Everyone says you should write about what you enjoy for the best blog posts so here goes! I am a massive geek and one of my favourite parts of travelling is when I get to sit down for a couple of hours and plan the perfect itinerary for countries that we plan to visit. Exciting I know. So in the spirit of travel blogging I thought I’d write a post with a complete step by step to how exactly I go about planning and researching a new destination. Rob almost fell asleep reading this so good luck if you’re going to attempt it – unless you’re a planning obsessive like me in which case I hope it’s useful!
Now if you’re one of these travellers who prefers to wing it and just rock up in places hoping to find a bed for the night and end up hitting all the main attractions, this post probably isn’t for you. Whilst we don’t plan out every second of our days, we tend to sort out how long we plan to spend in a particular country, how we’re going to get in and out, what the key attractions are that we need to see and where we’re going to stay, so these are the main areas I’ll cover. The most recent trip I planned was our two week trip to Myanmar from Thailand so I’ll use this as an example throughout the post to try and explain what I’m talking about at each stage.
STEP 1: Where to Go – Choosing the Perfect Destination
Im assuming that in most cases people have a rough idea of where they want to go – with Myanmar we knew we had a few months to work our way around South East Asia and were inspired by hearing great stories from other travellers and seeing some incredible places on Instagram so decided that we had to visit.
Typically we’ll choose a destination based on one of the following factors – with handy resources to help us choose what are the best places based on our criteria:
Time of Year:
Perhaps you only have holiday to take at a certain time, or you want to make sure you get the perfect weather for skiing in New Zealand or avoiding monsoon season in Cambodia – often finding the best country to visit is dependent on what time of year you’re going to be travelling. A great place to check out what the best time of year is to visit a specific country is the Rough Guides website. If you know when you’re travelling but not where then try The Best Time to Visit.
Similar to the above, some places are particularly popular at certain times – like Christmas in New York, New Years in Sydney or seeing the spring cherry blossoms in Japan. If you have a country or city in mind, it’s worth a quick check to see if there’s anything exciting happening at a particular time of year that could make your trip even better. Spontaneous travellers beware as these are the kind of trips where a level of planning is definitely required.
Travel Time / Cost
Another common factor is going to be how long it takes to reach somewhere and how much it costs. Often flights to and from a destination are going to be the biggest expense so the first thing we tend to check is whether the costs of getting there will be realistic. As part of longer term travel this kind of research helps a lot with route planning – as an example we are heading to Japan in March, but had a spare couple of weeks before this with nothing planned. A quick search on Google Flights showed we could get some cheap flights from Taipei and ta da, a trip to Taiwan was scheduled. More later on how to find cheap flights to or from particular places.
STEP 2: How to Safely Get To and From Your Destination
A few sections in this one to help ensure that you’ve definitely picked the right place and are aware of any important factors before you start planning in more detail, as well as making sure that you are getting there as cheaply and easily as possible.
There are a ton of guides out there to securing cheap flights, a couple of my favourites are below. We always recommend Google Flights or Sky Scanner for the best deals and effective price alerts if you want to keep an eye before booking.
It’s also worth checking out the details around getting out again – many entry requirements to countries specify that onward travel must be proven, and whilst they check at random it’s the kind of thing you don’t want to get caught out on. Also, Myanmar is probably a more extreme example but the border situation can be complex so we had to do a bit of research on the easiest way for us to get to our next destination – turned out the land border would have been a complete faff and we could get cheap flights to Chiang Mai from Mandalay if we made sure to finish up there.
Visa Requirements and Restrictions
Be aware of these in case there’s anything you need to do to make sure you can get into the country at all! The best source to check this is the foreign office travel advice centre.
For Myanmar we found we needed to apply online for a visa at a cost of 50USD, we had to be able to show proof of onward travel if asked and also to have enough money to last for our stay. Other common requirements include having your passport in decent condition, a passport valid for a certain length of time after your stay and enough free pages in your passport.
The foreign office site is also the best place to check in on general safety in the country you plan to visit and any concerns regarding tourism to be aware of, including any ‘no go’ zones. It’s worth being aware of these as many travel insurance policies are invalidated if incidents take place in areas you’re advised not to visit.
Health and Medical Checks
It might also be that you need to get certain vaccinations before travelling and in some places you’ll need to take proof that you’ve received vaccines.
NHS Fit to Travel is the best place for this research and it’s also worth making an appointment with a travel clinic before your trip if you’re visiting a destination where vaccines are required or just for peace of mind.
Hopefully you’ll have a rough idea of budgets based on the research into Flights and general knowledge but for more information on costs in a particular country try using https://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/ for an overview.
Also make sure that you know what currency is used – sometimes multiple currencies are used such as in Myanmar where both Kyat and USD are commonly used – and the exchange rate. The best resource we use for this is the XE Travel App.
STEP 3: How to Plan your Route
The next step once you know where you’re going, when you’re heading there and you have an overview of costs, safety and entry requirements is to plan your route through the country. Obviously how long you’re spending there will have a big influence on this, but regardless of time I tend to plan the following.
