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Planning a trip can be fun but for some it’s very overwhelming. Maybe you’re not sure where to start when it comes to planning a trip or where to find the best deals. You want to go somewhere but as you’re trying to figure out all the logistics of air, accommodations, transportation, and packing, you start to get stressed. Some people assume it’s just too expensive to visit a foreign country so they never even try. And yes, it can be expensive but there are plenty of ways to keep costs down. While some people probably hate planning trips, I actually enjoy it. Keep reading for my 12 steps to planning a trip.

12 steps to planning a trip - silhouette of city icons around the world

My trip planning process is pretty lengthy. It’s so much more than just picking a place to go and booking the flight and hotel. Those are important details but there is a lot you can do before that to help make the process easier. And after you’ve booked that trip there’s still some work to be done.

If you find it difficult or you’re not exactly sure how to plan a trip, keep reading. Below is how I decide where to go and all the steps to planning a trip that I take before actually leaving for my trip. It might seem like a lot of work but as you start to go through the process you’ll find that it makes the planning so much easier and much less stressful. Once you see your plans and research on paper, you’ll get more excited for your trip as it gets close.

Steps to Planning a Trip

Step 1: Before you book your trip

The first step in planning a trip is to figure out where you want to go. We all have bucket list items but trying to figure out the best time to go and what’s a good deal isn’t always easy. Sign up for newsletters. I belong to a few email lists that send out deals several times a week. This means that I don’t always have to be looking for the deals, the deals come to me. Some sites sites I’ve signed up for and have used are Groupon Getaways, Sherman’s Travels, and Airfare Watchdog.

I’m also on all the major Airlines list as well. Many times there are last minute deals (likely an airline didn’t fill the flight) but there’s also plenty of deals that can be taken up to a year away. Even if you’re not planning a trip right now it’s a good idea to get on these lists because it gives you an idea of how inexpensive, or expensive, flights to places you are thinking about visiting are. That way when a good deal comes your way you’ll know it.

Photo of someone holding a globe planning a trip

Step 2: Budget

We all have a budget. Some low, some high. If you know you want to take a big trip within the next year, decide what you’re willing to spend. Keep in mind that besides airfare and hotels, you’ll need to eat every day, pay for activities, shopping, airport transfers, and souvenirs.

Let’s say you’re planning a trip and your budget is $1000 (just to keep this simple). I normally plan on spending 30% on airfare ($300), 35% on hotel ($350), and the other $350 on food , activities, and shopping. Of course those amounts are always flexible but that’s just a rough idea of what I aim for.

*the 30% airfare / 35% hotel isn’t set in stone. There are some places where hotel costs are significantly lower, such as Peru.  My airfare to Peru was $700 RT but our hotels averaged $35 a night.

Another part of budget planning depends on when you plan on going. If you want to go to Europe in July, expect prices on everything to be much higher. The more crowded a place will be, the more hotels and airfare will cost. On the other hand, if you want to go to Europe in February you can probably find a really good deal. So take that into consideration when you’re planning a trip.

Also, sometimes a deal might seem too good to be true. For example, the deal below showed up in my email. A roundtrip flight to Iceland on Delta for $272. Sounds like a great deal! However, a closer look at the dates show that that price is for travel between January 7th – March 31st. A little research will show you that the amount of daylight Iceland receives in January-March is between 4.5 hrs – 13.5 hrs. Without even clicking the link I suspect the best “deal” of $272 is for early January and rises from there. 4.5 hours of daylight doesn’t allow you to see a whole lot so it might not be worth booking.

Iceland deal on flight

Step 3: Pre-Trip Details

Step 3 of my 12 steps to planning a trip is to check your passport. Before booking any trip always check your expiration date on your passport if traveling abroad. Many countries have rules about having at least 6 months left on your passport past the date you leave their country. Also, make sure you check the visa requirements of that country as well as recommended immunizations. 

Decide how much time you want to take for your vacation. Most of us are limited by the vacation days we have available from work. We spent 8 days in Morocco and saw a lot but we could have easily spent 3 weeks in Morocco and probably still wouldn’t have seen it all. 

Step 4: Booking the trip

So I’ve signed up for some email lists and have decided on what my budget is. I see something in an email that looks like a pretty good deal on a flight. Next, I’ll go research the costs through some of my favorite airfare booking sites such as Google Flights or Kayak to see if it really is a good deal or the standard going rate for those dates. Sometimes I can find better deals on my own. 

I’ll also check out hotel prices from a few hotel sites such as to make sure there’s something I can afford during those dates. I don’t worry too much about food, activities, and shopping because those are pretty flexible. If the airfare and hotel fall within my 30% and 35% budget then I should be good. Keep in mind that the email deals will sometimes include the airfare, hotel, transfers, and maybe some activities. 

Once I’ve researched the dates and pricing, I’ll either book through the email deal or if I found better prices I’ll book the deal on my own. Also, we do pay for airfare with miles/points as well. We have a lot of air miles (over 900,000) and we like to use them for long-haul flights in business class. Nothing better than being able to lay down on a 14 hour flight! For shorter flights we usually just pay for it.

You can read about getting started with air miles in my Beginners Guide to Earning Points for Travel.

