Last week we spoke about how to choose your travel destinations for 2014. If you’re having trouble deciding where to visit this year, go and read that post first.
Now that you know your destinations for the upcoming year, or have a better idea of where you’d like to visit, let’s talk about how to get your travel planning done right!
I know, travel planning and researching deals can be a pain in the butt.
It takes time, and time is what most of us don’t have. With so much to figure out like how do I get there, what should I pack, where do I eat, sleep and explore once I’ve arrived, it can be time-consuming and overwhelming.
But this should not be a negative experience. This is the part where you start putting your dreams into action.
Planning for travel is one of the most important steps to making it happen in the right way for you. We’ve been traveling for 15 years, yet we don’t miss this process to prepare for our best travel experience.
We have enough practice to do it last minute, and sometimes we do. Even though we travel with kids we can leave with little planning done, but if you are just starting out, I suggest you plan the key components in advance for your trip.
I’m not saying you need to plan every little detail down to the last meal because part of the reason we travel is for FREEDOM. But, if you like to be a little organized before leaving home so you can enjoy the ride and not spend your entire trip googling your next move, this post is for you!
Plus, most of your travel savings will come with careful planning. We’ve wasted so much money on the road because we have not planned carefully enough. We learned the lessons so you can avoid the same mistakes.
What about flexible travel and spontaneity?
There are advantages to planning and booking travel in advance, but it is important to be as flexible as you can, which paves the way for enriching experiences.
You want the freedom to explore that alleyway, stay longer in a place you love, or quickly escape those you hate – it’s easy to break things when you are not so rigid.
Don’t underestimate spontaneity.
It’s exciting to jump on a plane or in your car and take off at a minute’s notice. Instead of going to work, or doing the same mundane rituals at home, you could be heading to the Fiji Islands for a long weekend, or off to the mountains for some fresh air.
However, if you are planning for a trip of a decent length of time, it is best that you have some outline of where you want to go and things you want to see and do. At least have your must do list of activities, with a backup plan. You also want to know basic costs, so you can budget accordingly.
Whether you book ahead or not will be greatly determined by your comfort levels, your style of travel, and the length of your trip.
Get Travel Planning Right – 12 Point Plan
Planning for travel can save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, but if not done right, it could cost you money instead.
1. Collect the inspiration
Once you know your country or region of choice, either create a vision board, folder, bucket list or whatever you want to call it of things you really want to do in that place. Get the ideas flowing.
This can come from photos, books, magazines, articles from blogs, websites, friends, social media. Whenever something grabs at your heartstrings, make a note of it. Bookmark it into your travel ideas folder.
We like to use our Pinterest boards as a fabulous tool for collecting ideas and information.
2. Use maps to plot your journey
It’s difficult to plan your trip without giving your brain an overview of the travel route.
We still like to start by using a big fold out map on the kitchen table or lay on the floor with a highlighter. It’s just easier to see it in a bigger scale and plot all the points of interest.
We study the map and circle the places we want to go. This helps us frame out whether our trip is practical. I can see the distances between certain places so I can then make a more informed decision on how to join the dots.
3. Work out your time frame and costs
Probably the most common question – how much time and money do you have?
Once you know the average daily travel costs in your chosen destination (guidebooks and blogs are good for a benchmark figure), divide your total budget by the average daily cost. e.g. if you have $5,000 in savings to visit France, and the average daily cost is $250, you have 20 days to play with.
It is key to know your time frame for each destination. Knowing this time limit will help you to plan your driving route, or internal flights, and the length of time to spend in each place.
Having a big fold out map really helps too. You’re able to see if any of your ideas won’t work geographically, if they’re too far out of the way. You could then skip one experience and combine another to make it more practical and feasible.
4. How much to plan?
For short term breaks (1-4 weeks)
For short-term travel, plan as much as you are comfortable with.
It makes sense to book your accommodation, transport and any must do tours that require pre-booking. Leave the rest of your schedule and activities open as much as possible for easy manipulation.
