How to plan an international trip – DIY for beginners

These days, booking a trip yourself has become infinitely easier with the Internet. However, people often say that they prefer to use travel agents because they are afraid to plan a trip themselves – afraid of doing something wrong, afraid of booking the wrong flights, afraid of booking accommodation in the wrong area etc. It can be more comforting to have someone else take care of the details for you and all you have to do is fork out the money – but when you think about how much money you could save by doing it yourself then the idea of booking your own trip becomes more appealing. I was also afraid in the beginning but with practice I became more comfortable, and now I would rather customise my trip to my requirements instead of purchasing a ready-made package -unless it suits my requirements and is much cheaper than what I can do myself.

Here, I want to show you how easy it is to plan a trip yourself.

These are the things you need to consider. Bear in mind that a lot of them are interdependent.

  1. The Basics
  2. The Destination
  3. Travel Dates
  4. Flights
  5. Visas
  6. Itinerary
  7. Accommodation
  8. Tours and transfers
  9. Vaccinations
  10. Insurance
  11. Packing

1.The basics

  • Ensure that you have a valid passport, with at least six months validity on it after travel. It should also have at least two blank pages. If you don’t have a valid passport, see how to apply for or renew one online (for South Africa).
  • If you are travelling with kids, they will need unabridged birth certificates. If your child’s passport already has both parents’ details printed in it, then this may not be necessary.

2. Decide on your destination

  • You may have one in mind already. If not, look for inspiration on the internet and in travel magazines, or talk to friends. I also have an ever-growing bucket list that I refer to. Your budget often determines the destination, as prices go from affordable to “you don’t want to know”.
  • Another factor to consider when choosing your destination is whether visas are required for a destination, and how easy it is to get the visa.
  • We also look at stopover destinations. For example, when we travelled to Brazil and Argentina, we flew on Emirates which stops over in Dubai, so we decided to spend a few days there too. (Of course, this required a separate visa.) Our reasoning is that if it is a destination that you’re planning to visit at some point, then this saves you a separate flight there. For a family of four, that is quite a big saving.

3. Decide on the dates

  • The dates and the destination often go together too. For example, you may not want to travel to your chosen destination in winter.
  • Your destination also determines your dates. f you are going to a city where there are tons of things to do, like London, then you will need more time there.

Tips:

  • Travelling during off-peak periods is much cheaper but not possible if your kids go to school – like mine.
  • Booking well in advance is usually much cheaper than booking close to your departure date.

4.Book the flights

Living at the bottom of Africa means that flights to most destinations are expensive. This is often the biggest cost of your trip. I always check these websites for the cheapest flights on my chosen dates: Tripadvisor, Travelstart and Skyscanner.  They usually show you whether flying a few days earlier or later will get you a better rate.

As we are Discovery Vitality Diamond members, I also check their website for discounted flights, although they only partner with a few airlines, and you need to book well in advance.

Once I have identified the cheapest airline, and the flight times are bearable, I will check the airline’s website to see if it will be better to book with them directly. Factors such as cancellation policies make a difference, if your visa application gets denied or if you can’t travel for any other reason. If prices and flight times are the same, I am more likely to go with an airline which is affiliated to one of my frequent flier memberships. For example, I can earn SAA Voyager miles by flying on Emirates, as they are both Star Alliance members.

Tips:

  • Direct flights are the best but not usually the cheapest.
  • Search for flights in incognito mode, or else you’ll start noticing that the prices seem to be increasing
  • If the airline you are flying with is not linked to any frequent flier alliances you are already a member of , then join their loyalty program. These are usually free, and may benefit you one day. I will be writing a post on loyalty programs soon.

5. Apply for Visas

I am more likely to visit a country where visas are not required for South Africans or they are easy to obtain, but sometimes the desire to visit a country which is not visa-free triumphs. In that case, find out what the visa requirements are for your destination and apply in advance if you can. Some countries, like UAE, do not allow you to apply more than 30 days beforehand.

Note: Applying for US, UK and Schengen visas is more complex than most other visas.

