How to plan your trip successfully
World travel... some people are spontaneous and others love to make lists (me), the more color-coded the better.
If you’re reading this, you may be among those who need a detailed itinerary, the ducks-in-a-row kind of woman. But you may also the kind of traveler who generally goes with the flow but just wants a tiny bit of organization for your trip.
In fact, travel websites everywhere – including this one – will tell you some plan is better than no plan at all and even a little bit of pre-thinking can make your trip far more enjoyable.
Recently I visited the Balkans and in while travelling Serbia, I decided to go with the flow and hop on the train without checking ahead. Which is why I ended up backtracking, taking a train to the same destination twice, and wasting an entire travel day.
Not dramatic, but a bit of forethought would have allowed me to spend that day in a lovely city, as opposed to settling for a quick lunch. Lesson learned. Again.
So when I decided to travel to Central Asia for a month, I decided to plan properly and document the process so I could share it with you – and take advantage of it myself!
You can organize your trip any way you want. But following a step-by-step guide like this one will make sure you don’t forget anything major, while covering most of the minors as well.
So how to plan a trip to Europe? Central Asia? Anywhere? Planning a trip abroad, no matter where, requires a methodical process that doesn’t change much from place to place. And it’s not even complicated: 11 sweet little steps.
If you’re a seasoned solo traveler, you probably don’t need to read this section so jump to choosing a destination.
Never traveled solo? Then please, keep reading... because you may be in need of some mental preparation.
I took my first solo journey when I was 15, and to date have visited 90+ countries. So 50 years of solo travel later, it’s become a part of me.
If you’re trying to wrap your head around solo travel – if you’re anxious or a first-timer or simply suspicious about traveling on your own, consider this:
Solo travel means...
And that's just a taster, because solo travel changes you in incredible ways – here are 16 ways you'll never be the same.
Safety issues are often at the top of our list, and that’s a good thing.
I’ve written extensively about travel safety for solo women, and while we should be well aware of potential dangers, we shouldn’t obsess about them.
You can never eliminate all risk, and being abroad will be no more dangerous than being at home.
Even if you’re no longer a spring chicken (I'm 67), there’s no reason you can’t enjoy solo travel and have a tremendous time, as I eventually did in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan on that Central Asian trip.
And in case you think I'm crazy for traveling solo "at my age", here’s a little compilation of stories from fellow mature women who have conquered solo travel and loved it.
You want to go everywhere, right?
Ah, the temptation to cram it all in! As soon as you start your research, places you never even thought of will magically appear in your mind. Try to narrow it down a bit so you can take your time. Whipping by in a frenzy may mean you've taken a trip - but it won't mean you've traveled. You should try to get to know a place before you move on to the next one.
If you already know your destination, perfect. No need to read this section and move straight to point #3 below.
But if you’re less than certain about where you’re going (and just want to GO SOMEWHERE DIFFERENT), start by making a list (this is possibly my favorite sentence in the universe, other than “Here’s your invitation to a three-star Michelin restaurant”). Write it all down. It helps.
Is budget a factor? Here are some of the world’s least expensive countries to travel.
Do you have special interests? About genealogy or environment or literature or spirituality?
Here are some fabulous travel ideas that will help you decide where you want to go, however undecided you might be.
Still undecided? Here's a list of great solo female travel blogs to whet your appetite and provide you with even more inspiration.
Once you’ve decided where to go...
Generally speaking, the larger your budget, the longer you can travel. But if you’re facing a financial squeeze, you’ll want to find ways to travel on the cheap.
This is why it’s so important to plan: travel invites the unexpected, and those hiccups often burn holes in your wallet. Having a plan of some kind can help reduce the number of “oops…” expenditures.
You can download this handy budget planner to write down your estimated costs for everything from flights to accommodation to food. Once it’s down on paper, it’ll start looking less daunting and you can begin playing around with the numbers.
But how do you know how much to estimate? This guide might be helpful. It includes links to all kinds of trackers, estimators and articles which can give you an idea of just how much your trip will cost, all before you leave.
Remember, you're looking at your airfare, insurance, any visa fees, accommodation, food and drink, sightseeing entry fees and local transportation. These are the costs you really can't get away from.
While I recommend you start with a figure from the beginning, what if you’ve looked at even the cheapest destinations and realized you just don’t have the money you need?
There are other ways to stretch your funds if they don’t cover your travel budget.
One way is by living more cheaply, if that’s at all possible. I’m always amazed at the amount of money I waste on things that I don’t need… these are no-brainers and we should all be able to find something we're willing to go without in exchange for travel.
