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The Ultimate Pre-Trip Checklist
Here's what I know about travel. Having a pre-trip checklist helps more than you can imagine.
I've travelled to over 60 countries so far - on my own, with a baby, with a toddler, with colleagues and with a husband. On business trips, weekends away, extended sabbaticals and two week holidays. All different, all required detailed preparation.
Over the years, I've learned everything the hard way. I'm naturally a last minute, free spirited kinda girl and that's why I need a comprehensive travel preparation checklist more than anything. If I do get a last minute invitation, I want to be ready to take it. If I am planning a trip of a lifetime, I don't want to mess it up.
This is the only travel preparation checklist you'll ever need.
Don't make my mistakes. Prepare on, my friend!
Mobile Friendly Pre-Trip Checklist to Download
Planning vs Living in the Moment
Once upon a time, I set an alarm 40 minutes after I’d finished packing in order to go to the airport. Then there was the time I arrived in Dublin with no underwear. And four pairs of trousers.
While there is plenty to be said for living in the moment and keeping plans flexible, there are also a lot of good things to be said about having a clean pair of pants.
The adrenaline fades with age: it’s just no longer fun to be careering from one crisis to another.
Fortunately, with age comes experience and after travelling to 60 or so countries, I have improved. My innate loathing of administrative tasks has also led me to find travel tips and tricks that save time and cut out the boring bits, which leaves more time to travel.
Preparing the Preparation List
Start everything early. Apologies if you're reading this too late. Just hop in wherever you can and let's make the most of it, eh? Also, a heads up! If you buy or book anything through these links we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Ta!
Six Months Before a Trip - Part of Everyday Life
Check your passport and visa situation
- Yes, OK, so you've probably realised you have to have one. But have you checked the visa situation? Expiry date? Number of blank pages? Some countries require a certain number of blank pages, or passport validity for up to six months or more and I've seen people turned away at check-in as a result of these very points.
- Leave yourself plenty of time to check the visa situation, too. Some embassies require in-person visits and can hold your passport for weeks at a time for processing. If you are visiting multiple countries on one trip, it could take 6 - 8 weeks to get all the visas you need. Pay close attention to the details: India, for example, requires a different shape "passport photo" than everywhere else.
- Read the small print, fill in the forms meticulously, and don't stress about actually having the passport photo taken.
Write a Comprehensive Travel Packing List
- Write a packing list for everything you think you may need. You can always whittle it down later. But some things take a while to find, buy, arrange and pick up.
- I have a packing list saved as a template on my hard drive. Over the years it has become an all-purpose guide to work trips, wedding trips, family trips, the lot.
- I have also have a separate list for each bag. This sounds OTT when you're young and carefree but becomes essential when you're tired and a parent. One page for hand luggage for babies, one for hand luggage for adults, one for the first suitcase to unpack, one for the second. Remove stress about what goes where for airport security by factoring it into your packing list.
- Each bag has a section for different items: toiletries, clothes, entertainment, medicine, sportswear, electronics etc.
- We have packing lists for several situations, from packing lists for cycling holidays to packing lists for hiking.
Shop Ahead of Time
Yes, you can buy a lot of things at the airport but it does make it more stressful to cram in weeks of shopping while you can hear your flight being called... In particular, focus on...
- Prescription glasses, sunglasses and contact lenses
- Special toiletries for sensitive skin or smaller versions of the brand you love .
- Power banks for phones and other electrical devices.
- Breast pads, pumps, sterilising equipment if you're travelling with a baby. Check out the full list of essential baby gear here (plus what you don't need.)
- Specialist gear.
- Parents - check out toys that make it easier to fly with a toddler. And gifts for children who travel.
Visit a Travel Clinic
- Some vaccines take months to work and may be in short supply. Visit for advice and to buy drugs you may need, such as antimalarials.
- See your doctor anyway if you have complex medical needs. You may need to arrange for extra medication, sharps boxes and so on.
- Check the latest guidelines if you are or think you may be pregnant. There are health risks you should be aware of before you book.
Remember Your Normal Bills
- Do you have enough money in your account to meet your ongoing bills while you're away? It's stressful dealing with utility companies and overdrafts on the road. Sort it before you go.
- Also, look into the credit card rates vs debit card rates before you go so that you don't get hit with nasty charges. I swear by the website Money Saving Expert for keeping up to date with this.
- I also love the travel currency card Monzo for similar reasons. Ration your credit cards. Don't take them all with you but do take one as a spare. You MAY need to contact credit card companies before you travel. Different companies have different policies on this but it's worth looking into before you leave home.
