Traveling around the world, while having a full-time job is not easy. Your time is limited, so you need to do some smart planning to get the most out of your trip. In this post, I will share with you my system for planning trips, that I have developed over the years. It is not magic, there is no "weird trick" and it requires some work on your side, but it works! Me and my wife have been on many trips, that sound crazily intense and packed with activities, but good planning helps you enjoy them and relax. As an example, I will show you how I planned our 3 week trip through Australia (check our photos), during which we managed to visit Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road, Alice Springs, Uluru, Darwin, Kakadu National Park, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney, the Blue Mountains and Hamilton island at the Great Barrier Reef. And we had a great time doing it...
This post comes at a time when travel is at standstill all over the world because of COVID-19, but we can dream a little bit about our next great adventure and hopefully, we can soon start planning it...
Plan before the trip, enjoy during the trip
Me and my wife both work full time and have limited vacation every year (6 weeks), so we always try to get the most of our travel time. Before our son Leo was born 1.5 years ago, we were able to pack a lot of destinations and activities in a single trip. The baby didn't stop us travelling at all - Leo had 11 flights under his belt before he turned 1. While we reduced the travelling pace, smart planning became even more important with a baby! But I will write about travelling with a baby another time... .
My travel planning system is best suited for trips that take 1-4 weeks during which you visit several destinations. If you know which country you want to visit, but don't know which places exactly, it will help you create an itinerary which will allow you to see and experience a lot, but not get stressed doing it. It will work for longer trips as well, but make sure you reduce the pace a little bit.
The basic idea of my planning system is to make sure that you plan and book as much as possible before you start your trip - this includes all transport, accommodation and larger organized activities. While on one side, this makes you a bit less flexible, it frees up more time during your trip and allows you to visit more places and do more things. Read below to learn how it works and what tools I use during the planning (I'm not affiliated with any of those).
Step 1 - Choose your destinations and put them on the map
When I start planning a trip, me and my wife usually have already decided which country (or countries) we want to visit and we have a rough idea when and how long the trip should be. The first step is to do some research on what places are worth visiting in this country and at what time of the year. The goal is to come up with a list of destinations (cities, national parks, resorts etc.) that you want to visit and some activities you want to do (visiting a festival, scuba-diving, hiking, boat trips etc).
My main source of information for this is Wikivoyage - it is a website similar to Wikipedia, but for travel. All the information there is provided by volunteers, but I often found it to be better than any of the travel guides that you can buy. For some countries, you can also find other good resources, like for example for Japan, so do some search on Google as well. What I also usually did in the past is to buy a book guide for the country, but I may not do it for our next trip, since the value I get from it is not that high. TripAdvisor or just Google search can also be helpful if you want to check on some particular places and decide if they are worth visiting. For each place, I also check for possible day trips, since this is a good way to easily add some great experiences. I write more about day trips below.
During the research, I put all the places I want to visit on the map. This gives me an idea which area of the country we should visit. You will usually not be able to visit all the places you want so concentrate on the area you are most excited about. For each trip, I create my own map on Google Maps (check how to create a custom map here), where I put pins for the chosen destinations and draw the routes I want to travel. You can find the map I created when planning our trip in Australia here. Even though, we were not able to visit all places I put on the map, it helped a lot to play around with different itineraries and decide on the final journey.
Step 2 - Plan your outgoing and return flights
Now that you have a rough idea of the locations you want to visit, you can start checking which cities have a good flight connection to your home city (or of course, other means of travel if your destination is not too far away). I usually try to book the outgoing flight to one city and the return flight from another one. In this way, you can usually visit more places that are further away from the first city, without losing time going back. I found such flights to not be more expensive than the regular return flight. Don't book yet, but try to find your main candidates and some backup options. For example, on our Australia trip we flew from Munich to Melbourne, but came back from Sydney. Brisbane would also have been an option, but not Alice Springs for example.
