While I love traveling, I have a love-hate relationship with trip planning. Over the years, it seems like no matter who my travel companion is, I always end up being the one who plans the trip. The good thing about this is that I get to pick what we see, where we go, and how long we go, but the bad thing about this is that I am the one that picks what we see, where we go, and how long we go. It is a lot of responsibility! Lucky for me, my travel companions are super chill and no-fuss friends and relatives of mine who share similar travel philosophies with me: we all want to see the must-sees but we are down to mix in off-the-beaten path attractions, try the local foods and throw in a night of fine dining for good measure. I’ve done the backpacking thing. If I can live it up now, I want to!
Anyway, given all the years of travel planning, it’s almost become second nature for me to throw an itinerary together. But for those who never travel, the thought of planning any trip could be daunting. In fact, people have often asked me how I do it, so for those who need a bit of help, here’s my quick guide to trip planning:
1) Put a high-level plan together. The high-level plan is just a list of cities you’re visiting and how long you’ll spend in each one.
- Research safety precautions and entry requirements for the country you’re going to by visiting Travel.State.Gov to make sure you’re actually allowed to enter the country and it’s safe to be there right now!
- If your destination is to see the main sights in a country, google for tour companies that offer tours to that country. There are tons of tour companies that offer multi-day tours all over a country. If you look at their itineraries, you can quickly get a sense of what the major cities and attractions are as well as how many days you need to see the highlights. Then adjust the number of days based on your travel style.
- If your destination is a city, look up the city in Frommers.com. Frommers offers a section called “Suggested Itineraries” that tells you what you can do in 1 day, 2 days, or 3 days. What I love about this is that it basically prioritizes the overwhelming list of attractions for you so that you can make sure you give yourself enough time to see the “must sees”. Then adjust the number of days based on your travel style.
2) Book flights as soon as you know your high-level plan. Airfares fluctuate up and down but mostly they go up. It’s better to buy your ticket as soon as you are sure you’re going and how long you’ll be there.
- There are tons of travel sites out there, but I always start with Kayak.com. I like Kayak because it gives me results from the airlines as well as from other travel sites (Priceline, Expedia, Travelocity, etc.). I also like Kayak because once I pick my flight, I am directed to the travel site that offers that price directly (often directly to the airline’s site) and I’m not charged a “service fee” for using Kayak. One thing to note is that Kayak doesn’t search for all discount carriers… which is why I said I always start with Kayak.com (I may not end there).
3) Book hotels. Finding the right hotel is often an art and definitely takes a bit of research. Some hotels offer early bird rates, however, so it is worth it to take care of this early if you want to lock in some of the best deals.
- I usually go to two sources to get a sense of what hotels to book: TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet. I like TripAdvisor because I can quickly sort through the reviews to see pictures that previous guests have taken as well as read what others liked about a place and (more importantly) what they hated about the place. I can also get a ranking of the hotel options in the city as well as a quick idea of what the average costs are for a hotel. That said, I’ve got a whole philosophy on how to read through TripAdvisor hotel ratings, but I will save that for another day (maybe an “Intermediate’s Guide to Trip Planning”?). For beginners though, this is a good place to start to get an idea of what options are out there.
- I also recommend flipping through a Lonely Planet guide since it lists budget accommodations as well as some higher end accommodations that are worth the splurge. I can’t say I’ve been impressed with all the budget accommodations listed, but the ones that they’ve indicated as a “top choice” are worth looking into!
4) Plan all the nitty-gritty details. Depending on the type of traveler you are, this step could be non-existent (if you’re the type that prefers to travel without plans) or it could be the most time-consuming (if you’re the type that needs to plan things down to the hour). In any case, it involves some research. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Do your research on airport transportation options to/from the hotel! While some tour companies and hotels offer pre-paid transportation, it could be cheaper to take public transportation or catch a taxi (and oftentimes it is).
- To tour or not to tour? While I prefer seeing sites on my own, I sign up for tours: 1) if I’m short on time and want to pack in as much as I can, 2) if it doesn’t seem safe to venture out alone, 3) if public transportation options are limited, or 4) if I find really unique tours that I wouldn’t be able to do on my own (think: dining with a local family, a private shopping tour, a photography tour). A couple of sites where I’ve come across unique tours are Intrepid Travel and Viator.
- Know the exchange rates. While Google converts exchange rates directly in its search box, it has been wrong before (what a mess that caused!) so I recommend using a currency converter site like XE.
- Get a guide book. I “grew up” (at least from a traveling perspective) using Let’s Go books and Lonely Planet books. You’re not going to get pretty pictures in them, but you’ll get a wealth of information on how to tour the destinations on your own while keeping to a budget.
My last tip for beginners is to stay organized! As soon as I start planning a trip, I create a new folder on my computer where I save all my confirmations, e-tickets, itineraries, and correspondences with local vendors (it’s so important to keep a trail of your emails with vendors in case there are miscommunications upon your arrival and you need to reference your email trails). Right before the trip, I print everything in the folder and organize it all by the order in which I’ll need it.
I hope you got all that! There’s obviously a lot more planning and research that can go into steps 2-4 but should get all the beginners started.
Are you well-traveled? What travel planning trips would you offer to beginners?