I was 16 years old when I first crossed the Atlantic. Headed to Florence, Italy, I visited my sister studying abroad there.
It was marvelous. My sister planned my entire time, as she’d been there for the past few months. She toured my dad and I around with ease, relaying the knowledge that she’d learned to us – with exciting personal snippets added in (“This is The David, notice how his feet and hands are disproportionate, this was to account for the fact that he’d be displayed up high, so it’d actually look normal to passerby. Oh, I also got my camera confiscated for taking a picture on my first trip here – oops!”).
The trip was undeniably easy, all I had to do was sit back, relax, and let my sister do the talking, the booking, the thinking.
When I flew across the Atlantic the second time, it was on a flight that I’d booked to cities that I’d picked to check off the itinerary that I’d planned. And it was hard. But as the years went on and I couldn’t shake the travel bug, I learned to develop a sort of checklist for considerations to take when planning a trip that I’ve never taken before.
Set a Budget (Then Stick to It)
Determining your budget is perhaps one of the most overlooked essentials of vacation planning – months before you even go. I usually decide my destination based on what I’m able to spend. I’ll set aside a chunk of change to spend and then divvy it up based on what I’m willing to splurge on and what I’ll look to save on. By the time I’m through with my budget, I’ve got it planned on a day-by-day basis, making sure that there is always a bit of extra cash for days when I’ll inevitably go over budget.
Save or Splurge?
Though it’s all up to individual tastes and budgets, I generally try to save on accommodations, most meals, and activities (opting for free walking tours, hanging out in parks, taking a hike). Meanwhile, I’m willing to splurge on a couple meals, a true I-can-only-do-this-here experience, and something I’ve dreamt of doing my entire life (like climbing the Eiffel Tower, going to the ballet, seeing an opera).
Pick a Time and a Place – Then Set a Fare Alert
Now that I know what I can spend, I’ll choose a destination where I can easily accommodate my budget. Once I determine where and when I want to go, I’ll set up a fare alert for those dates, so that I know when the fare is dropping or rising. I come up with an “if it gets to this price, I’ll book” price and stick to it. Two of our favorites are www.kayak.com or www.airfarewatchdog.com.
A good way to see expensive cities such as London, Stockholm, or Geneva on a tight budget is to consider the timing of a trip. If I travel in the off-season (autumn through spring, excepting holidays), the prices for airfares, accommodations, and activities take a dive. Though I must weigh the pros and cons – off-season weather is usually not as easy and there may not be as many activities catered specifically to tourists.
Organize Your Important Documents
After deciding my destination, I make sure that I have the necessary items to get there. Will I need a visa? (You can Google each country’s requirements.) Is my passport up to date? (Many countries require at least 6 months and several blank pages to enter.) Have I emailed myself copies of important documents in case I lose them? (This is a safe trick—make the subject line something different to misdirect any thieves who may access your accounts.)
Then there are other considerations to make, such as notifying my bank and credit card accounts to let them know I’ll be abroad, as well as deciding whether purchasing an international cell phone plan is worth it — or simply purchasing an in-country sim card to avoid roaming fees.
Some US banks have sister banks in EU countries. It’s worth it to see if yours does. Why? Because they won’t charge a fee to withdraw money from a sister bank’s ATM (one of the easiest — and most affordable methods to obtain local currency — but only use ATMs located at a bank branch, not free-standing machines). Worth it!
Create a Skeleton Itinerary
I make a list of personal must-sees in the cities I plan to visit – without planning each day out. Once I get a lay of a land, I pair the nearby sights together and tackle must-sees on a geographic basis.
Intricately planning each day, much like setting a too-strict budget, only sets up possible disappointment. Though I used to do this (I’m too Type-A to not have tried…), I found that I was much more concerned with getting to everything that I booked on time rather than actually, you know, seeing the thing that I was there to see.
Allow For Fate’s Spontaneous Touch
The key ingredient to any successful trip is Fate – with a capital “F.” No matter how well I plan (and plan and plan), things will always inevitably go awry. The best trips roll with the punches instead of rolling into a fetal position and throwing a pity party. One time, the airlines canceled my flight out of Berlin until the next day! What did I do? I called the airline, convinced them to pay for a hotel and refund my flight, and then I enjoyed a beautiful bright day in the city that had been grey and dour for my entire weeklong stay. It was my best 24-hours in Berlin, and it wouldn’t have been possible without a keen wink from Fate.