How you approach a trip depends on a few factors. First of all, do you know where you want to go?
As a traveler, I always have a list of destinations in the back of my mind. China, Japan, India, Micronesia, Vietnam (and yes, Hawaii) are all long term destinations. When my schedule allows for the 2 weeks minimum I would want to devote to each country, these are the types of trips I would take. In the meanwhile, the Yucatan; Oaxaca; Scotland; Belgium; the Amalfi Coast of Italy; Provence and the Dordogne, France; Placencia, Belize and a week of Spanish lessons in San Pedro, Guatemala are in my immediate future. I also have a list of weekend trips that can be easily made from my home city.
If you’re not like me with an endless list of dream destinations, here are a few ideas to get you started:
Friends and family. They know you best. Where have they gone that they would recommend to you? Keep in mind that if you have a dream destination, it may be best not to discuss it with less well traveled friends and family. Especially any plan to go to Mexico or Colombia.
Coworkers. In my office, I’m the one people ask when they need destination ideas. There’s probably someone like me in every office and discussing travel is a great way to bond with people outside your immediate circle.
Magazines, travel sections of the newspaper and TV. Travel magazines cover the newest, hottest and best travel destinations, usually timed about when one would plan for the best season to visit. The New York Times website (NYtimes.com) has a wealth of destination information useful for vacationers and business travelers. Samantha Brown and Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel often give me great ideas. I keep lists of the places they stay, eat amazing food at or visit for future trips in a Moleskine notebook in my bedside table.
Trip reports on travel websites. Once you have a vague idea of where you want to go, you can delve into the location by reading other travelers’ trip reports on the major travel forums where travelers share information. More about this later.
General TV shows. As I travel around the world, I frequently meet people who chose destinations featured on shows like The Amazing Race, Survivor or House Hunters International.
Think about yourself. Do you like crowds? Does your budget allow you to travel in the height of season, or would you prefer finding more value in the shoulder or off seasons? You probably don’t want to go to the center of hurricane activity in the heat of the summer, and may not want to pay the premium for Christmas/New Years – making mid-December or January great times for a winter break to the Caribbean or Central American beach areas.
Or, if you have children and can only vacation during prime vacation times on a moderate budget, finding lower priced high-season options may be a priority for you.
Since I’m a generally thrifty person, I confess I don’t formally budget. When I’m planning a trip, I’m seeking the most comfortable hotels and economical transportation. When there’s a mass transit option to/from the airport, I always opt for that. Why spent $100 getting to/from airports when I can shop or have a fabulous meal? But, I can be extravagant and make every attempt to exercise some self control with these tendencies. Just because I can splurge $1000 for an once-in-a-lifetime night at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary hotel, doesn’t mean I’m going to do it. Therefore, I am not going to be the one to tell you that you must set a budget and stick to it. If you’re an adult reading this, you’re probably successful enough to know how to manage your money.
But, if you’re traveling with another person/people, it’s a good idea to discuss how money will be handled prior to the trip. How will you split the cost of hotel rooms, car rentals and most importantly meals? Splitting the check works when everyone orders similar priced food and drinks the same amount, but problems could arise when one party feels they are subsidizing others.
Once you’ve determined where you want to go, and approximately when you want to go, its time to check the weather for your destination, and make sure you’re picking the best time to go. Weather.com, wunderground.com and accuweather.com are all good for this purpose. Most provide a history for the destination so you can get a true feel for rainy seasons and other factors that will influence your trip. If you discover the weather isn’t optimum during the time you plan to go it may be a good idea to postpone this trip and pick a better weather destination.
Now comes the tricky part. You want to find the best airfares and the best prices for lodging without locking in anything. I learned my lesson years ago after jumping on a discount fare to New Orleans, only to discover it was a major football weekend and there was not a hotel room to be had. With the internet there are more options than ever for searching, but at the time, I had to rely on a room rental referral from a nice reservationist. I ended up staying in the type of place that earned me “what are you doing in this neighborhood, girl?” calls from passing cars! Don’t let that happen to you. I would make sure there is availability at your preferred hotels first, then book flights.
Start the process by pricing packages to get a competitive feel for area specific rates – and the types of hotels offered. If the prices seem right, check out the hotel reviews on a trusted source like Tripadvisor.com. Often the lowest priced hotels are in less desirable locations, and since you don’t know the area well you won’t discover this until it’s too late. Make sure to map the hotel before committing, or you could find yourself with a view of a highway and an hour commute each way to and from the better part of the city.
Keep in mind that often when a package price and the properties listed look perfect for you, there can be a catch, like your international flights all leave at 5am, or have a 50 minute connection in Houston or Miami on a Sunday afternoon, when you need 3-4 hours. Unless it’s the exact trip you’ve researched and planned for – and it’s about to sell out, I would price out the individual components just to be sure there aren’t better deals out there.
Tabbed browsing enables you to view multiple web sites on your desktop at any given time. You can explore airfares and hotel rates almost simultaneously, while considering a package at the same time.
I wish I could be the type of person who books flights and wings it, but I’m too dedicated to things running smoothly from the start of the trip for that. Even if I was a backpacker launching on an around-the-world trip, I would probably have a hotel booked for the first night.
All airlines will hold flights for 24 hours, but my goal is to minimize hassle so rather than booking and canceling something, I do a little recon on 2 sites that should be the top bookmarked sites for any traveler. Kayak and Tripadvisor. If you don’t know these sites, they are the bibles – the necessary tools for the independent traveler.
Kayak will show you what others have recently paid for flights to your destination. More important, it shows you the best airlines and routes for your destination so you know where to begin your search. They don’t list every airline, however, so if you’re not finding flights, check on destination specific sites to determine which airline/s best serve the location.
Use the Bing.com fare predictor to determine if it’s your best time to book.