Friday, February 27, 2015

Trip Planning 101

S and I love to travel. It’s a big part of our lives. We like having something to look forward to, to research, to plan, and to daydream about on those stressful days at work. I wouldn’t exactly call us travel agents or travel experts, but I was flattered recently when a friend asked for advice about how to put together an itinerary for her upcoming vacation and when a family member asked just how we budgeted and were able to afford all these trips we take. 

I guess planning five international vacations in the last 5 years has made us pretty good at this trip planning thing. 

Here are the tips we shared with them, and a few more. Hopefully they help make that next place on your bucket list seem a little more possible. 

1. Think about dates
When we’re planning our trips we try to think about where we want to go and when we’re able to get away. Sometimes the two do not overlap. It sounds silly, but it really is an important first-step. 

Our first step for planning any trip is to give ourselves this basic framework. For example, once we’ve decided that Peru in October (our next adventure!) sounds like a good idea we can start looking into costs, ability to get time off and availability of flights, hotels and other things. 

2. Pre-Budget
Creating a budget outline will give you a good idea of what your trip is likely to cost so you can see if it is really feasible or not. Or at least give you an idea of what kind of trade-offs you might have to make. A lot of trip costs will be determined by exactly where you stay, what you eat and what you do, but a pre-budget is a good place to start. 

Here are the different categories we include:

1) Flights
How much are flights going to cost? We fly on miles most of the time so more often the question for us is whether or not flights are available. Either way, this is going to either be a big chunk of your budget or a big consideration in what dates you pick.

2) Lodging
Here is our basic equation: $150 per night if we’re going somewhere like Europe or the United States or $100 per night if we’re going somewhere like Southeast Asia or South America.
    — I’d describe us as middle-of-the-road travelers. Not luxury, but not sharing rooms in hostels either. (Not that there is anything wrong with either of those.) We have found this to be a fairly average cost. Sometimes we spend more, sometimes we spend less.
    — When I’m in the planning stage I use Trip Advisor to research what the average cost of a night in a hotel would be and see if it fits our usual assumptions or if those need to be changed.

3) Food
We plan on $100 per day ($50 per person) if we’re going somewhere like Europe or the United States or $50 per day ($25 per person) if we’re going somewhere like Southeast Asia or South America.
    — We like to eat. We like to drink while we eat. Again, sometimes we spend more, sometimes we spend less, but this has been a pretty accurate estimate for us.
    — Again, I’ll use a website like Trip Advisor or guidebooks to give me an idea of how much an average meal might cost and adjust our assumptions as necessary. (For example: we spent a lot more on food when we road-tripped through France, but part of what we wanted to do was eat and drink a lot. On other trips it has been less of a focus and we’ve saved by not splurging at mealtime.)

4) Transportation
Will we be staying in one city? Will we need to fly, take a train, or drive between cities? Many of our trips have us flying into one city and out of another so we always try to include transportation between cities in our budget. Transportation can be surprisingly cheap or expensive depending on where you’re going. 

5) Activities
This is a hard one without knowing exactly what you’ll be doing each day, but I try to include an estimate. We tend to plan our trips around a major site or activity--Angkor Wat, wine tasting in the Champagne region, Machu Picchu—so we always try to include at least this activity or site into our budget.
    — A quick search on TripAdvisor or your other favorite travel website should help you see what the average cost of a museum or activity will be where you’re going. These can add up quickly so I usually try to overestimate here, just to be safe. 

Once you have an estimate of the cost for your trip you can figure out what you’d have to save every month to make it possible. We have a savings account specifically for vacations and once we've made this budget we settle on an amount to transfer in each month so we have the cash for our trip saved up before we leave.

Depending on when you’re thinking of going you might need to push the trip back to give you more time to save or you might need to shorten your trip or think about other changes to make it more affordable.

3. Consider travelling off-season
What is possibly the biggest cost-saving consideration you can make? Travel off-season. We almost always do. 

Flights, hotels, even some transportation and activities are often priced by demand. You’d be surprised how much money you can save just by traveling a few weeks later or earlier than you originally planned.

