By: Christine Lai
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
What makes a great trip? Despite what many of your spontaneous friends tell you – it is planning. Planning sounds boring and tedious. It’s something your parents keep telling you to do with your life. But planning means not paying double for your hotel, missing out on an amazing hiking trail, and your credit card failing to work. Planning does NOT mean you write out an itinerary and follow it step by step. You can plan and be spontaneous at the same time. Here are 7 steps to planning your trip, so you can go ahead, enjoy your travels, and be spontaneous!
- Decide on your budget, length of stay, and timing. Your budget, amount of vacation time, and when you can legitimately travel will determine the type of vacation you want and even the trip destination. If you’re low on budget and enjoy history and adventurous travel, Cambodia may be a good destination. If you only have three days of vacation, Cambodia might not be a good choice since it’d take a full day to get there from the U.S. If you want to travel during the winter, you’d probably want to avoid the snow and freezing temperatures in Russia and opt for a warmer destination like Costa Rica. These requirements set the stage the rest of your trip planning.
- Find trip destination(s). If you’re unsure of where to travel to, Trip Tuner is a great site that provides destination ideas based on your preferences and interests. You can adjust sliders to choose a vacation that is relaxing, adults only, parka, mountainous, remote, and thrifty. If you already know where you would like to go – proceed to Step 3.
- Find a travel buddy. If you decide not to travel alone, I suggest finding a good travel buddy. Finding a good travel buddy is like finding a good roommate and partner in crime. Do you have similar interests? Do you have a similar pace of sightseeing and exploring? Are you on the same page with how much you want to spend?
Before you go on the trip, make sure you’re all on the same page on activities, budget, and preferences. Don’t be in for a surprise if you prefer exploring a low-cost hole-in-the-wall restaurant while your travel mate books a table at a fancy restaurant at the Ritz. You’d want to reconsider traveling with someone who prefers sleeping in late and seeing the city for a couple hours, if you want to wake up early, see all the museums, try out different restaurants, and then going clubbing at night.
Horror Travel Story. My friend Mike had a terrible month in Spain, mainly because he didn’t set expectations with his travel buddy. They’re good friends and enjoy watching football together, but the two had different ideas of what the trip would be like. Mike wanted to get up early, see the sights, try the foods, and get to know the city as much as possible. His friend, Neil, has been exhausted from working long hours and wanted it to be a truly relaxing vacation. He wanted to wake up at noon, enjoy a lazy lunch, and see a museum or two. Neither was happy throughout the trip. Halfway through, they decided to split up and do their own thing. You have been warned.
- Find flights. My favorite go-to travel site is Kayak because it sources the cheapest flights in one location. I’ve heard that Bing is great as well. New York Times recently featured a new type of crowdsourced flight search site called Flight Fox. It’s great for complicated flights that involve multiple destination or group travel. The way it works is: (1) Post the requirements for your flight, (2) you pay a small fee, (3) people find the cheapest flights based on your requirements, (4) you choose and book the flight you want.
- Find affordable accommodations. While sites like Hotels.com and Expedia are helpful places to check when getting started, my best deals have been often found surprisingly through guidebooks. For example, Rick Steve has traveled extensively through Europe and has stayed in multiple establishments. He gives great and detailed reviews on the type of experience you’ll have there, as well as suggestions for places based on location and budget. There are even tips on how to get lower rates, such as paying in cash and booking through their website. If you prefer staying with locals, Staydu, is also a popular website to check out.
- Find ground transportation. While it’s not essential to book public transportation before you arrive, be aware of the process. Is it cheaper to buy the tickets in advance? Do they get booked up quickly? Are there other options of getting around? This helps you figure out how to get the best deal and travel around the country or city most efficiently.
- Build an itinerary of “must-see” sights and activities. Start off with making a random list of things you want to do. Then start building an itinerary, based on the general location of the activities. This way, you can visit the sights you want to see without running across the city.
Also, make sure that the things you want to do are available when you want to go. For example, many museums in Europe are closed on Mondays. If you want to see the Galleria degli Uffizi and you are in Florence Saturday through Monday – make sure you catch it on Saturday and Sunday.
If you are at a loss of where to start, you can pick up a travel guide like Lonely Planet or Fodor’s; or visit Stay.com, a crowdsource travel website that lists the top activities of different destinations.
While all the due diligence won’t guarantee you an amazing travel experience, it’d knock off most of the major reasons people do not enjoy their trip. Especially for the last step of building an itinerary, remember that the itinerary is just a guide of what you’d like to do there. Feel free to swap out things you want to do when you heard there is a cool concert going on or feel like just taking it easy on a Sunday. An itinerary just gives you a general list of activities that you would kick yourself if you missed or gives you ideas to keep you occupied when bored. Now that you’ve checked off the 7 steps to planning your travel, it’s time to go enjoy yourself! Please look out for the next blog on traveling like a local.
Do you have other tips on travel planning? Any horror stories due to a lack of sufficient planning? Please comment below.