How to Plan the Perfect Trip Without Breaking the Bank
PART 2: RESEARCH & BOOKING
Now that you have your destination and budget nailed down, it’s time to get into the meat of travel planning aka the fun part!
You can never research too much, you can however, research too little, which can ruin or severely slow down your trip. There’s nothing worse than showing up to a must-see attraction only to find out you needed to book tickets in advance and they are sold out for the day. I always tell people to research your destination as much as possible ahead of time. Doing all of the legwork up front not only sets you for a smooth trip, it also saves you loads of time and stress once you’re at your destination.
Once you decide on a location, hit up the library and check out a few books on your destination. I personally like to make notes in my books, so I will usually purchase the book I like the most out of the books I borrowed. It’s also helpful to bring the book with you whether in physical or digital format to look up information or maps on the fly. Although, don’t limit your research to printed books, as they can grow outdated quickly especially when it comes to hotels and restaurants, so be sure to take your search to the web as well. Travel blogs, YouTube, TripAdvisor, friends/acquaintances, Facebook travel groups, and so on can be immensely informative and helpful when it comes to planning. Be sure to check out my list of travel resources for a list of sites I use.
(Book up 4-9 months in advance for international flights and 2-6 for domestic)
Chances are you’re headed to a locale that is more than a few hours drive away and will need to fly to get there (unless you have a magic time machine that will transport you anywhere in the world, and aren’t telling us about it!). If you’re anything like me, booking flights makes me nervous. Did I pick the right flight? Did I book too early? Did I get the best price? Maybe I paid too much. What if it’s cheaper tomorrow… Finding the perfect flight for an great price might seem like an impossible task, but it’s easier than you think, and, as much as you want to, do not book your flight right away!
- Keep Your Dates Flexible
One surefire way to find cheap flights is to keep your dates flexible. Apps like Hopper, Skyscanner, and Kayak are great with predicting prices and giving an overview of when your route is cheapest. I personally prefer Hopper and use it the most because of it’s functionality and features, user-friendly interface, and the fact it has saved me thousands of dollars on flights. Most recently, I was able to book a round-trip ticket from Chicago to Singapore for $370! Skyscanner is also a great resource for finding great deals on flights, and many swear by it for finding stellar deals as well.
- Set Up Notifications
Another way to save big on flights is to set up notifications and monitor your desired route. The app/website does all the work for you and notifies you if a price drops, nearby route has a great price, and sends periodic updates of the price along with future price predictions. When you see a price you like, book is asap, or it might disappear in a matter of hours (or minutes)!
- Search Nearby Routes
If you live in or are headed to a city with a smaller airport, there’s no way around it, prices are always going to be higher. Smaller airports = less flights = higher demand and the airlines being able to charge higher prices. Searching flights from a larger airport will almost always return cheaper flights. One thing you do have to factor in is gas to get there and parking costs, which can add up.
Example: I live in Grand Rapids, MI and the results for flights from GRR –> SIN came back at around $1200, however, the same route from DTW –> SIN was $1000 (not a great savings), but from ORD –> SIN was around $600. Half the price! It definitely pays to look around and drive a couple of hours to save big.
- Forego The Direct Flight
We all love direct flights. The less stops the better, but you pay for time and convenience, so it’s not a surprise that direct flights cost more. A quick and easy way to save some cash is to forego the direct flight. A quick layover will only cost you an hour or two of time and could shave a hundred or more off your ticket price, so it’s a win in my book.
- Book on a Budget Carrier
As travelers become more and more budget conscious, the airline industry is wising up, and budget airlines are popping up left and right. In the US, Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest, Jet Blue, and Spirit, and are all decent options and will get you from point A to point B without the frills. Worldwide, look for WOWair, Norwegian Air, Air Asia, or JetStar for a cost effective ticket across the pond. Keep in mind that although you save money on your base ticket, almost everything is extra with these airlines. From printing your boarding pass and checking luggage, to picking your seat and meals— they all have extra fees, which can add up quick. Do your research to see what is and isn’t included and weigh your options to see if it really is cheaper to go this route.
