Curious about how to plan a trip? Looking to take a vacation and want some help organizing your planning process? This post has you covered!
One of my favorite parts of travel is the planning. In fact, I enjoy it almost as much as the actual trip itself; I love diving into the research, putting the puzzle pieces of an itinerary together, and the excited anticipation as I think about setting off on my next adventure. I have been known to put together sample itineraries to cheer myself up in times of stress or sadness, and I am quick to offer help to an overwhelmed friend who doesn’t get the same enjoyment out of the planning process as I do.
In doing the groundwork for the endeavor that would become Full Life, Full Passport, I learned that for a lot of people the planning part of travel is anything but enjoyable. It’s overwhelming, difficult, stressful, and far too time-consuming. If that’s you, I want to help! The goal of this website is to provide you with resources and inspiration to make traveling easy and unforgettable, and today we’re going back to basics. Let’s talk about how to plan a trip in the first place, and don’t forget that if you’d prefer to have some professional planning help, I’ve got you covered!)
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How to Plan a Trip
While we’re going to get rather detailed here, feel free to do as much or as little planning and pre-booking as you’d like depending on the length of time you have, how flexible you’d like to be, and how busy each location is at the time of year you’re visiting. On my two big backpacking adventures, we rarely booked hostels or buses in advance; for shorter trips, I always make sure those details are taken care of so that we can maximize our time. It’s up to you!
Generally, my travel planning decisions are made in the following order:
1.) Destination (country or region)
3.) Itinerary (specific towns or places to visit)
5.) Rental car and/or other major transportation
6.) Organized tours and pre-bought admissions
7.) Other day-to-day activities
For our purposes today, we’re going to assume that the first two steps above have already been handled – we’ve determined our destination and booked our flights. From there, we will create a solid plan of attack while leaving some time open for on-the-ground spontaneity. Follow along with me as I plan a weeklong trip to Belize for myself, my mom, and my sister!
Step 1: Research the basics.
My first step when planning a vacation is to pick up a guidebook (I prefer Lonely Planet). While I don’t plan absolutely everything according to the book, I do find it easier to orient myself, understand my options, and determine basic travel routes when I have a comprehensive resource in front of me rather than a hodgepodge of information found on Google or Pinterest. I also appreciate the cultural and historical background, tips, and tricks that any good guidebook will provide.
One of my favorite parts of the planning process is sitting down with a highlighter and going through my guidebook. If I already have a rough idea where I’d like to go, I can skip right to those sections. (For example, if I am headed to Italy and already know that I want to prioritize Tuscany and Rome, there’s no need for extensive reading about the Dolomites.) Otherwise, if it’s a country with which I’m less familiar or less committed to a particular area, I’ll read as much of the book as is necessary to make my decisions.
Once I have a good understanding of the offerings, I can put together a rough itinerary. (Many books will include sample itineraries that you can choose from to save time, as well.) From there, you can either utilize the book’s recommendations to find accommodations and activities or turn to the internet: Google, Pinterest, Instagram, TripAdvisor, etc. Combing the web will be simpler at this point because your preliminary research will allow you to do more targeted searching.
- You can easily skip over certain sections at first. If you already have some basic knowledge of which regions you’d like or will have time to hit, skip over the rest and don’t muddy the waters. You can also skim or skip all the specific accommodation and dining recommendations at first – you don’t need to plan out where you’ll eat breakfast at this point in the process.
- Borrow the guidebook from your local library. (Just don’t use a highlighter!)
- Lonely Planet publishes a series of shoestring guides that are aimed at a backpacking or budget traveler. The editions I’ve used (South America, Southeast Asia) were indispensable in helping find safe, clean places to stay and providing a great experience at an exceptional value.
Step 2: Take notes.
Help prevent overwhelm by jotting down important information as you do your research. Whether it’s on paper or in your favorite note-taking app, having a list of highlights is really convenient. With everything at your fingertips, you won’t have to go back through a guidebook or search through bookmarked websites to find the details about that tour you thought looked interesting.
