There is no right or wrong way to plan for a trip and each person has their own preferences on how they like to do things. But a lot of people have messaged me saying things like:
“Where do you start looking for information?”
“How do you choose where to go?”
“What’s your secret to finding the best spots?”
So I have decided to answer those questions and more in this guide on how I plan my trips.
Before we go further, you should know that I pay for 100% of everything on my travels (unless I am sharing the cost with my travel buddies) and that most of what I know is from years of experience and MAKING MISTAKES.
Step 1: Choosing a destination
This is the most challenging part of my travel planning because of VISAS. However, it can also prove to be quite rewarding (I will expand on this in a moment). Your process may be different if you have a dream to visit one particular place and have budgeted accordingly for that. In this case-when you already know your destination- skip to step 2.
So when I choose a destination I look on a map- I decide how far I want to go. I pick destinations based on how far I am willing to fly in the time I have off from work. A 6 week holiday? Yes I will fly 15 hours to Brazil. A week? I need to limit my flight time to 5 hours. You can use Flight Time Calculator to help you plan.
Once I’ve narrowed down the destinations within my desired flight time, I start researching the visa requirements in these places. I look online, I phone the embassies to ask and I speak to other South Africans who have traveled there recently. If I have to apply at an embassy with a sheaf of paperwork and pay money to hand over my passport, it gets eliminated immediately.
Why you may ask? In 2017, I applied for and was granted a 6 month multiple entry Schengen visa from the Czech Republic Embassy in Kuwait (I was living in Kuwait at the time). While I am glad I obtained it, it was probably the most stressful visa application I have had to go through and included a lot of effort to buy dummy flights, travel insurance, book hotels I wasn’t going to use, cajole the ambassador, provide proof of employment that my employer didn’t want to give, show evidence of a job in a new country and generally gave me sleepless nights.
That was the turning point for me when I said- No thanks- and I put a moratorium from then until 2021 on traveling to places that needed visas that required so much of my dignity, time, money and energy. Why should I have to beg for something I can afford? (I made one allowance for Egypt because the visa was free, the embassy was open from 5pm-7pm and it only took a few days to get a multiple entry visa). In this way I have stumbled across some of my favourite destinations like Tunisia (visa free), Azerbaijan (eVisa) and Iran (visa on arrival) since I have cut out other destinations. Once I’ve narrowed it down (the list usually gets pretty narrow at this point), then I start researching.
Step 2: Research to seal the deal
Each person has their own method of researching for a trip; some people prefer guidebooks, some use travel websites, some rely on word of mouth and I delve into the blogs. Each one has their own merits and you will find the way that suits you best.
I like reading blogs because it gives me a personal experience that people had when on their trips. I also love all the pretty photos!
When I am reading the posts I look for the following information:
- Did the traveler go by themselves? If so, did they feel safe?
- What was the cost of things in this destination? Entry tickets, transportation, meals?
- Are the attractions in this country appealing to me?
- Was this all sponsored or is this their actual experience?
Those are my top 4 questions. And it’s usually from there that I start to make an informed decision about where I want to go based the information I get from bloggers as well as my budget, time and preferences.
For example, an expensive destination requires less time (I decided that 3 nights was all I could afford in Seychelles) but a cheaper place with a lot to do and see can easily fit into a week trip (my Tunisia itinerary was busy but with time for relaxation). Bottom line: The information will help you choose the destination.
Note: If a blogger’s trip was sponsored, I disregard it completely because I want to know about the experiences and challenges of people who didn’t get free things.
Step 3: Booking the flight
I head to my trusty favourite, Momondo.com
I have been using this flight search engine since 2011 and its really been a blessing! It trawls local and global websites to give you the best flight deals so I have actually booked some flights on websites that most search engines don’t even cover! (I have story about using Google Chrome to help me translate a Portuguese website so I could get a cheap flight but that’s another post altogether).
If you don’t like Momondo, there’s also Google Flights, Sky scanner, Travelstart, Expedia and other sites especially those geared for North Americans. Play around until something appeals to you. I check all of those for flights when I am looking but for some reason, Momondo always wins! I also use a VPN if I am searching for a long time at home (to change my IP address) and then the next day I do the same search at work (different IP address) to see if the price has dropped.
If I find the flight I want, at suitable times, at a good price- I BUY IT IMMEDIATELY. People will tell you to wait but I know that sometimes prices just get higher and higher and then I am left with regret that I didn’t book it when I saw the original cheap price.
If I don’t hit the flight lottery immediately (Almost never happens) I set up a flight alert for my chosen flight. That means when the price changes (drops or increases) I get an email alert. Sometimes I set up flight alerts months in advance and sometimes only a week or two. It all depends on when I know about my leave. Again, there’s no wrong or right answer and it mostly depends on how close I am to payday. Flight prices do sometimes drop and alerts have helped me save money in the past.
Step 4: Researching the sites & plotting it down
Most people jump straight from booking the flights to booking the accommodation but I add a step in between. I head back to the blogs to find out what areas I want to visit, what things I want to see and what activities I want to do. This takes the longest time for me because I am a planner and I like to know EVERYTHING.
And that’s when I start preparing an itinerary for myself by asking the following questions:
-What things would I like to see?
