Tips for Organized Vacation Planning
Arranging travel can be intimidating, which is why some people prefer to hire a travel agent. If you have more money than time then this is a reasonable option.
For the rest of us, doing it ourselves can both save money and bring satisfaction. How do you stay organized, stay sane, and put together a vacation package that is enjoyable without costing the moon?
Here are a few tips.
Tip #1: Make a Trip Folder
Trip folders are used by travel planners all the time. Even today, your trip folder should be physical - virtual trip folders are snazzy, but rely on electronics. We all know electronics can fail us at the strangest moments.
For your trip folder, purchase a pocket folder in a design you like. The standard two pocket folders are fine...some people prefer the ones with the extra tab at the top. Always get a two pocket folder, not a "backpack" folder with only one pocket.
If you are planning multiple trips, then label the outside of each folder with the destination and dates.
Tip #2: Research your Destination
I'm not going to go into choosing a destination here but work on the basis that you already know where you want to go.
Once you have that decision, though, it pays to do extensive research on your planned destination.
If you are going overseas, then start by making a list of travel requirements. If you don't have a passport, then that needs to be top of the list, and you should allow 2-3 months to receive it. Many countries also require at least six months before your passport expires. Other things to check are whether you need a visa and whether there are any legally required vaccinations (yellow fever vaccination is a common requirement in many tropical countries).
Research the culture and etiquette of the place you plan on visiting. For this, the best way is often still to purchase a print travel guide (also handy if you get there and discover you have no way to access the internet or that doing so is hideously expensive). Alternatively, you can put one on your favorite ebook reader, tablet, or smartphone. Make sure you know how people dress for dinner, what to do if you end up being invited to a new friend's home (in some countries a guest gift is required, whilst in others offering one is a mortal insult).
Also look into crime levels. Read up on the kind of weather and climate you can expect at the time of year you are visiting.
You may want to make a cheat sheet on etiquette pitfalls, etc, and put it in your trip folder.
Tip #3: Avoid Aggregators
You're intimidated by booking your trip, but a travel aggregator such as Expedia or Travelocity will do all the work for you. Oh, and it's cheaper.
Here's the thing. Travel aggregators purchase tickets and hotel rooms in bulk, then sell them on at a profit. They can sometimes, but not always, undercut prices direct from the service provider. And most of the time it works well.
Most of the time. The problems are two-fold. First, and the big issue, is what happens when something goes wrong. Your flight gets canceled, your hotel room has bed bugs, the promised pool is drained and cracked. The travel provider will tell you to go to the aggregator for a refund...and the aggregator will tell you it has to come from the travel provider. There have been many incidents of the two passing the buck until it stops with you.
Second, some travel providers appear to provide worse service to people who book through aggregators - smaller rooms, seats at the back of the plane by the toilet, etc. You may not have as much flexibility.
Instead, I recommend using the aggregator to find out who is cheap - and then booking direct.
Tip #4: Do I Need A Car?
The next thing to determine is whether you need to rent a car. This depends on the destination and what you plan on doing there.
For European city breaks, don't rent a car unless you plan on leaving the city. In Eastern Europe, don't rent a car unless you absolutely need one and are going to rural areas...Eastern European cities have great public transportation and lousy parking.
I generally recommend avoiding foreign car rentals if possible. If you do need one, check well in advance if you need an IDP (International Drivers' Permit) for that country. They're easy enough to obtain but take a while. If you can't drive a stick, then be careful. In some places, renting an automatic is hard and it is almost always more expensive. Very few companies in Europe will rent to drivers under 25 or over 70 - at all, not just at higher prices. If in doubt, go for a large international rental company. They're more likely to have what you need and understand American peculiarities.
Don't rent a car in England and take it to Europe or vice versa. It's hard enough to drive in a foreign country without being on the wrong side of the car for the side of the road you're driving on. Research traffic laws before you go.
Tip #5: Finding the Best Flights
I always book flights directly from the airline, not through an agent or aggregator. Being willing to be slightly flexible on dates and airports can get you a better deal.
Airline pricing is arcane, and always be sure to compare what you get. Does the airline charge extra for checked baggage? Do they charge for food? (At least a few airlines now charge for food even on transatlantic flights). How much do they charge for children under 5? It pays to do a bit of research as sometimes these things are not on the website or e-ticket.
Almost no airlines these days mail out paper tickets. You will need a computer and a printer. The format of the e-ticket varies from airline to airline, but expect one sheet per passenger including infants.
If you have special meal requirements and they do provide food, be sure to fill out the appropriate form at the time of booking - this includes vegetarian/vegan, allergies, and any medical diet you might be on. Airlines will generally cater to most things, although very obscure food allergies can be hard.
