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A Beginner’s Guide To Planning An International Trip – Part 1

Britta in Paris 3
My tour group in Paris during my post-graduation Europe Trip, 2013.

A couple of years ago I did a post about 11 Reasons Why We Should Travel after planning a family trip to Mexico. I wanted to share that while making the decision to travel requires a financial investment…there is also a huge emotional payoff! A payoff that continues to produce “dividends” years after the trip is taken as you share the memories with your fellow travelers.

Today my daughter Britta is sharing her thoughts and practical wisdom on traveling….a subject near and dear to her heart! I’m so incredibly proud of her brave and intelligent spirit! I know you will love reading about her travel adventures as much as I did!

Britta writes…….  During my senior year of college, I suddenly became obsessed with the idea of travel. So a couple of weeks after graduating, I booked myself on a European tour through a tour provider, and spent three weeks traveling around with 25 or so college-age kids who were complete strangers to me. That trip was life-changing, and it inspired me to make travel a top priority from then on. Luckily, Neil, the man I married shortly after that trip, was also interested in traveling, so we decided to plan our own extended trip to the UK and Ireland (and ultimately Iceland as well!).

Related: These Are The Best Tips For Packing A Carry On Bag

Planning a Trip
Neil and I at Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland, 2015.

We went on that backpacking-style trip this past April, and it was completely amazing. Since it was the first international trip I had ever planned and organized on my own, there was a LOT to learn, and I’m excited to be able to share what I learned with all of you! As it turns out, I have so much to share this topic that there was just too much to cover in one post, so I’ll be splitting it up over two days. Today I’ll cover the major aspects of trip planning, like saving money, flights, and itineraries, and tomorrow we’ll dive into the finer details like transportation, lodging, packing, and more. So without further ado, let’s get started!

Destination & General Details

When you start planning an international trip, you should start by answering three basic questions: “Where am I going?”, “When am I going?”, and “How long will I be gone?”. The answers to these questions are going to be the solid foundation on which you build your trip.

Planning a Trip

When deciding where you’ll travel to, consider what kinds of things you’d like to do while traveling, such as sight-seeing, visiting museums, hiking, biking, windsurfing, etc. You can also think about any location-based interests you might have, like a particular region’s history, its food culture, or its natural landmarks. You can also take cost into consideration. For instance, traveling in Western Europe can be quite pricey, while locations in South America or Southeast Asia can be very cheap. Take your time deciding on a destination, but don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by possibilities!

Planning a Trip

Once you’ve decided where you’re going, generally, you’ll then want to decide when this trip is going to take place. Obviously this depends largely on your own life circumstances, such as when you or your travel companion can get work off, but there are other factors to consider as well. Traveling in the heat of summer can be pretty miserable depending on your destination, and some places get really crowded during the height of tourist season, which can drive prices on nearly everything WAY up. If you’re looking to avoid crowds and save money, traveling during the “shoulder seasons” (generally fall and spring) is the way to go.

Finally, you’ll need to decide how long your trip will be. Again, this will largely depend on your personal circumstances, but on the other hand, you don’t want to sell yourself short. Trips like this happen once every few years at best, so you might as well make it as long as possible!

Budgeting & Saving

Now that your trip has started to take shape, it’s time to think about money. (Ew, I know.) Extended international trips cost money, so it’s good to have a ballpark idea of how much you’re looking at spending. A quick Google search of flights can give you an idea of how much you can expect to pay for plane tickets, which will most likely be your biggest expense. The next biggest expense will probably be hotels and lodging, and you can get an idea of what that might cost by searching your destination in TripAdvisor. For help estimating day-to-day costs for food, attractions, and transportation, it can help to look up your destination on Lonely Planet. They have an “Essential Information” page for each country that can give you a good idea of what you can expect to pay. Now take all of those estimates you looked up, add them together, and there’s your rough budget.

Planning a Trip

Now, what about saving that money? There are basically three main ways to save up for a trip.

Option 1: Save a little bit each month over a long period of time, until you reach your budget goal.
Option 2: Save as much money as humanly possibly to reach your goal in a shorter amount of time.
Option 3: Don’t save any money for your trip, and put it all on a credit card. (This a not a good method.)

Option 1 is obviously the most responsible method, but it can take a long time to save up that kind of money doing it a little bit at a time! And since I am my mother’s daughter, patience has never really been my strong suit, so we went with Option 2. We had been vaguely planning on going somewhere, so I used what we had saved to buy our plane tickets. For the next 6 months, we saved every extra dollar we got our hands on to reach our budget goal.

Planning a Trip
We stayed in and played games a lot while we were saving for our trip. Here we are playing Battleship.