-What areas are these things in?
-Will I need to take domestic flights or boats to travel between different areas?
-Should I rent a car or is the public transportation well developed?
These are some of the main questions I ask myself before I start putting together a tentative itinerary. Its probably around this time that I will troll hashtags or locations on Instagram to see what others have done there. This is purely to get a sense of places to see and things to do rather than get any deep information. I also know that all the things I enjoy doing are not necessary what others enjoy- I am not a huge fan of museums and would rather spend time outdoors or photographing architecture. So my choices are based on my preferences.
I have started using a website called Airtable to help me plot my trips and have an online space to save all my flights, things I want to do etc. It’s actually a recent find of mine but I can’t believe how useful it would’ve been to have this ages ago (I used to use Excel). You can plan a day to day itinerary of your trip including costs, transport times and anything else really as well as toggle between a linear and calendar view. I also share this with my travel partners for each trip and have put most of my friends onto this gem.
Its free but you can upgrade if you want to use it for business (which is actually its primary function). Use my link here to sign up if you’re a planner like me (I make no money from this at all, it just gives us both credit in case we ever decide to go beyond the free version).
Note: When researching, look for blogs written by locals or long term expats living in the country. They will usually know the ‘hidden gems’ and can give you the most precise information about a place.
Step 5: Choosing where to stay
By this time I usually have a very good idea of where I want to go in that particular country based on the sites I want to see and activities I want to do. So I try to book accommodation in those areas or near to. My choices are also dictated by who I am going with and what kind of trip it will be. For example, after 3 days of safaris in Kenya, Expat Lion and I booked a gorgeous 4-star boutique hotel to relax in for 3 nights so we could recover. Expat Polar gets very little time off work and likes to spend his holidays in swanky 5 star hotels with huge buffet breakfasts. Expat Bee is happier to stay in people’s homes and interact with them to gain a sense of the local culture. I am happy with all their choices! I personally go really basic when I travel by myself as long as its clean and has a decent bathroom with hot water. So my accommodation choices are dependent on my activities and travel partners.
Booking.com is my old favourite and they have LOADS of options for even the fussiest traveler. The more you book, the larger your discount will be for future bookings so create an account and start booking! If you want to use my discount code, click here (I make no money off this, it saves me $15 off my next booking and you get 10% off yours too so it’s a win-win).
AirBnb is another favourite especially if booking.com has few or too expensive options. It’s a site that connects people who want to rent out their homes with people who are looking for accommodations in that locale. Why I sometimes prefer this is it makes me feel like a local and I love getting recommendations from the hosts. In my experience hosts have gone above and beyond to be kind and offer personalized services. You can get a discount off your first booking by using my referral code (all I get in return is a discount off my next booking.)
I very rarely- if ever- use any other site to book accommodation. Some people swear by rewards programs but I travel to many obscure places and can never afford the expensive hotels that usually offer these loyalty programs. I have heard that they work very well for families though. My sister also works at a posh hotel and has offered me a family discount but one night at a hotel in her employer’s hotel chain is usually equivalent to 3 at a lesser known hotel or AirBnb. You’ll find what works for you!
Step 5: Last steps
This is usually when I will apply for my eVisa (by checking and double checking that I am applying through the official government website) if its needed; at least 2 weeks before my flight date. I make sure of the correct terminals (very important in Dubai), get some books on my Kindle and inform my bank that I am going abroad. I have always found it cheaper for me to withdraw in a foreign country but sometimes I will exchange money before I leave or take money with me to exchange at my destination (sometimes you have to- like when I went to Iran).
I almost always travel with just a carry on bag (either suitcase or backpack depending on the kind of trip) that I start packing about a week before I travel. This is just my personality- I don’t like last minute actions.
You may be thinking that all of this is a lot of work that requires time and effort. Yes it does.
But in this way, I research about my destinations learning about local rules and customs, personalise my itinerary, choose the perfect accommodations to suit my budget and have a good idea of what to expect when I arrive. I have never found a travel agent who was saved me a significant amount of money and provided me with a wonderful holiday. In December 2017 I travelled to Georgia with a tour company and regretted my decision as I was stuck being shuttled around in a huge bus, waiting around for the other people who were always late and didn’t even get to see the sites I wanted to see because those people wasted so much of our time. NEVER AGAIN. So I am happy to spend the time researching it all and planning my own trips. If I do hire a guide, it will be a local from a local company usually through recommendations.
Lots of people say, “We went to ___________ but it didn’t look half as awesome as your trip!” That’s because I didn’t hire a travel agent- I spent hours researching. I didn’t spend my mornings nursing hangovers from the night before- I managed to get up early and chased that sunrise. I didn’t buy any expensive make up for months- I saved up to book that hot air balloon ride. How you live and plan is a reflection of how you will travel so make the choices that are best for you!
Note: For any more specific information about destinations I have visited check the ‘Travel Destinations” tab on the top of this website. For behind the scenes looks at my trips, check the Insta Stories on my Instagram page, @expatpanda. And lastly, I talk about travel and showcase destinations with Expat Polar on our Youtube page: Exploring Bears.
How do you plan for trips? Is your process similar to or different to mine? Let me know in the comments below!