Throughout the years, I have had many friends ask me about travel advice: How do you afford it? How do you choose the destination? Where do you stay? Is it safe to travel? Well, worry no more! I have answers to all of those questions and more with my very own travel planning guide! WARNING! This post ended up turning into more of a short novel so you may want to grab a cup of tea or some beer – whatever floats your soul. 😛
How do I afford it?
I am not very smart when it comes to money….probably not the answer you expected, but being honest here. I am career-less, but I manage to get by with a few part-time jobs. I do, however, work very hard when it comes to saving money for a trip. There are several savings methods I have learned over the years to help me save for a trip while managing living expenses, which for me includes a terrible habit of buying shoes that collect dust in the closet:
- Digit: I started using Digit app this past October, and since then I have saved about $800. Digit uses an algorithm that withdraws a percentage of money from your checking or savings account every few days and deposits it into a Digit account. It’s loose change that you probably won’t notice missing. I created this account exclusively to save for a trip, so once in a while, I manually transfer a small figure. If you’d like to open a Digit account, please click here to start saving today! 🙂
- Five Dollar Bills: My bestie told me about this brilliant idea of setting aside any $5 that comes my way. As part of my income is tip-based, it was easy to fall into a routine of setting $5 bills aside. My little piggy bank had a hundred dollars worth of Jackson flowing out of it within a month. Please read more about her idea here. 🙂
- Loose Change Jar: The classic way of putting money away in a jar. You will be surprised at how far loose change can go. So far I have saved about $60 worth of loose change, and its almost half-way there! Once its full, I’ll probably spend that on a nice pair of shoes…just kidding! I’m planning on using it towards my next adventurous activities.
- Rewards Cards: Sign up for credit cards that offer rewards/points towards travel! I currently have a Capital One Venture Card. Major cards will offer bonus miles upon spending a certain amount of money, such as “spend $3,000 in the first three months and receive 30,000 miles”. That was the offer I received. I used it to pay for my trip to Croatia. However, do not make the mistake of almost maxing it out like I did (not very smart when it comes to money, remember?). It took me a while, but I paid it off. As of now, I have racked up 45,000 miles which will give me a $450 credit towards any travel expense charged to my card. For a better guide with these rewards cards, please click here to read articles written by someone who is smart about their money. 😉
- Cut costs: It’s time to say goodbye to your frequent visits to Starbucks (or your favorite local coffee-house). If you can’t cut the coffee cost, my caffeine-drugged-heart will understand your struggle but let’s assume a medium cup of coffee costs $2.10/cup, and your Starbucks-struck-heart craves coffee five times a week, that adds up to around $42/month ($504 for a year!). Wanna know what you can get for $504? A round-trip ticket to Peru or Colombia from NYC! Take a hiatus from habits like eating out or getting a mani/padi once a month. Save where you can!
By using these methods, I have accumulated 40% of my upcoming trip’s budget in a matter of months.
How do you pick a destination?
Picking a destination depends entirely on what you have craved to see your whole life. Most of my destinations have been random; some were chosen for the flexibility and others were budget dependent. I am ecstatic to go anywhere, so everywhere is a destination for me. I have pinned the world and intend to see it all! If you don’t have the motivation or the moolah to see the world, you can choose your destination based on:
- Bucket List: I’m going to make an assumption here and declare that everyone has a bucket list (if you do not, I suggest making one right meow), and traveling to a particular destination is usually in the top 3 (I hope..). I would highly recommend starting with that. Prepare yourself, here comes the cliché statement about traveling; you only get one life to experience what the world has to offer. It’s time to treat yourself to an experience that your seven-year-old-self would love. My seven-year-old-self wanted to travel the world, and here I am, making that a reality year after year.
You weren’t born just to pay bills, and die.
