Today we’re continuing this travel series with Part 2 of my daughter Britta’s tips and wisdom for planning an international trip. Yesterday she covered the basics of trip planning, and today’s she’s sharing how to tackle all of the fine details including transportation, lodging, food, attractions, and more! Take it away Britta! :-)
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Once you know where you’re going, you’ll also want to know how you’re going to get around. This will largely depend on where you’re going, and what methods of transportation are available there. But generally speaking, if you’re planning on traveling around quite a bit on your trip, your main options are usually trains, planes, buses, and cars.
Many locations around the world are connected by rail, so booking train tickets can be a great way to go from country to country or city to city. If you’re planning on covering a lot of ground via train, a rail pass can be an excellent investment. For our time in the UK, Neil and I purchased BritRail passes which let us hop on any train, any time, going anywhere in Great Britain. While this wasn’t necessarily the cheapest way to go, the convenience was absolutely worth the extra money to us. We purchased our rail passes from ACP Rail International, who also offer passes that cover continental Europe, Australia and Japan.
Flying can be a quick and convenient way to get around during your trip, and there are many budget airlines out there these days that can make it an affordable option. However, make sure to do your research before booking with budget airlines. You’re pretty much always going to be charged extra fees of some sort. And even if you have a bag that could qualify as a carry-on in the states, a budget airline may have different size requirements that your bag may not meet. Just be sure you know what you’re committing to before booking those flights!
But even if flying isn’t the cheapest option to get from point A to point B during your trip, it’s also important to think about travel time. We visited Dublin for a few days on our trip, and our plan was to go to Cardiff after that. Flying was a bit more expensive than taking the ferry, but with the two-hour ferry ride back to Britain, plus a 5-6 hour train ride to get to Cardiff, we decided that the hour-long flight was definitely worth the extra cost for the travel time we would save.
Buses are an excellent option for getting around cities, or traveling between cities in more rural areas. Bus tickets can be quite cheap, and you can sometimes get a good discount for booking bus trips in advance (though advance booking may not even be available in some areas). You can find out the popular bus companies in any given country or region by Googling “bus travel [your destination]”.
And finally, there’s cars. In some places, renting a car is really the only option if you want to get around and explore (such as in Iceland). There are a few challenges that come along with driving a car in a foreign country, even if you do travel somewhere where they drive on the same side of the road as in your home country. Some of the challenges we encountered while driving in southern Iceland included understanding the road signs, figuring out how to pay for gas, and surviving regular wind gusts near 50mph. But renting a car allowed us the freedom to go explore several of the country’s amazing waterfalls, geysers, and other natural wonders at our own leisure.
And let’s not forget the option of taking a cab, taxi, or other car service while abroad. This definitely is not a budget-friendly option, but for those times when you have your bags with you and have a several mile walk ahead of you, sometimes it’s worth the splurge! While we walked just about everywhere while in the UK and Ireland, we did utilize Uber a handful of times. You just can’t beat calling an Uber car in terms of convenience!
After planning how you’re getting around, you’re going to need some places to sleep. There are a ton of options out there that cater to a variety of budgets, from hostels and B&Bs to luxury hotels. Hostels are definitely the best option in terms of price per night, with some offering beds for as low as $15-20 per night, but let’s be real – most people aren’t going to be interested in sharing a room and bathroom with a dozen or so strangers (my husband included).
So for the budget-conscious traveler seeking a moderate amount of privacy, I highly recommend checking out Airbnb. While Airbnb is most well-known as a place to rent a spare bedroom, it also offers tons of listings for entire apartments. We stayed in Airbnb listings about 90% of the time on our trip, in a mix of lovely one-bedroom apartments and private rooms, and nearly every host we had was kind, helpful, and made us feel welcome in their space. Staying at an Airbnb listing can be significantly cheaper than traditional hotels depending on the area, but it can also provide other surprising benefits, too. Most Airbnb hosts provide Guidebooks along with their listings that describe the nearby restaurants, grocery stores, and attractions in their neighborhood. We utilized our hosts’ Guidebooks extensively, which lead to some of our favorite discoveries and experiences of our trip!
But if you’re not into Airbnb, or are maybe staying in an area without many Airbnb options, never fear – there are still ways to find budget-friendly accommodations with the immersive, local experience we all want while traveling abroad! For this, you’ll want to head to Booking.com and its seriously amazing search features. You can type in the city you want to stay in, limit the search to fit your budget, and also limit the search to your preferred type of property, like locally-owned B&Bs or guesthouses. That’s exactly how I booked one of our favorite stays on our trip, at the Crossroads Guesthouse in the port town of Holyhead, Wales. The owner Len was such a sweetheart, and gave us a recommendation for a morning seaside walk that blew our minds. Opting for guesthouses and BnBs over traditional hotels is the way to go, for both richer local experiences and value for your money.
Attractions, Activities, and Food
You survived planning the logistics of your trip, so now let’s get to the fun part, and the reason why you’re traveling in the first place – the attractions, activities, and food!