There are even some helpful travel planning journals like this one that can add some fun to the process. They also turn into a great souvenir after your trip!
Step 3: Utilize Google Maps to plot your route.
I’m a geography nut and carry a pretty accurate map in my head, but I always find it simpler (and more exciting!) to plot out a trip on an actual map. Luckily, Google makes this a breeze. Not only can you see your vacation taking shape before your eyes, but it is also helpful to learn the estimated distances between places to judge what does and does not make sense timing-wise. (Note that depending on the country these can be VERY rough estimates. You should always build in extra time if you need to be somewhere by a certain hour, like for a flight.)
Plotting a trip on a map is especially useful if you’re planning with or for other people, as you can conveniently share it with your traveling companions or save it for future reference.
Step 4: Easily compare hotels using a basic spreadsheet.
Now that you know where you’ll be going, it’s time to decide where you’re going to lay your head each night. You can use your guidebook to do this, or hop on TripAdvisor, Google, Booking.com, or your travel resource of choice!
I find it advantageous to create a little spreadsheet to keep track of important information about each place so that I can quickly compare them and make my decision. For our trip to Belize, I searched for hotels and sent my findings off to my mom and sister so that we could come to a group consensus. This was my process:
1.) Visit the hotel website and, after a quick glance to make sure it looks interesting, immediately check to see if they have vacancies on your dates. Also make sure that the available accommodations suit your needs. If there’s no vacancy or the room(s) won’t work, don’t waste your time looking any further into the place.
2.) Spend a few minutes looking around the website to see if it’s a contender.
3.) Note the name of the establishment and include a link to the website for quick reference.
4.) Add pricing information. I included a per night cost in addition to how much we would be spending for a three-night stay, but you may not need or want to differentiate.
5.) Add room information. What configurations are available and where are they on the property? How many beds are in the room, and what size are they? (This was essential data for us, having three people, but may not be for solo travelers or couples.)
6.) Include any other information that may be relevant to the decision, such as additional perks or drawbacks to each place. Is breakfast included? Do you have access to a balcony or great views? Is the location convenient and accessible to restaurants and things to do (or secluded, if that’s your preference)?
In the end, your spreadsheet might look something like mine, below. You can compare your options at a glance, or send the whole thing off to your traveling companions to get their vote. (In case you were curious, we ended up choosing Martha’s Guesthouse.)
- Limit your choices to three or four finalists per location. Don’t paralyze yourself or create a hung jury within your travel group by giving yourself too many options. Stick to places that have availability, fit your budget, and look promising, and don’t feel pressured to continue to search ad nauseam in fear that the “perfect” spot is still out there. Go with your gut.
Step 5: Secure your critical transportation.
For our Belize trip, this meant renting a car, but for other trips I would classify “critical transportation” as anything for which you would not want to risk a surge in price or lack of availability if you wait until the last minute. For the most part, I like to book train, bus, and mid-trip airline tickets as soon as possible to have them out of the way.
I did some quick searching with a couple of global car rental companies as well as a Belizean one suggested by a friend. Most of the big names in the United States (Enterprise, Hertz, Avis, etc.) have offices overseas, or you can check a travel booking site like KAYAK, Booking.com, or Travelocity to compare a bunch at once. Your guidebook should have some suggestions, as well, including local alternatives.
Again, I jotted down the relevant info into a new page of my spreadsheet to send off to my mom and sister for their consideration. The whole process took less than an hour, and by the end of the day we had booked through Crystal Auto Rental.
Step 6: Book any tours and activities you don’t want to miss.
As I mentioned earlier, I very rarely booked anything in advance in my early days of traveling. For the most part, I had time to spare and a flexible itinerary that meant I often didn’t know with any certainty when we would be arriving in any particular location. Now, with a precious limited number of vacation days and fewer second chances if something we’d like to do gets booked up, I make sure to make reservations for any tours or experiences that we absolutely don’t want to miss.
