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If there’s one thing that we’ve got down, it’s how to plan a trip!  After traveling to nearly every state in the US and roughly 40 other countries, we’ve picked up a lot of tips and tricks from our experiences planning trips. No matter if it’s a quick weekend vacation, an epic RV road trip, a luxurious spa getaway, a cruise, or a backpacking trip around Asia. We’ve pretty much done it all and want to share with you all the things we’ve learned along the way.

So from our personal experience, we’ve put together this Ultimate Guide of how to plan a trip so that you can put it all to use when you plan your next vacation. 

This is an epic guide full of information! 

So to help make it easier for you to jump around and digest different parts of the process, we’ve split it up into sections. You can use the table of contents below to jump to different sections by clicking on the primary topic link. Then you can always jump back up to the top of the page at any time. 

We hope this makes it easy for you to navigate this ultimate guide for how to plan a trip, but also help to give you a birds-eye view of all the sections covered.

How to Plan a Trip:

Click to Jump to Any Topic Below

  1. Understand the Purpose of the Trip
  2. Set the Travel Dates / Timeframe
    • Weather Considerations
    • Peak Season vs. Shoulder Season vs. Low Season
    • Events, Festivals, Time-Specific Attractions
    • Last Minute Travel and Deals
  3. Consider Who You Are Traveling With
    • Solo Travel
    • Family Travel (With Kids)
    • Group Travel (Family and or Friends)
  4. Know Your Travel Style (and Your Companion’s)
  5. Overcoming Constraints for Your Your Trip
  6. Money:  Saving and Budgeting
    • How to Save for a Trip
    • Budgeting: Build Saving Into Your Lifestyle
    • Research Trip Costs
    • Tips for Travel Credit Cards and Building / Using Points
  7. Where to Find Travel Inspiration
  8. Trip Ideas and Sample Itineraries
  9. Select Your Travel Destination
  10. Use a Vacation Planning Tool / Template
  11. Research, Research, Research!
  12. Booking Flights
    • Flight Tracking Tools
    • Search Using Google Flights
    • Best Time to Book a Flight & Other Tips
    • Frequent Flyer Programs
    • Chase Sapphire Credit Card Program for Points
  13. Booking Accommodations
    • Chain Hotels
    • Boutique Hotels
    • Bed & Breakfasts
    • Airbnb
    • Hostels
    • RV Parks & Campgrounds
  14. Booking Other Transportation
    • Rental Cars
    • Shuttles / Services
    • Rideshare – Uber / Lyft
    • Local Train & Bus Tickets
    • Public Transportation (Subway, bus routes, etc.)
  15. Research & Book Activities
    • Unique Things to Do
    • Day Tours
  16. Finalize Your Vacation Itinerary
  17. Final Trip Preparations
  18. Packing for Your Trip
  19. Ready, Set, Enjoy Your Vacation!

 

 

1. Know the Purpose or Goal of the Trip


Before diving into the trip planning process, you really need to know the underlying purpose for the trip.  Basically, what you really want to get out of it at the end. Everyone’s needs are different. So there are many different reasons to take a vacation.

Perhaps you are just looking for a change of scenery and want a quick and easy weekend getaway. Or maybe you are feeling a bit stressed and are looking for some pure rest and relaxation.  Other times you may want to go on a fun adventure that includes getting outdoors, being active, or exploring a totally new country! 

Sometimes the purpose of a trip is actually related to a type of special occasion. Perhaps it’s a birthday celebration, a romantic anniversary trip or a honeymoon.

Depending on the purpose of your trip, the requirements and needs could be completely different.

For example, if Josh and I are just in need a quick and relaxing getaway, then I might look into a place somewhere nearby where we can take our RV for a weekend.  Maybe it’s a state park where we can be out in nature and do a bit of hiking, kayaking and enjoy a good campfire. This type of trip might be fairly easy to plan.

But if we were looking for a spa or golf getaway weekend with some friends, then we would do a lot more research and planning.  We would need to consider dates, what golf or spa resorts are within a reasonable distance (if we don’t want to fly), searching for packages or special deals, and coordinating the dates and options with our friends.

We’ve also planned trips where we went overseas for a friend’s wedding. This was a lot more complicated because it was an international trip, and it was for a special occasion. We couldn’t just wake up, get dressed and arrive at the church.  There was a lot involved in planning this trip! 

We had to book flights, check our passports (and Josh needed to get a passport), coordinate rental cars and multiple hotels and activities, as well as making sure that we arrived at the wedding location in this foreign country on time (without getting lost too much). Plus, we also wanted time to go travel around and explore on our own. It was a lot of work, but totally worth it because it was an amazing trip!

If it’s a Disney trip with our family, then there might be a lot more coordination involved to ensure dates align and that we can build an itinerary that suits everyone.

So when it comes to trip planning, it’s absolutely essential that you identify these unique needs upfront so that you can get the most out of the end result.  

 

2. Set the Travel Dates / Timeframe 


The next part of planning a trip, at least for us, is typically identifying the travel dates we are looking at or the timeframe of the trip.  Perhaps we know that we want to take a trip during the Fall months or the summer. The time you choose to travel might coincide with a holiday, special event, or other specific vacation time off work. Depending on your job, there might be only certain times of the year when you can take time off work or special projects you have going on.

Regardless, it’s important to consider your travel dates when you are planning a trip because that could impact where you go and how you go about planning the vacation.

Weather Considerations for Travel

For example, if you know you can only travel in the summer then you need to be aware of certain destinations where it’s going to be quite hot.  So maybe, Las Vegas is not on the top of your list if you don’t want to deal with intense heat.  However, if you are looking to go on a beach vacation then maybe summertime will be perfect!  Or maybe you have some time off in the winter and you are specifically looking for popular winter travel destinations that would be fun. 

Some destinations will also have a distinct rainy or monsoon season and a dry season, such as Florida or other tropical destinations. Sometimes having a bit of rain isn’t a problem if you are prepared with the right gear, but it’s not fun if there is extensive flooding and if it causes some activities to be canceled or travel delays.

Peak Season vs. Shoulder Season vs. Low Season

You should also keep in mind the travel destination and whether or not it is peak tourist season. For example, spending spring break at Disney means that there will be a lot of crowds. Some of you might be okay with that if you are really wanting a Disney trip and you can only go during Spring Break.  However, others might want to adjust the timing of the trip to coincide with a less crowded time of year – such as shoulder season in the Fall.

Shoulder season is typically just before or just after peak season. It’s not always in the Spring or Fall, and it’s not the same for different travel destinations.  For example, Fall is shoulder season at Disney World in Florida but it’s peak season in Gatlinburg where people are coming to see the Fall colors near the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. While we’ve traveled during all seasons, we do really enjoy traveling during shoulder season. You usually can get the benefit of things open with plenty to do, without all the insane peak season crowds.   

When it comes to traveling in low season, that can be a good idea. It will often save you a lot of money and you likely won’t have many crowds. But it’s not always the best idea. We’ve traveled to places during low season and actually discovered that many of the things we wanted to see and do were not open! So that was a bit of a bummer. Definitely keep this in mind, and that’s why it’s so important to do your research during the trip planning process so you can time your trip right depending on the season and destination.

Events, Festivals, Time-Specific Attractions

crowd of people at the songkran festival in bangkok thailand with water guns

Josh and I enjoying the wet and wild Songkran Festival in Bangkok, Thailand

Another consideration to keep in mind when you are selecting a timeframe to go on vacation is if there are any holidays, special events, or festivals taking place during that time. For some people, this might be a part of the reason for the trip.  An example would be when we were in Bangkok for the famous Songkran festival! Or traveling to Albuquerque for the famous hot air balloon rally!

We wanted to be there at that specific time so we could partake in all the fun.

Other times you might want to avoid a destination completely during a big holiday. For example, few people realize that Disney World is the absolute most crowded on Christmas Day! So if you are planning to go to Disney on Christmas, this is something you should keep in mind. In fact, the entire last couple weeks of December through New Years is extremely crowded at Disney. I admit, I’ve been there done that (on purpose with family)!  But there’s a good chance I won’t do it again. It’s crazy!

If there is a specific event or festival that you want to incorporate into your travels, then you absolutely better do your research and make sure to get reservations well in advance. A lot of popular holidays and festivals draw crowds so you’ll want to be sure you have a place to stay, get any tickets you need, and plan out your transportation and other logistics required. 

Last Minute Travel Deals

Sometimes, you might not even have a specific date in mind. Maybe you are just flying by the seat of your pants and just ready to go on an adventure wherever and whenever a great deal pops up!  We love doing this. Since travel is such a big part of our lives, we are always on the lookout for hot deals. And if something amazing pops up, we have been known to drop everything and start packing our bags same day.

In fact, years ago before I met Josh, I was a bit stressed at work and really in need of an adventure. I had vacation time to use up and wanted to go somewhere very soon – and I wanted it to be new, totally foreign and far away. So I went online and found an amazingly cheap flight to Hong Kong. Without hesitation, I booked it, packed my bags, and departed just a few days later (all by myself!).

