If you are like me 10 years ago, the idea of traveling is very appealing to you, but you don’t know where to start. Maybe you surf the net looking at cool UNESCO World Heritage Sites, watch National Geographic and say, “some day,” or even talk to your friends and shoot around “dream vacation ideas.” When you get older, you realize that traveling, while easy in theory, takes some skill unless you are willing to fork over a bunch of money and have someone do it for you. You know, those “spend 7 days and 6 nights in the luxurious….for the low low price…” advertisements you see everywhere which are never really a ‘low low price.’ Most people kind of give up, and never really travel anywhere in their lives.
It is my hope that you are reading this because you want to know how to travel longer, more often, and with less money. Unfortunately, this is one of those things that they don’t teach in school (and they should), which is a shame for people who have a true, innate passion for traveling. This is a very basic guide on how to plan for a travel trip without breaking the bank, and with a few assumptions.
Assumption #1) You haven’t traveled ever, or maybe just once or twice.
Assumption #2) You are not rich, so you want so do this as cheaply as possible.
Assumption #3) You only have 1-2 weeks of travel vacation available due to your job or other responsibilities.
[This is part 1 of a 5 part series of travel planning skills for novices, beginners, intermediates, advanced, and experts]
Step 1: Make a List
Think about things you would like to do or places you would like to see. It would be a lot more helpful to make the list about “experiences” or specific cities instead of entire countries. Here is an example list:
1) Taking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (Cuzco, Peru)
2) Camping in Yellowstone National Park (Near Cheyenne, Wyoming, USA)
3) Visiting the Colosseum of Rome (Rome, Italy)
4) Seeing the Komodo Dragons (Bali, Indonesia)
5) Seeing Angkor Wat (Siem Reap, Cambodia)
If you need some inspiration, check out the top of this site where it says “Start Here” or click here to see some articles on UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Step 2: Consider the Weather
While this may seem like a minor problem, it could have huge implications. For example, as majestic as the Great Wall of China may be, it will be considerably less incredible is you are walking around and it’s -25 degrees Celsius (as I unfortunately did). Furthermore, you probably don’t want to check out a beach destination during the rainy season. While many people risk it, in my opinion, traveling is way too expensive to leave weather up to chance. If you Google pretty much any city, the Wikipedia page will be one of the first results. Wikipedia usually has the climate statistics for any city in the world. Rule out any places on your list that are notorious for bad weather during your vacation dates.
Step 3: Compare Flight Prices
For your time frame of 1-2 weeks, the airplane ticket will probably be the biggest expense. While more resources exist, lets keep it simple:
Kayak is the simplest website to use. It is very novice friendly as it doesn’t have many things going on in the main page. Their prices are usually pretty good too.
Orbitz often has slightly better deals than Kayak, and I have found them to be more reliable, too. Their website, however, focuses more on Hotels and complete packages, making it slightly more of a hassle to use. (Note: Cheaptickets.com is owned by Orbitz, and they always have identical prices for everything, so don’t waste your time.)
Vayama is often the cheapest, but doesn’t always have all of the flights the other two have, limiting your options.
In any case, make sure to check for flights to a couple of the items on your list from Step 1.
Step 4: Plan Your Itinerary
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[Above: My travel route in Italy: July, 2012]
While many travelers prefer to just go and figure it out when they arrive, quite frankly, that sounds terrifying to me. If you are reading this ‘travel planning for novices,’ it might be terrifying for you too! Now, I am not saying that you should stick to a strict itinerary at all, since you could find better things to do once you arrive. However, having a rough idea of what to do can save you a lot of time. The last thing you want is to arrive and spend your first few hours in a new place staring at a map.
Personally, I like to do the main attraction for my trip first. For example, on my upcoming trip to Peru, there are many things I would like to do, but hope to see Machu Picchu first and foremost. There are many things I can’t predict, such as the weather, or other unforeseen circumstances, so if I miss it in the beginning of my trip, I have time to make it up towards the end of it.
Furthermore, in many of the most famous places in the world, reservations are either required, or can save you a lot of time. For example, as I explained on my Machu Picchu Travel Guide, the Inca Trail Hike is booked 6 months in advance! Another example would be the Uffizi Gallery in Florence which requires about a 4 hour wait in line if you don’t book in advance.
Over planning is better than under planning, but feel free to throw your ideas out the window if you find better things on location.
Step 5: Figure out Local Transportation
Especially if you will be moving long distances during your trip, it would be wise to figure out how the public transportation system works, and if you need tickets in advance. This could also save lots of money which can be spent on another trip.
For example: In Italy, Trenitalia offers ridiculous 60-70% discounts on inter-city trains if booked 2-3 months in advance. I paid 9 Euro from Milan to Venice by booking in advance, a route that costs 22-35 Euro otherwise. Considering that I bought 4 tickets, this was quite the savings.
Another example is in South Korea where, as I mentioned on my travel guide, if you don’t book 1-3 weeks in advance, all the cheaper, slower trains will be sold out on any given weekend.
Step 6: Book Places to Stay
This step seems like it would tie down your itinerary to a very strict schedule, but this is not so. Many hotels and hostels offer free cancellation up to the day of arrival with a full refund. One particular hostel that I just booked lets you cancel up to noon of the day of arrival. If your plans change, you can always find an internet connection (or call them) and cancel.
Hotels.com is the more reliable option. Whenever I have had any issue, I have been able to call their call center and within minutes, problem solved. In addition, their system is very easy to use, and they do not have any penalty if you cancel a reservation (if the hotel is okay with it, read every hotels policy before booking). They also have a rewards plan, where if you stay for 10 nights through them, the next night is free up to the average price of the 10 nights.
Hostelbookers and Hostelworld are pretty much the same nowadays. The biggest reason why you should check both is that they have different accommodations. Some hostels are listed exclusively with one and others exclusively with the other. They both require a 10% non-refundable deposit with your booking, so keep this in mind.
While hostels are by far the cheaper choice for a solo traveler, it isn’t always the case if you travel with 2 or more people. In that case, a cheap hotel (from hotels.com) can often be a better deal. Cross reference both just to make sure.
I hope you enjoyed this guide and found it helpful. If you already knew all of these suggestions, stay tuned for upcoming intermediate and advanced travel planning tips.