You may not be an absolute novice, but might be a beginner looking for a more efficient way to plan a trip. ‘Travel Planning for Beginners’ is the second part of a 5 part series that explores travel planning for novice, beginner, intermediate, advanced, and expert travelers. If you missed the first ‘novice traveler’ post, check it out. In this guide, I will take the same approach of going through the steps as in the ‘novice’ guide, but add more options since I assume you have at least some experience booking and planning your own trips by now.
Again, this guide is with the assumption that you want to travel longer, more often, and with less money. Here are additional assumptions I am under:
Assumption 1) You have traveled a few times at most.
Assumption 2) You are not rich, and budget is important when planning a trip.
Assumption 3) You have 1-2 weeks of free time for this trip.
Step 1: Consider and Know Your Time Frame
Many people, like me, know when their vacation time is far in advance. This is both good and bad. The good part is that you can make a list of your available times for travel with more anticipation, allowing you the flexibility of booking early, which can often save money. You can also check your options with ease as you know what times you are looking for. The bad part is that if you want to maximize time, you have little flexibility as to when you go or come back. I suggest that if you are one of these people, make a list of your vacation dates, and later fill it in with potential trips. Here is an example of my 2013 (ish) schedule.
Dec 29, 2012 – Jan 6, 2013 (9 days) [school vacation] ->Went to Taiwan/Macao/Hong Kong ( Multi-City Flight)
Feb 7 – 11 (5 day weekend) [holiday+2 chosen days off] -> Went to Okinawa, Japan (on a deal from Coupang, see Step 4)
Jun 22 – Jul 7 (16 days) [my choice of dates] -> Scheduled trip to Peru (booked directly with American Airlines, see Step 4)
Jul 27 – Aug 4 (9 days) [school vacation] -> Scheduled trip to Indonesia (booked directly with China Southern, see Step 4)
Sep 18 – 22 (5 day weekend) [national holiday] -> Nothing planned
Dec 28, 2013 – Jan 5, 2014 [school vacation] -> Nothing planned
As you can see, I also counted extended weekends as potential travel dates. What this does is give you a visual representation of availability. For example, I have been saying “next time” to Indonesia for years, but in reality, the dry season is the most viable time to go (See Step 3).
If you are allowed to pick your own vacation dates, that is much better! You have the flexibility to find out when flight prices are the cheapest. While it will require more work, the savings will be worth it.
Step 2: Make a List of Destinations
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” The words of Benjamin Franklin were just as true two hundred years ago as they are now. Saying you want to “go somewhere” isn’t an idea, it’s an excuse. I say excuse because, to be honest, I don’t think everyone really likes traveling as I have mentioned before (on this list). Travelers are dreamers who have ideas of what they want to see and do before they even start browsing flights.
It is possible that you are just a late bloomer, contracting the travel bug later in life, and don’t know where to start. Three good sources of inspiration are CNN Travel, the travel section of Listverse, or browsing around this blog and other travel blogs. Since this is the beginner’s guide, let’s step it up a notch by having 10 destinations in mind instead of 5.
Easter Island, Chile – Mysterious island of the Rapa Nui people
Galapagos Islands – The inspiration for the monumental theory of evolution
Yosemite National Park – Not only considered one of the best National Parks in the US and the world, but the inspiration for the entire preservation movement.
Pyeongyang, North Korea – Having lived in Seoul for so long, this would be like a parallel universe. I would be curious to compare and contrast the two Korean capitals.
Baikal Lake, Russia – The deepest and most voluminous fresh water lake in the world. Many species of plants and animals can only be found here.
Sichuan, China – While I have already visited Chengdu, I missed the Panda Reserve and the hugest buddha in the world.
Palau – A tiny island next to the Philippines, it is naturally unique as the only place in the world where you can swim with jellyfish. Here, the jellyfish have recently (relatively speaking) lost their ability to sting. It is one of the most recent additions to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Petra, Jordan – One of the most amazing structures on Earth. These temple ruins were carved out of a mountain.
Giza, Egypt – The pyramids are the only remaining artifact of the original “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” This list of wonders is probably the original inspiration for UNESCO.
Machu Picchu, Peru – The secret city of the Inca Empire. Till this day, the city is difficult to access, making the trip that much more special.
Step 3: Consider the Weather
Walking around the Great Wall in -25C weather is not as fun as it could be. Comparatively, even though I rave about how awesome Korea is, I would not recommend visiting in the winter even to my worst enemy. Weather is a sure maker or breaker of good memories.
Let me start with something very general, rain sucks… avoid at all cost. Furthermore, unless you are visiting for winter activities, snow sucks too.
Wikipedia search pretty much any city to get its climate statistics. Rule out any places on your list that are notorious for bad weather during your vacation dates of step 1.
