I remembered when I chose to travel solo for the first time in my life. I didn’t know what to do or even where to begin. Just the thought of it made me anxious. Here I am about to embark on a huge trip of a lifetime – how do I even start what feels like a huge personal project…without any help, guidance, or blueprints?
Not many people traveled back then. I only had a flip phone (eventually I upgraded to a slow iPhone 4s with apps that had minimal features). Through trial and error and numerous mistakes I made, I finally have travel planning down. Check out my 10 steps, or rather questions to ask yourself, that will help you feel less overwhelmed and help you travel plan from start to finish in no time!
1) What type of trip do you want? Where do you want to go?
With so many places in the world, where do you even start? How do you choose where to go? Figuring out the purpose of your trip will help you narrow down your choices. What do you want to get out it? If you’re looking for adventure, you can plan your trip around that theme (ie. New Zealand is great for adrenaline junkies and nature lovers). Looking for a culinary experience? Try France, Spain, or Italy. Just need a simple place to get away from everything, relax, and do absolutely nothing? Maybe a beach destination like Tulum, Mexico or an island off the Philippines will help rejuvenate you. If you’re looking for a bit of everything, you can always take on an entire region (ie. Western Europe, mainland Asia) and explore it.
2) How long do you plan to go? How much money do you need to save and budget for your trip?
The thought of lying down at an exotic beach, riding a scooter down the streets of Italy, hiking through Patagonia, and seeing the Taj Mahal at sunrise seems like the ultimate dream. The good news is that it’s totally do-able. The bad news? It all does come with a price tag. If you’re like most people with limited vacation time, your trip budget will be much smaller compared to an all-around-the-world trip, so it won’t take as long to save up for. Planning a long excursion? It’s time to start saving! In general, you can stretch your money a lot in Southeast Asia, followed by Eastern Europe and Latin America. Western Europe will be on the pricier side. Australia and the Scandinavian countries are generally expensive.
3) When’s a good time to go?
Hopefully after figuring out what you want to get out of your trip and how long you want to go (Step 1 & 2 above), it will help you narrow down what part of the world you want to travel too. Just don’t forget to factor in the weather of your dream destination! The southern hemisphere’s seasons are opposite from us folks who live in the northern hemisphere above the equator. When I was in Australia, I was so caught off guard on how hot it was in December because it was summer over there. They had barbecues for Christmas! I personally am a fan of warm and sunny destinations since I can pack super light. If I want the cold (brrr…) I can always visit back home to Virginia in the winter!
When it comes to flights, which make a good chunk of your travel expenses, the cheapest times to visit a country is during their “off season” or “shoulder season”. Off-season is when there are barely any people visiting or traveling. You can avoid the crowds. In addition, the rates for flights and accommodation are generally lower. However, it may be too cold for the beach and attractions or museum opening hours may be very limited. Shoulder season is the best time to go because the weather isn’t too harsh and the tourist crowds are still small. For example, I traveled to Europe at the tail end of summer – as families have finished vacationing and were getting their kids ready to go back to school. Check out these charts to see ideal times to travel to certain parts of the world. Going to the Caribbean islands as a summer getaway may sound like fun, until you get there and realize it’s hurricane season!
4) Do I need a visa, return flight ticket, or hotel confirmation receipt?
Some countries, depending on your passport, require a visa to enter (aka a special pretty sticker in your passport that costs money). One of the most heart-wrenching moments on a trip is when you arrive at the airport only to find out you will be denied from boarding the plane because you didn’t know you had to get a visa. It’s a very easy step to overlook when planning a trip. A site you can check if you need a visa to enter a certain country is CIBT. Keep in mind when using this site, there are a couple of countries where you can fly in or arrive by bus/car and pay for the visa then and there. This is called a visa-on-arrival. An example of this would be when I flew from Australia to Indonesia. Once I landed in Indonesia, that was when I paid for the visa and they just put the sticker right there in my passport. Some countries you will need to get the visa ahead of time from the embassy or from a travel/visa agent (ie. China, Russia, India). Finally, some countries (ie. Australia, New Zealand) allow you to apply & pay online to receive an electronic visa – meaning no sticker is given to you. It’s all tied to your passport number. All you have to do is enter the country and when they scan your passport, they’ll be able to see the visa in the system.
Some countries (not many though) require you to show proof that you have booked your accommodation in advance. In such rare cases that this happens, I just grab something at booking.com. Sometimes I’m not sure what area of a city I want to stay in. However, once I show them my booking receipt, I can cancel my reservation without any penalties and just book a new one later.
Some countries require you to have an outbound flight ticket as it proves to them you won’t be overstaying in their country or illegally immigrating. It’s difficult to purchase an onward ticket when you want to be flexible with your travel plans – what if you end up falling in love with the country and want to stay a few days longer?
Good news! They are two budget-friendly ways to go about this:
A) Buy a Refundable Ticket
I was planning a trip to New Zealand but didn’t have an outbound flight ticket because I didn’t know how long I wanted to stay there before I moved onto Australia. I booked a refundable ticket for a later date to fly back home to the US. Once I landed in New Zealand, I called the airline to cancel my ticket. No questions were asked why and they refunded all the money back onto my credit card. Just make sure to read the fine print of the airline to avoid hidden fees.
