No one forgets their first time travelling. Whether the trip is a month or a year long, it’ll stick with you for life. It’s an adrenaline pumping, nerve-wracking, incredible experience – but it takes a lot of work. From finding the perfect hostel to cramming your life into a 40-litre backpack, preparing for your first big trip can be pretty overwhelming. Despite being a complete type A, I still often find myself feeling snowed under by the whole process. If you don’t know where to start with planning your first trip (or even your fiftieth), use this step by step guide to make the process a little less taxing and a lot more fun.
Stage One: Deciding Your Destination
Obviously, this is everyone’s favourite step. Scrolling through Instagram for inspiration and reading the Lonely Planet’s ultimate travel list? These aren’t chores, they’re my favourite hobbies! Some people can take all the time in the world umming and ahing over their ideal destination, whilst others just know by instinct. But even if you’re convinced that your mind is completely made up, don’t skip this step. It may be handier than you think.
- Make a List
You’ve probably got a fair few travel ideas floating through your head, so it might feel impossible to choose one. To start off with, write down every travel destination you want to explore. Yes, every single one. Even if it takes up half of your notebook. Whilst some countries will spring to your mind instantly, others may be harder to find. But the destinations off the beaten path can be the best ones, so make sure you do your research. Now you have a list the size of your arm, it’s time to start narrowing it down. Start off by cutting it down based on preference. This can be difficult, but remember that it’s not now or never. You have your entire life to explore the rest of the countries on your list. Once this stage is complete, the next two steps will help you cut down based on practicalities.
- Set Your Budget
This step will make your wallet wince, but it needs to be done. Figuring out your budget early is crucial. Not only will it give you time to earn more money for your trip, but you’re far less likely to overspend. As well as the obvious cost of food, transport and accommodation, there are a few hidden costs that are easy to forget. Many travellers neglect to budget for things like visas, appropriate travel-wear, souvenirs and vaccines. So, make sure to be ahead of the game and keep these in your mind when planning your budget. It’s also worth padding it out with a bit of emergency money. Hopefully you won’t need it, but if it comes to the worst, you’ll definitely be glad you have it. There’s no denying that travel is expensive and a real privilege. But there are some very affordable destinations, so don’t be disheartened if your perfect destination isn’t affordable.
- Check the Weather
Although a little bit of rain never hurt anybody, you don’t want severe weather to put a damper on your trip (pun intended). This step is one that’s easily forgotten, but it’s so important. The weather is becoming more and more unpredictable every year, but for now we can still use weather patterns and forecasts to work out the best time to travel. The weather has a great impact on the three tourist seasons: peak, shoulder and off-peak, all of which are pretty self-explanatory. Although travelling in peak season may seem like the best idea, this isn’t always the case.
Firstly, it depends on what type of weather you’re after. I travelled to Chile last year in the country’s off-peak season, and I absolutely loved it. Whilst I’m sure I’d have had a great travelling there in summer months, the trip wouldn’t have been the same. Warming up my frozen hands on a submarino whilst viewing the breath-taking snow-capped mountains in Santiago was one of the highlights of my trip. Plus, shoulder and off-peak seasons tend to be cheaper, so you can stretch your budget that little bit further. However, you should still avoid travelling in monsoon seasons. Not only may it disrupt your trip, but it can be pretty dangerous too.
Stage Two: Planning and Paying
Now it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty. Planning and booking will take a lot of time, and a good chunk of your budget too. But once you’ve done it, you’ll feel so much closer to the trip. This is the stage where it all starts to feel real. So, get prepared to feel excited, and probably a little nervous too.
- Planning the Route
This step requires a lot of time and patience. Like seriously, a lot. Because you’ve already researched your destination, you’ll have at least a vague idea of the places you want to stop. Now you have the task of linking them all together. It might seem impossible at first, but nothing beats the satisfaction of creating your perfect route.