Where to find these last minute travel deals?

There are a few websites out there to search for last-minute deals. In fact, most travel aggregators (such as Expedia) have this function to search. However, we usually just go to our preferred airline site (Delta) and keep our eyes peeled in the news for various travel-related articles and specials that are circulating online. 

Another good way to stay informed is to sign up for the newsletter of some of these travel companies and sellers. They will frequently send out email updates with current specials or any last-minute deals they may have. 

I’ll be honest, more often than not I don’t always think the “deals” they promote are necessarily good deals. They often come with a bunch of fine print and restrictions that make it less than ideal. Still, we have definitely stumbled across a few that we just couldn’t pass up. 

 

3. Consider Who You Are Traveling With


Whenever people ask me for my advice about how to plan a trip, my initial response is to ask them who they are traveling with. Because your travel companions will make a massive difference in how you plan, where you go, what you do, how your itinerary is built, etc.

Solo Travel (Can Be a Lot of Fun!)

There’s nothing wrong with solo travel. If you don’t have anyone to travel with you, then don’t let it stop you – seriously!  I actually traveled extensively on my own before I even met Josh. I was young and single, in my 20’s and I didn’t really have any friends who could travel with me.  So decided that I wasn’t going to let that hold me back.

young woman standing on a bridge in amsterdam over canal

Me exploring Amsterdam on a trip to Europe (many years ago) by myself

I just went on my own, and I don’t regret it one bit. And honestly, even though I’m lucky to have a great travel partner now, there are some times when a part of me misses that freedom and spontaneity of just doing whatever I want to do on a vacation without having to consider anyone else. It’s pretty freeing to travel solo and can be such a rewarding experience. I admit, there are times when I miss the excitement of traveling on my own.

Family Travel (with Kids)

If you are planning a trip for you and your family, then that might include kids. So you’re going to need to consider what types of destinations will have activities that both adults and kids will enjoy. Places like Disney are great for family trips, but they can be expensive and might be a little more active (aka – exhausting) than you are looking for.

Beaches are a great choice because kids enjoy playing in the sand and doing a bit of swimming. Another alternative is to find a hotel with a great pool. Again, most kids really enjoy swimming so they’ll often spend all their time playing and having fun at the pool. Some family resorts can be fun if they have plenty of activities for the kids, as well as cruises! 

Cruises actually have a ton of things for kids of all ages to do, as long as you choose the right cruise line. Cruises are also really good for teenagers (depending on the cruise line) because you can find some with a ton of teen clubs and activities. They will love the independence, meeting other kids, and doing their thing, while you know they are safe and secure on the ship and can still meet up with them for dinner, etc. 

Another option for family travel that includes kids are places where there is an abundance of animals and nature.  For this reason, we also recommend visiting some of the US National Parks because they have visitors centers and other interpretive and educational programs that kids tend to really enjoy.  Many of them are interactive too – such as petting animals, looking through telescopes, etc.

If you aren’t campers, no worries!  Many of these parks also have cabin options that you can rent which are quite affordable and nice to stay. If you are more of a city type of family, then definitely take a trip to cities which have great zoos, aquariums and other nature parks that kids of all ages will really enjoy. Atlanta has an amazing aquarium. But I also have a soft spot for the Seattle aquarium (nearby a lot of other fun family activities too) or even the famous San Diego Zoo (with awesome beaches nearby too). 

Lastly, camping or RV’ing is another popular vacation option that we highly recommend for families.  I grew up camping with my family, and whenever Josh and I are traveling in our RV we see tons of families out having fun – whether it’s at a large National Park, or State or local parks. Riding bikes, hiking, fishing, paddling boats and roasting s’mores by the campfire are all low-key activities that are great for families.

If you are driving, make sure you are prepared with some fun road-trip games to keep everyone occupied during the long journeys!

Group Travel – Family & Friends

Now I must say, planning a trip for just you and your significant other is usually fairly easy because the two of you probably enjoy similar things.  And it might also be fairly easy to plan for your immediate family if you have a good grasp of what everyone’s interests are.  But planning for larger group travel is definitely a much bigger undertaking! 

With so many people to consider, it can be a real challenge to coordinate everyone’s schedules and personal interests. Personally, I prefer doing something easy like a Cruise vacation for this type of travel. That way, you don’t have to plan so much of every day out and people can do their own things, but easily run into each other and come together for meals and other major activities.

I know a lot of people who do family trips to Disney, and that’s definitely an option. Personally speaking, I think it would be really tough to please all those people because everyone would want to go ride something different! But hey, I see people making it work every time we are visiting the theme parks.

Another option is just to rent out a large house to hang out at a lake or the beach, where people can come and go yet be together and visit. Or possibly even a resort somewhere would work too, depending on the family members. However, any other type of vacation where you would need to coordinate logistics of rentals cars, traveling around, walking tours, etc. with a large group tends to feel like herding cats and probably would not be very fun.

4. Know Your Travel Style (and your companion’s)


Another important consideration whenever you plan a trip is to really understand your travel style and know what type of trips will suit you best.  Perhaps you enjoy a luxury vacation, with high-end hotels, gourmet restaurants, spas and shopping. Or maybe you want something that’s more low-key and laid back. 

You might be an active traveler who loves love getting up super early and going out all day to see the sights.  It’s possible that you enjoy packing every single day of your vacation itinerary with so much stuff that you barely have time to sleep! 

Knowing your travel style in advance will help when you are researching trip options, especially when looking for accommodation options and activities.

However, it’s also critical that you understand the travel style of your companions who are traveling with you. For example, if you are an active traveler who likes to go, go, go and rarely sleep, then you might have a hard time traveling with others who like to take things slow, perhaps even sleeping in or just hanging out at the hotel all day!

 

5. Overcoming Constraints for Your Trip


Whenever you plan a trip, you should also keep in mind any particular constraints that will need to deal with.  For example, you might have only limited vacation time off of work. Or perhaps you can only travel during a certain time of year.  Another major constraint could be your budget!  Identifying this constraints in advance can help you figure out how to plan your trip around them.

For us, over the years we’ve found a number of ways to maximize our time of work for travel by taking advantage of holidays and strategically leveraging night flights and weekends to get as much time as possible. We’ve also found ways to make our vacation budget go further and built-in easy ways for us to save money (which we will talk about next).

 

6. Travel Saving & Budgeting for Your Trip


If you want to take a vacation, then you are going to need to have money!  Do you already have money saved up?  If so, then no problem!  However, if you have not yet saved up the money for vacation then you might need to find a way to set a goal and save up the money you need for the trip you want.

Easier said than done, right?  No worries! We’ve got plenty of experience with this, after all, we’re certainly not independently wealthy or anything like that. We have to save up money for our trips too. Let us show you how we do it. 

How to Save Money For a Trip

We actually have a comprehensive blog post about how to save money for a trip, because it’s an important topic for most people!  Not every is born rich, and you certainly don’t have to be rich to travel.  It’s really all about building travel into your lifestyle as a priority.  This includes building a solid household monthly budget and sticking to it.

Over the years we’ve come up with a method that works for us.  We actually have a budgeting spreadsheet that we use to help keep track of all the money coming in and going out of our house. We use this tool to analyze what’s working, what’s not – and see how much money we have leftover to save.

** Get your copy of our Budgeting Spreadsheet for FREE here **

Excel budget template sample to save for a trip - download a copy free

Our Excel spreadsheet budgeting (and travel saving) template

Budgeting:  Build Saving for Travel Into Your Lifestyle

Having a system in place not only allows us to save for travel, but it enables us to prioritize saving for travel as a part of our lifestyle. For us, this is important because travel is a major part of our lives and even though we aren’t rich, we enjoy being able to take as many trips as we do without really worrying about money.  That’s because we have our household budget set up in this way.

We are able to ensure that everything is paid for and taken care of, then we put money away for long-term and emergency savings…then we have specific money set aside for traveling. We also have a separate travel bank account that we use to stuff money into and watch it grow. Then when we are ready to take a vacation, we already have the money in our account and we know just how much we have to spend on the trip.

This makes budgeting for our vacation quite simple!

Research Trip Costs & Set a Goal $$$

When you are planning a trip you often won’t know exactly how much money you will need. So you might need to do a bit of research to figure it out.  One of the ways that I do this is to go to specific websites and start doing just some very basic research. I’ll search flights, hotels and even some of the activities and start to get a picture of what it might cost.  If it’s a cruise vacation or a trip to Disney World, then it’s also pretty easy to go online to their websites and look at ticket prices and package deals. 

This will help you come up with a realistic estimate of the budget you will need to do that type of trip.  Then you can set that as a goal and start saving up for the vacation you want!  If you already have a tentative travel date set, then you can work backwards to figure out exactly how much you need to save each month to hit your goal. 