I usually use Skyscanner to search for flights, but make sure you also check the airlines' sites directly before booking. Don't always trust the first price you see and make sure you check all the conditions regarding baggage. Another good tool is Google Flights, especially if you are booking well in advance. You can enter your preferred flights there to track their price over time and get a notification if the price drops (check an example flight I tracked the other day). I think Skyscanner also has a similar feature now, but I don't have much experience with it. For some airlines (usually the ones in the Middle East, like Emirates or Etihad) it is also possible to find discount codes. To give you a bad example of not checking properly - the day after we booked our flights to Australia, the price fell 100€ and additionally we found a 10% discount code. Ouch...
Step 3 - Plan where you will spend each night
This is the most important, but also the most complicated step - plan where you will spend the night at the end of each day. This will put a frame on your trip that will not be easy to change afterwards, so you need to plan this well. On the upside, you can then proceed and book all the transportation, accommodation and organized activities, and not worry about them anymore during your trip.
For the detailed planning I use a simple spreadsheet I created myself (I uploaded it on Google Docs here). It may not be very modern and sexy, but it is simple and it works! The spreadsheet shows the rough itinerary - when we are going to be at which place, when do we roughly need to travel from one place to the other and when do we plan to do some day trips. The idea here is not to plan exactly up to the hour, but to have rough idea how much days you will have at each place. This plan will also change during your planning - try changing the dates and destinations, make copies and play out different variants until you have your perfect trip. If anybody knows a better tool for this I will be happy to try it out.
When planning the time frame of your trip it is important to think about the following things.
How many days do you want to spend at each location? Use your research on Wikivoyage to estimate what do you want to do at this place and how long it will take. You can also browse through the top sights and activities for each place on TripAdvisor and create a list with the things you want to see/do.
Do you want to attend any specific events, like for example festivals? If yes, you obviously need to plan the corresponding place at the right time for the event you want to attend. Wikivoyage usually has good information about the festivals and bigger events at every location. Alternatively, there may be events that you want to avoid and you need to plan around them. Visiting Monaco during the Formula 1 weekend may not be a good idea (except if you have a ticket for the race of course - then it is an excellent idea).
How does the weather change during the trip? On a 3-week trip, the weather may change significantly, so think about which places are better to visit at the beginning and which at the end. For example, we went to Japan in the beginning of April 2016 and wanted to view the cherry blossom. We started in the North of Japan, because it is colder and this gave us a better chance to see it, since April is usually the end of the cherry blossom season .
How are you going to transfer from one place to the other? When you decide on the order of the destinations, you will need to have an idea how you will get to each one. If you are flying, there may be cheaper flights between particular destinations. If you are driving a rental car, make sure that returning the car at another location is allowed and not too expensive. I discuss different travel options in more detail below.
Leave the beach at the end. Visiting a lot of places during your trip may get tiring towards the end, so it is a good idea to finish with a couple of relaxing days on the beach (or whatever other relaxing activity you like). We ended our Australia trip with 3 chilled days on the beautiful Hamilton Island at the Great Barrier Reef. In 2015, we visited Brazil for 3 weeks and made a big mistake by going to Rio first and to São Paulo at the end. We ended up spending almost no time on the beach in Rio, because we were full of energy and had so many things to see...
Give yourself some time with this step - you don't need to fix your plan straight away. Continue researching your destinations, check flight prices and play around with different itineraries until you have a time frame you are happy with. You usually want to visit as much destinations as possible, but make sure that you don't put too much on your plan, because then you will not have the time to enjoy the atmosphere of every place.
Step 4 - Book as much as possible in advance
After a couple of iterations, you should have a good itinerary. Now it is the time to book as much as possible, so that you will not have to deal with searching for flights, hotels or activities during your trip and you can use the time to enjoy it.
I keep track of all the bookings in my spreadsheet (I left everything there with all the prices and details, exactly as it was on our Australia trip). In this way, I make sure that I don't forget anything, I can put some remarks next to each booking and also have a good overview on how much we are spending on the different categories. I also see there what has been paid in advance and what we will need to pay when we get there. Here are some tips on the different categories of things you need to book.
