Traveling around the world is not one trip; rather it is a collection of many small trips. Each country we visit brings unique challenges, especially arranging visas and transportation. Given our travel experience, we can usually nail the logistics down in 10-20 minutes. Here are the most important aspects we’ve learned in planning a trip to another country and pointers that you can put to use for your next adventure.
These steps are in order; they should be followed in this order, because the steps are dependent on each other.
WHERE TO GO
Obviously, you need to know the country or region you want to visit. When we were doing some advance trip planning we ran into a challenge, which I will use as an example; getting to Patagonia in the right time of the year, from Europe, without paying visa fees.
First and foremost, do you need a visa? Is there a fee to enter the country? We are budget travelers, we avoid these fees whenever possible. To figure this out, I google “US citizen visiting [insert country name]” and look for the US State Department website, specifically the “Entry/Exit Requirements for US Citizens” section. Also useful is Project Visa. I avoid visa service websites, they try to steer you towards paying them. If you are a citizen of another country, you should check your State Department equivalent.
OUR EXAMPLE: We will be visiting Brazil, but won’t have time to get a visa prior to our arrival in South America. I checked to make sure we could get the visa while traveling (read: not only in our home country). Chile and Argentina charge $120 for American citizens to enter their country…or so it seems. This fee is only charged at airports, probably only Santiago and Buenos Aires, therefore to gain entry to these countries for free, you have to enter via land. I have traveled overland between the two countries more than a dozen times, never having to pay.
OK, so we want to get to Chilean or Argentine Patagonia as quickly as we can from Europe. What are our choices? Looking at Google maps, the land borders are: Brazil (already ruled out), Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay or Paraguay. Knowing we are flying from Europe, we need a major airport, major airports are generally in wealthy, commercial countries, making Peru and Uruguay the targets (no visa fees, good transport to Chile and Argentina).
Returning to Chile from my first date with LOCAVORista, I took a bus from Lima, Peru to Santiago, Chile. It was a grueling 56 hour ride…and Santiago is only halfway to Patagonia. Even being a lovesick adolescent, I promised myself to never take that bus again, therefore, Peru is out. That leaves Uruguay. Checking out the US State Department page, I see there are no visa fees or needs for me to enter Uruguay. Even better, it’s major airport, Montevideo, is a short ferry ride from Buenos Aires.
The more entry points that you have, the better deal you can get on flights. In this case, due to visas and fees, our options were pretty limited. Obviously planning around visiting one country is much simpler.
After knowing the visa situation, the most important thing to know is when to go. Figure out what exactly you want to do, and what months are best. January is summer in Chile, the best time to go to Patagonia, but the worst time to go skiing there.
I get this information from Wikitravel or, if I have it, Lonely Planet.
GETTING THERE CHEAPLY
This takes a little practice to get the hang of, but try it a couple times, it could save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars over several flights.
Figure out all cities that you could possibly leave from and arrive in. Is there a reasonably short bus or train ride you could take? For example, if you wanted to go to Paris, the cheapest could be to fly into London, Amsterdam or Brussels, then take the train to Paris. The transport from another city is irrelevant for a moment. Write down all the possible locations you could fly to/from. Write departure and arrival country vertically on a piece of paper.
OUR EXAMPLE: even though I know my target is Montevideo, I am going to check prices for Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Sao Paulo, and Montevideo. If the ticket price to Montevideo, Buenos Aires and Santiago are the same, it is cheaper to go to Montevideo, but it is possible there will be a fare sale and if flying to Buenos Aires or Santiago is $120 or more cheaper, per person, it is worth paying the high visa fee.
Go to www.kayak.com and type in each possible departure city, one at a time, and write the three-letter airport code for each city down. If there is a code for the city, versus a specific airport, use that. For example, “LON” is “London, England-All Airport” so you can search Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick and London City with one code.
- If you want to visit Australia, you will probably go to Melbourne and Sydney. If you are flexible in timing, switching the order you visit each may save you big money.
- If you want to visit the East Coast of the USA, there are inexpensive buses connecting many of the major cities including the “Chinatown” buses between New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
- If you want to visit Disney World you could always fly to Jacksonville or Miami and drive. (And who doesn’t want to go to Disney World? Random aside: My senior year of high school I went to LA to visit colleges. My mother had a meeting the day I was supposed to visit USC…I never actually made it to USC, I went to Disneyland instead.)
- If you want to visit South East Asia, you should look to fly to SIN (Singapore), BKK (Bangkok), or KUL (Kuala Lumpur). From any of these you can get discount airline tickets or buses around the region.
Here’s the greatest thing about KAYAK.com: the ability to search for up to four departure and arrival cities at once! Put in each three-letter airport code, followed by a comma. Chose your travel dates and click “My dates are flexible” to see the range of prices you could pay. Click search.
If you get a pop-up to set a “price alert” do it! This allows you to watch the price for your itinerary, you can even set an alert based on price such as “flights from Minneapolis to Mexico for under $300” Anytime a fare falls below this, you’ll get an email! Seemingly at random, a link will appear in the left sidebar that says “Get a price alert”, allowing you to set it up.
After you set up a price alert, look at the left side column; this is where the best information is.
Now check which take-off and landing airports are cheapest. I have generally found, that if you search far out, the relative price of flying into different airports is the same. In layman’s terms, it always costs more to fly from Europe to Santiago than to Buenos Aires, the prices may change, but the relative prices to each other does not.