Tips for Travel Credit Cards: Building and Using Points

Many people use their credit cards for daily purchases.  However, we are not advocates of using credit cards to pay for a trip if you do not have money already in the bank to pay for it!  We aren’t financial experts, but we know that’s just not really a wise financial decision to book a vacation on a credit card if you don’t have the money to pay for it.  We recommend that you put in place a budget and a savings plan to start building up your travel savings account before booking that vacation. That way, when you are ready to book it you already have the money on hand to pay for it. 

Although it’s true, credit cards can be a wonderful way to earn points towards travel.  And if you use a travel rewards credit card to book a trip, you can maximize the points you earn for the future. 

In general, using credit cards requires discipline.  We are not financial advisors; however, we understand that it’s important to be able to control yourself and your spending if you plan to use credit cards.  We do know some people who don’t use credit cards at all, and that’s totally fine.  But if you do use credit cards, there are some ways that you can maximize them to get more for your money. 

For example, today we have currently a little over $3,000 worth of travel points that we have NOT used!  These are from just using our credits cards to pay daily living expenses such as groceries, gasoline, etc. They have just built up over time.  It’s nice to have that chunk of change just sitting there in case we want to redeem those points for a trip in the future. In fact, redeeming credit card points is how we were able to get a $3000 vacation to Hawaii and only pay $1000 out of our own pocket.

For us, we use credit cards for a number of things because we like to build the points. However, we always pay off our credit cards in full every month so that we don’t incur interest fees. And when we do book a trip, we will often use the credit card so that we can accumulate more miles from the transaction.

Using travel rewards credit cards in this way allows us to actually save up “free” money for travel that we can redeem in a variety of ways for future trips (which we will discuss later in the booking section). 

 

7. Find Travel Inspiration


This can be the really fun part of planning a trip, and it’s the part of the process where I think a lot of people jump right into.  With the internet and social media at our fingertips, most of us are seeing beautiful photos, ads, and even posts from our friends that inspire us to take a vacation.  Here are some of the top places where we find inspiration for our trips.

Pinterest

Pinterest is a great social media tool that can be wonderful for finding all types of ideas. We like to use Pinterest for Travel Planning and specifically to find inspiration because it’s easy to make different boards to organize ideas and specific Pins. Plus, it’s super visual so all those amazing photos (and even videos now) are the perfect source of wanderlust! 

However, if you are like me then you might fill your boards with way too many things!  That’s why I tend to have other vacation planning tools that I use to keep track of the inspiration and ideas I find (which I’ll discuss a bit later in this post).

Travel Blogs – Like Ours Here!

Nowadays, it seems like I get the bulk of my travel inspiration and information from blogs and websites just like this one you are reading now!  That’s the great thing about modern technology because so many people are able to share their experiences with others and give us the scoop on where they went, what they did and what they enjoyed about it.

And with over 600 blog posts here on Peanuts or Pretzels, we hope that our blog can help give you loads of travel inspiration as well!

Social Media (YouTube, IG, etc.)

Many of us are using social media every day (beyond Pinterest, I know that’s technically a social media tool too). So naturally, this is also a great place to find inspiration for your trip. Personally, we search YouTube regularly for travel content, and love chatting with people on social media platforms about their trips and enjoy browsing through their photos. They can be a great source of travel inspiration. 

Facebook Groups are a fantastic resource. In fact, we started our own DIY Travel Planning Facebook Group for our Peanuts or Pretzels community. This is a great place to talk travel with others and share trip inspiration and information. Definitely make sure that you join the DIY Travel Planning Facebook Group group here.

Local Tourism Websites

Another valuable, but sometimes overlooked, resource for information are official tourism websites. Back in college, I used to work at a tourism board and I really came to value the wealth of local information that they can provide. If you are looking at a specific travel destination, I highly recommend that you visit the local tourism website for great inspiration and information.  And if you are there in person during your trip, be sure to stop by a visitor center and pick up some maps and local advice!

This was one of the things I loved most about working at the local tourism board years ago. I spent time manning the front desk and helping people plan out their trips. They’d ask for advice on what to do and where to go, and I’d grab a map and some other brochures and give them my own personal advice. It was great and people really seemed to value it. So I definitely recommend you stop in and get some personalized advice while you are there!

Guidebooks, Such as the Lonely Planet

Publications and other guidebooks like the Lonely Planet are also really great resources to find trip ideas and inspiration. I definitely enjoy browsing through the various Lonely Planet books – sometimes it’s just more fun than reading online and I can make notes, etc. They also have a number of purely travel inspirational books that I love as well. They are especially great coffee table books and conversation starters at home.

Review Websites, Like TripAdvisor

Sometimes when I’m researching for trip ideas online or searching for specific destinations or activities I’ll stumble across some TripAdvisor content and reviews.  These can be handy if people are giving their own first-hand experiences and reviews of a particular place or activity.  I also like to scroll through some of the pictures as well because they may give a more “real” view of things as opposed to professional pics on some of the more official promotional websites. 

Your Friends & Family

Of course your friends and family are also a great source of trip inspiration. Anytime someone I know goes on a vacation, I enjoy hearing all about it and seeing their pictures. Especially if it’s a place I have never gone before. You will get the real scoop from them, so they are a great source of information.

Honestly, this is really how we see Peanuts or Pretzels. We hope that you can see us as a friend who has already been there. We tell you exactly what we would tell our friends or family when they ask us about trip planning, certain destinations, activities, tips / advice, etc.

We what you do know just what to expect and how to plan the trip so you can get the most out of it and enjoy yourself, like we did!

 

8. Specific Trip Ideas & Sample Itineraries


Searching around online for travel inspiration can be fun, but indulging your wanderlust by looking at pretty pictures and getting expired is a bit more casual of an experience.  You might like or comment on a photo, possibly Pinning it to your Pinterest board for the future, or even making it a background screen for your computer so you can enjoy the photo everyday dream about it.

After you’ve been inspired, then you might take it a step further to really start searching for specific trip ideas.  This is less casual and more actionable. 

My top recommendation when it comes to finding specific trip ideas is to seek out sample travel itineraries that other people have done. Whether it’s asking a friend to share a copy of their itinerary with you or just searching for other example itineraries online. 

That’s specifically why we built out our Sample Itineraries section of this website!

Sample Itineraries

Over the years we’ve had many of our community members (and friends and family) asking us to share our exact travel itineraries with them from. our trips. So, we created a whole Sample Travel Itineraries section of our Peanuts or Pretzels website here, to make it easier for people who just wanted to go off of our itinerary from our trip.

We have a lot of sample itineraries in the library now, we but are constantly adding more (because we have quite a bit of backlog over the years!). So be sure to check in periodically as we add to the library even more sample itineraries that you can use for your trips. 

The great thing about these sample itineraries is that they can really give you a head start. Just download them and they are ready to go!

Each sample itinerary is in an editable format. You can either use these itineraries as they are or you can easily make modifications so they suit your needs and specific interests. Each itinerary includes routes we took, daily activities we did (or wanted to do), attractions, and personal notes about the destination. We’ve also included a section for recommended optional tours or activities and other fun stuff you may be interested in, as well as transportation advice and recommended accommodation options.

Some of our most popular sample itineraries include:

We have gotten great feedback from our community regarding these sample itineraries, so definitely check them out.

 

9. Choose Your Travel Destination


Now that you’ve narrowed down the kind of trip you want to take, who you are traveling with, your budget, and gathered ideas for your trip, it’s time to finalize the destination!  This kinda goes hand-in-hand with the previous section about finding specific trip ideas.

Basically, this is when you’ve made a decision on the place you are going for sure – so now you can start to dig into all the practical parts of actually planning it out.

This is where the destination travel guides here on our website come in handy.  We’ve organized all our destination-specific content into dedicated travel guides where you can easily sort through and find all the details you need when planning a trip to that destination. From transportation of traveling there to the logistics of getting around. We have blogs about the sites to see, things to do, places to stay, attractions to visit, various tips visitors should know, etc. 

Here are some of the other considerations to keep in mind when you choose a travel destination:

  1. Do you need a passport? – If you are traveling to another country, you will need a passport. We have a blog post about how to get a passport in 5 easy steps, if it’s your first time. If you already have a passport, definitely double-check the validity of it and make sure it’s good at least 6 months after your travel dates.
  2. Do you need a visa? – if traveling abroad it’s important to check on this well before your trip so you have time to sort out any type of visas you might need.
  3. Do you need any special vaccines? – For most of the popular tourist destinations, you shouldn’t need more than making sure you are up-to-date on your routine vaccinations. But there are a few places that could require a little something extra. For example, we spent a lot of time in Thailand and other remote Asian countries, so we chose to get typhoid vaccines as well as ensuring all our hepatitis vaccines were current. If you are interested in learning more, check out how we saved thousands by getting our non-routine travel vaccines while in Thailand (also called “medical tourism”).

 

10. Use a Travel Planning Template


At this point in the trip planning process you have probably collected a ton of information, links to websites, etc. and trying to figure out the best way to keep it all organized.  And it can be a challenge! That’s why we actually created a Vacation Planning Template. 

