Have you got a big trip to plan? Feeling a little overwhelmed and don’t know where to start?
International Travel Planning for a lot of folks, myself included, can bring about some legit stress and anxiety. Planning an overseas vacation is a big deal and there’s a ton that goes into it. And most importantly you want to get it right.For most of us planning a big trip isn’t something we do all the time. Practice makes perfect right? Well, the practice is the hard part since most of us can’t plan a trip every month.
But not to worry, you’ve come to the right place. If there’s one thing we know it’s how to nail that perfect trip. Whether it’s for just a week in your neighboring state or months abroad, this ultimate travel planning guide has everything you need.
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN PLANNING A TRIP
The great thing about travel is how personal it is. International Travel means something different to everyone. Travel for you might be about tasting the food and culture of some distant land. Or perhaps it’s vitamin-D therapy on a tropical beach.
When it comes to planning a trip there are no doubt many different styles. Some like everything mapped out for a trip while others prefer flexibility and a little spontaneity.
I’ve had some really great travel experiences with absolutely no plan other than the destination. I don’t mind landing in some foreign land without a plan. I kind of enjoy the adventure and the nervous energy of “what now?” But this style has its draw backs for sure and is not for everyone.
Have you ever gotten back from a trip to discover that you missed something really cool? Happens to us all the time. For that reason, we do like to plan and have a strategy so that we can get the most out of our trip.
HOW TO PLAN A TRAVEL ITINERARY
Over the past 20 years of traveling our style has definitely changed. Some of that has to do with how busy the travel scene has gotten. I remember being able to bounce around Europe no problem without having anything booked ahead of time. Today that doesn’t work so well with how busy it’s gotten.
How we plan a specific trip also depends on how busy the destination is. For a trip to Paris we would have everything booked up, yet some distant corner of Nepal we wouldn’t worry about as much.
In general, for International Travelwe prefer to have our accommodations mostly booked ahead of time. We typically use Booking.com since they allow free cancellations just 24 hours before the booking. This allows some flexibility should we need it. More on this later.
When it comes to meals we may do a little pre-research but we find the best restaurant beta is had once you’re there.
We also find a lot of value in researching things to do ahead of time. Your time while on vacation is a precious commodity and we prefer to not spend that time trying to figure out what to do while on vacation. Pinterest is a great platform to find things to do when traveling.
The biggest reason we like to plan ahead a bit is that it gets you stoked for where you’re going. Exploring what you’re going to get to do and see is a blast and only adds to why travel is so great.
On the other hand, leaving room for flexibility is important in your travel planning. Things are bound to go awry at some point in your travels and freaking out because your plans get messed up is no good. So taking a chill pill and rolling with the punches is an important skill while traveling internationally.
Check out Sustainable Travel for tips for a better travel experience.
HOW DO I START PLANNING AN INTERNATIONAL TRIP
Our favorite part of international travel planning is exploring the world for destinations. It’s a treasure map full of surprise and inspiration around every corner. Once you start you never know where you’ll end up.
INTERACTIVE INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL PLANNING MAP
Our favorite way to plan a trip is through the interactive travel planning map at Skyscanner.com. Once there click on map in the upper right-hand corner.
Now you just pick your departure city and date and you’re off to the races. Just click and drag the map about to see what flights cost to various parts of the world. This is a really fun way to explore some new destinations and find great deals.
PINTEREST TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
If you aren’t familiar with Pinterest you’re missing out. This is a great resource for travel inspiration. Just type in your destinations or search for something like, “cheap travel destinations” or “luxury travel destinations.”
FREE EXTENDED LAYOVERS
Have you heard of Stopovers or Extended Layovers? Any layover more than 24 hours is called a stopover. And the best part is you can use these to leverage free travel. This is one of our favorite ways to travel.
For example, we are heading to Ireland this spring and there was an available stopover in Paris. We decided to spend 2-weeks in Paris as a stopover on our way to Ireland. The best part is it actually saved us a $100 bucks. Stopovers are an amazing way to see more places for free. Several airlines allow stopover flights but the best way is through Airwander.com. Here’s a guide on using Airwander and stopover flights. We love it because you can take advantage of additional destinations for cheap.Check out our Top Picks for Cheap Travel Destinations
RESEARCH TRAVEL COSTS
Planning a vacation wouldn’t be complete without talking about the dreaded money component. It goes without saying that we aren’t made of money and travel can be costly.
So now that you have an idea of what flights cost let’s get an idea of the living costs once you’re there. For this we use a couple resources.
- To get an idea of accommodation costs we just hop on Booking.com.
- Next we head to Budget Your Trip. Here you can punch in a destination and it will give you an idea of costs such as food, drinks, and even groceries. It’s a great tool for staying on budget. Below is a screenshot of what you’ll see.
Armed with these two pieces of the puzzle you now have a pretty good idea of what your trip is going to cost.
Need some help saving for your next trip?
PLANNING WHAT TO DO
When it comes to finding the best things to do on a trip we often start with Google and Pinterest. These are good resources to find the mainstream touristy things to do.