PRO TIP: Use the same credit card (preferably a travel one with high earning rewards) to book all of your travel items on. You’ll not only have all of the expenses in one place, you’ll also maximize earning rewards.
Lots of experts like to put a magic number of days before your trip to book, or to book on a certain day of the week. I’m not sure how accurate those numbers actually are because I’ve never used those rules of thumb. Personally, I like to start looking at flights around 6-9 months before my trip to get a feel for where the pricing is. Then I set up notifications and wait it out. When I see a price I can live with, I’ll book directly with the airline. Whatever you do though, do not wait until the last minute. Give yourself plenty of time to monitor prices to get yourself the best possible price regardless of what airline you end up flying.
Most of us can’t afford to fly first class all the time (or if you’re like me, at all), so here are a few tips on how to make coach feel like first class.
(Book up 1-4 months in advance depending on hotel and location)
Once you have your date and flights booked, it’s time to move on to where you are going to sleep. Flights and accommodations will make up the bulk of the expense of your trip, and hotels around the world can widely vary in quality and cost, so keep your expectations in check when planning. A five star hotel in Spain might cost $300/night where as a five star hotel in Vietnam might cost $80/night.
Unlike airline ticket prices, hotel pricing will usually stay pretty consistent, and using a booking site will typically garner the best price. I like to use Agoda.com for hotels in Asia and Expedia for everywhere else. These sites will ofter offer special pricing and sales for members that help you save even more, so be sure to sign up for their email lists to stay in the know.
PRO TIP: Always be sure to book your accommodations in advance! You would not believe the number of travelers that choose to wait and find a place when they get there. Don’t do it! Unless you like staying in a seedy hotel in a back alley.
Choosing Where To Stay
With a sea of accommodations out there from hotels and hostels to Airbnbs and homestays, it can be hard to choose where you want to stay. But not unlike real estate it’s all about location, location, location. If you have a short time in a city, location is key. You want to be be where the sights, great restaurants, nightlife and transportation is or at least close by. Be prepared to pay a premium price for convenience— but trust me, it’s worth it. You’ll save not only time, but money if you are able to walk or take public transit to the sights around a city. Plus, you get a up close and personal experience of the location you’re in.
Before you decide on an accommodation, it’s helpful to answer these questions:
- What area is it in? Is the area safe, particularly at night?
- Does the location help or hinder my overall experience (is it easy to get to, close to sights, walkable, etc)?
- Is it close to public transportation?
- What type of experience am I looking for (hostel, spa, five star, homestay, etc)?
- What are people saying about it? Does it have good reviews?
Booking Flights and Accommodations
Oh happy day! You just got that magical price drop notification. Now book that flight or hotel– stat! These deals usual change quickly, especially for flights, so if you see a price you are comfortable paying, grab it. It’s always best to book directly with the hotel/carrier or large reputable site such as Expedia, Booking.com, etc., so check their sites directly for the price you were notified of, more times than not they will offer a similar price. By booking direct, you protect yourself from dodgy booking sites whose offers can be too be true, and often are. I’ve heard numerous horror stories from travelers that have gotten ripped off, and left with no money or vacation.
(Book in 1-2 weeks in advance for in-demand activities, or a day or two ahead for regular activities)
Narrowing down what to do and see in a destination is what I personally have the most trouble with. There’s so much information out there that is constantly changing that it’s hard to keep up. If you’re anything like me, I want the full city experience shoved in to one day. I have lofty dreams of seeing everything in a limited amount of time, then reality hits. It’s impossible to see Rome in six hours, or two weeks, or one month…
You will never see everything you want to see in the short amount of time you have. I have experienced this lesson many, many times, and am still disappointed every time (you’d think I’d learn!). I have however, learned to adapt my planning process. Lists, fellow travelers, are your friend; and when it comes to travel planning, I’m the queen of lists.
