As we get ready to start the new year, I thought I would share my process of how to plan a trip!  This is what works for me!

I put a lot of time and effort into researching a trip.  I would argue there is no one right way but I think my process is one that can work for most as a general structure.

Step 1:  Decide what kind of trip you want to take

This sounds very basic, but in my mind, it is the most important step. This requires collaboration with anyone you are traveling with as well.  This is still your first step even if you know where you want to go!  A trip to Thailand can be spent by the beach; can be filled with reservations to Michelin star restaurants and great shopping or can be spent hopping from temple to temple non-stop!

What is the purpose of your trip?  Are you looking to explore as much as possible somewhere new?  (This is usually my goal).  Are you looking to relax?  Is this a time to catch up with friends and family?  Are you mixing work and pleasure?  Are you focused on nature or adventure?  Is food a focus of the trip and a goal in itself?  It can also be a mixture…

Step 2:  Decide where you want to go

You may already know this and it is easy to skip to step 3.  If you don’t know, think back to the decisions you made in step 1.  Also consider the time of year (do you want a hot or cold climate), budget, how much time you have and if you have a preferred mode of transportation.  If flying, I love apps like Kiwi.com and airfarewatchdog.com where I can see what tickets are running to “anywhere” and I don’t have to have a destination in mind.

Step 3:  Decide on the big rocks (focus and theme)

Depending on the complexity of your trip, this might be similar to step 1 or it might be more complicated.  Let me give you a few examples:

I am planning a trip to Southeast Asia later this year.  Angor Wat is a must do.  And I’d like to see a variety of spots in Vietnam to understand the history and Halong bay is very high on my list.  Those are the 3 things the trip will be planned around.  I don’t have anything in particular I have been dreaming about in Laos, but it is right there, so I will go, but it won’t be a lot of time.  I know I have 2 weeks for this trip so I will now start filling in the details of the trip.

I usually pack a lot into a trip, but I wanted to take it slower on a recent trip to Hong Kong.  I also wanted to experience the food which means taking out more time for eating during the day (prime sightseeing time).  So for this trip, I didn’t want to over plan and only wanted to schedule one primary activity for the morning, the afternoon and evening.  I also wanted advance reservations or ideas of where to eat so we could be in the right area at the right time.

Step 4:  Research

Start your research to fill in the blanks.  I always start my research with an old fashioned travel book – usually Lonely Planet but I will also check out whatever the library has.  There are all kinds of debates about being a traveler vs a tourist, getting off the beaten path etc.. etc…  But somethings are famous for a reason and you should at least be informed about what they are!  A classic travel guide is the easiest way to get a feel for what a country is famous for.  If there are any “must dos” that you didn’t know about in step 3, add these to your list.

Continue your research online using travel blogs, Pinterest, Facebook as well as official country / city tourism resources.  Make a list of things you really want to do, would like to do if there is time and it fits into the schedule, as well as a backup list.  The backup list is important.  For example, if visiting a city with lots of outdoor activities planned, you want to have done a little bit of research regarding some indoor options in case of inclement weather.

Note:  I use a spreadsheet to keep me organized.  It is easy to keep my notes and as the planning progresses I can keep all of the details in one spot.  Across the top I have Day (i.e 1, 2, 3); Weekday (i.e Monday, Tuesday); Date (i.e 2 Oct), Morning, Afternoon, Evening, Transportation, Lodging, and notes.

Step 5:  Putting the pieces together

Plug in the must do items first.  Then fill in the other things you want to do.  Make a list of some of your back up items.

Arrange your stops in the order that makes the most sense based on geography, opening times, crowds etc…

Figure out a transportation plan from one stop to the next.  In a single city this might be an easy decision to either rent a car or to rely on public transportation.  For my trips to Central and South America this was a complicated combination of private transfers, planes, boats, rafting, as well as public transportation.

Find lodging.  Unless the hotel / resort is the destination is the focus, I recommend this as the last step to make sure you know your dates, where in the city/country you want to be and how/when approximately you will get there.

Step 6:  Learn as much as you can

As you continue to plan and anticipate your trip, learn as much as you can about the history and culture. This can be done through non-fiction books, but even novels and movies can give you a sense of a place and people.

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