At the same time it’s important to mix in some less touristy options. We enjoy getting off the beaten path as much as we can. For this we use travel forums where you can talk with folks that often live in the area you’re visiting.
- WikiVoyage – Another great resource, it’s Wikipedia but for travel! We’ve been using it for our upcoming trip and it has proved rather handy.
HOW TO APPLY FOR A PASSPORT
It’s now time to get you a passport. Obviously required for international travel but also really handy for domestic travel and is a good backup to have should you lose your drivers license.
For those of you that do have passports, it’s good practice to not travel with a passport that expires within the year. Even if you plan to be home before expiration, some countries may be hesitant to let you in with a passport that is soon to expire.
You can find country specific recommended expiration timelines here. In the left column just put in your destination.
5 STEPS TO APPLY FOR A US PASSPORT
- Fill out the application
- Gather supporting documents
- Get your photos
- Pay the fees
- Submit final application
When you order a passport you have the option of getting a passport card along with your passport. Last I checked it was a $20 extra charge. I HIGHLY recommend getting one. Here’s why.
The passport card is the size of a regular ID. This makes it easy to carry in your wallet separate from your passport. Not having all your eggs in one basket is a good idea if your wallet gets stolen or lost. See my Travel Safety Tips for more passport security ideas including my “false wallet.”
While the passport card is not sufficient for most overseas travel it will make getting a replacement passport at the Embassy MUCH easier.Passports will take 4-6 weeks so plan accordingly. To start the application process head to the State Department.
DO YOU NEED A TRAVEL VISA
A travel visa, also called an entry visa, allows you to enter into a foreign country for a specified amount of time. There are many foreign countries where no visa is required in order to visit. Some that do require an entry visa issue one automatically on your arrival.
The quickest and easiest way to see if you need one ahead of time is through iVisa.com. If one is needed you can purchase through iVisa and let them take care of the headache but they do charge a fee in addition to the cost of the Visa.
To go about it on your own here are the steps.Head to the State Department and enter your destination in the upper left column.
The next screen will highlight some general information about the country and mention if a visa is required. Scroll down and click, “Entry, Exit, and Visa Requirements.” This will give you links to the particular embassy where you can apply for a visa.
HOW TO STAY SAFE WHILE TRAVELING INTERNATIONAL
Our approach to staying safe while traveling is about knowing the risks before you go. Here’s an in-depth Guide to Travel Safety but I’ll cover some basics here as well.
- We start with the travel forums mentioned above to get an idea of how things are going in a particular country. If there is any sort of political or civil unrest there will be a lot of chat about it.
- The forums are a great place to learn about any common scams. Such as counterfeit currency that we got nailed with in S. America. Could have been easily avoided had we checked.
- For health-related safety such as vaccines and prophylaxis, we go to the CDC Travel website or if available head to your local travel medicine clinic.
- If you’re visiting say Machu Picchu or other high altitude locations be sure to educate yourself about Altitude Sickness and how to avoid it.
- Get yourself a basic travel first aid kit and some common over-the-counter medications to keep you safe and happy while traveling. Check out our DIY Travel First Aid Kit and recommended medications to take with you.
- We NEVER travel without travel insurance. It has saved us so many times. It’s worth it just for the trip cancellation, lost baggage, and delay coverage. But if you have any sort of medical emergency you’re going to be high and dry without it. But with that being said read How You Might Already Have Travel Insurance And Not Know It. We personally use World Nomads travel insurance and love it!
Here’s a round up from 16 full-time travelers with their Travel Safety Tips.
HOW TO FIND CHEAP FLIGHTS
After ALL this work, it’s now time to find that cheap flight. I see a lot of people who claim to have the ultimate booking site for cheap tickets but I assure there is no single site that works well for everything.
In addition, flight prices can change for no good reason. We were recently looking at a Ryanair flight from Scotland to Greece and it was only $25 one-way for a few weeks. Then it jumped to $90. A month later we looked and got that same flight for $17!
I used to be a believer in the private/incognito mode for your web browser. The thinking here was to block the booking sites so they can’t see your browsing history as you are frantically searching flights. But we’ve tried this for years and never could see consistent results so we kind of debunked that theory.
TRAVEL CREDIT CARDS – A QUICK RANT
The only true way to travel free is with travel credit cards. Jill and I haven’t paid for a major flight in probably 15 years and we travel a lot. Flipping credit cards is the only way to go if you’re serious about travel.
All your full-time travelers fly free with credit card miles and it’s a little ironic that we are the ones that write about all these great booking sites which we rarely use.
If you’re serious about travel, have good credit, and can ALWAYS pay your bill each month, it’s time for some credit card hacking. Beginners Guide To Travel Hacking And The Best Travel Credit Card is a great place to start.
I also can’t overemphasize the importance of understanding Airline Alliances for not only credit card miles but airline mileage award programs as well. A lot of people get this wrong and end up with miles they can’t use.
Thanks for listening, rant is over….
