This post was most recently updated on June 20th, 2023
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!
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!