I'm not going to list all the ways you can do that but I will make a few suggestions which will not only save you money but put you into the right frame of mind for your trip.
If all the saving in the world is still not enough and you plan to travel for a length of time, you might consider working abroad. Consider teaching English overseas (yes, there are jobs even if you're over 50), or finding online jobs you can do remotely.
If I encouraged you to create a budget first, it’s because longer trips are generally more expensive. That said, they are also the best way to truly immerse yourself in a culture.
Many first-time travelers want to “fit it all in”. How could you visit Rome and not see every broken marble statue and ancient rock? I understand that, but there are definite advantages to slow travel.
I’ve certainly taken whirlwind trips, but some of my favorite are those where I truly took time to relax and soak it all in, those where I wasn’t rushing from monument to museum to attraction at record speed.
I was able to meet locals and make friends. I got to glimpse everyday life, with the time to really think and appreciate what I was experiencing.
And then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum - how about a round-the-world adventure? If you need to know how to plan a trip around the world (much different than taking a two-week jaunt across Europe), this guide will unpack it for you.
Deciding how long to travel for goes hand-in-hand with determining WHEN to go. What time of year is the best time to visit Berlin or New York or Hong Kong?
For some people, travel and weather go hand in hand - avoiding the tropics during hurricane season, or a ski resort when there’s no snow. (Here are my recommendations on the best times to visit various parts of the world.)
For others, it’s about density: the better the weather, the more packed the destination. Want some breathing room? Go during the off season: prices will be lower, and you'll have some places all to yourself.
If you know how long you're going for and how much money you have to spend, you've broken the back of your planning process.
Before you go on a trip, especially a longer one, there are quite a few things you need to consider on the practical side.
Obviously this depends on where you’re going, but for most trips you’ll need certain staples, for example:
If most of your clothing is made for everyday life, you might want to upgrade to some fast-drying travel apparel, including:
For safety, especially in my hotel room, I like to pack a lock, and if I’m headed off the beaten path, which I do relatively often, I’ll want a quality mosquito net, first aid kit and flashlight at the very least.
I've also put together some packing lists which might be helpful and which you'll find in the top menu bar under "Packing".
Bottom line: don't take more than you need, and you will use far fewer things than you think.
Visa rules are different in every country and for residents of every country, but one thing is certain: it’s vitally important for you to find out if you need a visa prior to planning a trip to another country. If you need one and arrive without it, you'll be turned back. If you're flying in, you won't even be allowed to board the plane (and the insurance won't cover your missed flight, either).
The easiest way to find out is to check out a specialized visa site that has all the latest information – because yes, things change. Or, you can visit that country's embassy website page or foreign affairs department.
While you don’t have to plan out every minute of your journey, a general itinerary is a good idea. You don’t want to waste time or money, and you don’t want to miss out on something because you didn’t do adequate research ahead of time.
Journey planning doesn’t have to be difficult, but you need to start somewhere.
If you'd like some itinerary inspiration or destination guides, these can get you started.
And of course, go to Google.
Type in “What to do/see in ____” and you’ll find plenty. Then create a list of everything you’d love to see if you could, and reorder the list by priorities.
Then cost each one. Decide what you can afford based on your budget and how long you’ll be traveling.
Use a map to mark out what you want to see, and then group the attractions that are close together (make sure you do your research to find out what’s open and what isn’t).
Be sure to include nearby restaurants and cafés you might want to try out (rather than head across town and waste precious time).
Want an easy way to keep track of your itinerary once you sort it all out? Get help from trip planning websites and trip planner apps like TripIt, which let you share your itinerary with anyone back home.
Once you know where you’re going and when you need to be there, you can start making transportation plans. Obviously the more specific your itinerary, the more flights and train rides you can book ahead of time. If you’ve allowed wiggle room for adventure, you may only be able to purchase your round-trip ticket home and will have to buy as you go the rest of the time.
Another good reason to plan your trip ahead of time is cost. With the rise of budget airlines, you can find ultra-cheap tickets if you book well in advance, especially by using comparative search engines that include low-cost airlines. If you're planning a longer trip, start investigating round the world tickets.
If you’re planning a trip to Europe, I’d strongly suggest you visit the continent by train rather than flying, especially if you're going short distances. European trains are fun, punctual, and regional trains are cheap (high-speed international trains are not, unless you buy a rail pass before you leave home).
I find the train more convenient: it goes to just about every corner of the continent, and takes you right into town rather than delivering you to a distant airport (not to mention the extra baggage allowance).