Not only will you save money, but how’d you like to be alone in a temple near Angkor Wat? Or have a one-on-one conversation with a small champagne maker? You avoid the crowds when you travel off-season and you create the opportunity for more personal, unique experiences. 

If you want to experience Oktoberfest or Christmas markets you might not have much of an option of when to travel. Weather might also play a big role in when you want to be in certain parts of the world. Usually though, for most destinations, there is a shoulder or an off season that isn’t a terrible time to visit. It’s definitely worth considering.

4. Commit
This might seem obvious, but book your trip. Point at a place on the map and days on the calendar and commit. Flights will fill up, hotels will sell out; you don’t want to be caught with the perfect plan and not able to use it. 

You’ll also want to start saving for your trip. Having the best budgeting plan in place won’t mean a thing if you don’t start making those deposits. 

We always book our international flights first. (We tend to fly in and out of different cities, stopping in different places along the way.) Then we take a look at how long we think we’d like to be in each city or place and book hotels and then any activities or transportation that needs to be arranged before we arrive get booked last.

5. Create your list of possibilities
There are an overwhelming amount of things to do in pretty much every city and country on the planet. Create a list of everything that sounds interesting to you, the days and times it is open/closed and how much it costs to visit. 

List everything that interests you. This isn’t your itinerary, it is your list of possibilities. 

6. Build your budget and itinerary
Use your list of possibilities to build an itinerary. What days are you going to be in what cities? What sites are grouped on the same side of town? What sites are closed on which days? Is anything cheaper or more expensive if you visit on a certain day or after/before a certain time?

You might decide you need 4 days in one place and only a side/day trip to another. Your itinerary will be very personal to you and your interests. There might be things on your list of possibilities that don’t make it to your itinerary. Perhaps they are really expensive, or difficult to get to, or only open limited days and times. 

Once you have your itinerary plug those numbers into your budget. What hotels did you decide on and how much are they? What activities/sites are you definitely seeing? You might find that combination tickets or city-wide tickets exist that will save you money and let you enter more than one site for one fee. Adjust your monthly savings plan if the budget you build exceeds the initial plan you made.

7. Book ahead
For larger sights and museums you can often pre-book a time to visit. We definitely recommend doing this if you are visiting somewhere infamous for its attraction to tourists – e.g. the Uffizi, Neuschwanstein, Machu Picchu. 

Some places limit the number of tourists per day or assign you a specific time to visit with your ticket. You’ll have a better chance of getting your first preference and spend less time in line if you book ahead instead of waiting until you get there. 

You might want to book some transportation ahead of time as well. It can be less stressful to show up at a train station with tickets already in hand and seats already assigned. However, there are times when it is cheaper to wait until you’re at the station. (For example, Bavaria offers a special class of reduced-price train ticket that you buy at the time of travel.)

We always pre-book hotels. Sometimes you can find better deals by waiting until you arrive in a city, but the thought of walking around with our luggage looking for rooms gives me anxiety. I like knowing ahead of time where we’ll be sleeping. 

Don’t feel like you have to book everything ahead of time. You want some flexibility in your schedule. We try to pre-book only major things and allow ourselves the ability to change the order or cancel plans as we’re on the road.

8. Take your list with you
Bring your list of possibilities with you. You never know when a strike, bad weather, or illness might occur. Changing your plans will be much easier and less stressful if you have this with you instead of having to look everything up again on the go. 

Travel is personal and there is undoubtedly no one right way to do anything. I hope though that this was helpful for you. Did I leave something out? Do you have any other tips for travel planning? Leave a comment to share your ideas.


  1. I obviously love this post. I've used the tips you gave me to plan my first week in New Zealand (the second week I'll figure out as I go.) If I stay in the Southern Hemisphere, I'd like you and S to add NZ to your list of places to visit. There's lots of excellent wine so I know you'll love it.

  2. Thanks Deanna! I hope you have a great trip! I can't wait to hear all about it and follow along on Instagram and Facebook! =)



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