my travel planning process

From the “I want to go somewhere” stage to the “now I can book” stage of travel planning

If you’re anything like me, you think that planning a trip can be a daunting task! Okay, so I secretly still enjoy it despite all of the work. I do have two travel blogs, so I guess that comes with the territory. Anyway, it doesn’t have to be difficult, even for an indecisive person like myself. You simply have to decide between 1 of 2 strategies to get you started: 1. Wing it! or 2. Plan it.

Even though #1 is what I do and prefer half of the time, it wouldn’t be very helpful to write about that, now would it? So, let’s focus on #2…

This involves breaking down your tasks into manageable steps. I usually have to figure out what is the most important factor for me and then go from there, asking myself lots of questions along the way, such as:

When should I travel?

Most of the time my travel planning process starts with deciding on when to go. If I know I am limited to certain dates, that can help begin the process for deciding where. And really, since I am the most indecisive person on the planet, this tiny bit of narrowing down helps me immensely! Even still, it takes me forever to make up my mind exactly where I should go, but more on that coming up.

If I am not limited to certain dates because of my own schedule, then I usually prefer off-season or low-season travel. I will be writing an entire post on this subject soon!

travel planning process

 Where should I travel?

The worst and best part of planning a trip is deciding where to go! I ask myself a million questions about all the possible locations on my bucket list of places: Have I been there before? Will it be cold? Will it be hot? Is it so far away that I should try to see other places near by while I am in that area? Is it close enough that I should save it for a shorter trip? Will it take too much time to get there? Will I want to stay there forever? :)

This is all very subjective, so there is no one good answer. I have to weigh the answers with all the other factors of my planning, which means I usually come back to these questions several times during the whole process. All the possibilities can be both exciting and excruciating!

planning travel

Hmmm… where shall I go next?

Why am I traveling?

Once I have figured out where I want to go and how much time I have, I can make some easier decisions. I can really focus on what I will be getting from the trip and why I will be traveling to that location. Usually for me it has something to do with photography or my blog. Who am I kidding? It always has at least a little to do with both!

For the more traditional travelers out there, dare I say tourists, you might have a true vacation in mind. I am not good at just relaxing during a trip, so my only advice is that if you want to relax, you better decide that early on and stick to it. Many people make the mistake of planning a relaxing trip to unwind, but then they plan too many activities. I am well aware that I will be more exhausted (but happy) at the end of a trip, but I never plan one intending a lazy week on the beach. Nothing against the people who do, it’s just not for me.

If you have more of an agenda, I suggest making sure that everyone is happy with the plans. If you’re planning a family trip full of activities, don’t make it all about the kids. Take some time to enjoy yourself too! I used to travel alone most of the time, but lately I have traveled with my boyfriend. I try my best not to make the trip all about photography or blogging opportunities, but it can be hard! Fortunately he is pretty easy going and lets me plan a few photo focused outings if he gets to visit a museum or two. More often than not, we can agree on something that we will both enjoy. On that note, here is a tricky little tip… your travel companion might be more willing to do the things that you like if you offer to plan the whole trip. That is, assuming that they hate the planning part as much as Dave does.

Anyway, just figure out what your goal is for the trip and make it work for who you’re traveling with, if anyone.

traveling with someone

How am I traveling?

Finally, deciding how to travel can be considered at any point in the planning process. I hate to say it, but it usually comes down to money. If I need to travel on a budget I have to ask myself: Do I have enough money to get there? Do I have enough money to spend enough time there? How will I sleep, eat, and get around? It seems like the places that are the most expensive to get to can also be the cheapest once you are there. That is, at least if you’re flying from Seattle. (By the way, flight booking is an art in itself, and it’s a topic that I won’t be getting into here.)

renting a car in Maui

Our cheap jeep rental in Maui

If I have a little more money to spend (usually that means coughing up the other 30-40% of expenses to pay Dave back), then I can ask different questions: Could we use a rental car instead of buses and taxis? Can we sleep in Airbnb rentals instead of hostels? Can we afford to eat out most nights instead of making most of our meals?

Often there is a little sacrifice of this to get a little more of that, whatever this and that may be for you. When planning our Iceland road trip, we knew we would need to rent a vehicle. We knew we could afford it during the off-season, just as long as we didn’t stay in a hotel every night. Our compromise was to rent a camper van from Happy Campers so we could sleep and eat most nights. Despite the cold of the off-season in Iceland, I think this was a great decision that allowed us to go there and not worry about money too much.

What will I do?

Once I have finally decided on all of the above, I already have a pretty good idea of a few things that I would like to see and do. I’ve already scoured Pinterest for inspiring images of potential destinations. I’ve already weighed the pros and cons of 2 (or 3 or 4) competing potential destinations, so I’ve already done some research. And most of the time, I’ve already had some ideas in my head that have been growing since the start of my mental bucket list.