When you hit this stage of planning, as you research, create a list of everything you want to see in your destination. If you can, include addresses, hours, website, etc. The more information you include, the better. It’s likely that if you are in an international destination you will have limited access to wifi/data and you’ll save loads of time if you have all of that info at your fingertips. If you want to go a step further, arrange those items by neighborhood with must-see sights listed first. You might be thinking “Wow, that’s so much work! I don’t have time to do all that. Can’t I just decide what I want to do when I get there?” Sure, if you want to waste precious time while your there figuring out what you want to do and how to get there. You have a short amount of time, don’t waste it because of lack of planning! I’ll say it again, you can never plan too much.
Figuring Out What To See
As I mentioned, I like to start out with travel books to lay out the basics of what I want to see, that’s where they really shine. Books from Lonely Planet, Fodders, or Frommer’s do a great job of covering the top sites in a particular location, but tend to not be super current or detailed when it comes to a local’s perspectives. With information now at the tip of your fingers, it’s relatively easy to fill in the gaps. There are tons of really amazing travel bloggers out there just waiting to share their information with you. Their info will not only be current and helpful, but will give you an insiders look at what it’s really like to travel in a particular destination. A quick Google search will return hundreds of posts, so be specific with what you’re looking for. “Food tours in Rome” or “The best things to see at the Vatican” will give much better and more detailed results than “Thing to do in Rome.” Additionally, Trip Advisor, Google Maps, Expedia, etc are all great places to see reviews and experiences from real people who been there, and is a great way to discover if an activity is worth the time and/or money.
PRO TIP: Do as the experts do. Check out what activities are included or recommended on group tours to gain inspiration.
Another trick I like to do to get inspiration for my trips is to check out what activities are offered or recommended on group travel itineraries. Trips offered by Intrepid, Tour Radar, G Adventures, and even Viking Cruises (for a slower pace) is a great place to start. Their trips are curated by experts, well paced, and cover a mix of touristy and local sights. Additionally, the trips are updated often, so you know activities listed are current. I got a lot of ideas for my trip to Vietnam doing this. As soon as you come across something that piques your interest, add it to your travel planning list for safe keeping. It will help keep your brainstorming majorly organized.
Free & Discounted Activities
Regardless of where you go, the cool thing is, there will always be free things to do! If you’re wanting a more budget-friendly trip, getting creative with DIY tours and taking advantage of free activities will save you a bundle.
Often during the week, or certain times throughout the year, attractions such as museums, zoos, parks, etc. will offer free or discounted days, you can usually find this info on their website or call ahead for information. Maybe you’ll luck out and catch the timing right! Additionally, a ton of locations also offer free city tours. One of my favorites is Sandemans NewEurope Tours, which offers free tours in 19 cities across Europe! If you’re curious about the best free things to do in a particular city just Google “Free things to do in…”, you’ll be surprised at what comes up, and your wallet will thank you.
Purchasing a city pass for a destination can also save you a ton— sometimes even up to 50%. It includes entry to all of the hottest attractions at a steeply discounted price. Additionally these passes usually include free rides on public transportation during the days it’s valid and special lines to skip the normal queues — bonus!
Technology has made it easier than ever to plan your trip on the go and find great options around the world, especially thanks to Google.
However, I always find it a challenge to stay organized before, during, and after a trip. Which is why it’s a great idea to try to book advance activities and tours through the same booking company or agency. I personally love using Viator. They give vetted options for tours and activities in hundreds of cities around the world run by local operators, and offer reviews from people who have experienced them. I find it comforting knowing these are legit operators that I’m not going to get ripped off by. Viator also gives support should something go wrong, and all of your bookings are housed in their convenient app. Many tour operators will accept the confirmation page on the app as your “ticket,” so there’s no need to tote around a bunch of sheets of paper that might get lost along the way. Just be sure to read the small print to make sure they accept mobile tickets and discover any additional important information you may need (like confirming the reservation, inclusions and exclusions, pick up/meeting times and so on). I also love that in addition to regular tours, there are some “exclusive” and private tours and activities that can be booked as well, which ensures there really is something for everyone depending on your particular interest.
