You’ve decided now is the time to travel to a foreign destination, and you just can’t wait to sightsee, hike, bike, sit in a café, tour museums, or meander mountain trails. From booking your flight to arranging tours, there is a range of basics to put on your travel planning to-do list. You need to start working on most of these items at least several months in advance of your planned departure, which is where our ultimate travel planner comes in. Each travel tip has a recommended timeline noting when you need to start, as well as key links to stories and advice on our own website, plus key resources to make it easier than ever for you to start travel planning:
- Cruises / group travel packages — Put down your deposit for the group trip or cruise you have selected. Deposits for group trips are often due several months before departure – and up to a year if you have locked down an early-booking price. Indeed, many group trips (hiking, biking, etc.) or cruises and travel packages will often offer great discounts up to a year in advance. So start planning early. When? Up to one year in advance.
- Flights – Now that you know your travel dates based on a package, cruise or independent travel, it’s time to search for flights. Anecdotally, you should either book months in advance – up to a year if you want to use points — or in the last 7-8 weeks. We find that booking two to three months in advance usually works well. Of course, you can also book many months or a year in advance too. Best days to travel? Urban lore still says mid-week or Saturday and experienced travel planners have found that often holds true. But not always. So shop smart. Read our story on choosing flights, “How to choose the best flight for your next trip.” When? Two months to one year in advance.
- Passport – Get your passport or, if you have one, ensure you have (preferably) six months left on your current one (Since many countries require at last three months validity and why take a chance?). Since local passport agencies may take six to eight weeks, who wants to pay a rush fee and stress about its arrival? Start now. In the United States, go to the State Department’s travel.gov website and download a form, fill it out and send it along. If you are updating a current passport, you will need to send it along too, so do choose a secure delivery service like FedEx. (And make sure you know the passport rules for children if this is a family trip. Those are also available on the State Department website). When? Three months or more in advance.
- Visa – Most European Union countries (at least as of this writing) do not require a visa for a typical traveler’s stay of up to 90 days (that is cumulative for all EU countries under the so-called Schengen Treaty). However, other countries, like China, Vietnam or Australia, will require a visa. To find out more about how to obtain a visa, you will need to access each country’s website or go (again) to Travel.gov and research each country there. Often, using a visa service will lower your stress level since these people know the ropes. Do a search on the Internet or get a recommendation from friends or on travel advice websites such as Trip Advisor. When? Minimum of two to three months in advance preferred.
- Vaccinations / Immunizations – What you need will depend on your destination, and different immunizations require different lead times. Our advice page, Travel Health Tips, gives you the basics on staying healthy on travel. Plus, you’ll find information on types of shots, timing and links. When? Start two to four months in advance.
- Travel insurance? – If you are traveling with a outfitter or cruise or other organized trip, there may be an option to buy insurance through the group, for example, ExperiencePlus! Bike Tours – HI Travel Tales’ partner in bike travel – has an insurance partner it recommends. HI Travel Tales works with Ripcord Rescue Travel Insurance. There are big differences in insurance, however – travel costs, medical, emergency evacuation, etc. You can learn all about the in’s and out’s of travel insurance, including the ones we use and recommend, on our Travel Insurance 101 page. When? Most travel insurance companies will require you to purchase trip-specific insurance within a few weeks or less of placing your deposit on a trip or flight.
- Money – Check out currency exchange rates so you can better track costs and prices. Oanda and X-Rates, for example, both have converters, and Oanda has a pre-formatted “Traveler’s Cheat Sheet” ready to print and stick in your wallet for quick reference (or download an app for quick reference). In most cases, there is no need to pay the usually exorbitant exchange rates to get a little of the local currency before leaving home. ATMs are ubiquitous around the world, and if you need money immediately upon arrival, change a little bit at the airport (not a lot since the rates are usually not in your best favor there). Of course, it’s also essential to ensure you are not using a credit or debit card while traveling that will charge you an exchange fee of 2 percent or 3 percent. That can add up! Check out these money-saving travel tips in our story, “7 travel tips to save money on traveling internationally”. And we recommend you read a number of other stories on saving money, including on flying and when traveling. When? Inform yourself in advance about changing money on location.
