Disclaimer: This post might contain affiliate links, which means we get a small commission if you make a purchase (at no extra cost to you).
Planning a trip can be a really daunting task if you’re not sure where to start. In this 11 step guide to planning ANY trip, we are sharing with you the budget-friendly trip planning strategy that we use! We use this travel planning guide whether we’re planning a weekend getaway or a two-week vacation! As young adults, we also understand that finding the time and money to travel can be difficult, so we’ve included some easy ways to save money and make time for traveling! We understand that money can be the biggest deciding factor for travel planning, so we used our past experiences to develop this money-saving travel planning strategy!
In this guide, we include some of our favorite websites to book hotels and transit from, where to find great travel deals, and how to find the best activities and places to eat. Over the past years, we have made many, many mistakes when travel planning and we don’t want you to make any mistakes when planning your trip! Everything included in this guide is things that we have learned along the way of trip planning. By using this step-by-step guide, hopefully, you can plan the best trip and save some money along the way! Let’s get to planning that trip!
How to Plan Your Next Trip
Determine Your Budget
As young adults and recent college graduates, the budget is the biggest factor for us. But we made traveling possible while being college students! Even if you aren’t a young adult, we understand that some families and couples have financial struggles too and that money makes travel planning difficult. So for us, the first step is to consider, how much money do you really have to travel?
Your budget is going to be the biggest factor in deciding where you can go and how much time you can take off from work. Destinations around the world have very different price points, and these prices can vary greatly throughout the year. It’s not logical to plan a trip and a beautiful itinerary to only realize you’ll be maxing out your credit card. So consider the travel budget early in your planning so you can stay on track and strategize. And most of the time (at least for us!) it’s very easy to go over budget when you actually go on the trip. Of course, hotels and transit will be booked ahead of time, so you’ll have those costs accounted for, but smaller expenses like food, spontaneous excursions, and souvenir shopping can add up and break the bank while on the trip. This being said, consider your budget, but also remember there are some great ways to travel hack and get great deals! So don’t be discouraged if your budget is looking smaller than what you hoped. Later in this guide, we’re going to share with you some money-saving strategies for travel.
Figure Out How Many Days You Have Available
We’re writing this from the perspective of two people who work full-time. Vacation days are sometimes hard to come by, especially if you’re early in your career or have a highly demanding job. When travel planning, know how many days are available before you pick your destination. Yes, you might want to go to Thailand, but if you’re living on the Eastern Coast of the United States, a 5 day trip to Thailand is going to have almost 2 full days in the airport. So that’s not really worth it, right?
Knowing how many days you have available to travel is helpful in picking your destination for that exact reason. Getting to your destination is going to take some period of time, whether it be a two-hour drive or a 7-hour flight. The shorter the time you have, the closer to the home you’ll probably want to travel if you want to maximize your true “vacation time” and exploration time! This is why when we plan two-day/weekend getaways, we typically don’t travel further than a 4-hour drive from home. But for weeklong trips, we’re willing to fly and go further.
Pick Where You Want to Go
Now that you know your budget and length of trip, pick where you want to go based on these conditions. A lot of other factors can go into choosing where you want to go. Is this a bucket list destination? Are you traveling for a specific event you want to attend? What time of year is it? Is the destination safe? What kind of trip do you want this to be? Adventure travel? Foodie travel? City travel? Who are you traveling with? Relax and do nothing on the beach travel? Think about what you want from this travel experience and consider those things when picking where you want to go!
Start Browsing and Researching Your Favorite Travel Booking Sites for the Best Prices
But Keep Your Card in Your Wallet at First
Now that you have an idea of where you want to go, start browsing travel websites for hotels and transit prices and options. Definitely, take the time and browse as many sites as you can to find the best deal. If while you’re browsing you start to feel the place is going to be too expensive, look on other websites. Don’t be afraid to look at a bunch of different websites like Kayak, Booking, Expedia, Trip Advisor, Airbnb, Google Flights and Hotels, etc. Sometimes third party booking websites like Booking.com or Expedia.com are better than the hotel chain’s website, but other times if you sign up for rewards programs, you’ll get a bigger discount (and start racking up points)! This is where you’ll start to have too many tabs open on your computer. When we plan for travel, we look at almost all 3rd party booking websites in addition to cross-checking the direct transit and hotel websites to compare prices. Sometimes booking directly from the company is cheaper than a website like Expedia or Booking!
Another way to try and save money is by being flexible with your dates if possible. Weekends and holidays for traveling tend to be more expensive, so if you’re able to be flexible, give it a try in your search and see if it saves you money!
Let’s talk about Airbnb, sometimes people automatically think that Airbnb is always cheaper than hotels. Sometimes this is not the case! Make sure you’re checking both hotels and Airbnb for your needs. But if you sign up for Airbnb, you’ll get a $30 off credit!
Our favorite way to make this browsing process easier is to make an Excel Worksheet with columns for the type of booking, the URL, price, fees, and other important info. This can help you stay organized and so you can find your top choices later.
Travel DiscountsTeacher Discount – Save 10% off with verified IDStudent Discount – Save 10% off with verified Student IDMilitary Members save 10% off with verified Troop ID
If you’re a student looking for travel deals, considering booking through Student Universe. Student Universe gives exclusive travel discounts to students!
Watch out for Hidden Fees or Rip-Off Airfares
When looking for hotels and flights, fees and additional charges can be VERY sneaky. Travel websites are very good at hiding them in the fine print. For hotels, if you’re planning on driving, many hotels have parking fees that can be up to $30. Or Wifi and breakfast aren’t included in the rate.