- Events: Do you have a festival or a holiday on your bucket list that you would love to attend? That would be a good start to narrowing down your destination. It’s also a great way to immerse yourself in a new culture. My two favorite Indian holidays are Holi & Diwali, and in my most-pushing-opinion-ever, it is the best time to experience India. Personally, I’ve been dying to go to Loi Krathong (lantern festival) in Thailand. It’s become rather popular in recent years. Another is La Tomatina festival in Spain, where you get to be showered in tomatoes. How could you not want to be part of that?! My festival list can go on for days, but you get the idea.
- Weather: I know what you’re thinking but weather matters. From rainy London to spring in Paris, to snow-capped mountains in Switzerland, or summer in Tuscany – each season has its fruits. I prefer summer, but spring in Paris was something else. Rainy London – Ok maybe rainy London isn’t exactly a great example since it’s always raining in London but let me tell you, London is beautiful. I have yet to experience winter in Switzerland, but James Bond movies make it look dreamy and adventurous. Italian summer is out of this world; from wine tours in Tuscany to hiking in Cinque Terre to getting blissfully lost in Venice. Italy should be on everyone’s bucket list. Summer is obviously the best time to go, but it’s also the most expensive. However, if you plan ahead, it can be affordable.
- Family/Friends: If you have extended family and friends abroad, they are the perfect excuse to get out and travel! In most cases, you will have free accommodation, a free local tour guide, and you will most likely see places you wouldn’t have discovered on your own.
OK so you’ve picked out your destination, now what? Well, now the fun begins…not!
I hate, hate, HATE planning. About ninety percent of my planning phase involves me day-dreaming about getting lost in unfamiliar places – maybe bumping into Tom Hiddleston. It’s a great dream, isn’t it? Unfortunately, unplanned trips in most scenarios are not budget friendly. With limited time and so much to see, it’s essential to create a layout of your journey. The long and “exciting” planning process involves a substantial amount of research on:
- When to go?
- Where and when to book (cheap) flights?
- Where to stay?
- What to do when you get there?
So, when is the best time to go? Anytime is the best time to go. That is my travel motto, but if that’s not sufficient then you can plan your trip based on:
- Off Season: There are several perks of booking trips before the peak tourist season: flights and accommodations are cheaper, places aren’t as crowded, and the weather is still decent. Chances of you wearing that cute dress is entirely up to how generous mother nature is feeling that week. I remember freezing my tush off at the Stone Henge one-frosty-June morning. One of my favorite perks was when my mum and I were upgraded to a $300/night suite in Dubrovnik because the hotel was practically empty (we were there during early Spring).
- Lonely Planet Itinerary: LP’s itineraries are the perfect tool to get you started on the planning process as they are tailored to the length of your travel. It covers pretty much A to Z details of any given country – its history and customs, basic phrases that can help you get by, practical travel information within the country, where to find emergency services, safety procedures, common rules and regulations, recommendations on where to eat and stay, month-by-month cultural events for the calendar year, and maps to guide you around town.
- Travel Blogs: A great research tool to discover a bit more “off the beaten path” places are travel blogs. Travel bloggers will provide practical on-the-road tips that are not usually found in travel guides. Before creating my blog, I had used a few travel blogs to plan my trip to Croatia. Blogs are more detailed and visual (bloggers tend to fill their posts with photos) than guidebooks. In retrospect, bloggers offer honest (and unbiased?) opinions on their travels, and can answer any questions you may have, even on the go! My blog is not popular by any means, and my few readers include family and friends, so when I received feedback about a trip I went on, I was over the moon! (Ahem, basically what I am trying to say is that if you are reading this, I would love to hear from you – questions, comments, notes on my grammatical errors, whatever it is – let me know!).
- Winging it: Okay, this is the part where I am very envious (and my hatred for you will run high in this category) of people who can just buy the ticket and go. That’s all to it: buy the ticket, arrive, and explore. There is no agenda, and it’s just about the most spontaneous adventure one can have. I am sure this can be budget-friendly, but I haven’t had the nerve to test it out….yet.
The next step is to narrow down dates. This is essential for two reasons: to ensure you can take time off work/school/kids (ha!) and to get the best price.
Where and when to book (cheap) flights?