I actually made this vacation planning spreadsheet a number of years ago to help me with planning our trips. Over time it has evolved into what it is today.  In fact, I still use this spreadsheet to plan our trips as well as trips for some of our friends and family too.

I’ve taken this Vacation Planning Spreadsheet and made it into a template that you can download and use to help plan your own trips.  The template is basically a pre-formatted Excel spreadsheet.  Don’t freak out – I promise, it’s actually really easy to use!  It has a few different tabs for you just to copy and paste your researched trip ideas, inspiration, and links to good information to reference later.

Then as you progress into your trip planning, there are additional sheets where you can make multiple drafts of itineraries, as well as a final itinerary for your trip.

Pre-Formatted to Calculate Your Projected Trip Cost

The other thing I really like about this vacation planning template is that it has pre-formatted fields with formulas.  So you can actually input a dollar amount which will calculate the total estimated cost of your trip while you are building it out. It’s really great to be able to keep track of how much things will cost as you are building out the trip itinerary. 

The end result is that you can see a full draft of an itinerary and the projected cost before you even finalize the trip!  This is a great way to even compare different itineraries and trip ideas by the price, so you can see which trip is a better deal before finalizing it.

**Get your FREE copy of this Vacation Planning Template here so you can use to help plan your trip!**

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Our Vacation Planning Spreadsheet Template helps you to keep track of information and build out your trip itinerary!

11. Research, Research, Research!


As you have seen already, there’s a lot of research that goes into planning certain types of vacations.  Sure, there may be some that are easier than others – such as planning a cruise.  But still, even planning a cruise vacation or a Disney vacation will require some type of research.

How deep you get into this and how much research you do really depends on your personality and if you enjoy it.  

You certainly don’t have to go as in-depth with the research as I do. However, from my experience I can tell you that the more research you do the more preprared you will be. As a result, the trip usually ends up being better and hitting all your goals for what you ultimately wanted to get out of it in the first place.

When I do a good job researching and planning the vacation, I can make sure that we get to see and do all the things we want, and that we get the most for our money! I don’t like to waste money, especially if I worked hard to save it for a great vacation. And if I’m flying halfway around the world to a place I may never see again in person, then I certainly want to make sure I get to see and do everything I want! 

I don’t know about you, but that’s how I feel about it. And that’s why I take the research part so seriously when I plan a trip. 

What If I Like to Wing it?

There’s nothing wrong with some spontaneity.  If you aren’t a type-A crazy organized, uber-planner like I am…that’s OK!  I admit there have been times when I was just too exhausted with work to even do much planning for a trip. And sometimes it’s nice to just throw some things in a bag and show up ready for whatever adventure awaits.

If this isn’t you, then don’t force it. Just do whatever works best for you.

But in the end, I usually find that when we haven’t done the research and aren’t fully prepared before the trip, we end up not seeing and doing all the things we wanted, and not getting the value for our money. We may not have timed the trip right, we might have researched operating times of the attractions we wanted to see, etc. 

So it’s really up to you how deep you go with researching a trip.  I do think you need to do some basic research. But it depends on the type of trip and the destination too. If you are going to New York City, you probably won’t need to do as much research as if you were going to London.

Regardless, I do believe doing some research will really be helpful for you to feel fully prepared and ready to go on your trip!

 

12. Book Your Flights


The million-dollar question we always get is about booking flights for a trip!  It seems like everyone is always wanting to know about tips or tricks to score the best deal.  And I’ll be honest, while there are some ways that you can find good deals, for the most part there’s no big secret or magic rule for getting killer flight deals.

Flight Tracking Tools 

You can use various tracking tools out there if you want to keep an eye out for flight deals.  Websites such as Skyscanner, Fare Drop, Scott’s Cheap Flights, etc. are sites where you can sign up to get notifications of good deals or sales taking place.

Personally, we keep an eye out on these a little bit.  But it’s not the primary way we make choices for planning our trips.  There have been times when we have jumped on a last minute deal that comes up, but not frequently. This can definitely be a fun way to go about it, as long as you have the time of work and are ready to go at the time of that deal.

Searching Using Google Flights

I gotta say, the online resource we use mostly for researching flight deals and trying different combinations for flight options is actually Google Flights.  I love it!  My favorite feature is actually where you can browse using the map and just input the departure airport. If you don’t input a destination airport, then you will see all kinds of dates, prices and destinations. You can also select different time periods, such as 1 week during the next 6 months, and it will show the best prices. 

You can zoom in and out and explore all over the map looking at various prices to different places. This is my favorite way to compare flight options to different destinations.

screenshot of google flights map to find good deals with prices flexible by date

For example, when browsing around on the map I may see that during October we can score flights to Cancun for $199 from our airport nearby.  Or maybe in late September a flight to Turks and Caicos is on $230.  Or maybe I zoom out and see that we can go to Iceland late October for only $300.

I really enjoy playing with the map to see what options are out there. And it’s very visual, which is nice.

You can also click on a destination to see more details and all the different flight options, including airlines.  Sometimes the special price is with an airline I don’t like to use. Or maybe I see that my preferred airline (Delta) is offering a great deal.

Sometimes I book direct through Google Flights, but not always. If it is a preferred airline, such as Delta, then I will often go to their website to book because I can get special deals as a frequent flyer member. However, the thing I like about Google Flights is that they offer multi-airline / separate ticket bookings. So maybe you flight out on one airline and return on another airline. 

Having all these options in one place when you are searching for the best flight deal is a great perk and why I prefer Google Flights.

Other Flight Booking Tips

Generally speaking, I have found that booking flights at the last minute or booking far too early tends to give you the worst prices. Sometimes last-minute deals are out there, but for the most part I don’t find those very often, especially when I’m looking at a specific destination. If I’m open to going anywhere, then yeah I might be able to find a deal somewhere. But from my experience, if I know I want to go to Hawaii in less than 1 week, then chances are the price will be high at the last minute.

There are varying opinions out there on the internet about when to book a flight for the best price, so you will likely find different answers out there.  From my experience, overall I’ve found some of the better prices tend to be around 2-4 weeks before the trip date.  Typically I book a flight around the 2 week mark, unless I score a deal earlier than that. However, I will usually start searching at least 6 weeks out from the trip.

Again, that’s just my personal experience.

I have found that Google Flights can help me dig into specific flights that are cheap, and then I will see what website to book that gives me the best price. Sometimes it’s booking direct with the airline, sometimes it’s going through an alternative site like Orbitz, etc.

Like most travelers, I tend to follow the cheapest price for flights.

However…Beware of Extra Charges!

Some airlines like to have that gotcha moment nowadays. You know, where you find a great deal then realize you have to pay for a seat, then pay for your luggage…and at the end of those fees, the price is no longer a good deal. 

I can’t stand that!!!

This is why I have preferred airlines that I’m familiar with and tend to use, and other airlines I may avoid.  But this is also why you should check the details when you find those “good deals” on some of these other flight booking websites. Often times they may be offering a very bare bones fare just to make it seem like a great deal, but you realize at the end of the day it’s not after you add up the extra charges.

So it’s really all about searching around and checking out the details for what’s included. I’ll often go direct to airline websites to check out deals myself, and search exact flights I found elsewhere to see what they are offering it for.

Flying Open-Jaw 

If you have a trip where you are traveling to multiple destinations, then you might consider researching and buying an open-jaw ticket. Open-jaw means that you fly into one city and out of another city. Sometimes this can be a better deal, specifically if you are traveling around (either by train, bus, rental car, etc.) and then would have to pay to return to the original city for the return flight.  You might actually be able to ave money by flying out of the final city on your itinerary instead of your arrival city. 

Europe is a perfect example of this!  Everything is so compact in Europe and oftentimes travelers will want to explore multiple cities and even multiple countries in a single travel itinerary. For example, I’ve flown into Rome then explored all over Italy, and then flew home from Florence, Italy. On another trip, I flew into Frankfurt, Germany and traveled all around to numerous countries for a couple of weeks, then flew home from Paris. For these particular trips, it actually worked out cheaper to do it that way (and more convenient, really). 

Frequent Flyer Programs

Different airlines have their own frequent flyer programs. If you plan on taking multiple trips, then it’s definitely a good idea to get into one of these free programs. That way every time you fly with them, you can accumulate rewards points.

But you can earn frequent flyer miles for more than just flying. One of the most popular is using specific rewards credit cards that are tied to a frequent flyer program. For example, we have a Southwest Airlines credit card where we earn Southwest rewards points on our purchases. We also have had Delta’s American Express Card as well as Hawaiian Airline’s credit card, among others. 

The ultimate goal is to be able to accumulate enough points to redeem for free or discounted flights. We do redeem frequent flyer points when they make sense. The thing to keep in mind is that depending on the Airline, they may expire at different frequencies. For example, I got an American Airlines frequent flyer account years ago when booking a trip to Germany. I accumulated some miles from the trip, but before I flew them again the miles expired!