- Glasses and medications – Supply yourself with the quantity of any essential prescription medications needed for the trip’s length, and do not place them in checked luggage (who wants to lose meds with delayed or lost luggage?). Also, carry extra prescriptions (paper) for any necessary medications or eyeglasses. If you are basically blind without your prescription eyeglasses (or sunglasses), consider carrying a second set. Basic “readers” are available just about anywhere in the world if you break something like that. We also like to carry something called ThinOptics, simple thin readers that can fit in a pocket or pack for quick use when out and about. When? Prescriptions may not be considered valid in some countries if they are more than three months old so, in general, two to three months in advance, more if you need to order special glasses.
- Comfort travel accessories – Consider what you may need to sleep on a plane or in a hotel, hostel or cruise ship room on your trip. Most savvy travelers carry eyeshades and earplugs to ensure a good night’s sleep – since you just never know what noises will emanate from the street below (or the room next door). There are also any number of neck and sleeping pillows to help you survive a long flight. We have used the Travelrest with success, but consider others that fit your own needs. When? It’s never too soon to start shopping for accessories for your trip to assure you like what you get and it works as stated.
- Time differences and jet lag – You can determine the time difference to your destination on websites such as TimeAndDate. Accepted knowledge (and our experience) shows that traveling east is more difficult than traveling west, but everybody and every trip is different. So, for example, if you go to Europe from the West Coast, you may experience a time difference of seven to 10 hours, meaning you may leave in the morning or afternoon and get there the next morning or afternoon local time. Our story, “Avoiding jet lag: tips from travel experts,” addresses some things you can do to help you acclimatize, but it may not be easy. Some travelers use a sleep aid – either something over the counter like an antihistamine, or perhaps a prescription – for the first couple of nights. Lack of sleep can ruin a trip. Discuss any aids with your doctor to decide what may be right for you. When? Allow time to see your doctor and get any potential prescriptions, i.e. two to three months in advance at minimum.
- Educate yourself about your destination – This is a simple, but very important travel planner tip! Don’t be a goofy American who wonders why they don’t fix the Leaning Tower of Pisa, asks where Czechoslovakia is, or is surprised to find out it’s winter in July south of the equator. Buy a book, read a country’s tourism website, or watch educational TV. You can also read summaries of pertinent information such as health and travel information about different countries by the State Department on its travel website. When? As soon as you book your trip!
- Go shopping! – Now it’s time to make sure you also have the suitcase and other travel accessories you will need! You can check out some of our product reviews covering accessories, apparel or luggage; you can read specific recommendations here about picking luggage; and you can find out more about key features in a great travel pack in our story, “Travel packs: a perfect choice for adventurous travel.” And of course we have a whole lot of stories on smart travel in our “Planning & Packing” section. A couple of brand recommendations: You can also check out clothing and accessories from travel experts such as Eagle Creek or Thule for suitcases and accessories, and ExOfficio or Craghoppers for clothing. When? Experienced travelers know that anytime is a good time to go shopping! But, seriously, two to three months in advance at least to allow time to try out something and return or exchange if needed.
If you are traveling to Europe, you need to know about the Schengen Agreement. U.S. citizens may still (at the time of this writing, see below) enter Schengen countries without the need for a special visa for short-term tourism, business or if in transit to non-Schengen countries. But…
Travel surprises can be fun, unless your surprise comes days before you depart when you learn that your passport will soon expire or you don’t have the necessary immunizations. Help eliminate such unfortunate surprises with our essential travel planning checklist, created in collaboration with veteran travel guide Ken Lee.
How do you go about choosing the best flight for your next trip? Allegiance to an airline simply on the grounds of earning status is losing its luster. Prices are going up, benefits are getting harder to earn, miles are becoming harder to redeem, and even once revered higher status may get you little more than advance boarding and a free checked bag these days. Forget airline loyalty.
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