What are your Essential Stop Off Points
To find out all the key areas that you should definitely make time to visit in a new country, I visit the following three sites to help me plan:
- Pinterest: just search for your country and typically lots of handy posts with recommended itineraries and places to visit will pop up. Create a board and pick out the top places you like the look of – no point reinventing the wheel if other travellers have detailed their experiences.
- Instagram: #country to find loads of inspiring images of places you’ll want to visit
- Trip Advisor: I’m not the biggest fan but it always comes up if you google Top Things to Do in X and is worth a look to make sure you haven’t missed anything
This will leave you with a list of the main towns and cities that you’re probably going to want to visit. In the example of Myanmar, it didn’t take long to work out that the four main areas to see are Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay. Of course there’s more to see than that, but we can comfortably fit these into our 2 week time frame.
How to Get Around
Pop them all into Google Maps as if your geography is as hopeless as mine you probably won’t have a clue where anywhere is in relation to anywhere else. This will also give you a heads up on travel times in case you’re going to need to prioritise some places over others when finalising your route. In my experience places can look misleadingly close to on another on a map, but on further inspection take many many hours to travel between.
You’ll also be able to see by proximity and size which places are likely to be the best locations to base yourself in versus those you can just travel to and from on day trips. An example of this is that you’d probably stay in Tokyo and take a day trip up to Nara unless you have lots of time on your hands.
Finally, a simple Google on how to Get from X to Y will bring up a handy little map or list of results on travel times and different options such as driving, buses, trains or flights. I find forums the most helpful here – although make sure you check the dates as travel advice from 2009 may be slightly out of date! An example of this was googling how to Get from Bagan to Mandalay in Myanmar and discovering that rather than another lengthy bus trip you can actually get a day cruise down the Irrawaddy River for just 30USD.
How Long To Stay & What to See
Hopefully by now you have a roughy itinerary of where you’re getting into a country, what stop offs you’d like to make and how you can travel between them and where you’re leaving from. This research should also have given plenty of help on getting tickets, costs etc along the way.
So to find out how long to spend in each place repeat the steps above:
- Trip Advisor
This time using your stop off cities rather than countries to get a list of all the key attractions you want to see so you can work out and prioritise these based on your itinerary, budget and how much time you have.
I then end up with something along the lines of the following – excuse the mess:
STEP 4: Finding the perfect accommodation for your travels
Once you know your route plan and how long you’re going to be spending in each place, as well as what you want to see while you’re there, it’s time to make sure you have somewhere to stay.
I won’t linger on this section as it’s not rocket science, save to say that our absolute favourite site for booking accommodation is Booking.com. We have used Expedia, Hostel Bookers, Hostel World, Air BnB, Agoda and many more on this trip but typically now we use Booking for 80-90% of our accommodation. Reasons being:
- It’s cheap – at least the same as other sites and often cheaper
- You get clear total prices for your stay
- It’s easy to choose between different room options
- The filter and sort facilities are great
- Once you’ve used them a few times you get some little perks like early check, late check out and small discounts which come in handy
- Many rooms come with free cancellation with is helpful if your plans change
Our essential filters for budget accommodation are: free cancellation, free breakfast, high rated location and high rated cleanliness. Wifi and air con are a bonus if we’re being more choosy!
If you’re staying in a larger city it’s worth quickly checking if there’s a particular area that’s more suited to your stay – e.g there are a few streets in particular in Mandalay where backpackers tend to congregate so we’ll be basing ourselves round here.
STEP 5: Final bits before you travel
Before we travel I tend to make sure that I’ve planned a more precise budget. This tends to include rough daily costs for travel, food and drink, accommodation, tours, day trips, entry fees, visas and any spare spending money. Nothing worse than arriving somewhere and realising you’ve massively underestimated costs and are going to have to count the pennies for the whole trip.
We also book the necessary items before travelling – this will vary depending on how you want to travel and on common sense if you’re visiting busy attractions in high season. As a rule of thumb we’ve found it easier to book transport in and out of the country well in advance to secure cheap flights, whilst waiting til we arrive to negotiate good prices on tours and trips to the key attractions you want to visit. We also pre-reserve most if not all of our accommodation before arrival, and book internal transport like buses etc as a priority when we get there. If we do this we find travelling a lot less stressful when we have a route plan and somewhere to sleep all sorted.
Finally, download any relevant areas as offline google maps. It’s a feature that’s not always available but is a life saver if you can. It basically means you have an offline map you can access at any point to get directions and use gps. We also make sure we have these handy apps before we travel.
CHECK LIST & RESOURCES
It sounds complicated, but in a nutshell:
- Pick your destination
- Sort out transport in and out
- Check visa and other entry requirements
- Vaccinations and health advisories
- Safety considerations to be aware of
- Currency & Exchange rates
- Top Cities / Areas to visit
- Plan a logical route between them
- Main attractions in these areas
- How long to stay in each spot
- How to travel between each point
- Book your accommodation
- Calculate your final estimated budget
- Book anything that needs reserving before departure
Bookmark these handy websites to help you out: