If there’s one thing I get asked over and over it’s how to plan a trip. The short answer is to research extensively and collect all the information in a detailed travel planning spreadsheet.
Easier said than done.
Planning a trip takes time and doesn’t happen overnight. If you’re thinking about planning a big trip, but don’t know exactly where to start, I’m here to help! This post will take you through my personal travel planning process and hopefully make planning your vacation much easier.
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How to Plan an Amazing Trip Abroad
1. Start with a bare-bones travel planning Excel spreadsheet
You don’t need to know exactly which cities you want to visit or when you want to go quite yet. Start a spreadsheet and title it, “Europe 2019” or “South America 2020”. Getting the generic destination and year written down will be a huge start. From there, you can slowly add details. Next thing you know, you’ll have a huge spreadsheet with a ton of information!
2. Decide on your travel dates and general destination(s)
Deciding when and where you want to go is a big step. If the time of year doesn’t matter to you, decide on your destination first. The destination might help you better choose your dates. For instance, it’s best to travel to Southeast Asia between January and August when it’s not monsoon season. Europe is great any time of year, but if you are wanting to visit Christmas markets in Germany, June is probably not the best month to travel there. For us in particular, we cannot travel between January and May because that’s Eric’s busy season at work.
As I said before, travel planning takes a lot of research and that doesn’t just mean finding things to do or where to stay. Visiting your dream destination at the right time of year can drastically change how the trip will go. We visited Southeast Asia in September. It was the start of monsoon season for Thailand and Cambodia, but the dry season for Bali. The rain did not affect our trip at all and, as you can see from the photo above, the weather in Bali was perfect.
While traveling for the season is great, if you only have a short window of time to travel and really want to visit a destination, don’t cross it off your list just because it might not be the perfect season. Check to see what others have said about traveling to that destination at that time of year. Managing expectations is a major part of traveling as well. Since a few of the countries we were visiting in Southeast Asia were in their rainy season, we assumed it would rain the whole time. It didn’t which was a huge relief, but our expectations ensured we wouldn’t have been disappointed if it did.
3. Build out your travel planning spreadsheet
Once you have your destination, dates, and a rough idea of specific cities you want to visit (if there are multiple), start building your itinerary.
Here are the tabs I have in all of my planning spreadsheets:
- Overview—This is the first tab I have in every spreadsheet. It includes dates, how many days off work are needed, and a high-level outline of the trip including a calendar. This tab helps to lay the foundation for the trip.
- City tabs—I only include tabs for cities where I’ll be staying overnight. If I do a day trip, that information goes in the tab where I’ll be spending the night.
- Transportation—For Europe, I split this out into one tab for air travel and one for train travel since there was so much to organize. For Southeast Asia, I had one tab for transportation since we flew to each city.
- Important Information (optional)—For Southeast Asia, I had an “Important Information” tab which included visa requirements, vaccinations needed, and customs to be aware of in each country. You can include this information in the overview tab if there isn’t much for the countries you’re visiting.
- Budget—I separate this out into categories such as transportation (this includes air), activities, accommodations, food estimates, and a discretionary amount for incidentals and souvenirs.
Check out examples from our Southeast Asia trip planning spreadsheet.
This is arguably the most important and longest step in planning an amazing trip abroad. If you know which part of the world you want to travel to, but not necessarily the countries or cities, take some time to research these places before rushing into a decision. You may find that the most popular cities are not what you’re looking for in your perfect trip.
I knew nothing about Switzerland before we went. At first, we were going to stay in Lucerne, Interlaken, and Zermatt. I made this decision based on an itinerary I found on the Swiss tourism website. Once I started researching things to do, suddenly our itinerary changed to staying in Murren and Zermatt. I stumbled upon several blogs and forums where people were so passionate about staying in the Alps rather than the valleys. This information made our trip 100% better and I’m SO thankful to those bloggers for guiding me to change our itinerary to somewhere I didn’t even know existed before doing the research.
I could do a whole blog post just on travel research, but I’ll just break this down into steps below:
- Replicate itineraries. My first step for each city is a Google search for “X day itinerary in X city”. If you’re going somewhere like Paris or Rome, there will be endless blog posts with “The Perfect Itinerary”. The important thing to remember is everyone has different tastes. Some like an itinerary packed with museums, some have none, and some have a mix of historical sites along with museums. Read as many as you can and organize the perfect itinerary for YOU! The truth is, there isn’t a “perfect” itinerary out there because everyone travels differently.
- Take notes. When I’m going through these blogs, if something sounds interesting to me, I’ll write it down. If someone says something like, “this wasn’t worth the price” or “I wish we went at X time” I write that in a “comments” column to the right of the activity name in my spreadsheet. You will thank yourself for taking great notes later!
- Modify to suit you. Once you have exhausted Google and found a good amount of activities that piqued your interest, you are ready to start building a realistic itinerary for you. Like I said before, everyone travels differently. So if you know that you enjoy having some time to relax, don’t pack your days so full. If you are like us and like to use every ounce of a day doing things, just be sure to space your activities out so you can get food at some point and don’t feel rushed going from site to site.
