Here are some steps I go through when planning trips.
Travel inspiration. It is pretty much a living and breathing part of me. Every day, I am drawn to some lovely picture in my Facebook feed, an image in a coffee table book, a podcast, a guidebook, or a friend's travel adventure. All of these things plant the seed for a future trip. On a monotonous workday, these are the thoughts that keep me content.
Guidebooks are the seeds of inspiration. Borrow a stack of guidebooks from your local library. I peruse guidebooks on a near daily basis and keep notes of places that interest me. I regularly skim guidebooks of places that I am not even sure I will ever visit! If you are not a big reader, watch shows like Rick Steves, Samantha Brown, Anthony Bourdain (RIP), and Globe Trekker for inspiration.
Vacationer vs. Traveler
Which one are you? Do you long for a week at a resort where you will spend your days by a pool basking in the sun? Or do you enjoy actively exploring a region's history, culture, and landscape? Chances are, you have qualities of both a vacationer and a traveler. It is helpful to know how you like to pace your trip. I personally enjoy packing my days with sightseeing, hiking, and exploring. A couple of hours at a pool or a beach are plenty for me. I also enjoy great food and drink and like researching local specialties. Do you like your vacation to be predictable or are you excited about taking risks and trying new things? Again, you probably have qualities of both. Some people (like me) love researching a trip ahead of time and planning many aspects in advance. Others like the flexibility of planning your trip on the go. These are all questions you must ask yourself before diving into trip planning.
- Subscribe to travel sites on social media. Sites like Condé Nast Traveler, Intrepid Travel, Wonderful Places, The World, BBC Travel, Travel + Leisure, Budget Travel, Rick Steves, and Samantha Brown all have a presence on social media and post wonderful pictures, essays, blogs, and articles. I do not use Pinterest but know many travelers love it. You're sure to find inspiration even when you are not looking!
- Google Maps is your new best friend. Once you begin to zero in on a country or region, study the map of what is nearby. I often plug in a couple of destinations to approximate the distance. Is it a reasonable drive or train ride? Do I need to find a logical stop in between the two destinations? Visualizing what is in between two places can open your eyes to new places that you did not even know you wanted to visit!
Google Images is your other new best friend. Once a location piques my interest, I quickly Google the place and click images to see a range of photographs. If it isn't pretty or interesting, that might be enough for me to move on to another nearby town or village.
- TripAdvisor can be fantastic for perusing attractions and hotels in an area. I use tripadvisor.com in conjunction with guidebooks to read reviews about a city or region.
Most people travel on some sort of budget. We definitely prioritize taking long trips over having fancy hotels and meals. Now that we are in our 40s, we do insist on hotels with in-room bathrooms, air-conditioning (when visiting somewhere hot), and local character. We still strive to spend $100 or less wherever we travel. Sometimes we go over or under that amount, but it gives us a target. When researching costs in a destination, I find it helpful to look at menus from recommended restaurants. Seeing various menus helps understand costs in an area. Checking on prices of a common item, like beer or coffee, can help clarify costs in a country. There is a reason why we have not visited Scandinavia or Switzerland! Those expensive places will be saved for later.
Luckily, I happen to be married to an airfare guru. He keeps track of our mileage plans, sets up online airfare trackers, and has a creative sense of how to put together a flight. On our upcoming flight to Greece, we used mileage to book our tickets to Athens eleven months in advance. For a couple of months, we only had one-way airfare - no flight home! Since he continuously checks various websites, a one-way special airfare from Athens to our hometown appeared. This time we will be flying Turkish Airlines through Istanbul to get the best fare!
Sometimes we arrange open-jaw flights to fly in and out of two separate cities. Buying one-way tickets is not expensive like it used to be. We live in a town with a rather small airport so driving to a large city often leads to savings. We will often park our car with a friend in a different city or ask a relative to drop us off. Airfare is a huge cost so finding ways to save is really important to us. Economical airlines such as Icelandair or Condor have lead to some great fares. Icelandair allows free stopovers in Iceland which we were happy to use!
Some people think there is a formula for buying airfare. They believe certain days of the week are better and waiting a certain length of time before booking saves them money. We have not found this to be necessarily true. On our last few big trips, we have purchased airfare nearly a year in advance and felt really good about the price we paid. However, we still follow the number one rule - do NOT check prices after you have purchased! What good can this do if you have already paid? Keep an eye on airfares and set up a tracker on a site like Kayak. There is no better feeling than buying tickets and knowing your travel is set!