Tip #6: Booking Your Hotel
First, decide what kind of hotel you want to stay in. Do you want to find a large, international chain where the rooms will be similar to what you might get anywhere? Some people find this makes them more secure. Are you looking for a high-end boutique hotel? Would you consider a guest house or bed and breakfast?
My personal preference is for guest houses whenever and wherever possible. If I must stay in a hotel it is important to me that the hotel provides breakfast, either complimentary or reasonably priced. Yours may differ, however.
In all cases, go to the hotel's website. If you're looking for a guest house, many popular tourist destinations have a tourism website that often has a list of them with contact information. Always book guest houses direct.
Large chains generally have an automated online booking system. Small hotels and bed and breakfasts can be pot luck, though. In some places the local guest houses have come together to put together an online system. Others may have their own web site, but you may also have to email or even call the place.
Do not, under any circumstances, ever email your credit card number. To anyone. European hotels are really bad for trying to insist on this. Stand firm, even if you have to call them international long distance to give them the number. Family/farm bed and breakfasts are, oddly, more likely to be willing to call you. If they won't take it by phone, book somewhere else. It is not safe or secure to email credit card numbers and the cost of a long distance phone call is much less than the inconvenience of being a victim of credit card fraud.
Tip #7: Ground Transportation
Always book your transportation from airport to hotel in advance unless your hotel provides a free shuttle. Never, ever, look for a cab at the airport, especially in a foreign country. Cancun is a particularly notorious destination - half of the cabs at the airport there are gypsies and the other half will kidnap you to a timeshare presentation.
It's generally easy to book a cab in advance. Some airports also have shuttle bus services. I don't recommend trying to deal with public transportation in a strange city after dark - that's an easy way to get lost. Also be aware that in Eastern Europe it's common to have to pay an extra half fare if you're taking luggage - and that this is enforced enthusiastically.
Tip #8: Schedule and Excursions
So, you have your flights, your rental car, and your hotel. Now it's time to do the schedule (Unless you're doing a road trip, in which case the schedule comes before booking the accommodation).
Start by making a list of all the things you want to do, in priority order. TripAdvisor is often a good place to look for attractions and other ideas. You might want to do this at the same time as doing your general destination research.
If there is something huge and popular you want to do, then book that first, before even the flights, and build the trip around it. For example, the mule trips in the Grand Canyon book up almost a year in advance.
Look at the attraction web sites and work out which days they are open. If you aren't sure, contact them. Then open up a calendar application and mark out what you want to do on each day. Book as much as possible in advance and always leave at least one day free. Try to arrange weather-dependent activities at the start of the trip - that way you have a chance of being able to reschedule. Don't pack your trip to the "It's Tuesday, it must be Venice" point.
If there is a restaurant you absolutely have to go to, consider making reservations well in advance, before you even leave the country - this might cost a little more if you have to call them, but it could be worth it.
Tip #9: Directions
If you do plan on driving, then take a map. Additionally, use an online directions service such as Google or Mapquest and print off all the routes you know you're going to take. This includes airport to hotel. This can help you avoid having to rent a GPS unit with the car.
Use your phone's GPS as backup. If you are going overseas and won't have roaming, then install an offline GPS application. Make sure to download the maps for your destination before you leave. These apps generally cost money, but can be a life saver. I recommend MapDroyd for Android - I know there's a good one for iOS but as I don't have an iOS device I can't be sure.
Tip #10: Fill the Trip Folder
Okay. So you have everything booked, and you have your trip folder. It's time to fill it.
In the left pocket, put general information. Put tickets and receipts in the right pocket, in the order in which you will be needing them.
Recommendations for general information:
1. Etiquette and culture information for the destination.
2. A menu translator if going to a non-English speaking country. Also add in hello, goodbye, thank you.
3. A map of the destination airport terminal and of any airports where you have to change planes. Trust me, it might come in handy, especially if they're having computer problems.
4. A photocopy of the relevant pages of your passport. When you get to your destination, put this somewhere secure, such as the hotel safe.
For the receipts side, put things in the order in which you will need them. Generally, this means flights, rental car/ground transportation, hotel, excursions in order. Once checked in for your flight, take the flight e-ticket and put it at the back of the folder. You can either put no longer needed receipts at the back of the right hand pocket or in the left one behind your general information, but always move them once used. That way the top sheet on the right is always the thing you will need next.
If an attraction, or even a hotel, didn't give you a formal receipt, then print off any email you got from them instead. If all you got was a verbal conformation number, then put that on a full-sized sheet of paper (small ones tend to get lost) and insert it in the appropriate place.
I often also put receipts and those tacky "You did this" certificates in the back of the left hand side pocket - it helps keep them flat.