After this long pause of international travel, many of the countries are opening their borders and welcoming tourists again. In this post I decided to write a useful guide on how to plan your trips efficiently – from flights, accommodation, getting around, main attractions, sticking to the budget and what to watch out for. I consider myself to be an organised traveler, but I still prefer to be spontaneous and not plan every single step. If you want to read about my trips and my travel style, I recommend this post on how we planned our 1 month Thailand trip on a budget.
In this post I will walk you through all the steps to take before traveling to a new country. Some of you might’ve already traveled somewhere, while it might be the first trip ever for some of you. In any case, I decided to write a detailed guide on how to set a budget, find flights, book accommodations, research attractions, find cute places and also tell you a bit about what to watch out for as a tourist in a foreign country. Here we go!
Before you start planning you should always set some kind of a rough budget estimate. You should be aware of how much you can afford to spend on your travels and try to stick to that when you’re planning your visit. If it’s a weekend bus trip to a nearby country it probably won’t cost you much, but if you’re flying somewhere a bit further, makes sure to be aware of all the costs (transportation to and from the airport, food costs, public transport, renting a car, shopping etc.). I like to divide this into transportation costs (flights, shuttles, public transport), accommodation, food and extra spending money (for museums, attractions, some shopping and coffees).
For example; I’ve travelled to Budapest for the weekend, which is a 5 hour bus drive from my home, for as little as 70 eur spent on transport and accommodation. The food (brunch, starbucks and cat cafes included), public transport and other activities (such as museums) cost me about 150 eur for all 3 days, so the total cost was around 220 eur for this weekend trip. As I’ve said, the travel styles differ from one person to another so you could spend more or less, depending on what you’re willing to pay for.
This is connected to the budget and location, but I still wanted to make it a separate point. The general rule is the longer it takes you to get to your final destination, the longer you should stay there. Why waste 5 hours of flight time to only stay there for the weekend? You can still do it of course, but as traveling can be exhausting, you might need a day to rest and then start your adventure fully energised. Plus, if you’re flying to your destination don’t forget to add the time to get to and from the airport + waiting time, as you have to be there 2 hours early. You also have to take into account how many attractions the destination has to offer and what are the things you want to see. Sometimes this may include trips to nearby locations (for examples a day trip to Versailles from Paris) which will add another day to your overall stay.
Write a list of everything you want to see in that city, all the day trips you want to take and the time it will take you to see each one, so you can easily decided on how many days you want to stay there. I like to be quite spontaneous when I travel, but I still have a list on my phone, just so I know what kind of attractions I can visit when I run out of ideas what to do next. You can of course just google this on the spot if you don’t feel like planning your every step.
If you’re anything like me, you probably have tons of Pinterest boards and Notes about which places you want to travel to. I always struggle to pick the country I want to visit next, because the truth is I want to see everything at least once. We all have our own preferences on cities and different travel styles – some prefer luxury destinations with all-inclusive resorts, while others just need a place to crash for the night and explore the cities in the daytime. In this post, I will focus more on the latter – cheaper accommodations in good locations that allow you to explore as much as possible even when you’re on a tight budget.
How to choose a destination? To narrow it down, I like to first check the covid restrictions to see if they’re open for tourists. After that’s checked, I like to take a look at the weather for the month I want to visit. Of course the weather changes all the time, but you will want to avoid months with the worst weather, if you can. Make sure to see if there are any public holidays coming up – this usually means most places are closed and you might not get to see some of the attractions.
Then I check the hotel and flight prices for the time I want to visit – every destination has its peak and low season, so the prices change accordingly. I don’t go into detail when checking this, I just open Skyscanner and Booking, enter the estimated dates and see if the prices are acceptable for my budget.
I also like to check the average cost of living in the country I’m hoping to travel to, this can be especially useful if you’re on a tight budget and don’t want to spend a fortune on public transport alone. I use the website Expatistan where you can easily compare one city to another and see the average costs of food, transportation and accommodation. I’m sure you’re already aware which countries have a higher living standard, but some countries may surprise you as well.
I like to do this before booking any flights and accommodation. The flight may be cheap, but how much will it cost to get to the airport and back, extra luggage, cost to get from the airport to your accommodation, to get around the city, are the restaurants expensive, what are the museum fees like etc.
I start this by looking at the flights. Unless I can only travel on specific dates, I like to choose the monthly overview where you can see the lowest prices that month. When I find a good deal, I write down the price. If the flight is not from my local airport, I also check how much it will cost to get to the airport and back. You can choose between shuttles, buses and trains – I like to save my money and book a Flixbus to the location and take the public transport to the airport. Next I check the price of the transportation from the airport to my accommodation – public transport is normally cheaper than the taxi, but if you’re traveling with lots of luggage or more people, you might want to book the taxi and split the costs.
