“I would love to travel, but I don’t know how to start. Where do I begin?”
This is your practical planning guide so your future can hold many travel adventures. Below are the how to’s and tips from experienced women travelers. At some point, we all were first time travelers; and we have lots of advice to help you make your first trip successful.
- Get a passport
If you dream of traveling to a different country, your first step—and it is easy–is to apply for a passport. The process of securing a passport differs from one country to another, so look online to see how you do this as a citizen of your country. It may take the officials several weeks or maybe even several months to process your paperwork, so start right away. Costs differ depending on whether you need an expedited passport or not. Even if you haven’t decided on your destination, apply for a passport. It is a promise to yourself that someday you will travel somewhere.
- Choose a destination
There are approximately 200 countries in the world, so selecting your first destination may be a bit daunting. There are many ways to chose; and over time, you may decide on your destinations differently. For your first trip, the destination may depend on your purpose for traveling–learn a language, business trip, study abroad, see where your ancestors came from, attain a life goal like climbing a certain peak, or volunteer at a specific organization in a foreign land.
Perhaps you already know where you want to go because you saw a picture that captured your imagination. A friend may have described her adventure, so you want to go there. Or perhaps a kind relative gives you a trip to a couple of countries.
Tips for choosing a destination:
- First time travelers often decide to visit a country that speaks the same language as the traveler because it is one less thing to stress about. (Alternatively, some decide to go for the most exotic place they can think of to learn as much as possible from their first adventure.)
- Check transportation prices to see how far you can go with your money.
- Do a little research online to identify how expensive or cheap your potential destinations are. Some places are known for being expensive. Certain destinations will fit your budget, so that helps narrows your choice.
- Experienced travelers often have a list of places they want to go, so grab your notebook and write down places you dream of visiting and why. Keep your list handy so you can add or modify your list over time.
- Even though many traditional travel websites will tell you that all destinations are fine, be aware that some are really unsafe for women. Here is our list of the 10 most dangerous places for women travelers. And here is our list of the 10 safest countries. Pay attention to the destination’s health alerts which may include air quality, epidemics, weather warnings, political unrest, etc. But don’t let travel alerts deter you from travel. Instead pick a more suitable destination!
Yes, you can afford to travel by traveling economically. Mostly for reasons of fully experiencing a country, our philosophy is to plan a trip that experiences local culture, samples foods that locals eat, and relies on lodging in neighborhoods outside the tourist areas, whenever possible. For example, if going to one of the Caribbean islands skip the touristy city and stay in a small village. Buy the freshly caught seafood from the fishermen at the dock and prepare it yourself for dinner. Bike along the quiet country roads and go to a beach where you may be the only person on it. It is fun and considerably cheaper.
Other ways to travel include going as part of a volunteer group; for example, if you are a medical person, there are annual trips organized to provide care in various countries and there is usually time reserved for a little sight seeing. Or find a group that will pay you while you travel; for example, teaching a language through a reputable international institute may allow you to live for a month in a foreign country. Also, make your travel plans more attainable by planning to travel in a way that favors local transport, food, and lodging. It’s more likely to give you a sense of the country you visit then going to an expensive destination resorts and spending your entire time in a fantasy bubble.
Tips for economic travel.
- Often the most expensive part of a trip is airfare, so be a smart consumer. Compare airline prices and set up alerts when prices to a particular place drop below a certain price. We have found good deals using com, skyscanner.com, and kayak.com.
- If you can be flexible on the dates, and times you fly and/or the destination, you can find good deals.
- Traveling off season is the cheapest.
- Often the best deals can be had about 6 to 8 weeks before you travel.
- Cheaper rates can be had traveling late at night, all night, or super early in the morning.
- When looking at a flight with one or more stops, check the prices on each leg of the journey. You may be able to find better prices booking separately and on more reliable airlines.
Instead of staying at impersonal hotels, stay in airbnb lodgings or use couchsurfing.com. Both of these have offerings in cities, villages, and rural areas. These are cheaper and you can interact with the hosts, who can give you advice about local events, attractions, eateries, and any safety precautions. Preparing your own meals while traveling are easy ways to cut expenses, so a place with kitchen privileges is a plus.
- Although we are not fond of going to all-inclusive resorts, some of them offer inexpensive trip deals. To really see the local area, you can stay at the all-inclusive resort and go out to explore. The resort may offer tours, but compare their tour price with the costs of touring on your own.
- Camping is a terrific way to economize on lodging expenses. Also, you can prepare your own meals. Buy food at local grocery stores or food stands. The food is better, and it gives you another opportunity to interact with locals.
- Set a daily budget while on your trip. If you don’t spend the total one day, you have extra for the next day.
- When eating out, look at the menu to see if fits your daily budget. We tend to eat at food stands or at small family-owned eateries that specialize in local foods. Yes, even when I travel solo, I do these things.
- Taxis can be expensive. If it is safe (check with your host), take public transportation, Uber, bike, or walk. You might be able to find a good deal on renting a car.
