Planning Your Trip, Part 1: Deciding Where to Go, Who With and When

Getting Started, Travel Tips
I'm ready for budget travel! What are my first steps? Here's how to get your trip in motion.
Okay you're going to do this thing. It's a very exciting time when you decide to take your first budget trip. You might not be sure where exactly to start. What are your first steps?

Here are my suggestions on how to put together your trip.

Travel Buddy or Solo?

Are going to go alone or with someone else. If you are going with someone else, the first thing to do is find that person (duh). This can be easier said than done! Not everyone has the same travel style, destination desire, budget, and time off. If you already have a destination in mind and/or when you want to go, that's going to narrow down your options, too.

Choose someone that is easy going. Travel can be trying at times and you don't want any extra drama. Also make sure that your buddy is ready for the same style of budget travel you're aiming for. If they want to stay at nicer hotels and take taxis instead of staying in hostels and taking the public bus, you need to work that out ahead of time.

It's not enough to tell someone that you want to do it on a budget. To them, "budget" might mean something else entirely. Let them know your basic $ spending goal (which might be determined after you decide where you're going), and specifically how you are hoping to travel. Like that you plan on riding in chicken buses, eating street food, and that you would like to stay in hostels (private rooms are a great option if you have a travel buddy!). Tell them that it might not always be comfortable and it might be dirty at times, but let them know that you will be saving a ton money and will have such an incredible time!!

If you're going to try out solo travel - great! Then step 1 is done. :)

Things to Take Into Consideration For Choosing Where and When

We all want your first trip to be successful. Choosing the right spot and when to go can be crucial to your success! A bit of research can help you choose wisely, Grasshopper [insert Chinese accent here].

What kind of trip do you want?
Think about what interests you. Do you want to lie on a tropical beach (Thailand), do you want to see the Taj Majal (India), do you want to hike a volcano (Costa Rica), see monkeys in the rain-forest (Bali), take a language course (Mexico), are there any special events you want to witness (Guatemala), or do you want to marvel at architecture and visit museums (Mexico City)? Don't go somewhere just to go. Make sure you'll be doing things that interest you.

What do you want to see and do?
Check the dates for any festivals or special events and open/closed seasons for attractions you're interested in. Also check the cost of visiting attractions! I didn't properly research Belize at all and was shocked at the price to visit the ruins (like $100 USD!) that were not accessible without a tour.

Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala is something to behold! Planning on visiting the Similian Islands? They're closed during certain months.

How long are you going to go for?
I typically like to go for a month which my boyfriend totally makes fun of me for since most people don't get that kind of vacation time. From my experience, a month allows you the time to see a lot of a country without having to rush around too much. You'll have to decide how much time you can manage and still be able to see and do everything you want to. If you only have two weeks off, a big country like Australia might not be your best choice.

Tourist High/Low Seasons
Most places have a busy season and an off season. During busy season, prices are higher, sights are more crowded, and accommodation is at a premium. During low season, attractions and facilities (like restaurants and ferries) tend to be closed or have limited hours and you weather is less desirable (this could mean anything from it being too hot to it raining a lot) but prices are lower.

How to balance both? Shoulder season! Usually the months bridging the high and low seasons are ideal for a successful budget trip.

Of course if the off-season "negatives" in a certain location don't bother you, then go for it; it will be even cheaper.

Going to Costa Rica in July might save some money but you'll be inside a lot because of all the rain! Or there might be some great deals to go to Hawaii in January, but the water is rough and grey and you won't get the experience you were hoping for.

For SouthEast Asia, check this site (SelectiveAsia) and select the country/month you're looking at. Let the smiley faces guide you! This helped me perfectly choose the Perhentian Islands for a July trip a few years ago.

How touristy vs. rugged do you want to be?
Choosing a popular tourist destination for your first trip does have its benefits. There will be a lot of infrastructure for travelers such as accommodation, signs in English, tours, transportation options, etc. And just because you choose a popular destination like Bali or Costa Rica doesn't mean you have to be touristy!

On the other end of things, you can go all out and go somewhere that doesn't see many tourists and you will have to rely more on your skills to find food and get from point A to point B. That might not be the best idea your first trip, but can be fun later on.

How comfortable will you be with the language barrier? It really does make traveling so much easier if you speak the native language. Do you speak English? Perhaps visit Roatan, Honduras or New Zealand. If you speak Spanish, you might want to choose something in Central America for your first trip.

English is generally the common travel language throughout the world. Many places in the world speak at least some English, and some speak a lot of it; especially in the more touristy areas. But there are also some countries that speak almost zero English with perhaps French as their "tourist" language.