Step 4: Compare Flight Prices
In the last guide, I only gave the three resources, Kayak, Orbitz, and Vayama, as places to purchase your tickets and their pros and cons were explained. Here is a more complete list of flight search engines:
Furthermore, let me introduce two more categories in flight purchasing: Direct Websites and “Deals Sites.”
Direct Websites – are the websites of the actual airline that has flights. I am by no means saying to search here first! What you should do is use a flight search engine (hopefully more than one to cross reference). Then, when you find a flight, go to that airline’s website (Google it) and search for the same flight on the same days. Sometimes, the deal will be better because you are cutting out the middle man. However, other times, the airline has strict rules where it cannot undercut the search engine.
Deal Sites – are sites like Groupon, which have daily deals on pretty much anything. Groupon, if you didn’t know, has teamed up with Expedia to give exclusive deals once a week directly to your email. While this means that you need to be more open minded with your destination, sometimes the deals can be too good to pass up. I live in Korea, so I use the Korean equivalents “Coupang” and “Tmon” (websites only in Korean). My February trip to Okinawa, Japan was purchased through this service, with the flight costing under 260 USD round trip and the entire trip (3 full days, 4 total) costing under 500 USD total, including accommodation, entrances to sites, food, car rental, and ridiculous Japanese gas prices. I also only decided on it 3 weeks before departure, making deal sites good for last minute trips.
[Wait until you are almost done with step 5 to book the flight. Don’t book yet!]
Step 5 Find Things You Would Like To See or Do
Wouldn’t it be great to just show up and figure it out as you go? While it is a wonderful feeling to find something spontaneously, the reality is that this is a slow process, so unless you travel for months, it can be a monumental waste of time. By all means, throw your itinerary out the window if you find something better, but planning has its rewards.
Make a short list of things you would like to see or do. I suggest breaking the list up into two: “Must Do” and “If There is Time.” Here is an example of the list I made for Peru:
Must do: Machu Picchu, City of Cuzco, Naza Lines, City of Lima, Huacachina Oasis, Caral Supe
If There is Time: Peru’s Amazon, Arequipa City, Gavin, Manu National Park, Huascaran, Peru’s Coast
[Note: It is really up to you, but somewhere in the middle of this step is when I make the decision and book the flight.]
Step 6 Make a Route with Your Itinerary
View larger map
[Above: My upcoming travel route for Peru: June 2013]
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 Machu Picchu is 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.
During this step, you might have to go back to Step 5 and re-assess what is possible in your time frame.
Step 7 Figure out Local Transportation
I already mentioned two examples where this pays off, but I think it is worth re-iterating it. In Italy, booking with Trenitalia in advance can lead to savings of 60-70%, as they offer insane early bird specials. Furthermore, in Korea, not booking a train in advanced will leave you with limited, more expensive options. Figuring out local transportation isn’t just about peace of mind, it is also about cost assessment and time assessment. I will talk more about the former in the intermediate guide, but let’s consider time assessment.
Humans have a planning fallacy where we think things take a lot less time then they actually do. For example, if I ask you how long it takes to get to the store, your mind will think about the distance and driving time. It will ignore things like: looking for keys, getting ready, walking to the car, finding a parking place, traffic, and so on. This effect in multiplied if we don’t know the environment, which is often the case when traveling. This shouldn’t be surprising though, since there are more things our brains can ignore like: not knowing how to get there, not knowing the best route, having language issues, and so on. Figuring out local transportation will help you assess your time more accurately and give you a more realistic sense of how long it takes to do things. Over the years, I have become better at predicting how long things will take, but often still forget that people also need time to eat.
Step 8 Booking Accommodations
Given that you are a beginner traveler, I am going to have to insist on this step. In the last travel planning for novices, I mentioned my favorite three websites for booking: Hotels.com, Hostelbookers, and Hostelworld. The difference between hostels and hotels is a far more gray area than some people realize. In the past, hostels were seen as a place for travelers to interact with each other, share stories, make plans together (especially for solo travelers), and have a community, if even for a short while. A hotel was seen as more of a ‘private apartment’ where you sleep, shower, and enjoy the amenities offered. However, for the most part, they were not places where you would meet other travelers. You were far more likely to see business men/women who were far to busy to hang out and chat.
Depending on where you go, hotels can now offer lounges or more interactive places to meet other people. Hostels similarly offer private rooms and even rooms with private showers. So what is the difference? I don’t really know anymore! One thing is for sure, hostels will be more likely to have that community vibe, but don’t count out hotels.
One thing to take out of this, try to book somewhere that allows free cancellation to add more flexibility. And of course, the cheaper the better.
Accommodation (only) Search Engines:
Other Search Engines:
Yes, the same places where you can book flights can be used to book hotels. While I personally don’t like doing this, I don’t have a logical reason why, so let me throw this option out there.
Now you are ready to go! Have fun!
I hope you enjoyed this guide and found it helpful. If you already knew all of these suggestions, stay tuned for upcoming intermediate, advanced, and expert travel planning tips.