OK, now that you know which airports are cheapest, you can figure out if the savings flying to/from, outweigh the hassles of getting to another city. Often saving 10% is just not worth it, 20% or more is worth considering. I don’t even make a layover for less than a 10% savings. The dollar-for-time equation may be different for you.
Last step, find the discount airlines that fly where you want to go. The best resource for this is Budget Flight Finder.Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity and other ticket agents generally do not sell discount airline tickets. How big of a price difference is possible? We are flying from Christchurch, New Zealand to New Dehli in March of next year. We paid $435 each to fly AirAsia. The next best fare? Over $1800 each with more layovers.
The next thing we need to figure out is how much transport will cost within a country/region. There are generally three ways to get around: planes, trains, or buses. Almost always, overland travel is going to be cheapest and easiest. Bus and train stations tend to be in downtown or public transport connected areas, whereas airports often require a taxi ride to a far-flung location. It is true, if you plan ahead and get a great easyJet or AirAsia fare, it is really cheap (sometimes less than $20). Most of the time though, buses and trains are the cheapest.
I go back to Wikitravel‘s city specific pages and look for getting there and away. Usually you will get some names and methods of transport. Otherwise, look at Seat61.com for train info. You can also google “bus transport between [insert two locations you plan to travel between]“. In many cases, buying bus and train tickets is best done when you are on the ground and NOT ONLINE, as I have seen online agents charge commissions in excess of 100%.
WHEN TO PLAN
I start looking for flights as soon as I know I am going somewhere. I go to Kayak.com and choose dates 1, 3 and 6 months out, to see what scheduling window is the cheapest. Sometimes it is cheapest to book 1 month out, sometimes 6 months, it all depends on the specific airline you are flying on. Make sure, when figuring this out, to not choose holidays, those have a significant impact on fares.
REGION SPECIFIC POINTERS:
- Budget Flight Finder if air is cheaper than terrestrial transport, you will find your airline here.
- SE Asia: take the bus. There are many vendors, all selling the same few bus companies’ tickets. Therefore price shop. We heard about someone that took a bus from Bangkok to the beaches in the South that paid over $60 for a ticket that everyone else paid less than $15 for. In Thailand, the cheapest prices are in the Khaosan Road area.
- Great Discount Airlines:
- AirAsia: They are the best, cheapest airline in the world. They are also very frustrating as they often will not accept US credit cards. Flights and service is great, the reservation system makes me homicidal.
- Cebu Pacific: A growing competitor to AirAsia, works for US credit card holders, great fares and decent routes.
- China: take trains. Get schedules and prices at the China Travel Guide. Make sure you get a “hard sleeper” for anything more than 6 hours. Buy tickets by yourself, at the railway station, 5-10 days prior to departure. Bring your route and date written in Chinese.
- Australia/New Zealand: Use the Virgin Blue Airpass. It is the cheapest way to get around Australia and New Zealand, period. The catch is that you need to purchase it before you are in Australia and New Zealand. Otherwise Virgin Australia has some good point-to-point fares.
- New Zealand: Use the Naked Buses to get around. Sadly or happily, depending on your point-of-view and travel companions, riders are actually clothed. That said, the prices are cheap, $250 USD will get you to all the major cities and destinations. If you purchase one-way tickets early they can cost as little as $1 NZD.
- Use the trains. A Eurail Pass may be good for you, learn about it more at Seat61.
- Great Discount Airlines:
- Easy Jet (Europe): Preferred over Ryan Air, with many locations and super deals if you plan ahead. Will definitely be our carrier for a few flights in Europe and Morocco.
- Ryan Air (Europe): It’s cheap, that’s because it’s management has tried everything to raise revenue, including the outlandish ideas of charging for bathrooms and eliminating pilots. Seriously, eliminating pilots… I don’t recommend them unless the price is really right.
- LATIN AMERICA: Use the buses. Due to the distances though, you will need to fly at times. In most countries there are high-end “pullman” buses, which are some of the nicest buses I’ve ever ridden. These often have food, bathrooms, and movies aboard.
- TACA: not really a discount airline, but cheaper than the national airlines to get from country-to-country in Latin America. Nice planes, good service, and flights to/from the USA.
- ITINERARY PLANNING. Have questions on planning your itinerary? I recommend emailing travel bloggers that have been where you are going or create an account on AFAR.com or Gogobot to post questions to other travelers. AFAR also produces an extremely informative and very eye pleasing travel magazine with very affordable online or print subscriptions.
- MONEY MATTERS. ATM and “foreign transaction fees” can eat at your travel funds. Good thing you don’t have to put up with them by using banks such as Charles Schwab and CapitalOne. Read my Moohla Management article to find out about how to get money for free anywhere in the world.
- TRAIN INFORMATION. Want to find out about train travel? The best site is Seat61, it is the go-to source of information on trains worldwide, even differed to in newer Lonely Planets.
Sorry, this is a lot of information, but I am certain that once you get the hang of this, it will save you money. The more flexible your timing, itinerary, and destinations, the more you can save. While the actual, on-the-ground trip planning will take more than 10 minutes, getting you’re not going to get there without your visas and flights in order. These are things that I’ve learned the hard way in over 10 years of making my way around the world.
If you have any tips of your own please send them to me!