- Consider tours
We met a young sales clerk who dreamed of traveling, but had no idea how to it. For her first trip, she signed up for a tour to several countries so she could see what arrangements needed to be made and could learn from the tour guide. This is a low-risk way to take a first trip.
Alternatively, you may want to create your own itinerary and schedule a local tour or two to learn, say, the history of a specific town, how coffee is grown, or to a visit to a women’s farm cooperative. One experienced traveler said when she visits any city; she jumps on a sightseeing bus so she doesn’t miss any key attractions. Another traveler likes to schedule a food tour to sample the city’s specialties.
Before actually planning your trip, carry out high-level research about your destination by buying a travel guide book or borrowing one from the library. Often there is an online version of a guide book, but it is usually pretty skimpy on information. Guide books are more comprehensive. You will research iteratively starting at a high level and then after you start to firm up your plans, do it repeatedly at more detailed levels.
Start by getting a general understanding of the destination and its activities. You can look at the introduction in your guide book or look at online sites like Wiki Travel. Using either the book or a website, we look at a map to see where cities, towns and major geographical features are located. For example, if the destination is the island of Martinique look at the map and find the capitol Fort-de-France, major towns, the volcano, and beaches. Wiki Travel provides a map and an excellent overview. Here is Wiki Travel on Martinique. The lists in your guide book and Trip Advisor are good resources for checking out popular attractions and activities. We like hiking, snorkeling, and scuba diving so after doing a little research, we decide to split our example Martinique trip into two parts—several days in the northern part of the island to hike around the volcano, and the rest of the days in the southern part to snorkel and scuba dive. The outdoor activities helps structure the trip at a high level. Knowing in general where we want to go lets us see if we can find inexpensive travel to either end of the island, instead of flying into the capitol.
- Before we book lodgings, it is good to look online for recent travelers’ experiences with the lodgings being considered.
- Think about weather conditions relative to your lodging and transportation. For example, if you plan to travel where it is quite hot, you may want air conditioning. Likewise it might be worth checking to see if your mode of travel is air conditioned.
- If you’re going in the off season, the weather may be colder or rainier and you might want to research different travel arrangements then the typical traveler that goes there despite what your guidebook says.
- Ten Planning Steps
Planning is a lot of fun! The process is straightforward and helps bring your dreams into reality. And it lets you imagine how the trip is going to work in increasing levels of detail. We have learned that we can squeeze more into the trip and economize by following the below 10 steps.
- Decide how much money you have to make a trip
- Settle on the length of your trip
- Select a destination
- Create a trip calendar and revise
- Book transportation
- Understand visa and immunization requirements
- Reserve lodging(s)
- Set up tours or activities, as appropriate
- Buy trip insurance
Tips – Planning Tools Tips:
Our favorite planning tool is a pad of paper because it is the simplest. You will be collecting a lot of information. To reduce repeatedly having to find the same pieces of information, write it down as you go. Do not tear off the pages from the pad because you are likely to lose the loose pages and then have to recreate the information. When you don’t need specific information, mark through it.
- Use one page for flight information, a second for lodging, a third for attractions and tours, and another for packing.
- Initially use a paper trip calendar to help see exactly how much time you have in each place. Later add details.
- Some trips are complex and require a lot of reservations. Whenever you make a reservation, erase the pencil entry on the calendar and write it in ink, which is a way to make sure you made all the necessary reservations. If you use a calendar online, use one text color for planning, and change the color to black when you actually make the reservation.
Below is an example of planning a trip and the best order for making reservations.
- On your pad of paper, write down your high level trip itinerary. As an example, let’s say we decide to go to three places in Australia–Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, Kakadu National Park near Darwin, and Sydney.
- Check our embassy and our site to see if there are any safety or health concerns that will affect where and how we travel.
- Our trip will be 15 days total, so we split the trip to spend approximately 4 days in each location, keeping in mind that we will need to set aside 3 or 4 days to travel to each place. To deal with the inevitable jetlag, for the first few days we go to a place where we can relax and sleep, as needed. We try to avoid hard core physical activities during those first days. Here are our tips for jetlag.
- We check to see which airline is the best value from our country to Australia and home again. We write this down on a page on the pad of paper. If we have airline miles associated with a particular airline or credit card, we consider using them as the least expensive transportation.
- We then determine the names of the economy airlines in Australia that go to these three locations and write them on the pad of paper. We jot down approximate prices for each flight. We consider whether a train, bus, or renting a car is a better option. When touring the national park, we see if renting a campervan would let us explore more of the park. We get the approximate price. We write this information on our sheet of paper.
