Humans have never lived in a time where travel has been more accessible than it is today. You don’t need to be insanely rich. You don’t need to be fluent in a different language in order to function in a foreign country. It’s not necessary to plan every last detail. You can buy train tickets on a whim and book a hostel/hotel while en route to a new city. You don’t even need to call said hostel/hotel to check availability and reserve a room – you can do it all online via WiFi. No international calling plan necessary. Lucky us!
All this said – you do need to do some planning. In this blog post, I’ll share the general road map that Luke and I follow while we’re prepping for an international trip, as well as the techniques we use to snag a good deal on airline tickets.
Before we dive in, I want to acknowledge front and center that you cannot, and will not, plan for everything. If you expect to plan for every scenario and detail, then I’m sorry my friend, but you’re probably going to be disappointed. Travel is often full of unanticipated detours. This doesn’t mean we can’t get off to a solid start, though. Cue: logistics!
Logistics, Part One: Research, Research, Research
Okay, so this is a big one. Before booking anything – RESEARCH THE CRAP OUT OF IT. Whether you’re taking the reins on planning everything yourself, or are planning with a somewhat pre-structured approach (working with a travel agent or through a prearranged tour with a tour company/resort/hotel/Groupon, etc.), it’s still good to have these things scan past your radar. Here’s our checklist:
- Check Visa and passport requirements. Make sure you have enough time before your travel dates to get this stuff squared away.
- Check the United States Embassy travel advisories for your destination (or the Embassy for your country, if you live outside the States). Make sure it’s generally a safe place to travel. A few notes on this:
- Yes, I do think generally safe is about the best you can get. Perfect Utopia’s really don’t exist. We live in a crazy world. I’m not saying you should change your whole plan if there is a warning about pickpockets, but watch for major advisories and be educated about the area.
- Do your own research. Unless you’re chatting with someone who has actually been to your destination, try not to let others freak you out with their opinions that a place is unsafe. If Luke and I listened to every warning that our families/co-workers/friends have ever given us about why an upcoming trip is a bad idea, we’d never go anywhere! It’s possible that your destination could be safer than New York City and other big destinations here in the States, it’s just that these places are familiar and thus scare people less. My point? A lot of staying safe is doing your research and being smart when you get there.
- Last but not least, do your safety research on the front end and then move on with planning. Don’t let the opinions of others be bummer on your excitement! Unless you find a reason during your research, don’t second guess yourself. Thousands of people travel the world everyday and come home in one piece.
- Check for information about where you are traveling on the Center for Disease Control webpage (or your country’s alternative, if you live outside the States):
- Do you need immunizations? Don’t catch typhoid fever because you didn’t plan ahead.
- Do you need to bring a copy of your immunization records with you on your trip? The country you are going to may not require it, but your home country may require it for re-entry. They want to make sure you’re not bringing back an invisible foreign disease. (Makes sense, really.)
- Do you need Traveler’s Insurance? Don’t shrug this one off, either. Luke and I typically purchase through World Nomads, which is affordable and fairly comprehensive. (Make sure you read the fine print!)
Don’t forget the more general logistics. While you’ll be just fine if you do, remembering these items will lead to a happier and more enjoyable trip:
- Do you need to consider time zone differences? Are you trying to pack too much in? Nothing drains a trip faster than landing with a wicked case of jet lag and knowing that you have limited time to explore before you have to travel on. This also applies if there are altitude change considerations. Make sure you have enough time to acclimate – the whole point is to enjoy!
- Don’t forget to research the seasonal climate and average weather of your destination. If you’re planning to hike down into the Grand Canyon, it may be a bit brutal to do it in the height of summer. Again, planning makes for enjoying!
- Know the currency and what to expect for an exchange rate.
Starting to get a little overwhelmed?
Yup! It happens. This is a good time to reflect on all of the reasons why you are excited about your trip!
Look at beautiful photos, consider the awesome food you are going to try, think about the amazing people you are going to meet, read a travel biography or blog about your destination. Get yourself pumped! You’re gearing up for an awesome experience, and the logistics are just a part of the package.
Once you are sufficiently pumped and have considered all the stuff above, make sure you can get the vacation days approved at work and double-check your budget. With those final steps in the bag, you’re ready for that big move that makes everything real: buying the airline tickets.
Logistics, Part Two: Booking the Airplane Tickets
Ahhhh, airplane tickets. If you’ve read my blog 35,000 Feet Above the Beaufort Sea, you know I love flying. Buying airplane tickets is such a simultaneously joyous and freaking FRUSTRATING thing. There are a bunch of things to consider, and since it’s possible this will be the most expensive part of your trip, it’s worth it to take some time to find a good deal.
Let’s start with a list of a few of the things that Luke and I have learned about purchasing airplane tickets and cutting travel costs:
- I don’t really believe there are hard and fast rules for purchasing tickets, but we have generally found the following to be true:
- Don’t purchase your airline tickets on the weekend. The same ticket could be more expensive if you buy it on a Saturday versus a weekday. We usually buy tickets on a Tuesday or a Wednesday and tend to get better deals.