Next I browse through Booking and Airbnb. When I find a good deal for a suitable accommodation, I write down the total price. If I’m looking for hostels I try to find a centrally located one with the best ratings – trust me on this, it will save you money that you would otherwise spend on public transport, and better ratings usually mean it’s cleaner. I usually select a few different accommodations and decide on one after I’ve booked the flights.
Then I check the public transportation and taxi costs. Most cities offer a tourist pass for their public transport that’s valid for one, two, three days or even a weekly pass. It really pays off to do your research and get a pass if you plan to use public transport a lot, it’s a much better deal than buying single tickets all the time. In some cases the taxis can be quite cheap as well, especially if you can split the cost with others. I recommend using apps for taxis, as you are more likely to get ripped off or get in to an unregistered taxi when you’re not familiar with it. Another thing to look for is public bike rental system – most big cities have them and they’re so cheap, plus a really good way to see the city.
Next I list all the interesting attractions I want to visit and write down the price (of the entry fees and if I need to use public transport to get there). I find the attractions on Google or social media – I prefer watching realistic Youtube vlogs to edited Instagram posts, as I feel like that gives you a much better insight into what it really looks like. Another great source of information for travellers is Pinterest – so many bloggers post their own city guides and experiences, so you can see which attractions are worth a visit and which you should skip. Museums usually offer a discounted fee for students/people under 26, some museums are even free. When doing day trips, don’t forget to look up the price of transportation to get there.
After researching the average living costs, I normally have a pretty good idea of how much it will cost to eat out everyday. That’s when I research some nice restaurants I want to visit and save them on Google Maps or Trip Advisor (I suggest reading the reviews as well, don’t spend your money on a trendy place that looks cute but is not good). If the food is expensive, I prefer to stay at an apartment with a kitchen, so I can cook my own food and save money. Don’t forget you need at least 3 meals a day – this depends on your own eating patterns of course, but don’t forget to eat! With all of that exploring food can sometimes slip your mind, but your body will remind you it needs the energy to keep going. You might also want to visit some cute cafes so don’t forget to set aside an extra few euros for that.
After I have an idea of the total costs, I compare it to the initial budget I set for the trip. If it aligns with my budget, I go ahead and make the reservations, otherwise I either change the dates, find cheaper accommodations, look for better flights or decide to change the destination completely.
When I look for flights I always use Skyscanner. The monthly overview helps you find the cheapest options that month. I recommend you to search the flights in “incognito mode” on your browser, especially if you keep checking to see if the price has gone up or down. This way you clear the cookies and your searches are fresh every time, so the price doesn’t change for you. When I find a suitable flight, I go to that airline’s website and book directly there. The price can sometimes be different, so pay attention to that. I would also avoid booking flights through affiliate websites as they will normally charge you a fee and can sometimes turn out to be a scam. When booking with a low budget airline keep in mind that luggage is not included in the original price so you will either travel with a small backpack only, or pay extra for the suitcase. I travel with a backpack only for short trips, as it’s quite cost effective + I learned I really don’t need much when I travel. Also, make sure to enter your name and other details correctly – many airlines will charge a fee if you make a mistake and want to change it. Don’t forget to do an online check-in, measure and weigh your luggage and have all the necessary documents (valid ID, entry QR code, covid vaccination/test, visas etc.) to avoid any issues at the airport. After checking the time of your flight, book the shuttles/buses to the airport and make sure to get there at least 2 hours before your flight, especially if you’re not used to the whole procedure (If your flight is at 12:00 and it takes you 30 minutes to get to the airport, make sure to leave at 9:30 or 9:15 to get there at 10:00 and do all the necessary checks with no rush).
Next I look at the saved accommodations and check if the prices have changed. I read the reviews again and check the location on Google Maps to see if it’s close to public transportation and easy to get to and from the airport. In these covid times I like to book an accommodation that allows me to cancel until a week or a few days before, so I can get the money back in a case of flight cancelation or any new covid restrictions. I would also advise you to book with free cancellation option if you’ll take the trip in a few months, because you never know what will happen in the meantime. My preferred budget friendly accommodations are either small apartments with a kitchen or hostels in central locations. If you plan to rent a car, or even do a roadtrip to get to the destination, check if they offer free parking. Another important thing to consider is check-in time – many budget airlines have early morning or late night flights and your accommodation might not have a 24/7 check-in / check-option, so either politely ask them if you can check-in / check-out earlier/later or look for another option.
Some tourist attractions require booking ahead of time, especially the really famous ones (such as Versailles for example). You might need to buy a ticket online, or just reserve a time-slot for your visit and pay for the ticket there. Make sure to calculate the time it will take you to get there and check the rush hours if you want to avoid large crowds (you can see the busiest times on Google Maps below the opening hours).
