Sunday, November 8, 2009
Trip Planning 101
If there is one thing these past two years of travel have taught me, it's how to efficiently plan a trip. It seems that Gabriel and I have become masters of trip planning. We both subscribe to different methods of the planning process: I'm the frugal, weigh-all-the-options, read-all-the-reviews, buy-all-the-guidebooks type of planner, while Gabriel is more of a last minute, lets-get-it-done-and-over-with type of planner. Despite our differences, Gabriel and I have managed to make planning a trip a relatively seamless and hassle-free process: I do all the pre-planning work, and Gabriel jumps in at the last minute to make the final decisions! It works, and I wouldn't have it any other way :)
After countless trips, there are a few tips and tricks I've picked up along the way. Now that I'm knee-deep in the planning process for our South America trip, I've decided to share with you all some of what I've learned, and how to make this stage of the trip a bit easier.
Find the cheap flights and book them before all else! Unless you have a very specific destination in mind, finding cheap flights is a great starting point to planning a trip. The best travel deals usually appear roughly 2 weeks before departure. This is when seats are the cheapest, and you are still able to plan sufficiently for your vacation.
Book flights directly via the airline. We like to use Expedia, Travelocity, and other search engines to find cheap flights. However, we use them only as a starting point. After finding which airlines offer deals, we then click on over to the airline's websites and book via them. This cuts down on a lot of the hassle, and you can sometimes get an even cheaper deal (since they don't charge the booking fee that some intermediary websites do!)
When booking your flight, always look on Seat Guru for the best seats. Seat Guru allows you to find the specific plane on the airline you are traveling with, and details each and every seat. It shows its advantages (like extra leg-room) and disadvantages (like inability to recline seats). It has been such a helpful tool, especially for long flights where you want the best seat possible.
After the flights are booked, begin looking on Trip Advisor for hotels. Trip Advisor is, quite possibly, the best invention for travelers! If you don't already know about it, Trip Advisor allows regular people to submit reviews of their hotels. Here you will see detailed photographs of the rooms and facilities, and read blatantly honest reviews from real travelers! Sometimes there is such a disparity between what a hotel's website shows, and what the reality of it is. We don't book a hotel unless it has favorable Trip Advisor ratings, and we have yet to run into any major hotel mess-ups. If it's not Trip Advisor approved, we don't stay there! After finding a favorably rated hotel, we then go directly to the hotel's website and book via them (no third-party booking fees, and less mix-ups at the front desk when you arrive!)
Guidebooks can be your best, and worst, friend. I love travel guidebooks. I find them inspiring, beautiful, and fun to read. However, they can also steer you to places you would otherwise have opted out of, and may just detail the obvious. In the Netherlands, I relied upon my Lonely Planet guidebook to show me lesser-known places of interest. However, while traveling to Mallorca, I found that the guidebook wasn't filled with useful information. Instead, it heavily detailed vacations for children, and popular tourist spots. If you are looking for something off the beaten path, the best guidebooks are still, in my opinion, the Lonely Planet series.
Plan out some, but not all, of your trip ahead of time. There have been times where I have planned our trips to a tee, and other times when I completely had no idea what we were in for. I find that a happy medium between both of these extremes makes for the best trip. Knowing a bit of the history of where you are visiting makes the experience much more enriching and engaging. However, leaving room to explore and take in the sights as you experience them can often lead to unexpected and memorable moments!
Opt out of 'breakfast and dinner included' while traveling throughout Europe. We've found, in general, that it is often cheaper and more authentic to find food in the European countries you are visiting, rather than eating a pre-set breakfast and dinner buffet that is three times as expensive. The first time we were in Spain, we opted for the meals-included package. Bad move. The food was so horrible, and we had paid so much extra for it, that we felt obligated to eat their stale bread and mushy paella. The second time we returned to Spain, we opted out of this package, and ate all of our breakfasts at traditional Spanish cafeterias, and dinner at gorgeous tapas and seafood restaurants. Our wallets, and bellies, thanked us in the end!
These are just a few of our trip-planning tips. Of course every trip is different, and every one needs its own method of research and organizing. However, these are the seven basic tricks that we use every time, and definitely make for an easier planning process!
What are some of your tried-and-true tips for vacation planning?