Flights I already wrote a lot about how to search for flights. The same applies to any flights you do during your trip as well. Depending on the country, you may not have a lot of alternatives to flying, because the distances may be huge. In Australia we took 6 flights inside the country which required some advanced planning - check out the tab Flights in my spreadsheet to see how I played around with the different options .
Rental cars Rental cars are usually not very useful to get around big cities, because of traffic and lack of parking spaces. Public transport, renting a bike or just walking is usually the better option ( there are some exceptions of course, like for example Los Angeles or Brasília, so make sure you check well). However, having a car gives you great flexibility to make day trips! You can stay for a couple of days at one place, but take one or two day trips, allowing you to see much more things fairly cheaply. For example, in Australia we used our bases in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney to make some amazing day trips to the Great Ocean Road, Gold Coast and the Blue Mountains respectively.
Using a rental car for one way trips is possible as well, but be prepared to be charged additional fee, which may be quite big - rental car companies don't like this. I usually check the prices on Rentalcars.com, but make sure you take a look at some local companies as well. Beware of too-good-to-be-true prices, because such offers usually have some hidden costs .
Trains and busses If the distance between your destinations is not too big, trains and buses become good alternative to air travel. While the flight itself may be much faster, you need to account for the time to get to the airport, the waiting time there and the time to go from the airport to the city. Especially in countries with developed train networks, like for example Japan , Germany, France or Spain, this may be the best option.
Accommodation While a lot of people like hostels, especially when traveling alone, we prefer to stay at hotels or Airbnbs. Actually, we try to book an Airbnb whenever we spend more than one night in a particular place. The big advantage is that you usually have some connection to the host, who knows the place very well. In my experience, the hosts are usually happy to help with recommendations and reservations. You should, however, try to avoid big Airbnb organisations that are renting many apartments, because then you usually don't get this personalised experience. In most places (but not all) Airbnbs are also cheaper and at better locations than hotel. If you are staying just for one night, thought, it may be easier to book a hotel (I use Booking.com or Expedia) because you will not have to arrange meeting the host so that they can let you in the apartment. There is an increasing number of Airbnb-like places on Booking.com as well, so make sure to check that as well. We found an amazing one in Alice Springs held by a really nice couple.
Organized activities A lot of places offer some unique experiences like jungle tours in the Amazon, scuba-diving with 5m Manta rays in Okinawa, Japan or beer tasting in Prague. In Australia, we visited Brolga's amazing Kangaroo Sanctuary, did two boat cruises in Kakadu National Park and went on a snorkelling boat trip to Whitehaven Beach at the Great Barrier Reef. Such activities should usually be booked in advance, because they tend to quickly sell out. We had some unpleasant experience in Australia, because our boat trip to Whitehaven breach got cancelled the day before, even though we have booked 3 months in advance. Since we had just 3 days on the island, I spent half a day browsing and calling around to find an alternative, because almost everything was already fully booked...
Smaller stuff After you have booked all the big stuff, you can save even more time booking some smaller things, like for example a pass for a national park, an overnight parking for your rental car next to your Airbnb or an airport transfer. Remember, everything you manage to book in advance will give you more time to enjoy during your trip!
Once you get there
I didn't write much about planning your time at your destination on purpose. I believe that this is where you need to stay flexible and decide what to do next on the spot. I usually have a list of things to do prepared for each place, but during our trips, I usually plan what to do the next day the night before, depending on what we have already seen and what we liked. The good thing is, that the rest of the planning has already been taken care of so you can focus on the place you are at.
I will write more about how we decide what to do during our trip and how we organise our days in one of my next posts . I will leave this one be just about the planning of the trip. You can subscribe to my e-mail newsletter below and you will get my future posts (about one per week) directly in your mailbox. You can also follow me on Twitter and subscribe to my RSS feed.
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