I Want to Plan a Trip

Alden Wicker

Come up with a rough budget.

Before you plan anything, you need to know how much you can spend. Remember that almost everything can be more expensive on a vacation, so you can’t assume a weeklong trip will cost as much as a week’s worth of living expenses. This is especially true if you’re going to an expensive city, like San Francisco or Paris. In addition to paying for travel to your destination, you’ll be paying for lodging, eating out, cocktails and all the activities you’ll want to enjoy, plus souvenir shopping.

Perhaps you’ve already been saving for your big adventure. If so, congratulations! See how much you have in that savings account (not your emergency fund, please). If you don’t have savings yet, you’ll need to start putting money into a savings sub-account right away. If you’re not sure how much to set aside, don’t worry. We’ll help you figure it out in a few steps.

Decide whether you need a travel agent.

Did you know a travel agent can actually save you money? That’s because you won’t have to pay her for her services; wholesalers and hotels will. She’s just getting you the best price! You should consider getting a travel agent if you’re:

  • traveling internationally
  • traveling with a group
  • not sure where you want to go yet

Read more about travel agents here to decide whether you need one.

Choose a target date.

When choosing a date, you’ll want to balance several factors:

  • when it’s convenient for you to take off work (i.e., not March if you’re an accountant)
  • your traveling companions’ schedules
  • how many vacation days you have, and how many you need to reserve for other travel or the holidays

Choose a location.

Now comes the fun part: choosing your vacation spot! Consider all these factors:

  • How you will get there and the cost: Research how much plane, train or bus tickets will cost around your target date, or the cost of gas to drive there. See if low-cost carriers like Air Tran and Southwest service that destination; if so, all fares—even from high-cost airlines—will typically be lower. Find out if airlines like Jet Blue are offering any deals to certain destinations. Also sign up for email alerts from sites like Travelzoo, Airfarewatchdog  and Yapta to see if there’s a deal for a place you’d like to visit.
  • The cost of lodging and food there: Browse travel guides, websites like TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet and Budget Travel and ask other travelers on travel forums for an estimated daily budget. If you’re going to a foreign country, find out whether the exchange rate will automatically make everything more expensive—or less.
  • What kind of activities you will do and their cost: Are the main attractions expensive, like shopping and going out (Vegas), or cheap, like hiking (Boulder)?
  • Destinations that will be in their off-season (and therefore less expensive) during your target dates: Will it be miserable in the off-season (the Caribbean during hurricane season), or could you still have a good time (Rome in March)?
  • New clothing or gear you may have to buy: For example, will you need hiking or snow gear? How much might that cost?
  • Whether the country charges a fee for entry: For example, some South American countries charge U.S. citizens $100 or more just to get in.

Revisit your budget.

Now that you know where you’re going, you can estimate your daily costs. If you don’t have enough in savings, set aside some money between now and your trip to make up the difference. If you’re not sure how much you’ll need to put away each month, use our Get to Your Goal calculator. Come up with a target number so that as you book your airfare, lodging and other activities, you can make sure you won’t exceed your budget.

Save on airfare.

If you’re flying, this is likely to be one of the biggest—if not the biggest—expense. So spend some time on this!

  • Search multiple discount sites: Use discount flight search engines like Kayak, CheapoAir, ITASoftware, cfares.com ($50 annual fee) and Vayama (for international flights only).
  • Shop on Tuesday mornings: Fare sales are often launched Monday nights, so other airlines have matched their prices by Tuesday morning.
  • Consider flying out and returning in the middle of the week: Flights on days like Wednesday tend to be cheaper than flights on, say, Sunday.
  • Search how full your flight is: You can tell if your flight is full or empty by starting to buy tickets online and “choosing your seat.” That will show you how many seats are taken already.
  • Use online tools: Kayak’s “Hacker” tool can help you find two one-way flights to make a round trip that saves money. Kayak also offers a fare chart so you can see ticket price trends, and Bing offers a price predictor tool to help you guess if fares are going up or down.
  • If in doubt, book earlier: If Kayak and Bing can’t provide much guidance, it’s better to book in advance when more seats are available. Only bide your time if your flight isn’t too full and you know the price is a lot higher than it should be.
  • Follow airlines: Some airlines promote one-hour sales on Facebook or Twitter only, so follow an airline for the best deals.
  • Use tips tailored to the time of year you are flying: Each flying season has its own tricks for getting the best tickets. Read our guide here.
  • Consider other options: New bus services like Bolt Bus offer affordable and comfortable connections between large cities. Also look into the train, which will usually take you from city center to city center and is largely free of the fees that come with air travel. Train prices are typically lower than airfare but higher than bus tickets.

