Many people that I converse with about my travels are people who do not currently have the time to travel or did not have the opportunity to in earlier years of their life. For anyone who is considering traveling more, whether that be domestically or internationally, it can be extremely overwhelming with the amount of resources that exist today.
It is no secret that advancements in technology, especially social media, completely flipped the way we communicate and share information. Similarly, this means that it is hard to decipher what to trust. There is so much out there on the web, so where does one start? Well, the beauty of planning of a trip is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to doing it. But here are a few steps I take when I am thinking of going somewhere I have never been:
This one was a no-brainer. First, I like to see what the city is about with a simple Google search; this includes major attractions, current news, and how many results for blog posts come up. I also use this time to browse on Google Maps to get an understanding of the location and what it’s close to which further helps me get an idea of how to pack.
As a fellow vlogger, I like to watch vlogs of the city I am interested in visiting. Narrowing down what to look for or to watch is completely subjective, but something I definitely like to do is put in the city and “black” in the search to see the city through a lens I can relate to (e.g. san juan vlog black). Mini vent: often times, the most popular results on any website are pretty, skinny, white women and/or white couples and, depending on the city I am visiting, I just know that my experience is not going to be like theirs. Vlogs allow me to see how accessible the city is on foot, how crowded certain areas are, and, frankly, what the city actually looks like!! For example, I am planning to visit Lisbon, Portugal later this year and had no idea it was a hilly city until I watched a couple of vlogs. It’s an added bonus that making specifications in my search allows me to find and support other black creatives. 🙂
Once I have narrowed down what I am personally interested in, I go on Instagram and search the Tags. For example, I saw there is a place in Portugal called Sintra that is an easy day trip from Lisbon, so I will search “sintra,” pick the tag with the most results, and see how many different photos come up.
If I find that a bulk of the photos are showing the same attraction/photo op, that lets me know I should research further if the day trip would be worth it. If you want to keep the search broader, you can just follow the Lisbon tag (if you have an Instagram) and get ideas that way for things to do or where to eat, especially to see where locals are tagging themselves.
Another thing I like to do is if I love how a picture looks, I will visit the Instagrammer’s page to see if they have any highlights for their visit and watch it to get ideas for restaurants and neighborhoods. For example, I had no idea that the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico had a black sand beach until I watched this woman’s Instagram highlight.
The good news about Instagram is that you do not have to create an account to browse it, but you will have to to follow tags/accounts or set notifications for when someone posts.
- Word of mouth
Of course, there’s always the good old-fashioned grassroots approach of reaching out to people or friends of friends who have visited the city you are interested in. That is yet another benefit of social media since we can see these things in real time, save/bookmark the information, and reach people directly. 🙂
Now that you have gathered all your research, you want to confirm this is a feasible trip, right? Let’s find a way to get there and stay there:
Searching for flights is definitely a more personal decision because there are so many factors to consider: how long will you be gone, do you have a frequent flyer account with a certain carrier, are you planning to do multi-city, how soon are you trying to leave, etc. Ultimately, it becomes a battle between cost and convenience. When I am just interested in traveling somewhere, but have no actual concrete plans to make it happen, I usually hop on Google Flights just to get an idea of a ballpark cost if I want to go the convenience route. Though American Airlines (AA) is headquartered here in Dallas, it can still be pricey for a nonstop international flight, for example; so, I have to consider if it is worth saving money to bounce around the U.S. before getting to my country, or if I’d rather pay for the convenience. Otherwise, my go-to is usually Expedia because it is easy to use and they provide a lot of detail. A problem I have with global carriers is often times I do not know what the difference between their fare classes and it creates more of a headache. Not to mention, many global carriers have subsidiaries, so to use AA as an example again, your flight could actually be operated by American Eagle/Envoy and the average person does not know the difference. Because I am definitely not in a position to afford anything higher than economy, Expedia, as well as other sites like Kayak, Booking.com, and Priceline, removes that hassle for me.