I always have a bunch of places saved on my Pinterest and Trip Advisor, so when I decide to travel somewhere I always check them out. When you’re looking for cute cafes and good restaurant, don’t be fooled by the cute photos. Always read the reviews, especially if you want to visit a more expensive place. There’s nothing worse then spending your money on a place that looks really good, but ends up being a bad experience due to bad food or rude staff. I’m one of those people that like to check the menu ahead of time, just so I know what to expect and what the prices are like. Some touristy restaurants also have hidden costs, such as live music and side bread fee etc., so make sure to read up on that as well. If you want to travel to the “instagram famous” spots, make sure to check out the actual location photos on Google Maps, the filters and editing can make a place look way better than it actually is. I also love browsing through vintage stores and markets, so I always try to look for some online. Many cities have vintage markets on the weekends, so do your research and visit them if that’s your thing.
When traveling, always keep in mind that those nice strangers approaching you with an offer for a tour or a taxi are almost always scams. This part is not meant to scare you, but make you more aware of the possible dangers. There are always some outdoor vendors selling flowers or other souvenirs, some will even offer to give you something as a gift and then force you to pay for it. Some scams also include taking photos with some dressed up people/with animals that will cost you a lot of money, so stay away from that.
I try to not stand out as a tourist – I dress casually and wear a bag/neutral backpack and always keep my belongings close to me. I don’t flash my camera and phone for everyone to see – you can get robbed really easily if you don’t pay attention to your things. The general rule is to just be cautious and still enjoy yourself. Some strangers will end up being your good friends, while others will try to scam you out of every cent. Use your logic and always, always trust your intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, it normally isn’t. If you’re travelling alone, refrain from telling people where you’re staying and I advise you to say you’re here with friends/visiting your friends. This way you won’t seem like an easy target and you will also protect your privacy in a case you come across some strange people.
Always make sure you have travel insurance (I use Coris) and know the important phone numbers (your parents, friends, police, ambulance etc). If you have an iPhone, set up your medical ID that can be accessed even when your phone is locked.
Not every European country has the same currency, so make sure to do your research. Many countries offer credit card payments in most places, but I still like to have a little cash just in case (and to buy souvenirs ofc). If you can, always change your money at your local bank before you travel – that’s where you get the best deal. If you can’t, I’d recommend you to do a quick google search and find the best exchange rate if you have some cash to change, otherwise find a local ATM with the best exchange rate and withdraw the money there. I recommend to withdraw all the money you will need at once, as there is almost always some sort of a fee to pay when you’re using a foreign credit card and this way you will avoid paying it multiple times. There are so many scams with the tourist-targeted ATM’s such as Euronet, where you won’t only get a bad exchange rate, but also pay a high fee to get the local currency.
Don’t forget to check if you credit card is accepted in other countries and if your bank will charge you any fees when paying in a foreign currency. I personally recommend you use the N26 bank, it’s a free online bank with no hidden fees and a really good app that allows you to lock your card in a case it gets stolen and withdraw money without a fee from any ATM (for a limited number of withdrawals). Also, if you can, bring a backup credit card just in case yours gets blocked or stolen.
If you’re from Europe, then you’re probably aware of most of the do’s and don’t’s, but it still worth to do some research and see what’s considered rude and disrespectful in other countries. Make sure to always be respectful to other cultures and not act like an entitled tourist, expecting everyone to understand English or even your native language. My advice is to at least learn a few words of the language and see how the locals appreciate your efforts. Duolingo is a great app to learn the basics, or you can check out my Pinterest board with basic words for most European countries.
If you are a solo traveller and want to meet some people, my first recommendation would be to stay at a hostel. There’s always a common area for guests where you can cook your own food or just hang out with other travellers and make plans to visit some attractions together.
Another tip for single solo travellers – dating apps! If you want to experience the city with some locals, or just want some company for the evening, download a dating app. Tinder is among the most popular ones and works great in most cities. But please be cautious and use common sense. Don’t expect the locals to be your free tour guides just because you’re a tourist in their city.
Next recommendation – book a free walking tour! I did the free walking tour in Budapest and I really loved it. It’s a completely free tour with real local guides that you can support through voluntary tips (usually from 5-10 eur, but you don’t actually have to tip)and they usually offer their tours in a few different languages. Even though I’ve been there two times before it was really nice to hear a bit about the history of the city, the buildings and the people that lived there + some locals tips from the guide. You can easily find out if they have free walking tours in the city you will travel to by checking this website or just simply googling “free walking tour *city*”.
That’s all the tips I have for your for now, if you have any questions or need some help I will try my best to answer you in the comments. Thank you for reading! Check out my other travel related posts here.
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