Select the Destination
First things first, you need to figure out where you want to go when planning a trip. It’s possible that you already have a destination in mind or several that you want to consider for an upcoming vacation. If you are struggling to select a destination, create a spreadsheet to compare things like activities, sightseeing, cost, the time needed in a location, hotel, and whatever else you want to include in your trip.
Resources to Help You Decide
Today, you can find out almost anything about any place in the world via the internet. I suggest you begin by searching the destination and learn about the location, weather, currency, culture, etc. Another great resource is Pinterest, where you can find tons of bloggers sharing their travel stories and experiences. YouTube is also another resource to learn from vloggers who will guide you and give you a great visual of the destination.
Things to Consider When Deciding on a Destination
After researching and finding the destination(s) that inspires you, it is time to plan your vacation. Here are some topics to consider when finalizing your decision:
- Style of Travel: Do you want to be at an all-inclusive resort or a tour group? Do you want to be in the city, wandering the countryside, or floating on a cruise ship? Do you want to be near the beach or in the woods up in the mountains? Do you want it to be more sport/activity driven or sightseeing/tours?
- Schedule: Do you have to travel during a specific time of the year due to school, kids, work-related deadlines? Is the schedule in conflict with holidays, religious celebrations, or seasonal changes that would cause a problem for your trip?
- Weather: What kind of weather are you expecting on your vacation, and what will the temperature be during your visit? If traveling off-season, are you prepared for the weather conditions that could arise during that time of year?
- Expense: Make sure you have looked at the cost of meals, transportation costs, as well as any other fees you will be charged while visiting. Make sure that those additional expenses are within your budget.
- Destination: Do you want to be in one city, making day trips from that location, or do you want to move around?
- Safety: From my own experiences, sometimes the country’s safety can be overdramatized or politicized, so do your thorough research! Visit travel forums or Facebook travel groups to learn from their experiences. Once you understand how safe your destination is, take the necessary precautions to stay safe.
Book Your Flight
Once you have decided on the location, it is time to book the flight. I rank this next step as the most essential step in moving forward in your travel plan because your destination and the time of year you plan to travel will affect the airfare. Making this next step will give you the motivation to continue moving forward to planning your vacation.
Depending on where you are traveling will depend on how far in advance you will need to book to get the best deal. A general rule is to book as far ahead as you can when traveling during peak season (when most people travel to the location). This is the same for holidays! Traveling during the off-season, you have more flexibility and can go on shorter notice to get a reasonable rate on airfare.
Visit the link from CheapAir.com to learn how far an advance to book for international flights.
RESOURCES FOR BOOKING FLIGHTS
When looking for a flight, I typically use one (or several) of the following sites to find the best fares:
- Skyscanner – This app helps you find cheap flight deals around the world by comparing ticket prices. It also recommends the best times to travel to specific destinations based on ticket pricing.
- Kayak – Kayak app searches hundreds of travel sites to show you information that best fits your desired destination by providing flights, hotels, rental cars, and vacation packages. The app can be set up to notify you when specials occur for a specific destination.
- CheapOAir – With over 18 million discounted flight deals, low airfares, and 84,000 discounted hotel rates within every region in the world. The app also offers a car rental service, as well as discounted vacation packages, are available.
TIPS FOR SAVING MONEY ON FLIGHTS
Email Flight Deals: I subscribe to two services that frequently send me flight deals. The deals typically don’t last long, but if you’re open to buying on short notice, you will save quite a bit of money. These sites are:
- TravelZoo – you can opt-in for free email notifications about last minute deals to travel.
- Orbitz – emails can be scheduled to be sent to you for last minute specials, specific flight schedule, and much more.
- All the flight apps listed above will also be able to email you notifications for great deals.
Rewards Travel: Many credit cards offer reward travel when using their card. I have found to pay your regular bills with a reward credit card is a fast and easy way to rack up rewards to use for travel. (Make sure you pay off your credit card bill in full at the end of each monthly cycle).
CREATE A TRAVEL BUDGET
A vacation is designed to free your mind of work and enjoy new cultures and scenery without worries. No one wants to return home from a vacation and have a pile of debt from the trip. If you create a budget before embarking on your vacation, it will help you stay on target and make the experience much more enjoyable.
Your budget needs to include these key categories:
- Transportation: Flights, Trains, Rental Cars, Taxis – Anything that gets you from point A to point B.
- Lodging: Hotels, B&Bs, Campers, etc.
- Activities / Entertainment Includes things like tours and excursions. Essentially, the cost of having fun.
- Food: You have got to eat!
- Shopping: A completely optional category – but I know someone out there likes to shop!
- Other: Anything miscellaneous expenses not already covered, such as ATM fees.
A great resource to help you create a travel budget is to search the (name of the city) daily budget on the internet, and you will find budget guides to help you prepare for the trip. Once you know the cost of airline tickets, car rental, hotel, and ticket entrance fees, add them to the budget. Things that you are not clear on, such as dining, shopping, and other miscellaneous items, would be good to review on the internet to get an estimation.
