I’ve taken some amazing trips. And, each trip was unique. But, I plan all of my trips in very similar ways, even though the final product can look drastically different. Of the 18 days that I was in New Zealand, 16 of them were on a small group tour. But, when I backpacked Europe for four months a couple of years ago, I did not take one group tour, and was on my own the entire time. If you really want to travel, but you have no idea where to start, fear not. I will tell you exactly how to plan a trip abroad!
Establish a Budget and Time Frame
Because of my salary, and what I am willing to do to save money (click on this link to see how I save money to travel), I know that my summer trips can not cost more than $5,000. And because of this budget, and my desire to see my family during the summer, I usually travel for about a month. I do have some flexibility-I can travel anytime during the months of June and July-but I prefer June. Teaching high school and traveling is exhausting, so I like to finish my summer breaks with some R &R before the school year starts again.
Because of your job, you may only get 7 days, or 10 days, and your budget may be $2000, or, it could be more. Figure out how much money you can spend, and how much time you can take off BEFORE you choose your destination. Have you ever watched Say Yes to the Dress? You know those brides who try on wedding dresses thousands of dollars over their budget, and are disappointed when they can’t get them? Yep, that will happen to you. Don’t look at a vacation in Scandinavia if you have a low budget-you won’t be able to afford it (unless you make some major sacrifices and up your budget).
If you only have a week off of work and want to visit Australia, and you live in the United States, keep in mind the flight itself will eat up at least two of your days. When you have a week or less in a location, try to keep the flight under 8 hours. If you are based in the US, Europe, Central America, and South America are good candidates.
Location, Location, Location
Once you have a budget and a timeframe, you can start picking out destinations! There are a couple of ways to go about doing this…
1. Go with your Heart
My favorite place to get travel inspiration is from Instagram. I love looking through images, and writing down names of places that appeal to me. I’ll search for pictures that make my heart flutter, and draw me in to their beauty. And, I go on my favorite travel blog websites to see where people recommend traveling, and to get picture inspiration. Once I’ve narrowed my list down to three or so, I’ll search google images, and TripAdvisor to see more of what the country looks like, and make a list of things to do in the country/countries I’m thinking about visiting.
I get the pictures and the feeling of a place first. Then, I do a bit of research on the place to see if it is somewhere that I would actually like to visit.
2. Go with your Wallet
Instead of looking at whimsical pictures on instagram, begin your search on websites like the following:
- You can subscribe to see a list of their top 20 deals every week. They have great flight and tour deals, and give you a lot of options with regards to budget. If you’re not committed to a certain destination, this website offers you great deals on a variety of locations.
- Another great place to look for affordable airfare, cruise deals, and tour packages. You can search trips by continent-so if you have a general idea of what you want, this is a great way to narrow down your search.
- Groupon actually has a lot of cool Getaway deals. Some of them even include airfare.
The biggest thing to remember when picking a location, is to pick something that you are really excited about. Half of the fun of a trip is the anticipation leading up to it. So, make sure this location speaks to you. It could be an adventure getaway in Costa Rica, a calm river cruise in Europe, an all inclusive Mexican resort vacation, a group tour of Italy, a painting and cooking trip in France, a yoga retreat in India, or a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. No matter what it is, it should get you pumped!
Figure Out What Your Trip Will Look Like
Above I listed a few examples of trips: small group, individually backpacking, river cruise, art/cooking class, all-inclusive resort, yoga retreat, the list goes on and on. Once you have a location, there are a couple of things you have to ask yourself.
Why did I choose this location?
If you chose a specific location based upon an activity (yoga retreat) you already know what your vacation is going to look like. Or, if you love the beach and you’re dying to just sit on a beach and drink margaritas (get it girl) then you have an idea of what your vacation will entail. So think, what drew you to this specific location? You were looking for something.
What type of activities are available in this location?
If you chose Mexico because it is within your budget, but soon realize that all activities center around the beach, and you don’t like the beach, you will be better off going somewhere different. Make sure you research, see TripAdvisor, Fodor’s Travel, or Lonely Planet, to make sure that your destination has activities that interest you.
How do I want to feel on this vacation?
Do you want to feel relaxed? Adventurous? Daring? Independent? If you want to feel relaxed, don’t go on an adrenaline tour of Costa Rica. Think: does your location cater to how you want to feel while you’re on vacation? If you hate being alone, don’t go on a solo backpacking trip (unless you really want to challenge yourself and break out of your shell, go you! Just be aware of the consequences…)
What is the infrastructure of this country like?
I really enjoy Europe because of the excellent train system, and cheap airfare. You can get anywhere you want to, and it’s so simple. New Zealand, on the other hand, only had buses. Research and figure out how you can get from city to city (if you are city hopping). If destinations are really spread out, and you are uncomfortable or unable to rent a car, you may have no choice but to do a group tour. Or, if you want flexibility to go where you want, and are comfortable driving in other countries, a car is a great option. If you’re backpacking Europe and Asia, there are well-worn travel routes, and you would be fine taking public transportation the whole way.
