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11 Mistakes First Time International Travelers Make & How to Avoid Them

Even the most seasoned traveler makes mistakes now and then. Flights get missed, tickets lost, and advance reservations are forgotten. It’s important to remember that everyone makes mistakes, even if we’ve taken dozens of epic international trips. Every trip I take teaches me something new – about the world and myself.

Despite this, it’s best to avoid travel mistakes. They’re inconvenient, stressful, and often costly.

In this article, you’ll learn, based on my (many) travel mistakes, exactly how to avoid some of the most common travel errors.

1. Neglecting basic self-care

Often, travelers get caught up in the experience of travel and neglect the most basic aspects of self-care: sleeping enough, drinking enough water, and taking in enough energy via food to fuel our busy travel days.

When we’re traveling, basic self-care takes more work. You might have to miss out on a travel experience in order to get the hour or two extra sleep your body is craving. Similarly, drinking enough water traveling might require bringing along your own filter or lugging multiple bottles of bottled water along for a day trip.

Even though these things can be frustrating and time-consuming during a big trip, it’s a big mistake for first-time international travelers to prioritize the travel experience over self-care. Remember, eating, drinking, and sleeping makes it possible for us to create incredible travel experiences.

2. Not understanding ticket validation

a more concrete example of a mistake new travelers make when traveling internationally is a misunderstanding of how public transportation operates. Because Americans are used to driving everywhere, it can be a steep learning curve to figure out public transportation in another country.

However, it is wise to learn about the public transportation system where you’ll be visiting. In many cases, purchasing a ticket is not enough to board and ride buses, streetcars, or subways in Europe. You’ll need to understand how and when to “validate” the ticket, which is required to avoid fines.

💡 Hint: Some countries in Europe are notorious for finding tourists for using public transportation properly. If you look a little lost and bewildered, you’re an easy target for fair enforcement to issue an expensive citation that you’ll have to deal with.

Images of a ticket vending machine at the light rail station at seattle's seatac airport.
Understanding how to buy and use public transportation passes is key.

3. Worrying too much

Worry can eat away at the enjoyment of the travel experience. Worrying about time, money, and safety can add up to major anxiety that drains the joy out of travel.

While being alert, aware, and informed can help us have smoother travel, constant anxiety doesn’t add anything to the travel experience. If you find yourself overwhelmed by stress, consider getting more support as you travel. For example, solo travelers who struggle with intense anxiety while traveling may benefit from traveling with a best friend or exploring small group travel for young adults.

4. Forgetting to research visa requirements

One common mistake first-time international travelers make is forgetting to check visa requirements. If you’re an American traveler, you’re probably unfamiliar with the fact that most travelers worldwide have to apply to enter a country before they can travel. With an American passport, Americans can generally cross the border without pre-arranging travel – but that’s not always true. Before traveling to a country, check online to find out the visa requirements and confirm that you will be able to visit.

General information about a country’s visa requirements can be helpful, as found in directories of visa requirements, but about 3 months before leaving you should check the Customs & Immigration website for your destination country (or countries) to doublecheck your information is accurate and current.

5. Not double-checking things

I learned early in solo travel to always glance over my shoulder and check the area I just left for any forgotten belongings. Once, it was my earbuds on a seawall in Zadar, Croatia. Another time it was my travel journal on the tabletop of a café in Florence.

Both physically checking spaces and digitally reviewing an itinerary help avoid costly travel mistakes. It takes 15 seconds to double-check the pocket on the back of an airline seat or walk through your hotel room one last time after everything is packed. These seconds can save hours of backtracking if a critical item is left behind by mistake.

It’s especially easy to forget things when checking out of a hostel or Airbnb. Before leaving a place, make a mental (or literal!) checklist of everything you need to pack.

Colorful pouches packed inside a suitcase.
Colorful pouches are one tool I use to not forget essentials.

6. Not understanding currency exchange

probably the most common mistake that first-time international travelers make is not understanding how predatory currency exchange services are.

Although you’ll see money-changing booths that boldly advertise “no commissions” or “no fees,” these businesses profit by offering an exchange rate significantly different from the actual exchange rate. For example, when the actual exchange rate for US dollars to Mexican pesos is 1 US dollar to 20 Mexican pesos, money-changing booths might only give you 16 Mexican Pesos for each 1 USD. By pocketing the difference, they more than make up for their lack of “fees.”

💡 Hint: Avoid predatory currency exchange by using bank-owned ATMs in your destination country. Simply find a bank branch, use the ATM in the lobby, and select to withdraw funds “in local currency,” a setting that then allows your bank to assign the exchange rate, which is usually more favorable.

