This post was most recently updated on February 8th, 2022
Is it an overwhelming task to plan a trip? Does it cause you stress to think about booking flights and hotels, or to figure out an itinerary? Read this short tutorial on how to plan a trip. And use my free printable trip-planning checklist to make it easier!
You can plan a trip a lot easier if you break it down into simple tasks. The process of making reservations, booking tickets, and preparing to leave, lends itself well to a series of tasks in a specific order. Since I am in the process of planning a trip to France next year, I’ll share with you what I am doing.
1. Choose a destination & date
Seems obvious, I know. But sometimes it takes a while to narrow down your options. And if you’re traveling with others, there may be some coordination (or compromising) to do before you can decide where you’re going. My destination is France. Mostly southern France, but we’ll definitely go to Paris, too. I don’t need to figure out all the details yet. Just enough to know which airports I want to travel to, so I can book my plane tickets. You’ll need to know WHEN you can go, but if you can be a little flexible, you’ll be able to land the best price for plane fare. And if you don’t quite have all the funds you need for this trip yet, be sure to read my post about saving and earning money for travel.
2. Book Your Plane Tickets
Most airlines won’t allow you to book your flights more than 330 days in advance. That’s about 11 months ahead. If you’re using airline reward miles to book your flight, you’re going to want to do this as soon as the airlines will let you! I happen to be traveling with my son and his wife, who are buying their tickets, while I am using reward miles. This takes a little extra coordination. If we want to fly together, they buy their tickets first, and then I try to get reward miles on the same flights…or as close as possible. We’re doing ‘Open Jaw’ travel, which means we fly into one airport and out of another (in this case, we’re flying into Toulouse and out of Paris). It allows us to cover more territory in France without backtracking for the trip home. I’ll use United Airlines, because that’s who I have reward miles with. But you may want to use Kayak or Skyscanner to do a price comparison and find the cheapest tickets for the route you want.
Once your tickets are booked, you should apply for your passport if you need one. Did you know you can get a passport at your neighborhood post office? Just make an appointment–it’s so easy!
3. Create a day-to-day itinerary
We’re still not talking major details yet. This is just a list of which city you will be in each day of your trip. This allows you to determine what modes of transportation you will need and where your lodging will be each night.
4. Book lodging & other transportation
This should be done 3 to 6 months in advance, especially for international travel. We’ll be using hotels in some cities and apartments in others. One of my favorites for booking hotels is Booking.com. With Booking.com, you rarely need to pay in advance AND they often throw in some extras, like breakfast! My go-to for reserving apartments or vacation rentals is Vrbo or Airbnb and I’ve good experiences with them. Be sure to read the reviews so you know what you’re getting. It is much cheaper to use an apartment when you can (usually for a minimum of three days in one location) since you can cook your own meals and split costs with another couple.
We’d like to take the ferry to Corsica on our trip. We’ll sail overnight and use rooms with beds, so we won’t need a hotel on sailing nights. That’s a great way to save time–sleeping while you travel! We’ll also take a high-speed train to Paris. Tickets for transportation like this (ferries and trains) are best purchased in advance. A great resource for booking ferry, bus, car or train tickets is Bookaway.
At 2 to 4 months out, you should reserve your rental car if you’re using one. Be sure to find out if there’s an extra charge for leaving it in a location other than where you pick it up–that will help you in planning your itinerary and budget. I’ve used Budget and Hertz with great success in Europe. But Sixt also has great rates! Rick Steves has written a great article on car rentals in Europe, if you’d like more information.
International Driving Permit
If you’ll be driving in another country, be sure to get an International Driving Permit about one month ahead. I get mine at the local AAA office, and they cost about $15.00. You can’t get one more than 6 months from the effective date. It is only valid if accompanied by your valid U.S. driver’s license.
There’s hardly any excuse for getting lost these days due to the wonderful technology of GPS. (Maybe that’s kind of sad, because every trip should have an “I got lost and discovered someting great!” story).
