Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. If you purchase an item that I link to then I will make a small commission, at no extra cost to you.
When I plan a trip I spend hours finding the best deals online and researching what is the best way to reduce overall costs. I spend weeks looking at the best things to do to ensure that I don’t miss out on anything. Most of the apps on my phone are travel-related and almost all of them will be used at some point or another during the trip planning process.
If you want to ensure that your trip is awesome (I was going to use the word ‘perfect’, but I’m really not sure it is possible to create the ‘perfect’ trip- something is always bound to have room for improvement!), then you need to pay careful attention to the trip planning process.
When I prepare for an upcoming trip, I typically have 7 stages of trip planning. Below I have outlined these stages for you. I have also provided my own personal recommendations of companies that I typically use.
#1 Browsing for deals
The first thing that I do when I start to plan a trip is to browse for deals. In many ways this is actually the most exciting part!
Usually, I start with browsing flights, although if you prefer you can browse for pre-organised holiday packages.
Personally, my favourite is Skyscanner. I love Skyscanner to look for flights because both the website and the app are really easy to use and load results quickly. You can specify dates, times, preferred airlines etc so that only relevant results are returned when you search. There is even the option to search ‘everywhere’ and see what bargains come up! I have been known to be browsing through Skyscanner results while feeding the baby or on the train on many occasions!
I also like Expedia. You can use Expedia to search for flights as well as accommodation or a combination of both. It also has the option to book experiences/tours. Expedia isn’t always as cheap as Skyscanner in my experience, but it is great as a ‘one stop shop’, meaning that you can purchase lots of the key elements of your holiday all in one quick transaction (this is known as dynamic packaging, in case you’re interested!).
If you’re more of a package holiday person, then there are some brilliant comparison sites. I recommend Travel Supermarket, On the Beach or Icelolly.com. These tend to focus on summer sun or ski holidays though, so if you’re looking for something a bit more unique or bespoke (think tour across India or safari in Kenya), then I recommend you book direct with a tour operator who specialises in such holidays.
There are lots of tour operators around, all with varying products and prices, but my favourite is Titan Travel. Titan have excellent customer service and a wide range of products and services. You can book solo travel or group travel in an array of contexts such as coach tours, mountain hikes, world wonder tours, cruises, cultural tours and more.
#2 Planning an itinerary
Once I have booked my flights (or package), I then plan the rest of my itinerary. This is generally the most time-consuming stage of the trip planning process.
Ever since I started travelling I have always purchased a Lonely Planet guide for each new destination. In fact, it has become one of my favourite travel souvenir collections!
I always start my travel research by reading my Lonely Planet guide (usually over a glass of red wine on a Friday night- what better way to start the weekend!). I highlight the things that I want to do and I begin to draw a potential travel route on the map in the front pages. I then take this guide with me on my travels and annotate it as I go along. This is one of my ways of collecting those travel memories!
However, I know that books quickly get outdated. So my next stop is usually TripAdvisor. TripAdvisor is great for looking up things to do with current information such as opening times or entrance fees. The app is really easy to use too and I often use it (combined with Google Maps) to find places to eat or local attractions when I am away.
Following this I tend to use the Internet to find relevant blog posts on the things that I am researching. I usually check out my favourite travel bloggers to see if they have any content that is useful for me first and then I will consult Google.
#3 Booking accommodation
The third stage of my trip planning process is to organise accommodation. Note- if you have booked a package holiday then this will already have been done during stage #1.
My first preference is usually to stay in an Airbnb. I like Airbnb best because I can usually find something that suits us as a family- a separate room for the kids, the ability to cook at home, enough space for the children to run around, etc.
Airbnb’s come in a variety of shapes and sizes, meaning that we can usually find somewhere unique if we want to. They are often much cheaper than staying in a hotel. You can read more about how Airbnb works here and in this post I talk about why I love Airbnb so much. If you’re thinking about using Airbnb for the first time you can click here to get £34 off of your first stay.
Sometimes, it is better to stay in a hotel or other, more formal, accommodation options. For example, when we travelled to Tortuguero in Costa Rica, there were no Airbnbs so we booked a hotel. Similarly, when we landed into Vancouver, Canada late at night we chose to book an airport hotel that was located close by.
Whenever I book a hotel I always use Booking.com. I find that they always have a good list of options to choose from and their prices are competitive. They also have a kind of loyalty scheme, where you get a discount after a certain amount of bookings with them.
#4 Organising in-country transport
You will most likely require some transport in country. Whether this is simply to take you from the airport to your hotel and back again or whether you need a car to use to travel around the country, you will need to organise something!
