Tips on Planning Trips
For those that know me somewhat well, I am very opposed to having long drawn out plans for traveling. I prefer a more whimsical, very light planning approach to travel. This has worked out great for my style of travel, but it has also burned me in some situations as well. There is no right or wrong approach to travel, but whatever fits your personality and style is the best choice for you. Some of the greatest stories and places I have been have often been due to not having set plans, or not driving from destination to destination, but instead opting to explore off on my own and wander down paths that weren't originally in my itinerary.
But for the purposes of this article, and for the sake of trying something new, I am going to do something a little bit different for my next travel. In April of 2017 (so obviously prior to the writing of this article) I am going to plan out my trip more in depth, more than I usually do and reflect on some of those steps I take!
The simple part (though not always) is determining where you want to go.
Some things to keep in mind when determining where:
What season you are visiting in
Low tourist season verse high (This will impact cost and also availability of hotel rooms/hostels/or campgrounds among other aspects of a trip)
Special events or holidays in said region.
Need for visas or special permits (for this trip I needed to arrange for a hard to get permit from the Havasupai Tribe in Arizona to hike to a iconic waterfall.)
Necessary vaccinations (Don't want to get infected with some lovely disease in the jungle!)
Trip financing (How much money do you have to allocate on said trip?)
Duration of stay (Will it be enough time?)
What to bring
Flight aspects/ground transportation etc
These are some of the main aspects that should pop up in your mind when you begin selecting a place to go. These all can have a big impact on whether or not your trip is a memorable one, or a nightmare. Though, I feel like few nightmare trips ever truly happen.
Generally when I do a trip, I try to go off season. I feel like you get the best pricing for accommodation, transportation, food, and more! If you are like most people, you probably enjoy a location more when less people are at an attraction as well. If you go off season to say a scenic waterfall, there will be less people standing around taking selfies to wreck your picturesque landscape. Its absolutely terrible when you are at a very calming scenic spot and having a massive tour bus unload 40-60 people all at once. Goodbye peaceful scenic views, hello screaming kids running around and people getting in the way of photos you are trying to take!
One note for going off season. You may need to bring more gear to accommodate for poor weather conditions. Some places may be closed, and access to some areas may also be closed. Research the specific area ahead of time and make sure whatever you are hoping to do will still be possible!
After your destination has been decided, next comes the fun part, or the stressful part! Planning everything out and figuring out how much your bank account is going to be drained.
First comes figuring out how to get to your destination. With this trip I have been planning to the south west desert region, the first step was figuring out how I am going to get there (by plane). One of the more common questions people ask me is how do I search for flights. There are a lot of websites, and a lot of articles talking about how to get the cheapest flights. I feel as if I do a decent job of doing this. But i think there is no set guaranteed way to get the cheapest flight to your destination. I kind of think these complex algorithms that airlines use to calculate ticket prices fluctuate and change so often that there is no one website or no certain day of the week that tickets can be bought at the cheapest.
I think the best method to finding the best price is checking multiple flight search engines, writing down, and comparing prices. Also to get the best possible price, be flexible on days as well as times you choose to fly out. For my Arizona trip, I was looking at a price range of about $150-$400 USD total for a round trip flight. I ended up with the $150 ticket. This even includes a departure on a weekend day.
So all in all, I think it's best just to compare multiple search engines and check directly from an airline. My favorite go to website for flights/hotels/cars to this day is still Orbitz. I know other people prefer other websites such as Travelocity, Expedia, or Kayak as well. I will often times write down prices, check multiple airlines, check multiple websites, for up to a month sometimes and generally get a good glimpse of the varying prices.
Prices will change throughout the week if you are just browsing prices. Don't get too panicked if a flight for $200 suddenly jumps up to $400. It will probably go back down eventually, unless you are very near to the day you are flying out.
If you start seeing the same low price day after day or week after week, that's probably about as low as its going to go. Take the plunge and buy that ticket.
Planning your trip
Aside from the confusing aspects of finding the cheapest flights, the majority of the planning will be figuring out what you want to do at your destination. Depending on the type of trip I am going on (lengthier stays and or foreign countries) I always buy a travel map and at least one guide. My usual go to is Lonely Planet. I love their guide books. They are good quality, and they also have lots of great tips on specific countries.
If you are in the United States(for my United States readers anyways), and know you will have good service, a map may not be necessary, but usually if I ever go anywhere overseas, a good old fashion map can do wonders. No worries about GPS signal, data usage, or batteries running out with a map! Its a good tool to have in a mostly digital time.