With its many ruins, caves, and snorkeling/diving sites that may not be easily accessible on your own, Belize is a country that lends itself to organized tours and activities. I had a pretty good idea of what was available to us in each location based on my reading of the guidebook, so all that remained was to look into the offerings of individual tour companies and decide which were worthwhile. To do so, I used a combination of the guidebook, TripAdvisor, and our hotel websites.
I kept track of my findings in my (surprise!) planning spreadsheet. This method proved especially helpful on this trip because many of the tour companies weren’t explicit with the price and length of their tours on their websites. Thus, I had to email them individually and wait for their responses. When the details arrived in my inbox, it was handy to be able to plug them into the spreadsheet so that I didn’t forget anything in the meantime or have to go searching for an email.
My mom, sister, and I eventually decided to book a tour of the Caracol ruins, cave tubing, and a full day of snorkeling and island hopping, which together took up about two and a half of our six full days in Belize. The rest of the time we left open for travel between our different destinations and other experiences we might encounter along the way. For us, that’s a good balance between having some flexibility in our schedule and ensuring that our must-do’s will certainly get done!
- Many guesthouses and hotels will happily assist you with booking tours, saving you time and effort in searching for and comparing the offerings. Just be aware that guesthouses may get a kickback or commission from the tour company, so it might be worth it to do a quick check online to make sure your tour provider is well-reviewed.
- Tour providers will occasionally offer a small discount to guests who pay with cash instead of by credit card, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Step 7: Plan your day-to-day activities
With your itinerary sorted and your lodging, transportation, and key activities booked, you’ve got yourself a vacation! You can rest easy knowing that the major pieces are in place, and you can take some time to breathe before your trip because you don’t have to make any more major or time-sensitive commitments.
Upon arrival, some travelers like to have a detailed, almost moment-by-moment itinerary, while others prefer to play things by ear and just explore without a plan. I personally tend to be somewhere in the middle; I like to know as much as possible about what is there is to do in any particular place, but I don’t tend to box myself in with rigid time allotments.
When traveling, M and I usually spend a couple of minutes each night reviewing our options and goals for the next day and sketching out a rough plan. Then, we see where it all takes us in the morning! For example, when we visited Budapest for two days last fall, we knew that our top priorities on the Pest side were the Parliament Building, Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial, and the Great Synagogue. We set out after breakfast with that in mind and managed to see all three. Along the way, though, we stopped for an unplanned lunch in the Jewish Quarter and later spontaneously swung by St. Stephen’s Basilica, both of which were great decisions. I still dream about that falafel, and the Basilica was possibly the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen.
My best advice, whether you are a hardcore planner or a go-with-the-flow adventurer, is to know your options. Read through your guidebook, browse the top attractions and experiences on TripAdvisor, or refer to your notes and Pinterest boards before you arrive so that you don’t have to waste time on-location reading up on the offerings. The last thing you’ll want to do is spend time in your hotel debating what to do instead of being out there doing it! You also don’t want to get home and realize that there was something you wish you had seen but didn’t know existed.
That, in a very large nutshell, is how I plan a trip. But before I let you go, I have one more tidbit for you…
Bonus tip! Make a packing list as you go.
Whenever you think of or come across a recommendation for something to bring with you, make a note of it. Apps like Wunderlist (below, which has since become To Do), Notes (on iOS), and Evernote are great for this. Keeping a list as you go will help protect you from forgetting something later when you’re creating the full list or actually packing your suitcase.
So there you have it – a complete guide for how to plan a trip! Feel free to adjust the process as needed based on your destination and travel preferences, and take heart that the more often you do this the easier and less time-consuming it will become. Please feel free to leave any questions or your own tips in the comments. I’d love to learn from you or help if you’re stuck or overwhelmed!
Now get out there and plan something amazing!
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How do you go about planning a trip?
Are there any tricks you use to save time when researching?
This guide for how to plan a trip was originally posted on March 5, 2018, and was last updated on March 5, 2021.
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