11 Hints for Planning a Big Trip

I have my way of travel planning – you need to take the approach that you are most comfortable with. And your approach will likely change over time. For most of my travel, I have done all of the research and planning myself. Here are my suggestions about tools to have in your belt:

  1. For a major trip, give yourself time to dream and research. Wander websites. Look for articles in magazines and newspapers about cool places to visit. Most importantly, decide what kind of trip you want to do, what kind of experience you want to have. Are you looking for culture – museums, castles, performing arts? Are you looking to party, or relax? Do you want an outdoor adventure or do you want to immerse yourself in a city? How can you mix it up? How can you give yourself down time to relax? Once you have a vision of what your vacation will look like (and you’ve discussed it with your travel buddies), then:
  2. Get a tripadvisor.com account and use it. It is your best friend for reading reviews of hotels, restaurants and activities, looking at photos to get an idea of what a place is like, etc. Don’t take these reviews as gospel – there’s always that one person who is unhappy or has ridiculous expectations.
  3. If you are going to Europe, get Rick Steves’ books for the area you are considering. Start by checking out books at the library, but once you settle on a country to visit, buy the Rick Steve’s book (either a printed copy or a digital version). While Rick Steves is the best for planning an affordable trip, get other travel books at the library too. DK Eyewitness is great for looking at pictures and dreaming. Lonely Planet is great for cheap travel. Fodors and Frommers are aimed at the traveler with more money.
  4. For plane tickets, look at Expedia, Travelocity and Kayak. Also go to the websites for airlines that serve the countries you are considering. If you are going to Scandinavia or Iceland, make sure to go directly to the Iceland Air website. Also look at the Norwegian Air website (they are offering more inexpensive direct routes from the U.S. lately.) Check Air France, Lufthansa, British Air, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, Qatar, Air New Zealand, Air India, etc. depending on where you are going.
  5. For accommodations, there are many options for reducing costs. If you want to stay at a hotel, choose a local hotel (Rick Steves can provide guidance for a start, but if those hotels are booked up, look at TripAdvisor.com, Hotels.com, Booking.com, etc.)
  6. Look into VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner), which is a great choice for cities that only have expensive hotels or for vacations in the countryside. It’s also a great choice if you have more than 2 people. We were able to rent a house in Iceland for 4 adults for less cost per night than the costs for two hotel rooms (their hotel rooms generally only accommodate 2 people). Plus, you can save money on meals by cooking for yourself (especially breakfast and a picnic lunch). AirBNB can also provide these kinds of properties – just make sure you’re not finding yourself in a glorified couch-surfing situation (unless you are into that).
  7. You may want to look at staying in a hostel. It’s something to do while you are young – very inexpensive. Some are really nice. You’d meet people from all over the world. Often they only have dorm rooms where you’d be in a room with strangers, but you can also find places with private rooms and even private bathrooms. It’s also something to consider if you are older – you just might have to be ok with a little more noise, etc.
  8. Consider Accor brand hotels. This is a European hotel chain that is a real bargain for families (kids stay and eat free – you can find rooms for less money.) They are a chain and you lose the charm of a local hotel, but you gain consistency and comfort for kids. We used to stay at the Novotel hotels in Europe, when we were a family of four and just needed an affordable place to stay. If there are only 2 of you, consider the Ibis hotels.
  9. When looking at hotels, check their website, then look up the hotel on Tripadvisor to see what the reviews say. And make sure of the location of the hotel or hostel. Can you use public transportation? Is it close to the things you want to see? Is the neighborhood safe? Also make sure the hotel has internet access, preferably free wifi. If you can get free wifi at your accommodation, you’ll be able to look up info about things to do, etc. Makes it a lot easier to plan and communicate if you can use the wifi.
  10. As you plan your itinerary, don’t forget to check on the activities you want to do. Some sites require that you purchase tickets in advance – and sometimes months in advance. You can often purchase tickets online for sites like museums, allowing you to skip the line and save money. For European travel, Rick Steves can give guidance – but you have to read about it weeks/months in advance and take action! Don’t let this intimidate you – there are plenty of sites that you can just walk up to (especially in the off-season), but you don’t want to miss seeing the Alhambra in Grenada, Brooks Falls in Alaska, or the Last Supper in Milan, just because it didn’t occur to you that you should book at ticket months in advance.
  11. Write everything down in an itinerary, keep a file of all your reservations, email yourself a copy of everything, take photos of all of your documents so they are in your phone. Trust me, you’ll have a hard time remembering which hotel you booked, what time zone your plane reservation shows in your calendar, and whether you paid a deposit or the full amount in advance.

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