Do you reside near big airport hubs such as JFK, Newark, O’Hare, Toronto, etc.? Welp, you are already off to a good start! In most cases, it is cheaper to fly out of these bigger hub airports vs. smaller airports (Rochester/Buffalo are my local airports). Although, on occasion, we have had great luck with finding cheap tickets out of our home airport (Rochester, NY). For our trip to Ireland and France, we were lucky enough to score tickets out of Rochester for under $900! It’s just matter of doing (a lot of and constant) research.
- Kayak: My go-to website for booking flights is Kayak. I usually start browsing tickets as soon as I get back from a trip. Are you surprised? 🙂 There have been many articles published on what days to book flights when to fly in/out, and how far in advance you should book your flight. This varies based on whether your trip is domestic or international. Normally, I have always bought my international tickets 2-3 months in advance. For domestic, it’s noted that a month to 2 weeks should get you a decent priced ticket. BUT, you never know, so once again, do research! Sign up for price alerts, and use sites like Airfarewatchdog and Skyscanner.
- Kayak Explore: This is one of the newest features on Kayak Explore, and let me tell you – I am already in a love/hate relationship with it. It’s such an incredible tool that displays flight prices around the world based on the location of your home airport. For most places, prices are incredibly low. The downside is that travel dates are already selected for you, and travel period can be anywhere between 2 and 22 days. However, you can play around with it to find a time span that may work with your schedule.
- TravelPirates: Powered by Kayak, Travel Pirates finds amazing deals on flights, hotels, cruises, vacation packages, etc. I recently discovered a round-trip flight from JFK to Liberia, Costa Rica for $215! You read that right… non-stop, round-trip flights, and it includes one carry-on and one checked bag. Once you select dates, Travel Pirates directs you to the airline’s website – in this case; I was directed to JetBlue’s website. Please note that Travel Pirates will find the deal for you, but it is up to you to book the recommended flights, accommodation, and transportation.
- STA Travel: If you are a student and/or under the age of 25, definitely browse around STA travel for flights, tours, accommodation, etc. In Spring of 2011, my bestie and I found roundtrip tickets to France for $700! It was a steal, especially since the flight was out of our smaller home airport. This past summer, I was able to find a multi-city ticket (New York > Santa Cruz, Galápagos > Quito — out of Lima > New York for $892!). If you plan on doing multiple country routes, send an inquiry to one of the STA travel agents – sometimes, they can find better and cheaper options than you can on your own.
Aside from flights, the alternative modes of transportation are buses, trains, and cars. Road-tripping around a country in a car is my favorite way of traveling. I’m sure it’s everyone’s favorite but (yes, there is a but), it’s expensive if you are planning on doing it by yourself, and it could be dangerous in certain countries. So choose wisely!
Where to stay?
When it comes to accommodations, the options are unlimited. I’m a hostel gal through and through, but sometimes it’s nice to stay in a peaceful hotel or a unique B&B. It just depends on your budget/preferences.
- Hostels: “You’re staying in a hostel?!?! Have you seen that movie Hostel?!” – Yes, I am, and no, I have not. The hostel scene is not big in the States, so it’s not surprising that many of my friends have terrified expression on their faces when I mention the word ‘hostel.’ For us backpackers, hostels are a safe haven – okay maybe that’s pushing it a bit, but they are budget-friendly, convenient, and a perfect place to meet like-minded people from around the world. I can’t imagine spending $100+ on a hotel room when most of my vacation will be spent exploring. It seems silly to me but then again, if you prefer privacy, quietness, and comfort, by all means, a hotel would be the best option. For us budget travelers, hostels are ideal. I would advise against immediately booking the cheapest hostel you find. Cheaper is not always better; we learned that lesson more than once. To find the perfect hostel for yourself, look for the amenities (below) that will give you the best bang for your buck!
- Location: Depending on your preference, book hostels in an area where it’ll be easy to get access to (i.e., near nightlife, close to transportation (bus/train station), historical places, city center, etc.) For example, in Quito, we booked a hostel in the heart of the nightlife district.
