Travel Planning 101: All the Small Things

This is the final post in a three-part vacation planning series. For part one, dedicated to finding the best deal on airfare, click here. For part two, focused on finding awesome accommodation on a moderate budget, click here. For part three, just keep on reading!

Okay. Your airfare is booked and your accommodations are locked down. This trip is happening. Now that the hard part is out of the way, let’s talk about all the little things that make up a vacation.

What attractions do you want to see? Will there be enough downtime? Do you need a tour guide, or can you go it alone? Can you even afford any of this?

Welcome to my head when planning a new trip.

It turns out, booking plane tickets and finding a place to sleep (though time-consuming, on my part) are not the hardest parts of planning a vacation. The hard part is deciding what to do once you arrive.

What kind of vacation are you after?

This should be the very first thing you consider when mapping out an itinerary. Before you get overwhelmed by the possibilities, decide what is most important to you.

Huntington Beach May 2012.jpg
Huntington Beach, CA May 2012. I like the beach, but I almost never plan a whole trip around it. I prefer city life, getting lost in the woods, and food-based travel.

Are you an outdoor enthusiast? Beach lover? History nerd? Animal activist? Foodie? You don’t have to see that famous monument if it doesn’t interest you. Find activities that will make your trip memorable and worthwhile.

Find a pace that works for you.

With so much to see and do, it’s very tempting to adopt a “go! go! go!” attitude. It’s understandable. You want to see it all, because who knows when you’ll be back? And maybe the go-go-go attitude works for you! Just be realistic with your travel goals. I’ll use Paris as an example, because I did some pretty heavy trip planning for this trip (I’m talking Excel spreadsheets here). There are so many monuments to see in Paris, and I would like to see them all at some point. But I also want to linger over a good meal, stroll along the river, and get blissfully lost for hours at a time. With that in mind, I decided to aim for 1-3 sights per day, while leaving myself plenty of time to wander around, eat, or even nap if I feel like it. The point is, you want your vacation to be happy, relaxing and stress-free, rather than a stressed-out jumble of running between attractions, icing sprained ankles, and forgetting to eat. Finding a realistic pace will help your vacation to be fun rather than stressful.

Embrace the tourist offers.

Come on, enough with the tourist hate already. Every single person who visits another country for pleasure, whether they are getting lost in the wilderness for two months or holding up the Tower of Pisa for their vacation snapshots, is a tourist. (Don’t believe me? Consult a dictionary.) So go ahead and look for tourist offers that could simplify your trip. This could mean coupons, group offers, all-inclusive passes, and more.


I booked the Paris Museum Pass for our travels in Paris, and found it to be an excellent deal. I’m visiting places I would otherwise have skipped, and bypassing long lines at several attractions. The best part? Had I stuck my nose up at this “touristy” option, I would have spent more money, waited in lines just to buy my admission tickets, and probably been much more stressed out overall. The pass worked for me. It’s worth checking to see if there are any tourist-oriented offers in your destination that work for your travel goals.

Do you need a guide?

This is a question that came up over and over while planning our current trip. The last time I visited France, I regretted not renting an audio guide to visit the catacombs. After a while, it was just a bunch of bones. Nothing new to see here. The history of the place, and the fact that each of these hundreds of skulls used to belong to a living, breathing person did not have the impact it should have, because I didn’t know what exactly I was looking at. This time around, I downloaded audio guides in advance, so I can understand and enjoy each new place a little better. And as more places come up, I’ll download more guides using wifi. Of course, not all places warrant a guide, be it an audio file or a real live person. A hike to the Hollywood sign, for example, would be fun and interesting without any background knowledge at all. Hiking the Inca Trail, meanwhile, can only be done with a registered tour company. Know your options now, so you aren’t disappointed later.

Guide Books or Apps?

I always recommend browsing blogs and picking through Pinterest before a trip, but make sure you bring some of that knowledge on the road with you.

Guides and Apps for Vacation Planning.jpg

Bring a guide book, or download a few apps, whatever works best for you. Either way, having local information on hand can save a lot of stress once you arrive at your destination. After this trip is over, I will probably dedicate an entire post to the apps that helped us the most. I downloaded translators, entire maps, audio guides, and apps dedicated to the Paris and Rome metro systems. I’m still deciding if I should download any for finding the best local food options. And yes, I also brought physical guidebooks and quick reference guides for speaking Italian. Do what works best for you, and if you plan on using apps, make sure you know what kind of international fees your service provider charges.

Proper Attire

Now that you’ve chosen your activities and have a rough idea what you’ll be doing on vacation, make sure you pack for it! Don’t bring walking shoes to go backpacking, make sure you cover up to enter sacred sites, etc. As long as you’ve done your research, this part of the planning process should be easy. My number one tip here is to bring proper footwear. I recently published an entire post dedicated to packing for Europe, with emphasis on shoes that won’t make my feet hate me. You can check it out here, if you’re interested.

Packing for Europe Three Great Walking Shoes

Cover Your Bases

Before you jet off, make sure all the small things at home have been taken care of. Make precautionary copies of your passport, print your confirmations and travel itineraries, get cash, call the bank, make sure the pets are cared for, etc. This topic warrants a post of its own, so I’ll keep it brief. Just make sure your home is in safe hands and ready for your return, and have any pertinent travel information on hand in case of emergency.

Get Going!

Now that you’ve picked out a few apps, decided what kind of activities to do, and packed your bags, all that’s left is for you to go enjoy your vacation! All the planning has paid off. Enjoy a margarita for me!

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