How do I plan my trips? I get this question a lot. Most people think I get all these discounts or I’m some kind of VIP, but the best way to plan a detailed, long trip, is with time and a lot of “casual browsing”. This post is for people who have done a bit of traveling in the past, but maybe it was just domestic or when you were younger with your family, but now you are planning your first big international multi-city, multi-country trip. This kind of trip should usually be anywhere from 10 nights to a few weeks. Planning this kind of trip, properly at least, requires a lot of time and research if you want to do it right.
Choosing your Destination
The very first step of course, is choosing where you want to go. Pick a couple of countries or cities that you would like to see and that are in the same geographic location.
Europe is always a great choice. I would say that most Americans will almost always choose Europe, and as cliché as it may be, there is a reason for it. There is no place exploding with more character than Europe. It’s so easy to travel from country to country via short flight or train, and end up in a place totally different from the last. A different cuisine, culture, currency, religion, landscape and vibe can dramatically change in just an hour flight. Europe is a place you can go back to time and time again and never see it all, and you just keep coming back for more.
My other favorite choice for the bit more adventurous, would be Asia. Another place with more character and detail than you can imagine. Travel isn’t done so much by trains, but rather quick one-way flights work just as well. Southeast Asia happens to be my favorite region and comes with the most beautiful beaches that top my list. But if it is Europe you choose, don’t worry, the Mediterranean isn’t lacking beautiful coastline either.
Always check the weather for any destination you’re thinking about choosing. Just because it might be hot where you’re at, does not mean it’s hot everywhere. For example, remember that Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, so the seasons are reversed. So if you’re looking for heat, you need to go there sometime around January. Or thinking about Dubai, well you may want to go in April, because summer temperatures have been known to hit 120 degrees. With tropical regions, keep in mind they may have a rainy season. This not only helps you pick the most optimal time for planning your trip, but also you’ll know exactly what type of clothes to pack.
Determining the Timeframe
Now once you know where you want to go, you have to decide how long you want to go for. I generally say you can conquer any big city in 3 nights. I talk in “nights” because this is how you book your hotel, by how many “sleeps”. Now if you are going to have a beach portion of your trip, I would recommend 4-5 nights, as you will probably want to relax and lounge. My trips usually consist of a city portion, a beach portion, and possibly, depending on where we’re going, an outdoorsy adventurous portion. So for example, you want to go to Italy for 10 nights, I would recommend staying in 3 places. This would compose your trip like this: 3 nights, 4 nights, 3 nights. I make the beginning of my trip or the middle of my trip the longest. The reasoning for giving more time in the beginning is because you are going to be very tired and you want to overcome jet lag after your first sleep. You are going to need to rest and get your bearings your first day, and then you can start conquering. Or if you choose the middle, this is a good rest period so you don’t get burnt out on your trip. When going on long trips you need to have a bit of “regular” time. Time to rest, workout, or whatever it is you do during your weekend routine. I like to call it a “Sunday”, Those days you don’t dress up and just relax, take a run, or whatever it is you do. Travelling requires a lot of energy with sleepless flights, early mornings, airport stresses, and a lot of walking. It is very important not to get burnt out.
Once you know your dates and your location, book the flight, the “big flight”! I usually use Orbitz to search for flights. I book this about 3 months in advance. So a month or two prior, you should start price checking so that you know the average price and know what is a good deal and what’s not. Play with your dates and maybe rearrange your locations, as some cities will have much cheaper prices to fly into. Then book what you feel is a good deal. Remember, you are booking a multi-city trip, so likely, you will be flying in one airport and out of another. Once you feel you’ve found a good flight that fits your schedule and price range, go to that airline’s site and check their seat map, because Orbitz or any other booking site do not always provide the most updated remaining seats available. And I’ve also experienced my chosen seats getting scrambled. Orbitz is good to search and filter multiple airlines, but sometimes you may want to book through the actual airline.
Once you book the big flight, you start building your trip. Start looking for small flights or trains that will connect your cities, like connecting the dots. If you’re booking trains through Europe, try Rail Europe, EuroStar, or Thalys. For small flights, I will use Orbitz. Small flights should be one-way.
Once all transportation is booked, I like to call it the “skeleton”, then you start filling the spaces with hotels. I do use Orbitz for booking hotels, I find that I like their app and they give out promo codes, usually for 15-20% off. This is something I casually browse months before I even plan on booking. Just like the flights, I like to research in advance to know what is considered a good deal on that hotel. Once I have found a couple of favorite hotels in the area I want to stay, I keep coming back and checking their price. So when you’re laying in bed checking your Facebook and Instagram, squeeze in a few extra minutes to check out hotel options.
Now, actually picking the hotel, theres a lot of things to consider. First, remember that this is your “home” for the trip. Yeah, we all used to stay in dumps when we were younger and in our college days, but once you get older, you want to feel comfortable in your room and you want it to feel clean. Some nights you’ll be tired and want to call it a night early and just lay in bed and watch TV. You’re going to want that bed to be comfortable and not counting down the time until check-out. This has to feel like home, so don’t skimp. And please note, when looking at photos of the hotel, please check the actual measurements, because photographers love to use wide angle lenses to make the rooms look huge.
Next, make sure there is free wifi connectivity. You’re in another country, you aren’t going to have 3G/LTE service on your phone. Some say they might want to disconnect, but if you really are going for weeks, you’re going to want to have some communication. Not to mention, unless you have every single meal and activity planned out for the entire trip, you are going to want to do some research the night before. For example, do you know what time that museum opens tomorrow? How much are the tickets? Which train station do I get off? Whats a good place to eat nearby? Yes, you can ask your hotel for recommendations, but sometimes hotels might have a relationship with a restaurant or for some reason might benefit off your dining there. In my experience, I haven’t always gotten the best dining recommendations from the hotel. But I like to Yelp everything anyways. Even more important than finding that cute Italian Bistro online, is how to actually physically find it, by this, I mean GPS! Probably the most important reason you need wifi. Long story short, you need free wifi, always, always, always.
