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 ].
Travel Buddy or Solo?The first thing to decide is if you 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!
Choose someone that is easy going and is okay with the same travel style you're after. If they want to stay in nicer hotels and take taxis instead of staying in hostels (BTW private rooms in hostels are great when you have someone to share with) and taking the public bus, you need to work that out ahead of time and decide if you will be able to work out a compromise. Also, you'll want at least some overlap in the types of activities you want to do and sights you want to see.
If you're going to try out solo travel - great! Then step 1 is done.
When to Go?
About High/Low SeasonsMost 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 the 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. But there's a lot more to consider when figuring out the best time to go somewhere. Read below for more variables to take into account.
Here are my suggestions on how to put together your trip if you Already Know Where You Want to Go or are Picking a Destination.
Already Know Where You Want to Go?If you have a location in mind, you need to choose the best time to go and work that into when you can take time off. Even if you already know where and when you want to go, look up the seasons anyway. You might determine that your plan to go to Costa Rica in February doesn't look like the best idea after all because it's so hot! Or you were planning on visiting the Similian Islands but you weren't aware that they're closed during certain months.
Look up online "best time to travel to [ insert location name ]" and you will get a lot of information on the seasons for your chosen spot. Look at the pros and cons of going one month vs. another. For SouthEast Asia, check the site Selective Asia. Select the country/month you're looking at, and let the smiley faces guide you!
Are there any
festivals or special eventsthat you'd like to see while you're there or
attractionsthat are only open during certain times of year? Weigh that in too.
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.
Now you're ready for Planning Your Trip, Part 2.
Picking a DestinationWhether you have a specific time you want to travel or are just looking for a location and will narrow down the time later, deciding on where to go can be a difficult task. But for good reason. The world is your oyster - there are so many good choices!
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. For SouthEast Asia, I use the site Selective Asia to view happy/sad faces for a given country based on weather during a certain month. This perfectly helped me choose the Perhentian Islands for a July trip a few years ago.
There are so many other things to consider though! Go through the list below and in the end, you'll just need to pick somewhere. Trust me, it's a never-ending list.
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 (El Salvador), 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.
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.
LanguageHow 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, especially in tourist 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 at least a few words of the local language to be a polite traveler. 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 be aware of.
Another thing that makes a difference in the ease of your first trip is
what script a country uses. If a country uses Roman letters and you are familiar with reading 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.
CultureMore 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 surpriseand 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 CostFlight cost 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.
SafetySecurity 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 RequirementsDepending 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!
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.