One of the most important things about travel is the planning, and fortunately for me it’s something that I really enjoy. I know for some of you, that’s the most tedious part because it can be very time consuming and you may not always know where to start or the best tools to use. It doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Here are the basic steps that I follow for all of my trips.
Where should I go?
There are so many places on my list, sometimes it’s hard to choose. So, it really depends on what’s inspired me, what's at the top of my list or in the case of my upcoming trip to Tanzania, an invitation to visit a few eco-resorts. Travel is different for each of us and your trip may be backpacking, family, volunteer or just some me time. Once you decide, the planning fun begins!
When should I go?
Once I figure out where I want to go, I immediately check to see when’s the best time of year to visit that particular country. Going to Thailand, for example, during the height of the rainy season isn’t for everyone. Yes, it's usually cheaper because it's the "green" season, but this can turn what should be a pleasant break, into a soggy mess. Some resorts even shut down during the rainy season because it’s almost impossible to operate.
The same goes for the heat and the cold, if you’re sensitive to or just don’t like one or the other, it can suck big time if you go during the wrong time of year. Frommer's or Lonely Planet are pretty good resources for figuring out the best time of year to visit any place you might want to go. Also, another place I look is Rough Guides because they have really good information about just about any destination. Another thing to remember is, if you’re heading to a different hemisphere the seasons will be the opposite of your home country.
When I started planning my recent trip to Mafia Island, Tanzania I had to make sure that I checked with the resort about the weather because the height of their rainy season is in April and May. Since I was going at the end of November the rain wouldn't be too bad, even though the rainy season started in October. You can’t pack properly or plan your activities if you don’t know what the weather will be like.
How much is the flight?
Now that I know where I’m going and when, the next thing I do is see how much the flights are. There are a couple of tools that I use for this. The first place I check is Skyscanner. They have a couple of different ways you can search, but since I already know where I’m going by the time I start looking for tickets, I just put in the destination and date. Thing I love about this site is that it compares many different flights to find the best deal. Of course, there’s always Expedia and Travelocity, but the deals that I’ve found on Skyscanner beat both of those sites.
Secret Skyscanner tip. If you’re not quite sure where you want to go, but you know how much you want to spend and when you want to go, you can click on the word “map” just above “cabin class & travelers” on the right side of the page and a map of the world with prices pops up. Such a cool feature!
Where should I stay?
Depending on where I’m going, I’ll stay in a mix of accommodations, from Airbnb to hotel to hostel. Yes, I do stay in hostels. Americans tend to stick to hotels, but hostels aren't just for backpackers. They're sometimes nicer and more affordable than hotels, so I'll stay in hostel in a heartbeat if it makes sense for my budget. For this I use Hostelbookers or Hostel World. The accommodation ultimately depends heavily on the destination, as well as the purpose of the trip. When I look for hotels I look on Expedia or Hotels.com, Skyscanner also has a hotel search function where you can search for the best deals.
If I’m planning a trip to an island or going on safari, I definitely want to stay at resorts or lodges that are smaller, locally owned and have clearly outlined environmental, conservation and social policies. There’s not one good resource for this, so I just do a Google search for “eco-friendly resort or safari” in whatever country I’m traveling to. I avoid staying at big all-inclusive resorts because they tend to be a lot less eco-friendly nor do they necessarily have strong social policies, like paying their employees fair wages.
Do I need a visa?
Always, always, always check to see what the visa requirements are for the country you want to visit. I can't stress this point enough. Sometimes there are no visas required, you just go through customs when you arrive at the airport, get your passport stamped and you’re done, good for 30, 60 or 90 days depending on the country. Sometimes visas are required prior to even boarding your flight and if you don’t have one, you’re not getting on that plane.
Sometimes there are entry and exit fees that need to be paid, there are so many variables and each country's requirements are different. The easiest place to check these requirements is the State Department website. Just click on "travel" at the top of the page and it'll take you to the travel page. You'll see a list of travel documents on the left side, click on "Visas for Entry into Foreign Countries" and it'll take you to the visa page. There are always limits to the amount of time you can spend in a country, so it's pretty important to check.
Do I need shots?
For this next step I’ll use my upcoming trip to Tanzania as an example. I’ve traveled to eastern Africa before (to Kenya), so I knew that I needed to check the CDC’s website to find out if there were any additional vaccinations that I’d need. This obviously won’t apply to all destinations, but in countries where Zika, Malaria or other diseases are present, this is really important. Even smaller issues like getting sick from food can turn into bigger problems if you’re not careful. A travel doctor can recommend up-to-date, country specific vaccinations and prescriptions.
I went to my travel doctor and picked up a prescription for Malaria prevention, as well as anti-diarrhea antibiotics….just in case. Mosquitos and bugs LOVE me, which means that I really have to take the proper precautions to avoid getting bitten and sick. Always check with your doctor to get the most up-to-date information.
Is it safe?
Last, but certainly not least, I always make sure that I register my trip with the State Department’s STEP program. By doing this I get alerts and updates on any political unrest or any emergency situation that may come up in the country that I’m traveling to. No matter where I’m traveling outside of the U.S., I always register my trip. Checking the State Department’s website also gives me current information about travel warnings that exist anywhere in the world.
Travel doesn’t have to be overwhelming and using these basic tools really help me get organized. I gather all of this information to make sure that the trip is affordable, that everything fits my time frame and that I can spend enough time relaxing or exploring.