- We make a calendar with good sized blocks for the dates of your trip. In pencil, we write the first destination in the date blocks that we plan to be there. We enter the destination of the second part of our trip and then the place we will be for the third leg of our trip. Then we pencil in days we will need to travel. Sometimes travel between destinations can take a half day or full days. By doing this, we can visualize where we will be and which days are travel days. You’d be surprised how much money you can save yourself on botched reservations by having it in writing. This method lets us see that we need to make a museum reservation a day later or that we need to figure out a different train reservation. Since we wrote it in pencil, we can tweak how much time we spend in each location. Finally we add our lodging and desired activity.
- Using the dates on our paper calendar, we book the airline ticket(s) to our first destination. If we are flying home from this destination, we also book our ticket(s) home. Then we find appropriate lodging and book it for the number of nights in that destination. We do the same for the flight to our second destination. Then we reserve the lodging at our second location. Yes, now we do the same for the flight to the third destination.
- If we plan to join one or more local tours, we can reserve them next. Alternatively, we may wait to book tours until we arrive in each destination. This approach lets us see what the weather forecast is for the next day or two and book tours that are appropriate for the weather conditions. It also lets us check with locals to see what attractions are best. The risk is the tours may be sold out.
Tips – Managing Trip Information:
- Set up a trip folder and as you make reservations, add paper copies of all your flight, lodging, and tour reservations to it. If you plan to go to multiple destinations, you may clip together the documents for each destination, or set up a folder for each place. Here is a more complete list of how to manage travel documents.
- In the folder add paper maps or print your own maps to your lodgings and important locations. Trust us on this; things happen to electronic maps and reservations. It is just too embarrassing to admit the number of times we needed our reservation or confirmation number, and our phone’s battery had run out of power. Once while we were on travel, an earthquake occurred which cut the cable lines so no one had any phone or computer service. And if you travel into wilderness or developing countries, internet coverage may be intermittent or not exist.
- Put all finalized flight information in the calendar on your phone, including the confirmation numbers. The above paper copies are your backup. The information on your phone is handy, as long as your electronics work. It’s good to have two sources of information even if it seems redundant. See issues regarding electronic travel information.
- Take a picture of your passport and other identification just in case you lose (or someone steals) the paper copies.
- Visa and Immunization
Even though you have a passport, many countries require a visa to enter the country. The destination country may also require specific vaccinations. Go to the website for your own government and search for “travel visas” and “immunization for travel” to see the requirements for traveling to your destination country. Here are the entry requirements to Brazil as described on UK.gov. To read about health warnings and recommended immunizations for country-specific information, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website is an excellent source.
Over the years, we and our traveling friends have encountered unexpected problems that were (or sadly could have been) covered by insurance. See the below examples. Travel insurance is pretty cheap, and we are convinced that it is worth buying, especially for expensive trips or ones where we plan to do active activities or extreme sports.
- A friend of ours planned to fly from London to Tanzania for a safari. As she was driving to the airport, she was notified that her Egyptian Airline flight was cancelled. The next flight was several days later, which meant that she would arrive in Tanzania after the safari ended. To get there in time, she had to book a ticket on another airline paying a premium because she needed to travel as quickly as possible. With travel insurance, she would have been reimbursed for her expensive airline costs.
- Another friend was on a bicycle tour in Asia and had a wreck which resulted in a broken leg. He couldn’t finish the bike tour and had to be flown back to Europe for medical treatment. Fortunately he had travel insurance that paid for his tour, hotel costs, and flight home.
- We traveled to a relatively difficult destination to visit elderly relatives. While there, one relative suddenly had a medical emergency preventing us from flying home on the scheduled date. While the airline employees were sympathetic, we had to cancel the flight we couldn’t take and reschedule when the medical issues were resolved. If we had bought insurance, our flight changes would have been covered. It was an expensive oversight.
A word of caution: the service reputation of travel insurers is bad, and it is deserved. If you need to collect on insurance, you will need to make many phone calls and document everything about the costs you incurred (keep every receipt, document with photos in some instances). We still think insurance can be worth it.
The final part of planning the trip is packing clothes for the conditions you expect while on your trip. For our example trip to Australia, we would need clothing and equipment for living on a boat and scuba diving, clothes and shoes for touring a city, a rain coat for walking in a rainforest, camping and hiking gear for the national park, and comfortable clothes for long airplane flights.
Savvy travelers pack as light as possible. Even for a 15-day trip, use a carry-on bag and a day pack. Our standard advice is to pack three outfits that completely mix and match with each other, along with a sweater, jacket or coat, and raincoat. If you have a complicated trip, like the example one to three locations in Australia, you may need to add special items for each destination. Take clothes that can be used for more than one activity and plan to wear them more than one day. Your clothes should be washable and drip dry. Do not pack heavy books, boots, or really anything heavy. Do not carry a hair dryer or curling iron. Instead get a haircut with an easy, natural style for your type of hair. Take bug spray, suntan lotion, small container of biodegradable liquid laundry soap, sunglasses, and a hat. Here is our complete packing list.
Cover photo: Lost Lake, Alaska
Now go have fun setting up your trip! Did we miss anything? Let us know your trip planning tips!