Planning a trip from scratch can be quite overwhelming. This is especially true if planning is not really your area. Here is the thing – putting together the perfect trip does NOT have to be hard. In fact, it can be quite easy if you follow a series of standard steps for each trip.
This post will tell you how to plan a trip in 12 simple steps so that you never have to stress out about it again. And even If you are a more experienced planner, you will also find plenty of tips and resources here to enhance your skills even more!
This comprehensive post covers EVERYTHING you need to consider when planning a trip, from flights to lodging to activities to budgeting. The information you find here will have you set to have your best trip yet.
If there is a particular area that interests you most, click on the “jump-to” links in the table of contents below. Okay, let’s do this!
Bookmark this page for your future travels!
Step 1 | Decide Where to Go
First things first, you need to figure out where you want to go when planning a trip. It’s possible that you already have a destination in mind, perhaps it’s one of the places made popular by bloggers and vloggers like Bali or Cuba. Or maybe you want to go a bit off the beaten path and travel to less visited places like Ghana.
If you do not even know where to start, you may need a bit of inspiration to help you decide on a location. What I usually do is look at TONS of YouTube videos and/or read blogs to understand what’s out there. Here are a few of my favorites:
- vagabrothers – They have very detailed guides on locations around the globe. I also find that they are great storytellers, which keeps me tuning back in for more!
- Nia The Light – She does not only blog about travel, but her travel blogs are just great!
- Tess Florio – Another vlogger who vlogs on several topics. She has comprehensive and beautifully captured travel blogs in destinations like Thailand and Greece on her page.
- Rick Steves’ Europe – Rick has been doing this for a long time, and probably has some of the most detailed destination guides + travel tips available on YouTube today.
- Travel Pockets – Two sisters that focus on sharing “hidden gems” in destinations worldwide.
- Practical Wanderlust – Lia and her husband Jeremy keep it very real on their site. They have a lot of travel experience as they spent a whole year traveling the world!
- The Blog Abroad – One of the first travel blogs I read, actually. Gloria provides very honest information on her experience traveling worldwide and full time as a person of color.
- Minority Nomad – Erick is aiming to is the first black (African-American) man to travel the whole world and is well on his way at 93(!) countries. In addition to the blog, he has a vlog as well.
- TravelWanderGrow – Okay, okay… shameless plug – I had to throw that in there haha. But, this link will take you to my travel guides which can help you make that decision :).
Making the Decision
After you have gotten your inspiration, its time to make a decision on where to go. You should ask yourself a series of questions on the following topics:
- Desired Experience: Do you want to spend time exploring a city full of ancient ruins? Or do you prefer a modern environment? Do you want to be near a beach or do you hate the water? Are you a city tourist or more of the outdoorsy type?
- Weather: What weather do you want to experience on your trip? Are you more of a warm weather person or a cold weather person? Are you escaping the weather of your home city and looking for a change?
- Time of Year: Do you have any personal restrictions that require you to travel a certain time of year (e.g., project deadlines at work, kids in school)? Does the time alloted allow for you to visit your ideal location without any issues? For example, traveling to Santorini is not recommended in the cooler months as many restaurants and hotels close at that time.
- Money: Before you even get to your travel budget, do some basic research to understand the average cost of meals and hotels in the place you are considering. If either seems out of your price range, you should move to the next location.
- Locations: Do you want your trip include stops at multiple places? Will you stop at different cities or even countries?
If you still are having trouble deciding, take the quiz below!
Step 2 | Book Your Flight(s)
Now that you have identified where you are going, it’s time to book those flights! Some may think it is a bit odd to have this as the second step in thinking on how to plan a trip. But, I think it is important to book flights early because that solidifies the fact that you are going somewhere.
From my experience, I’ve witnessed people that I know never go anywhere because they never take that first step of booking a flight. Once your book it, that means you are going, so you HAVE to do the rest of the trip planning.
