So, where to? Well, you’ve always wanted to see Argentina. Or Tanzania. Perhaps Japan, maybe New Zealand? You’ve read so many destination sites that you’ve almost gone crosseyed and your thumb might just have tendonitis from scrolling through picture after picture and map after map. You’ve done the daydreaming and you’re ready to actually do it. You’re planning your first big trip.
When the imagining turns to planning, it can become all too easy to immediately find yourself anxious over the details. Which airline? What month? Who with? How will I get around? Are there taxis in Iceland? How do I call a taxi in Iceland? Honestly, the first step of planning your first big trip is to get a little overwhelmed, and the second step is to resist the urge to panic. We’re sharing our best tips and tricks–as well as the things we wish we’d known–to help you put your itinerary together. With some help from this handy guide and a bit of advance planning, your first big trip can easily become one of the best and most memorable travel experiences you’ll ever have.
Step 1: Decide Where and When
The first step is deciding on your destination and figuring out when you should visit. We say dream big as far as where you’re headed. While some destinations might be a bigger step outside of your comfort zone than others, we’re firm believers that any destination is within reach if you’re willing to challenge yourself. For your first big trip, pick somewhere you’re drawn to. It doesn’t matter if it’s a country that typically draws lots of tourists or not–what matters is that you want to go there.
Tip: No idea where to go? Some of our top tried and true travel destinations include New Zealand, Italy, Argentina, Portugal, Spain, and Thailand.
Next, begin to think about when you’d like to travel. We like to start by finding out when most people visit a given country and planning to visit near that timeframe. It can be tempting to dodge the crowds or go spur of the moment, but there are reasons travel to different destinations peaks at different times (two words: monsoon season). Understand when the weather will be most ideal and when the crowds will be out. Also take into account how long you feel you need to plan. The more time you can devote to planning, the sooner you might be able to leave, but you don’t want to feel rushed in putting your trip together.
Tip: Consider booking at the beginning or end of your destination’s typical tourist season. For example, going to Croatia in July will have you swamped in crowds. Going in September means you can catch the good weather while most other tourists are already back home.
Step 2: Set a Budget
At the risk of overstating the obvious, travel isn’t free. In fact, it can be pretty expensive. While there are ways to lessen your trip’s impact on your bank account, you’ll need to know going into the planning process how much you’re comfortable spending on this trip. Budget for flights and overland travel, accommodations, food, activities and experiences, insurance, and save some cash for contingencies. Some quick Google searches can give you an idea of the going rate for all of these items in the country you’ll be visiting.
Tip: Longer trips will usually be more expensive and learning how to travel cash-savvy can take practice and experience. Booking a shorter trip can ease you into travelling without costing an arm and a leg.
When you’re budgeting, know that the month you plan to travel in and how far in advance you’re booking can influence the total cost of your trip. Plane tickets tend to be at their least expensive between four months and three weeks prior to travel. For domestic trips, the cheapest fares tend to pop up two months before departure. For international trips, you’ll want to book between 2 and 8 months in advance.
Tip: Download a flight tracking tool like Hopper or Skyscanner to get alerts when good fares pop up.
Step 3: Get Your Documents Ready
If you’re crossing borders on this dream trip of yours, there are some practical requirements you’ll have to plan for. If you’re leaving the country, apply for a passport if you don’t already have one. Passports can take a while to come in, so do this at least a few months before your trip. If your passport expires before your trip or in the 6 months after it, get it renewed before leaving.
You may need a visa depending on your country of origin and destination. Check out the requirements based on your citizenship: American travellers, Canadian travellers, and travellers from the United Kingdom can use these links.
Tip: Some countries issue their visas on arrival and some require you to apply beforehand. Getting a visa to certain countries can take time, so make sure you look into your visa requirements as soon as you decide on your destination.
Money is another important piece of paper to consider. You likely won’t be able to use the currency from your home country to make purchases abroad, so stop into your local bank and exchange money for the local currency of your destination. You’ll likely be able to use your credit or debit cards abroad, but you’ll need to take precautions to avoid being targeted for fraud. We’ve got some card-related tips further on.
Tip: You don’t want to carry too much cash on you for security reasons. Start with enough to cover the basics plus some for contingency, keep it discrete in public, and then use local money exchange sites if you need more.
Depending on where you’re headed, there may be certain immunizations you’ll need in order to enter the country. Consult with a travel clinic, then print out your immunization records and keep a copy with your passport.
Tip: Print copies of your passport, visas, immunization records, insurance documents, and any other important records and keep them with you as you roam.
Step 4: Find Places to Stay
Booking accommodations is something you can do in advance or on the fly. For your first trip, we recommend booking places to stay ahead of time. Landing in a new country can be overwhelming, and having a set place to go once you get off the plane is going to be easier than trying to pick a place on the spot. Also, certain destinations will see their accommodations book to capacity in busy seasons. You don’t want to be left without a room.
Tip: Location, location, location. Book accommodations near the places you want to spend the most time to cut down on additional travel costs.
