There is a lot of thought and coordination that goes into organizing travel, and after 14 years of planning my own international and stateside trips, I’ve got it down to an art. I delight in planning trips and often draw up itineraries for hypothetical future vacations when I’m putting the toddler down for a nap or if I need to engage my brain with a little productive daydreaming. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was contacted by a company that was creating an app for people who wanted to hire travel planners. Due to pandemic delays, this travel planning gig was put on pause, but I was inspired to outline my own process. Don’t like planning vacations and wish someone else could do it for you? Drop me a line and I can help you with the process.
Where I keep trip information
- Google Docs: this program allows me to archive my vacations (helps when I can’t remember where I’ve stayed and I need to reference it later) and is a great program for sharing with family members who want to follow your journey.
- Google Sheets: When I plan trips for other people, I will add in a sheet for budgets and make a folder in Google Drive with all of the relevant documents.
- Choose a location – the method in which we choose a location varies, but usually is by Patrick being inspired by something he read in his news feed (like our archeoastronomy trip to Chaco Canyon NM) or by me seeing a blog post, travel memoir or blurb online that makes me say “I want to go THERE” (cooking in Thailand, visiting the Makah in Neah Bay, WA). It starts with that one idea and that grows into the rest of our trip and what we are going to fill it with.
- Research: what is nearby (attractions, activities, places of interest), when are the shoulder seasons (important to us so we can avoid crowds and peak season craziness), what advice do other people have about visiting this place, what’s the food like (priorities, right?). All of this information, including the websites I get it from, goes into the Google doc. I make a section called “research” where I can dump any and all information I might find on a location. I work best in a “put it all on the table” system, and then pare it down later. Here are some go-to places for travel research:
- Websites: Lonely Planet, Atlas Obscura, Afar, G Adventures
- Traveler blog posts and Instagram
- Books from the library
- Travel memoirs and cookbooks
- My good ol’ social network – sometimes I do a general FB post asking the hive mind about a location, sometimes I see a friend’s posts and ask them directly.
3. Flights/transportation: Important information to know in this section includes travel time, cost and transportation options.
- Travel times: how long will it take to get to the location, how many layovers/driving time/public transportation, how long should our trip be in order to balance the travel to actual vacation ratio?
- What are our options for flights (various routes and layovers)
- What is the average cost I can budget for these flights?
4. Book lodging: Once we know all the information about our transport and it is booked, I start looking at places to stay. My favorite option (if we aren’t camping) is Airbnb, but in the past have used Hostelworld and also stayed in hotels in the area. This all depends on your comfort level with different types of accommodations, and that has varied for us in each destination as well. Now that we are traveling with a child, it weighs in quite a bit, too.
5. Writing the Itinerary: Now the writing gets serious, and I write out the final (-ish) plans in our Google Doc. Any research pages get bumped down to the bottom of the document, usually after a page break so I don’t get distracted. I write out all of our Flight info (flight numbers, hotel confirmations, etc.) and then write our day by day plans. I always make sure to write the day number + the actual date + the day of the week (DAY 1: Thursday, September 17). I’ve made mistakes in the past with not lining these up, so always double check your work. When making the final plan, here is some advice:
- Leave some space for flexibility, spontaneous inspiration and most importantly, rest. When I first started traveling, I packed everything I possibly could into one day, one week, one trip. I was broke and never knew if I would ever be able to see this place again. I’d spend the week after I returned recovering from my exhaustion and jet lag and could barely tell you what I did until the vacation hangover had cleared up. Then, I started traveling with my husband, who is a little more anxious about traveling and a lot more of a fan of relaxing. We’ve combined our two styles (ok, let’s be real, changing to more of his style is for the better) and our trips are much more fun and memorable.
Since Patrick and I had such different travel styles, we had to adjust and learn to work together to make the best experience for both of us. Communicating and creating these strategies have kept the peace and helped us became a better travel team.
Here are our “rules”
- Stay in one location no less than three days – this prevents the “grass is greener” mindset and gives you a little bit of a chance to actually know a place. It applies to locations as well as airbnb/campsites /hotels.
- Plan no more than one activity per day – this doesn’t mean you can’t DO more than one thing in a day, but you can’t “bookend” tours or hikes or classes. Ex. For a Glacier National Park trip- In the AM: hike the Walk of the Cedsrs to the lake, bring a lunch. (expect to take 2-3 hours). Lunch and then open afternoon, probably at Lake McDonald. It relieves a lot of my scheduling stress and keeps us present in the activity we are doing, rather than stressing about how we are going to manage our meals /time until the next one.
- When planning, everyone gets at least one MUST do. When we create our rough itinerary, I do most of the planning and so this allows the non-planners to be part of the planning process and also forces me to consider other travel preferences. When we went to Kauai – Patrick wanted to take surf lessons and I wanted to hike in Waimea. Obviously both people can have more than one thing they want to do, but this helps prioritize activities so you both get the most out of your trip.
- We must know where are staying and how you’re getting there before the trip. I did this already, but Patrick had gone on enough road trips with friends to know this wasn’t always everyone’s priority.
We’re all itching to get back on the road again, and I’ve been making dream itineraries and wish lists for the first trip that we will take after pandemic restrictions have lifted and it is safe to explore the world again. First, I know we’ll visit family in Montana, but after that, who knows? Maybe Japan? Iceland? Back to Mexico? Where do you want to visit once life is back to normalcy?
Don’t like planning vacations and wish someone else could do it for you? Contact me for a consult as your own personal travel planner.
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