Ever notice how some people are always organized on a trip, and other people are just completely useless at traveling? Granted, some of that is personality – more adventurous people are generally more willing to try new things and meet new people – but that’s not to say introverts can’t be travel whizzes too. It all comes down to how you do your travel prep.
What is Travel Prep?
Firs things first: What the heck is travel prep?
Very simply, travel prep is the work you do to prepare for a trip. It includes everything from choosing a destination to researching things to do to booking your accommodation. You can see right away how important travel prep is. Without it, you’ll be sleeping on a park bench in Paris with fifteen suitcases around you. That’s been done, but, for obvious reasons, it’s not ideal.
Admittedly, travel prep looks a bit different for everyone. Some people are very meticulous and have clearly defined goals in mind (ex: “I want to visit every continent, so let’s plan the best route to do that”). Mine usually starts with seeing a picture of a beautiful place or tasty local delicacy on Pinterest followed immediately by daydreams about going there. Now, if you know anything about me, you know that I can get pretty – ahem – obsessive about new ideas. Like, once it’s in there, that’s the only idea I’ve got until I do something about it.
And that’s where the prep work makes its entrance.
After several years of near-constant travel, I developed a travel prep system that works for me. Several of my friends have agreed that they do their travel prep in much the same way. Others have taken my advice and tried it this way. It’s not steered anyone wrong yet!
Since I’ve done the hard work and actually come up with a way to organize travel prep, I went ahead and put it all together in a PDF download, which you can get here on our Etsy store. It’s easy to use and clearly organized, so you can focus on the important bits, like those we’ll be discussing here!
Without further ado, here is my four-step travel prep system:
Step 1: Set a Budget
Not gonna lie, I hate this part. In my defense, so does everyone else I know. There is literally no one who enjoys looking at their finances and realizing that they do not, in fact, have the money necessary to fly around the world.
Nevertheless, budgeting is incredibly important, so it’s where your research needs to start. A good way to begin is by looking at the average prices for things in your destination. For example, if you and your girls are planning on jetting off to Prague, look at the going rates for flights, hotels/hostels, meals, tours, etc. That will give you a ballpark of what it’s realistic to expect to spend.
That being said, it’s almost always possible to make a trip for less than average expenditure. But we’ll save that for another time.
While building your travel budget, remember that all good travel budgets absolutely must include three things:
- Travel to and from
Everything else – souvenirs, tours, etc. – is negotiable. This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people forget to budget for food on their trips. Pro tip: Hangry is no less hangry just because you’re in Prague. Make sure you can feed yourself.
Once you do your research to see what average prices look like, compare that to your finances. I always like to run my budget a bit on the high side. For instance, if I figure that I can hit all the museums on my list for $50 in admission fees, I budget $60-$75 for admission. Yes, this makes my initial budget look a bit scarier, but it also allows me a bit of wiggle-room, in case I find another museum to visit or they’ve increased the prices without updating their website or I decide to visit a more expensive museum… You get the idea.
I also recommend that you set aside an emergency fund. Make sure it’s in a place you can access it while traveling! Sometimes, for security reasons, you can’t access savings accounts from international terminals. There are quite a few security features that can actually make it more difficult for you to access your money in a pinch. A good idea would be to make sure you have a line of credit that you can take out against one of your cards (American Express has good options on this front) or that you can access an international branch of your bank. I sincerely hope you never have to use it, but better safe than sorry!
Step 2: Book the Big Two
After carefully crafting your budget, the first thing to do is book:
- Travel to and from
I cannot stress this enough. Don’t worry about tickets to that awesome museum or the cover charge at the five-story club in Prague until you have taken care of these two!
Travel fares are often cheaper if you book them round-trip, especially if you’re looking at international flights. So, it’s a good idea to book them together. It’ll also give you a better idea of how to structure your time in your destination. If you’re not going to get into Prague until dinnertime, you only need to plan for dinner for that night. If you’re going to get into Prague at 10:30 in the morning, well, then, you’ll need a plan for your day.
Accommodation is important for obvious reasons. Yes, you hear stories about people just rolling into a new town and finding a room at the first hotel they come across. However, this is not a guaranteed thing. To avoid reenacting the story of Mary and Joseph finding no room at the inn, book in advance.
