How to Plan a Trip, Part 2

Planning a Trip by Natalie Parker

Yesterday we talked about the first part of travel planning.  I like to think of it as building a house: the really big things like how we will get there, how much time we will spend, and where we will stay are handled by Mr. P.  Today, we’ll cover my job: everything that happens after that.

As soon as the hotel and rough itinerary is set, Mr. P hands over the reins to me.

Planning the Details of a Trip

We don’t schedule each day.  I look into what we want to do in a city and we only schedule things that we have to, such as things we have to buy advance tickets for, things that will only be open on a certain day while we’re there, etc.  Aside from that, we go armed with information and let the days come together naturally.

Consider a guidebook.  For longer trips, we usually buy a guidebook to help orient ourselves.  Our favorite brands are Rick Steves for Europe and Rough Guides outside Europe, but neither are perfect.  For shorter trips, we just try to read up online before we go.

Research Visa Rules.  Don’t assume you can simply enter a country.  Review the visa rules (Frommers online is great for this) and plan on how to get a visa if you need one.  Some countries allow you to buy them online before you go, others require you to visit a consulate or embassy.

Look into attractions.  What are the big things you want to do?  Understand what days things are open and how much time you should spend there.  Can you buy tickets for popular things in advance?  The Eiffel Tower is a great example of this.  Are there activities that are weather-dependent?  I make a list of the things we want to make sure and do and then other things that we’d like to do if we have time.

Watch for “free” days.  Certain big attractions have days when they are free for the public.  If you’re on a budget, take advantage of these.  If you’re not on a budget, consider going a different day to avoid the crowds.  The Louvre has one free day a month, for example.

How will you get around?  Will you take taxis?  Local transit?  Research your options and understand how you can buy transit tickets.  If you’re heading to Paris, read here how to ride the Metro.

What are you eating?  This is such an important part of our trips.  I use my favorite travel blogs, guidebooks, Chowhound, and the Conde Nast traveler to help me find awesome places to eat and drink.  If there are local dishes I need to know about, I make a list.  Most guidebooks will have a list of the basics.  For example, it’s a good thing I knew what a glühwein was in Germany!

How I Keep Track of All This Information

Start a Google Doc.  I start a document in Google drive and start making notes and lists.  When the trip gets closer, I’ll clean up the document and organize it.  We’ll refer to it on our trip.  I use Google Drive so I can get to my notes from any computer, phone, or tablet.

Start a Google Map.  I create a Google Map for the city we will be in and will add pins for where we are staying, plus the major attractions.  As I find places I want to make sure we eat at or wander around in, I’ll add those to the map as well.  It really helps me understand the layout of the city and if I can hit an attraction plus a must-eat place together.

Armed with all of this, we usually have a pretty good idea of what we’ll do during the trip!  We’ll generally decide the day before what we’ll do the next day, keeping an eye on the weather to make sure we’re doing inside things when the weather isn’t great.

Happy planning!

How to Plan a Trip, Part 1

Planning a Trip by Natalie Parker

Mr. P and I plan all of our trips together and this week we’ll peek under the hood to show you how.  Planning a trip from scratch can be very overwhelming, so we break it down into tasks.

First thing’s first.  We’re not tour people.  We only take tours when we have to (like a day tour to Champagne).  I’m not saying tours are bad, they’re just not for us.  If taking a tour is what will get you out of your comfort zone, do it!!

Planning a Trip is Like Building a House

We both decide the location.  He is in charge of framing out the house, laying the foundation, and building the walls.  I’m responsible for finishing the house, putting in floors, picking out furniture, and decorating.

In this first post, we’ll discuss the Mr. P tasks of framing the house.  That means how to get there, where to stay, and how much time to spend there.  Tomorrow we’ll cover my tasks.

I’ll use our most recent trip to Germany and Austria for Christmas as an example.  When we started planning, all we knew is that we wanted to visit the Munich Christmas Markets.

How Much Time Should You Spend There?

Decide how much time you have to work with.  How many days can you afford to spend on the trip?  It could be that you don’t use all the days you can afford, but get a decent idea of what’s possible.

Example:  for our Christmas trip, we wanted to use paid holidays as much as possible but be back by New Year’s Eve, so we had the week of Christmas plus a couple of days after to play with.

Research the basic attractions and activities.  What is it you want to do there?  Understand what is available and how much time you need.  I love the Frommer’s guides for this.  They are free online and help us understand how many days we need, plus what sights we care and don’t care about.  We also check TripAdvisor, our favorite travel blogs, and friends who have been before.

Example:  for our Christmas trip, we read that many Christmas Markets in Munich shut down on the 23rd or 24th of December, so we needed to be there a couple days ahead of that.  We also read that Munich is pretty dead between Christmas and the New Year, so  we’d have to head somewhere else on the 26th.  Mr. P looked at day trips from Munich to get an idea of what was close by.  That’s how we landed on Innsbruck!

Planning a Trip by Natalie Parker

How Will You Get There?

How can you get there?  Understand what’s possible first.  Who flies there?  Can you fly direct?  Can you fly to one spot and take a train or car to the next place?  Mr. P loves using Hipmunk as a starting point for flight research.  If you know the local carriers for that country, visit their websites.

Example:  we’d have to fly to Munich and ideally could do it without a connection.  Innsbruck was only a short train ride away and trains left a few times each day.

How long does it take to get there?  Are you looking at overnight flights or train rides?  What time would you arrive in a city?  This will help you consider how many days are travel-only and what days you will still have time to sightsee after arriving.

Example: we wanted to avoid an early morning flight so we decided we’d arrive in Munich in the afternoon.  That would give us time to visit one Christmas Market in the evening after getting settled.  Since the train to Innsbruck was short, we could eat breakfast in our apartment, catch a train, and still get to Innsbruck for a late lunch.

Are there cost differences between days, carriers, or layovers?  Do some flight searching and understand your options.  These choices are really personal.  Are you on a strict budget?  If so, non-direct flights will probably be cheaper.  Do you have one person who can’t sleep well on planes and another who is terrified of flying (that’s us)?  Then you want to get non-stop as much as possible.  Sometimes you can save by flying on certain days.  Sometimes carriers only run certain routes on certain days.

Example: although we prefer direct flights, a direct flight home from Munich was astronomically expensive, so we had to take a layover in Philadelphia.  We also found it made sense to take the train back to Munich from Innsbruck for one night and fly home out of Munich.

Where Will You Stay?

Where, as in, what location.  Basic online guides like Frommers and blogs are great for this.  If you are going to a city, what neighborhood do you want to be in?  Does it make sense to stay really close to the action?  Or could you spend less and put yourself a short train/tram/walk away?  How important is the neighborhood?

Example: we didn’t want to stay too far from the action in Munich or Innsbruck.  Still, we were fine with a short tram ride so we could pay less for a nicer place.  In Munich, we looked at places just outside the city center close to train/tram stops.

What type of place should you stay in?  I’ll cover apartment versus hotel in a separate post, but do consider this.  Do you have loyalty points that can get you a free room?  Do you have small children that would do better in an apartment?

Example: in Munich, we rented an apartment because the city would be mostly closed on Christmas day and we wanted a place to relax and cook Christmas dinner.  In Innsbruck, we wanted a bit more service so chose a hotel.

That’s it for Part 1!  Planning a trip can seem really daunting, but breaking it down into smaller tasks makes it a bit more manageable.  Tomorrow in Part 2 I’ll cover how we plan what we do during the trip.