Best Timing For Booking Flights
How far in advance you should book your flights for maximum savings varies based on where you are going. As a general rule, if you are traveling to a destination during its peak season, you should buy your tickets as early as you can. If going off-season, there is less of a rush. The same goes for holidays.
Here are a few tips (based on an analysis by CheapAir):
- Domestic (United States): Book four months to a month out for best savings. My personal target is booking ~2 months in advance for all domestic flights.
- International Flights: Advance booking times for international destinations do vary by region. Here are the estimates below:
- Europe: 4 months in advance
- Asia: 3 months in advance
- South Pacific: ~ 5 months in advance
- Middle East: ~ 5 months in advance
- Africa: ~5 months in advance
- South America: ~3 months in advance
- Carribean: ~ 5 months in advance
- Central America: ~2 months in advance
Resources for Booking Flights
When looking for a flight, I typically use one (or several) of the following sites to find the best fares:
- Skyscanner – This app helps you find cheap flight deals around the world by comparing ticket prices. It also recommends the best times to travel to certain destinations based on ticket pricing.
- Momundo.com – I’ve found some of my cheapest flights here. The only downside is that you have to book through an agency in most cases, which can be a bit of an annoyance.
- Google Flights – This option provides a round up of flight options based on the dates you select. It’s probably the most “no-frills” option available.
Open them up in side-by-side windows to compare who has the best deals. Once you’ve found your deal, book it!
Additional Tips for Saving Money on Flights
- Email Flight Deals: I subscribe to two services that frequently send me flight deals. The deals typically don’t last long, but if your open to buying on short notice, you will save quite a bit of money. These sites are:
- Rewards Travel: I am a big proponent of using rewards travel to cut your travel costs. You can see how I’ve done just that on this post. If you are interested in finding the rewards card that is best for you, visit credit.com for a variety of options. (See link below)
Step 3 | Identify Your Travel Philosophy
Before you make out your travel budget, take a few moments to think through your travel philosophy. Here are some questions you should ask to identify yours, some which you will recognize from the Step 1 in this post:
- What type of accommodations do you prefer? High-end resorts? Boutique hotels? Private Apartments? Hostels?
- What pace of travel do you like? Do you prefer to focus on relaxation? Are you more partial to staying active?
- Which kinds of experiences do you like? Guided tours? Adventure activities?
- Do you like to learn about the history of the places you travel? Or would you like to learn more about modern art and architecture?
You should develop reasonable answers, of course. For example, if you are a student, although you may like luxury travel, you probably can’t afford that yet ;).
My Travel Philosophy (For Reference)
I’ll share my travel philosophy with you, to give you a bit of an idea (If you’ve read any of my posts before, you may have some idea of this already):
I am a traveler and not a tourist. I prefer to travel like a local, and stay in private apartments when visiting new cities. My ultimate intent is to learn as much as I can about the history and culture of the place that I am visiting. In turn, I will have a better understanding of the world around me and a richer existence.
I will do adventure activities from time to time, but I am most happy wandering through old city streets and ruins and attempting to use my new (poor) language skills with the locals that I encounter.
If you’d like, you can share yours with me in the comments below! 🙂
Step 4 | Make Your Travel Budget
Okay, now that you know where you’re going and have your travel philosophy set – it’s time to make your budget. You should make your budget realistic! This means, don’t be too stringent, but don’t be too lenient either. And make sure your budget fits into your overall annual budget!
Building Your Budget
Your budget needs to include these key categories:
- Transportation: Flights, Trains, Rental Cars, Taxis – Anything that gets you from point A to point B.
- Lodging: Hotels, B&Bs, Campers, etc.
- Activities / Entertainment: Includes things like tours and excursions. Essentially, the cost of having fun 🙂
- Food: You’ve got to eat 🙂
- Shopping: A completely optional category – but I know someone out there likes to shop!