Book or Cancel Appointments
- Do you need to book pets into kennels?
- Find someone to water the plants?
- Let your child's nursery know they won't be coming?
- Arrange someone else to do the liftshare or car pool?
- Draw up a plan for how your colleagues will manage your work while you're away. If you work for yourself, think through how you will manage that.
Planning a Road Trip?
We love road trips and even have a whole section for that! Check out the road trip essentials guide here.
Plan your Itinerary
Depending on what's going on, you may not need to do much of this. If you're at work or on a tour, most things are taken care of. But if you're doing it all from scratch then please promise me you'll at least do this: check for any major sporting or corporate events in the area for the dates you have in mind. You can work around most things. But you don't want to end up feeling like Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem because everyone else got organised before you.
Book Airport Transfers and Parking in Advance to Save
These can be completed at the last minute so it's not a disaster if you forget. Buy you can often arrange much better deals if you book in advance. Also, some parking spaces or concierge services do fill up.
Travel Guides and Books or eBooks?
I still love a paper travel book for trip planning. Lonely Planet offer books in paper and eBook format so that you can enjoy the feel of paper at home but then go without the weight when on the road.
A Month Before the Trip
Write a Leaving the House List
Write it out in advance so that you have time to get things done.
I have a page for things that need to be done around the house if you're going to be leaving it empty.
Things like empty the bins, check the doors and windows are locked, let the neighbours know and so on.
In the old days, this would have included cancel the newspapers and milk delivery but, you know. It's the 21st century now. Set up the thermostat so you can control it remotely from your phone instead?!
Download the Best Travel Apps
These days, we have technology. Let's use it! Here is my list of what I believe to be the best travel apps. Few on my list are travel apps in the niche sense but they’re all fantastic and I use them when I travel all the time. And, as a bonus point, even though there are seven of them, they fit onto a single phone.
Change Foreign Currency in Advance
When you’re travelling, extra charges on your credit and debit card frustrate. To get around this problem, pre-order your cash before you travel.
The Ultimate Travel Tip: The Packing Drawer
You know all those things you ONLY use when travelling? Plug adapters, money belts, passports, suncream ;-)
Why put them away all over the house?
Chuck them in the travel drawer. Easy to find when packing. Even easier to unpack into – just tip the contents of your suitcase out and you’re done. Plus, you’re more likely to remember all those annoying little things you otherwise forget (bag for laundry, cases for glasses, blister protection. Stuff.)
Sketch out What to Wear
One of the best tips I learned from someone else, was to sketch out your itinerary and note down an outfit for each occasion. You don't have to stick to this rigid way of wearing, but it does help you think about what you'll need and when.
Think logically about what you will realistically wear and what is going to be practical. If you're doing anything "new" for you, such as heading on a cycling or walking holiday or dipping down below minus 27 degrees, it helps to check out a specialist list first.
One year, I learned that sunscreen itself freezes. A handy tip for daylight excursions in the blisteringly cold Arctic Circle.
Buy the Right Suitcase for the Job
Make sure that your luggage works not only for the flight but also for the circumstances you'll find on the ground. Will you have transfers? Need to roll your suitcase across rough ground or squeeze it into a small plane? Check the airline requirements and think about whether you'll have to carry your luggage for any distance at all or lift it on or off trains. See our guide to finding the best cabin luggage for you.
Arrange Travel Insurance Ahead of Time
Yes, I used to do this en route to the airport. But now I'm (ahem) older, the medical questionnaire takes longer. Plus, if you travel more than once or twice a year it probably makes sense for you to take out an annual travel insurance policy.
Hire a Virtual Assistant
Hm, so OK, you can’t stretch to a full time PA just yet. Opt for a part time virtual one instead. There are plenty of different options, with some directed squarely at travel, but the best one I’ve found is the more generic Fancy Hands.
You purchase a number of tasks in advance and then ask the online team to do anything you like (within reason.) You can submit requests on your phone or online and assistants are available 24-7. They can place phone calls for you and spend up to around 50USD on your behalf.
I use them for preliminary hotel research, directions to and from the airport, calling a hotel if I’m going to be late, asking them to sort out alternative arrangements if a flight is delayed and so on.
Plus, if you sign up over here, I get a small amount of money and you get 50% off your first month. Everyone’s happy :-)
A Week Before Your Trip
“Lost Luggage” proof your packing
There isn't much you can do to stop an airline losing your luggage. There ARE things you can do to prevent that from spoiling your trip. For some destinations, it's not that important. But if you have flight connections or are travelling to somewhere remote or with a really different climate then check out this article on packing your carry on essentials.