You don’t have to book a place to stay before you arrive, although I would at least recommend booking your first night, especially if you don’t land during the daytime.
On my trip to Central Asia I reserved a few hotels and homestays but dealt with the rest once I arrived. I realize this isn’t comfortable for everyone so if you feel you need to reserve ahead, by all means do so (I use booking.com for my hotel bookings because most listings have a guaranteed no-fee cancellation and I can change my mind).
If you’re on a budget, booking ahead will usually save you money and let you take advantage of special deals. If you wait for the last minute, hotels fill up and there’s every chance you may have to pay a premium. (On the other hand, there is a small chance you could get a good deal from a hotel trying to sell out rooms at the last minute.) It's a balancing act.
Accommodations come in many sizes and shapes so choosing what's right for you is a challenge. I've written a few guides that might help you decide on the best type of accommodation for you:
So now you have a destination, a budget, an itinerary, transportation and accommodation.
I mentioned this earlier but this is one of those major items many travelers are tempted to forgo – I can never talk about it enough.
The “it’ll never happen to me” mindset can be costly. If I’d had that mindset, I’d be $25,000 poorer right now because it DID happen to me.
You’ll probably never have to use your insurance but - IF YOU DO - you’ll be ever so grateful you have it, if you lose your bags, your hotel room is burgled or if you break a leg.
As I said above, I always bought World Nomads for my travel insurance, but if you’re over the age of 66 (that's me now), check out my reviews of travel insurance agencies for seniors, which are more than happy to insure you later in life (some even if you have preexisting conditions).
I always travel carry-on, period. Either with wheels, or with a backpack. I simply don't put anything into the belly of the beast, ever. My bags have gone astray too often.
But my ONE secret (and you'll nod your head in agreement if you have these!) are – packing cubes! I have no idea how I traveled before I discovered these a few years ago but they allow me to pack more, and stay better organized when I travel.
Regardless of when you start packing, you shouldn't have to start over from scratch each time you travel. So yes, a list. Print out one of my packing lists and check off each item as you put it aside.
There is one more element to getting ready for your trip: travel-proofing your attitude.
Because, as you undoubtedly know, travel rarely goes according to plan.
If you tend to get upset when plans change, take a moment before you head off to the airport to breathe deeply and remind yourself why you are traveling. Getting out of your comfort zone and experiencing new things are two wonderful benefits of travel, and having your bus break down is part (albeit not the nicest part) of the process – inconveniences, yes, but disasters? No.
Part of travel's joy is being able to accommodate the unexpected. There's a bit of fear that grips some of us before we go so we may tend to plan every single detail. Try not to! There's nothing wrong with a bit of planning, but don't let your schedule take over your journey.
Take it as it comes and remember, if all were to go according to plan, the stories you tell after your trip wouldn't be half as interesting!
Once you've planned your trip and are on your way, this is when to remember those last few tips that will make your journey easier, more fun, more rewarding.
Whether you're in a new country for a week or a year, try to learn a few words of the language. No need to go overboard. Even 'please' or 'thank you' will send a signal that you care and that you respect your host country.
Things like clothes and manners can take on a much larger meaning overseas. Halter tops and shorts may be commonplace at home but overseas they may attract a lot of unwanted attention. When in doubt, look around you and do as local women do. Learn to cope with culture shock. Find out about basic cultural etiquette. Notice the cultural differences around you.
Things will be different from home, so be prepared. Some things will be better, some will be worse. The food may be unfamiliar, and you may be almost invisible as a woman in some societies. Take it in stride. If what you want is a carbon copy of what you left behind, then back home is where you'll find it, not on the road.
This is one of the most frustrating differences I've found when traveling. Western societies place a great premium on time and punctuality. Most other societies do not. If you can't adapt, your frustration level will rise. 'In a moment' may mean tomorrow, and tomorrow could mean next week. In Madrid my mother invited friends for dinner once. By 11pm we finally went to bed. They appeared well after midnight, chipper and hungry!
Imagine trying to talk politics with Chinese in Tibet or a North Korean or or or... Whatever your beliefs, you'll be communicating different value sets. If you're an activist or a political scientist, you'll know the various arguments and will tread carefully. But for the average traveler, political discussions can turn into minefields. Just be prepared for it and remember, there's always more than one way to see things. In some countries, especially more repressive ones, political discussions can rapidly spin out of control - and can also get local people into trouble. Speak your mind but be aware of the realities of where you are. (That said, discussing politics is one of my favorite pastimes.)
Those of us who come from economically well-off countries may have a tendency to think we know what's best for the rest of the world. Travel light. Leave that piece of baggage at home.