- Internet: I understand not everyone is traveling abroad to be surfing the net all the of the time, but for some of us who tend to answer work emails, occasionally, free WiFi is a must! Aside from e-mails, I usually Skype with my dear mother every few days to let her know I’m alive… and still not married.
- Breakfast: Free breakfast is a typical amenity that hostels offer to attract backpackers, but in most places, it’s usually toast, ham, and jam (my rhyming skills are on point). Yes, I know I’m complaining about free food but hear me out: while backpacking around Ecuador and Peru last summer, we lucked on many hostels offering free FRESH breakfast; scrambled eggs, fresh bread, fresh fruit juice, fruits, coffee, tea, etc. After being spoiled like that, I don’t think I can be okay with just toast and jam.
- Common room/Bar: Hostels are the perfect place to socialize with other travelers, and the common room is where the magic happens. Not that kind of magic….get yer mind out of the gutter, eh! It’s the magic of meeting like-minded people from around the world; some whom you will instantly connect with and wonder why you aren’t living in the same country meeting up for a few pints every week after work.
My number one tip when booking a hostel is to read the reviews. Start from the lowest rating to the highest, narrow down to 3 hostels that catch your attention, and compare. Hostel World is my go-to booking site – you will find 95% of the hostels around the world linked to Hostel World; it’s easy to book and manage your hostel reservations, and for newcomers, they offer deposit credit towards your next booking! It’s a great deal all around.
- Hotels: Aside from airfare, hotels will probably take a chunk of moola out of your budget. As I have mentioned before, if you’d prefer the privacy, security, clean and comfortable accommodations, hotels are your best option. I normally spend a few hours the net, browsing for the best deals I can find.
- Groupon: Groupon offers amazing deals on hotels and packaged getaways. I used Groupon Hotel option for my trip to Baltimore, and Washington D.C. – I loved the rooms and services we got for the price! They were both 4* hotel for a 2* price. I have yet to book a packaged getaway, and the temptation is always there, but a structured itinerary is not the way I want to travel. I do, however, know friends who have used Groupon Getaways and enjoyed it. Although they did warn me, and I quote “booking a trip is a pain the a$%” depending on which company Groupon books your trip through.However, once the booking process was done, the rest of the trip was very well organized and worth its price value.
- Priceline: In December 2014, I flew down to Florida to visit a few friends. While road-tripping from Orlando to Key West, I scored a great deal on a hotel on the Ocean Drive in South Beach, Miami using Priceline’s Name Your Price option. It’s a risky way to book a hotel, but I managed to get a decent price after bidding a few times – just make sure to read the terms and conditions of using this feature on Priceline before booking.
- Travelpony/Expedia: Aside from bidding, you can use sites like Expedia or Travelpony to compare deals. I normally will spend an hour comparing hotels and prices. So once again, it’s just a matter of doing research!
- Airbnb: I have personally not used AirBnB, but I have heard nothing but great things about it. One downfall of Airbnb, from what I’ve researched and in my opinion, is that it is not budget friendly for solo travelers. It is, however, perfect for couples, friends, and families traveling on a budget.
- Couchsurfing: Once again, I haven’t had a chance to use Couchsurf, as I am always traveling with a friend or two, but it’s a great option for solo travelers to get a “free” accommodation for the night and make new (local) friends. I would like to point out that if you choose to Couchsurf, make sure to read reviews and communicate with whoever you’ll be staying with to get to know the person.
- Bed & Breakfast: B&B is an excellent alternative to staying a hotel especially if it’s family owned. They can be a bit pricier, but it’s more luxurious than a typical chain hotel. Other perks include personable service (as there are only handful of rooms), homemade meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), privacy, security, and usually secluded from city/town center. I stayed in Bed & Breakfast once; a beautiful guest house in the English countryside. While visiting Stone Henge, my bestie and I had the pleasure of staying at the Mandalay Guest House. It was slightly out of our budget, but we decided to treat ourselves. The couple who owned the place were incredibly nice and served the most delicious breakfast. So if you feel like treating yourself, stay at a B&B for a night or two.
