When the Venice ferry stopped at the Rialto station and several Italian men in serious-looking uniforms boarded and started checking people’s tickets, I thought, “Man, I coulda planned this better.” My best friend and I did not have a ticket for that particular ferry, and we were promptly and sternly written a 70 euro ticket (each!) and deposited—red-faced and stammering excuses—at the next stop, a 45 minute walk from our hostel.
When traveling abroad, it can sound fun to go with little to no plan. It sounds very romantic and exciting to frolic about Europe (or wherever you’re headed) with every intention of going wherever the winds of adventure take you and departing whenever these winds happen to blow. That might work out really well for some people. For most of us, though, that might lead to being stranded in Milan with no money, no place to sleep, no plane ticket home, and numerous bags of expensive Italian dresses.
I consider myself a fairly thorough trip planner and, aside from the misstep with the ferry police, my 3-week trip to Paris, Venice, Florence, and Rome was amazing and filled with safe, clean hostels, cleverly-purchased transit tickets, top-notch food, and a plethora of art and activities for the student budget. How did I plan it, you ask? That’s what I’m here to tell you! Though this article comes from my personal knowledge traveling France and Italy, these tips can definitely be of use when planning any trip!
Make a “Places to go, Things to see” list. If you are going with a friend or group of friends, it is important to consult with them early about this. Maybe the biggest problem you’ll face is that your friend digs architecture while you want more paintings. Maybe, though, your friend wants to hit up every DVNO nightclub he can find, while you expect him to get up for your 6 am snorkel appointment. Even if you are good friends, it’s important that you discuss styles of vacationing (I’m a big “main attractions” and “foodie spots” girl; others are into nightlife, outdoor adventure, leisurely relaxation, etc.), as well as pace of vacationing (squeeze in 3 museums, 1 monument, 2 long meals, and a play every day or slow it down some?).
Narrow down that list to fit in to your budget (both time and money). Again, pace of the vacation plays a big role here. If you want to fill each of your days to the brim, go for it! Just be wary of wearing out. Also keep in mind the locations of all these “must sees.” If your budget allows you to hit up every European capital and then go to Greece before heading home, that’s awesome! But most of us can’t make that happen. Remember that it costs both time and money to move around a country or continent, and it might ultimately be worth it to you to skip out on Madrid in order to spend two more days in Barcelona.
As you research, you will probably have to do steps 1 and 2 several times, but that’s okay. Better to go to wherever you’re going with a practical sense of what you’ll be able to do, rather than be there and either spend your time running around like crazy or leave fuming about missing the second, smaller Jewish History Museum in NYC.
In order to do step 2 more effectively (and you’ve probably already done this), it’s now time to start making choices and estimating and adding up prices.
Travel within City/Country/Continent. Look for youth and student discounts for trains. Also, most city subways and bus systems have a week long traveler pass for a discount.
Food Budget. If you want to splurge on food, plan on it and save! Also, use Yelp or travel books to figure out how much your average meals will cost to budget.
Attractions and Shopping Budget. This will be very different for different types of travelers, but planning it out will help you stick to a budget.
I’ll share more on these next week in my article about Budgeting for your Overwhelming Trip Overseas.
Chart out your course. Now that you have brochures, maps, bookmarked webpages, some sort of budget, and hopefully a travel guide (believe me, I used mine everyday!), you are ready to set out an itinerary. “But,” you protest, “I don’t want to plan out every millisecond of my trip! I want to play some things by ear, check out the local scene, have some freedom!” Of course you do—this is your vacation after all. However, planning ahead, even with a vague sketch of a plan, can save you a lot of money and can help ensure that you make the most of your time abroad, so you never have to say, “Man, I wish I knew that electro K-pop festival was coming to Berlin before I left for Moscow.” Which is a thing I am sure countless disappointed electro K-pop fans have said.
When charting your course, your finalized list of necessary stops and cities is invaluable. You want to amp up the research at this stage, looking into the goings-on of these cities. Are there festivals or events or holidays you really want to be there for? Are there any of these that you want to avoid? I was in San Francisco for Pride a few weeks ago and, let me tell you, I did not envy the clueless tourists trying to navigate BART to get to the airport with 80 pounds of luggage. You definitely want to avoid experiences like that—though enjoying Pride in the city on foot with nowhere to get to except for your hostel that night would be awesome.
Of course, you also want to use logical proximity to chart your course. Keep in mind the general order of your destinations. Also, decide if you want to do a circular route so you can fly in and out for the same city (cheaper) or a straight route from, say, London to Budapest (no backtracking, but pricier airfare). Like I said above, you can often tweak your plans for hopping from city to city and country to country, especially with an open rain pass. That way, all you need is the general timeline of your trip and you can change the rest to suit your whims.
Some people (me, for instance), are a bit more diehard in the planning department. I know that my traveling style is squeezing every last drop out of cities, and with that trait comes a bit of a micromanaging vacation planning style. In a three-day trip to London, I managed to get in more than my travel partner would have done in a week on his own. If this sounds like you, then you will be doing even more research. Which night is 80s night at that club? Pencil it in. That antique store closes on Mondays? We’ll do the zoo that day instead. The tactic I found most useful for my short London trip was to jot down the times each of my necessary attractions was open and pin those times to a tourist map. Then, I used iCal (no Google Calendar yet, but that would have been perfect) to set aside times to do each item on my long list. I moved everything around based on open times and location until I had a strict 9:00 am – 8:00 pm schedule for each day, squeezing in Harrods, Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Big Ben, the London Eye, the Tower, Westminster Abbey (my favorite!), the British Museum, Saint Paul’s, the Globe (play included), Covent Garden, and Hampton Court Palace. Probably you fall somewhere between that (my highest level of dedication to trip planning) and complete laissez-faire (homelessness in Europe, basically). Do the level of charting that seems appropriate to you to make sure you feel comfortable and confident but not overwhelmed.
Get out of here! You’ve set a plan for your adventure, you’ve got your tickets, your passport is burning a hole in your pocket—it’s time to go! But, before you do, remember: not everything will go according to plan. The Eiffel Tower might be closed for maintenance, the Great Wall might have crumbled a little bit, Venice might sink! Your superb planning cannot account for every little thing, so it’s important that you roll with the punches and stay flexible.
That can get tough sometimes, but remembering that you’re on vacation and it is your job to have fun (or at least be relaxed) can often help. Even if things don’t “go wrong,” don’t be afraid to change your plans. You can have an amazing, unexpected adventure that way! One of my favorite days in Rome was one when we were too tired to navigate the city on our own and signed up for a bus tour of a vineyard with our hostel. Totally unplanned, totally amazing.
Stay sensible, stay safe, and most importantly, have fun!
Photo by Meaghan Morrison