In the last couple of years, we’ve really upped our traveling game, which means I’ve gotten a lot of practice planning big trips; we’ve gone to France, Spain, Italy, and Hawaii, while I ventured off to Italy again this year with the ladies. In planning these trips, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve learned a ton. These are the steps I follow to plan an epic trip.
1. decide where you want to go (& when)
This can really be as general or specific as you want, but should at least be narrowed down to a country or a region.
Make sure it is attainable (i.e., think about the number of days you can allot to the trip).
When I planned our trip to Europe in 2015, we had 17 days, and we decided we wanted to go to France, Spain, and Italy. Perfectly reasonable, right?
When planning WHEN to go, think about what the weather will be like, if you’re a person who is picky about what the weather is like when you travel, like me (I like to travel when it’s warmer, so I don’t have to pack bulky clothes; plus I don’t like to freeze my ass off).
2. decide what you want to do & how many days you need to do it
In my humble opinion, how many days you stay in a place depends on what you want to do there.
Keep in mind how long it takes you to get to each place. If you’re going to be on a train for 9 hours and you only have a week to explore, do you really want to waste an entire day on a train?
USE TRIPADVISOR. It is the holy grail. Read reviews, figure out what you want to do, and make a list.
It’s very possible (indeed probable) that you’ll have to cross things off that list at some point, but it’s somewhere to start, at least.
Once you’ve completed your list, figure out what you absolutely cannot live without doing, and put those at the top of your list. For everything else, it’s a perk if you can fit it in, but it is not essential to your trip being as epically awesome as possible.
Based on the number of things you MUST DO in each place, figure out how many days you’ll need to be there in order to make those dreams a reality.
For example, when we were in France, we absolutely wanted to see the Louvre, Normandy, Versailles, the Musee D’Orsay, Hotel des Invalides (Army Museum), and the Paris Catacombs. I researched how many hours travelers typically gave to each place, and we gave ourselves four (very packed) days in Paris.
3. map out the places you want to go
Put each location into a logical order based on geography (duh). Then you can figure out where you want to fly in and out of.
You can do this first, of course, and plan your trip around that if you like. That is, admittedly, what we did; we flew in and out of Paris and then determined the loop we needed to make to get from point A to B to C to D and back again.
I have heard rumors that it’s cheaper to buy two one-way tickets than it is to buy roundtrip tickets, so take that into consideration.
Start pricing plane tickets about 10-12 months before you want to go (that’s really the earliest you can start stalking websites anyway).
If you can map out your trip before you buy your plane tickets, you could score some deals on one-way tickets (and not waste that extra day retracing your steps to the airport of origin).
I’ve also heard a rumor that prices are cheaper on Tuesday evenings and that it’s best to buy international tickets 8 months before your departure date. For domestic flights, it’s 3 months before (or something like that; there are so many tips out there on this stuff).
4. book your hotel or airbnb
I usually do this around 4 months before our departure.
For my last two international trips, we utilized a combination of hotels and Airbnbs during our stays.
I typically reserve Airbnbs for longer stays, because: a) they’re often cheaper than hotels and 2) they offer a more authentic experience, but they’re also a little more inconvenient because you have to specify a time to meet your host, etc.
I also love Airbnbs because you can specify the amenities you want—washer and dryer, full kitchen, etc. You can save money by cooking some meals at your home away from home, and you can pack light because you can do laundry.
Hotels tend to be more convenient for shorter stays.
5. book your excursions
You’ve already done the legwork, deciding what you want to do and researching different excursions on TripAdvisor. I usually do this 2-3 months before departure.
6. book your transportation from point A to B to C
About a month before you’re set to leave (primarily because they don’t post them sooner), start researching the modes of transportation you’ll need to utilize: trains, automobiles, ferries, etc.
When in Europe, we love to take the trains; they’re often pretty inexpensive, they’re fast, and you can travel in relative comfort.
I base our train times on our excursions and the check-in times at our various dwellings (some Airbnb hosts have specific check-in times you must adhere to).
Just a tip for you guys: Keep an eye on the departure boards, as they don’t post the gates until about 10 minutes (sometimes less) before they’re set to leave. Once it’s posted, make the mad dash to the appropriate coach (listed on your ticket).
If you need to take ferries anywhere, typically you can get those right before you need to leave. But it’s helpful to at least have the timetable on hand so you can figure out what times might work best for you, depending on what you’ve got going on that day or when your trains are, etc.
7. research unique things to do, places to eat, etc. (optional)
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a little crazy when it comes to planning trips. I want to have the best experience possible, and that includes doing some touristy stuff, sure, but it also includes doing things that are a little more off the beaten path and, of course, eating delicious food.
Thank God the blogisphere is no slouch when it comes to offering up unique experiences and orgasmic food experiences.
Unless you are independently wealthy (I wish), I highly recommend spreading these things out, rather than paying for them all at once. Your plane tickets are most often the most expensive part of your trip, but you can give yourself a couple of months to rebound from that expense before you dive into the other stuff.
PIN for later:
- 6 tips for making travel more affordable
- how to beat jetlag in 4 simple steps
- my international travel checklist