The ultimate travel planner – a guide to planning international trips

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.
HITT Tip: On Google Flights you can select flights that interest you and track price trends to help you observe tendencies and help in a purchase timing decision. There are also many other flight comparison tools such as Skyscanner, Kayak, and AirFareWatchdog.
HITT Tip: If you have booked your flight or other foreign travel prior to having a passport, be sure to go back to the airline or outfitter and ensure your passport number is on the record prior to departure.

Travel health necessities.

  • 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.

Sleep aids to pack to help in avoiding jet lag.

  • 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.
HITT Tip: If you are traveling as a family, the Family Travel Association has an advice section that you may find helpful.
  • 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.

Travel planner goes shopping

Schengen Agreement explained: do you need a visa for Europe?

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…

Before traveling: Use this essential travel planning checklist

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.

Choosing the best flight for your next trip

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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