Most cell phones now have GPS maps, but if you don’t want to worry about using data, a GPS unit is a great option. We own a GPS with lifetime maps we can take with us wherever we go. We even used it walking around the medieval city of Toledo in Spain. I was amazed that it knew the intricate alleys and cobblestone roads of an ancient city! (Okay I have to admit we used the GPS to find the McDonalds, so we could use the free wi-fi and the restrooms!). Anyway, be sure to update your maps before going on your trip!
5. Choose your cell phone coverage
Decide what you’re going to use for communications. Sometimes, vacation is all about cutting yourself off from the world and enjoying a break from media. But I still like to have a way to communicate, and I don’t want to rack up huge international phone charges. We’ve purchased inexpensive cell phones with prepaid time, and we’ve rented cell phones. We’ve also purchased foreign sim cards for our phone. The cheapest? Renting a phone. We used Cellomobile when we went to Germany. They mailed a German cell phone to us a few days before our departure, but didn’t start charging us for its use till we arrived in Germany. After our trip, we just mailed it back in a provided pouch. We can rent a phone for France for only 24.99/week plus .18 for outgoing phone calls, .15 for outgoing texts, and .06 for mobile to mobile calls. A smart phone with unlimited texts, data, and calls is about $105/week.
6. Work on itinerary details
In my opinion, this is the best part — deciding what you will do each day! My favorite resource for ideas is the Top Ten lists of Things to Do in each city, found on Tripadvisor. You will find reader-rated attractions and sights for every location you can think of. With reviews from normal people like you and me. And you’ll know exactly what to expect! On Trip Advisor’s Travel Forums, you can also connect with people who live all over the world and will answer your questions about the places you’ll be traveling to. Once I wanted to plan a trip to Athens that included a visit to church on Sunday. We had the address of the church, but no GPS could pinpoint it for us. So we asked about it on the TripAdvisor Athens Forum, and someone who lived there walked to the location and then gave us step by step instructions for finding it! There are so many people out there willing to help.
You can also read guide books–there are so many good ones to choose from. Fodor’s, Rick Steves, Travel Planet, and more! Choose what appeals to you and read. Be sure to dog-ear corners or highlight what is interesting to you. If tickets are required in advance, make your reservations and print out confirmations to take with you.
“Plan a Trip” checklists:
7. Pack your bags and get ready to go!
Finally, you are down to the nitty-gritty details. The first thing I do is make a packing list. My list has headings like this: Electronics (camera, chargers, iPad, cell phone), Toiletries/Meds, Clothing, Confirmations/Reservations, and Other (playing cards, addresses for post cards, flashlight, etc.). Please note: I make my list early but I don’t start packing till the week I’m leaving. That’s just how I roll. I know some people like to get everything packed early. But I’m still laundering my favorite travel clothes and fine-tuning my packing list till right before I go! For ideas on how to pack successfully, read this post. There are also a few preparations you may want to make:
- Figuring out how you’re getting to the airport or where you’re parking your car
- Filling out a vacation hold on your mail
- Picking up some cash for your trip
- Arranging for animal or garden care in your absence
- Confirming reservations (read this post to find out why!)
There’ll be other things you need to do to plan a trip, too. That’s why I’m offering you a complete travel checklist to help you remember everything. So simple! There’s even a specific checklist for every kind of trip. Just click here for the free printable you want:
I hope you’ll feel more comfortable now that you know how to plan a trip from beginning to end. And if you have any tips to share, or questions to ask, please leave a comment for me below…
Feel free to share these tips with others, too!
Wow. I’ve never heard of booking.com prior to reading this post. I’ll have to check it out the next time I plan to stay in a hotel. ☺
Thanks, Tami. You have a wealth of information and much of it is very helpful to us as we plan our trip for next summer. Our Rhine River cruise will either start or end in Basel, Switzerland and we want to spend a few extra days there. Any info you have for Switzerland would be much appreciated.
Generia, I haven’t yet been to Switzerland, but it’s definitely on my bucket list. Here’s the link for top attractions in Basel on TripAdvisor: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g188049-Activities-Basel.html
The list starts at the #1 attraction in Basel and works its way down. Click on each one for photos and reviews. It looks like Basel is pretty famous for its museums and the Basel Munster (a medieval Catholic Cathedral). TripAdvisor also has a list of all the hotels in Basel, in order of reviewers’ ratings, at http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotels-g188049-Basel-Hotels.html Another great source of information are YouTube videos about Basel. Here’s one with a quick overview of Basel… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzZiCpThU9A I hope you enjoy your trip–wish I could tag along!
