If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re ready for a vacation, but you don’t want to pay a travel agent, you’re not sure where to start, and / or you’re a DIY kind of person who’s willing to put in some elbow grease for more control over costs and trip structures. Travel planning can actually be one of the more fulfilling parts of taking a vacation, as the anticipation often builds excitement ahead of your getaway. Here are some excellent resources for travel deals, activity guides, finding places to stay, and how to put it all together.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 28th, 2017 and has been updated to include more tools, apps, and a featured video.
Determine budget / time constraints
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 time off work or how much money they’re comfortable spending. My personal rule of thumb is if you have paid time off, a vacation for yourself should cost roughly about the same as you make in one paycheck. This way, you have the option of splurging on a weekend trip or a longer vacation on a budget.
But if you have family members to factor in, a tool on BeFrugal.com can help you estimate whether it’s better to fly or drive somewhere. It can factor in costs like gas and tolls or taxis to and from the airport to help weigh the pros and cons. Obviously, the act of getting to and from a place isn’t the only cost factors (think hotels, activities, food, and potential gifts to bring home) so plan ahead.
Where to find flight deals
Airfare deals work out best when you’re flexible, and one of the best ways to find them is by exploring flight maps on sites like Kayak or Skyscanner. My personal favorite is Google Flights’ Discover Destinations search. You can narrow search results from your home airport down to length of travel, time of year, and / or continent and see a map 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 your interests. Once you know where you’re going, you can use tools from Kayak and Hopper to check whether a flight price is a good value.
If you’re extremely flexible on time and place but not so much on cash, your best bet is to follow flight deal sites and newsletters. There are countless 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. Sometimes you might even end up with something called a mistake fare — a ticket that was sold at the wrong price due to a technical or human error — so if you do find these rare tickets, make sure you have a confirmed ticket before booking accommodations.
It’s important to keep in mind that the 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 the 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 think about visa entry requirements, too, depending on your country of citizenship.
Book your flights
Now that you’ve determined where you’re going, it’s time to book. If you followed the recommendations above, you should hopefully get a fairly decent deal on your flight.
There’s really no right way to do this. You might want to book directly 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 directly 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 good travel protection policies. Check with your local bank to determine your eligibilities before making the final decision on where to book.
Book your stay
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 to get a sense of what locals / other travelers recommend. I recommend this for hotel travelers who prefer room service or housekeeping. If you’d rather stay somewhere with a more local flare, then Airbnb or HomeAway may be better options for you.
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 home rental sites, carefully read through the description to determine whether there’s a cleaning fee or an extra person fee associated. Some hosts charge varying amounts extra, which means a room costing $89 / night with no additional fees will end up being cheaper for three days than a room that’s $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, for free). Don’t let the word “hostel” throw you off. Some places offer amenities like swimming pools, game rooms, and rooftop bars, making them nearly indistinguishable from most hotels.
Things to do
I like to mix up my resources when it comes to filling out the itinerary. Generally, I’ll start with TripAdvisor forums and published guides from Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, and The New York Times’ travel section. For more off-the-beaten-path ideas, Atlas Obscura can also offer local attractions and unique things to check out.
Other places you can draw inspiration from include searching through YouTube for travel blogs, or sifting through an Instagram location tag of a particular city. If there’s an activity you’d like to do (paragliding, brewery tours, or supper clubs, for example), be sure to check if there’s an active subreddit of a city you’re visiting to poll the locals. You can also use it to look for upcoming events or even attempt meet-ups.
When traveling internationally, remember that sites you may be accustomed with for looking up restaurants and businesses in the US are unlikely to be widely used elsewhere. When I traveled to Japan, for example, Yelp was seldom used; the community has their own version called Tabelog for restaurant reviews and photos. In Croatia, it was easier to find places to eat on Google Maps or even Facebook.
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 have 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’s Wi-Fi is strong enough to support a quick chat.
When you’re ready to pull it all together, apps like Google Trips can collect all your travel information in one place, including train tickets, maps, and booking confirmation numbers.
Many cities around the world offer local ride-sharing or taxi-hailing apps, so it’s worth checking to see if that’s something you’re willing to splurge on and download in advance. Having this tied to your credit card will eliminate the need to have cash handy first thing when you’re leaving the airport. If you want to have some cash handy, however, you are more likely to get better rates exchanging it in advance at your local bank than doing 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.
Set your OOO!
Personally, this is one of the most satisfying things about going away. Turn off online accessibility and just enjoy yourself. You’ve earned it!
When you’re home, check back with Google Timeline to relive the trip all over again.