Aside from guide books, I will also frequently search the internet for blogs and websites relating to a specific area. I will look for other's first hand knowledge of a region, and look at their pictures and recommendations. TripAdvisor, Couchsurfing, Fodors, Lonely Planet are just some of these great websites. They can really get you in touch with people from the region, or people who are experienced in a said region. This is a great way to find some hidden gems and or great helpful hints.
I also will frequently look at Google images for examples of areas that I am going to. It also helps me figure out what type of photography I want to do at a destination, and where some good photo opportunities may exist. I have spent hours upon hours at work and at home daydreaming while looking at Google images of areas I am going or have been!
Planning a trip has never been easier than it is now. The internet has provided a lot of great tools and insight for learning out about your specific travel destination, and it does a lot of the work for you. It's really quite wonderful.
Always remember to know whether or not its going to be busy where ever you are heading. If it is busy, it would be wise to book accommodation ahead of time. I often do not take this approach when I am overseas due to the abundance of hostels, but in the United States hostel's aren't as common.
Bringing the right travel gear
If you are heading off into the mountains, desert, a beach resort, or a major city, each area will present it's difficulties and necessary accessories to bring with in order to have a successful trip. Bringing dress shirts and fancy pants won't get you very far in the mountains.
For those who are going to be doing a more rugged and adventurous type of trip, I recommend taking a stop at a nearby REI store. The prices are a bit higher, but they have great quality equipment, and in general it is a pretty neat store. They also have some pretty cool membership benefits. Its only $20 to become a lifetime member at REI, and it pays for itself pretty quickly. Included in its benefits is invitations to their yearly garage sales where you can find some pretty extensive discounts on returned and lightly used gear. REI is definitely one of my favorite stores to shop at. One good runner up to REI would be my favorite online store for travel gear, Moose Jaw.
Coming prepared can save you a bunch of money in the long run. Having to buy or rent equipment, and purchasing clothes to fit to your trip can get expensive fast when your on the road. Avoid all of that by preparing ahead of time!
Figuring out how to pack all of your gear into a carry on or a checked bag is another problem! I still haven't figured out this issue quite yet. I'll update this when and if I ever figure out how to successfully bring everything you need, and avoid paying an arm and a leg to the greedy airlines.
One other small tip, whenever traveling abroad, make sure you purchase a power adapter (Probably several actually) to fit to the European 220 volt outlets. This will help continue the life of all of your precious electronics, which likely will be very crucial for traveling.
Look out for a article later on this year about some of the items and gear I have found most essential in my travels. Learn from my mistakes of not bringing an item and use it to your advantage prior to your next trip!
Writing things down and keeping notes
While planning for my 10 day trip in Arizona I have focused a lot more on researching each particular region or park I intend to visit and then writing down all of the trails, and areas I want to see. I have a lot of points of interest that I want to hit on this trip, so planning this all out prior to my vacation has seemed beneficial so far. I think it's definitely a better strategy for more heavily visited areas such as where I intend to go in April. There aren't nearly as many places to stay, and they book up fast. I wouldn't even want to imagine how long I would be hotel hopping trying to find vacancy if I didn't plan this trip to Arizona and Utah ahead of time. Cell phones can make the hotel searching game much easier when you are actually on the road. All you need to do is look up their numbers and give them a call.
Where to stay
Finding the right place to stay can be tricky in and of itself. There can be a ton of options or very few options, cheap vs expensive options, or completely booked up. It can seem overwhelming at times.
There is a million different ways to find a place to stay too. I still stick with my preferred website of Orbitz for hotels, hostels, campgrounds, and then there is even Couchsurfing! Learn about Couchsurfing by clicking here.
Aside from using the internet as a tool to reserve, you can always do it the old fashion way by calling a place by phone, or going in person.
Don't always take a website saying a hotel has no open rooms to be the truth, and also don't take the person at the front desk's word too seriously either. I have been told by a guest receptionist that they had no rooms available on the phone once, then I looked it up on a travel search engine and found a room available and paid for it. Then went in 5 minutes after and spoke with that same guest services staff and told them I had a reservation.
Some of the websites I use for finding a place to stay:
wwoof.net (I have never utilized this for an actual place to stay yet though)
This is a tough subject. I can see the arguments for and against it. I have always been against it, but that might not be the best option for everyone.
Generally speaking, most insurance you may already have in your every day life (car insurance, and or home insurance) will often times cover you while you are traveling to an extent. Sometimes when you book your tickets with a credit card, they may also provide you with a certain extent of travel insurance. This may not be true with all cards or home/auto insurance policies, but double check before you go on your trip. You may already be covered!
Flight insurance and trip insurance (activities and flight) may prove to be more beneficial if you are unable to make a trip for various reasons such as a injury/illness, new job, or something else unforeseen. Read through the insurance that is offered in order to determine what is allowed in aspects related to these.