I used Expedia to book my flight to London and home from Paris last May/June; going to London, it was a nonstop flight on Air New Zealand and returning from Paris was a dual-airline flight with British Airways from Paris to London, and then Air New Zealand again on the London leg back home. We did end up having a bit of a hiccup, but we did not have issues with our bags being transferred between airlines like I feared and I was able to easily access the information I needed to know about baggage fees and the check-in process for both airlines on their respective websites. If I am in another country and interested in flying to another city/country that I did not plan ahead, I like to use Skyscanner because it offers affordable options, especially within Europe.
However, it is sometimes a better decision in the long run to go with the airline you can earn points or miles with. If I am flying domestically or to Mexico or Central America, I go with Southwest Airlines because I have a Rapid Rewards account with them. It’s not like there are rewards programs out there that offload a bunch of points right away with one trip, but if you start traveling often enough or using your frequent flyer account with other vendors like shopping or local events (depending on the offers within your flyer program), you will be surprised how much you can rack up. This doesn’t even include the benefits you can get by signing up for the airline’s credit card which I personally haven’t ventured into [yet]. Like I said before, deciding which avenue to go down for picking flights is really a personal decision and it all depends on what suits the type of trip(s) you are planning.
Similar to picking flights, picking an accommodation can also be a personal choice. However, I believe it is more common to go for comfort over cost. No matter what type of traveler you are, most people have certain standards that they are not willing to compromise on when it comes to where they are laying their head every night and what sheets they are sleeping on. Thankfully, there are so many options now beyond hotels that can offer comfort without breaking the bank.
The most common option after hotels is obviously Airbnb. I have used Airbnb for a few years now and it is typically my go-to; it is very easy to use, there are so many options to choose from, and it is nice to have direct contact with the host. It is also on-par with hotels in terms of their payment and cancelation policies. The only thing I would advise is obviously doing the research mentioned above before picking out an accommodation so you can get a lay of the land. By knowing what neighborhoods are popular or where things are centralized, you can quickly refine your search so you don’t end up making a rookie mistake of paying for a large accommodation that is super affordable, but a 45-minute drive from everything going on.
If I am flying to a more expensive city, I will definitely seek out a hostel. Contrary to popular belief and the 2005 horror film, there are many beautiful, safe, and modern hostels out there. I love exploring Hostelworld and using their filters to find what best suits my needs. When I flew to London with my friend, Ilse, we stayed at a hostel because London is an expensive city. Our hostel was literally across the street from the Tower of London and a five-minute walk from the nearest tube station. It provided linens, towels, lockers in the room, and it even had its own bar. Another thing I love about hostels is they have a variety of room options from private rooms with ensuites, all-men or all-women rooms, or even mixed dorms. I aggressively use the filters to find what suits my and my travel partner’s needs and, unlike Airbnb, the address is public so you can Google its location in comparison to other things that are on your must-do/must-see list. Finally, if it is your style, a lot of hostels offer group activities like tours or even bar crawls–they are a great (and usually affordable) way to have that part of your trip organized and also meet people from around the world!
I am very much a comfort over cost kind of gal and am willing to devote more of my budget to making sure where I sleep is up to my standards v. paying for an activity or convenient flight, and it greatly helps with all the options out there now. Above anything else, I would just make sure you are aware of location, reviews, and cancelation/refund policies when picking an accommodation.
These six topics are just the basics when it comes to trip planning, but tackling them up front can give you a clearer mind of your budget, how to pack, and your list of priorities once you are there. I recently completed booking my accommodation for my trip to San Juan and can now transition into weighing my priorities on things to do through online forums like TripAdvisor, Facebook, and travel blogs. I hope that anyone out there who may be a novice in the world of travel was able to find this useful.
Does anyone have any upcoming trips that they are trying to figure out how to plan? I would love to know in the comments below!!