Domestic vs. International Travel: What’s Different?

Are you planning your first trip abroad? As it exciting as it may seem, if you've never left the comfort of your home country, you might want to make sure you're ready for the various hiccups you might run into along the way. 

While traveling internationally can present more challenges than domestic travel, research and careful planning make them easier to conquer. And, there are so many unique experiences to have outside of your own country and culture, those challenges are often worth dealing with. 

Here are some of the biggest differences you should expect to encounter.

7 Big Challenges When Traveling Abroad

Before we get started, it's important to say that both your personal skillset as well as your destination greatly impact some of these challenges and differences. For example, if you are an American that grew up speaking Spanish at home, a trip to a predominantly Spanish-speaking country will be easier for you than for someone with zero Spanish ability. 

Now, on to the list. 

1. You Need a Passport

It shouldn't come as a surprise, but if you want to leave your home country and take an international trip or vacation, you are going to need to get a passport if you don't have one. If you already have one but have never used it, you will want to check that it has at least six month left before it expires. Otherwise, an immigration officer might deny you entry.

USA passport

Make sure you give yourself plenty of time when applying for your passport too. Both American and Canadian passport processing times can take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks. There are some expedited options available for a fee if you find yourself in a hurry, but the safer play is to plan well ahead and give yourself lots of lead time. 

2. Language Barriers

If you have never ventured to a country that primary speaks a different language than you, let me tell you from experience it can be a bit rough at times. Language barriers though come in a spectrum and they aren't black and white.

For example, you might know a few basic Spanish words that will help you ask about where a bathroom is while visiting a non-touristy area in Costa Rica or you might spend a week in an all-inclusive resort in Bali where all the employees speak English. On the other end of the spectrum you could find yourself asking a Portuguese speaker in a remote area of Brazil for directions or find yourself sitting in a local restaurant in southern Taiwan staring at a Mandarin menu. 

No matter where you end up falling along that spectrum, language barriers can make even the simplest activities, like ordering a cup of coffee, much more difficult. 

3. Culture Shock

For short international and overseas trips, this probably won't be a big deal. Culture shock usually doesn't show its most viscous side until you've been away from home for at least several weeks or longer. That doesn't mean you won't experience a bit of it though. 

Like language barriers, culture shock exists on a spectrum too. While traveling you may suddenly feel uncomfortable with how close people are standing  next to you in a line, which might be the normal distance in their culture but might make you feel unsafe. Or, you might end up not being able to stomach the local cuisine and find yourself longing for a comfort meal from home. 

The worst part of culture shock is that it can sneak up on you from out of nowhere. If it does, just remind yourself one of the reasons you decided to visit a different country was to experience new things. 

4. Transportation Options

One of the biggest mistakes many novice international travelers make is to skip researching the current transportation situation at their destination or destinations of choice. Getting from airport to airport is only a small part of all the traveling you'll most likely be doing. 

tuk tuk in Thailand

Getting a feel for how you will be getting from place to place before you get your boots on the ground will save you a lot of time and many headaches. A couple questions you need to research are - 

  • Is there a public transportation infrastructure and if so is it easy to understand?
  • If there is public transportation, is it safe and reliable?
  • Will you have to rent a car and if so, what are the driving laws and regulations?
  • Are there ride sharing services like Uber, Lyft, and Grab?

Planning on how you are going to get around once you arrive is key to an enjoyable experience overall.  

5. Mobile Phone Plans

You will never understand the true value of having access to the whole of the Internet on demand as much as when you are struggling to find an address in a foreign country. Your smartphone is an amazing travel tool. Unfortunately, it's not going to do you much good without a functioning and affordable data plan. 

Getting a data plan in a foreign country used to be a challenge, but it's getting easier and easier these days. You might be able to have your current provider activate an international data plan for a not-too-expensive surcharge before starting your travels. Some countries have prepaid data merchants selling temporary SIM cards right in the arrival halls of their airports. 

And, if you are a Google Fi user, you should already be good to go without any additional homework as the service will work in a ton of different countries. 

6. Currency and Exchange Rates

When you take a trip within your own country, you don't have to worry too much about access to cash. Your debit card should work in almost any ATM and you always have credit cards as a backup. But, dealing with a different country's financial system can be a major headache. 

If you are from Los Angeles and take a trip to New York City, you are using greenbacks, so you don't need to make any kind of currency conversion. However, say you run out of pocket money and need to use an ATM. Your bank freezes the transaction due to you being out of your normal network. If you make an effort to make withdraws during business hours, you can always call the bank and get it sorted out quickly. 

Now, let's say you are from Los Angeles and you take a trip to Hong Kong. Trying to contact your bank requires either staying up very late or waking up very early due to the time difference. You're much more likely to have an ATM or credit card security problem when traveling overseas as well, even if you call the financial institutions and alert them of your travel plans. 

Aside from all the potential technical issues, you also need to take exchange rates into consideration every time you buy something.  

7. Jet Lag

Piggybacking on the idea of time zones and time differences from the problem above about getting in touch with your bank, jet lag is another potential issue when you go on an international trip. It's not going to be for every trip of course, like if you live in Texas and are taking a trip just over the border. But, if you're flying from NYC to London or from Houston to Singapore you re going to experience the joys of jet lag. 

For first timers, it's going to most likely hit you like a freight train. You will feel fine and then out of nowhere you'll run out of energy. You will feel like the health bar of a character in a video games looks when it goes from 100 to 0. 

You can try to mitigate jet lag with some careful pre-flight planning, but it's almost impossible to completely negate. 

Should I Even Bother Going to a Different Country?

While all of that might seem like too much to take on, in most cases the hurdles are worth the payoff. Additionally, the good news is that once your work your way through some of the challenges, like getting your passport for example, you don't have to revisit them for years. And, many of the others get easier to manage the more experience you get with traveling internationally. 

The benefits of visiting different countries and cultures generally far outweigh the drawbacks like jet lag and culture shock. Furthermore, a little bit of planning goes a long way, and the whole process gets easier with experience. 

Happy travels!