The closer I get to a trip the slower the days always seem to move. We are now T-minus 10 days from departure for my grand adventure through Great Britain (plus a 3-day rendezvous in Paris), and I can barely contain myself.
Everything is set: route planned, accommodations booked, transit tickets purchased. All that’s left is to draw up a packing list and make some final tweaks to the itinerary. I’m the type of person who, when I do take the time off to go on an adventure, I like to cover as much ground and see as many things as I can. I often pack up and move on after only a day or so in one city. On this trip alone, I’m covering 15 cities over the course of 19 days. I move at a blistering pace, a style of travel that is certainly not for everyone.
People often ask me if it’s stressful, planning such trips. The short answer: No, not really.
It should be noted, first of all, that I truly love trip planning. I love the process of mapping and researching sites and hikes that I want to do. I spend hours scrolling through pages and pages of pins and blog posts for places that other people have found inspiring. I check out travel and history books from every big library within 30 miles, reading up on sites with special meaning and looking for off-the-beaten-path treasures. I have been known reserve a study room at the university library and cover the whiteboard walls from corner to corner with points of interest.
But I’ve also developed a system—a check-list, if you will, of what to do and when while planning a trip. This system evolves and adapts a little with each adventure, but at this point I definitely have a framework from which to work.
Some of these steps and the order in which I do them is simply personal preference; it’s what works for me. Some of them are things that I had to learn the hard way (like getting stranded in Albuquerque for a day with no car). But whether you’re planning your first big trip or your twentieth, one can always learn from the experiences of others.
***This post does not cover using cell phones abroad, as that can be a complicated topic that warrants a post in and of itself.
4 MONTHS OUT – Book your flight.
This may seem intuitive, but the first thing I always do is book my flight. Now, 4 months in advance may seem a little excessive in terms of ‘planning ahead’, but prices for international flights going out of the US are usually at their lowest 120 days before departure. The price may dip and rise a little from day to day, but in general, they are only going to gradually climb the closer it gets to the departure date. Domestic flights within the US, however, are usually cheapest 60 days before departure. So if you are planning a trip within the US, you can (and should) wait a little longer to book.
Google is my best friend when it comes to finding the cheapest air fare. You can search flights in either calendar or map mode to see when and where is cheapest to fly. Flexibility is key if you’re looking to save; if you don’t have to be somewhere on a specific day at a specific time, it’s beneficial to shop different times and airports using the ‘Flights’ page on Google. You can also save a particular flight and Google will graph the price changes over time to give you an idea of which days are cheapest to pull the trigger. I have saved literally thousands of dollars booking flights this way.
2-3 MONTHS OUT – Research and plan what you want to see.
This is not to say nail down your absolutely final itinerary 3 months in advance, but rather to start looking into where you want to go and what you want to see. I am a list maker. I do the aforementioned research and make lists of all the sites, hikes and attractions that interest me, and then begin the sometimes painful process of narrowing it down. This is often the hardest part of trip planning for me—the struggle between wanting to see everything and having the time to really soak up and enjoy the experience. It is hard to get a real sense of place when you’re blowing through in an attempt to get a taste of everything. I do like to leave time to really immerse myself.
I begin planning my itinerary well in advance because narrowing down the ‘can’t miss’ points often takes me a lot of time. Plus, 3 months gives me plenty of time to change my mind.
If you find that everything you want to see is best reached by car, this is a good time to procure an International Driver Permit. An IDP is not a license to drive a vehicle, but rather a supplementary document that translates your government-issued license into 10 different languages. An IDP is not necessarily required in countries that speak English, but it’s still good to have one on hand. You can find more information about IDPs and how to get one here.
4-6 WEEKS OUT – Plan your route and book your accommodations.
Once you’ve nailed down your must-sees, you can plan out your route and figure out where to stay along the way. This is another step of the process in which Google really comes in handy for me. I like to use the Google Maps Engine to plot my points of interest and determine the best routes from A to B. The super helpful thing about Google Maps is that you can also search public transportation and, to a degree, walking routes. This is especially helpful if you’re planning on spending time in big cities with extensive public transportation networks.
