Occasionally I’m asked how I go about planning and researching trips. Okay, once. I was asked once. But that question was asked. “How do you plan your trips?” And it’s an excellent question. Especially when multiple locations, accommodations and getting from A to B is involved. I’m not going to turn this into a step-by-step guide because there are others out there who do this better than I could, but this is my quick guide to travel planning.
*This guide to travel planning focuses primarily on independent travel rather than through travel agents or tour companies, but most of the principles are still relevant 😀*
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Mr Fletche and I have a very long travel wishlist, so often we’ll pencil in ideas years in advance. Some years are all about maximising our annual leave time with short-haul European trips. Other years are built around a long haul destination, with shorter, cheaper trips either side.
We’ve got a country. Great! But a country is a big place. This is where reading travel blogs comes in handy. Google where you want to go, stick “travel blog” or “itinerary” after the name and then spend hours reading about where other people have been, what they recommend – and what they don’t. I always have Google maps open so I can see where places are in relation to each other, and whether it would be feasible to visit multiple locations in one trip.
We’re lucky because we don’t have to work around school holidays, so we’ll often choose to go away in June or September. This works well for Europe – an all year round destination as long as you do a bit of research regarding temperatures and climate. If you want to go a bit further afield, make sure you take into account rainy/hurricane seasons – although if you’re willing to take a bit of a risk you can often get great deals. We’ve visited Dominican Republic and Kenya right on the edge of the rainy season and had great weather on the whole!
If we’re planning on flying, Skyscanner is our best friend. Pop in dates, preferred departure airport and destination, and it’ll search through multiple airlines to compare and identify the best deals. If you can be flexible on dates, or on departure airport – or even on your destination – then you can play around and find the best options for you. We’re happy to fly from other airports if we get a better deal than from Birmingham. Although always remember to factor in additional costs such as getting to another airport, parking and a potential overnight stay.
Whilst you’re searching for flights, prices have a horrible tendency to rise – as we’ve found from experience. On the other hand, never go back and check prices after you’ve booked. Murphy’s Law guarantees that this is the only time that flight prices will drop.
Of course, flying is not your only option. For France, Belgium or the Netherlands, the Eurostar is a fab option. Or if you live within reasonable distance of a port, how about taking the ferry?
Make sure you consider a wide range of accommodation options. In some places a hotel will be cheaper; in others, an apartment or guesthouse may be a better option. For research we tend to use Booking.com, and often we make our bookings through the site too. Often bookings have a free cancellation policy, which is handy should your plans change.
When using Booking.com to plan where to stay, I search for available accommodation for our dates in the various locations, then filter for maximum price and customer reviews of “very good and above”. Depending on our plans, I may also filter for items like free parking, or breakfast included. I then do a preliminary shortlist of the accommodation I like the look of, based on description and photos.
Comparing the options on Booking.com against TripAdvisor reviews then allows me to build a list of potentials to be handed to Mr Fletche for final decision (usually accompanied by a note from me going “you decide…but I REALLY like this one..”). Don’t rely wholly on TripAdvisor reviews though. Consistently good scores are sufficient for me, and the occasional one star (and five star) reviews are usually taken with a pinch of salt. (No bathrobes and slippers? Squeaky floorboards? Small rooms? We’ve dealt with worse!)
AirBnb is a great option in some places, but make sure you check out local policies first. Letting out accommodation for short-term rental is frowned upon – and even illegal – in many large cities.
We’ve been lucky to do some amazing North America and Europe road trips, and although I’ve mainly planned the destinations, Mr Fletche has been responsible for the finer details of route planning, car hire and indeed the actual physical movement of us from one location to the next. I am still yet to test out my driving skills on foreign land…I am an excellent passenger and navigator though.
If you’re hiring a car, make sure you play with options such as pick-up and drop-off points, particularly if they are not the same location. Often there will be one-way charges incurred if you’re dropping in a different location, and these can be costly. Which means you may have to be flexible and change plans if necessary. Also be generous with drop-off times – it’s preferable to drop your car off earlier than booked than to have to rush to return for an earlier drop-off.
In 2015, we used the train to travel around Northern Italy, and it was so easy…I would definitely recommend! A bit of sensible pre-booking and we even managed to get first class seats from Venice to Florence for cheaper than standard class (including free sparkling wine!). And the train/underground options from major hubs in France, Belgium and Italy mean that using one place as a base to travel is perfectly feasible.
Planning our sightseeing itinerary is one of my favourite things! Those travel blogs get another thorough reading and I put together a list of recommended sights, restaurants and bars from these. I’m also a fan of guide books – even though the internet makes them largely redundant these days, I like to flick through and mark pages. I plot everything on Google Maps so I have a clear idea of what sights are in the same area or direction – and most importantly, where we can stop for coffee, lunch or a sneaky alcoholic drink! I’ve found this planning is vital in large cities…without some sort of day by day plan in San Francisco, Paris or New York we would have been meandering aimlessly.
Because we’ve travelled together for almost 9 years now, we know what we like to do most. Neither of us are that bothered about museums and galleries (although we made an exception for Florence), but we do like churches, towers or buildings with spectacular views, and gardens/parks. Mr Fletche likes early mornings out and about photographing local life; I like afternoons in a cafe or bar with a glass of wine, either reading a book or just people-watching. We both like simple but tasty food, and we’re not averse to trying out the local cuisine; sometimes in a touristy bar or restaurant, sometimes in a small back street place that looks like a tourist has never set foot inside before.
Although it’s nice to wander around experiencing everything anew, I do recommend doing some research before you go, particularly things like opening times, admission fees and menus. In Europe, a lot of public buildings for example are closed on Mondays. Consider contingency plans for bad weather. Check restaurant menus, particularly if you have any special dietary requirements. Consider pre-booking tickets for shows or attractions before you go to save precious holiday time queuing. Book a table well in advance if there is a particular restaurant you may want to eat at (you could even book at a number of places, as long as you are courteous and cancel those you no longer need).
But sometimes the best plans are no plans. We were so tired in Boston that we ended up just sitting in the Public Garden for hours in the sunshine rather than trying to fit more “must-sees” into our last couple of days of our trip. After all, the Freedom Trail is going nowhere…
So that’s how we approach travel planning. It’s not necessarily the right way, or the perfect way, but it’s worked for us so far. A bit of research, a bit of flexibility, and a bit of confidence to try something new is all that’s needed! What are your top planning tips?