We all know some people who just go on vacation without a real plan. They sit at the beach for 3 days and then do something fun that was mentioned in a brochure at the hotel. They do have a great story to tell when returning home, but that's mostly because they got in some kind of weird situation because they were unprepared. I'll tell you how you experience a vacation that is truly worth your money without spending anything extra!
Inform yourself about the rules of the country you're going to.
A lot of people seem to forget about this for some reason, even though this is one of the most important things when going abroad. If you're going to drive a car in that country, make sure you know the highway codes. Every country (and sometimes even every province/state) has their own set of rules when it comes to driving and you have to know them. If you're going abroad by plane, also make sure you know what customs is like in that country. The rules also vary when it comes to what you can and can't bring into a certain country, so to avoid problems it's best to look it up beforehand. If you're planning on doing things that are illegal in some countries but not in others (smoking weed, wearing 'revealing' clothing,..) it might also be best to look up the rules in that country to avoid problems.
What's also a good idea is to look up what kind of transportation people use in the city you're going to. This might be convenient to know in certain circumstances.
Make a list of things you really want to do.
There must be a reason why you chose your destination, so start by writing down those reasons. If you somehow have no idea of what you want to do yet, a good tip is to look up "things to do in..." on Google. It will show you the most popular things to do in that city/country. Mind, though, that these suggestions are tourist attractions and a lot of people will want to see/do that one thing that you just saw on the internet. Don't base your entire holiday around this. This is a mistake that a lot of people make and it's very unfortunate. I will explain later on what else you can do except for these things.
Look up travel bloggers.
One of the better things about travel bloggers is that they specifically look for the pretty views and the non-touristy attractions. They like to blend in with the locals, so they usually have better tips on what to do than what first showed up on Google or what you originally had in mind. But like I said before, it's important to prioritise. Living like a local and looking for pretty views to get a good Instagram picture is only your second priority at this point because if you only focus on this, you're traveling for someone else and not yourself. Don't make that mistake. Do what YOU want to do, not what travel bloggers want to do.
Look for relatives/friends who have already been to this destination.
I personally think this is one of the best ways to gather information. If you're lucky, one of these people might also have some documentation left of when they went and you can take that as extra information as well. They can tell you where the good restaurants are, which attractions are worth doing and which aren't (and why), and you can pretty much ask them anything you want because they will likely have an answer for you.
Learn the language.
Of course you don't have to start learning Italian grammar if you're going to Italy for a week, but words/phrases such as "hello" "thank you" "can I have the check please?" "what does this mean?" and "where is the bathroom?" will get you very far. It's very likely that locals in a non-English speaking country don't speak English at all, even if there are a lot of tourists in the city. Especially if you're in a neighbourhood where mostly old people live, you might get in trouble if you don't speak the language so try to inform yourself as much as possible. You might even gain a friend, just because of this!
Make a planning of what you're going to do.
Now that you've gathered all of the information above, decide what you want to do and when you want to do it. Keep in mind that in some countries the stores and attractions might be closed on certain days of the week so make sure to plan around that. Have one day without a plan if you're going for at least a week. This day can later be filled up if you find something interesting to do when you're actually there because you never really know what you might bump into.
Book one-day trips with boats/busses beforehand.
You don't want to have to stress out on your holiday about whether there will still be a place for you on a boat to some island the next day, so book this all before you leave. You have no idea how much time you save by just doing this at home on your own laptop where you can figure everything out yourself instead of having to explain yourself at a ticket office. Also make sure that, if you're going by plane, you know how to get from the airport to your hotel. If you don't need to pay for an expensive cab, then don't.
Have an element of surprise.
Like I said before, you don't have to plan every day. It's important to have that element of surprise. To get lost in the small street and to find a super cute place to eat in the middle of the city that you otherwise wouldn't have found if you hadn't lost your way. This is what makes a vacation truly a vacation. You need to explore, not only plan.