Whether you’re dreaming of a week-long, all-inclusive vacation in Mexico or a six-month backpacking jaunt through Europe, the choices can be endless—and overwhelming. Fortunately there are some easy ways to help you decide where to go and what to see, as long as you spend a bit of effort planning ahead. While nomads may have the luxury of flying by the seat of their pants, most of us don’t have all the time in the world and need to make the most of those precious vacation days. Here is a good way to get the planning process started, in five easy steps.
Look at Google Images
The very first thing I do when researching a destination is type it into Google Images. This is by far the fastest way to determine the popular spots, the most pristine beaches, or if a city simply looks like, well, any other old city. A quick browse through can quickly help you decide which sites you can’t miss—and the ones you won’t mind passing up.
Grab a Lonely Planet
There’s a reason these guys have been around for decades and are considered the Backpackers Bible. Their books are perhaps the most in-depth resource around, and if a place isn’t mentioned in the guide, well, it probably doesn’t exist. Check one out of the library (I’m old school/thrifty like that!) and give it a good read-through, taking notes on which spots sound interesting. Chances are you won’t get to all of them, but at least you’ll have a route and itinerary in mind for when it comes time to start booking things.
Surf the web
Shameless plug alert: travel sites like Globe Guide are an awesome resource! While guide books are great for giving you a brief rundown about every option available, you can get the real dirt on a spot by reading blogs and articles. Since some publications have to be unbiased and can’t state how they really feel about a place, you’ll get the real reviews online. You can also find tips like why it’s better to hire a cab than do a tour in the Philippines, where the best beach is in Tobago and why you shouldn’t stay in Venice. Take notes so you can refer to them on the road—then actually look at them! I say this because I always forget to read them, then do stupid things like going on a two-hour trek through the blazing hot Malaysian rainforest in search of monkeys, instead of remembering that you can see the most critters along the easy trails near the base. Le sigh.
Plan your route
While it’s not essential to have your itinerary planned down to the minute before setting off, it’s a good idea to at least have an idea of where you want to visit. For example, plan to start off in Western Europe and hit those countries before heading over to the Mediterranean so you’re not criss-crossing the continent. Or, plan your route in a circle so that you can start and end in the same place without a long haul to get back to your departure airport. You could also look at flying into one place and out another if you’re moving around, to save you the hassle of returning to the original destination.
Pre-planning where you want to go can also save you a bundle on both lodging and transportation costs. For example, I was in Ica, Peru and planned to head over to Cusco. We took a five hour bus ride back to Lima, cabbed it to the airport, then killed a couple of hours before the one-hour flight to Cusco. The total travel time was about nine hours, and cost $300. What we should have done is taken the overnight bus from Ica to Cusco, since the buses in Peru for the most part are actually quite comfortable. It would have taken 15 hours, but only cost us about $60 each plus we wouldn’t have had to pay for a hotel that night—and really, it only would have only taken six hours longer, which we spent sleeping anyway!
Whip out the credit card
The last step is perhaps the most exciting: make the trip official by booking it! Airfare usually takes up the biggest chunk of the budget, so a good way to save money is to join frequent flyer programs. Even if you aren’t dedicated to a single airline, you’ll still be kept in the loop via e-mail about upcoming offers, and might even be privy to a special promo code. The actual timing of your trip is usually determined by flights, since fares are usually much cheaper if you’re departing on say, Tuesday, versus Friday. Make sure all the stops on your itinerary will line up with this, as it would be a shame to find out the permits for an Inca Trail trek are sold out for the week you’ll be there.
I’m also a huge fan of booking most lodging ahead of time, as I don’t like the idea of having to sleep on a park bench in the event there are no rooms available. You can also try and negotiate for early booking discounts if you’re still a few months from departure. Trip Advisor is my all time favourite resource for booking any type of room, as you can get real reviews from real travellers. Once you’re all set up, the only thing left to do is pack!
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