I like to plan out my general destinations before heading out or booking. First, I pick an area in the world I am interested in and research the hell out of it. Then after finishing several itineraries consulting TripAdvisor and Google for best routes between cities and airports among other sources, I pick a season and see which destination is best to visit then. I take into consideration ease in moving around, weather, school breaks, and scenery. Usually, I stick to Spring or Fall, less crowded times to travel. Then I narrow my search to a specific month and check out when flights are the most affordable.
I make sure I have time off and book everything; checking plan ticket routes from the Flight Matrix (the source of flights for most travel booking websites) and then booking on a travel website such as Kayak, Cheap O Air, or United (I have a good mileage status and it has a great number of flights available to most places in the world), booking hostels on a hostel website such as Hostel World, or Hotels.com if there are no hostels and booking airport transportation and trains and buses between my destinations if needed.
- Airfare: I like to check multiple travel booking sites as the prices may vary by as much as hundreds of dollars for the same flight and for all the flight options. I book this far in advance to get the best seats and I do not really have any last minute changes to plans. I try to invite others who may wish to come at this point. Supposedly around 6 months out are when international flights are the lowest and 2 months out for domestic flights. There are mixed opinions as to which day and when are flights the lowest – some say Tuesday or Wednesday night while others say the weekends – just try to keep an eye out occasionally and remember to clear your cookies or go incognito as most sites will charge you a higher price if you keep coming back to the same itinerary. These days, Expedia and Priceline having the cheapest rates are over. Airlines are advertising discounts on their own websites so you just have to search everywhere. Buy anytime except in the last week or two before departure or over 6 months since anything may happen from the time the farther out you buy. Check below for some of my recommended sites. Try different airline sites in different languages for local savings. Utilize the same airline for maximizing mileage. You can get a refund within 24 hours of most basic bookings. Test out different combinations of flights, airports, and days. Generally, try to fly out Tue or Wed if possible although sometimes you are limited by vacation days at work. From flying relatively often, you can develop a sense of which airlines and airports are better in terms of speed, delays, convenience, and etc.
- Transportation To/From the Airport: Costs and time may vary widely so I research everything from taxi to bus to metro to rail to boat. If a location is hard to find, I would probably take a taxi or bus. If time is important, I would go for taxi or rail. If cost is most important, I would go for bus or metro. I mark down all of my options on Google Maps just in case. Research is done in advance so tickets can be booked if needed.
- Lodging: If you prefer hostels, the rates do not change that much and you may book anytime until the last minute. Depending on the season, you can even walk in and price shop. If you prefer exceptional hotels, sign up for a rewards membership. If average hotels will do, book on a site with a good price-match and cancellation policy. Rates sometimes change and on holidays, coupons may appear. I utilize Hostelworld’s flexible booking policy ($1 to change bookings if needed) and the Hotels.com 10 nights = 1 free night system. I try to stay away from biased places like Airbnb due to the company and landlord shadiness. You never really know what you are going to get.
- Transportation at Destination: For getting around the city or outskirts, I try to find the best way either with Google or Google Maps routing. Again, all bookings can be made in advance if needed. I also take note of the relative size of the city and walking distances to determine whether mechanical transportation is necessary. Developing great endurance before the trip is recommended. I tend to walk 18 hours a day and sleep for 6. A vacation is not a vacation unless you come home tired.
- Attractions: Again, research and word of mouth is key. If this attraction is the most popular in the city then you can expect long lines so having a ticket in advance can help you greatly. If an attraction is modestly appealing, save the ticket for the door. Make sure to have a list of places you want to see but leave time for spontaneous hidden gems. Being a photographer, I do not spend much money on attractions as the best things for me are already paid for.
- Food: Especially in foreign countries in which the language is very different, I do not plan out these places in advance unless it has a unique, historical, or popular appeal. At least for attractions, you can probably see them from a block away but restaurants are small and time will be spent searching. Generally, I research what type of foods and restaurants are local and go for what I see. Stay away from places on the main street close to tourist attractions since you will pay a high price for below average food. Indicators of quality include a lot of dining locals and recommendations from locals.
This is the watchful waiting period in which I keep an eye out for other attractions or deals I may have missed. I print out all of the confirmations, maps, and other info I may need since my phone may or may not work at the destination. I mentally review my route plan and any words in a foreign language in which I may need to know. I will have converted enough currency at my bank at this point; you should not need over $1,000 USD for a week if you are not spending lavishly anywhere in the world.
I pack everything I need, review my itinerary and route plan for the last time, and head out. They say to plan what you think you need and cut by 50% but that seems a bit extreme. I go by planning what I need and cutting 25% or until everything fits in two backpacks to avoid checking bags, whichever is more. Even though sometimes free, waiting for checked bags wastes time and increases your chances of lost luggage.
*If you travel internationally frequently (>2x/year) consider getting Global Entry which allows you TSA Pre-check and faster customs on international flights so you will never miss another transfer, in addition to faster border crossing for Canada and Mexico by car, only $100 for 5 years.
*Check out travel.state.gov for info regarding visas and vaccines.
*Register for an account or travel alerts on STEP.
Other deal finder websites for flights, hotels, car rentals, vacation packages, etc:
- Hostelz: Hostel review and price comparison site for most major hostels
- Hostels: Hostel booking site
- Hostel Bookers: Hostel booking site
- Hosteling International: Hostel alliance, paid membership available
- Couch Surfing: Couch surfing
- Deal Angel: Find deals
- Sky Scanner: Find airfare deals
- Tingo: Get refund if lower price found by website
- Dream Cheaper: Get refund if lower price found by website
- Shermans Travel: Great for vacation package deals
- Travel Zoo: Great for vacation package deals
- Airbnb: Private lodging rentals
- Vacation Rental By Owner: Private lodging rentals
- Airfare Watchdog: Emails airfare deals
- Jet Setter: Emails airfare deals
- Hitlist: Find cheap flights
- Skip Lagged: Find cheap flights
- Adioso: Find cheap flights
- Hipmunk: Find cheap flights
- Route Happy: Find cheap flights
- Hopper: Find cheap flights
- Momondo: Book cheap flights
- Seat 61: Reference for booking travel by land
- Air Help: What to do if delayed or disaster strikes
- G Adventures: Adventure travel tours
- Intrepid Travel: Adventure travel tours
- Travelocity: Booking site
- Expedia: Booking site
- Orbitz: Booking site
- Vayama: Booking site
- Auto Slash: Book and track your car reservations, email you when a cheaper fare is found to rebook
- And plenty more