Most of what I want to see revolves around nature photography opportunities. Sometimes I refer to the chamber of commerce. Other times I just Google “what to do in…” and see what pops up. I really enjoy finding forum discussions on such a topic, as they can really give you some insight that can’t be found elsewhere. One of my favorite forums that I’ve used since I first began traveling is Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree.

At some point I usually end up getting a guide book and looking up information on those places I already have in mind. That often leads to mentions of other places I haven’t heard of, and so on. I have tried all kinds of guide books, but Lonely Planet has been by far the most beneficial for every trip that I have taken. I swear I have not been hired to say these things about Lonely Planet, I just really find their resources useful!

While studying a guide book, I have found it very helpful to have a physical map to jot down notes. I start marking places and seeing where everything is relative to where I will be. I eventually narrow it all down based on time and interest… then I start collecting more maps to find the best one, but that’s often during the actual trip.

Instagram of map with notes

Hopefully you will be able to read your own notes if you use this tactic.

Ready to book!

So there you have it. This is how I go about planning a trip before actually making any arrangements. I like to think of the steps more as a list that I can tick off as I go. Remember, they don’t have to be in order. When I don’t know where to start planning, I always think about which of these is the most important factor for me at a given time. It helps me, and I hope it will help you!

Where, when, why, and how will you travel next?

  • Milan Bardun - I like the whole process you always go through when you plan your travel. As more as I travel lately, always plan less and less and at the end, my trips always turn into awesome experiences. I know some people, who do not plan at all, just book ticket and go – but isn’t it too risky?ReplyCancel

    • traciehowe - Milan, I think that’s the best way too travel, but it won’t work for everyone. It certainly worked better for me when I had fewer obligations. But it sure is fun and adventurous, isn’t it?!ReplyCancel

  • Doreen Pendgracs - Right on, Tracie! We all travel for different reasons, and I think it is important to be flexible and accept new unexpected opportunities that may present themselves without getting flustered. I just had some plans change big times yesterday, and instead of getting mad, I embraced the change and am confident the results will surpass my original plans re satisfaction and excitement. Cheers!ReplyCancel

    • traciehowe - Exactly, Doreen. I don’t think any of us would travel as much as we do if we couldn’t just roll with the punches. ;)ReplyCancel

  • Rachel Heller - This all sounds remarkably like my thought process! I’m fortunate enough to have a husband who only wants to be consulted on where we travel, and leaves the rest of the planning to me. When can we travel always comes first, then deciding where to go.ReplyCancel

    • traciehowe - That’s good to hear, Rachel! It’s nice to have a supportive partner who can let us have most of the control. ;)ReplyCancel

  • Chris - As much as I love to travel without a plan and wing it (as we’re trying to do now), you are so right that there are just some times when you need to plan it.

    Whether it be due to shorter time frames, the necessity of booking due to it being high season (or both), ultimately you need to ensure you get the most out of whatever trip you take.

    Such wise words :-)ReplyCancel

    • traciehowe - Thanks, Chris! I wish every trip could be unplanned, but it just doesn’t work logistically for everything.ReplyCancel

  • Natalie - I both love and hate the planning process! I’m indecisive, too, and I pretty much want to travel everywhere, so choosing where to go can be painful! And when you throw in the fact that my husband has a traditional office jobs with 3 weeks off a year, my toddler’s stuff, and family requirements (my mom would KILL me if I missed birthdays!!), planning reaches new levels of impossible! I managed to take five big trips last year, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to organize at least a few more this year. Great post! :)ReplyCancel

    • traciehowe - 5 big trips! That’s not bad considering your family. At least you have obligations that force your decisions to go one way or another. Sometimes that can be a blessing in disguise for us indecisive folks!ReplyCancel

  • Robson Cadore - Hi Tracie!
    I love the planning process!
    My wife ws a “control freak” in the beginning of our journey. If we didnt have all the flights & accommodations booked at least for the coming 2-3 weeks she will be freaking out. Now she is relaxed, the unknown became fun. Unfortunately sometimes we spend more because of that…
    Merry Xtmas!ReplyCancel

    • traciehowe - Robson, I think the more you travel, the more comfortable you will be with not knowing what’s ahead. It sounds like your wife is at that point, which is great! Merry Christmas!ReplyCancel

  • Trisha Velarmino - I am not a planner, not because I don’t like it but because I suck at it. Every time I plan, things don’t go the way I wanted it so I always end up “going with the flow.” More often than not, going with the flow caused me a lot of troubles but it’s fun so I am still sticking to it. After reading this post, I think I am going to try planning, for a change.ReplyCancel

    • traciehowe - Haha! You’re reminding me of one of the reasons I partly dislike planning. I never said I was good at it, but I certainly try to get things somewhat in order before I go somewhere. I guess it’s safer to have some plans laid down in advance, but you can always change your mind when you get there.ReplyCancel

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