TIP: Even if you don’t have phone service, the GPS antenna should still work, though much slower. Before leaving your hotel, use Google Maps to get the directions where you want to go, and get it started. This will download the route to your phone. You should be able to get to your destination with turn by turn accuracy. I drove 20 miles in Canada with absolutely no phone service and the GPS worked as if I was in the USA.
The next important thing is location. If you’re in Europe, you need to be close to a train station. You aren’t going to want to take a taxi everywhere or be too far from everything. You need to have good central location and good proximity to a train station. Now you can shoot for a free breakfast, but don’t bet on it. Also, try to book hotels with free cancellation, because a lot of them offer it. I don’t like to be committed to one hotel if I find a better one later. And call me crazy, I value my sleep, I even look to see if the hotel has blackout drapes. I don’t like waking up “naturally” to the sunrise at 6:00 AM on my vacation! Please be sure to read reviews also, I won’t book anything that doesn’t have at least a 4.0 customer rating, I usually aim for 4.5. Reviews are important, they can tell you what you can’t see on the hotel website. Like, if the hotel is in a noisy area next to bars, or if the staff was or was not helpful and if the rooms were actually properly cleaned. Whatever detail is important to you, keep this in mind when booking to make your trip flow as comfortably as possible!
So top 3 priorities: comfort, location and wifi!
Visas, Passports and Money
Here I have a few other miscellaneous items. Which of course, most importantly be sure you have a passport and make sure it won’t be expiring in the next 6 months. Check Travel.State.Gov to make sure you don’t need a travel visa. This site also lists everything by country with general information, safety and entry/exit requirements. Before you leave, I suggest printing out everything, including a copy of your passport! Every train, every plane and every hotel reservation. I hate carrying paper, but remember, you probably don’t have internet, unless you’re connected to wifi which you probably don’t have at the check-in / bag-drop counter! And a lot of countries like to see a departing ticket out of the country and you will have to show proof of your departure. Plus, you want your hotel information because it will have the hotel name and address and you will need to show this to your taxi driver if you taxi from the airport and don’t speak the local language.
For money, I usually use my credit card for everything. Try to get a credit card that does not charge international transaction fees, like Chase Sapphire or Capital One QuickSilver. If you are going to a major city, you don’t have to worry much about cash except for cabs, or maybe going to small local shops or dining at “hole-in-the walls”. Do have some on you of course, what you feel is safe to carry around, but you will probably be using your credit card 90% of the time. Also, be sure to bring an electric converter with you since many places have electrical sockets that are unique to ours in the U.S.
There’s no special vaccine you need for most countries, like for example, Europe or Australia. But you should make sure all your vaccines are up to date like a Tetanus booster and the Hep B series. But for places like Africa and Southeast Asia, you’re going to need the Typhoid Fever vaccination. This can be administered like a traditional vaccine or taken by pill. I recommend the pill, because it’s cheaper and last 5 yrs. The regular vaccine only last 3 years. I also recommend for the tropical areas to use mosquito repellant and check the Deet percentage. Deet is the active ingredient in the repellant and can protect against malaria. You can find these vaccines at a travel clinic and sometimes even at your employer.
Europe has a bad reputation not only for annoying line cutters, but also pickpocketing. You should not worry about it as long as you are mindful of your things. Its usually the careless tourist who is not paying attention that’s more of a target. Be sure you and your traveling companion always have an eye on each other’s bags and be careful when sleeping on trains. If you go to sleep, maybe keep one of your bag straps around your leg, or your purse in your arms. And of course don’t carry excess cash or valuables. And again, please always check the safety of the country before booking.
I have seen it time and time again, people never leaving the country, or waiting a lifetime, because they worry about the language barrier. I have only struggled in ONE country, and that was China. If you’re going to Europe, there is zero reason to stress about language, especially in the big tourist cities; Paris, London, Rome, etc. Hotels, major stores, restaurants and tourist attractions will always have fluent english speakers. Smaller, more rural towns might be a little less fluent, but still enough to get by and no reason to stress. This goes for Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America too, just about everyone knows English, or at least enough for basic conversation. There is really no reason to attempt to learn a foreign language just to visit that country for a few days. If you want to learn a few basics words and phrases, then that’s great and the people of that country will appreciate it. But language should never hold you back from any trip.
Last, but not least, packing! There is a fine line between packing light and enjoying your trip comfortably, so please do not leave it for the last minute. You don’t want to pack so much that you’re struggling everywhere you go. But I have also packed too light, so precision is key! If you’re like me, I like a lot of outfits and makeup and hate being without my favorite products. Remember, this isn’t just a weekend getaway, do you really want to be 3 weeks without your favorite face wash or conditioner? Just consider all these things and pack early, this will give you time to add or remove things from your bag. Check out this post on choosing the right travel backpack! And please, weigh your bag before leaving, because airlines will nickel and dime you. If you find yourself a bit over in weight limit, just wear your heavier shoes on the plane and pack your flip flops instead. Take out your jacket if you’re still over weight, you’re going to need it on the flight anyways. Dress comfortably on the plane, get up often and be sure to bring earplugs, an eye mask and earbuds for the six movies you are probably going to watch.
I’m sure I missed a few things, but this should get you started. Let us know what you think in the comment section. Plan your trip with time and enjoy the journey!