Whether you’re an aspiring or seasoned traveler, the fact is, travel planning takes a lot of work. For me it’s something that I really enjoy doing, but it is work none the less. Though it does take a lot of time, I actually get excited about the process; exploring different activities, researching the cheapest flights, finding the best places to stay, exhausting every resource searching for the best price on everything.
Here I have listed a few pieces of advice for the person who is serious about wanting to travel but doesn’t know where to start. These are just a few of the resources that I use, and ways that I always manage to have a trip on the books, even on a tight budget. My 5 tips for the Aspiring Traveler can help you stop thinking about your next adventure, and be on your way to making it happen.
1. Be Flexible, But Don’t be Easy.
Almost every trip that I’ve ever taken has started with a great deal on a flight. Now don’t get me wrong, this does not mean that you should go just anywhere because the price is right; no. This means keeping an eye out for airline specials departing from your closest airports and then doing your research on the destinations. Instead of looking for a place to go and then planning your vacation around that, keep your options open and let the place find you. You will be surprised at the beautiful places that you can discover when you step out of your comfort zone and go somewhere that you’ve never heard of before. I knew absolutely nothing about Grenada, West Indies until last year when it came up on one of my travel alerts. I did a little research (e.g. Is it safe? What is the average cost of lodging? What language do they speak? What is the weather like? Where the hell is it!?), and a half an hour later I purchased my tickets. Three months later I was on a secluded beach watching a 6 foot leatherback turtle give birth by moonlight. If you do your homework and keep an open mind you will be surprised at the things that you can discover. These are the memories that I am most thankful for.
2. Sign up for Travel Alerts.
No one has the time to check every website for travel deals 24/7. With the amount of travel sites nowadays you could spend every day-all day sorting through endless amounts of information and never even set foot outside of your own home. The key is to find the resources that will narrow down your search and bring the information to you. Signing up for travel alerts on a few different websites will save you time and can make an otherwise endless search much more productive. My favorite site to use when signing up for flight specials is Airfarewatchdog.com. This site lets you set up your specific search criteria and customize your e-mail alerts to your own needs. I like to have mine set up to alert me daily of every flight-deal departing from my home airport, and those within a 50 mile radius. This way if I’m not sure about where I want to go next (which I’m usually not), I can get inspiration simply from the list of destinations that are on sale. You can also set up your alert for specific destinations, dates, airlines; whatever you want. Just keep in mind that the more you narrow down your options, the less options that you will have (duh). Another great site that you can tailor to your own preferences is Travelzoo.com. This site not only shows you great deals on flights, but also great deals on hotels and resorts, car rentals, activities and entertainment. A few other sites that I feel are worth signing up for are Carrentals.com for deals on car rentals, Trivago.com for accommodations and Kayak.com for their flexible search options.
3. Keep a travel stash, and don’t be afraid to use it!
Just like having children, you might find that there is never a right time to travel. The two main excuses that I hear for why it is a bad time to travel are: (1) I’m too busy; and (2) I don’t have the money. These are both legitimate obstacles, but if you are diligent about saving and doing your research, they should not have to prevent you from doing what you love. About 6 years ago I began keeping a travel fund, a separate savings account dedicated solely to funding my adventures. Now don’t get me wrong, I realize that not everyone is in a position to do this. But if you are able to put $50 per month away for travel, and maybe throw in a little bit extra from time to time (skip a latte once a week), then you should have no problem taking a small trip every year or a larger one every two years. In addition to having a separate savings account, I also have a designated credit card that I use only for traveling. This is a card that I earn airline points on, that way I am also earning points toward future travel while spending money on the trip at hand. Most airline credit cards also give you double points when purchasing flights on their airline, which is also perfect if you see a great deal on a flight but don’t quite have enough saved yet. This method should only be used if you are very responsible about paying your credit card bill each month and if you have a low-interest rate, it can be easy to get in over your head. Two cards that I use and recommend are Citi/AAdvantage for American Airlines miles and the United Mileage Plus card for miles with United Airlines. Both start you out with a good amount of bonus miles and they also save you money by getting you free checked baggage and priority boarding (when you are flying with their airline). The American Airlines card seems to have more opportunities to earn bonus miles and the United Airlines card doesn’t charge for foreign transactions.
4. Pull the trigger.
This one goes back to excuse number one mentioned above “I don’t have time.” While there is no real solution to this problem, I have found that if I don’t make time for the things that I love, then I will spend my entire life busy with other people’s moments. I can’t tell you how many weddings, baby showers, birthday parties, etc., that I’ve missed while I was away on vacation. But one thing I can say is that I don’t regret missing any of those things. The really great deals, the ones that seem too good to be true; they are few and far between, and when they are around it’s not for long. Four years ago I got round trip tickets for my friend and I from Chicago to Maui, HI for $450. I saw the deal on Travelzoo.com, I called my friend to see if she was up for camping on the beach, and 15 minutes later we had two roundtrip tickets to Hawaii for about the price of one. If you see a great deal, you need to snatch it up fast, so make sure that you have a travel stash saved up for just such occasions. Just one thing to check before you pull the trigger, make sure that flights aren’t cheap because it’s a bad time to visit (e.g. monsoon season, or it’s known for having ungodly high or low temperatures that time of year). Just be smart, hop on the interwebs for a second to check your “facts,” and then go for it, it’s now or never.
5. Do your Homework.
Some of the most amazing things that I have seen in this world did not cost me a penny, and most of those places weren’t easy to find either. The fact is that the best kept secrets are secrets for a reason. The travel industry doesn’t want you to know that you can have fun without spending money, and the locals don’t want you knowing where they go to get away from the tourists. This is why it’s important to do your homework when you are planning what to do and see on your trip. Of coarse, look on all of the big guys like Tripadvisor and LonelyPlanet, but also try digging a little deeper. Look through blog posts and travel forums for topics on your location and talk to people who have been there recently. Try to find books, blogs or articles written by someone who lives there and try to find a local newspaper on the web. You will be surprised how much fun you can have when you really go off the beaten path and immerse yourself in a different culture, (it’s usually cheaper that way too). Just remember when you’re in a different country to be courteous and respectful of other people’s beliefs. I’ve been to over 12 countries in the past 6 years and one thing that I can say is that the people have all been very different. Embrace it and learn from it, this is all part of the experience.
I am often asked how I am able to travel so much, and how I decide where I will go next. My answer is usually met with the response “ooo…you’re sooo lucky!” —sigh— While I certainly don’t find the term “lucky” to be offensive, I just don’t feel that it’s very accurate. While I will admit that I do have great luck (that time I found a hundred-dollar bill before I left for Vegas, the fact that I was able to get tickets to that Foo Fighters show at Cubby Bear, nbd), I just don’t feel like my great vacations have anything to with good fortune. I do realize that most of what I’ve mentioned is easier said than done, but when is there reward without a little hard work? I feel that travel is so important in making this world a better place and molding who we are as human beings. I hope that these 5 tips for the Aspiring Traveler can help you stop dreaming about a life of travel and start making it a reality. Lets get lost.