This can happen in the middle of research, but I have so much advice on this I needed to make it its own step. Your accommodations can make or break your trip. You might be thinking, “but I won’t be there very much because I’ll be out exploring.” True, but think about what your accommodations can offer you. Free breakfast, transportation to or from the airport, walking distance to everywhere you need to go are just some of the things I try to look for to maximize the return on what I pay for my accommodations. For example, our hotel in Seminyak, Bali came with breakfast, transportation to the airport, a pool inside our villa, and a massage every day for both of us. When comparing similar villas, The Amala won because it gave us so much more for the same amount of money.
My two favorite travel tools for finding accommodations are Booking.com and Airbnb. There seem to be an infinite amount of hotel search sites, but Booking.com has always been amazing. I love how the site is laid out, you can sort by review score, distance to downtown, and location score (what others have rated it based on its location). When narrowing down hotels in a huge city that you might not know much about, those parameters are so helpful.
Airbnb has been a favorite travel tool of mine since we went on our Europe trip in 2017. The Airbnb’s we stayed in were incredible and saved us so much money.
Tips to help you find the best hotels
- Location. Research a landmark, neighborhood, and/or an area that is centrally located in the city you’re visiting and make sure your hotel search is concentrated in that area. Being able to walk to most places is so helpful and keeps your transportation costs down.
- Reviews. If you find a hotel that looks promising, read the reviews. There might be a person who rates the hotel 3 stars but then the only issue was a squeaky fan in the room (definitely not a deal breaker). Pay attention to comments about location, breakfast (if provided), and cleanliness.
- Price. Keep a close eye on price and what you get for that price. There could be two hotels with very similar amenities and price. However, one might offer breakfast or a free airport shuttle while the other one doesn’t. That’s money in your pocket for other things!
Get a jumpstart on your hotel research!
6. Take breaks
I love travel planning. It’s one of my favorite things to do. But while I was planning our Southeast Asia trip I got a little burnt out at times. The same thing happened when I was planning for Europe.
Take breaks! Planning a dream trip should be fun and exciting, not a chore. If you are going to multiple cities, focus on one at a time. In fact, just focus on one aspect of a city at a time. You can start by looking up restaurants, then move on to things to do and before you know it you’ll have one city on your list completely planned.
7. Confirm all bookings
If there’s one thing you don’t want it’s showing up to the airport or your hotel just to get told there is no reservation on file for you. We put so much trust in the internet these days but glitches do happen. You might have a confirmation number, but it’s possible it didn’t transmit to the airline or hotel reservation system. It takes a little time, but it’s well worth the peace of mind you’ll have to know all of your reservations are confirmed.
While we were planning for Europe, I used Booking.com to reserve a room at Hotel Jungfrau in Murren, Switzerland. I was only paying attention to the price when I booked and didn’t realize the room I reserved was for single occupancy. When I emailed the hotel to confirm our reservation, they realized my mistake. Thank goodness I checked or we might not have had a room when we arrived.
Being thorough with your bookings will save you so much headache later.
8. Run through the itinerary like you’re already on the trip
My final important piece of advice is to do a “dry-run” of your itinerary. Say it out loud with your travel partner or enlist a friend to listen to your plan if you’re traveling solo. This might seem like a waste of time, but hear me out.
As you walk through your proposed itinerary, you or the person listening to you might find holes in it that you didn’t think about while you were planning. Getting big things like hotels and excursions booked may seem like all you need to do, but did you think about how you would be getting from the airport or train station to your hotel? What about getting back to the airport or train station when you need to leave that city? Did you check if you need a visa to enter the country you’re going to? What about vaccinations?
Don’t believe me? See what we caught before two of our big trips
- Language barriers in Paris. As we went through our itinerary for Europe before we left, we realized the instructions we received to check in to our Airbnb in Paris were in French. Not a big deal, except if we hadn’t realized this ahead of time we could have been stuck in Paris without a way to translate the instructions since we weren’t 100% sure if our data plan on our phones would work over there (or how great the signal would be). I knew a little French but the instructions were long and very detailed. I was so glad we caught this before we arrived.
- Money saving catch in Bali. Another example is from our Southeast Asia trip. We originally were going to use our hotel in Ubud for our transportation from the airport upon arrival and to our next hotel in Seminyak. But I realized that our tour guide in Ubud also offered transportation and his price was less than half of what our hotel charged. Of course, we decided to switch, but I didn’t realize until our “dry-run” that I forgot to email the hotel to tell them we no longer needed their transportation services. Thank goodness we noticed otherwise we would have been stuck with two rides and out of pocket a lot of money.
“Best laid plans…”
Obviously, I’m a planner. Organization calms my anxiety. But I know things happen and I just have to roll with the punches. In this way, travel is good for me because it forces me to relinquish a bit of control.
If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’re like me and want to be as organized as possible while traveling. But keep in mind that part of the adventure of travel is the unpredictability. Flights get delayed, weather can change in an instant, and places you’ve dreamt about visiting can be closed for a “private event” with no warning like when we tried to visit the Opera Garnier in Paris (read about that miss here). Everything happens for a reason and not every unpredictable moment is bad. Like the time we unexpectedly met the most famous butcher in the world in Tuscany (read about that incredible experience here).
If you can’t plan for it, embrace it. Travel is an adventure and no matter what happens, you’re sure to come back with an interesting story.
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