You have just decided you need to head off for your first trip away – but now what? It’s so exciting, and there are so many places that you want to go, but you have no idea how to plan a trip. Perhaps this is the first time you will be traveling internationally. You are also doing this on a budget and need all the helpful tips you can get to save money. Should you just make your way to the local travel agent and get them to sort it all out? Before you do that, read through this step by step guide to planning your trip, and you might just decide it’s so easy you don’t need that travel agent.
This step by step guide assumes that you have a few months to organise your trip. If you don’t have as much time, some things may need to be done earlier in the schedule. A good example of this could be getting immunisations if a course is needed with injections a few weeks apart.
- 1 Step One – Research Places to Go
- 2 Step Two – Get Time Off Work Approved
- 3 Step Three – Decide Where to Go
- 4 Step Four – Check Your Passport
- 5 Step Five – Check Visa Requirements
- 6 Step Six – Decide on the Basic Itinerary
- 7 Step Seven – Book Flights
- 8 Step Eight – Get Travel Insurance
- 9 Step Nine – Check Your Immunisations
- 10 Step Ten – Book Accommodation
- 11 Step Eleven – Book Tours
- 12 Step Twelve – Research Restaurants and Attractions
- 13 Step Thirteen – Research Local Transportation
- 14 Step Fourteen – Check Medications
- 15 Step Fifteen – Check Access to Money
- 16 Step Sixteen – Phones and wifi
- 17 Step Seventeen – Luggage and Packing
- 18 Step Eighteen – Go!
Step One – Research Places to Go
This is the thing you can start doing the minute you decide to take a trip! In fact, you have probably been doing it for years already, but now you need to get serious. We all have places on our bucket lists that we want to go to “someday”, and now is the time to start narrowing them down to a few options.
You need to start reading everything you can on the potential locations. I like to go to my local library and borrow a Lonely Planet guide or something similar. At this point it doesn’t have to be the latest edition, you are looking for basic details and general things to see.
Start Googling too. One of my favourite searches is “Things to do in XXXX blog”. I usually put the word blog in now because otherwise the search brings back a multitude of lists from Trip Advisor and other similar sites that have little information and variety.
Surf Netflix for travel documentaries. Think Anthony Bourdain, or Departures, or any one of a number of other shows. Cooking shows also often have travel information in them, and can help you find places to eat and interesting foods to try.
Check out organised tours. You don’t necessarily need to go on one, but they might give you some ideas on itineraries and travel options.
Step Two – Get Time Off Work Approved
This seems like a small step, but I don’t know how many times I have heard stories of people booking a trip, then their boss decides they can’t have the time off work. There may also be limitations you don’t expect or know about that could alter the dates you choose. Perhaps another colleague has already booked their leave at the same time, or there is something important happening that you can’t miss.
At one stage I had three different holidays in mind depending on whether my boss approved one, two, or three weeks of leave. That time I was lucky, he approved all three weeks and I was able to go to Vietnam.
I suggest getting your leave approved in writing too, just to cover yourself.
Step Three – Decide Where to Go
Now that you know the exact dates you have available, you can decide where to go from your shortlist taking into consideration time of year and the amount of days you have available. There is no point, for example, in planning to go to the Greek Islands in January, when due to the low season many services are closed or restricted. Or heading off to see the Northern Lights in July, when there is almost continual daylight. You also probably don’t want to fly half way around the world on a complicated itinerary of flights if you only have seven days available.
In my example above I had three potential South East Asian areas I had researched. I had decided one week in Hong Kong would be plenty of time to do everything I wanted to there, and two weeks on Borneo would allow me to climb Mt Kinabalu plus see a few other things I had on my list.
If you are really stuck choosing between two places, remember that you can always go to the other one another time – this will not be your only trip. To narrow it down even further, look at the costs of travel and decide if the locations fit your budget. There are certain places where I am happy to travel on a budget, but others that I would prefer to have a little more money to be able to splurge. For example, in Dubai I’d love to have a fancy high tea at the Burj al Arab – but that does not come cheap. In Thailand it’s noodles and beers on the beach as the sun goes down, a much more budget friendly location.
Step Four – Check Your Passport
Don’t have a passport and you want to travel internationally? Now is the time to start the paperwork to get one. It’s good to do it a few months in advance to save any last minte stress. Even if you think you have plenty of time, sometimes things go wrong that delay the process. Once my photograph was rejected when it got sent off the the passport processing office. It was taken and approved at my interview with all the other paperwork, but I received a letter a couple of weeks later telling me I would have to go and get it done again and resubmit it.
Even if you already have a passport, actually pull it out of it’s storage space and check the expiry dates. Most countries require you to have at least six months validity on your passport or they will not let you in. In fact, you will likely not be allowed to board your flight when it is discovered at check in that there is less than six months left. Some countries have partnerships with others that allow less time, but six months is a good benchmark to abide by. If your passport will have less than that during your trip, get it renewed now.