Also, when you are redeeming points make sure to check whether or not it is a good deal. I’ve actually checked the point value of a flight then checked the dollar amount and realized that using points was actually the worse deal!  Sometimes we have just bought the ticket and used points for other things, like upgrades. 

While we have used Southwest points a few times for flights, as well as our Hawaiian Airlines miles, our preferred loyalty program is Delta. We have a ton of miles with them (I’ve been a frequent flyer member since I was 10 years old – thanks mom!) and we often redeem them for flights, upgrades, and other perks.

Chase Sapphire Credit Card for Points

This is more related to a general points post, but I want to mention this here because it’s a relevant point. I’ve mentioned before about using travel rewards credit cards to use points. While some of those are airline specific, such as our Delta Amex, some cards just earn general rewards points. Our preferred credit card that we use at home and for travel is actually our Chase Sapphire Card. The reason for this is that we earn travel points that are program agnostic.  This means that we aren’t earning specifically Delta points or Southwest points. We can actually transfer the points to most any of these programs!  These points can also be used for hotels, rental cars, etc.

Another major bonus is that the points can just be redeemed for cash back, either directly into my checking account or to pay off the balance. I LOVE this because, for example, let’s say Josh and I decide to take a last minute trip to Cancun for a long weekend. I may find a flight deal on some airline through Google Flights that’s only $150. I pay for it, then go to my Chase Sapphire Points account and pay myself back in points to cover the cost of the flights!

That’s a way we like to use our travel perks and points – we actually redeem those Chase Points more than any of our other airline points because we can use them for so many things and it doesn’t matter what airline we choose to fly or what hotel we choose to stay.

 

13. Book Your Accommodations


When it comes to booking accommodations for a trip, my number one tips is to make sure that you search not just by price but by location!  If you are just visiting one destination or city, consider all the things you want to do while you are there, where they are in town, and how you will get around. You want to choose a hotel that is conveniently located. Having a hotel in a poor location that is inconvenient can really put a damper in the whole trip. At least, if you plan on leaving the hotel frequently.

There’s nothing worse than wasting precious time commuting to and from a hotel that’s far away from all the things you want to do!

If you plan just to stay at the hotel most of the time, such as a resort that is a destination in itself with things to do, then perhaps the location won’t matter as much where the resort is located. It also depends on if you have your own transportation or if you will be using public transport to get around. It might be ok if you have your own car to drive around, but maybe the price of parking in the middle of the city is crazy expensive! It definitely makes a huge where your hotel is located.

Resorts and All-Inclusives

If you are looking for an easy to plan getaway with tons of amenities and activities but without the fuss, then you might be interested in booking a stay at a resort.  Resorts are often a destination themselves, offering loads of things to keep guests busy. They will usually have various dining options on-site, as well as activities, and amenities such as pools, spas, fitness rooms, etc. 

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Getting ready for our amazing breakfast before heading over to Chichen Itza at the Mayaland Resort in Mexico

Another version of the resort is the all-inclusive resort. This takes the resort experience a step further by giving you a single price for a package that includes things such as dining and even some activities as well.  Sometimes it’s just one price for everything, other times there might be different tiered levels that you. can choose from. 

The great thing about resorts is that they are easy and can give you a super relaxing vacation. We have stayed at numerous resorts over the years, and even some all-inclusives. We do enjoy them, but only in certain circumstances.  For example, we stayed at an all-inclusive in Cancun and realized that the food at the hotel was not near as good as if we just ventured out into the local parts of town. 

So for us being the adventurers we are, we are looking to getaway and have a different experience than being at home. So when we travel, especially to different countries, we don’t like to be walled off in a resort with other tourists like us. We prefer to be out in the city with the locals, eating where they eat and doing what they do. 

Every traveler is different. But that’s why it’s important to understand the purpose of the trip and your travel style before you start booking hotels so that you can find what is best suited to your tastes and needs.  

Chain Hotels

One of the benefits of staying at chain hotels is that you tend to get a more consistent experience, although it can still vary depending on the owner. And especially if you are in another country, the chain may definitely not have the same experience. So keep that in mind and adjust your expectations!

Some people are loyal to specific chains and even earn points for staying there, such as Marriott. We use these types of chain hotels on occasion.  If we are on the road just passing through town and need an overnight stay, we often choose La Quinta just because they are quite dog-friendly (if we have Hana with us).

If we are in a city and want to have more luxury and amenities at the hotel, then we might choose something like a Westin (also dog-friendly) where we can have a nicer experience and amenities such as a pool, restaurant, spa, central location in the city, etc.

Our choice of hotel really depends on the destination though. We actually do chain hotels quite rarely.  And we don’t use them when we are traveling abroad because we like having a more local experience with boutique hotels.

Boutique Hotels Have the Charm

Boutique hotels are really our preference when we travel. We like to search for accommodations that are more unique, and maybe even have a local flair to them such as artwork, food, amenities, etc. We find a lot more charm in these types of hotels and it makes the experience a little more fun.

Ballachulish Hotel, Glencoe area, Scotland

We enjoy searching for these types of hotels, and it adds an element of surprise to our trip. We don’t really know what we are going to get all the time.  Sometimes we are really wowed by the hotel and the experience. Sometimes, less than wowed. But still, we really tend to enjoy these types of hotels rather than the big chains when we are traveling.   And again, it’s all about the location for us. So we really like finding these types of smaller, boutique hotels that are in the heart of all the action and close to the things we want to see and do.

Bed & Breakfasts

While these sometimes are similar to boutique hotels, B&B’s tend to be a bit smaller overall. We really enjoy staying at B&B’s when we want a much more low-key experience that feels very local, warm and welcoming. They are perfect for a romantic getaway and are very popular across Europe. In fact, I’ve probably stayed in more B&B’s in Europe than anything else. 

One of the things we love about B&Bs is that they usually have some common areas where you can lounge, the hosts can be quite delightful, and often times the guests are more social and fun to chat with.

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Josh enjoying the library of this charming bed & breakfast in the Scottish Highlands! So much character, and amazing food!

B&B’s also bring about a wonderful local flair and character that make them feel very different than a standard hotel. You may also get some personalized advice from the hosts, as well as a fantastic breakfast. We’ve had some amazing breakfasts over the years in some of the most charming B&B’s with gracious hosts and gorgeous views!

Airbnb

Another option for accommodation that we enjoy is Airbnb. We were hooked after our first Airbnb experience many years ago. But again, for us it will depend on the type of trip. If we are staying long-term at a destination, such as when we stayed for one month in Bangkok, then we really like booking an Airbnb because it feels like home rather than a hotel.

sign up and save money on airbnb beach house overlooking sunset with palm trees

We’ve learned a lot after staying at Airbnb’s around the world. We have booked the shared spaces before with Airbnb, for example when we booked 1 room in a shared apartment in Brooklyn for a weekend in NYC.  Also when we were in Hawaii we were hosted by a lovely woman on the big island who rented out rooms in her beautiful beach house.

However, if we are on a longer stay then we usually prefer to have the entire Airbnb to ourselves. It’s more private and we even feel a bit more like a local too. Another benefit of using Airbnb is if you have other people traveling with you. It’s really nice to get a bigger house with multiple rooms so everyone can stay together. And being able to have kitchen space and other common areas is really a part of the experience for a larger travel party. Plus, when you breakdown the price it’s often cheaper overall with a larger party. 

If you have never tried Airbnb before, definitely make sure that you sign up using our code so you can get $$$ off your first stay!

Hostels

Another accommodation option for travelers who are on a budget is to stay in a hostel.  Now keep in mind, hostels are definitely not for everyone.  Yet, hostels are not created equal either. What’s a hostel? Overall, hostels tend to be a budget option usually used by young people who are backpacking around. You will find a lot of hostels in popular backpacker places such as Europe and Southeast Asia.

We’ve stayed in a number of hostels around the world, and even here in the States. We’ve found some for as little as a few dollars a night for a bunk in a shared room. But some hostels will offer private rooms for higher prices. Sometimes the bathroom is shared for the room, other times you can get a private bathroom. 

Hostel bunks in Asia

So it really depends on your preferences and what your budget is. We’ve shared rooms in cities where we weren’t going to spend much time in the room and just really needed a place to sleep for the night. But we’ve also booked private rooms at hostels around the world as well, when we didn’t quite want to pay for a full-service hotel yet wanted a bit more privacy and comfort than a shared bunk.

While some hostels are quite basic, others can actually be really nice with a number of amenities. I’ve stayed at a hostel with an indoor pool in Cambodia, an indoor sauna in Italy, and a hostel in Hong Kong had an amazing rooftop deck overlooking the city. There can actually be some great perks to staying in a hostel, if you are up for it.

