Whenever I get ready for a trip, I always set out with the best of intentions: I’ll do all the research, make an online and a hard copy of my itineraries, and organize my information logically. I’ll research Northern Europe this week, then Eastern Europe, then figure out the Mediterranean. I’ll coordinate my flights, trains, busses and ferries, then I’ll book hostels and include the URLs to where I found this information in my notes. I’ll remember to give copies of these things to my ever-concerned family. I’ll have a binder and seal my notes in waterproof pages, and everything will be small enough to fit into my backpack.
In practice, however, this almost never happens. I’ll be perusing travel blogs for ideas and then will write down the fun, pertinent ideas on a scrap piece of paper with only a vague (and sometimes completely incorrect) hint at the name of the blog. And then I lose the piece of paper. If I happen to find it again, I usually have no idea why I wrote it down in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle.
Furthermore, I generally never go about planning in an appropriate order. This should tell me something about the importance I give to the places I will be visiting, and which ones I actually think would be worthwhile to plan and see. Not so. Even when I do realize that my interest in the southernmost regions of Germany or the concept of Switzerland or Macedonia on the whole are dwindling, I don’t just scrap the visit and refocus on things that I find interesting. Instead, I book my hostel and train/plane/bus ride, then go without any knowledge of the area or what I should see.
And sometimes that works really well. I find quaint places that are hiding the best pastries, the most scenic hikes, the most untouched, traditional cultures. But other times it’s pretty much an infallible set up for disaster.
So this brings me to my next point: how much should you plan your trip, and how do you do it? While it’s immensely important to pinpoint your interests before you make drastic, costly decisions, its also important to really sit down and book your flights and make sure you have a place to sleep.
My intentions for this trip are less ambitious than they have been for previous trips I have taken. While I do plan on actually planning, I’m going to ditch the binder idea (which has never come to fruition anyway). I’m going to be open to having a flexible schedule and seeing sights that are recommended by locals and other travelers. But in the meantime, I’m going to start by learning things I’ve done wrong in other situations.
So here are my guidelines for sporadic planners like myself. This assumes that you have a computer (how else would you be reading my blog?) And an up-to-date passport. No-frills, less stress. More fun. Enjoy!
- Think about where you want to go. What places have you always wanted to see? Where would you regret not going? These are very important factors in planning your trip. In fact, you don’t have a trip at all if you don’t have a destination. Eliminate places that you struggle to maintain interest in and spend your time and money in places you will enjoy.
- Create a file folder on your computer. Nothing screams “organized” like the manilla-pixels folders on your desktop. You can even create sub-folders, categorizing by flights, itineraries, hostel bookings, countries, cities, etc. Your options are limitless, but don’t create a new folder for every new document you create. That’s just as bad as not creating a folder at all, and will probably leave you feeling overwhelmed.
- Make lists. Make a list of countries you want to see, cities within those countries, and then attractions within cities. Give yourself a range of accommodations that you want to stay in that remain within your budget. Don’t waste your time with restaurants and eateries unless they are categorized as an attraction for you.
- Plan within reason. As I mentioned above, it is a waste of your time and effort to find restaurants while you’re home. Chances are that you won’t eat at a single one of them. The best eateries will be found while you’re out, or you could ask your concierge or locals for recommendations. In Europe, the best eateries are the ones with menus in the native language and that don’t advertise. In Asia, the street food is to die for (but make sure you visit ones that look well populated and more sanitary). Also, do not schedule too strictly! Planning by the hour is going to drive you insane, and will only stress you out while you’re abroad.
- Budget. Figure out what looks reasonable for your financial situation. Plan the length of your trip accordingly, and take into consideration exchange rates and cost of living in your countries of choice. Once you figure out how much money you can spend, divide the amount up into categories like lodging, food, and fun.
- As soon as you figure out where you’re going to go, begin searching for bargains. Travel Agencies are ALWAYS A RIP OFF. Always. Remember that they are looking to profit off of your dime. If you do choose to visit a travel agent, you MUST do your own, separate research as well.
- Bargain hunting tips for flights and volunteer trips: search websites like kayak.com for deals. I personally like STA Travel as well, and managed to get a $217 trip to London from Chicago (one way). Note that some websites (STA included) are very good for flights and accommodations, but incredibly marked up when it comes to tours and volunteer opportunities. Go to the website of the organization you wish to travel with and be sure to check their rates as well. For flights, search different points of entry for your trip, and select the cheapest one. Travel within countries is often cheaper than flying to your favorite spot.
- Bargain hunting tips for international travel: if you are a student, GET AN ISIC CARD. They are invaluable and will give you many discounts. You may apply for one HERE, or at the website of your choosing. Staying in hostels is always less expensive than swanky hotels, and using websites like hostelworld.com will help you get the most bang for your buck. Look for the highest rated hostel for the best price, according to your budget.
- Look at the news and research the culture. Factor in things like political disturbances (train schedules during strikes, riots, protests etc), environmental disturbances (whose up for another Icelandic volcano incident?), and cultural practices (days that museums are open, days of Sabbath, Ramadan, siestas) in the countries you wish to visit. Keep up to date on these things to ensure your safety.
- Figure out a planning schedule that works for you. In my case, this is “whenever I get wanderlusty and anxious to travel.” Other people benefit from weekly, bi-weekly, tri-weekly pre-determined planning times. Go at your own pace, and enjoy doing your research. Remember that planning should be fun!