- Other: Anything miscellaneous expenses not already covered, such as ATM fees
Some people like to set a daily budget to keep track of things as they go. In order to do this, you should take any budget not used before your trip, then divide that by the number of days that you have on your trip. Then you have your daily budget!
Cutting Unnecessary Expenses from Your Budget
One way to cut back on expenses in the “other” category is to avoid paying for your own money. That means not spending money on ATM fees on your debit card or international fees on your credit card. This also includes, avoiding high costs that can be associated with exchanging money as well. Here are a few tips for doing this:
- Getting Cash:
- ATM Fees: Get a debit card that offers free transactions on certain (or even all) ATMs. Check to see if your bank is part of a large bank family and identify the local “sister” bank to avoid the fees. Charles Schwab’s Investor Checking account offers free ATM disbursements worldwide! It’s definitely worth exploring – I’m in the processing of transferring over to it now!
- Exchanging Money: Exchanging money is usually the worst way to get cash, due to high transaction fees. Save money by pulling it out of your bank in advance, and avoid transaction fees altogether. Note that most US banks require a few days notice in order to do this.
- Using Credit Cards:
- Don’t go to any international destination without an international credit card. By that, I mean a card that doesn’t charge a fee per swipe. This will save you SO much money! Several major card carriers offer this option. Find out more using the link below!
Step 5 | Book Additional Transportation
This is an optional step, but necessary if your trip involves stopping at more than one city or country. For example, many people who travel to Europe will often stop at a few countries since they are so close together. I actually do this ALL the time! You should have mapped this out when selecting where you would travel in Step 1 ;).
RELATED: Getting Your First US Passport
Additional Transportation Resources
When booking connecting transportation, your options include:
- Plane: This is the best option if your vacation includes places that are not located closely to each other. You can use any of the flight resources listed in Step 2 for booking. Always do your research when deciding who to purchase tickets from. There are plenty of budget airlines you can purchase from, but make sure they have good safety ratings.
- Train: The best way to travel in most places, in my opinion. Less hassle than flying, with typically fast arrival times. You can use a site like Rail Ninja to find deals on train purchases.
- Rental Cars: If you prefer driving, you can rent a car to get to your next destination. Road trips can be a lot of fun and will allow travel at your own place and see sights you may not see otherwise. Booking.com is a good resource for finding deals on car rentals.
In terms of timing, book airline tickets and rental cars at least 2 months in advance, if not more. I’ve found that train tickets tend not to fluctuate as much (except for Amtrak…ugh), so you only need to book a few weeks ahead. … In most cases at least :). If you are booking an Amtrak in the US, book at least a month out. I usually get the best prices that way.
Step 6 | Research Country Entry Requirements
This step is VERY important. While it’s never happened to me personally before, I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about people who are denied entry upon arrival at a country for missing vaccinations or not having a visa.
First things first, do you have a passport?? If not, check out this First Timer’s Guide to getting a passport.
**Note, this section only applies for international travel.
Entry Requirement Resources
What do you need? – To understand what is required for entry of the country that you will visit, visit the Country Information page at travel.state.gov if you are a US citizen. If you are not, research the information that your government provides OR go directly to the embassy website of the country you plan to visit.
You should pay close attention to the following:
- How many months of unexpired time do you need on your passport? Some countries require that you have at least six months remaining on your passport for entry, so it’s possible that you may need to get a new one earlier than expected.
- How many blank Passport pages are required? Most places require that you have at least one free page left in your passport.
- Is a visa required for entry? If a visa is required, research how you may obtain it. Some countries provide visas upon entry, while others require that you get one in advance from your local embassy.
- Are vaccines or malaria pills required for entry? Requirements vary by region, and so does the level of enforcement.
How do you meet the requirements?
- Renew your passport: To get a new passport, you’ll need to complete form DS-82. You will then mail that form along with your payment, new passport photo, and proof of name change (if applicable) to the National Passport Processing Center. The appropriate address is located at the bottom of the form. Note that it is recommended that your renew your passport 9 months before it expires. It is $110 to renew a passport + an additional $60 to expedite, if needed.