For some must-see sights, booking ahead is essential. It’s not uncommon for The Vatican Museum or the Coliseum in Rome to have up to a 3 hour wait just to get in, and if you want to get inside Park Güell in Barcelona without a ticket purchased ahead of time, forget it (lesson learned!). I can’t stress enough the importance of planning ahead! Once you have your ticket in hand, you’ll feel like a VIP as you walk straight past the suckers wasting their whole day in in line and right in to the sight.
Booking ahead not only ensures you get to do the activities you have your heart set on, it also can save you cash. Many attractions sweeten the deal by offering nice discounts by booking online or purchasing a few days in advance.
If you prefer the mix and match method, be sure to keep info on each activity in the same location for easy access.
PRO TIP: If you are taking a cruise and want to take advantage of shore excursions, booking through a site like Viator vs. directly through the cruise line can save up to half price on pretty much the same excursion.
Food & Drink
(Book in 1-14 days in advance for popular restaurants and a up to 6 months for hard-to-get reservations)
A highlight of any trip I take is always the food! From street food in a bustling alleyway to a 5 star 10-course meal, one of the things I remember the most about a place is its cuisine. Food brings people together, and the best way to discover the true heart of a destination is through its food. So be sure to plan accordingly so you don’t miss out!
A lot of people get worried about getting sick from eating where the locals eat, but it’s difficult to have an authentic experience by only eating in restaurants catered to tourists. The local joints always have the best food, and I personally have yet to get sick eating at these places (knock on wood). You just have to be smart about it.
Here are a few things to keep in mind while choosing a food vendor:
- Pay attention to how busy it is – the best stalls and restaurants are always busy and filled with locals. It also means the food is super fresh, hasn’t been sitting around long, and is served at the correct temperature.
- Try to see where their water is coming from – it’s important they are using filtered water in all items that are being consumed — food, beverage, and ice.
- Watch to see how they are washing their dishes and handling food and money. Cross-contamination happens really easily, but can also be easily avoided.
When traveling, I like be sure to incorporate a variety of eating styles, and one of the best ways to eat your way around a city is by going on a food tour. You get access to a local guide that knows their way around the city, where all of the best spots and hidden gems are, and great stories about the history of the city; tremendously deepening the overall experience. My husband and I have made it a goal to go on a food tour in every new city we visit now!
PRO TIP: Have your heart set on a high-end restaurant but don’t want to pay the high-end price? Try going for lunch instead! You’ll get the same quality of food and experience for a fraction of the price.
Passports & Visas
One of the most overlooked, and most important item for a trip abroad is your passport and visas. I’m not sure what the process is like in other countries, but applying for a US passport is pretty simple. If it’s your first passport, you need to apply in person at a passport acceptance office (often at post offices) and provide the required documentation and a passport photo, which can be obtained from most stores with a photo processing center. If you are renewing your passport, this can be done by mail as long as it was issued within the last 15 years and is undamaged.
Processing times and costs can vary, but generally regular processing times are 4-6 weeks at a cost of $135 for new and $110 for renewals, and expedited are 2-3 weeks at an additional cost of $60. It is not a quick process, so if you know you need one, apply right away!
PRO TIP: Keep an eye on your passport’s expiration date. As a general rule, passports should have at least six months of validity left when traveling internationally. Most countries will not permit a traveler to enter their country unless the passport is set to expire at least six months after the final day of travel.
Even though you have a passport, many countries still require a special visa upon arrival. It’s becoming more popular for e-visas to now be offered, but be sure to research the visa rules regarding the countries you plan on visiting. Generally 4-6 weeks is ideal for applying. You can check to see if a travel visa is required here.
Additionally, most countries require:
- A passport containing one blank visa page that is valid for 6 months past the date that you will enter the country
- Proof of sufficient funds
- Proof of onward or return flights
- All documents required for your next destination
So be sure that you have the appropriate documentation when going through customs to avoid problems.
Have any travel horror stories or things you forgot to plan for? Share them in the comments below!
Other posts in this series:
Part 1 – Getting Started + Choosing a Location & Budget