I remember when I started planning my first trip. I had no idea what I was doing.
When I decided to quit my job and travel the world, I walked into a bookstore and bought Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on Shoestring. It made the trip seem more real, but it didn’t prepare me for planning a long world trip. Back then, there weren’t really blogs, guides, and apps like there are today. I was lost. I figured it out as I went, just hoping I didn’t miss anything.
Planning a long trip can be a daunting task. Where do you begin? What’s step one? What’s step two? What’s step three? It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the beginning, especially when you haven’t done something like this before.
I’ve planned countless trips for myself (and even some for friends), and over the years, I’ve developed an efficient little checklist that ensures I don’t miss anything important (I like lists). I don’t want to get to my next destination and then realize I forgot something.
There is a lot of information on this website (and even more information packed into my book), but one question that comes up frequently is “Matt, how do I put this all together? Tell me where to start.”
In a continuing effort to get out the door and into the world, I’ve created this step-by-step guide to planning a trip that breaks the process down so planning becomes easier and less overwhelming:
Step 1 – Decide Where You Want To Go
Defining where you want to go sets a goal to work toward. A lot of people talk vaguely about travel. They never say where they are going, just that they are going. Picking a destination is immensely important, as it gives you a definite goal. It’s a lot easier to mentally get behind “I am going to Paris” than “I’m going to Europe.” Not only will your trip become more concrete for you and easier to commit to, but it will make planning easier as well.
Resources for picking your destination:
- 200+ in-depth destination guides
- Five Destinations Under $30 in the World
- 19 Amazing Travel Goals to Check Off
Step 2 – Decide the Length of Your Trip
How much does it cost to travel? I have no idea without knowing for how long you’re going away. You can’t figure out how much you need to save if you haven’t decided on how long you’ll be in your destination. After you say “I’m going to Paris,” add “for 10 days.”
Step 3 – Research Your Costs
So you know where you’re going and how long you’ll be there, but to really nail down how much money you need, your next task is to research the costs in your destination at the style of travel you want. Do you want to backpack, or would you rather stay in luxury hotels? How much are hostels, hotels, restaurants, and attractions? Knowing will allow you to estimate how much money you’ll need for your trip. You can begin with my travel guide section or simply buy a guidebook (which are really good for things like this).
If you are going to Paris for 10 days and need $75 a day (not including your flight), you know you need to save $750 (though round up to $800 since it’s good to have extra) for your trip.
Now you have a concrete goal to work toward.
Step 4 – Start Saving Money
Time to start saving! Write down all your current expenses so you can determine where you are spending money and how you can cut back. People bleed a lot of money every day through small purchases: that bottle of water, the dollar for that snack, that extra coffee. All of that adds up and creating this breakdown can let you know where you need to cut and save.
For example, if you need $2,000 USD for the trip you’re taking in eight months, that means you only have to save $8.33 per day. Couldn’t you find a way to save $8 per day? Heck, your daily coffee is most of that! Here are three easy tips that produce big wins:
- Cut the coffee – That daily coffee costs you $120 per month ($4 per coffee). An extra $1,440 per year pays for two months in Southeast Asia! What’s more important: your daily cup of Joe or getting to spend two more months enjoying the beaches of Thailand or exploring the jungles of Borneo?
- Learn to cook – I learned to cook while in college (a skill that has helped me ever since), and before I left on my big trip, I cut down on eating out to two times per week. I cooked a large dinner and then enjoyed the leftovers for lunch the next day, thus saving more money. Cook more, eat out less, and travel sooner.
- Get rid of cable – In the age of Hulu and free (and legal) streaming TV, there’s no reason for you to be spending $50 USD per month on cable television.
You can read this post for more in-depth and creative ways to cut your day-to-day expenses: 20 ways to Cut Your Expenses and Save for Travel
Step 5 – Get a Travels Rewards Credit Card
While you’re working to save money, get a travel credit card so you can earn sign-up bonuses to redeem miles and points for free flights and hotel stays. Most cards have bonuses of up to 50,000 points when you meet their minimum spending requirement (often $1,000 within a three-month period). That’s a lot of miles — enough for a free flight almost anywhere in the world.
If you want a free flight, use the cards that help with that. If you want free hotel rooms, get a hotel card. You don’t need to sign up for very many cards; pick one or two and focus on those. Do this the moment you decide you want to travel. Don’t wait — waiting equals lost miles, which means less free travel.
I am always doing this so I can travel for as cheap as possible. This post will give you more information as well as a list of the latest deals: http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-tips/picking-a-travel-credit-card/.
Step 6 – Switch to No-Fee ATM Cards
Don’t give banks any of your hard-earned money. Save every extra dollar you can by using a no-fee ATM card. I use Charles Schwab, but there are lots of other banks (don’t forget to check your local banks) that don’t charge ATM fees. Additionally, you can join a bank in the Global ATM Alliance.
