Over the next three weeks, I’ll be publishing a summer vacation series to help you plan and schedule your next trip. The first article will focus on choosing a trip destination. The second will help you plan your vacation activities, and the last will provide the best travel tips to make your trip a breeze!
Part one: choosing a trip destination
So you’ve got a little money saved off and some vacation time coming up. With unlimited options, how do you decide where to go on your next trip? I’ve outlined some steps to take that will help you choose the right destination for your budget, time and travel style.
Start by figuring out how much money you want to spend on a trip. This includes the cost of getting to your destination, where you’ll sleep, what you’ll eat, what activities you’ll do, transportation at your destination and any shopping you might do. Having a number in mind up front will help you make decisions later about flying versus driving, budget versus luxury hotels and more. It will also help prevent you booking a trip that costs considerably more than you intended to spend.
When I booked my two-week trip around Germany, I started with an amount of money I was comfortable spending. I then set up a spreadsheet and tracked my budget against each expense as I booked them. My flight, rail pass and every hotel was added to the spreadsheet as I booked them so I’d always have a good idea what I was committing to spend. This helped me stay aware and to know exactly how much I’d have left to spend each day on food, activities and shopping. If a spreadsheet is not your jam, there are plenty of calculators available online that will do this for you. I like this one from Independent Traveler (US and UK versions available.)
Your next critical piece of information is knowing how much time you have available to travel. Are you looking for a long weekend? Two weeks away? Do you have six months to travel (I hope you have a budget to match!) Your time available will help determine how far from home you can realistically get. I’m not going to book an eight-hour flight each way for a long weekend, and neither should you (unless you really like to fly and don’t care about actually seeing your destination.) Longer time means you can travel further with the right budget. My general rule is, I’d be willing to spend as many hours flying as I have vacation days available. So, for three days, I’d only want to fly three hours or less. For 10 days, I’d be willing to tolerate a 10-hour flight.
Another key question: are your dates set in stone, or do you have some flexibility? If you’re able to move your dates around a bit, you can often find better flight deals. Being able to fly on a Tuesday versus having to leave on a Friday night is also helpful.
Next, consider what it is you like to do when traveling. Do you like exploring a city? Do you like outdoor activities like hiking and biking? Are you looking to spend a few days holed up in a shopping center, replenishing your wardrobe and makeup supplies? Or would you rather spend them lying beach or poolside, tropical drink in hand? Identifying what you want from your trip will make it easier to narrow down destination options.
Last question! What kind of weather are you looking for? While it’s never guaranteed, you can try to choose destinations that will best suit the activities you’re interested in. If you’ve got a lot of outdoor activities in mind, you’ll want to pick places with tolerable temperatures and decent weather likelihoods. (I wouldn’t want to go camping in Florida in August, for example, when it’s extremely hot and humid and also hurricane season.) If you’re planning to spend most of your time inside museums and cafes, a rainy climate might not be a big deal to you.
Now that you’ve got a budget, timeline, activities and climate chosen, it’s time to hit the Internet to find the right trip destination!
Booking the trip – a case study
There’s no magic formula for deciding how far you can get on your budget (I tried!) You may find a smoking flight deal only to discover that hotels are prohibitively expensive (this happened to us when we went to Chicago, for example.) My method is to search the two things in tandem before booking anything. I gave some tips for finding flight and hotel deals previously, but here are the exact steps I take, with an example scenario departing from Dallas, TX:
#1: Search for flight deals
My first stop for flight searches to any destination is Skyscanner. You can search by exact dates, a particular month, or the cheapest month. You just enter your home airport and choose “Everywhere” as your destination. You can also narrow to just direct flights if you’d like. It’ll show you a list, by country, of where you can go with starting prices. Click on a country to see all the destinations in that country, and click on a city to see a calendar of flight costs each day.
PRO TIP: Even if there’s no price showing on the calendar on the day you’re interested in, click through anyway. It will often still find flights at good prices!
If you have flexible dates, consider also trying Kayak Explore. It lets you enter your departing airport and searches for flight deals by month or season. You can narrow down the flight cost and flight duration (so, you could search for flights from Dallas for less than $300, up for four hours long, in the month of June.) Unfortunately it doesn’t let you put in exact dates, but once you’ve got an idea of where you might be able to go on your budget, you can switch over to regular Kayak and search with flexible dates to see if similar deals are available when you can travel.
I tried searching flights from Dallas in June 2016 and found that in most cases, Skyscanner found the same or better deals than Kayak. I’d say if you’re flying from the US, it’s probably worth checking both sites before purchasing.
Now you should have a few places in mind where you can go on your budget and in your timeframe. In my Dallas example above, I found cheap flights to Denver, Las Vegas and Minneapolis. Before you book, let’s make sure hotels are affordable too!
#2: Check out hotel prices in the area
My next step is to pop over to Booking.com to see what hotel prices are like. I like that you can enter your dates and the site will give you a total cost for the timeframe, not just the per night rate.
In our example, the cheapest flight I found was to Denver for $69 for six days in June. However, when I looked up hotel prices, I found that staying downtown for six nights would cost over $1,000! That’s a bit much. I found some rather poorly rated budget hotels just outside of downtown for around $550 for the full week – I wouldn’t risk it there. Plus, in Denver, you’re likely to need a rental car to get around, so there’s another expense to consider. Suddenly that flight wasn’t looking like such a great deal after all! Denver’s got a great zoo, not to mention access to great nature and hikes nearby. If you have a car and are willing to stay outside of the city center, you can probably make this work.
I also found I could get to Las Vegas from Dallas for $69 (though the return flight leaves at 1:15am – for anywhere else I’d say no but for Vegas, I’ll allow it!) There I found a few of the budget strip hotels were coming in between $600-$700 for the week’s stay – not terrible. Plus if you’re staying on the strip, you can walk or take the monorail around, and take city buses out to shopping outlets, so transportation costs are lower – you won’t need or want a car in this case. If you’re willing to stay on Fremont Street, you can find a room for under $500 for the week, and a city bus takes you to the Strip at low cost. However, it’s really hot in June and if you’re not a gambler or party animal, Las Vegas can be a bit much to take!
Randomly, our last best flight deal from Dallas is Minneapolis ($70). Best known for the Mall of America, if it’s shopping you’re after, here’s your trip. Staying near the airport and the mall, you can find lots of budget hotel options under $400. You can stay super close to the mall in a pretty nice place for right around $900 for the trip. If the mall isn’t entertainment enough, there’s a professional baseball team there and lots of museums too. This is also our coolest option temperature-wise – if you’re trying to escape the heat, this is the one to consider.
Let’s say our hypothetical budget for our hypothetical week-long trip is $1,800. Using the flight and hotel information above, we can roughly estimate out the rest of our budget. Here’s how I’d do it:
If this were my imaginary trip, I’d pick Las Vegas. I like hot temperatures, I find it fun to stroll through the casinos and try my luck, and I can easily spend a day or two in the outlet malls. For me, that trip best covers what I’m willing to spend and what I like to do.
#3: Book it!
Lock down your flight and hotel early, so that you are getting the best deals available. Bam! Your trip is set.
Next Tuesday, we’ll look at planning your vacation. You know where you’re going, now what the heck are you going to do while you’re there? We’ll look at ways to find out what’s cool and interesting at your trip destination.
Next: Planning your vacation