This will also help you find the best situation. Oftentimes, hostels and hotels charge more for a bed that wasn’t reserved ahead of time. Also, hostels will often have a couple different options for rooms, such as all-female, all-male, or coed dorms. If you want to make sure there’s space for you in the dorm you want (I prefer to stay in all-female dorms), book ahead of time.
Bonus: Even if you can’t check into your room as soon as you arrive, you can often leave your luggage at your accommodation. Hostels and hotels have locked storage rooms for luggage, so you don’t have to drag your bags around until your 3pm check-in time.
Step 3: Research Things to Do
This is the really fun part.
Start with a Google search or flipping through a travel guide book. When something strikes your fancy, jot it down. Remember, traveling doesn’t have to be about what other people think you should see or what the people on Pinterest say “you cannot miss.” If something looks interesting to you, do it. If it doesn’t, skip it. I can’t stand night clubs, and many people I talk to can’t understand why I didn’t go to the five-story nightclub in Prague. I didn’t go because it’s expensive and I knew I’d hate it. So, I decided to spend the evening in a cafe on the main square instead. You do you, kid.
When I’m looking up things to do, I look for several things:
- Price. If it doesn’t fit my budget, that’s very sad. But I can always go back at a later time with more money. As my dad always says, it’ll give you an excuse to go back (as if we needed one!).
- Hours and Location. These are important when it comes to organizing your days. I like to visit places that are all near each other, so that I’m not constantly crisscrossing the city when I don’t need to be. I also tend to be up and at ’em earlier than other people, so if there’s something that’s open earlier than the others, I’ll head there first.
- Cultural Importance. I love visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If the place I’m visiting has one, I’m so going. Also, if there’s an attraction that has to do with writers, writing, or literary sentiment, I’m drawn in like a bookworm to a bookstore. I kid you not – more than once, I’ve dragged people along on with me on literary pub crawls.
Once I’ve looked at all of this information, I look at a map to see where they are, and plot my course from there. I like to have a general outline of which attractions I’ll visit first, just so that I have a game plan (things change at the drop of a hat – you’ve gotta be ready to roll with it). This also helps me to figure out the best way to actually get to these places – should I walk? Figure out the public transport? These things will come together once you have a list of things to do.
Step 4: Get Your Physical Schtuff Together
Once you’ve got everything planned, you know when you’re going, where you’re staying, and what you’re doing, it’s time to pack!
I always write out a list of things to take with me, and check off each item as I pack it. This helps me to think logically through my packing and avoid taking too much stuff. It also helps when I’m in the act of packing. This is because, if I’m being honest, my apartment turns into a complete disaster when I pack. I always seem to pack three different times, trying to find the best arrangement in my suitcase. (I’ve not figured that out yet – when I do, you’ll be the first to know!) Having a list helps me know what was supposed to go in the suitcase and what might have slipped in there by accident.
It’s also important at this stage to make sure you have all of your documents together. This is especially true if you’re going abroad. Make sure you have photocopies of everything! In the event that your pocket gets picked, a photocopy of your passport will be a huge help to the consulate when they issue a replacement. It’s a good idea to keep all of these things organized and in an easily accessible place. After all, in the event that you’ll actually need a photocopy of your passport, you don’t want to be digging around in your luggage trying to remember where you put it.
Keeping It Organized
Now that you know the ins and outs of travel prep, it’s time to keep it organized. In an increasingly digital age, I’m sorry to inform you that paper is still king. It’s all well and good to have that email confirming your hotel booking, until you get to the hotel and realize that they don’t have wifi and you have no cell coverage. Yes, this does indeed still happen). So, print it out.
Now you need a way to keep all those papers together. I’m a huge fan of three-ring binders. They’re handy, they’re easy to use, and they’re easy to rearrange when necessary. I’d stick with a 1″ binder or smaller – no need to take up extra room if you don’t have to!
This might sound intimidating, but remember, we’ve done the hard work for you. You can download and print our Adventure Planner, which has all the information you should think about when prepping a trip, clearly organized so that you can keep all your information straight! If you use that, along with the suggestions listed above, you won’t go wrong.