Planning an international trip can be overwhelming. I suggest breaking it down into separate steps to make it seem like less of a daunting task. If you start out with the big picture in step 1 (simply choosing a destination and approximate length of trip), then you can define your trip more and more over time. Step 5 is where you’ll get into the details, and what that looks like will depend a lot on your personality. For example, I prefer to have an idea of things I may want to do in each location, but not to have anything set in stone until I get there. Others will be a lot more meticulous in that step and plan out each day. Either way, these 5 steps should work for you.
Remember that this isn’t the only way to plan a trip. You can go out of order (really, if you do Step 1 first and Step 5 last, the others can be mixed up a little bit or done simultaneously). This is just my suggestion for when you’re feeling like planning is going to overwhelm you. I’ll give examples at each step from my recent trip to Europe, so you can see exactly what you should do at that point.
1. Decide where (approximately) you want to go and for how long.
This is the big one. Where are you going to go? How long do you have to spend there? You might just be going to one place, or you may plan to visit several cities in one trip. If you’re not staying put, you don’t have to figure out the exact details of how long you’ll be in each place yet; just have a general idea.
We decided to go to Europe for 1-2 weeks. Everyone would go to Italy for the first week, then just the girls would go to Paris and London for the second week. Keep in mind that what I explain over the next couple of paragraphs took us months! (It can be done faster though!)
We really wanted to go to Rome because most of us had never been to Italy before, so we felt like we had to see it. We also really wanted to go somewhere near a beach because a beach being nearby was part of convincing one of our group members to go to Europe instead of Florida (you can guess who). At first, we thought about going to the island of Sardenia, but then we found the tiny, rural town of Perdifumo through a friend and changed our plan. The last part was the hard part. At first, we planned to go to Florence. Then we realized we really wanted to see Venice. I thought going to four cities within one week was going to put us on the road too much (actually, three did, too), so we decided we had to make a choice and we chose Venice.
Mom had wanted to go to London for a long time. I had been there two years before and was willing to go back, but didn’t want to spend a ton of time there. We decided Paris is somewhat in between Italy and London, so we’d stop there.
2. Book flights.
This doesn’t necessarily have to be done right away because if you book too far out, you may overpay. However, booking your flights shouldn’t be left until the last minute because you’ll almost always pay more that way, too. I suggest doing one of two things here: Either decide approximately which flights you want to take and then wait for prices to go down (even when paying with points because you’ll use less points that way) or if your destination is really open, just watch for flight deals that you may be interested in and do step 1 after step 2.
For our Europe trip, we chose our dates early because we had to work with several people’s work schedules, then we watched the prices. If you can be a little more flexible, you may be able to pay less on flights, but that’s tricky when you’re traveling in a group. When flights seemed to be at their lowest, we went ahead and booked.
3. Book accommodations.
Next is booking accommodations. Now that you’ve decided approximately where you want to go, you should book your accommodations, especially if you’re going somewhere really popular with tourists. I’ve missed out on booking places several times because I had basically decided but procrastinated actually committing. Once you know where you’re going, just go ahead and book it.
The next step is going to be deciding what you want to do in each of the locations you plan to visit. You may want to do that simultaneously with this step because it will affect how long you stay in each place.
We started planning our summer Europe trip probably close to a year before. You can definitely plan a trip faster than that, but because of work schedules, the group was confined to summer travel. That fall, we casually discussed where we might want to go and what we might want to do there. We eventually figured out dates for each city we were visiting. Then, in December, Mom and I took a weekend to Christmas shop and book accommodations. We spent tons of time looking up places online, then went ahead and booked everything.
4. Figure out a basic itinerary.
After you’ve booked the big stuff like accommodation and transportation to the country, you can start planning out the rest. I break this part down into two steps because I think it simplifies things to continue working from the big picture down into the smaller details.
For step four, you should look at where all you’ve decided to go and think about what you want to do there. Research the places you’re visiting and make a list or have an idea of what’s important to everyone. Don’t worry about booking specific things yet; just start looking into your destinations in more detail.
We thought about each of the cities we were going to visit then started a shared Google Doc. We listed out each of our cities and dates, then over time, we each added details below each city. When we found something we wanted to do, we’d add it to the list. This turned out to be a great resource that we all referenced a lot, even while on the trip. It really helped us get organized.
5. Work out the details.
This is the part where you get specific, which is why I save it for last. There are several things to consider here, including: How will we travel? This includes locally and from location to location (rent a car, take public transportation, etc.). Don’t forget to figure out how to get from the airport to your accommodation. What attractions do you need to book tickets for? How long will things probably take (a day? half of a day? a couple of hours?)?
At this point, you can start reading tips about wherever you’re going if you haven’t yet. Since this post is aimed at international travel, I suggest that you read about some basic customs. I also suggest learning at least a few basic words in the language, so that you’re not that obnoxious traveler who just expects everyone to speak English.
For transportation, we decided to only rent a car for Perdifumo and take public transportation the rest of the time. Perdifumo wasn’t accessible by public transportation, so renting a car was necessary. It can be a nightmare to try to drive a rental car in an international city that you’re unfamiliar with, plus once you leave the United States, public transportation is often very good, so I suggest taking it when you’re in urban areas. We took trains from city to city other than from Venice to Paris, when we took a quick flight.
On this particular trip, we were hitting some of the most touristy cities in the world. Because of that, we had to book a lot of things ahead of time. In my Versailles post, I talked about the insane lines to buy tickets, which we got to skip! The same thing happened at the Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower.
We didn’t have every day planned out, but we had tickets to attractions we knew we wanted to visit, and we had lists of ideas for the rest of the time. This is how I suggest going about a trip because planning out every hour is overkill and often makes you miss things you would have come across more naturally.
What do you think? Is this how you plan a trip? Do you feel like breaking it down this way makes things a little less overwhelming?
And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.Randy Komisar