- Once I settle on an itinerary and have airfare in hand, it's time to book accommodations. The earlier the better, in my opinion. We love small, independently run places that often have a loyal following of return visitors. Once you know dates, book these places online. I try to book directly with the hotel's website instead of using Booking.com or another large site. (Those sites take a big cut from small businesses.) Before picking a hotel, read reviews and try to understand the location of the place in relation to the attractions you'll be visiting. Use Google Maps to determine walking or public transit distances between your hotel and where you'll likely be sightseeing. If you are planning long in advance, you should have lots of options, so be picky! If the hotel emails you with a higher price than you expected, keep shopping around. If the hotel is in a guidebook, has 4.5 or higher star rating on TripAdvisor, a high score on Booking.com and a workable website, you're probably going to be happy.
When you receive an email confirmation of your booking, I'm old-school and I print out a hard copy. I like to be able to show a document when checking in, if necessary. This came in handy on our last trip to Germany when we did not get the room we requested. In the past, I used Google Translate to communicate with the hotel in their native language. On my last couple of trips, that was not necessary because many hotels have English versions of their website and clearly accept an inquiry in English.
Keep in mind that European hotels are much smaller than American ones. It is rare that a standard room has two beds. A room with two beds is usually considered a family room, and will cost more. Many small hotels only have a couple of family rooms making booking ahead even more important. When we traveled to Spain and Portugal, we took my mom which made us a party of five. In this situation, Airbnb and HomeAway became a more economical way to book rooms. We had great luck with the places we chose although some of the owners did not speak English. This didn't present a problem other than me wishing I spoke another language! We only picked places that had a fair number of positive reviews.
If you find yourself using reviews to help make travel decisions, don't forget to write some of your own either during or after your trip!
There's something exciting about emailing a hotel in Europe and waking up the next morning with a response. It is gratifying to research a hotel, decide it's "the one", and get the email that confirms your upcoming stay. I still reconfirm my stays a couple of weeks before the trip just in case.
Travel blogs and forums
I often use TripAdvisor, Fodors, and Rick Steves forums to see current conversations, questions, itineraries, and advice about the region I am researching. Sometimes I will look up food blogs or family blogs to see what locals are doing in their own city. Searching for something like "Athens family blog" or "Athens food blog" or "kids in Greece" will turn up many pages. Be prepared to go down the Internet black hole. Copy and paste things of interest into a document that you can edit and research later.
Customize your own travel guide
Once my accommodations are booked, I create a quick document for each location where I will be staying. The document will have a summary of the attractions that I might want to see. The list is always longer than what is practical. I find it helpful to offer my family a few options depending on our mood and level of energy. It is nice having a single piece of paper with an outline of your time in a city or region. I usually separate the document into attractions, restaurants (I list a few, most we will find while traveling. I have found it is good to have a couple restaurants researched in case people get hungry and I need to act quickly!), neighborhoods to explore, local transportation tips, and accommodation information. This document has to make sense to you and should be a simple outline. Often, I will notate page numbers in a guide book to reference for more detailed information.
On every trip I have taken abroad over the last twenty years, staying connected has become easier. Prepaid calling cards, Internet cafes, pay phones, and paper maps are all a thing of the past. It really is worth springing for data coverage on your smartphone. Using maps, TripAdvisor, and instant messenging makes your travel time more efficient and meaningful. Saying that, I still like to put the phone away and wander aimlessly. It is comforting to know that your phone really can help you get home if you get too lost! If you do not have a data package on your phone, bring it anyway as wi-fi is even more available in Europe. Laptops and iPads aren't really needed but we tend to travel with a couple for work that might arise, writing this blog, managing photographs, watching a show, or reading a book.
There are so many great resources on how to pack for a trip. I really do not have much to add except to stress PACK LIGHTLY! If you are going to Europe, everything you need is available there and you might enjoy shopping for a new dress or a pair of special sandals. It is pretty easy to do your own laundry or have it done. I do recommend bringing a few Ziploc bags, rubber bands, reusable shopping bags, a small duffel bag that you might fill to bring home, and a travel beach towel (They are awesome! They roll up very small and are great even as a blanket in a pinch).
There's Always More...
As we prepare for our summer trip, I am sure I will remember other preparation ideas and tips. I will be sure to update this entry with any bright ideas I may have forgotten.
But for now, happy trip planning! I hope it brings you as much joy as it does for me. Dream big and be creative!