- Get your visa: The method for obtaining the visa will vary by country, so follow the steps provided after you conduct your research. Do this at least 2 months before you travel to account for any potential delays.
- Get vaccinated: After you determine which shots you need, call your doctor for an appointment or referral to a place that offers the shot. Word of caution: Shots seen as “elective” can be expensive (>$200) and often need several weeks (3 or more) to be effective. Keep this in mind when scheduling your shots. Also, don’t forget to take your proof of vaccination along with you on your trip!
Step 7 | Decide Where to Stay
In order to determine where you should stay, you should first determine in which environment you would like to stay. Do you want to be in a lively neighborhood or a quiet one? Are there any particular attractions that you would like to stay near? I suggest pulling up a city map and identify your preferred location, then working to identify the place you will stay.
There are may different stay options out there, and those available will vary based on where you travel. Some examples include:
In your travel philosophy (Step 3) you should have identified what type of lodging you prefer. Keep this and your travel budget in mind as you make your final decision. You should also keep safety and ease of getting around in mind as well.
Resources for Booking Your Stay
The four resources listed below are my favorites for finding deals on lodging. I recommend them all without reservation:
- Airbnb: As I mentioned in Step 3, I prefer to stay in private apartments when I travel. This makes Airbnb my first choice when booking a place to stay. There are great options for every budget in this site, and booking / coordination with the hosts is very straightforward. For more information, I’ve written about Airbnb in depth in this post. Note, if you have not signed up yet, you can use my referral link to get $40 off your first Airbnb stay!
- Booking.com: I love this site for reserving hotels (all kinds). Each listing has comprehensive details on the hotel, ratings, information on nearby attractions, and reviews.
- Agoda.com: A similar site to Booking.com, that also offers deals on hotels.
- Hostelworld: This is a great site for booking hostels, as well as boutique hotels and bed & breakfasts. We found ArtBeat Rooms on this site, one of the best standard bed & breakfasts I’ve ever visited!
Book your stay at least 1.5 months before you travel. If you are traveling during the busy season or a special event (e.g., festival), you may need to book 4 months or more in advance.
Step 8 | Identify & Book Activities
Now it’s time to think about what you want to do and where you want to eat on your vacation. I enjoy this part of planning a trip the most as there are so many possibilities!
Relevant Resources for Booking Activities
If your budget is on the lower side, you should consider free (or cheap) options. Here are a few examples:
- Rick Steves’ Audio Tours: You can access the tours on his site or via app. These walking tours are available for locations in Europe, and focus on city walks and museum tours. (FREE)
- Detour: This is another city-centric walking tour app that is quite popular these days. They provide guides for cities worldwide. (FREE)
- CityPass: City passes are a great cost-saving option, as they provide discounts (or cover admission) for popular city attractions. These passes are not free, but the deals provided do make them worth it. Note that the option linked here is for major US cities, but just google the city that you plan to visit if it’s not included to see if the city has their own. Examples: RomaPass (Rome) & the Lisboa Card (Lisbon).
If you have more money to spend, consider booking tours and excursions with local guides. This will give you a chance to learn more about the history and culture of a place from someone who lives it every day!
My favorite tool for booking activities is GetYourGuide. This tool serves as a mediator between you and the travel agencies, and lets you cancel as late as one day before your scheduled event. To get more information, visit my post on this tool.
Here are a few example tours available for NYC:
You should book your activities around a month out, especially if the activity is a popular one. Since you have the option to cancel your booking up to an hour before your event, you have little to lose!
Deciding Where to Eat
Do a bit of research to identify where you want to eat on your trip. I don’t recommend making a reservation for every night, but a nice dinner or two does the stomach good :). I usually use TripAdvisor reviews and blog posts found on Pinterest to find good eateries.