Make copies of your passport, drivers license and any other important documents you may need. Include, for example, copies of prescriptions and your marriage certificate if travelling in the Middle East. (I was never asked for it, but better to have it than not)
Step Five – Check Visa Requirements
For some of us, most countries are visa free or automatic visa on arrival, but that doesn’t mean all are. Make sure you check the visa requirements of the country you are planning to visit. The best place to do this is on the country’s offical embassy website. Sometimes though the information can be difficult to find and understand.
My starting point is often the government website for foreign travel. Here in Australia that is Smart Traveller. Amongst other information such as current safety conditions and local laws, they provide information on entry and exit requirements. Normally this is a summary with a link to the official embassy page to find further information.
Once you know if you need a visa, check on how to get it. It might be as simple as going online to fill in a form, or it may require things like letters of invitation that you will need to arrange. Know what is involved before you book, just in case you discover you will not be allowed entry.
There are many countries now that require some form of electronic approval before entry, even if you don’t technically need a visa. The USA for example, has their ESTA, Canada has an ETA, as does Australia. The EU is talking about bringing one in too. I am sure there are also many other countries that have similar requirements, or may in the future. Always check for these too, and if you are eligible – not everyone is. If you already have one, check that it is still valid for the time period you will be travelling, otherwise apply for another in the weeks before you leave.
Step Six – Decide on the Basic Itinerary
Once the destination is chosen, and you are happy that you will be able to enter the country, start putting together the outline of your itinerary. At this point I would be deciding which towns to stay in during my trip, and how many nights in each town.
Now this doesn’t have to be set in stone, but we are working towards the next step of booking flights, so flights to and from the country, and any internal flights need to be worked out. If internal travel is all by local transport, there can be a little more flexibility.
Step Seven – Book Flights
It’s finally time to book flights. I always start my flight searches on Skyscanner. You could also use Google Flights as well. I put in my dates and where I am going to fly into and start looking at the many options that will be returned. Sometimes there will straight away be an obvious bargain, but other times in may not be so clear. There could be a cheap flight, but it has a long layover somewhere. Or it could leave or land at a bad time of the day. Or perhaps it’s for a discount airline and once you add on luggage and meals it is not so cheap anymore.
If you are still not finding the perfect flights, another place to include in your searching is the local airport website for your destination. All the airlines that fly there will be listed, and that may give you some more ideas. Remember, while most airlines are on Skyscanner or Google Flights, not all of them are.
Once I have a good idea of the flights I want to book, I usually will go to the website of the airlines involved and book them direct. Sometimes it may be a dollar or two more expensive, but if anything goes wrong, it’s easier to deal with without a third party involved. The other risk of using a third party is if they get into financial difficulties, you may be left without a ticket at all.
Step Eight – Get Travel Insurance
As soon as your flights are booked, make sure you have travel insurance. From right now, anything could go wrong and you could lose the money you have just paid for those flights. Perhaps a volcano starts rumbling, and is still at it when your trip happens – if you take the insurance out after there is a known risk, they may not cover you. Perhaps you get sick or break a bone that won’t be healed in time. Once I start booking, I always make sure I am covered if something goes wrong. Remember, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.
In my case this means one of two things. I can ensure that the credit card I have used to pay for the flights has international travel insurance and that I have met the requirements for it to be valid. Sometimes you have to register the trip details with the insurance company, so make sure you do that step if needed.
My other option, and one I often take if my credit card insurance isn’t going to cover everything I want it to, is to purchase travel insurance. In recent years I have used CoverMore (an Australian company) for my insurance. They are not the cheapest, but I’ve not had an issue with them and they have the cover I want. Another good option that is available to everyone worldwide, and is especially good if you are no longer in your home country, is World Nomads.
Step Nine – Check Your Immunisations
If you are planning on heading off to somewhere exotic, check if you need any immunisations. If you have had them in the past, then check if you need a booster. I suggest doing this early in the planning process since some immunisations require more than one dose. Hepatitis B, for example, is done over three months. Sometimes, too, these can be quite expensive, so this gives you the chance to plan for that expense rather than find out a few weeks before you leave.
Step Ten – Book Accommodation
Booking accommodation now means you start looking at where you want to stay in a city in more detail. Sure you want to go to New York City, but exactly WHERE in NYC do you want to be? Most cities it’s a fairly easy decision, you will just somewhere close to the city centre, but sometimes it’s not so easy. Perhaps you want to be near the airport because you have a very late/early flight. Maybe it’s not a flight but a train. Maybe you have a hire car and need somewhere with easy parking. Maybe public transport is important.
I book almost all my accommodation on Booking.com. There are literally thousands of properties in most big cities, ranging from apartments to hostels to five star hotels. I like to have the option of booking cancellable accommodation if I haven’t one hundred percent locked down my itinerary.
When deciding where to stay, have a good look at the reviews. It’s important to think about what is important to you when you travel. You may be happy to go with a less luxurious room, so long as you have a pool and great wifi. Maybe you don’t need wifi, but want a nice bathtub to soak in. Maybe you are after a really good breakfast. If other people are saying these things are good or bad, that can help you decide. Often too, just because a place has wifi, for example, doesn’t mean it’s good enough for Netflix!