To start with, make a list consisting of the following three categories: stops that you simply cannot miss, stops that you’d love to go to but could potentially leave out, and stops that you can take or leave. Now take the first two categories and see if you can make an itinerary that doesn’t include 20-hour bus journeys or multiple layovers. If you can, that’s great, and you’re very, very lucky. But if you can’t, it’s time to do some more research. Yes, it can be time consuming finding more destinations to visit, but you might find somewhere that you completely fall in love with. If you’re really struggling with a route, you’re in luck. The chances are that you can find a route for your chosen country posted by another travel blogger, so a quick Google search should be all you need.
- Accommodation and Transport
More often than not, these are the two main travelling expenses. But this doesn’t mean that they can’t be done on a budget. If you’re travelling far, your first big expense will be the ticket for your long-haul flight. There’s no way around it, it’s going to be expensive. But there are a few tricks to bagging yourself a cheaper ticket. Use SkyScanner to find the cheapest time to book, and make sure you search for your flights on incognito mode. If you don’t your cookies will be saved, and you’ll see your prices soar. Check out Jack’s Flight Club for more great money saving tips when it comes to long-haul journeys.
But the cost of transport doesn’t stop there. It’s important to research the modes of transport within your destination country. They may vary a lot in terms of price and safety, so it’s important to think ahead. When considering how much to spend on your travel, it’s important to weigh up the pros and cons. Travelling by plane is expensive but travelling on land may cut a big chunk out of exploring time. Ultimately, the choice is yours, but I’d advise taking a balanced approach. Don’t splurge on the fanciest transport but try not to spend half your trip on a bus – even a really fancy one.
This balanced approach should apply to accommodation too. Although a 5-star hotel with a king-sized bed and a rooftop pool sounds ideal, you probably won’t be spending much time in your accommodation anyway. At the same time, you don’t want to spend your night cramped in a boiling dorm room that has an aroma that can only be described as a cocktail of despair. When it comes to booking your accommodation, there are an endless number of sites that you can search. My personal favourite is Booking.com. It gives you a great breakdown of facilities and reviews, and it’s easy to find refundable rooms, which is especially important at the minute. Hostelworld is another great resource for backpackers. Most of the accommodation is affordable and the website is so easy to navigate.
- The Boring Admin Stuff
This is definitely going to feel like a drag, but it’s something that needs to be done. When planning your first trip, you’ll be surprised by the amount of paperwork that goes into travelling. There are two really important bits of admin that can take up a lot of your time and money. Firstly, there’s travel insurance – an absolute necessity. It’s always been important, but it matters now more than ever. Your insurance can cover as much or as little as you want it to. Most policies cover the three main bases: health, transport and luggage. But if you want to go the extra mile, you can even get insurance for specific valuables, like your phone or laptop. As boring as it may be, make sure that you spend plenty of time researching the different policies available. And don’t forget to read the small print, since companies can be pretty sneaky with what they hide in there. My personal favourite price comparison website is Compare the Market. It takes less than 5 minutes to fill out your quote, and the site is super easy to navigate.
The next big piece of admin to sort out is the visa. You may not even need a visa depending on your location and length of stay – use this handy tool to find out if you need one. If you do end up needing a visa, it isn’t necessarily something that should be purchased in advance. Many countries allow you to receive one on arrival instead, but be prepared for a lot of queuing if you end up doing this. Getting a visa in advance can be a long process, so it’s worth leaving yourself plenty of time to sort this out. And if purchasing a visa online, make sure it’s from a reputable source. It’s easy to get caught out when buying visas online, so make sure to check out active travel forums to suss out whether the site you’re buying it from is legit.
The good news is that once your insurance and visa is sorted out, the rest of the admin will be a breeze. Make sure to take your vaccination records with you, as well as any other necessary health documentation. It’s also worth making a list of emergency information and contacts to carry with you at all times. And make sure to bring photocopies of all your travel documents in a separate folder, as well as a copy of your passport and spare passport appropriate pictures.