Usually you don’t have to make reservations more than a week or two in advance, but if you plan to go really fancy, you should book earlier. I learned that the hard way on my trip to Lima, and missed out on eating as some of the best restaurants in the world :(.
Step 9 | Plan Daily Logistics
This step goes hand in hand with Steps 5 and 8. As you plan out your activities and any other destinations on your itinerary, you need to consider logistics carefully.
Planning Your Arrival
Arrivals can be a little stressful if you have not prepared before you land. Do you research and make sure you understand the costs typically associated with public transportation and taxis to/from the airport. If it makes sense for you to book your airport transfer in advance, you should do it.
One of the things that bothers me the most about leaving the airport is that there are usually people at the exit just ready to take some money out of your hand. In most airports, it is cheaper to book your taxi curbside and not inside the airport. But do your research in advance to be sure.
Getting the Timing Right
As you plan out your daily activities, plot them out on a map. Then determine how long it will take you to get from one place to the next, and give your self an hour buffer. This will help you prepare for whatever comes up, and avoid missing out on anything. I’ve definitely experienced this before, so basically, don’t be like me!
I have been using TripBlan recently to plot out all my activities + timing in personal travel journals. It’s such a handy tool – See an example map of Barcelona below:
You’ll see that you can add landmarks to the map, and understand where they are in relation to each other.
A few additional tips:
- Build in Leisure Time: This is time that you can use to just get lost in your new surroundings
- Don’t Plan too Much: I don’t recommend having more than 1-2 scheduled activities each day. It can really make the day feel more like work than vacation. If you are short on time, you may not be able to avoid it, but try your best.
If you plan to use public transportation on your trip, download a map of their system to your phone or print one out. Most metro / bus maps can be easily downloaded via Google search. Know which metro or bus stops will take you to where you need to go to avoid last minute frustrations.
If you are traveling a little more luxuriously, most cities provide the option for you to taxi or uber about. In cheaper countries you may also be able to hire a private driver for a reasonable price.
RELATED: Review of Airbnb
Step 10 | Organize Your Trip Details
This step is a background step to everything you’ve done up until this point. As you book flights, lodging, and activities, it’s important that you document everything. Keep track of the addresses where you will be staying, as well as meeting points for any tours/excursions/reservations that you have scheduled.
The Best Tool for Organizing Your Trip
You can certainly organize your trip in a tool like Microsoft Excel / Word (or their Google counterparts). But if you don’t want to manually build your itinerary, one tool that you can use is Travefy, accompanied by the app Our Itinerary.
I was a big user of Microsft Word myself, but once I found out about Travefy, I immediately switched over. To give you an idea of how cool this tool is, here is a quick overview:
Your itinerary is laid out on a day-by-day basis, as shown on the home screen below. To add a new activity, you just select the “new event” button on the top right corner. (This view is from my trip to Thailand in March 2018).
Clicking on the “new event” button will allow you to elect what type of event to add to your travel itinerary. It is connected to flight and hotel databases, so when you put in your details, most of these should automatically pop up! The great part about this is that you can keep track of all the addresses and meeting points without having to type EVERYTHING in.
You can add pretty much any details you can think of for each activity, and can always change as necessary.
Once your trip is complete, you have the option to print out a hard copy or just access via your phone in the Our Itinerary app.
Oh, and did I mention, this tool is 100% free!
Step 11 | Learn What to Expect
Before you head to a new place, do your research! Learn about the cultural norms in the place that you are visiting. This can save you from awkward situations (or worse). Things to consider are:
- Greeting styles – It is appropriate to greet others with a kiss (or two kisses). This is very popular in southern Europe and some Middle Eastern countries. You won’t find it in Northern Europe or Asia, for example.
- Language – What is the official language of the country? How readily is English spoken by the natives? Even if English is spoken widely, it is always a great idea to practice a few basic phrases before your trip. You can use iTalki to start learning your language today!