TRUSTED BOOKING SITES
I’m going to list some of our favorite sites, why we like them, and specifically what they are good for. The most important thing to remember is to shop around. Just because booking site X was the best for your last trip doesn’t mean it’s the best for today.
Air Wander is a fun way to explore travel and expand your trip through extended layovers. Pick your destination and Air Wander will let you pick from a list of places that you can layover for days or weeks at a time for no additional cost. We’ve used it a lot and really enjoy it. Here’s our how to article and video for Airwander
Skyscanner is another favorite and they do a good job of searching smaller budget airlines that the bigger sites miss. I’ve recently found their prices to be a touch high so remember to shop around.
Momondo is a favorite amongst frequent fliers. If I had to pick one it would be these guys or skyscanner. Momondo also searches smaller airlines that the bigger competition misses. They also have a good cheapest day to fly calendar.
Travelocity is one of the big chains and while it’s certainly worth checking it doesn’t really bring anything unique to the table.
Expedia is also worth checking but doesn’t bring anything exciting to the table.
Google Flights is another classic and they have a great interactive flight map where you can browse the entire world for flights. They also have a day of the week cost comparison as well.
FINDING THE BEST OVERSEAS ACCOMMODATIONS
Accommodations are very personal. Some of you will be out to save every dollar you can while others will want a little luxury. For Jill and I, we find that we never spend a lot of time in our rooms so we typically opt for something middle of the road.
Our days of splitting a bunk room in a hostel are over but we have no problem renting a private room with a shared bath. Everyone will have different preferences here.
The one thing we strongly encourage you to do is keep your accommodation bookings as flexible as possible.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve unexpectedly fallen in love with a place and wanted to stay another night. On the flipside, you might have booked a bunch of nights in a place that’s just kind of, well blah.
Having the freedom to adapt is SO important when traveling. For this reason we primarily use Booking.com.
Booking.com lets you book a place without charging a credit card and the vast majority of places allow cancellations just 24 hours in advance. This is great for how we like to travel.
The prices are very competitive but what you do miss out on are some perks. For example, Hotels.com buy 10 nights you’ll get 1 free. That’s great but the cancellation fees are brutal should you have to make a change.
When visiting new places where we aren’t exactly sure what to expect, we really like the flexibility that Booking.com offers.
Our last bit of advice is to have a look at AirBnb. We find it especially useful when traveling with another couple. Instead of booking two hotel rooms you can usually find a great two-bedroom AirBnb rental for a lot less.
For the ultimate travel hack, here’s How We Get Free Accommodations While Traveling Abroad.
HOW TO PACK LIGHT
Being flexible, spontaneous, and able to roll with the punches are crucial to successful travel. And there’s no better way to jack that all up than by having some massive suitcase.
BENEFITS OF PACKING LIGHT
- Easy to get around – Cabs, buses, and walking are just easier with a light bag
- $hit happens – When things go wrong always having your bag with you is essential. Canceled flights and missed connections get stressful real quick when you don’t have your bag.
- Baggage fees – Checked baggage fees are a complete waste and can be avoided altogether with a light pack.
- Vacation from the stuff – Surrounding yourself with less stuff, fewer choices, and less worry is a real treat. It frees you to focus on what matters, your travels.
- Use packing cubes or roll your clothes. I prefer to use a packing cube and then roll that up. These also come in handy to separate clean and dirty clothes.
- Don’t pack bulky things like sweatshirts. Use layers of clothing instead. This will better cover you over a wider range of temps as well. Or perhaps you can wear the bulkier clothing on the flight.
- Don’t forget that you can always buy things wherever you are going. Sometimes I’ll pack just half the shirts I need knowing that I’ll grab a few as souvenirs.
- Don’t worry about planning for every possible weather scenario. On many trips, you may have warm beach weather down low but up high things get cold. For those days when you go to the high country just pick up an extra layer or two and then give them away once you’re done with that part of the trip.
- Laundry services are everywhere so don’t bring enough clothes to get you through the entire trip. Usually a week’s worth is enough.
- If you aren’t familiar with Solid Shampoo and Conditioner then you’d better check them out. They look like bars of soap but are actually shampoo/conditioner and work really well. They save a ton of space and weight and you don’t have to worry about things spilling. They make a similar item called Toothy Tabs that take the place of toothpaste.
- Take time packing. Don’t do this the night before you leave because you will most likely forget stuff and pack way too much.
Find more great How To Pack Light Tips so you can spend more time on travel and less on the stuff.
OUR BIGGEST PIECE OF ADVICE…
When you land in some foreign far corner of the earth where nobody speaks English do yourself a favor and have your transport out of there figured out.
After a hellaciously long international flight, there’s nothing worse than being bombarded with aggressive taxi drivers while you try to figure out if that’s a fair price or not.
Do yourself a favor and research this before you get there so you can start your trip off on the right foot.
Or better yet catch a ride from a friendly local…check out that hands-free phone set up!
Thanks for making it to the end! I hope you got something out of it. If you liked it don’t forget to share it to your favorite social media, links are to your left.