To book ahead, or not to book ahead? That is the question. And the answer to that question really depends on what kind of traveler you are. Do you want the flexibility to change plans on a moments notice and go where the wind takes you? Or are you the more organized type who wants everything planned down to the minute? I personally fall somewhere in between. So I ended up choosing a few of the attractions and activities that I was absolutely positive we wanted to see, like the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London and the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, and purchased those tickets in advance. The main advantage to purchasing tickets ahead of time is skipping the ticket line or getting a discount on ticket prices, but that can come at the cost of committing yourself to a particular entrance time. But for me, that was a small price to pay for the peace-of-mind of knowing I had a ticket to the things I really wanted to do.
If you’re going to a city that has a lot of attractions that you know you want to visit, consider purchasing a City Pass. City Passes provide pass holders with free or deeply discounted admission to many of that city’s top attractions, including notable buildings, churches, museums, zoos, and more. These passes can be a great deal, but make sure they’re going to be worth the purchase price before you buy. If you’re only in a certain city for a couple of days, or only plan on seeing a few sights, they’re probably not going to be worth it.
The question of what to eat while traveling could probably take up a whole blog post on its own! You can treat food like any other attraction, looking up reviews of restaurants and planning which one you’ll visit on which day, but I find that exhausting! There are SO MANY OPTIONS for food anywhere you go! My advice is ask for recommendations from hosts, guesthouse owners, tour guides, or any local who will listen. Sure, splurging on a fancy meal once or twice on a trip can be great, but for the most part, I’d rather have what the locals are having (even if it is fermented shark, like in Iceland!). And if you happen to be staying somewhere with a small kitchen, make meals to take with you, especially on travel days!
Packing for Your Trip
You’ve made it this far, and your last real task is to pack your bags! For any international trip where you’re moving around frequently, especially if you’re going to be utilizing public transportation, the most practical luggage option is going to be a backpack. There are many great options available for travel backpacks that aren’t “backpacking backpacks” with clunky metal frames. We used Tortuga Travel Backpacks on our trip and would highly recommend them to any traveler.
As far as WHAT to pack… that’s another animal entirely! My best piece of advice is to bring layers. A couple of pairs of pants, shorts if it’s going to be warm, a couple t-shirts, maybe a long sleeved shirt if you’re going somewhere chilly, a sweater or two, and a rain jacket should get you through just about any situation. Anything bulkier than what’s listed here is going to take up a lot of room in your bag, and that’s no good. Just bring some laundry soap along with you, and get acquainted with the joys of doing laundry in a sink. It’s all part of the adventure! :-)
One final packing tip: utilize packing cubes! My husband thought I was crazy when I bought them for us, but halfway through our trip he was telling me what a great idea it was to get them. It may seem strange, but the simple act of having your clothes restrained in smaller zippered cases makes packing and unpacking repeatedly SO much easier. And your bag doesn’t look like a bomb went off inside of it every time you take something out, which is nice.
Miscellaneous “Good-to-Know” Tips
Access the internet from your phone or tablet wherever you roam by renting a personal hotspot (“MiFi”) device. Being able to access the internet when you need it can be a lifesaver, like when you’re standing outside of an apartment building in Dublin because you forgot which unit you were supposed to go to. An extra $10-15 per day may be worth it to you, depending on how prone you are to getting lost! :-)
Write everything down. This goes along with the tip above. Write down every address, every host name, every phone number, and every detail they provide about getting to or into the property. Those details may end up being the difference between smooth sailing and an epic disaster!
Utilize luggage storage services. Many train stations and hostels offer luggage storage services. Train station services are convenient, but can get pricey, while hostels may be a little more off the beaten path but only charge you $5 to hold onto your bag for the day. It certainly beats carrying it around all day!
Sign up for a walking tour. I have to give a shoutout to Auður, the Reykjavik native behind the blog I Heart Reykjavik (an indispensible resource for anyone wanting to travel to Iceland!). She also happens to run the best walking tour in the city. We went on her walking tour on our second day in Reykjavik, and we were so glad we did! She shared interesting historical information, spotlighted great street art, and shared some great recommendations for food, activities, and shopping. There’s no better introduction to a city than getting shown around by a friendly local!
Buy a small bag for souvenirs. You’re going to find some awesome things you’ll want to take home with you, so do yourself a favor and just buy an extra bag for that stuff while you’re there. Yes, it’ll cost a bit more to check it on the way home, but you’ll be much happier than if you try to jam everything into your backpack.
Prioritize your spending. It’s really tempting to spend all your money all the time while traveling, but you probably shouldn’t. Instead, decide where you’ll let yourself splurge, and where you’ll be more thrifty. For me, I knew I was going to go all out at museum gift shops, while my husband wanted to splurge at soccer club’s team stores. Knowing in advance that it’s okay to splurge a bit at certain places will make those decisions easier when you’re in the moment!
And finally, last but not least…
Something is going to go wrong. Or maybe even a few things will! A flight will be delayed. You’ll miss a bus. The weather won’t cooperate. It happens to the best of us. No matter if you’re the best, most organized trip planner on Earth, there’s just a lot that will be out of your control. But you do get to control how you react to things, and I promise you will have a much better experience if you just roll with the punches. It’s all part of the adventure after all! And even if you end up standing on a frigid, windy street in Cardiff for the better part of an afternoon waiting for someone to let you into the apartment you booked, you’ll be laughing about it later.