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I am all for some planning but too much planning leads to no room for surprises. Also, for lots of locations, it doesn’t necessarily pay off to plan too far ahead. In lots of countries in Asia and Africa plane or travel ticket prices don’t change depending on how far in advance you book.
Good things to keep in mind, Heather!
Your tips are so well organized. There is a lot to planning trips but staying organized and on schedule really makes it less stressful. Like you, we like to have a plan, but still leave room for flexibility and discovery.
This checklist is really great! I like to do some preliminary research on things to do at my destination, so I can see how much time I need there and also if certain attractions/tours are only available at certain days.
Thanks for sharing!
You make it sound so darn easy – and I guess it is if you break it down into steps. For us the biggest hurdle is finding house and pet sitters.
Wow, thank you for those great checklists. I am terrible at organizing, and these will make my trips so much easier.
This is what I mostly follow. And going through your article is giving me a confidence..I am thinking like a traveler 🙂 Only one thing I might do differently, detail out my itinerary a little earlier. Because at times, when detailing out the itinerary, I realize that the time allocated to the place might not be enough but I can’t change it if I am going to do it at last
You make a good point for planning the itinerary sooner!
Great tips for newbie travelers! 🙂
Thanks for sharing, Tami. International drivers permit is something to remember. You need to apply in advance but not too early or it’s invalid.
Good thing to remember–thanks for the reminder!
We too do plan our trip in great detail. Of course we leave a little bit open to keep the surprise element alive. Once the flight tickets are booked, we then work on the detailed itinerary. Your guide to planning a trip is really detailed and meticulous and helpful to ensure that nothing is left to chance
Great tips! We used to use a portable Garmin GPS that had Europe maps loaded, but have since found that we have more accurate results using the Waze app.
I’m curious about the Waze app now. I’ll have to look into that…
I’ll also add that sometimes (for Delta) they offer discounted reward flights. So for example, to fly from the states to Europe is usually 60,000 miles but I just snagged a discounted reward flight for 55,000 miles. These sales are random but can help you stretch your miles!
Great catch, Danielle! I was really blessed to grab saver award seats on a flight for Easter Sunday (at the last minute). If I’d had to buy the ticket, it would have cost a fortune!
I love the checklists. It’s good to take a complicated task, like planning a trip, and break it down into manageable steps. Our checklist looks different and that defines us as travelers. We pick an activity first which then leads us to a destination and time of year.
This is a nice checklist, we don’t travel like this, it’s definitely more last minute, which makes it challenging and leads you places you might not have otherwise considered 😉 but if you are traveling in a group and have must-see places, I agree pre-planning is a must!
These checklists are so nice and organized! I definitely have a tried and true method for planning trips, and I find that most of my friends who are interested in travel have no idea where to start. For me, when you have a time limit on your trip, organization is key! I make spreadsheets and everything! Fitting in as much as you can into your time is crucial! These checklists are definitely helpful to getting the most out of your time.
I always enjoy planning for my own trips and find your tips super useful. I love your little infographic too. So handy and concise!
Totally with you on the list making aspect Tami! What a coincidence – we too visited South of France this July (Provence to be specific). Have used an open jaw ticket in the past too 🙂 – did you know that you can book internal flights within Europe on the same booking, free of cost? For phones, we have T-Mobile which has coverage in several international countries. Pinning your post for the domestic / international lists. – Supriya
Link for Domestic Road Trip Checklist seems to be broken.
Thanks for letting me know. I’ll check on that right away.
These are really great tips! I always forget to plan for my cell coverage and have to figure it out last second in a panic!
It definitely saves money, too, if you get your cell coverage worked out beforehand!
I am planning a family road trip currently so this was helpful. I need to figure all of this out.
Thanks for explaining how you should book lodging for trips 3-6 months beforehand. My two sisters and I are hoping to plan a trip together in the spring. We want to stay in a cabin, so we’ll book the rental this week.