CUTTING UNNECESSARY EXPENSES
Many travelers don’t think about cost when it comes to getting cash from an ATM or not having a credit card used in foreign countries without extra fees. Also, being aware of cell phone charges and internet fees can be very costly while traveling.
OTHER TRANSPORTATION RESOURCES
Time is precious when on vacation. Depending on how far apart the cities you to visit will depend on the best form of transportation. Some may be cheaper but absorb much of your time getting there!
Options to consider:
Plane: This is the best option if your vacation includes places that are not located close to each other. When in a foreign country, utilizing local budget airlines will be cheaper and offer better schedules.
Train: Traveling by train is a great option to relax and enjoy the scenery. Depending on the frequency of stops along the way and how much time you have to travel, train rides are a great way to experience other destinations.
Rental Cars: I prefer traveling by car as it gives you the option to stop along the way and have your schedule. It can be scary to drive in some countries as they have different driving rules/styles. Make sure to get an international driver’s license to visit AAA). Booking.com is a good resource for finding deals on car rentals.
PLAN DAILY SCHEDULE
Arrival and Departure
You are exhausted from your travels and want to get to your hotel to unwind. Make sure to plan how you will get from the airport to your hotel by rental car, taxi, or public transportation.
If you plan to drive, make sure you have a map app or some form of directions that can guide you to your destination. Going by taxi, you will need the address to give to the driver. If traveling by train or bus, you will need to know which train schedule/bus route to take.
This plan also applies to your departure flight.
DAILY ACTIVITY SCHEDULE
Planning out the daily schedule for a long trip can seem challenging. Create a vacation daily schedule spreadsheet and enter those activities with a specific date and time requirement. Then schedule in other activities you would like to do on your trip.
Make sure you give yourself the recommended time you will need to complete that activity. Also, don’t forget to give yourself time to travel to the site of such action. Make sure to give yourself a buffer just if you have traffic issues that may take you longer than it should. This will help prepare you and avoid missing out on anything.
TripAdvisor has some excellent suggested travel guides. The guides will review the sight and give you approximate times you will spend at that location.
A tool I find helpful is Google My Map. I have discovered with this app, you can build your itinerary, and it is easy to access from your phone. This tool’s beauty is that it can be used to determine locations, driving distance and times, public transportation, walking distance, and notes can be left for each pin you make and images.
A few additional tips:
- Build-in Leisure Time: This is time that you can use just to get lost in your new surroundings or go shopping.
- Don’t Plan too Much: I tend to over plan and like to be on the move, but if you are new to traveling abroad or don’t want to be on the go, I recommend no more than 1-2 scheduled activities each day. If you are short on time, you may not avoid it, but try your best.
USING PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
If you plan to use public transportation, download a map of their system to your phone or print one out. Most metro/bus maps can be easily downloaded via the App Store. Know which metro or bus stops will take you to where you need to go to avoid last-minute frustrations.
RESEARCH COUNTRY ENTRY REQUIREMENTS
(only applies for international travelers)
Right after you get the transportation booked, the next thing on the list needs to be finding out what requirements are required to enter the country you plan to visit. This step is especially important.
Do you have a passport? If not, here is information for travelers in the United States.
Where to find country requirement information? – To understand what is required for entry into the country that you will visit, visit the Country Information page if you are a US citizen. If you are not, visit your government’s website, which provides country information, OR go to the embassy website of the country you plan to visit.
Things that you should pay attention to are things like:
- How many months before the expiration date do you need to have available on your passport?
- How many blank pages are required in your passport?
- In addition to the passport, is a VISA required?
- What types of vaccines are required for entry?
Depending on your style of traveling, the number of people in your party, and what activities you plan to do once you arrive should be determining factors in deciding where you should stay.
Remember, time is precious, so spending a lot of your time traveling to the things you want to see and do is a waste of your vacation.
The best way to go about deciding on accommodations is by looking at the location on Google Maps and pinning your sights and activities you want to explore. If you like being in a quiet neighborhood, or the city center, or close to a train station are different factors that can determine where to book your accommodations.
There are different stay options, and those available will vary based on where you travel. Some examples include:
Resorts Hotels Guesthouses Riads
Hostels B&B’s Apartments Campsites
Make sure to consider your travel style and what your overall desire is to do while on vacation. Also, keep in mind the amount of time you have and your travel budget. If you are traveling alone, also consider safety and ease of getting around.
Things I find most valuable are distance to places I want to visit, in-room amenities (refrigerator, microwave), daily breakfast, and cleanliness. Read the reviews!
Great places to check for accommodations are:
Airbnb: I prefer to stay in private apartments/houses when I travel. There are great options for every budget on this site.
Booking.com: I like this site because you can find a wide range of hotel accommodations. Each listing has comprehensive details on the hotel, ratings, information on nearby attractions, and reviews.
Hotels.com is another excellent resource of hotel accommodation.
Book your stay at least two months before you travel. If you are traveling during the busy season or a special event (e.g., festival), you may need to book 4-6 months in advance.
Now it’s time to think about what museums you want to see, events you want to attend, and/or activities you want to do on your vacation.