Step 7 – Stay Focused and Inspired
Keep feeding your desire to travel. Here are some inspiring stories:
- Why Tomorrow Is Too Late
- Why You Have More Time Than You Think
- Why Cynics like Bob are Wrong About Everything
- How Michael Saved $14k in Six Months
- Why a 50-Year-Old Couple Sold It All to Travel the World
Step 8 – Check for Last-Minute Deals
Okay, you’re inspired, prepared, and on your way to saving money for your trip. But before you go buy that flight or book that hotel, check for deals you might have missed. You may dream of Paris but maybe there are great deals to Berlin right now. Maybe you can get a seven-day cruise for 70% off, a package deal to Hawaii for the price of your flight to Paris, or 50% off sailing trips around Greece.
It’s a big world, and there are lots of places I want to see, so if I end up choosing B over A, I’m happy! If you’re flexible too, make sure you look for any money-saving deals.
Step 9 – Book Your Flight
After you’ve used your travel credit card and received your sign-up bonus, use your miles to book your flight. It is harder to use miles these days due to less availability, so make sure to book early to insure you get your desired flight.
There are still many ways to avoid being the person on the flight who paid the most. For more tips that can reduce ticket prices even more, read this blog post.
My favorite sites for finding cheap fares:
For the best deals, book your flight about two months in advance.
Step 10 – Book Your Accommodation
If you have a set schedule, feel free to book accommodation for the duration of your trip, but if you are going to be traveling long-term, book just the first few days. Once you know the dates you’ll be in your destination, there is no real reason not to find a place to stay. My view is that waiting will just lead to you losing your top picks.
Love hotels? They won’t save you money, but you can sign up for some hotel credit cards and get free rooms, too. Marriott has a great rewards card whose sign-up bonus is equal to one week’s free stay. Starwood’s AMEX card is wonderful too, but the spending threshold in order to get the points bonus is higher.
The following booking sites offer the best rates for accommodation:
Alternative: Contact people on hospitality websites like Couchsurfing or Be Welcome and ask if they would be willing to host you. You want to do this in advance so people have time to rearrange their schedule and plan for your visit. Moreover, you can also consider apartment rental sites like Airbnb or Wimdu.
Step 11 – Plan Your Activities
Sketch out the major activities you want to enjoy and how much they cost. Make any last-minute adjustments to your savings so you can ensure you have enough money. This will also help you figure out if you need any reservations for your chosen tours or activities.
Step 12 – Sell Your Stuff
If you are going on a long-term trip (six months or more), sell your stuff in order to earn extra money for your trip. Start doing this about 60 days before you leave. Sites to use:
If you aren’t going to be gone that long, skip this step. If you are going away long-term but want to keep your stuff, move it to a friend’s house or keep it in storage. A good storage company in the US is Public Storage, which starts at $50 per month.
Step 13 – Automate Your Bills
Get rid of your mail, go paperless, and set up online bill payment for your recurring bills to ensure you won’t miss any overseas. If you are still going to get paper mail, use a service like Earth Class Mail, which will collect and scan your mail for you. (If you are going on a two-week trip, you don’t really need to worry about this, so you can skip this step, too.)
Step 14 – Tell Your Card Companies You’re Traveling
No matter how long you’ll be gone, it’s a good idea to let your credit card companies know you will be overseas; that way any transactions that you make aren’t flagged as fraudulent and your card is less likely to be blocked. There’s nothing worse than having to sit on the phone with your credit card company instead of enjoying your vacation.
Step 15 – Pack
Time to pack for your trip! Here’s a suggested packing list.
Step 16 – Buy Travel Insurance
While a lot of people think “I’m healthy, I don’t need travel insurance. I won’t get sick,” travel insurance is much more than just medical protection. It covers you when your camera breaks, your flight is canceled, a family member dies and you have to come home, or something is stolen.
Travel insurance is something you will need on the road. You never know what might happen, and most health plans won’t cover you overseas. I never thought I would pop my eardrum while I was scuba diving or break my camera in Italy. My friend never thought he would break his leg hiking; another friend certainly didn’t expect her father would die and she would have to fly back home.
Travel insurance is only a few dollars a day and only a fool doesn’t buy it. Here’s my ultimate guide to picking a good insurance company. (I use World Nomads for all my trips.)
Step 17 – Enjoy Your Trip
Go on your trip and have fun! Head to the airport, board your plane (don’t forget your passport!), and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
By using this post as a guideline, you can better organize and prepare for your trip (and if you are looking for more in-depth information about planning a trip, check out my book for next steps). You’ll check all the boxes, not miss anything, and have plenty of money for your vacation. It can be as simple as booking a flight and packing or as complex as rearranging your entire life to go backpack the world forever.
But no matter your trip length, this list will help you stay organized as you prepare to step onto that plane and out into the world.
P.S. Yes, I did leave out visas and vaccinations, because needing those isn’t as universal as the other stuff on this list, but don’t forget to check if you need those, too!