Before you go away, you not only have to organize your home life (get a petsitter/babysitter/housesitter), stop the newspaper/mail, take vacation from work, arrange transportation to/from the airport, etc. but you actually have to plan your trip.
First and foremost, before even booking the trip, is figuring out where you want to go. Have you always dreamt of traveling through Tuscany? Spending a week exploring London? Laying on a beach in Thailand? Figuring out where you want to go is obviously the first step.
Next up is doing some research to figure out when you want to go. Clearly, most people’s work schedule dictates when they can get away, but if you’re wide open, then you have to take into consideration a) climate and b) tourist season. Going to South America during rainy season or going to Europe in the middle of the summer is asking for trouble. If you know what you’re getting into, you can figure out what/where to avoid.
Once you have the particulars of dates, you can start researching hotels and airfare. One of my favorite resources is Airfarewatchdog.com, which is a website that lists the lowest fares all over the globe. I am signed up for daily updates from the Philadelphia area (where I live) and New York City (where my parents live and where I figure more deals will be since it is a bigger travel hub). We just got a great fare to Paris for $224 round-trip per person that was posted on Twitter via Airfarewatchdog, so following sites like this, or TripAdvisor, SkyScanner, and/or Trazzler makes sense as well. My schedule is somewhat flexible, so when I saw that inexpensive airfare, I jumped and booked it, then rearranged my schedule since that sale sold out in less than an hour (!). Being flexible about where you can fly out of (if you are fortunate, as we are, to live near several airports) is also helpful.
Looking on websites like TripAdvisor really helps to get a sense of a hotel. Read each review with a grain of salt as everyone’s tastes are different, of course. But one thing that I think is the hallmark of a good hotel is if a staff member takes the time to respond to an unfavorable review. To me, that says that they care about their customers and want to ensure that everyone has an enjoyable experience. There are clearly some people out there who have nothing better to do than slam a hotel and are just negative to start with, but you get an idea of that by reading several of their posts (or looking at that one in comparison with 90% of the others). Fodor’s also gives good advice about hotels and areas to stay in.
For booking flights and hotels, we recommend going through Kayak or the hotel/airline itself (for flights, we just click on whatever link Airfarewatchdog recommends). We also like Hotels.com and have used Priceline.com as well.
After you book your flight and your hotel(s), figuring out transportation is important, whether it be to/from the airport or to sites or between countries. In almost all cities, there is going to be the option of taking a taxi to/from the airport. Also look into hotel shuttles (most times they are free) or a low-rate shuttle that you can share with other people, such as SuperShuttle. Renting a car from the airport is usually pretty standard across the US but I’m not too familiar about car rental abroad (see Fodor’s for more information about that). Additionally, taking public transportation such as a bus, train, or subway/metro (or boat!) from the airport is a viable, relatively inexpensive option. Before you arrive, make sure that there is not construction that will result in you being detoured (which recently happened to us). It is wise anyway to get an idea of how long it will take and what you have to do to get there. Fodor’s is a great resource for this–the forums are really helpful in planning your transportation and have links to sites specific to your destination. Also, make sure you check a timetable to help you plan your day. In some instances, you have to purchase tickets in advance (i.e. with the Eurostar). If you are flying between countries in Europe, we have had a great experience with EasyJet, which is an airline that has low-cost flights. It is a little bit annoying since it is first-come, first-serve in terms of seating (free for all!) but for the price, we were very pleased (though we have only used it once).
Once you have arrived at your hotel, there is a strong likelihood you will not be able to get into your room. If you are in a city, ask if there is a secure room to stash your baggage and head out for a bite to eat or even to take in an attraction. If you’re at a beach resort, plan to pack your bathing suit either in your carry-on or in an easily accessible exterior pocket of your bag. Usually you can use a room to shower/change, but a bathroom works out well also. Then hit the beach until your room is ready!
Another important part of planning is determining meals. At an all-inclusive resort, you usually will have a choice of restaurants for the night and day so that’s almost a no-brainer. In cities, you are clearly mostly on your own. Most major hotels have a hotel restaurant so eating there is fine (or sometimes coveted–our hotel in London, the Metropolitan, housed Nobu! And many Caribbean resorts or hotels in LA, NYC, or Vegas have the major restaurants in-house) but if you want to explore the city, we encourage it. Asking the concierge is a good place to start, but using resources such as TripAdvisor or a local blogger is also an excellent idea. We have also gotten suggestions of bakeries and restaurants from travel TV shows. I like taking books out of the library about local cuisine and reading up on their restaurants. There are just so many places out there that usually a good meal is right around the corner (depending on where you are).