Wherever you go, you'll want to pick up as much of the local language as possible (at least a few key phrases to be the polite traveler rather than the demanding tourist and also to be able to ask for simple things like vegetarian food or a room with 2 beds). So consider how easy the language is to learn. Asian languages are tonal and are much more difficult whereas Latin-based languages are a bit easier with pronunciation. Granted, I wouldn't make difficult language a reason not to go somewhere, but it's just something to know going in.

Another thing that makes a difference in the ease of your first trip is if a country uses Roman letters or not. If you are from a country that does use Roman letters (A-Z and 0-9), you can at least read signs even if you don't know the language! If you are looking for a restaurant in Tanzania and you use Google Translate to find that "restaurant" = "yokudlela" in Zulu, you'll at least have some chance at spotting that on a sign. Whereas if you are looking for it in Thailand, good luck recognizing "ร้านอาหาร"! This also goes for reading numbers/prices.

More than likely if you are choosing a budget location, you will not be able to drink the local water and who knows what kind of toilets and transportation you might experience! Sometimes it's best to leave some things as a surprise and not include them in your research.

If food is important to you, look up some typical local dishes. For me, being vegetarian (although not a factor in whether or not I visit a place) does make a difference on how easy or difficult a trip will be. Eating was a dream in India! I didn't have to worry if street food was actually something I could eat or not. In Africa, my food was super limited and mostly just for sustenance.

I personally find this more interesting than limiting, but it might be a deal-breaker for some of you if a country is very conservative. In some countries, getting alcohol is more difficult and you might have to cover up more than you want to (especially in the heat and especially for women). For example, if going to Pakistan, you'll want to wear long pants, sleeves, and cover your head no matter how hot it is.

Flight Cost
This is a huge part of the trip budget. Look up flight prices. There might be a great sale to a certain spot during the time you want to travel and you'll end up somewhere you weren't planning on because of a too-good-to-pass-up flight deal.

Safety is always a big question, especially for less experienced travelers. Yes, you want to be aware of any extreme political situations, but generally a lot of media hype doesn't effect tourists. Well, other than maybe lowering flight prices! :) Some countries are less safe for women or people traveling alone but a lot of it is how you carry yourself and if you follow general travel safety rules. (see 10 Smart and Easy Travel Safety Tips)

Visa Requirements
Depending on where you're from, getting a visa and/or the cost of one might make a difference in where you choose to go. My visa into Tanzania cost $100!

Overall Cost
And finally, how much will it cost once you're there?! This the star of the show. You might find a super cheap flight to Iceland (well maybe not anymore - thank you Wow Airlines), but once you're there, nothing is cheap. Western Europe is generally pretty expensive, too. Look up sample transportation, accommodation, and food prices. You can check Lonely Planet's typical budget travel cost, look at my Average Costs, look at other travel blogs (yeah, whatever), check hotel booking sites, etc.

You can usually find low average travel costs in SE Asia, India, parts of Eastern Europe, Mexico, some of Central America, and Africa. My typical spending goal is $30-$35/day not counting airfare. That includes all transportation, accommodation, food, sightseeing, and booze.

Picking a Destination

Deciding on where to go can be a difficult task, and for good reason. The world is your oyster - there are so many good choices!

Do you have a timeframe in mind? Look up online "best place to travel in [insert month name]" and you will get a lot of information on places to consider. This will give you a general starting point.

There are so many other things to consider though! Go through the list above and in the end, you'll just need to pick somewhere. Trust me, it's a never-ending list.

Some words of wisdom. Feel free to think outside the box! For instance, if you want a tropical getaway, Cancun might seem an easy choice. But the reality of Cancun is that you'll likely end up in an expensive touristy resort and spend your time at CocoBongo and Sr. Frogs with nothing but other tourists. There are a lot of great areas around there though like Puerto Morelos, Isla Holbox, Isla Mujeres and even Cancun city itself.

Know Where You Want to Go?

If you have a location in mind, you should still make sure you check out the stuff listed above. There might be something you didn't think of.

Now you just need to decide when to go. Look up online "best time to travel to [insert location name]" and you will get a lot of information on the seasons of your chosen spot. Look at the pros and cons of going one month vs. another.

Once you decide which general time of year appeals the most to you, start looking up flights . You'd be surprised how much the flight cost can vary by date! If you are on the fence about going a month earlier and the fare turns out to be a lot lower during that month, well there's your decision.

So have you done it? Have you chosen the perfect spot? Hooray! Now you're ready for Planning Your Trip, Part 2.


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