7. Making careless accidental mistakes

International travel requires that we be hypervigilant about our surroundings, nearly 24/7. This is really exhausting, and many of us slip up. Whether leaving essential medication on a countertop at home as we dash out the door to the airport or setting our bag down for a moment of distraction and finding it gone, all of us will eventually experience major travel inconveniences that could’ve been avoided.

The truth is, that’s life. Good travel requires that we grant ourselves permission to make mistakes and that we are prepared to bounce back and still enjoy our trip. Strategies like setting reminders, using packing lists, and figuring out ways to make ourselves less likely to be targeted for crime can all help avoid – but never entirely prevent – costly travel mistakes.

8. Over packing to excess

We are all guilty of making the travel mistake of packing a few more things in our luggage that is probably healthy for its zipper. But if you’ve ever dramatically overpacked – or traveled with someone who does – you know how big of a mistake it is to excessively overpack for travel.

Instead, consider a minimalist packing list. Washing clothes in the sink is easy and takes only a few minutes. What cannot be re-worn for the whole trip (like jeans or layered tops) can often be clean through a few minutes of handwashing. This can keep luggage lighter and us as travelers free to explore.

9. Not sleeping enough

I know I touched on this in the section about the mistake of not doing enough self-care during travel, but sleep is important enough to talk about again. Many new travelers think of travel as a sprint rather than a multi-phased marathon. On our first international trip, we often want to use every single moment of every single day to experience life in a destination, but experienced travelers know that it’s important (actually, totally essential!) To take time to rest.

Rest days are an essential part of every travel itinerary I make. I give myself space and flexibility so that if I need to sleep 12 hours after that long hike, I can sleep 12 hours. If, after seeing three cities in seven days, not leaving my Airbnb for an entire day feels like what my body needs, that’s what I do.

Movies and TV shows about travel don’t capture the fact that normal to spend an evening in, dedicate an entire afternoon to doing laundry in your hostel, or spend the better part of a day in a Parisian café catching up on emails and sketching in your travel journal. Savvy travelers know these experiences are as much ” real” travel as sightseeing and visiting monuments.

Young asian woman with a map.

8. Not scheduling enough time to get from place to place

I had teachers in school who repeated, “if you’re on time, you’re already behind schedule”. At the time, this adage infuriated me (and still kind of does, if I’m honest), but it’s true when it comes to travel.

It never hurts to arrive early when you are traveling. Whether it’s a bus, train, or flight, it’s a good idea always to add a buffer. Even if you end up waiting on your train, trust me, it’s better to be bored and waiting for a train than running through a train station in a panic!

10. Not staying long enough in a destination

Rough guides for “24 hours in….” Are splashed across travel blogs and vlogs everywhere. There are actually few locations where 24 hours is enough even to get a rough sense of a destination.

Many travelers don’t consider the time spent getting somewhere, finding a hotel or hostel, and returning to the train station. Often, that 24 hours quickly turns into having only six or eight hours to see a city.

When I planned my month-long trip to Romania, I started in Vienna, Austria. Because this wasn’t the focal point of my trip, I thought one day would certainly be enough to see the city. But, as life does, my expectations were interrupted when- to put it delicately- I had the worst upset stomach of my life! I had 24 hours in Vienna, and I spent 8 of them puking and 12 sleeping! Vienna is definitely on my list to revisit.

Whenever possible, travel slowly. Travel experiences seem to blossom when we have time to take it all in at a pace that feels sustainable.

11. Spending your vacation standing in line

As a local living in the Pike Place Market neighborhood in Seattle, it kills me every time I walk through Pike Place and see hundreds of travelers standing in line for Starbucks. What they don’t know is that within a four-block radius are some of the best coffee shops in the country – shops that feature incredible views, history, and award-winning latte art.

This experience taught me that what’s popular isn’t always what’s best (pro tip, if you ever find yourself in Pike Place and want the iconic photo, grab Starbucks on the way to the market, get your pic, and keep exploring.)

When something is really popular, often the crowds can ruin it. What’s more, that level of popularity is often due more to an outstanding marketing campaign than to the actual attraction.

If you find yourself in lines, ask yourself how to avoid them. Whether it’s visiting an alternative destination, rescheduling your trip for a less popular time, or forking out the premium price to skip the line – often it’s a good move.

Final thoughts on mistakes travelers make

making mistakes is a part of life. And since life is part of travel, mistakes are also part of travel. They can be uncomfortable, expensive, and stressful but aren’t the end of the world. Knowing how to avoid common travel mistakes and bounce back are keys to successful, memorable travel experiences.