Have all your travel documents in a safe place
A good old plastic folder works well but I've also got a zip-around leather one that has kept me company over the years.
And, obviously, have electronic backups as well. Of tickets, accommodation, passport, insurance, visas... everything.
Tell Your Neighbours
Ask them to look out for your post and any suspicious noises coming from within your home...
Check Your Phone
Roaming charges can be terrifying. I once was charged over $500 in Japan for someone calling me. It was a wrong number. I'm still bitter! While that's quite an extreme example, cell phone and mobile charges can be huge.
At the time of writing, EU citizens can use their phones in EU countries. For everyone else, check the fine print. You may be better off buying a SIM card on the ground. In which case, research this first. Some countries need photo ID and your phone should be unlocked. The unlocking part is easier to arrange when you're in your home country and can speak the language.
What About Packing Light?
Everyone says you should pack light, don't they, and in general, it's good advice.
Travel is a lot less stressful if you can be nimble - hopping on and off transfers, fitting luggage easily into an overhead locker. Not having backache or needing to ask for help.
And it's stressful to fumble about with weight limits and repacking on the airport floor. Life should have more dignity, right?!
That said, sometimes it's stressful to go without the things you need. If you have allergies or specialist dietary requirements then it can sometimes be easier to just pack some of the food you need. If your child will be happier with a certain (large) stuffed toy then just bring it along.
Pack light where you can. But don't overdo it.
The Night Before
On the night before your trip, hand write a list and put it by the front door for all those last minute things you need to do.
- Turn down the heating
- Pick up your phone and charger
- Empty the bins
- Close all the windows
- Set an alarm (clock to wake you up and a security alarm if you have one)
At the Airport
Listen to the advice and get there at least two hours before you fly. There's always someone stressed at check-in, at security, at the car park before you even start all that...
Leave plenty of time and then if things go wrong (or you realise you left the car seat in the car, the tickets on the bus, your wallet in the bar...?!) there's still time to fix things. Not that things like that have ever happened to me or anyone I know. Oh no.
Add a Little Luxury
Priority queues at security, first class on the train. Lounge access in the terminal. None of these are essential but they can each go a long way to get you out of the hustle and bustle and into a calm environment where people are ready to help you.
Even if you're not flying business class, you may find different ways to access these services.
Increasingly, airports are offering pay-per-use lounges and pay-per-access priority lanes at security.
Hertz, for example, has a priority car pick up Gold Membership scheme which is free to join. You just need to sign up in advance. Look out for offers like this (by subscribing, perhaps ;-) )and piece by piece you'll have stress free travel.
If those aren't an option, then look for a swish restaurant at the airport, particularly on higher floors or away from the main drag. Most people avoid them (because they don't have the time) and so they're frequently quieter, calmer and a whole lot more pleasant!
Find your gate before it's too late
I've been stung by this more than once. Your boarding pass says "Gate 5" and your favourite coffee shop is at Gate 4. So you make yourself comfortable, settle in. Read a book, check instagram, dream of doing nothing. Whatever.
But when boarding time approaches, you realise that Gate 5 is actually in a separate terminal hidden under a police-guarded tunnel of menace with queues bigger than discount shops on Boxing Day. Argh!
Cast an eye on your gate before you settle anywhere. Airport navigation is not always as easy as it seems.
The Master Travel Preparation Checklist and How It Works
Some people write lists every time they do something but that wastes time as you write out the list .
On the other hand, not having a list means that you are using up precious brain energy in remembering a whole load of dull information. OR you forget said information (and, ultimately, pants.)
The solution? A master list, a trick picked up from my surgical days.
To get a patient ready for theatre, lots of fairly trivial things need to take place. Patients need to wear ID tags, complete consent forms, have their limbs marked, stay nil by mouth and so on. If any one of these is wrong then big problems result.
So, hospitals have a master checklist stapled to the front of a patient’s notes. When someone completes the consent form, they add the paperwork to the folder and tick the task off the list.
So that’s what I do with big trips.
I have a master travel checklist saved on my computer and print out a few copies every now and then.
Every time a new trip comes up, it’s time for a new plastic folder and a pre-printed list.
The master list sits at the front and I can tell at a glance what needs to be done. I don’t have to rifle through everything, trying to remember whether or not I have the car parking details or the check in time or the booking confirmation or whatever.
The task is done, the paperwork goes into the folder, the master sheet is ticked, ta-dah!
It also reminds me of things I otherwise forget (like transfers from the airport, online check-in deadlines etc.)