Through all of my travels I have never once had any issues with having to back out of a flight and needing the insurance to redeem my trip, nor have I ever needed any insurance while traveling, so far anyways. I'm sure sometime this next year I'm going to need it now that I said this. Take your individual situations and assess whether or not you need additional insurance when you go on your vacation.
There are some good companies that offer insurance, so if you feel you need it, take advantage of it!
Money, Credit Cards, and Bills oh my...
The part of a trip people most likely do not like to think of. The damage done by taking a trip of any length can be difficult to fathom. There is a lot more that goes into the finances of travel though.
Whenever you go anywhere, it is always good to keep a certain amount of cash on hand. Cash is pretty much universally accepted everywhere, though you may need to exchange for the proper currency of a foreign country. Fortunately, for readers from the US our bills are accepted at a decent amount of foreign countries. Though, its usually more beneficial to utilize the currency of whatever country you are in.
When exchanging money in another country, always look around for the best rate. Avoid locations directly in airports as often these may have higher marked up exchange rates, the same thing goes for big tourist trap areas. Often times hotels and hostels also have decent exchange rates, so don't be afraid to ask guest services! Finally, never do exchanges with random people offering to exchange cash. This is likely a scam in one way or another.
One good thing with technology nowadays is the fact that credit cards and debit cards are widely accepted anywhere in the world now it seems. I have not been to many places in my travels that do not accept some form of card payment. It truly is wonderful. Be aware that many cards do charge a foreign transaction fee (generally about 3%) though fear not, there are travel specific credit cards that have no transaction fees too!
Prior to embarking on any long distance vacations, notify your bank or card companies of your travel plans. It can quickly become a nightmare if your credit card company or bank freezes your account due to a transaction occurring in a foreign country. They may be looking out for your best interest, but it can cause some severe headaches if this occurs.
Unfortunately, while vacationing reality does not get put on hold as much as we all wished it would. Your normal life's responsibilities still must be maintained. Bills do not wait for you to return. Prepay any bills that will be due while you are gone. It can be pretty frustrating trying to pay bills on the road, especially if there is little internet or phone service.
One final note on traveling and finances I would like to make revolves around credit cards. If you are financially responsible, I would recommend getting a travel credit card of one form or another. They really can provide you with some great travel benefits if you utilize them properly. This is another way to travel for free. Check out my more detailed article about how to save money traveling by clicking here.
Cell phones and keeping in contact
Just like with credit cards, you need to figure out what your cell phone provider requires for overseas travel. This is something that needs to be done prior to departure since once you land in another country, your phone may no longer have any service to contact your provider with. Plan ahead and save the frustration.
I usually try to avoid using my phone when I'm overseas unless I am utilizing Wi-Fi instead of my own service plan. The cost can add up quickly just to even text people. Having a smart phone and utilizing Wi-Fi is a complete game changer for traveling though. A smart-phone is one of the most useful and versatile tools I've had for traveling.
Obviously in today's time we need a passport to basically go anywhere outside of the United States. Make sure you have one in time if you are leaving the country. Sometimes they are necessary just to fly domestically too oddly enough, depending on where you live. They generally take about 6-8 weeks to process and be delivered so plan ahead.
Know when you need to renew your passport as well. You don't want to deal with any expiration issues that may pop up if you are abroad. There are nightmare stories about that happening to people.
Its all about the check lists
This is one of my biggest strategies when I do travel. It can be immensely useful to have a check list of everything you need on a trip. It sucks when you are mid-way to the airport and realize you just forgot your headphones, or perhaps your vital camera tripod (I may be speaking from experience).
Write down whatever you are going to need on this trip and check them off all individual once they are gathered. Keep things in a open space so you don't lose items.
My final thoughts
There are many different ways to travel and many different philosophies on planning travel. I found this planning to be beneficial for this trip, especially due to the popularity of the south west region of the United States during April. Some of this trip wouldn't have been even possible without advanced planning (Havasu Falls in particular).
No way is perfect, and I am no expert that's for sure. I am just sharing a few ideas that I have used in the past, or have used for this trip in general. I have still much to learn in effective and efficient travel. I am always looking out for new great tips to add to my knowledge base for whenever I hit the old dusty trail.
My hope for this article is to help provide some great additional tips for people who are about to head out on vacation. It is not a comprehensive list, and it may be an article that I make additions to in the future as well.
I definitely prefer to wing most of my travels, but there definitely is some benefits to planning out vacations more thoroughly as I did on this occasion. We will see how well the planning paid off in the coming weeks.
Stay tuned for many new blog articles about my adventures in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico! The major destinations at this point are:
Havasu Falls/Mooney Falls
Zion National Park