At this site you can rent a legit, real (aka legal) ticket for $9.99USD that expires after 24 hours or a $16.99USD ticket that expires in 48 hours. All you need to do is buy a Flyonward ticket just a few hours before you get to the airport.
5) What are the best debit & credit cards to use?
Exchanging foreign currency at the airport can give you the worst rates and some even charge a service fee, whereas withdrawing from an ATM will give you some of the best conversion rates. However, withdrawing from an ATM a couple times a week can rack up in unwanted ATM fees and eat into your travel savings. This is why I fell in love with Charles Schwab Bank. Their debit card allows you to take out money from ATMs and they reimburse the ATM fees back to your account at the end of the month. Their customer service (online chat or over the phone) is fantastic and run 24/7 as well. Unlike many banks you don’t need thousands of dollars to open an account with them nor do they have monthly maintenance fees. Note: This is a US Bank.
I don’t use my credit cards as much when I’m overseas. For credit cards, you mainly want to look for one that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. That way it won’t eat up your travel savings every time you swipe it. Examples of credit cards that don’t charge extra for overseas purchases include:
Starwood American Express
Chase Sapphire Preferred
Barclay Arrival Plus
Note: some of these cards may not be available for non-US folks. Some people have asked about travel hacking (ie. getting free flights and accommodation through reward points). There’s a lot of info on that so it will have to be written in a separate post.
6) How do I find the best and cheapest flight deals?
Flights are one of the biggest travel expenses, so finding a cheap deal can feel as if you’ve scored the lottery. This is also my favorite step in the travel planning process because once you’ve booked your ticket, you can finally believe that you’ll DEFINATELY be going on this trip!
First, I’ll look at websites such as Holiday Pirates or The Flight Deal to see if there are any special airfare sales going on. Usually they aren’t during months I want to travel in or destinations I want to visit, but it doesn’t hurt to see what they have!
How many in months in advance should you buy a plane ticket? I usually buy my ticket about 6-8 weeks in advance. That’s generally the sweet spot. Statravel.com is your best friend if you are under 26 years old as they provide youth & student discounts. If you are older, you’ll have to research around various sites (Kayak.com, Skyscanner, etc.). My go-to site is skyscanner.com or momondo.com. Put affiliate link as it usually shows the best deals from major and also the smaller budget airlines. Be flexible with the dates (search by month) and it will show you the cheapest day to fly and how much it’ll cost. Flights tend to be cheaper if you fly out on Saturday, Tuesday, Wednesday and on a holiday (eg. I came to Japan RIGHT ON Christmas Day since the fare was much cheaper).
7) Where do I stay?
At this point after booking your flights, you’ll probably be feeling a mix of emotions that include “Ahh!! I can’t believe I’m actually going!!” to “What the hell did I just do?!” (It’s totally OK to feel like this by the way – it might get worse before you actually step on that plane but I promise it’ll get much easier once you land!)
With new accommodation choices popping up, there are a variety of places to choose from that can suit your travel style. When I’m on the road, I usually book 3 to 7 days in advance:
- Looking for a budget friendly and clean place (hostel blog link)? Check out Hostelworld
- Prefer hotels? I use Booking.com
- Looking for a boutique place to stay at or a unique home from a local? There’s Airbnb (New to Airbnb? Get $40 off your first stay!)
- Want an experience and stay with a local for free? Maybe try Couchsurfing
8) What activities do I want to see and do?
This is where Google, travel forums, and Facebook groups will be your best friend. However, I would advise to keep your itinerary loose and flexible. When you try to cram every activity, hike, and museum in a short amount of time you become exhausted and frustrated. Many countries don’t run on time so if you schedule things back to back but can’t make it all, you’ll just end up disappointed.
What I personally do (because I find it researching tiring and sometimes overwhelming online) is that I just ask the receptionist all my questions. They’re most likely a local or someone who’s staying in that country for a while and can provide me maps. They also answer the same questions every day to many travelers who pass through such as where to eat, top places to see and hang out, where the locals go, and more.
9) What do I pack?
After traveling around the world, I promise you can live out of one backpack or suitcase. I wrote an entire post on what I pack here. I used to over pack and it felt like a burden carrying and dragging everything around. And let’s be honest: we end up wearing the same 3-4 outfits that we like.
10) Help! I feel overwhelmed! What do I need to take care of before I go?
I thought the same exact way as it lurked in the back my head with weeks leading up to the day I would step on that plane. Luckily, I created a list to things to take care of beforehand here.
I hope this 10-step guideline will ease your pre–travel jitters, stress, and worries from ” I’m not organized and there’s so much to do and plan!” to “I GOT this. Let’s go on an adventure!” Finally, don’t forget to have fun and enjoy the trip you’ve saved and worked so hard for, whether it be your annual vacation or a trip around the world.
To check out all the sites and companies that I personally use on my trips, check out my Travel Resources Page.