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Planning your first trip abroad is nerve-racking, exhilarating, and scary. Will you pick the right location? What about getting the right price? How do you choose the perfect activities? What cities should you go to, and how will you get there?
Don't worry—travel is fun and doesn't need to be a stressor when it comes to planning, coordinating, and making reservations. Expect to have a few bumps in the road for your first trip; I know that I did. But after that, it gets easier and easier every time.
The biggest adventure of my college career was backpacking across Europe while living in the south of France. I created my own itineraries for Ireland, Scotland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Spain, Switzerland—the list goes on and on! Since then, I've done larger trips to New Zealand, Iceland, Thailand, Nepal, and Africa—both for solo travel and in groups.
Travel doesn't need to be overwhelming. With the right amount of preparation and a little bit of spontaneity, you can create the perfect solo or group travel backpacking trip by following these easy tricks of the trade.
Where do you want to go?
This sounds like a relatively simple question—but I assure you that it is not! Too often am I asked by my friends, "Where should I go on vacation?" Do they want to go to one country, or multiple? What cities should they visit? What are the "must see" locations, what are tourist traps, and what are the hidden gems found off the beaten path?
Start with the easy question first: where have you always wanted to go? Maybe it's a country; maybe it's a city. For the purpose of this article, I'm going to be speaking about out-of-the-country travel, but these same ideologies can be applied to in-country travel.
Questions to Consider When Choosing Your Location:
- What is the best time of year to travel there?
- If you're looking forward to skiing in New Zealand, you don't want to show up during their summer months...
- What is the best time of year to purchase inexpensive flights?
- If you're budget conscious, this is an important question. You'll generally find that off-season tourist peaks are less expensive than during the season (typically summer months in that country tend to have a higher flight price).
- Visa requirements?
- Is there anything you need to schedule in advance to get a visa, do you need a visa, or can you get a visa at the airport? (And do you need cash for this?)
- How far away is it?
- I've been on two back-to-back 14 hour flights, with a 10 hour layover in between. It tested my sanity—but I went through with it because I was passionate about my trip! Discover your plane/bus/train limit for travel, and work with the amount of travel time you are comfortable with.
- How much time can you take off?
- Check beforehand with your employer or family to see how much time you can spend on vacation. Factor this into choosing a location. If you only have 10 days off, you won't want to spend 4 of those traveling if you're going halfway around the world.
- Are you genuinely interested in the location?
- What makes you want to go there? I've traveled to some places to visit friends, other because movies have been filmed there. Do what feels right for you and what you are passionate about.
Helpful Resources to Plan Your Location & Flight:
Hopper: Hopper is a mobile application that analyzes billions of flights to help you find the best deals and the best times to fly and buy. You can start your flight research with Hopper to save time and money. I generally "watch" a lot of different flight locations throughout the year to inform me on when to purchase tickets.
Scott's Cheap Flights: My favorite email list of all time. This free list sends you email alerts when their travel experts find cheap international flights departing from your favorite airports.
Passport Health: Quality provider of preventive healthcare services, including immunizations, travel medicine, flu clinics, and physical exams with over 270 clinics in the USA. Great resources online as well to check out recommended vaccinations by country.
Travel State Gov: This resources by the US Gov provides information and a link to background and requirements for Americans traveling abroad. Click on the links provided to access their alphabetical listing of countries to view specific entry requirements. Also includes information on passports, visas, immunizations, medical information, additional fees, and conditions abroad that may affect traveler safety and security.
Solo or Group Travel?
Deciding to travel solo or in a group is a difficult decision for the first time traveler; they both provide very unique traveling experiences. Oftentimes the trend is to go in a group because, well, you won't be alone. However, solo travel doesn't mean that you'll be "alone" for the whole trip.
It's important to determine if you'll be going on your travel packing trip by yourself or with friends before any planning. If you decide on a group, for example, you'll have to take into consideration a whole range of interests and opinions for how the vacation can be. With solo travel, you determine the schedule. I'll go over some of the pros and cons of both options below:
Pros of Solo Travel
- Set your own schedule
- Personal growth / opportunity to develop as a person
- New friends
- Freedom + Reflection
- Testing yourself / Self sufficient
Cons of Solo Travel
- Higher cost
- Safety concerns
- Short friendships
- Random people take your pictures LOL
Pros of Group Travel
- Strengthening of your relationship(s)
- Save money
- Constant socialization
Cons of Group Travel
- Less freedom
- Less privacy / opportunity to be alone
- Managing multiple interests for trip / Decisions get more complicated
- When you don't get along with people...
If you're traveling in a group, make sure that the people you're with are good travel buddies. A sure-way to know is if you've spent an entire day (or multiple) with these friends before.
Don't know who you want to go with? Post about your trip on Facebook to see which of your friends may be interested. Or check out a social travel app like Backpackr to be connected with other interested adventurers.
What are you interested in doing?
This is one of those "big questions" that will define your trip. Are you a city or a country person? Would you rather relax at the beach or go trekking to the highest mountain in the world? Defining your activity-level pre-trip (and this doesn't mean booking everything in advance—only the important things) will help give you or your group a better indication of what to expect and what to plan for.
If you want to go on a hike, look up some of the most popular hiking destinations in the world (or lesser-known ones if you're all about that hipster lifestyle). Take a few hours to do some research on Google; it's easy, fun, and you'll get a lot of good ideas to work off of. This same ideology can be used for road trips, all inclusive resorts, bar crawls, and more.