Save on car rental.

After saving on airfare, don’t get fleeced on your rental car. Here’s how to save if you have to get a car:

  • Watch out for hidden fees and taxes: When you see a great price, look further to make sure it’s not too good to be true. Possible hidden fees include: Collision Damage Waiver fees, airport surcharges, fuel charges, mileage fees, taxes, additional driver fees, underage-driver fees, out-of-state charges and equipment-rental fees for car seats or ski racks.
  • Avoid renting from the airport: If possible, take a free shuttle to your hotel and rent from there.
  • Decline rental insurance: The clerk might press this on you. But you are likely already covered by your own car insurance and/or credit card company—so check with them first.
  • Play around with rental time: If you’re renting for six days, see how much it costs to rent for a week: A weekly rental rate could be lower than six individual days. Also, try different days if possible: Many companies offer specials at certain times of the week or year.

Book your lodging.

You can try to find good hotels through deal sites, such as Kayak or TravelZoo or with your frequent flyer card or credit card rewards, but you might consider less obvious options. Airbnb lets you rent homes and apartments, often for lower prices than hotel rates. Or swap homes for free with another traveler through a website such as VRBO, HomeAway or Home Exchange. The bonus with these types of lodgings is that you can cook some of your meals and store leftovers to save on food.

Decide whether you need travel insurance.

Travel insurance is there to cover you in case of last-minute cancellations, emergency medical care, lost or delayed baggage and other mishaps. Check with your credit card company first to see if they cover what you need. But you may need more coverage if you’re traveling internationally, especially to risky areas, or with children. Learn more here.

Know credit and debit card policies.

Speaking of credit and debit cards, do you know what their policies are? If not, you could rack up hundreds of dollars in fees in just a few days.

If you’re traveling domestically, find out if your destination has in-network ATMs. If you’re traveling internationally, find out if your debit and ATM cards charge fees for using non-network ATMs. Also find out if your credit card charges fees for foreign transactions. If you have time before your trip and you anticipate traveling often, you might apply for a card that doesn’t charge any of these fees.

Finally, even if you’re just traveling to another state, tell your credit card company in advance, so they don’t think your card has been stolen and block your card.

Know your cell phone plan.

Here’s another way in which fees could quickly pile up: cell phone charges! Make sure you’re familiar with your plan. Data, texting and calls are all more expensive in other countries, and even in the U.S. you can end up in the expensive roaming mode. One fix: turn off your data roaming and just use your phone sparingly. Or use some smartphone apps like Skype, Viber and Whatsapp that allow you to use an internet connection to make calls or text.

Budget for your activities.

You know overall how much you can spend, but without a clear daily plan you could go over. Look at how much money you have left after booking your travel and accommodations. Divide that by the number of days you’ll be traveling: this is how much you can spend per day on food, local transportation, activities and souvenirs. Do a quick calculation now to make sure that you have a comfortable cushion after your projected food, local transportation and activity costs.

Lastly, come up with a system for keeping track of what you’ve spent. If you have access to a computer and the My Money Center to automatically track your expenses, great! If you don’t, bring a notebook with you, or give yourself a daily cash allowance to spend.

Pack Smartly.

Packing well is important for two reasons: First, you don’t want to forget anything and have to buy it when you arrive. Second, you want to avoid checked luggage fees if possible, and you definitely don’t want to incur overweight luggage fees.

Start a packing list a few weeks in advance so you don’t forget anything the day of. Research all your activities and the weather at your destination so you’re prepared. Pack items that are versatile and can be easily remixed into new outfits. Wear your bulkiest items while traveling. Leave extra room in your luggage so you can bring home your souvenirs. Finally, to avoid being pick-pocketed, consider packing a money belt that goes under your clothes if you’re visiting a crowded, touristy destination. Or pack a purse with zippers and latches that you can easily carry toward the front of your body. Don’t wear backpacks or fanny packs. Finally, unless you’re traveling to Fashion Week, don’t pack flashy or expensive clothing and jewelry.

For more smart packing tips, read this.

Have fun!

Here are some more tips for enjoying your adventure:

  • Eat a big breakfast at the hotel to save on eating out.
  • If you have some nice restaurants on your list, find out if the lunch menu is more affordable.
  • If you’ll be using local public transportation a lot, buy passes by the day or week instead of individual rides.
  • One cheap and fun way to soak in a destination is to find the nearest park, where you can hike, have a picnic and people watch.
  • Guidebooks are great, but another way to have a memorable time is to befriend as many locals as you can—on the subway, in a café, in the boutiques—and ask them what they recommend you do while you visit.