For longer term travel (4-6 weeks)
Book your flights and transport and first couple of nights accommodation, then consider leaving the rest fairly open. Know your rough itinerary, and your must visit places, then have some more flexibility in place.
Whatever the duration of your trip, we recommend booking your first night’s accommodation in each new destination. Especially if you are a solo female traveler, travelling with kids, travelling for the first time, or arriving in a big city in the evening. Then the next day you can look for something more permanent.
The more experience you have traveling, the more comfortable you’ll feel turning up in a place on a whim and sourcing accommodation. And don’t forget to do your research to ensure it is not peak season because in some places you might be left wandering the streets longer than planned.
Planning will also help you land deals like apartment rentals, house sitting, and to take advantage of any discounts on activities that require advance booking.
Airbnb is a great place to find local home and apartment rentals. If you’ve not used them before, you can get $25 off using our referral link.
For indefinite long-term travel (6+ weeks)
Only work on in-depth travel planning for 1-2 months at a time. There is far too much that can change and you need to have that flexibility.
5. Plan it right for the seasons
Research the best time of year to visit your preferred destinations.
A mistake we made in Africa was going to Etosha National Park in Namibia at the wrong time (best to go in the rainy season so the waterholes are full) and although it was good, it would have been better to visit a different park in another region instead.
Be smart about how and when you choose to experience things, and weigh up the costs involved.
6. Turn to the guidebooks
We use guide books as they are intended to be used – as a guide. We use Lonely Planet, and whilst guide books aren’t typically a great source of inspiration and stories – we get this from those we know, blogs, books, documentaries etc, guide books are great for a general overview and the logistics.
They help us to plot our route and give us a rough idea of things to see and do in an area and the general costs. This helps us to know if it is suitable to us and is worth pursuing.
7. Go online and dive deeper into the research
Now that you have used your offline materials to get the general overview, do your deeper travel planning online. The internet world can be a confusing and frustrating place to get lost in, especially if you don’t know what you are looking for to begin with.
Where to Start:
Start with travel blogs you know and trust for the personal recommendations.
Go to the tourist board websites. e.g. Google search “Los Angeles Tourism Board”. They have a wealth of information for all tastes and budgets.
WikiTravel – is a user generated site and calls itself the Free Travel guide. Thousands of articles, reviews and photos. It’s a handy place to start.
TripAdvisor – Love it or hate it, it’s another source of information. Has reviews and information on over 400,000 locations, hotels, restaurants etc.
Google Maps – add the things from your list onto Google Maps. Get accurate directions. Locate local businesses. Print off what you need to take with you.
Google Earth – Take a virtual journey of any location. Using Street View check the view of your accommodation or a business and make sure it looks desirable and safe.
8. Use Social Media
Go to Facebook and ask family and friends for advice or suggestions, usually one of your best resources.
Pinterest is not just about pretty pictures, there is a ton of good travel information on there. Check out my recent post on how to use Pinterest for travel planning.
Send out a tweet asking for tips on free things to do. Hashtag the location and the word free. Also, find out the twitter handle for the destination. e.g. for LA, google search “Los Angeles tourism on twitter”. Example tweet: “Anyone have tips on the best #free things to do in #LosAngeles? #LA #California @DiscoverLA
Foursquare has become a good resource of getting tips and suggestions from other users who leave feedback on where they’ve been and their opinions.
Have a system in place to bookmark any fantastic resources you find. Again, we use Pinterest.
9. Make a list – but you can’t do everything
Now that you have your map outlined and a better idea of where you want to go and what you want to do, make a list of the experiences most important to your tastes, passions and budget.
Include any tours, attractions, food experiences, accommodation or festivals you may have already noticed. But remember, you can’t see and do everything, and be ok with that.
If you race around trying to see everything, you will only scratch the surface of each experience and will burn out. Not to mention the burned hole in your pocket too.
But, when once-in-a-lifetime opportunities come along, you don’t want to pass them up. It’s the memories and stories of accomplishing a dream experience we value most from our travels.