Stage Three: Before you Go
You’ve finally made it through the pile of boring admin, and your trip feels so close that you can almost taste it. But you still have a little way to go yet. This stage should start around 6 – 8 weeks before your trip and run all the way until you’re ready to set off. If you’re feeling impatient, you might think that this stage will drag on forever. But believe me, it’ll end up flying by.
- Shots, Shots, Shots
This is the absolute worst stage of the process, and I refuse to hear otherwise. As much as I hate vaccinations, I can’t deny the importance of getting them. When travelling, looking after your health should be your top priority. After all, what’s the point of setting off on this amazing trip if you end up spending half of it in bed feeling sorry for yourself? To check whether you need a vaccine, head to Travel Health Pro to find all the information you’ll need about travel vaccines in one place. If you do end up needing vaccines, be prepared to shell out more than you may have thought, since they can be pretty pricey.
If you’re a UK citizen, there are 4 vaccines which you can get for free: cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and a jab which covers polio, diphtheria and tetanus. But the rest are going to cost you, with the most expensive costing upwards of £250. The good news is that once you’ve been vaccinated, you’re likely to be covered for a long time – maybe even for life! There are a few places to get your vaccines done. While most travellers still go to their GP to have them administered, both Boots and Superdrug offer the same service, and they usually have more availability too. As well as vaccinations, you may also need to take antimalarials. These can also be pretty pricey, but they are highly effective, so you shouldn’t go without them. They have a number of side effects, but most are very mild and tend to ease off after a few days.
Yes, it’s time to spend more money. Hey, no one ever said travelling was cheap! The bulk of your currency should go on a card. You could just use your debit card, but most travellers agree that prepaid travel cards are the best way to go. They tend to have cheaper ATM withdrawal rates, and they’re pretty easy to manage too. For a good worldwide card, my personal favourite is Caxton. This card can be managed on a handy app, and it comes with no additional ATM fees. Plus, it’s seriously secure so you can spend less time worrying about money and more time exploring. And on the few occasions that I’ve had to contact them to cancel a lost card, the customer service team has been great. There’s no hanging around for hours on hold, and my problem has always been solved within minutes. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Despite the fact that card is king in most countries, it’s always handy to have a bit of local currency before you get to your destination. After a 12-hour flight, the last thing you want is to trek through the entire airport to find a working ATM, before you can get the taxi to your hostel. Believe me, I’ve been there. So be kind to your future jet lagged self and make sure that you’re prepared.
- Pack Your Bags
Some people absolutely hate this part of travel prep, but I love it! It makes the trip feel so real, and finally managing to cram everything into your bag is honestly so satisfying. To start the packing process, make a list. Seriously, this list will prove to be a godsend, so don’t just wing it. Seeing everything written down in one place will help you visualise all the items you need, which makes it far easier to cut down when you inevitably end up packing too much. And it’s worth taking your list with you to keep track of all your items whilst you’re travelling.
Making a list from scratch can be hard. Fortunately, there are plenty of templates available online that you can modify if necessary. This list from Smarter Travel can be printed off as a PDF, and it has pretty much everything you can think of. But you may need to modify the list when it comes to clothes packing. Make sure everything you bring with you is weather appropriate. You don’t want to get caught in a torrential downpour wearing your favourite sundress and flip-flops. Finally, and most importantly, leave room for souvenirs. Not just for others, but for yourself too. You’re going to have the time of your life – you’ll want mementos to remember it by.
Stage Four: You’re Ready!
You’ve finally made it. You’ve completed the guide and you now know all the work that goes into planning the perfect trip. Yes, it’s a lot. And no, it doesn’t necessarily mean that things will go smoothly. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed that something will go wrong. But it’s all part of the travel process. So, enjoy the fun parts of planning your trip, like scoping out the best hostel and finding fun activities. But enjoy the mundane stuff too. Because the visas, the insurance, and even the vaccines are taking you one step closer to your first big adventure.