How I plan my trips (with little time and money)

tripplanning

Here is the first part of this article:
“How do you manage to travel so much?”

So if traveling is a priority for you in your leisure time, you should pursue it. And the best way to optimize your maybe-not-so-abundant amount of time and money is to plan in advance.

There are several ways of planning a trip that work just fine. Here, I’ll explain step by step how I do it and what works for me. (You’ll see I’m quite methodical.)

I’ve never used the services of a travel agency I always check and book everything on my own. This method might be a bit more time-consuming, but I prefer it as I have more control over my trip and I believe it to be less expensive as well.

For me, planning a trip is like getting ready for a party: it’s almost half the fun!

Things to consider:

HOW:
Define the style of traveling that works for you, i.e., what is doable (several small trips a year, or one or two longer trips a year, or a mix of both; traveling inside your country or continent, or traveling to further destinations, or a mix of both; etc.)

WHEN:
Here is what I do first of all: I open a calendar that has all the bank holidays of the year. (Important: make sure they are actually valid for the city where you live! Many holidays in German calendars, for example, are only valid in certain states, and unfortunately not in Berlin.)
Then, I list the long weekends I will have throughout the year. As an example, here are the ones in Berlin in 2016:

  • Easter: from 24/03 evening to 28/03 = 4 nights
  • Ascension Day (Christi Himmelfahrt): from 04/05 evening to 08/05 = 4 nights
    (Note: here, only Thursday 5th is a holiday – Friday 6th is not. But it is clearly worth it to take this day off, as you get a 4-day holiday for the ‘cost’ of 1 workday.)
  • Pentecost / Whitsunt (Pfingst): from 13/05 evening to 16/05 = 3 nights
  • German Unification (Tag der Deutschen Einheit): from 30/09 evening to 03/10 = 3 nights

As you can see, it’s only 4 (May 1st will be a Sunday and Christmas / New Year’s doesn’t really count). So I know that this year I have 4 opportunities of long weekends to travel: 2 x 4-night trips and 2 x 3-night trips.

WHERE:
When choosing a destination, first estimate how much time you would need to cover that place. This is a very personal decision, as different people have different paces when traveling. It also depends on whether you want to visit all the museums in town, for example, or just the must-see tourist attractions. I usually google for ‘how many days in …’ and check what other travelers think in travel forum discussions, such as Tripadvisor. If you’re a no-wasting-time traveler like me, you should also check the website Days in a City, which usually has good suggestions.

So after I’ve defined on which days of the year I can travel and how long the trips can be (see WHEN section), I can check which trips would actually fit in this amount of time. For example: I know I can’t plan a trip to Southeast Asia for a 4-night break, because that’s not enough time for this destination. So I try to find destinations that are doable in 3- or 4-night trips.

As I said in the first part of this article, I usually have 5 to 10 days of vacation per year, apart from long weekends and my time spent in Brazil. So when I want to go on longer trips (longer than a long weekend), I usually use some of those vacation days. And to optimize my time, I try to combine it with weekends. For example: if I take 5 days off (Monday to Friday), I can actually go on a 9-night trip, including the weekends before and after. So it’s a ‘9-day-for-the-price-of-5’ deal.

To decide where I’m going to travel to, I always consider:
1) Where I can go in the amount of time I have;
2) Where I am interested in going;
3) Where I can find cheap tickets to and from.

The two most expensive things to pay for in a trip are: transport (to and from your destination) and accommodation. (Food doesn’t count so much, as you will have to eat either on vacation or at home.) Fortunately, there are ways to save a lot on these two points.

TRANSPORT

I’m a scientist, so I don’t trust only one source. I like to check flights in more than one search/comparison website. I use: Google Flights, Skyscanner and Kayak.

Google Flights: this one has been my favorite for a long time now. It allows you to search for flights going ‘everywhere’, or to a country in general. You don’t necessarily have to choose a specific city or airport. You can also see what the prices look like in a whole month and which days are cheapest. You can of course filter your search according to the time when you want to fly or the number of stops, for example. Another big advantage of Google Flights is that you can save a flight that interests you and follow it over time as they show you graphs of the prices. So if you’re logged in on your Google account, you can simply go to Google Flights and see how the prices have changed in the last days. After using this tool for a while, you get a pretty good idea of how much the flights that interest you cost. I use Google Flights so much to keep an eye on ticket prices for the destinations on my bucket list that I’ve grown to learn what’s the cheapest I could pay to fly from Berlin to Stockholm, for example, and what would be paying too much. I also use it a lot to follow flight prices from Germany to Brazil, since these are so expensive and I want to get a good deal. Sometimes it feels like following the stock market: when prices go down, I’ll buy.

googleflightsexample
Example search on Google Flights: following prices over time

Skyscanner: has the same search advantages as Google Flights, but doesn’t have the option to save flights and see the graphs. The reason why I still use Skyscanner in addition to Google Flights is that sometimes Google Flights gives me inaccurate prices (maybe it’s not updated as often), so I like to double-check it.