Making breakfast in a Chattanooga hostel and chatting with other guests

Yet, the one thing that is universal among hostels is their more social atmosphere. This is one of the things that we enjoy about them.  Often times there are common spaces and lounges to hang out, reading areas, shared kitchens, etc. And there’s just an overall more relaxed and communal type of atmosphere at a hostel – which sometimes is really quite enjoyable. We’ve had some lovely breakfasts cooking side-by-side with other travelers and talking about their days, and hanging out in the lounge having a drink in the evening.

Hostels can actually be a lot of fun for certain types of travelers. 

Booking.com  – Our Preferred Hotel Resource

While we have used various hotel booking tools over the years, the top hotel website we actually use almost all the time now is Booking.com.  This is because we’ve found that they have a lot of hotel options ranging from the big chains, boutique hotels, private homes and even hostels.

We also really like their search features because we can narrow our search by stars, reviews, prices, amenities and even locations in town (which is very important to us). It’s also nice to have our bookings managed in one central place that I can log into, and sometimes I’ve had to cancel or change a booking and they’ve always been pretty easy to deal with.

You may find a number of hotel options with packages that include breakfast. Depending on the type of trip and destination, this may or may not be a good deal. Sometimes the breakfast option is quite expensive and you could buy without breakfast for cheaper and pick up something local. Other times, it’s nice and convenient to have breakfast included so you don’t have to fuss with it.

Definitely double-check the breakfast before you make a booking. Look at the reviews to see if breakfast is good any good, and compare the price with and without the breakfast option. We’ve actually stayed at some lovely boutique hotels over the years where breakfast was fantastic and was a really memorable way to start each morning. Other times, the additional price for breakfast wasn’t worth what they were offering so we decided to save the money and do breakfast on our own. 

 

14. Booking Local Transportation


Another element of planning your trip is researching and booking any type of local transportation that you need, aside from getting there and back. Depending on your destination, you might need multiple types of transportation – some of which you can figure out when you get there, but other times this transportation needs to be booked in advance of your trip.

Rental Cars

Many travelers who are flying to certain destinations might want to rent a car to be able to explore on their own during the trip. We love taking road trips wherever we travel! So renting a car is one of our favorite ways to get around on our own. For example, if we are flying into California we might want to rent a car to drive around town and explore, or even go on a road trip to nearby towns or up the coast.

But it’s not just here in the States. We’ve rented cars to drive all over Europe multiple times, and we’ve also rented cars in Mexico to drive around and explore as well. We even rented an RV and drove around New Zealand. If much of your trip depends on you having a car to get around, then you really need to research and book your rental car in advance of your trip.  

Our Ireland rental car (driving opposite side)

Keep in mind that in some countries you may need an International Drivers License to do this. But don’t worry, it’s super easy and cheap to get an International Drivers License and we’ve written all about it here.

Coordinate Shuttles / Services

Another option for transportation if you are flying somewhere is just to book a shuttle or car service. This is a great option for people who don’t really need a rental car the whole time, but want a more convenient way of getting to their hotel or other destination rather than using public transportation.

For example, when flying into Las Vegas we often take a hotel shuttle to and from the airport because we don’t need a car when we are in Vegas. Plus, the airport in Vegas is very close to the Strip and other main tourist areas. Some hotels offer these shuttles for free, but others require you to book them and pay for them separately or as an add-on to the hotel price. So be sure to confirm this with the hotel before you arrive. 

Other times it is easier just to take a car service, such as Uber or Lyft, to get to and from the airport. You don’t actually have to book these in advance of your trip, but it’s good to do some research ahead of time to make sure that option is available before you arrive.

Rideshare – Uber & Lyft

Nowadays it is so much easier to get around new places without your own car because of popular ridesharing apps such as Uber and Lyft. It’s really changed the game when it comes to local transportation. We often will use this option when we travel around the States especially. For example, we were in Seattle last year and could have taken a bus or train to the airport from our hotel downtown. However, it was just SO much more convenient (and faster) to call a Lyft to take us there.

However, it was a long and pretty expensive Lyft ride. So we decided to cut down on the cost by ordering a shared Lyft. It was a fun ride because we traveled with a couple coming off a cruise and we were chatting with them about their vacation on the way to the airport. However, keep in mind the luggage situation because sometimes there isn’t enough room for all the people and the bags when you share the ride with others! It can be an adventure though.

Local Train & Bus Tickets

If you are on a trip that involves multiple destinations you may even need to book additional transportation between cities. While that could involve flights, sometimes it’s easier in certain destinations to take a bus or train. NYC is a great example of this, because you can get to a number of nearby cities quickly and easily by train.

The same is true in both Europe and even Asia, trains are often the way to go! We have taken trains all over these continents and it’s super convenient (usually more convenient than flying!).  In Europe, taking the train is a wonderful experience that we really enjoy because it’s a great way to get around and see the countryside. And in China, we took the bullet train a few times.  If you’ve ever taken a bullet train, you know it’s a pretty amazing experience!

Josh enjoying the view on a train in Thailand

Buses are another option in some travel destinations. We’ve taken buses numerous times, especially in countries like Thailand. While it’s not as popular in the States, there are some options such as Greyhound or MegaBus that offer some pretty good deals and have comfy buses complete with wifi and charging outlets! 

However, taking a train or bus definitely requires some advanced planning. You need to research the schedules to find out what works best for you, find transportation to and from the bus or train station, as well as checking to see if you need to book your tickets in advance. 

Public Transportation

For certain travel destinations you may also need to research some of the local transportation options to get around too. Sure you can use Uber or Lyft when convenient, but sometimes it can be fun and even better to take local transportation. Places such as New York City have a fantastic subway system that is much more convenient than driving around. And in other cities, such as London, have both a great subway (called The Tube) as well as a bus public bus system which is very convenient for tourists to get around to many of the sites as well.

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Entrance to the NYC Subway

So definitely take some time to research these things and see if you can buy a pass in advance or anything like that. For example, in London you can actually buy an unlimited day pass for the bus and The Tube.  This is a great option for visitors who want to pre-book and have a pass that’s they can use quickly and easily during their trip.  

 

15. Book Activities, Tours & Other Fun Stuff


For us, it’s the activities and things that you do during a vacation that really make it a memorable experience.  We usually have a pretty big list of things we want to see and do on a vacation, especially if it’s a highly anticipated place we are visiting such as Chichen Itza in Mexico, or when we went swimming with the Manta Rays in Hawaii.

Swimming with the Manta Rays at night in Hawaii

Sometimes you can just show up and enjoy some of these activities without planning in advance. Other times you do actually need to buy some type of ticket, make a reservation, or book a tour in order to experience it.  So it’s important to research the things you want to see and do so you know in advance so that you can be prepared and make any arrangements that need to be made before your trip.

  • Make sure to research operating hours to ensure places are open during your visit, or if there are set times for certain activities.  For example, we wanted to watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, so we needed to be there at just the right time of day for the show. 
  • For some attractions, advance tickets may not be required, but they might make it faster if you don’t have to wait in line, such as getting tickets to go up the Eiffel Tower. Buying your tickets in advance can save you from waiting in line!
  • Check to see how long it will take to experience the activity, some things are fast, but other activities might take a good part of the day, such as going to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta
  • Look into getting a Mult-Attraction / City Pass – which includes multiple attractions, sights and activities. Sometimes they are a great deal, depending on if you plan to do all those things. Great examples of City Passes include New York City Pass, the Go Philadelphia Explorer Pass, Seattle City Pass, and even the Dublin Pass (which includes a bus tour too). . 

One of the ways that we find fun things to do is to search on social media, tourism websites, blogs, and also just asking other travelers or friends and family what they recommend doing. 

Finding Creative Experiences and Unique Things to Do

Beyond the typical touristy stuff, there are actually a number of ways you can have a much more unique experience during your trip. For us, we actually really enjoy taking different classes, such as cooking classes. These can be a really social affair and a lot of fun. Plus you get a meal and some great memories to take back with you after the trip. One of our favorites was a cooking class we took in Koh Samui, Thailand. We had a fun teacher and a lot of characters in our class, which made for a fun time – plus we ate some awesome food!

Our cooking classmates at SITCA – Samui Intstitute of Thai Culinary Arts on Koh Samui, Thailand

Another unique and interesting way to explore a destination is to get a tour from a local. If you are social media savvy then you might be able to connect with some local friends and people who would be willing to take you around. Although, a more formal and even safer way to do this is though a site called With Locals. It’s a cool site that offers various tours in different cities around the world with vetted locals. You can also choose tour options based on your interest, so you’ll get a lot more than just a generic tour guide. 

We’ve found the key to finding unique travel experiences is to be very open and seek out opportunities when you are traveling to get to know locals. Don’t just stay in the touristy areas. Visit some local hangouts, chat with locals, visit a local dive bar, a food truck, etc. If you are looking for somewhere to go, just ask around. 

For example, once when we were in Cozumel, Mexico for a stop during a week-long cruise. We got off the ship and wanted some local food. We went over to a rental car shop and asked them where to go. Initially they kept point us to the tourist stuff. We said, “no no, where do you have lunch?”