Once you’ve plotted your points of interest, Google makes it easy to see what’s along the way and how long it takes to get from one place to another. If you’re driving, you can plan where to stop and stay depending on how much ground you want to cover in a day. As a rule, I try to keep actual travel time under 3-4 hours a day. Most people would probably opt for a maximum of 2 hours a day in transit.
For finding a place to stay, I am a huge proponent of AirBnB, but AirBnB alone is not always your best option. For the smaller cities in the Scottish Highlands, I actually found that using Booking.com turned out to be cheaper and more convenient in a few cases. Some of the best AirBnB listings, in particular in the Highlands, are often quite a far drive from major attractions and not always easily accessible by train or bus. The lesson here: Explore your options, and don’t shy away from getting a good ol’ fashion hotel room.
4 WEEKS OUT – Lock down point-to-point transit.
This means if you’re renting a car, book it. I always find the best rental car deals on Priceline. Many European companies offer packages through Priceline with additional coverage and insurance for international drivers. Save yourself the trouble of trying to get a rental once you arrive and book ahead. Note: Even if you book with a company that requires/allows you to pay in advance, you almost always MUST have a major credit card on which to charge and hold a deposit when you go to pick up your car. Most rental car companies do not accept debit cards for payment OR for deposits. Fun fact #1 we learned in New Mexico.
If you plan on traveling by train or bus, most timetables are released by 4 weeks in advance. Some international trains, like the Eurostar, release their timetables a few weeks sooner. Though you can absolutely walk into the station the day of and buy a ticket, I highly recommend buying tickets in advance. Avoid the lines, and avoid the possibility of the train you want being fully booked when you arrive at the station. While European trains are generally convenient and reliable, keep in mind that cancellations and strikes are not out of the ordinary.
If you need transportation to and from the airport, this is also a good time to book tickets for shuttle busses and point-to-point coaches. I’ve used easyBus more than once to get from the airport to the city and back.
2-3 WEEKS OUT – Request foreign currency and notify your bank/credit card companies of travel plans.
I have 2 credit cards specifically for travel—Skymiles AmEx and a British Airways Visa—that do not charge international transaction fees, but it’s always a good idea to still have a little cash on hand for emergencies and/or subway fare, etc. To avoid having to find an ATM once you land, or worse, dealing with airport currency exchange, check with your bank to see if you can request foreign currency. Most banks can get foreign cash within a week or so, and they will just deduct the equivalent in US dollars from your checking account. It’s also a good time to let your bank or credit card company know you are traveling; avoid the panic of being locked out of your account while abroad.
1-2 WEEKS OUT – Make a packing list.
I always, always make a packing list. Doing this in advance gives you time to asses last-minute needs and purchase things like adapters, maps and toiletries if you need them.
WEEK OF – Print, copy and email all of your travel documents.
Scan or photograph your passport and any other important travel documents and email them to yourself so that you can access them in case of loss or an emergency. Do things like add all of your booking confirmations and vouchers to your Passbook and print them out to have on hand. It’s also a good idea to print a couple of copies of your passport and another photo ID to have on hand. Stash them in different places in your luggage so that if one gets lost—or, God forbid, you lose your actual passport—you still have identification.
DAY BEFORE – Pack!
This one seems pretty self-explanatory. Pack everything the night before, save for the few things you need that night/the next morning. Charge phones, iPods and other electronics over night and pack all of your chargers in one place in the morning. Use your packing list as a checklist to ensure that you have everything you need, and pack it with your travel documents so that you know what you’ve brought with you and can avoid losing anything along the way.
DAY OF – Wake up knowing you are fully prepared for the journey ahead!
Everyone prepares differently, and I’m sure that I’ve forgotten something in the course of writing this post, but hopefully this has been helpful for someone, in some way.
Keep adventuring, y’all!