How long do you want your trip to be?
The duration of your trip dictates the amount of activities you can complete. For example, I went to New Zealand for two weeks and my itinerary felt incredibly crammed because I wanted to see both North and South Islands—which may have been better used for a 4-week trip.
Whether you can travel for seven days or seven months, you'll need to define the trip duration in order to properly account for your activities, additional travel, and sanity. Overstuffing a 7-day vacation can be more overwhelming and end up not feeling like a vacation at all.
Questions to consider:
- How much time can you get off of work?
- How comfortable are you when you are away from home?
- If with a group—what are everyone's schedules and date requirements like?
For me, when I hit the 3-week mark on my backpacking trips, I get pretty homesick. I know that is my limit—you just need to define yours.
It's time to outline the itinerary.
Creating an itinerary is a natural step for me to complete for every trip I have planned and will plan. It allows you to gather all of your thoughts, ideas, and desires, and make your trip into a reality. Knowing where I'll be, how to get there, and what to do while I'm there eliminates a certain amount of stress and unknown factors that will make the trip more enjoyable.
I create my itinerary via Google Sheets, and include:
- One tab for an overall calendar
- One tab for budgeting_activities, flights, hostels, and more
- One tab for packing list
I have yet to have found an app that accounts for the three tabs I create in the above list. If I do—I'll update this article. For now, I suggest Google Sheets; it's easy to update, easy to collaborate on if you are in a group, and you can save it to your phone for easy accessibility and reference.
Start with an overall calendar, where you can write down where you'll be each day. From there, determine where you'll be sleeping and how you'll get from point A to point B. Then, plan your in-advance activities that need booking.
You can even create a sheet of ideas for things you'd like to do or places you'd like to go. Keep an updated list of your ideas—you'll be able to use those on the trip for any last minute planning.
Start booking in advance - or not!
I recommend booking the following in advance:
- Flights: Specifically your flight to the location. If you want to leave your trip open ended, don't book the flight home. I generally book the round trip in advance, and any additional flights throughout the trip (in-country or to other countries if you are hopping around). Make sure you get insurance on these so you can cancel them last-minute if need be! (I've definitely done this before...)
- Hotels/Hostels: I need to know where I'm sleeping every night, so I always book my bed in advance. I recommend creating an account on Hostelworld for the best hostel experience. Having an account also eliminates the need to enter your information time and time again (it gets mundane trust me). Airbnb is also a great resource for room bookings. Did you know that I rented a room in a palace via Airbnb when I went to Morocco? Hotels can get pricey, but if that's your thing, book in advance.
- Big Hikes: If you're hiking to Everest Base Camp or Kilmanjaro, you'll need to book a tour company months in advance. Day hikes, you can book while you are there (unless they are super popular).
- Popular/Limited Time Activities: If you're going to New Zealand, you'll need to book your tour of The Shire in advance (at least a month) since it is a popular tourist destination. Contact the tour company of your choice and hear their recommendations on booking in advance or not.
- Must-Do's on your trip: Anything you're dying to do, book in advance! You want to make sure that you do it.
When I'm looking for ideas of what to book or what activities to do, I like to reference Nomadic Matt and his excellent travel site. It will help with ideas and timing!
Budget, Budget, Budget
Whether you travel cheaply or lavishly, you'll need a ball-park budget in advance to ensure you have enough funds for your trip. Booking in advance gives you a more solid indication of what you'll spend in total. Creating a daily budget can also help you understand what your food & activity limits are for each day.
Make sure you have a credit/debit card that doesn't have international transactions fees. Look into travel perks with your current banking; some credit cards will even give you miles back for your purchases.
There are tons of budget hacks out there that can make your trip a breeze. Hostelworld provides great starter recommendations in their Genius Travel Hacks For When You’re Broke AF article. Even if you're not broke AF... it helps.
All About What to Pack
For those of you who do not have a wicked-accurate memory (cough me cough) a packing list is a great solution for ensuring that you do not forget your essentials on the trip.
Aside from clothes and toiletries, there are additional items that make your trip worthwhile, like:
- Universal adapters (for international travel)
- Reusable water bottle (for being eco-conscious)
- Wet wipes (for when you smell really bad and can't find a shower)
- Tissues/Bandaids (because you will have a runny nose and you will have blisters on your feet)
- Sleeping bag (for when your hostel doesn't have sheets)
- Notebook/Kindle (for when you get bored)
- Great walking shoes (because your feet will thank you)
- Rain coat / small umbrella (for when it rains out of nowhere)
- Durable travel backpack (because you deserve it. See my favorite one below)
Start a packing list note on your phone or spreadsheet and add to it periodically leading up to the trip. You'll have a full list by the time you are ready to pack.
Preparing for the Journey
Don't forget to:
- Ensure your passport is up to date (US citizens—if it is under 6 months of expiration you won't be able to go on your trip)
- Get all of your travel shots/vaccines
- Check the weather everyday leading up to your trip, to better inform your packing
- Research what natives wear in your destination country
- Learn phrases in the local language
Most importantly—enjoy it. Prepare for the adventure ahead and be open to all of the changes and spontaneous events that will occur.
The end result? A memory that you'll look back on for the rest of your life. Check out the highlights from my trip to Thailand in the video below.
Like what you read? Send me a gift below to help contribute to my next adventure!