6. Work out your itinerary

Work out a broad itinerary if you are not planning to stay in one place for the entire duration of your stay. Our trips usually involve moving a lot. For example, when we went to Italy, we chose to stay in Venice, Rome and Florence , which means that I had to find accommodation in all three.

The finer details of the itinerary, such as when to visit which attractions, can be worked out later.

7. Accommodation

Tripadvisor compares prices across different websites for you, so it is a good idea to check their website first. I usually end up booking with Booking.com , as most of their accommodation can be cancelled free until just before your trip, if the need arises. I’m paranoid like that! You also don’t have to pay until you get to the hotel, for most bookings.

I also recently used Airbnb and would recommend it if you’re travelling with a larger family/group or want more space. See my Airbnb review here.

If you don’t know which area of a city to book in, Google is your friend. So you would Google something like “ Best areas to stay in Istanbul”. Read multiple articles, not just one.

Tip: Take these factors into account: child-friendliness, proximity to transport hubs and attractions, price, whether breakfast is included or not, cancellation options as well as Tripadvisor reviews.

Palacio Duhau

Palacio Duhau

8. Tours and transfers

You can now work out the finer details of the itinerary. I use Tripadvisor and blog posts to research the top activities and attractions in each city as well as the best method of booking for them. Then I book those that are necessary to book beforehand. For example, when we visited Italy, we had to book tickets for Vatican City and the Uffizi Gallery before we went. This saved us from having to wait in long lines. When we visited Walt Disney World, we also had to book our tickets before we went, in order to get the best prices.

If you need transfers to your hotel from the airport, then book these. If Uber is available, I don’t worry about this though.

I like using the City Sightseeing Bus wherever it’s available as it gives a good overview of the city and you can learn quite a bit from the commentary.

Tip: Download offline Google maps for your destination as well as travel guides.

9.Vaccinations

Find out whether you need vaccinations for your destination, get the vaccination and carry your card with you when travelling.

Tip: Yellow Fever Vaccinations used to be valid for only 10 years, now you only need to take them once in your lifetime.

10. Insurance

A lot of things can go wrong when traveling, and medical care can be quite expensive. Therefore travel insurance is not a bad idea. See if your credit card company and/ or medical aid company offers free travel insurance and take advantage if it does.  Ours do, so we don’t pay separately tor this.

11. Packing

People have different packing requirements differ, but everyone should carry these essentials:

  1. International adaptors – to charge your devices
  2. A portable luggage scale – to ensure that your luggage weight meets the airline requirements before you go to the airport.
  3. A collapsible bag for any additional luggage.

12. Take precautions

  1. Send a copy of your itinerary to a friend or family member who is not travelling with you.
  2. Save copies of your passports, visas, vaccinations, hotel bookings, itinerary etc in a Dropbox folder, in case your documents get lost or stolen.

Other things to do if applicable

  • Inform your bank that you will be travelling and using your bank cards overseas, so that they don’t suspect fraud and put a stop on them.
  • Put your newspaper subscription on hold if you have one.
  • Decide whether you will be using your phone on roaming or sms roaming – or buying a local sim card.
  • Download Google Translate or use Travis Touch if you can afford it.
  • Exchange some cash as you will require some local currency were credit cards are not accepted.

A travel agent can help you with points 2-8, as well as 11, above. If all this seems like too much hard work, then maybe that would be the best option for you.

Do you have any tips to share? Or anything else you would like advice or tips on? Please let me know.

See more travel tips.

See tips for travelling with children.

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How to book an international trip

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4 comments
Joanna Rath

Very thorough and a great resource.

I once had to put off a trip because I could only get the visa from the embassy in Japan. I live in Australia. I am now visiting the country early next year because a visa can now be obtained at the border.

I still don’t understand why people think it will cost more to go through a travel agent when they don’t charge you. I have checked prices quoted by my travel agent (eg flights, hotels) against what I could get it for online and the prices have been on par.

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Dwain Arzaga

Cool blog. Cheers for sharing.

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