- Camping: For a small price, you can practically camp anywhere in the world. It’s probably my least favorite option. If you are planning on long-term travel, it may be practical, but for mere few weeks, it’s too much hassle to carry around camping gear – not to mention, chances of finding a camping site within walking distance from a city/town will be slim. Besides, this gal needs a shower every morning, so camping is definitely out of my personal accommodation list.
So, we have narrowed down our destination, dates, flights, and accommodation. I know you are probably tired of reading at this point, BUT we are not done yet. [Budget] Traveling is a serious business people! I mean unless you are going with the “wing it” option…then, bye felicia! Just kidding! Even if you are winging it, you need to make sure you have all of this crossed off of your pre-travel list:
- Visas: I think there are about 100 countries we (US citizens) can visit without a Visa, but the rest of the world ain’t about that so make sure to check the State Department site if your destination requires visas. For many countries, you can apply for a visa online, but some may require a visit to the nearest embassy. There is also a new service called “E –visa” for trips that are 30-days or less. The processing cost is around $20-30, for most, but make sure to check out the State Department site for pricing.
- Health Documents: Some countries require vaccinations (yellow fever, malaria, hepatitis, etc.) certificates before entering the country – there are rather strict laws about it, especially in Latin/South America, Africa, and Asian countries. If you’ve ordered your Lonely Planet guidebook, it will let you know whether you need such documents. You can also check the CDC’s website for more detailed information on what and how many vaccines you will need. For our trip to Ecuador and Peru last year, I got vaccinated for Yellow Fever and Typhoid. I also discovered that many of these vaccines are not covered by health insurance, so I had to pay $280 out of pocket for vaccinations (yes, they are that expensive). I went to the nearest Health County offering these shots; they were cheaper compared to Walgreens and other health clinics.
- Travel Insurance: If you are under the age of 26 and covered by your parents’ insurance, make sure to check out if (and what) you are covered for international travels. For almost all of my travels, I have purchased insurance through STA travel. It’s affordable and depending on the option you choose; it insures major parts of your trip (electronic gear, health insurance, loss of baggage, trip cancellation, etc.). If you are over the age of 26, the cost is around $200, but the policy lasts for a year! In my opinion, that is a great feature especially if there is another trip planned within the year. However, make sure to read what it covers thoroughly. I only recently learned that STA does not cover accidents that may occur during outdoor/advent activities such as; skydiving, bungee jumping, parasailing, hang-gliding, etc. If you aren’t an adrenaline junkie, then STA travel insurance will be your best option. However, if you plan on living on the edge during your time abroad, World Nomads is the best insurance for us live-on-the-edge nomads. It is a bit pricier, but it’s something you should never, ever, and I mean EVER travel without it.
- Managing Money: Before leaving for your trip, make sure to let your bank and credit card companies know of your travel dates and locations. This way you aren’t stuck in a small town in Ireland, wondering why your card keeps getting declined when there is a $5k limit on it… Always carry an additional copy of your cards (I believe Discover & Capital One offers more than one copy), for emergencies. If you are planning on a month-long trip, make sure to turn on automated services for your monthly expenses to avoid late fees.
- Credit Cards: Y’all know about the 30% Rule of using credit cards…the one that says to only spend 30% of your credit limit for fear of hurting your credit score (believe me, I only came to know of this rule recently – like I said, not good with money), but whenever I travel, I tend to push the rule to 50-55% (…sometimes 75% if find pair of shoes that needs to be in my closet asap…) for three reasons: One: it’s easier to manage money by using credit cards while traveling plus it’s less cash you have to carry (and worry about). Two: you can earn double the reward miles/points if you have a travel credit card(s). Three: I already have money saved for my trip, so as soon as I return home, I transfer my travel savings towards credit card payment. I would like to point out that I have not researched whether this method of mine affects my credit score – my travels turn me into a financial loose cannon … LET ME LIVE!