Step Eleven – Book Tours
Next book any big ticket items or must-do tours for your trip. You want to book them in before any of the smaller attractions at they are harder to move around if they are not available on a certain day. You also want to make sure those things that you absolutely must do are reserved and you don’t miss out because they are sold out. This can be common with some of the big attractions, like Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam.
Step Twelve – Research Restaurants and Attractions
Now that you have got all of the big things in your itinerary, it’s time to start researching all the little details. Have an idea of other things you may want to do in each location, like walking tours or museums. If you are a foodie then start looking at restaurants you may like to visit. Is nightlife your thing? Check out the bars and clubs you may want to go to.
Mostly these won’t be things you will need to book, but perhaps you will want to reserve tables at popular restaurants, or purchase skip the line tickets for busy attractions (many of these can be purchased through the booking links above).
This is also a good time to investigate any city passes. Some of these can be really worth while, others may not be. It will all depend on your requirements. If a card includes public transport but you are not going to be using public transport, then it may not be worthwhile. Many city passes can again be found on Viator, Get Your Guide and Klook, but for the US and Canada, you can also look at CityPass.
Step Thirteen – Research Local Transportation
When I arrive in a new city I like to know exactly how I am going to get to my accommodation. I will opt for public transport if I can, so I need to research the public transport systems that are available. I also tend to use public transport to get around during my stay, so knowing things like which websites to use to get around, the approximate prices, if I need a transport card or just buy tickets on board are important.
It could also be useful to know which is the popular ride sharing app in case you need to use it. While we are used to Uber in Australia, the US and Europe, it’s good to know Grab is the way to go in South East Asia and in India it’s Ola. Lyft is also popular in the US. Some cities – like Vancouver for example – don’t have any ride sharing at all.
Sometimes you will want to hire a rental car to help you get around. The best site I have found for getting a great price is RentalCars.com. They are like some of the big airline or accommodation sites in that they search a whole pile of the rental car companies all at the same time making it easy to compare.
Step Fourteen – Check Medications
If you take any prescription medications, check if you can take them into the countries you are visiting. Some places will allow them with a doctors letters, others require online approval before you travel. Some medications are completely banned. Countries that immediately spring to mind for this are Japan and the UAE. Do this with plenty of time to spare to allow you to come up with alternatives or do applications if required.
Check now that you have taken copies of all prescriptions if you hadn’t done it earlier and include with your documentation.
Step Fifteen – Check Access to Money
Think about how you are going to access your money while you are travelling. Do you have contingency plans in place if, for example, your cards get stolen?
Also look at bank charges on any cards you have and consider looking into opening accounts (both credit card and transaction accounts) that do not have any international transaction fees.
I recommend only picking up a small amount of foreign currency before you travel. Firstly it’s safer not to carry lots of cash on you, and you will also find you will get the best exchange rates from a local ATM on arrival.
Step Sixteen – Phones and wifi
Think about how you are going to use your phone during your trip. Many people will be happy with just using free wifi whenever you can get it – I was for most of my gap year and many of my other trips. There are so many places now that have wifi everywhere, so it’s quite easy to find some if you need it.
It you would like to have some data on your phone, but don’t think you will need any calls, pick up a data sim on arrival at your destination. Many places have a short term tourist sim that should cater for your needs. Remember if you are picking up a sim that you will need to check with your home telephone company that your phone is not locked to their network.
If you want to be able to call and text as well as have data, you can also pick up a local sim on arrival. You will have to look at packages that include calls and decide which one suits your needs.
It’s a really simple process to get a sim at most airports, taking only a few minutes. I always get the employee to put the sim in, activate it and make sure it is working before we leave the store. I also ask exactly how to check the balance – usually it’s a text to a certain number. Sometimes it can be hard to find that information if the welcome texts from the telco come through in a foreign language.
If you are in a group, perhaps investigate getting a wifi hotspot for your trip rather than individual sim cards. Most of them allow ten devices to be connected at once. This will be much more cost effective, particularly if you have some teenagers with you. Again, these can usually be booked in advance and either picked up at the airport or be delivered to your accomodation before your arrival.
Step Seventeen – Luggage and Packing
It starts to get exciting when you pack! But before packing, have a good think about which luggage you are taking on this trip. Will you be taking a backpack or a suitcase? Carry on only or are you checking luggage? Have a think about where you are staying and how you are getting around. Suitcases don’t work so well on European cobblestones or in all the old building with no lifts. They can also be hard to manoeuvre in Asia too. You do not have to be a backpacker to use a backpack if the area you are travelling in means it will be a lot easier for you.
Also think hard about what you are taking. Whether you have a backpack or a suitcase, both will be much easier to deal with if they are not so heavy. I kept my pack to around 12kg for the whole of my gap year, and I probably could have gone even lighter. It’s amazing what you can do without when you don’t need it. Honestly, you do not need a different outfit every day with matching shoes!
Step Eighteen – Go!
And finally it’s time to go! All that is left is to check in for your flight head to the airport, and have the best trip ever!
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.