And honestly, I prefer the “countdown” saving method! We essentially had NO extra money during those 6 months to do anything other than pay our bills and buy food, but we were so excited for the trip that we didn’t really care. While our friends were going out, we were hanging out at home by planning our trip, dreaming about our trip, talking about our trip, and doing a lot of jigsaw puzzles.

Flights & Airlines

Now that you’ve got your savings plan (or lack thereof) worked out, it’s time to book a flight! There are a million websites out there you can use to find flights, but there’s one in particular that is great for trip planning – especially if you can be a little flexible with your plans! Skyscanner.com is one of the only sites I’ve found that will let you search prices for a particular flight over a whole month. You can search for flights from Salt Lake City to Rome in October, so you can compare flight prices by the day and save yourself some money.

Planning a Trip

But price isn’t the only factor you’ll want to consider when choosing an airline. Your airline choice can also influence your trip itinerary, because some international airlines offer great deals to visit a particular country. While planning our UK trip, we found out that if you fly to or from Europe on Icelandair, you can “stop-over” in Iceland for up to 7 days for no additional cost to your ticket. Thanks to this deal, we were able to spend 4 amazing days exploring Iceland on the tail-end of our trip. Other airlines that offer stopover deals include Turkish Airlines, Air China, FinnAir, and Japan Airlines. Adding a stopover to your trip can make it feel like two trips for the price of one!

Different airlines, as I’m sure you know, have different pros and cons for international travelers. It’s up to you to find an airline that not only fits your budget, but that also hopefully offers incentives for flying with them, such as stopover options, frequent flyer miles, more leg room, or free checked bags.

Planning an Itinerary

You just booked your plane tickets, so now the planning process can really kick into high-gear. Your next step is get more specific, and ultimately create a basic day-by-day itinerary of where you’ll be going on your trip. The first thing you’ll need to decide is how much ground you want to cover – do you want to stay in one city, or visit several cities in one country, or maybe even visit several countries?? There’s no wrong way to do it. Everyone will try to tell you how many days/weeks/months you need to spend in a particular location to “really experience it”, but this is YOUR TRIP dang it, and you get to set the pace. On our April trip, we were changing cities every 2-3 days. It’s totally doable, but I wouldn’t recommend that sort of pace for the more leisurely traveler.

Planning a Trip
Many of my afternoons during February and March were spent reading travel books in coffee shops.

If you’re a visual person like I am, it can be very helpful to make a trip calendar. Print out a basic calendar that covers the time you’ll be gone, and start filling it in as you make decisions about where you’ll go. (Write in pencil so you can make edits as necessary, or as you change your mind). Grab a couple of travel books about your destination for ideas and inspiration. Early on in the planning process, I went to the bookstore and bought a travel book about Great Britain, and started marking any locations and attractions that caught my eye. Once I had gone through the book, I printed out a map of the British Isles and started circling the locations of the things I had marked in my book. Seeing it on a map really helped me start to visualize a potential route and timeline for our trip. It also helped me to start eliminating out-of-the-way locations or attractions that I didn’t absolutely need to see.

Planning a Trip
The map and calendar I used to plan our itinerary.

If you’re overwhelmed by the idea of creating your own itinerary from scratch, there are sample trip itineraries all over the internet that can help you get started. Just Google “[your trip length] itinerary in [your destination]”, and get a bunch of results. If any of your search results link to travel message boards, make sure you read those! Travel boards are a treasure trove of great information, usually posted by people who have done similar trips, or who live there themselves.

Make sure to stop by the blog again tomorrow for Part 2 of The Beginner’s Guide to Planning an International Trip. I’ll be sharing tips for arranging transportation, accommodations, and visits to attractions, as well as sharing some hard-earned travel lessons!



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Bright Ideas

  • I never went on one of those graduated-from-high-school/college tours of Europe that some of my friends went on, and I felt I’d missed out. But in my mid-20s, with an Army friend in Bremerhaven, Germany, and another friend working in Munich, I summoned all my courage and booked a flight to London (cheapest destination) and then a train to Bremerhaven—and I’d never even traveled on public transport by myself before! I mastered a few German phrases (where is the nearest bank/main train station, etc.) and brought back memories I still treasure 40 years later. My time in London wasn’t wasted either: they speak English after all and I was lucky enough to find work there the following year. To my surprise, marriage and family followed … and I’m still living in a foreign country, with 4 kids who speak with a foreign accent. God save the Queen! Seriously, I’ve never travelled more than in my Senior Years, and I’ve never tired of encountering all the variety of culture that humans have developed. Go for it—but pack minimally!

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