Then he told us about a random taco truck a couple blocks away, totally off the main street and away from all the tourists.  We walked over there and for about $1 we had some of the best tacos and a local beer. It was kinda funny, because there were actually some cruise ship workers there too, as well as many other locals from the area. It was awesome!

josh sitting on side of road in Cozumel eating at taco truck

Josh sitting on the side of the road in Cozumel eating the best dollar tacos from a taco truck with the locals!

In fact, we’ve had some of our very best experiences doing these types of more local things, far away from the tourist craziness (and high prices). 

Day Tours

Most of the time when we are traveling, we go about doing our own thing each day on our own. However, there are some times when it’s better for us just to book a day tour. A good example of this was when I was in Rome with a friend years ago. We really wanted to go visit Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. It was quite a distance from Rome and we didn’t feel like renting a car or using a bus. And we also wanted a tour guide while at Pompeii. Because it would be a full day trip and we didn’t want to handle all the logistics of doing it on our own, we decided to book a Pompeii day tour from Rome

It was so easy because all we had to do was show up, and they took care of everything. We arrived in the morning to a designated meeting spot in Rome, met our guide and about 10 other people, hopped on a bus and it was all taken care of. We had a private guide that gave us all sorts of interesting stories and background during the bus ride, as well as a thorough tour of the Pompeii.  Plus it included the price of transportation as well as lunch at a lovely restaurant up on the hillside overlooking Naples. 

We have found that adding day tours here and there to a longer independent-vacation is actually a fun way to add more structure to your site-seeing during an independent trip versus booking an entire tour vacation where everything is structured for you. So you are free to do your own thing most of the time, but you can do a tour when you want to. It’s like having the best of both worlds! 

Although, there may be times when booking an entire tour vacation is convenient. I actually did a tour many years ago on my first trip to Europe as a solo traveler. It was nice because I had never been to Europe before, and I was by myself. So being on a tour I felt safer, made some friends, and didn’t have to worry about anything. Sometimes a tour can be nice.

Booking Activities

There are a number of tools over the years that we use to book different activities. Sometimes we book onsite, other times in advance. But whenever we are search and booking we usually go to a website such as Get Your Guide to sort through all the different fun things we can do. For example, here you can see all the fun activities they have for Dublin! Browsing through these actually helps us come up with our itinerary by showing us all the cool things we can do in Dublin while we are there. 

 

16. Finalize Your Trip Itinerary


By now, you’ve done a ton of research and decided on where you are going and what you are doing. You might have even made all of your bookings or are in the process of finalizing those bookings. Now is the time to make sure you put together your finalized travel itinerary.

Update Your Vacation Planning Document 

If you have been using our Vacation Planning Template to help plan your trip, there is a tab specifically for you to input your final itinerary. It’s important that you include details such your hotels, booking confirmation numbers, etc. Having a finalized itinerary will help you to keep everything straight, and it also gives you something that you can share with friends and family so they are aware of where you are going and what you are doing in case of an emergency.

Create a Quick Reference “Cheat Sheet” to Take With You

While your full vacation itinerary is useful for many reasons, I have found that when I’m actually on the trip I don’t refer to the itinerary a whole lot. However, there are many times when I need to access to quick reference information.  For example, when checking into a hotel they might ask for the confirmation number. Rather than searching through all of my materials to find it, I usually just write this information down on a handy “cheat sheet” for my trip.

My “cheat sheet” is basically a summarized version of my itinerary that just includes key pieces of information I made need to have on hand for a quick reference at any given moment. This includes booking confirmation numbers, hotel addresses and phone numbers, local buses to take or subway trains to take, etc.

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A travel “cheat sheet” should be concise. Mine is only one page. The text looks small, but when it’s printed it can be read fine. 

I make note of these things and keep them handy in an electronic form (on my phone) but often times I will print out a small version just to keep in my pocket or bag. That way even if my phone dies or something, I still have the notes I need when I’m out and about.

While I have a version of my cheat sheet for all of my trips, I find that it’s really the more complicated international trips where it comes in handy the most.  Get your copy of the pre-formatted quick reference travel “cheat sheet” here!

 

17. Final Preparations for Your Trip


Finally, things are coming together and it’s time to tie up the loose ends. One of the most exciting parts of planning any type of trip is really after everything is booked, and you are making the final preparations!  This is a part of the anticipation and it’s when everything feels like it’s all becoming real.

Print Out Vouchers, Confirmations, etc.

At this point, you want to go through your itinerary and make sure that you have printed out anything required to bring with you, such as vouchers for tours, tickets, confirmations, etc.  Sometimes you don’t actually need printouts of these things, but you might want a copy just in case. Or possibly just saving a PDF to your phone, etc.

The important thing is that you make sure you know where it is and can find it when you need it! I know I usually have SO many emails that I can’t find things. That’s why I’ll make notes of confirmation numbers on my cheat sheet (as mentioned in the previous section). 

Money: Notify Banks, Get Cash / Currency, Back-Ups, etc.

Before you leave for your trip make sure that you prepare your money.  Many people overlook this part, but it’s extremely important!  Especially if you are traveling overseas, but even if you are traveling here in the States you should double-check access to money. For example, you need to let your bank know that you are traveling out of state, or out of the country so they don’t suspect fraud and suspend your accounts. We’ve actually had that happen before when filling up a rental car in Florida with gasoline. The bank rejected the transaction and we had to call them. 

Normally this doesn’t happen if we are traveling close to home. However, if you are traveling out of the country then it’s definitely something you need to tell your bank!

Always let your bank know. You can call them to do this, but many major banks make it easier by going online to add a “travel notification” to your bank account. You will need to specify the travel dates and destinations. This is especially critical if you are traveling out of the country because you definitely don’t want them to block your account while you are overseas!

You should also make sure that you bring some cash with you, as well as making sure your ATM card will work if you need to get cash. If you are traveling to another country, I recommend that you buy some currency in advance of your trip. But you don’t need to bring all of it with you! That’s risky in case it gets lost or stolen, plus you can usually just use your ATM card overseas to pull local currency out of the bank (if you are with a big bank). For more detail on that, read our complete post all about Money Travel Tips.

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Bring local currency, including small bills and change for restrooms (in Europe especially)!

Lastly, I highly recommend that you have back up credit cards and ATM cards just in case of an emergency. It’s always important to have back up options to get money or pay for things when you are traveling, especially if you are out of the country.   

Maps & Apps

Some of you may want to bring some paper maps with you, but nowadays most people prefer to use their cell phone for this. There are some great mapping apps out there for when you are traveling which make it super easy to find your way around. You can use Google Maps, but we prefer to use an app called Maps.Me. It’s a paid app, but we love it because we can download a map that works totally offline!  Having a map that works offline on your phone is great so you don’t use data while traveling (especially in another country).  We also like it because we can download specific city maps for our trip, and even add pins and make notes which correspond with our travel itinerary.

There are many other great travel apps that we recommend and that you might want on your phone to enhance your travel experience too. Things such as currency calculators, local tourism apps, etc. Be sure to check out our blog post all about our top travel apps that we use!

How to Use Your Cell Phone When Traveling

Speaking of cell phones, you will want to check into your phone carrier plans and learn about if you can use your phone where you are traveling (and if it costs more money).  If you are in the States then it shouldn’t be a problem since most carriers will work all around the US without extra roaming fees. But if you are going outside the country then you definitely need to check how you can use your cell phone internationally.  Sometimes your phone just won’t even work. Other times they will work, but you need to buy a special data package so you don’t pay insane roaming prices!

There are other options too, including just turning your data off when you are abroad and only using your phone when you connect with WiFi to check your email, etc. Whatever you do, make sure that you research this advance because if you just show up in a new country and start using your phone…you might go home with a surprisingly large phone bill!

Accessing the Internet While Traveling

This leads me into the next topic about internet when you are traveling. The great thing about traveling now is that many hotels and places you visit will have internet. Even cafes, museums, planes, trains and buses might have WiFi!  Keep in mind that these are public networks, so people might be able to snoop on your device. For this reason, we use a VPN when we travel and access the internet.

Besides using the wifi at public places, you may also use your phone data to hop on the internet while traveling, and tether a tablet or a laptop computer if you want to bring it with you. But for some people who need regular access to the internet while traveling (like we do for work),  you might even want to bring your own hot spot device with you.

A great example of this is when we are traveling in our RV. We like to watch movies on Netflix and other things when we are camping and we might even need to use our computers to do some work. So we actually bring our own Netgear Hot Spot device that we use with a SIM card. This allows us to create our own cellular WiFi network in our RV and connect multiple devices, and stream from wherever we are in our RV!

 

Driving Rules / License

As we’ve mentioned in previous sections, if your trip is overseas and you are planning to drive or rent a car, now is the time to make sure that you have your international drivers license / permit ready. Not every country requires this, but many do so you should double-check the requirements if you haven’t already. Also, having your IDP doesn’t hurt to bring with you just in case.

