different cards cover different things. Cancel For Any Reason Coverage (CFAR) is another option in the insurance toolkit to review: It gained popularity during COVID and can still be useful in certain cases.
Even if you don’t end up needing your travel insurance, having it can provide peace of mind.
Make a safety plan
No matter your destination, it’s wise to familiarize yourself with local laws and customs, and to read up on potential safety concerns, particularly those related to current political and health situations specific to that area. The Department of State website is a good place to start, although it is usually quite conservative in its approach to safety issues. You might also consider looking online for blog posts about “important things to know before visiting (insert destination here)” to see what else pops up.
Be sure to share your itinerary with a trusted friend or family member so they know your whereabouts in case of emergency. Another option is to share your location with them via your phone, so they can keep track of you in real time. Signing up for the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is another good idea. It is a free service for U.S. citizens and nationals who are traveling abroad, which allows them to input information about their trip (where they’re going, how they can be contacted, etc.), so that the State Department can help in emergencies (ranging from finding local attorneys and doctors to fleeing the country in the event of war or natural disasters).
Confirm whether you’ll need a special driving permit
Different countries have different rules and regulations when it comes to driving, and in some cases, the driver’s license issued by your home state doesn’t quite cut it. Depending on where you’re going, you may need an international driving permit instead.
Luckily, they’re easy to get. The Automobile Association of America (AAA) issues permits in their various offices countrywide and by mail for $20; all you need to do is submit a simple application, two passport-type photos, and a photocopy of both sides of your driver’s license. They’re currently valid in more than 150 countries. However, there are some countries, like China and Ethiopia, that don’t consider international licenses valid and instead offer their own temporary driving permit for travelers, so be sure to look up what the rules in your destination are. Websites for U.S. embassies in those countries and the Department of State can help in that matter.
Choose an international phone plan (or plan for a different option once on the ground)
If you want to use your phone internationally, check to see if your current carrier offers international roaming options. If it doesn’t offer international data (or the cost is prohibitively expensive), consider purchasing a prepaid plan from a local carrier at your destination (though if you go that route, make sure your phone is unlocked and compatible with the local network). Often you can purchase local SIM cards at booths in the airport. You can also now buy eSIM cards (a digital version of a SIM card) online from companies like Airalo.
Note that some carriers, like Google Fi, offer automatic international service with no preauthorization or extra packages or SIM cards necessary, at the same price as in your home country.
Another option is to rent a Wi-Fi hot spot (available at phone stores for as little as $7 a day; or Travelers Wifi will mail you one). You could also just leave your phone in airplane mode and use free Wi-Fi when you can get it.
Prepare your home for while you’re away
You know the basics (taking out the trash, setting your thermostat, double-checking that all doors and windows are locked), but there are plenty of other steps to remember. Consider, for instance, unplugging any non-essential appliances to prevent energy waste and reduce the risk of electrical issues. While you may already know to empty your refrigerator of perishable items, do you always sweep and clean up any food crumbs that might otherwise attract pests? Also, if you can’t arrange for someone to care for plants in your absence, consider buying a self-watering device, like those from Cowbell Plant Co.
If you’re going on a longer trip, it’s also a good idea to forward your mail or ask a neighbor to collect it to avoid the appearance of an empty home; you can also arrange for the USPS to hold it. You might want to equip your home with camera security systems (Ring and SwitchBot are solid options), so you can keep an eye on it while you’re away.
Download in-flight entertainment
Nobody wants to be stuck on a long-haul flight without something to keep them occupied. Sure, most airlines offer in-flight movies and TV shows, but there’s a chance the options don’t interest you (or aren’t in your preferred language). On the other hand, many streaming services allow users to download movies and shows for offline watching, so you can ensure you’ll have something you’ll enjoy.
It’s also a good idea to check with your specific airline to see if its in-flight entertainment service is available only through a personal device, which would require you to download an app before boarding (like United).
Pack your bags
What you need to bring on a vacation depends in part on where you go, what the weather will be like, and what activities you have planned. But the following lists are a good starting point.
- Footwear (including hiking boots or water shoes; our editor at large packs this boot on every winter trip)
- Socks (we’re partial to Bombas)
- Layers of cold-weather gear (remember that merino wool holds in heat, wicks away moisture, and is naturally antimicrobial)
- Jackets/outwear (outdoor gear companies are making progress in the plus-size category too)
- Swimwear and other beach necessities
- Hat (for sun or the cold)
- Hotel, flight, tour confirmations
- Insurance card and travel insurance contact number
- Documentation for any medication that might be controlled in other countries (e.g., Singapore has a list)
- Earbuds/noise-canceling headphones
- AirTags if you’re checking a bag
- Travel apps that travel editors use
- Medications (keep prescriptions in their official bottles)
- Compression socks for the flight
- Packing cubes
- Water bottle
- Neck pillow