If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re ready for a vacation, but you don’t want to pay a travel agent to plan a trip, you’re not sure where to start, and you’re a DIY kind of person who’s willing to put in some elbow grease. Great!
This guide will serve as a handy list to help you plan a getaway, from getting good flight deals to making sure you won’t get stranded abroad. You want to get away for a while — we all do. This is the best way to go from daydreaming about far-off destinations to actually visiting them.
The natural first step in planning a trip is figuring out where to go. Some people already have a destination in mind, others are more flexible depending on when they’re able to take off work, or how much money they’re comfortable spending.
One of the simplest tools to use if you’re flexible is Google Flights’ Discover Destinations search. You can narrow search results from your home airport down length of travel, time of year, and / or continent and see a map research of how much it’ll cost to get there. You can even specify destinations by interests, such as “beaches,” “ecotourism,” or “honeymoon” to get some popular recommendations. From there, you can narrow results even further by setting a max price limit or choosing only nonstop flights.
If you need even more ideas, sites like Booking.com’s Destination Finder can also help you figure out where to go depending on interests. Once you know where you’re going, you can use tools from Kayak and Hopper to check whether a flight price is good value.
If you’re extremely flexible on time and place but not so much on cash, your best bet is to follow flight deals sites. There are countless of sites like Airfarewatchdog or The Flight Deal, but one of the web’s most raved-about services is Scott’s Cheap Flights. You can sign up for a free newsletter, or get a paid subscription for insider alerts to ridiculously cheap fares. (I got a round-trip flight from New York to Japan and Singapore for under $500.)
It’s important to keep in mind that flight is not the only thing to consider in your overall budget. A flight to Thailand might be on the pricier end, but things even out once you arrive since cost of living is lower there. (The opposite may be true about a trip to Iceland.) So weigh these out carefully before committing to your destination. Don’t forget to consider visa entry requirements, too, depending on your country of citizenship.
Now that you’ve determined where you’re going, it’s time to book. If you followed the recommendations above, you should hopefully be getting a fairly decent deal on your flight.
There’s really no right way to do this — you might want to book direct from an airline’s website so you’re guaranteed to pick seats (assuming basic economy rules don’t apply) or if you want to use accumulated flyer miles to pay. You might also want to book via aggregators like Orbitz and Expedia to earn points, or use points from your credit card to book. The general advice is booking direct with the airline generally garner you more leverage when flight cancellations or other irregularities happen so you don’t have to contact a third party to rebook, but depending on your credit card, you may also have better travel protection policies. Check with your local bank to determine your eligibilities before making the final decision on where to book.
Determining where to stay can be quite overwhelming especially if it’s your first time traveling there and you don’t know anyone who can give you personal advice. Guides on sites like Airbnb and Foursquare make it helpful for travelers to learn more about various neighborhoods and businesses around there. It’s also helpful to browse city forums on TripAdvisor or even specific subreddits to get a sense of what locals / other travelers recommend.
Once you know where you’d like to stay, be sure to specify needs like free in-room Wi-Fi or late check-ins to ensure you’re looking at the right options. When booking on sites like Airbnb or HomeAway, carefully read through the description to determine whether there’s a cleaning fee or extra person fee associated. Some hosts charge varying amounts extra which means a room costing $89 / night with no additional fees will end up cheaper for three days than $59 / night plus a $150 cleaning fee.
If you’re on a budget, sites like HostelBookers, HostelWorld, or CouchSurfing are alternative options for finding somewhere to stay for cheap (or in some cases, free). Don’t let the word “hostel” throw you off, though. Some places offer amenities like swimming pools, game rooms, and rooftop bars, making them nearly indistinguishable from most hotels.
The rule of thumb for apps is you want to maximize the ability to use these apps offline in case you are in a remote, unserviced area or don’t want to splurge on an international SIM card / roaming plan. Before you go, here are some handy apps to keep in a travel folder.
When heading to a foreign country, Google Translate is a must. Ideally, you should download the language you want ahead of time so you can use it offline. Same goes for Google Maps. You can select an area you want to save and navigate without internet connectivity.
While you can opt to buy a local SIM card, assuming you’ve got an unlocked phone, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Viber have made it easy to make international calls for free. Just remember to add your contacts in before leaving and hope your hotel Wi-Fi is strong enough to support a quick chat.
Many cities around the world offer local ride-sharing or taxi-hailing apps, so it’s worth checking if that’s something you’re willing to splurge on and download in advance. Having this tied to your credit card will eliminate to need to have cash handy first thing when you’re leaving the airport and getting a ride to your hotel. If you want to have some cash handy, however, you are more likely to get better rates exchanging it in advance with your local bank than to do so at airports.
Major credit card companies like Visa, Mastercard, and American Express offer apps that can help you find local ATMs, prepare a mobile wallet, or convert currencies. Just be sure to notify your banks if you plan on using the cards abroad so you’re not unexpectedly locked out.
In my opinion, these apps are the bare minimum you should have before taking off, but for specific interests like food spotting or finding locals to hang out with, BonAppetour has a great list for a variety of needs.
Personally, this is one of the most satisfying thing about going away. Turn off online accessibility and just enjoy yourself. You earned it.
Then, when you’re home, check back with Google Timeline to relive the trip all over again.
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5 steps to planning a vacation