You can book one room for the duration of your trip to keep it simple (do your due diligence to make sure it’s a place you’ll be happy spending the entire week at) or split it up if you want to roam around. Hostels tend to be the cheapest option, but they’re bare-bones when it comes to privacy and security. Hotels can vary wildly in terms of quality and price but tend to be a reliable option that can be made to suit any budget. Short-term rentals like Airbnbs are nice if you want to feel a bit more like a local or want a unique stay.
Tip: Book rooms that have flexible change and cancellation policies. Sometimes travel plans can change unexpectedly and you don’t want to get penalized with fees.
Step 5: Pack
Flights are booked, your visa is approved, you’ve taken a brand-new (potentially unflattering) passport photo, you’ve sketched out an itinerary and planned rooms along the way, and there’s a colourful new currency in your wallet. Last but not least, it’s time to pack!
Packing for your first big trip can be overwhelming. Hey, packing for your 100th big trip can still be overwhelming. Fight the urge to dump your whole wardrobe into a suitcase, but make sure you’re making room for the important things. You’ll want to consider the weather, the length of your trip, access to laundry, and any special activities you plan to do. For example, if you’re off to Thailand and want to visit a temple, you’ll need an outfit that covers your arms and legs. If you plan to hike a lot, you’ll want to make room for your hiking boots. Try to wear the biggest, bulkiest items on the plane to save yourself some space.
Tip: Take extra time to think about your footwear. Travelling can involve a lot more walking than you normally do, so good socks and well-fitting, comfortable shoes are essential.
When packing, consider your airline’s baggage policies. We generally recommend travelling with carry-on bags only whenever possible because losing your luggage can derail your trip. Also, many airlines charge additional fees for checked bags. If you just can’t make it work without a bigger bag, make sure you pack a change or two of clothes, any medications, and your travel documents in your carry-on so you’ll have the essentials even if your bag is lost.
Different destinations also have different rules about how certain items are packed. For example, you may have to limit the size of your carry-on liquids and pack them together in a clear bag. Certain items, like hiking poles, may not be allowed unless they’re checked. Double-check with your airline to make sure your luggage meets their requirements.
Tip: Take some time to look into local culture and customs before you pack. In certain countries, clothing that reveals your shoulders, legs, or even hair could be offensive. It’s best to abide by local customs even if you normally dress differently at home.
Tips and Tricks from the 10Adventures Team
We’ve saved the best for last! Before you run off to start planning your dream trip, take a minute to read this collection of tips and tricks from the 10Adventures team. Hopefully, our mistakes and successes in planning our own trips can help yours go off without a hitch.
- Insure your travel. From flight cancellations to injuries abroad, you don’t want to be out thousands of dollars for unexpected issues. While your credit card company often offers some insurance on trips paid for with their card, you can also purchase extra insurance for specific trips. Definitely consider buying extra insurance if you plan to do activities like skydiving or snow sports, which may be considered “high-risk” and excluded from your credit card coverage.
- Pack, then unpack. It’s easy to overpack. Put together all the things you think you might need, then remove anything you’re not positive is worth the space it’s taking up.
- Keep your schedule loose. While planning your entire trip down to the minute can help you feel prepared, try to stick to a more general, flexible timeline. You might find that you want to linger in a certain place, or your overnight train might get cancelled. Try to leave some wiggle room in your itinerary for your plans to evolve as you travel.
- Separate your trip money. Aside from usual practices like being discreet about your cash and keeping your wallet out of pickpocketer’s reach, some locations require an extra level of consideration around your money. In some countries where travellers are more often targeted for fraud, you may wish to put a set amount of money in a different bank account to use on your trip. This way, debit card fraud can’t leave you penniless.
- Stay short for now. As tempting as it might be to whisk yourself away for a month, your first big trip might not be the right time for a months-long immersion. Consider a week or two weeks to test the waters of travelling, then extend your trips once you’re more comfortable abroad.
- Call your bank. We’ve had our cards put on hold at incredibly inopportune times because our out-of-country activity was flagged as potential fraud. Call the number on the back of your cards to give your bank a heads up about your travel plans.
- Be ready to be uncomfortable. Culture shock is real. No matter where you come from, certain travel experiences (swerving through the chaotic streets of India comes to mind) are going to feel different. Travel isn’t always easy and your travel experiences won’t always be good ones. That’s okay! Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone, with one caveat: if you feel truly unsafe, ask for help or remove yourself from the situation.
- Prioritize experiences. Travelling on a shoestring budget can seem tempting, but we urge you to prioritize experiences to get the most out of your adventures. For example, perhaps you stay in a more basic hotel and spend money scuba diving instead. You likely won’t regret putting your money towards experiences you just can’t get at home.
- Consider a tour. We highly recommend guided or self-guided tours for first-time travellers. Booking a tour with a reputable operator takes major stress out of your planning process and gives you people to lean on while you’re abroad. As an added bonus, booking a group tour can help you make friends from all corners of the globe.
There you have it, travel planners! No matter where you’re headed for your first big trip, we hope your adventures are incredible. If you use this guide to help make your travels happen, make sure to let us know! We love hearing about the unforgettable places you go… And maybe even planning our own trips there, too.