Another thing to consider is safety (I would not go to Egypt unless I had a tour guide), and your own personal comfort (do you want to worry about travel arrangements, or would you rather have someone do it for you?) Although most countries around the world are no more dangerous than where you live, know your own limits and comfort. If you are not comfortable traveling alone, join a tour.
Do I want to travel by myself/with friends family/with a small group?
If you want complete freedom of your itinerary, the best way to travel is by yourself. This offers you the freedom to do anything that you want. If you choose, you can stay at one location longer than another, switch up your itinerary, or, you can be as neurotic as you want and stick to a plan like glue. You will not have to compromise about where to eat, where to go, or what to do. I highly recommend this version of travel.
If traveling alone is not your thing, and you have friends or family willing to travel with you, you can create an itinerary with them and have travel buddies. It is nice to have someone to share special moments and memories with (and it’s easier to get travel photos with you actually in them); but heed my warning: any quirk or issue you have with this person will be magnified times ten when you travel with them. If your friend or family member is slightly crazy when it comes to having a routine, prepare yourself for a daily itinerary, no free time, and no input on your part. Traveling with someone can be very eye opening, and can test your patience and your flexibility.
If you don’t want to plan a tour, or you don’t feel comfortable traveling by yourself, you can enroll in a group tour. Group tours are fantastic because you can see a lot in a short amount of time. If you have a good tour guide, they may even show you places that you would have never found on your own. There is a lot to be said for group tours. However, as an introvert, I find being around people constantly slightly tiring. And, oftentimes I wish I could stay longer in destinations or do different things than are on the scheduled itinerary. Just something to keep in mind.
Planning the Itinerary
1. Solo Travel/Planning your own Itinerary
So, you’ve chosen to travel solo, or take on the challenge of planning your own itinerary. Congratulations! You have a lot of work to do, but it is fun. Here’s what I do when I decide that I need to come up with my own itinerary.
1. Search for Flights
- There are many websites that recommend when to buy your ticket. If you’re flying within the U.S. (and you’re based in the U.S.) 54 days from take-off is the prime time to buy an airline ticket (backed up by studies from huffington post and cheap air. If you’re flying internationally, this number is going to be different depending on your destination. Travel and leisurely suggests looking about two to five months out when booking a flight. From personal experience, I usually book my summer flights to Europe no later than January. And, when I went to New Zealand, I booked about nine months out (prices did drop after, but not significantly). In the article they note that prices nine months out are actually the best when booking a flight to Asia.
- When looking for flights, start your search at Kayak.com. The reason why I like Kayak is because you can set up an alert for certain flights and get weekly reminders (or daily) sent to your inbox. You can see exactly when that flight price drops. And you’ll soon see patterns. For example, one flight I tracked for about two months, and the two least expensive days to buy flights were Tuesdays and Thursdays. So, I bought my ticket on a Tuesday and saved about $50.
- Other great websites include, statravel.com, which usually doesn’t have the best deals, but will let you search over the course of a month, and has discounts for teachers, students, and people under 26. Google flights is absolutely fantastic because they search everything. I’v been buying my tickets through google recently. Skyscanner is also a great tool when searching for cheap flights, especially in and around Europe. They search quite a few budget airlines.
2. Look at Websites for Itinerary Ideas
- If you know you want to go to France, and know that you want to include Paris on your schedule, but you don’t know where else to go. Take a look at some of the group tour websites that I include in the next section under Group Tour Planning. Seeing the tour’s itinerary will give you an idea of where a lot of people choose to travel in a certain country.
- Look at travel blog websites for cool places that people have been that are off the beaten path, and see if you want to visit some of the lesser-known places in a country.
- Check out websites TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet. Any question that you could ever think to ask has been asked in some of their forums. If you want to tweak your itinerary, these websites are good places to go and get some ideas.
3. Transportation within Countries
- If you’re city-hopping, research how you’re going to get from one city to the other. Flying may be a better option so you don’t waste time. If you have time, take a bus, or a train if that is an option to save money. I usually wait until about a month or two out to buy transportation within cities. I don’t do it while I’m there because I’m a planner. However, if you have a flexible itinerary, you can absolutely wait until the last minute to book transportation. This allows you the freedom to change your itinerary if you so choose.
- If you’re looking to stay in hostel, I highly recommend HostelBookers. They have a feature that allows you to see how far away from the city center a hostel is. They also have great reviews and pictures and write-ups. I usually always book with them. Hostel World is also another great place to look for hostels.
- If you’re more of a hotel person, I’ve recently fallen in love with Booking.com. They offer great deals on hotels all around the world. I also like using Hotels.com.
- If you don’t mind sleeping on other people’s couches and beds, Couchsurfing is a website that connects travelers with free accommodations all over the world. I’ve never personally used the site, but I have hung out with people who use couch surfers, and showed a few couch surfers around Tampa.