Kayak: since it doesn’t have the ‘everywhere’ search option like the other two, I’ve only been using Kayak now when I want to search for flexible dates. You can search using an option of +/- 3 days for both the outbound and the inbound flights, and they will show you a table with all the possible combinations, and which one is the cheapest. For example:

kayakexample
Example search on Kayak: in this case, the cheapest option is to depart on 15/07 and return on 18/07

It’s a great feeling to find a good bargain. I’ve booked return flights from Berlin to Copenhagen for 50 euros, to Cologne for 20, to Malta for 70 and to Salzburg for 77.

For train options: every country usually has only one national railway company, so I always check and book on their official website it’s not going to be cheaper anywhere else. For German trains, that’s Deutsche Bahn. The train companies do offer cheaper tickets if you book in advance, so it’s always a good idea to check as soon as possible.

For bus options, or for when you don’t know which option is the best (bus, train or flight):
For European destinations, I like to use GoEuro. This website allows you to compare all the transport options (also car rental). And it gives you a nice comparison list of all the different bus companies. (For some time now, Megabus has been offering some of the cheapest bus tickets in Europe. It’s the new Ryanair of the roads.)

Note: I only use all these websites to search and compare prices. Once I’ve found a ticket I’d like to book, I do it on the official company website (I find it to be more trustworthy and cheaper).

There is also the option of car sharing, like BlaBlaCar in Germany (which is quite cheap), or even hitchhiking (which is free). Personally, I’ve never used these options, but go ahead if you feel comfortable with them.

Other things to consider when deciding on transport:

  • Sometimes flights are cheaper than trains or buses;
  • Sometimes buses and trains take the same amount of time (and buses are usually cheaper) one example is the ride from Berlin to Prague;
  • Flight prices don’t always only increase over time with Ryanair, for example, they can fluctuate A LOT.

ACCOMMODATION

I always book my transport tickets first, and only then my accommodation, because the former is usually more expensive. Also because you can often change or cancel your accommodation booking for free, but the same is not true for transport. But it’s a good idea to at least have a look at accommodation options before booking your tickets, to avoid surprises. Some local events such as Oktoberfest in Munich and St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin make accommodation prices become 10 times more expensive.

You should think of what is most important for you when choosing travel accommodation. For me, it’s price and location. (OK, comfort comes third…) And if you don’t mind sharing a room or a bathroom, you will usually find cheaper offers.

WIth this in mind, I usually consider 3 types of accommodation: hostel, hotel or Airbnb.

Hostel: I take this option about 90% of the time. It’s the option I take when it’s a lot cheaper than the other 2 options; or when I’m traveling alone.
To compare and book hostels, I use the websites Hostelbookers and Booking.com.

Hotel: of course, this is the option I give preference to since it’s the most comfortable one but it’s usually also the most expensive one. I take this option about 10% of the time: when it happens to be the same price as the hostel option, or almost. This usually happens when I’m traveling with a group of people. (Note that it’s usually a low-budget hotel or pension.)
To compare and book hotels, I use the website Booking.com.
I really like Booking.com as the platform is very clear and easy to handle (e.g. to filter searches, make alterations in your booking, etc.). And if you have any problem, they have a good customer service and will mediate everything you don’t need to contact the hotel on your own. Plus, after you’ve booked a few places, you become a ‘Genius’ client and get special rates.

Airbnb: this is a website where you can rent a room in someone’s apartment. I’m just starting to experiment with the Airbnb option. I’d take this option only when:
a) hotels are way more expensive than hostels and Airbnb;
b) plus the Airbnb offer and the hostel both have great locations but Airbnb is the same price or cheaper than the hostel;
c) plus the Airbnb offer is a private room (so more comfortable) and the hostel option is a shared dormitory;
d) plus the Airbnb host has great reviews and looks trustworthy;
e) plus when I’m not traveling alone.
(So as you can see, I’d only use Airbnb in very particular cases.)
Website: Airbnb

One also has the option of CouchSurfing staying at someone’s apartment for free. I’ve never taken this option as I don’t feel comfortable with it, but you should consider if it’s worth it for you.

In general, prices for low-budget accommodation in Europe range from 10 to 30 euros per night per person.


I hope this very thorough description of how I plan my trips can be helpful and inspiring! If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments.

Checking travel tickets online is harmless and costs absolutely nothing. So just try it. You’ve got nothing to lose.  🙂

(Note: this post was not sponsored by any of the companies mentioned here.)

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