On Airbnb, sometimes the cleaning and service fees are overpriced and can cost as much as one night stay! We’ve noticed on Airbnb (depending on the listing) cleaning fees can be outrageous.
For airlines, make sure (especially on third-party booking sites) that your seat isn’t a “basic economy.” Recently, basic economy for certain airlines like United and American Airlines has become a seat with NO CARRY ON BAG, no seat choices, and no cancellation. If you have a carry-on they’ll force you to either pay or check the bag for a fee! This is incredibly inconvenient for most travelers and not worth saving the money. Because let’s face it, who can realistically travel with all their things in a personal bag? To us, these seats are a rip-off. So make sure when you’re factoring in your airfares costs, that you’re considering the seat you actually want!
Consider Signing Up for Reward Programs or Credit Cards
Now that you’ve done some research on hotels and transit, consider signing up for reward programs to save some extra money. Third-party booking sites like Expedia and Booking allow you to build up points that can be redeemed as money on their site in the future. Hotels and airlines alike have both “create an account” reward programs and credit cards that give you deals. Company-specific reward programs and credit cards are great if you’re loyal to a particular chain or network. Unfortunately, you can’t “double-dip” per se by signing up for a reward program and then adding your member number to your Expedia account booking. For example, you can only get Hilton points booking on Hilton’s website.
We personally love Expedia as our favorite third-party booking site. We personally feel that Expedia has a better selection of hotels than other websites, and it’s easier to build reward points. And if you use a cashback browsers plugin like Ebates, you can get cashback on Expedia! There have been times that we got $30 cashback because we used Ebates with Expedia! And as you gain more points with Expedia, you’re given additional member-exclusive discounts and more reward money.
If you’re not looking to join a specific airline or hotel credit card reward program, consider a general card like the Bank of America Travel Rewards Card or DiscoverIt Miles. These cards are great for students and young adults who might not have a credit history. The Bank of America Travel Rewards Card allows you to build up points that can go towards crediting any travel purchases on your card. Basically, you can make your travel charges go away! The DiscoverIt Miles card has a similar program as well. Both of these programs are great for people who might not get approved for other cards. If you have great credit, there are a bunch of other cards, like Capital One Venture Card, that operate in a similar way.
If you’re interested in an airline or hotel card, consider if they’re offering a signup bonus or any other perks like no interest for a year or no annual fee for a year. We did this with our Delta Gold Skymiles Cards and were awarded 60,000 miles for spending $2000 in the first 3 months. Because of this bonus, we have a free flight ready to use! To us, the most important thing about signing up for reward programs is to check the terms and conditions regarding when points expire. For the Delta Card, points never expire! But other cards or reward programs might have expiration dates. It would totally suck if you were slowly building up points to have a some expire at the end of every year.
Research Activities and Ask for Recommendations
Now that you’re committed to traveling to this destination, check if there is anything as a “must-do.” Some people, especially bloggers, argue to “skip the tourist traps” or “say no to the touristy things.” Yes, traveling like a local can give you a unique perspective and overtourism is a sustainability problem. But it’s likely most people who travel want to see the “top things to do” in a destination. So go see the top things!
It’s also really important to check if museums, historic sites, or activities have timed ticketing. There’s nothing worse than showing up at a museum only to realize tickets are sold out for the rest of the day. This has happened to us both in Amsterdam and Philadelphia!
This is also a good time to use Groupon to your advantage! Groupon offers a range of activities and restaurant coupons, so check out what deals you can find to help with trip costs!
Browse Local Tourism Websites
If you’re looking for local events or special things to do at a destination, look at the local tourism websites to see what might be going on while you’re there. There have been times when we browsed local websites the day of a trip and found concerts and festivals to attend! Browse Facebook as well based on the location too. Local businesses and organizations typically update their Facebook pages with their events so it’s a good place to look for things to do!
Research Restaurants and Meals
When planning your trip consider if there are any local dishes or must-try restaurants that you have to visit. For example, Cincinnati is known for its Skyline Chili, so it’s a must-do! A quick Google search should be able to help you out!
Create Your Itinerary
One of the things people forget to do while planning activities and excursions in their itineraries are looking where these things are on a map. Sometimes activities or things to do are super spread out over a city or area, so it’s important to consider how you will get there logistically so you aren’t back-tracking or going too far out of the way on one day. This will be especially helpful if you’re planning on using public transit. Having a logical plan of how you’re going to get to each activity will make your days go so much better! And make sure that you’re leaving enough time in your itinerary to have free time! Free time is great for when you need to slow down from touring or being on the go. And it leaves room for if something unexpected comes up! Sometimes you’ll learn about something really cool and exciting after you get to your destination!
Manage the Tedious Travel Prep
Before you leave on your trip, there are a lot of tedious tasks that need to be done first. Like how are you accessing your money if you’re abroad? Call credit card companies and banks so they don’t freeze your cards. Preparing your cell phones if you’re traveling internationally. Getting immunizations if they’re needed, Checking safety or travel alerts. Getting a visa or passport if it’s needed. Printing relevant travel documents. Flight check-ins and confirming reservations. The list goes on here.
Download the Best Travel Apps
Before you hit the road or airport for your trip, make sure to download some of the best travel apps!
Packing for your trip can either be super fun or the most stressful part! Our packing for any trip guide should be able to help if you’re not feeling confident!