Step 5: Research

This is where the real fun begins! Figuring out what you’re going to do and see is the best part about planning a trip! Another great benefit to receiving these emails is that if it’s an all inclusive trip (airfare & hotel) the trips will come with an itinerary of what you will do each day or at least suggestions. The great thing about that is it helps you figure out what the popular things are at that location and many times there’s something to see that you weren’t aware of. Even if you don’t book through the email deal, if an itinerary is included it’s a good place to start.

I’ll then do a search on Pinterest. There’s so much information there and it’s probably the best place to figure out what there is to do/see on your trip. Next, I google “things to do in Iceland”. Thousands of sites will come up including blogs, travel companies, and maybe even the local travel bureau of that location. Instagram is another great place to look. Just search a hashtag (#iceland) and you’ll see a lot of great inspiration of things to do in that country.

Step 6: The Itinerary

This is my favorite part of trip planning, the itinerary. I write down everything that interests me in a word document. I even take note of what time those places open and close, if there’s a particular day of the week they’re not open, and if there are any major events happening on the days I’m going to be there that might interfere with seeing that site.

Next, I open a word document and write down the days I will be there. I also google a map of the location to see where these places are. I then start filling in my days with the things on my list and I try to group things in close proximity on the same day. That way I don’t spend all my time going back and forth in the city to do things.

I usually aim for 2-4 things to do/see per day. One major sight and then several smaller sights per day. I try to do the major sight first thing in the morning. I’ll look up when it opens and I get there right before. It’s usually less busy at that time and that way you don’t have to rush to see everything.  

Step 7: Advance Booking

If I find something I want to do, I’ll go ahead and book it in advance online. I don’t want to get there and have it already be booked up. A lot of cities have discount cards, such as The London Pass, that you can purchase for tourist activies. This is a huge savings rather than buying each entrance separately. Plus, it saves time not having to stand in line to buy a ticket.

If I’m going to a big city, I’ll look up what kind of transportation they have there. Subways are my favorite way to get around in a big city. It’s so quick and generally affordable. If the place I’m headed to does have a subway system then there might be a discount when you buy a subway card for multiple days. If I’m going to be using the subway to get around, I’ll also mark on my itinerary which stops to get on and off at the places I want to visit.

Step 8: Cell Service

Does anyone remember when we didn’t have cell phones? It’s so hard to live without them now, even on vacation. Forget the “unplug while you’re on vacation” bit. I’m team cell phone! There’s a lot of different ways to get cell service in another country.  Some people will buy a SIM once they arrive so they can use their phone. I try not to worry too much about full cell service while I’m traveling though. 

Most hotels and restaurants do have WI-FI. When you first get on the plane and put your phone on airplane mode, just keep it there when you arrive. You’ll still be able to still use your wireless service while in airplane mode wherever you are (as long as there’s WI-FI). Just get the password from the hotel or restaurant. 

Another option is to rent a hotspot. These usually run between $7-10 a day. You can reserve them online and pick them up when you arrive. Where you pick them up depends on the company. Sometimes it’s in the airport and sometimes it’ll be waiting for you at your hotel. Other times you have to go to the company’s place of business and pick it up. 

Directions will be included with the hotspot on how to connect to it. Just plug it in every night to charge up and you can carry it with you in your purse or pocket. And of course there’s always the option of the international plan with your cell phone company. We have Verizon and it’s $10 a day (per phone). A little more expensive than the hotspot but it is convenient.

Step 9: Research the details

Money:  Another country, another currency. It’s a good idea to become familiar with the local currency. I always look up the exchange rate and figure out how much of the local currency equates to my currency (dollars) so I know how much things really cost when I’m there. 

You’ll also want to give your credit card company and bank notification of your travel plans. If you’re going to be using a debit or credit card, they need to know. You do not want to get to another country and find out your card has blocked your transaction. Also, there’s really no need to take out a lot of cash before going. If you need cash, just use the local ATM and get the local currency

Food:  It’s good to become familiar with popular foods in the area. If you have a special diet (Celiac, vegetarian, vegan, etc…) you’ll know what you can and can’t eat before you get there. 
*side note: I always bring a few things from home to snack on such as granola bars or trail mix.

Step 10: Packing

Does anyone else stress about what they’re going to wear on vacation or is it just me? Knowing I’m going to be in pictures makes me think more about what I’m going to wear! Of course I usually end up bringing the same things I wear all the time. I have a closet full of clothes and I tend to be pretty boring and just wear my favorites. HA! Luckily my wardrobe is pretty neutral (lots of blacks and grays) so I can easily mix and match and pack less. I’m always trying to find ways to pack less.

Make sure you check the weather right before you leave and pack accordingly. If it’s going to be cold (Hello Iceland!), instead of bringing big bulky sweaters try bringing things that you can layer. The last time I was there the mornings started out really cold but by lunch time we were shedding the coats and sweatshirts. Hiking will warm you up real quick!

Step 11: Carry-on

When it comes to packing a carry-on bag the most important things to remember are your identification (Passport if flying international), your travel documents including your flight info, accommodations, and transportation when you arrive. I also put all my camera gear and electronics in my carry on bag. Everything else just depends on your own needs.

Step 12: Time to go!

The final step of planning a trip is going! Set the alarm, or several if you’re like me and have severe anxiety about missing the flight…it’s happened and it sucked! Get to the airport early, and have fun!

Have a question about planning a trip that I didn’t answer?  Comment below and I’ll do my best to answer!  If you found this guide useful please share it on Pinterest by clicking the Pin It button on the image below.

Airplane and map with words "12 steps to planning a trip"

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