Once again, if you have booked a package holiday, you won’t need to worry about airport transfers. You might, however, want to get out and about at some point during your trip- that’s when your research comes in handy!
Most of the time these days we choose to hire a car when we travel. We find this works best for us with the children as we can stop when we want and we can plan our days around the kids and their nap times etc.
When booking a hire car I either use Travel Supermarket to compare offers or I book direct with Europecar (who offer bookings worldwide, not only in Europe). I like Europecar as they are reliable and have great customer service, but I do find that they are not always the cheapest option. That’s why I always recommend checking both sites. Take a look at this post for some of my top tips when hiring a car abroad.
By the way, I think it is worth mentioning that cheapest doesn’t always mean best value. I’ve stayed in dirty hotels, had awful flight times and had small, rusty hire cars before! I suggest that you look around and try to book whatever suits you best for the best price- don’t always go for the cheapest option if it isn’t the best option for you!
#5 Changing currency
Most of us will need some spending money for our travels and it is important that we get the best rate for our Pounds! I don’t know about you, but I think that there is nothing worse than realising you could have had a hefty sum more if you had just done a little bit of research before exchanging your currency!
I always check rates on the XE website. They also have a great app that I use on my phone too. XE show the most up to date exchange rates and you can do your currency exchange calculations quickly and easily.
Once I know what the going rate is, I then look around for the best place to change my money. If we need cash, we tend to use find that the Post Office usually has some of the most competitive rates on the high street.
If you’re happy to wait until you get to the airport then I recommend reserving your money in advance with which ever currency exchange provider is located at the airport you will be flying from. It is always cheaper to reserve your money. I NEVER recommend just turning up at the airport and changing your money because you will never get a good rate!
In recent years I have been using cash when I travel less and instead I use my Monzo card. I love Monzo because there are no fees for using your card or withdrawing cash in any country around the world. When I first signed up it was just a travel money card. You loaded it with cash and off you went. Nowadays, however, they are a fully fledged bank offering loans, overdrafts etc. I don’t personally use these options, but they are there if you want them.
While I am away I will often refer again to my XE app. My mental arithmetic isn’t always the quickest and I have been known to be caught out and pay over the odds for things in the past because I couldn’t work out the exchange rate fast enough!
#6 Book car parking
You will obviously need to plan how you will get to the airport. Because we travel with kids (who come with car seats and a lot of luggage!), we usually drive to the airport and leave the car there.
We find that this is often the most cost effective option for us, often working out cheaper than a taxi. Using public transport to get to the airport is not even a consideration for us anymore- not only do we have too much luggage to carry with the kids, but it is ridiculously expensive nowadays and always involves travelling into London and back out again which adds hours on to our journey!
I usually check on a comparison site, such as Travel Supermarket, but 9 times out of 10 we end up booking with Purple Parking. Purple Parking offers car parking close to the airport with a shuttle bus running every few minutes. Their prices are competitive and the service has always been great. And the added bonus is that we know that when we land our car will be there waiting for us by the gate to the car park so that we can get straight on the road and get home.
#7 Make sure you have travel insurance
The last thing that I always do as part of the trip planning process is to make sure that we have adequate travel insurance.
For many people, organising travel insurance is an oversight. They either don’t remember to do it, think that they don’t need it or simply don’t even give it a thought. However, I cannot emphasise how important it is to have travel insurance!
I’ve heard stories of people having to sell their houses to pay for their medical care when they have become ill or injured whilst on holiday. I’ve known people who have been stranded in a foreign country because they have had no money to be repatriated. I have seen people avoid necessary medical treatment for fear of the cost.
It is important that you not only purchase travel insurance, but that you check that it meets your requirements. I was surprised, for example, to find that I had to buy special insurance to cover me when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. It is also important to note that most travel insurance policies do not cover you if you are travelling for more than 30 days or if you are taking part in adventure activities such as skiing or diving.
I always buy an annual family policy with a low excess. It automatically renews each year, which is really convenient and is one less thing that I have to worry about. I have had travel insurance through Explorer for several years now and I would highly recommend them. The service has been quick and easy and the one time that I did need to claim it was very straightforward.
Ready, set, go!
Once you have completed the 7 stages of trip planning you should be all set for take off! I love planning my next trip, but not as much as I love going on it!
I have been trip planning for myself, my family and for group tours for over fifteen years. I have learnt the tricks of the trade and I’ve experienced the good the bad and the ugly. For a full list of the companies that I recommend when planning a trip you can download this handy PDF. Keep it stored on your phone or your computer and you can refer to it when the time comes to book that flight, find that next hotel or change your currency!
Do you have any recommended companies/websites that you use when travelling? What are they and why are they so great?