Be sure you have done some research about driving in other countries and specifically the places you plan to visit. They might have some quirky rules or signs that you should be aware of. For example, when driving in Mexico there were signs for “topes” – so we needed to know what they were! And also, the fact that gasoline in Mexico must be pumped by their staff, I could not pump it. Good things to know!

So it doesn’t hurt to research as much as possible before your trip so that you feel confident when you pick up that rental car in another country and take off down the road.

Travel Insurance

Another important consideration when doing the final preparations for your trip is travel insurance. Now, travel insurance might not be necessary for every trip you go on.  However, we’ve found it to be valuable if it is a more expensive trip or more complicated trip – and especially if it is out of the country.

There are different types of travel insurance. Buying basic travel insurance covers things like trip cancellation, interruptions, lost luggage, and other unexpected situations that can come up. And it definitely can happen! However, if you are traveling outside the country you also might consider getting some kind of travel health insurance. That’s because more than likely your regular health insurance policy here in the States will not cover you if you are overseas. Depending on the trip you are taking, your current health situation and what you plan to do during your trip, it might be wise to invest in travel health insurance for a small fee so you can avoid a potential big fee if anything was to happen (like when I broke my foot in China!).

Yup, things happen!

18. Pack for Your Trip


Now for the really fun part, packing for a trip!  Not everyone likes this part, but we love it because it’s really the final countdown to the vacation. At this point, we are often busting with excitement and just can’t wait to set out on the adventure.

Luggage Considerations

The first thing we do is consider the type of luggage that would be best for this trip. We don’t just grab any suitcase in the closet. Each trip is different, and so it might require a different piece of luggage. For example, we often use rolling suitcases if we are flying or even for most of our road trips. If we are flying and it is a short trip, we might not want to check our suitcase so we’ll bring a small carry-on sized bag.  So then we also need to make sure everything will fit in that carry-on sized suitcase!

Other times if we are going on a longer trip like a cruise, then we need to bring a lot of different clothes for different situations (like formal nights, etc.).  For a cruise we usually take a larger rolling suitcase.  This also means we will have to check our bag on the flight. So we’ll definitely check the requirements for checked baggage and if there are fees. Although, this is also where being a frequent flyer comes in handy because we can often get those fees waived. 

However, if we are going on a vacation where we will be on the go a lot and dealing with various public transportation, moving around, etc. then we might opt to bring travel backpacks!  Yes – backpacks are actually quite handy as a form of luggage in these situations. For example, in Asia there were times when we were in crowded spaces and needing to move fast in crowds to hop onto trains. Lugging a rolling suitcase would have been a nightmare and would have been a hindrance in getting around. 

Read our full blog post about checking a backpack on an airplane for details on how to do this properly so you don’t break your bag!

In another instance, we actually took a boat to an island in Thailand and they didn’t have a dock so we had to get out into knee deep water and wade to shore. We were so happy to have our backpacks – while people with large rolling suitcases had a tough time!

Europe – this is another travel destination where people might need to carefully think about their luggage!  In Europe, many of the old parts of towns might have cobblestone streets and the most charming hotels and cozy B&Bs are lovely places to stay…yet they might not have elevators! Many times I’ve seen tourists struggle with bulky suitcases trying to get them up and down those tiny, narrow (and steep) staircases at some places. Also, I’ll never forget being in Venice, Italy and seeing people dragging suitcases over all those bridges!  

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Josh and his carry on bags / backpack!

Ultimately, your choice of luggage can also make or break your travel experience too. So be sure you have planned carefully and considered the type and size of luggage that will be easy for you to haul around as needed.

 

Gear – Recommendations & Popular Items to Bring

There are all different types of gear that can really be beneficial to bring with you on a trip. Josh is the shopper in our family, and it always seems like he is finding some type of cool, new gadget, bag, or other item that will help make things easier on our trip. Now I am more of the frugal one in the family, so I often push back on all these things Josh wants to buy. However, I will admit that there have been a number of awesome items that really worked out well and that we highly recommend others consider for their trips.

First of all, make sure you have a great travel backpack or suitcase that will withstand what you are putting it through. Our luggage goes through a lot, so strong durable luggage is always a good investment.

Packing cubes – this is one of those things where I thought Josh was going a bit overboard. But I have discovered I LOVE these things! Wow, they make such a difference in staying organized regardless of if you are traveling with a suitcase or backpack. They help keep things sorted and also make it so when you open your bag things don’t go flying out everywhere. I highly recommend packing cubes and will never travel without them now.

Packable raincoat – if you are visiting a destination where it is often rainy (such as when we were in Ireland) then you will appreciate having a lightweight and packable raincoat. It really makes a difference when you aren’t hauling around a bulky raincoat. You might also consider a lightweight and compact travel umbrella too, depending on the season.

Extra outlets and travel adapters – Again, I thought maybe Josh was going overboard buying a little travel power strip to bring with us. But it has been a lifesaver multiple times when we needed to charge multiple devices and there was only 1 outlet to use. Whether we were at an airport, on a cruise ship, or in a hotel room. Having the extra outlets are great! Plus, if you are traveling overseas you should check if they have different outlets and if you need to bring a travel power adapter with you. You definitely don’t want to be stuck without a way to charge your electronics!

From comfy shoes, breathable shirts, water shoes, pashmina cover-ups, and more. Every trip is different and there are different types of gear that could really help enhance your trip depending on your travel destination. Definitely make sure to check out some of our packing lists for different destinations in our travel guides.

To browse around some. of the other travel gear we use and recommend, visit our store here! We’ve actually grouped different items that we used for different trips and types of travel.

Packing Considerations (like checking a bag)

As mentioned above, you really need to consider your transportation and other logistics when it actually comes down to packing your bags. For example, if you plan to check a bag on your flight make sure that you remove all your important electronics and other valuables to keep with you. Don’t check these things!!!  However, anything that you bring on the flight make sure that it meets the airlines carry-on bag guidelines.  Also, you will need to ensure that you meet TSA security guidelines when it comes to liquids or other things that may be in your toiletry bag.

We also recommend bringing any medications or critical documents along with you on the plane as well. Keep them with you, don’t pack them away in a checked bag.

Another thing to consider is if you will be handing your bags off to anyone, not just airline attendants.  Sometimes you will hand your bag off to a bus operator or even cruise staff to scan and deliver to your stateroom onboard the ship. If you think that at some point you will be handing off your main piece of luggage to ANYONE, make sure you have taken out everything that is valuable, personal, or important to you.

Bring a Secondary Bag for Days Out!

Your secondary travel bag is often where you will keep these types of items on you at all times. Things like electronics, travel documents, medications, valuables, etc. Bring these things with you in a carry-on and keep them with you at all times. This secondary bag can also double as your “out and about” bag. For example, both Josh and I have bags that we bring with us when we are out exploring. This is where we keep our cameras, phones, and other things like maps, snacks, extra tissue, hand sanitizer, etc. Depending on where you are traveling, it doesn’t hurt to have some of these items with you at all times.   

Having a great versatile secondary travel bag is actually another highly recommended gear item that you should have. You want something that is versatile to carry what you need to bring with you on your daily adventures, yet is also secure, comfortable and easy to carry. It also helps if it is packable so you can stuff it away if you need to. 

Actually, Josh and I have a few different bags that we bring with us. We often have a slightly bigger secondary bag for travel days, such as flying on an airplane. But we have a smaller compact version for when we are out during the day just exploring. These bags are collapsible so we can pack them together as needed.  

Gather Final Documents, Money, Maps, Charge Electronics, etc.

If you haven’t already, make sure that you have all the documents you need and organized where you can retrieve them easily if needed. Oftentimes these will go into your carry-on secondary travel bag. You will also need to have some cash and other money tucked away safely, yet easily accessible.

Be sure to charge your electronics and have all the cords / adapters you need. Lastly, if you enjoy listening to music when you travel be sure to check out our favorite road trip songs and download playlists to help make your experience a memorable one.

Lastly, if there are any maps that you are bringing with you or travel books or even electronic versions of books on your phone – make sure you have those packed and ready as well.

 

19. Ready, Set, Enjoy Your Vacation!


Now it’s time relax and enjoy yourself on your trip. Depending on your personality and the type of trip you are taking, you might have spent just a bit of time planning or a lot of time. Regardless, you deserve to enjoy your vacation. But I’ve found that doing the work upfront to plan a great vacation and prepare for it will enhance the experience and ensure things go smoothly. This is especially true for more complicated trips that involve traveling to far off places and foreign countries.

Enjoying a wet boat ride in Milford Sound, New Zealand

We hope that having things such as apps on your phone, and your “cheat sheet” quick reference travel itinerary can help you out when you are on the road to keep everything organized and at your fingertips.

At the end of the day, taking the time to really plan your trip can help maximize your experience, as well as your budget. Helping you to make memories and experience the world in a new and exciting way!

Happy travels to you!

 

 

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