My husband and I enjoy beach vacations, so we just booked a trip to Belize – which from the pictures, looks like a tropical paradise – so I can hardly wait for us to go. We’re not alone with our trip planning activities at this time of year though – it’s nearly summer, school’s soon to be out, and from what I can tell, pretty much everyone is thinking it’s time for a vacation. One of my sons just returned recently from a trip to Australia, a friend is on vacation right now in the UK, a couple I know is headed to Alaska soon, and yet another set of friends is planning to travel to northern Europe by year end – and those are just the ones that come to mind…
That’s why I want to share with you my Top 5 Travel Tips – for any trips you might have on your radar screen right now or for in the future:
1. Plan early and be flexible.
While it’s not always possible to be flexible on dates or times you travel, if you can be, you can save big $$. Weekends are peak travel times so things like airfare and hotels generally will be less expensive during the week than over a weekend, so if you can travel mid week, it could mean big savings. A quick example, is how in shopping for flights on American Airlines from our home airport (DFW) to Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport (BZE) in Belize, I found the least expensive fares ranged from $363 on a Thursday compared to $443 for a Sunday, which equates to a minimum savings of $80 per person or $160 per couple if you can just travel mid week. Similar scenarios generally apply when booking hotels/rental cars/etc..
If you don’t have flexibility with your travel dates/times, do at least shop early. Generally speaking, the closer you get to the expected time of travel the more expensive it will be, so I usually start checking the rates 2-4 months in advance of my planned travel dates, and I have found that works well for me.
Flexibility on where you go, can often be the main determinate of a trip’s cost. It’s common sense really that if you choose to travel to a very popular destination, during its busiest time of year (i.e. the peak season), of course you’ll be charged premium prices. (It’s really just a matter of supply and demand…) And yet, just because you can travel someplace economically doesn’t mean you should either…i.e. if you’re a beach loving person and you have a chance to vacation in the French Alps in the winter, it’s a bad idea. You’ll hate it! Know who you are (and your travel companions) well enough to wade through the special offers you may come across and only plan for the kinds of trips you’ll actually be glad you went on no matter what you ended up spending.
I often do travel searches even when we don’t have a specific trip in mind, to keep abreast of prices for the kinds of places we’re interested in going and to keep an eye out for specials that might pop up for those places. Web based travel sites like Travelocity.com , Hotels.com and Ski.com are invaluable tools in trying to put together a potential trip, because you can experiment endlessly with different combinations of potential destinations, accommodations, dates, etc., until you find ones that fit.
Special Note: If you haven’t traveled internationally before, you will need to begin several months ahead of the expected travel date(s) gathering the items needed and applying for a passport. Passports are now required for all international travel – including to Mexico and Canada (It used to be that you could use a US birth certificate to travel from the US to either, but that is no longer the case.)
2. Planning and research is key.
If you’re a spontaneous person, like me, you probably cringe at such a statement, but I have learned from experience that the better I plan for and research an upcoming trip, the more fun in every way the trip turns out to be.
What I do, is plan a ‘skeleton’ agenda – with a list of things I don’t want to miss, and yet also leaving room for spontaneous adjustments to the plan. This works well for me because I’m not the kind of person that enjoys packing so much activity into my vacation that I come home needing a rest, but I also don’t want to fail to plan and end up travelling to some place like Paris, France, and never visiting the Eiffel tower.
The easiest and most enjoyable way I’ve found to do this, is to purchase a good travel guide (like Fodor’s guide to Belize) to use. All the information you will find in a guide book can likely be found by doing your own research on-line, but I’ve just found that these type of travel guides have already done all the legwork for you and distilled the information in a way that makes it incredibly easy to use.
Special Note: For European travel, my favorite travel guides are the ones put out by Rick Steves. His guides just give you so many good tips on how to travel close to the ground…i.e. more like a local…and also really break down the ‘Don’t want to miss’ things really well, whether you have 3 weeks – or 3 days – of time to spend.
3. Try new things.
You know, if you go to Europe and spend all your time eating at places like McDonalds because you at least sort of know what to expect, my advice is, save your money and just stay home. I don’t mean that to be rude – and believe me, I’ve been to McDonalds in Europe – it’s one of the best and most reliable ways to have a Coke Cola WITH ICE – and it is meaningful to enjoy some of the familiarities of home while you’re travelling abroad, but if you did that for basically every meal, I feel it would be just such a limited experience… Instead, try to immerse yourself as much as possible in the local culture. Pretend you’re a camelion, and try to blend in. Assuming you’re not a celebrity, chances are great that no one will even notice you’re having to try.
4. Take pictures and journal.
If you’re like most people, you don’t get to travel that much, and so pictures and journaling will help capture your experiences so that you can revisit your memories of the trip long after its over. I take tons of pictures all the time, and especially on trips…and I really enjoy looking back at them and relieving all the good times we shared. If you’re good at journalling, or would be open to that, I recommend keeping a journal and logging in it daily, in the morning or evening, some of the highlights of each day. It’s amazing how quickly you can forget details – pictures and journalling really help keep those memories alive.
5. Don’t forget the devil’s in the details.
One of the easiest ways for a good trip to go wrong quickly is to simply get so caught up in the excitement of it all that you fail to plan for the more mundane things…like calling your bank, credit card companies, and/or telephone carriers, to notify them of your travel destination and dates and making any updates to your services you might need to make. Similarly, making plans for children or pets to be left at home will ensure they’re well taken care of and that you won’t have to worry about them – either of which if you fail to plan for, could quickly wreck a vacation. Arranging for your mail (or newspaper deliveries if you have such) to be discontinued, forwarded, or collected by someone frequently while you’re away, and NOT broadcasting it to others (or on social media), that you’ll be away is also wise. Why give burglers an invitation to visit you while you’re gone? And lastly, arranging for shuttle services, rental cars, parking at the airport, and allowing more time than you think necessary for potential mishaps in the ‘transition points’ between leaving your front door and arriving safely home after your trip, are all opportunities for building in – I’ll call it a ‘cushion’ – of time to help ensure your travel experience has the least bumpy ride possible.
My husband and I actually have a motto we live by while on vacation: ‘Vacations Are Supposed To Be Fun!’ What this means to us is that hey, when you’re travelling there are going to be things that come up that could spark a disagreement or become a negative factor in your overall enjoyment of the trip, but once the time is gone, it’s gone, and there will enough time (if it comes to that) , to deal with any things of that nature that crop up after the trip is over, so we just agree to ‘table’ those type things until after the trip is done. Usually, we’ve had so much fun on the trip that we seldom feel the need to revisit such issues afterwards, but it’s always an option if we need it, and yet doing it this way, it allows us to stay on track and enjoy the trip, and that’s what’s important to us.