Whether you are on a low budget or not, I recommend taking advantage of the free options available in the city you plan to visit. Many offer free walking tours. All you need to do is search the internet for the location and request free tours, and I am sure something will pop up on the screen.
Other free options to consider are:
- Rick Steves’ Audio Tours: You can access the tours on his site or app. These walking tours are available for locations in Europe and focus on city walks and museum tours. (FREE)
- NomadicMatt has a list of great options for tour companies to search for in Europe.
- CityPass: City passes are a great cost-saving option, as they provide discounts (or cover admission) for popular city attractions. These passes are not free, but the deals provided do make them worth it. Only useful in the United States. Similar city passes are RomaPass (Rome) & the Lisboa Card (Lisbon).
My favorite tools for booking activities are:
- GetYourGuide. This tool serves as a mediator between you and the travel agencies and lets you cancel as late as one day before your scheduled event.
- TripAdvisor is a great resource to find incredible deals on tours and read reviews of others’ experiences.
- Groupon offers discounts to events, theme parks, and other sightseeing venues. Also, another great place to search for restaurant and hotel deals.
You should book your activities for about a month out, especially if the activity is a popular one. Some offers (depending on the company) can be booked last minute, and others will need a couple of weeks in advance.
I would not spend too much time researching where to eat, but I would get an idea of the cost of eating out and possibly looking up some highly recommended restaurants. Here are some tools I use in selecting a place to enjoy a good meal:
- An excellent guide in where to eat is TripAdvisor. The app will identify restaurants near you, budget range, type of food, and allow you access to menus.
- TheFork is a useful resource for making restaurant reservations in Europe. You can browse different restaurants by category and make reservations. You may also discover some restaurants offering discounts through the app.
- OpenTable (used in the USA) is like TheFork.
- Pinterest offers many blogs written by travel bloggers who have visited unique places and recommend restaurants to visit. I like to review these pins to get a visual of the restaurant and meals prepared.
When deciding on a particular place you want to dine in, pay attention to whether or not reservations are required. If they are needed, book them at least two days in advance.
SHARE YOUR TRIP DETAILS
As you book flights, lodging, and activities, it is essential that you document everything. Keep track of the addresses and contact information of where you will be staying, as well as meeting points for any tours/excursions/reservations that you have scheduled.
Also, share your trip details with your family and friends with all the essential information in case of an emergency. Although we don’t like to think about the negative things that can happen on vacation, it is always smart to share details with someone back home. Carry with you the person’s contact information from back home while traveling just if you cannot communicate and someone can reach them in case of an emergency.
LEARN CULTURAL NORMS
Before you head to a new place, do your research! Learn about the cultural norms in the site that you are visiting. This can save you from awkward situations (or worse). Things to consider are:
- Greeting styles – In parts of Europe and the Middle East, it is custom to kiss (both cheeks).
- Language – What is the official language of the country? How readily do the natives speak English? Even if English is spoken widely, I recommend using Google Translate app to help communicate with locals. Learn a few basic phrases to show respect to that country.
- Food – Not accepting to drink tea could be offensive. Learn what foods are common in that country and what customs are shared to show signs of friendship. Be aware that in some culture’s alcohol is forbidden.
- Queuing – I had to learn this the hard way, but, in some cultures, standing in order and waiting your turn is not customary, so don’t freak out when they walk up in front of the line.
- Personal Space – Is personal space protected or ignored? As Americans, you may have to get over your expectations of a personal bubble in many places.
- Dress – In countries where religion is important and observed, being covered is required by females. Is it appropriate to show your legs/arms in public?
Please do your homework and be considerate of other countries’ cultures and traditions. Be open as you travel. Just because things are different somewhere else does not mean they are wrong. It’s just different!
Don’t travel without getting travel insurance. Make sure the insurance covers any unexpected circumstances such as medical emergencies, stolen documentation, and trip cancellation. You will be protected and have peace of mind while you travel! Note: Due to the pandemic, make sure COVID is a part of the medical coverage.
PACKING FOR THE TRIP
I get excited when it is time to start packing for the trip. I usually start a week before my departure date so that I have time to locate and purchase items I need for the trip. Here are things to consider when organizing your suitcase:
- Weather –The weather will determine what clothing you bring with you as well as necessary accessories.
- Cultural Norms –. Keep this in mind as you put your clothes together.
- Trip Duration – If you are traveling for a week or longer, you need to pack items that you can mix and match. And try only to pack what you can easily wash.
- Packing Light: Packing light is so important, especially if you are going to be moving around from city to city. Try to pack items that can be worn more than once. Give yourself some space in your luggage if you plan on bringing souvenirs from your trip.
- Organization: There are many videos on YouTube on how to pack your suitcase efficiently. I have fallen in love with packing cubes, which allow you to pack more items in smaller spaces.
- Carry-On Bag: For overseas travels, I have a few crucial items I like to carry-on the plane, such as snacks, chargers, laptop, books, hygiene items, and important documents. Make sure to check the weight requirement and size to bring a piece of carry-on luggage.
Congrats! – you now know how to plan a trip! I know this blog seems long and has a lot of information, but my goal is to give you all the tools you need to plan a great vacation.
Now get busy planning and having a great vacation!