For figuring out sights and attractions, my favorite European guidebooks are written by Rick Steves. He also has a TV show (you can get his DVDs at your local library for free or almost free) and a good website. We really can’t say enough about his books–they’re fantastic. We also like TimeOut and DaysOut for London also. Other books by Frommers and Fodor’s provide a lot of information as well. Browse the travel section at your local bookstore or library and pick up whatever strikes your fancy–just make sure it is relatively current (i.e. last 2-3 years).
To get the lay of the land in a city, Google Earth is a great tool to see where you are going. You can drag and drop the little guy in front of a building or a sight to get a street view. It is really great to arrive in a city and know where you’re going because you’ve seen that street before.
Before we go on vacation, we have both a virtual and a physical itinerary. My iPhone has an app called Tripit, which is also a website. If you sign up on the website, you can forward your itinerary from your flight, confirmation emails from your hotel, etc. to a specified email address and it will be organized on your smartphone. You can access it without internet, so it’s great to have that all listed in a portable device. It also provides maps and weather. The downfall is that not all of the emails are “understood” by Tripit, so if you have a confirmation from a small, boutique hotel, it may not list it, but that is the exception rather than the rule.
The physical itinerary we carry is a 1″ 3-ring binder. We (being OCD and dorks) use plastic sheet protectors to keep everything organized (you can put multiple pages into one sheet protector), as well as flags to keep order (labeled as Hotels, Dining, Transportation, etc. I will even use different colored flags if we are going to several countries. Don’t ask.). We print out flight confirmation, hotel confirmation, tickets, boarding passes, restaurant reservations, theater confirmation, etc and file them accordingly. I also have been known to tear out magazine articles or print out pages from blogs or websites that list restaurants or information about attractions. I’ve even photocopied some pages from books so I don’t have to lug a book across the globe. In the back of the notebook is the important stuff: color copies of credit cards (back and front), our passports, and even our marriage certificate. I have a different last name from my husband (haven’t gotten around to changing it yet) and I just want to carry proof that we’re married in case (God forbid) one of us ends up in the hospital or jail or something (what? I watch a lot of soap operas and have an active imagination). Whenever we get to the hotel, these important pages come right out of the binder and go into the safe.
This also reminds me: if you are planning on leaving the country, call your credit card company to notify them about your plans to make sure that a) your card is able to be used abroad (I found out that Discover is not accepted in Europe…) and b) you have permission to use it and the fee is not outrageously high. The CapitalOne card has no international transaction fee (most cards charge 3%). There is nothing worse than going to use your credit card abroad and finding out that they will not grant you permission (I guess coming home to a crazy-high random fee is bad too). My aunt’s card was denied when she traveled 2 hours away from home (still in the continental US!) and tried to charge $400 because she historically does not travel and it was a flag on her activity! Her credit is flawless and her credit line is multiple times that amount and even she was denied access. Everything was straightened out after a phone call to the bank, which was easy from Pennsylvania to NY but not as easy from Chang Mai, Thailand.
Additionally, you should get a PIN number (if you don’t already have one) for your credit card if you need to get cash in an emergency. Most banks charge a fee to take cash out of ATM machines, but if you’re in a pinch, it’s not an exorbitant fee. Obviously, your debit card is likely not going to have a fee, so that’s the better option from that standpoint. However, if my card were stolen and used, I would prefer someone to steal cash from my credit card (it will likely be protected) than wiping my checking account clean. But that’s just me. You have to make sure your PIN is numerical (at least when you’re going to Europe–not sure about other places) and not a word/letter combination.
The best exchange rates are normally from banks via the ATM. Of course there is a concern about cards being eaten by machines, etc, so feel free to go to a stand or change money before you leave the states, but you are probably going to be given a not-so-great exchange rate. Whenever we went to Thailand growing up, we always exchanged money at banks and never used ATMs, but they probably weren’t readily available in 1987 anyway.
I think that’s the basic beginning steps to getting your act together before going away…of course there is much, much more (packing, cell phone use, making a first-aid kit, etc) but I’ll get to that another time!