- Yelp.com offers great ideas for restaurants wherever you travel.
- TripAdvisor has great reviews on activities all over the world. You can type in an activity, and a location, and see all the companies that offer zip lining, and their reviews.
- Ask a local. Take advantage of the hotel receptionist, hostel worker, couch surfing host or tour guide. Ask them for the best places to eat, or the best place to walk around. They can also recommend good activities and reputable companies. However, hotels and hostels will often recommend companies that they have a partnership with, so it’s always good to do some outside research on your own.
- Ask your friends/read a travel blog. If your friend has been to a country that you are visiting, don’t hesitate to ask them what they did on their vacation. I love giving my friends travel advice. It makes me happy to be able to help them. And, read travel blogs! They offer in-depth reviews on unique places along with person anecdotes and opinions.
6. Other Advice
- Make a list of places/things that you must see or do. But, schedule free time. Allow for the opportunity for random meanderings, local suggestions, or activities that you discover in the city.
- Take a free walking tour. Sandeman has great walking tours of tons of cities in Europe. Always make sure you tip your host-they do have bills to pay!
- Spend your money on great experiences. There is nothing wrong with buying souvenirs, but don’t be scared to throw a bit of cash on a boat cruise, or zip lining adventure. Those great experiences are what makes your vacation extra special!
2. Group Tour Planning
1.You Still Have to do some Research
So, you’ve decided that you want to plan a group tour, exciting! First, make sure you still do your research on your chosen country. You want to make sure that your group tours hits all of your “must-haves”. For example, if you are going to Europe and are touring London and Paris, and you really want to visit Harry Potter world in London, make sure your tour visits or offers free time to complete this tour. Visit websites like Trip Advisor to make sure you know what a country has to offer.
2. Check out some Local Tours
When I went to New Zealand, I went with Haka Tours. Haka Tours is a New Zealand tour group that only operates in New Zealand. Usually, tour groups that operate in only one or two countries are more expensive, but know the areas much better and offer a wider variety of tours. Haka tours happened to be cheaper than most other group tours of New Zealand. So, do some research. I type in “small group travel” and then the name of the country into google. This will get you started.
3. Check out a few Big name Tour Groups
Even if you are planning your own itinerary, or going local, the big tour groups and itineraries will let you see what most people visit in any given country. Here are a few good ones:
It’s important to note, some of these tours cater mostly to young adults, specifically EF and Contiki. Contiki also has a reputation for being a “party tour”. This can be a good or a bad thing depending on what you are looking for in a vacation. Make sure that you do your research and pick a company that works for you.
4. Check Dates/Airfare/What’s Included
Tours only leave on certain dates, so be aware of the availability of the tours when you book. You may have to buy your own airfare, so refer to Airfare in the individual group itinerary above for great deals on booking flights. When buying the tour, also make sure you know what is and is not included. Some tours include certain meals, and transportation within a country, some, like EF College break, sometimes even include airfare. Make sure you know what you are paying for.
5. Things to Look for in Group Tours
- The tour goes where you want to go. I’m contemplating a tour to visit Egypt and Jordan. I’m making sure that my tour includes Petra, the Dead Sea, the Pyramids, and the Sphinx. Those are the things that I have researched that I want to make sure I do. Make sure your tour includes all of your must haves.
- The tour includes some stuff. Be it breakfast, local transportation, entrances to certain local attractions, transportation, a guide, ect. Some things should be included in the price of the tour.
- The vibe of the tour matches your own. If you’re traveling with a young family, don’t book a ticket on a tour known for partying. Or, if you’re really young and like to party, don’t book a tour with a group known for drawing senior citizens. If you’re interested in nature, make sure the tour caters to the natural side of a destination and not shopping and architecture and vice versa. If you don’t like to walk a lot, make sure your tour doesn’t include a lot of walking.
- The tour doesn’t spend too much time on a bus. One of the reasons for booking tours include being able to see a lot in a small amount of time. That often includes long bus rides. Make sure that the bus rides are not too long, and that you will get frequent breaks.
- Read all of the reviews. Read the best reviews, and the worst, and some in-between to understand what the tour will be like. No tour is perfect (nothing is), but be prepared for what you are walking into. You are going to be with these people for a long time.
- Ask the tour if there is a Facebook page or some place where you can interact with your traveling companions before the tour. This is a great way to get to know each other before meeting. But even if they don’t, you all will be fast friends.
- Book a single supplement if you need your alone time. You will be with people all of the time, and most tours include shared accommodations. But, most also offer single supplements for a fee. Decide if that is right for you.
Final Advice on How to Plan a Trip
The best advice I can give is to do your research. Know that it will not come together in a week, or in a month, but rather over the course of several months. And that’s okay. It’s exciting. Savor the experience. I’ve never planned a wedding, but I believe planning a trip is very similar. Enjoy every moment.
If you have any other great travel websites, or advice on planning a trip, leave a comment below!