- If you want to snag a cheaper ticket, be willing to fly red-eye or super early in the morning.
- If you can, be flexible in your travel dates. You can typically get a better deal flying on a weekday than flying on a weekend.
- Don’t forget about the cost of parking at an airport. Factor it into the cost of your ticket when you are comparing prices between airports. You are basically paying to rent a spot for your car to sit for two weeks. That’s like a hotel for your car. It is EXPENSIVE and totally pointless! Here is how Luke and I try to tackle this:
- Luke and I live about three hours from two international hubs (Chicago, IL and Detroit, MI), and about 20-minutes from a smaller scale airport with some international flight options (Grand Rapids, MI). While tickets out of Detroit or Chicago are pretty much always cheaper than Grand Rapids, we factor the cost of parking and gas into the equation, too. By the time we consider these elements, it may be about the same price (or possibly even cheaper) to just fly out of Grand Rapids and have a friend drop us off/pick us up. Time is also money. Don’t spend an equivalent amount of cash and add three hours in the car onto your travel time.
- We have some awesome friends who live in Chicago and family who live near Detroit. We call on these fab people when we have a flight out of Detroit or Chicago, leave our car at their place, and snag a ride/train/Uber to the airport from there. Can you make this happen? You just scored yourself a hundred extra bucks for adventure, my friend! And you get to see your friends/family for a quick visit! All around win!
- Keeping the items above in mind, if you find a deal that you are happy with, don’t hold out hoping for a better deal later. Book it!
Okay, now that you’ve considered all of the things above, it’s the big moment of actually buying some tickets. FINALLY, right?!
When Luke and I reach the point of purchasing our airline tickets, our favorite search engine for tickets is Matrix ITA Software by Google.
Why, you may ask?
You can find the lowest fares across all airlines. Both domestic and international airlines are included in the search. Let me expand. Some search browsers only compare international airlines, without including domestic airlines at your destination. This is huge. This could mean the difference between a $700 local flight in Malaysia and a $100 local flight in Malaysia. Seriously.
This software works best at finding you a good deal if you are flexible in your travel dates. I’ve taken the liberty of putting together an example. Woo, it’s like travel school! We have our very own story problem, accompanied by screenshots and step-by-step instructions.
Bob and Pam want to go to Indonesia for 10 nights, departing sometime in February of 2019. They know they want to fly out of Detrot Metropolitan Airport in Wayne County, Michigan and arrive/depart Indonesia from Denpasar, Bali. How should they proceed with getting a good deal on a airplane tickets?
Well Bob and Pam, head on over to ITA Matrix! Use the search box to enter your departing and arrival airport. Under “Dates” click “See Calendar of Lowest Fares.” Click on the earliest date you could potentially embark on this adventure, and then enter in any other criteria you are committed to (limiting the number of extra stops/connections, airport changes, etc). Keep in mind that the more flexible you are, the better the deal you’ll get (generally)!
After clicking “Search,” a calendar will display the cheapest fare for each day to fly to Denpasar for a ten-day trip. It will display this information over the span of thirty days past your initially selected date. Make sense?
Let’s go through together. Here is the calendar result of the search. Begin comparing the fares listed to see what fits with your plan the best. (Note how it’s generally cheaper to travel during the week.) You can click on any given day and the Software will list a bunch of ticket options, starting with the cheapest and moving to the more expensive. Using this method, Luke and I scored tickets to Indonesia for less than $750 each a few years ago. (Almost cost equivalent to a trip to Montana. Ya!) Story problem solved!
One last important note about this Software: you can’t actually buy the tickets through the webpage. When you find the tickets you want, click the “Details” and it will tell you how to buy the ticket. See the screenshot below. It may instruct you to contact a travel agent to purchase, but we’ve never done that before. We usually call the airline directly to book, providing them with the booking codes and “Fare Construction” as it’s listed in the details of the ticket. If you have any questions on this, leave me a comment and I’d be happy to answer it! (And for the record – I’m in no way affiliated with this Software, nor am I being compensated to promote it.)
So, now you have an airline ticket! WOO!
You know your travel dates! HECK YES!
You know you will be able to enter the country, get back into the United States, and not contract yellow fever! CHEERS!
You’ve gotten past most of the not-fun logistics, and now you get to plan the fun stuff! Congrats!
So, where will you stay? A small bed and breakfast with a local family? A resort? An Air B&B? What do you want to do on your adventure? Do you need to buy any other tickets in advance, or can you wing it? Stay tuned for my last blog post in this series to delve into planning, but not over planning, for a spectacular time at your destination. How to Travel the World, Part Three: Embracing the Experience is coming soon. Stay tuned!
Thoughts on the content above? Do you have tips and tricks for scoring cheap airline tickets and saving money during travel? Share below!