- ATMs: Instead of fussing around at the currency exchange counters (whether it’s an airport or a city), use ATMs to withdraw cash. It’s easy, and you will always get a better exchange rate. I’m not sure if the traveler’s cheques are still a thing, but for the love of shoes, avoid them, and avoid airport exchange counters (unless you need some money to pay for a cab). Before leaving for your trip, exchange a small amount, preferably at your local bank – this way you can pay for transportation to your hotel/hostel then find an ATM nearby to withdraw necessary funds.
Unless you have an account with Charles Schwab or Fidelity, you are stuck with ATM fees. In Ecuador & Peru, we discovered Pacifico Bank ATMs that charged only $0.99 for withdrawals up to $500! We still had to pay our bank’s ATM fee of $2.00, but $2.99 for any transaction is a bargain. Use only well-known bank ATMs.
For traveling with your SO or a group of friends, open a new checking account. On my last adventure, two friends and I opened a checking account, and luckily we happened to use the same bank in town. It was easy to set up an account and transfer money from our personal account to the joint account. We each deposited a small balance and used it to pay for our hostels, and transportation since we split that three-way. We also took out an equal amount of spending money to save on ATM fees.
- Tours & Activities: Narrow down your day-to-day activities: make a list of ‘must see’ in each place, research on where its location in comparison to your hotel/hostel what are the hours of operation, and how much will it cost. Use sites like Viator to browse short day-trips, and local tours. I purchased several day-tours in Croatia, Montenegro, and Italy with Viator and had a great time! If certain tours seem a bit pricier on Viator, I’d recommend on waiting until you check-in to your hotel/hostels – chances are they will have their tour companies offering same or better deals on tours. And once again, shop around to get the best price!
Is it safe to travel?
If safety is holding you back from traveling, well, you will never get anywhere. Whenever I talk about certain places I have been to, people have this petrified expression on their faces. It’s sad to say but there are places women shouldn’t travel to, especially on their own, but that doesn’t mean you should immediately cross off travel from your life. I have yet to travel on my own so I can’t provide tips on “solo travel,” but I can provide basic safety tips:
- Ask the hostel/hotel staff about areas you, as a foreigner, should not wander around.
- Stay in the crowded area to avoid drawing attention to yourself.
- Do not carry a significant amount of cash on you, just enough to pay for a cab ride. Also, use ATMs that are in the center of the town rather than secluded areas.
- Store your passport and other valuables in a safety box at your hostel/hotel, but do keep a photocopy of your passport on you at all times in case of emergency. I also carry my driver’s license just to have an additional form of identity.
- Leave a copy of your entire itinerary at home for your family and friends, and phone numbers of hotels/hostels.
What to do when you get there?
Explore. Explore. Explore. Apart from the “must see” on your list and tours, you should do the following:
- Strike up conversations with locals.
- Wander around without a map (as in, leave that map in your bag, and follow your
heartbrain because your heart will lead you down the creepy alleyway and that’s when shit goes bad).
- Find a café (preferably one that serves booze), and enjoy a cup of coffee/tea/beer in the afternoon 😉
- Have a date night! Whether it’s with your friends, or just by yourself – dress up, put on some lipstick, find a nice restaurant and treat yourself to some Champagne!
- Fall in love with strangers; immediately start imagining your wedding, a fenced house, and kids you don’t want. (if you are single that is :P)
- Appreciate the little things around you.
- Relax – you’re on baaaaaaaacation (that’s what our trek guide in Peru told us, constantly… Miss you, Pauli!).
The planning process can be overwhelming, especially for those who are new to it. SO if this is too much for you, worry not – I am working on a post about guided tours that will help you dip your toes in the world of travel. I also created a post for all of the helpful travel links I’ve mentioned throughout this post.
On a final note; if you made it through the whole post, thank you very much for reading. It took me a little over a year to finish this post (partially because I’ve neglected this blog for six months). If you have any questions, feedback, comments on my grammatical errors, or any tips that I should cover – please feel free to leave a comment below or contact me directly.