- Food – Could it be offensive if you don’t finish your meal (particularly when in someone’s home)? Will you readily be able to find food that fits your dietary restrictions in the place that you visit?
- Queuing – This may seem weird on this list haha, but the normal queue or line making that we follow in the US is not standard in every country. In some places it’s really just based on who gets there first.
- Personal Space – Is personal space protected or ignored? As Americans, this you may have to get over your expectations of a personal bubble in many places.
- Dress – Is it appropriate to show your legs / arms in public?
There are other considerations, of course, but make sure you have a basic understanding of at least these things when visiting any new place. Be open as you travel, just because things are different somewhere else, does not mean they are wrong. It’s just different :).
I’ve pulled this one out separately because it is SO important. To get a basic understanding of safety in a place you will visit, you can start at the Travel Advisories provided by the US State Department.
From my personal experience, however, these can be a bit over dramatized and/or politically motivated. So don’t stop your research there! Read up on travel forums on sites such as TripAdvisor, or Facebook travel groups. You can even just ask friends that you know who have visited those locations before.
Once you understand how safe or unsafe your destination is, just take the necessary precautions to stay safe. Maybe this means you only take a certain type of taxi or you don’t walk alone at night. It will really be up to where you are going.
Oh, and always make sure someone at home knows where you’re going! It’s good practice to give your full itinerary to someone at home, just in case.
Don’t travel without getting travel insurance, like the one provided by World Nomads. This insurance covers any unexpected circumstances such as medical emergencies, stolen documentation, and trip cancellation. You will be protected and have peace of mind while you travel!
Step 12 | Decide What to Pack
Packing is the last thing on this list as it is usually what we do in the final week / days leading up to your departure. Consider the following when getting your suitcase together:
- Weather – Is it hot and humid? Cold and windy? The weather will determine what clothing you bring with you as well as necessary accessories. For example, you need to pack more sunscreen for a warmer weather. And perhaps different hair products ;).
- Cultural Norms – Back in Step 11, you evaluated what type of clothing is acceptable to wear at your destination. Keep this in mind as you put your clothes together.
- Trip Duration – For shorter trips it can be reasonable doable to pack a single outfit for every day. If you are traveling for a week or longer, you need to pack items that you can mix and match. And try to only pack what you can easily wash (vs. drycleaning).
- Packing Light: It’s almost cliche these days, but it is sooo very important to pack light while you travel. 1) Because no one likes lugging around heavy items and 2) You need space to add stuff if you make purchases. This will just make your life easier, especially if you plan to rely on public transportation during your trip.
For a comprehensive list of everything to take on your trip, you can download my tried and tested packing list below:
Summary | How to Plan an International Trip
Congrats – you now know how to plan a trip! Thanks for sticking through this lengthy post all the way to the end :). In summary, here are all the steps covered in this post:
- Decide where to go – Do this 4-5 months out, if you can
- Book your flights – Timing will vary by destinations, but book based on provided guidelines
- Identify your travel philosophy – Know how YOU like to travel; Can be done simultaneously with #1 and #2
- Make your travel budget – And make sure it fits into your annual budget 😉
- Book additional transportation – More planes, trains, cars and the like; Do this at least two months out
- Research entry requirements – Know which documentation you need to enter another country; Do this ad the same time as Step 5
- Decide where to stay – Book your dream hotel / hostel / B&B; Book at least 1.5 months out
- Identify and book activities – Decide what to do and where to eat
- Plan daily logistics – Map out where you’ll be going and don’t over plan; Do this in step with #7 and #8
- Organize your trip details – Put it all together! You can do this last, but best case is to do it as you book
- Learn what to expect – Understand the cultural norms and safety situation of the place you visit; Do this a few weeks out
- Decide what to pack – Your last step! Keep the destination in mind as you get ready to go
If you follow all of these steps, your result will be an itinerary that you can be proud of!
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