If you are going to spend all that time and money getting to a country, you might as well experience what it’s most noted for. It’s ok to blow your daily budget once in awhile, just cut back in other areas to balance it out.
10. Example itineraries
Need help planning a sample route? Don’t want to miss the must see highlights? Get some ideas by looking at the big tour companies and the itineraries they use for each region and country.
Simply adjust the pace and length of their trips to suit your style and budget.
One of the biggest coach tour companies in the world is Trafalgar.
For the 18-35 year old party scene look at the itineraries used by Contiki.
11. Research accommodation, flights, sightseeing, transport
Wherever you go on your travels, the key components will be accommodation, flights, sightseeing and getting around.
Finding Accommodation deals
Accommodation is one of your major fixed expenses, but there are plenty of tips and tricks for you to find safe, practical and value for money budget accommodation deals.
Think carefully about what you intend to do in the area and how you will get around. There is no point choosing cheaper accommodation if it is miles out of town and you have to pay extra in transportation to experience the local area.
Research the area.
Choose your accommodation preferences.
Start looking for deals and get organized.
Finding cheap flights
Flights are your other major fixed expense. Getting from point A to B and then moving around within your chosen destination can eat a large chunk out of your travel budget.
Flexibility is key to finding cheap flights. If you are locked into fixed travel dates, or can only fly on weekends or during popular vacation periods, it’s going to be more of a challenge, but not impossible.
Airlines generally release tickets 11 months in advance. Start researching once you know you are taking a trip and continue to check them at least once per week. Deals come and go quickly, so be ready to act. Have a price YOU are comfortable paying and you’ll have no regrets.
Sign up for email notifications for your favourite airlines, and follow them on social media. The best airfare sales can go largely unannounced, unless you are on their email newsletter.
If you are flexible, or your trip is far in the future, try these sites to track prices and get real-time alerts when they change:
Farecompare tracks millions of airfare price changes every day. They deliver price-drop notifications the instant prices change.
Airfarewatchdog hooks you into time sensitive airline deals too difficult to track on your own.
Bing Price Predictor can advise whether fares are rising, holding steady, or dropping, and whether you should buy now or wait.
Traveling with kids or gadgets? Seatguru shows you the best and worst seats on the plane, user comments, and photos. Find out the pitch of the seats, if they have powerpoints, personal TV screens, bassinets for infants and if baby changing facilities are available.
Discover more tips on how to find cheap flights.
Whether you book ahead will depend on your travel style and comfort level.
If you love things organized, you might want to have everything pre-booked. If not, I would allow for flexibility but book maybe the first couple of nights and any places that are popular. You may have to do the same with your tours. Book your absolute must do’s as these are the things you don’t want to miss.
Now you can spend the build-up to your trip excited and stress-free.
Visit the tourism office
Once you reach your destination, drop in to the local tourism office and ask a million questions: what to see and do, where to eat, is there a free walking tour, how much is the train or bus, is there a transport pass, does it save money, etc.
It’s a treasure trove for information on the variety of things you can do on all topics. And they have free maps, free guides and usually very helpful people working there. I’m usually there for 30 minutes.
Do I need a visa?
How difficult and expensive is it to obtain a visa for the countries you want to visit? Can you obtain the visa at the point of entry, or do you need to get them at a neighbouring country or your own country?
Every country has different visa requirements for every nationality. Some countries can be trickier than others, and each country will have different lengths of time they allocate their visas for with different conditions attached.
For visa and embassy information on all countries and nationalities, one of the best online resources we’ve come across is ProjectVisa.com
How safe is it?
It’s smart to be up to date on a country’s political situation. The media has a habit of over playing the dangers of traveling abroad, but in all honesty, there are very few places that are too dangerous.
Use common sense, know the situation, and if it doesn’t feel right don’t go – there are too many other choices to risk putting yourself in danger.
Check with your own local government’s website for advice. For example:
- Australian citizens should check the Smartraveller website.
USA citizens should check the US Department of State website.
Need More Travel Tips?
Check out our insider tips from 15 years of travel: