The Ultimate Guide to Planning Your First Trip


Woah, so you’ve decided to study abroad and or visit a country for long term! That’s amazing! I’m so excited for you! But… getting everything in place to move to another country can be a daunting task. So here are a few lessons I learned and things I wish someone had told me so that I didn’t have a drawn out series of mini panic attacks. For reference, I’ve traveled to Greece with one friend on a Groupon, done a short term (two-week) study abroad in China, traveled to Nicaragua on a mission trip for one week, worked on a service project for a non-profit in Hawaii for ten days, interned at Columbia University in NY for a summer, interned at an Architecture Firm in Virginia Beach for a summer, and am now less than a week out from moving to Switzerland for one year for a bilateral exchange program!


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1. The Decision

First things first, deciding where it is you want to go! For this you need to look at what is it you are trying to gain from your trip. Are you hoping to get college credit while seeing the world? Do you love your university, but are you looking to experience a different what going to a different school would be like? Are you trying to hit the highlights and see all the must sees of Europe? Or, do you find yourself wanting to go somewhere that not every traveler out there has already checked off their bucket list, say a small city in China or a lake community in southern Switzerland? Do you want to go with friends? Alone? With other people your age? Answering these questions is the first step to traveling!

 

2. Budgeting/Decisions

Depending on your answer to the first set of questions you will either be looking into different programs your school offers, looking at pre-planned guided trips with a tour company OR looking at exact locations and the cost of flights there! In this step, budgeting becomes a key issue! Be real with yourself, can you afford the trip you are dreaming of right now? Would a few adjustments help your trip to fit into your price range? If you are $800 or more short of what you would need for your dream trip I suggest waiting and saving a little longer even if it means postponing your trip to the following year. Trust me, if you rush your time in places you were so excited to see you will be kicking yourself the whole way home for not planning more time in certain places! Transatlantic flights are expensive, but once you are across the pond the cost difference in a seven day trip and a nine day trip is going to be minimal (assuming you aren’t having triple digit meals every night).

Pre-planned trips:

If you are going on a pre-planned trip this part is pretty simple-- either you can afford the trip or you can’t! But also, you should budget for travel costs outside of the advertised price. These things include, passports, luggage, cameras, travel cosmetic cases, visas, souvenirs, snacks, things you inevitably forget, and luggage fees if you bring home a little more than anticipated. Passports aren’t cheap, but essential. Get this ASAP, it’s going to cost you ~$275 including your passport photos. BTW you’ll want to get those done ahead of time. Check out my post on DIY passport photos if you’re ballin’ on a budget like me!

For those planning your own trip or at least part of it:

Check flights that are approximately one month from departure to get a good estimate of what you will pay. Sites like Expedia and STATravel help, but make sure that you check them all before you actually purchase! I was able to get a one way ticket (usually more expensive) three weeks from departure from D.C. to Zurich for $450 including luggage! And even better, Expedia price matches within 24 hours! I found a flight on STA Travel for $440 twelve hours later and screenshotted and sent the link to Expedia and they refunded me the $10 and sent me a $50 credit! The 24 hours after purchasing a flight is crucial.

Hostels, oh hostels. They can be great, but they can also be sketchy! If you are traveling alone I really recommend staying in an Airbnb or a hotel. I can’t speak for all hostels, but one bad experience makes me weary of what I would find in others! If you are however traveling in a group or with a significant other, a hostel might be okay. Definitely check the reviews and see if a private room is available. I stayed in the Kaua’i Beach House Hostel in Kaua’i, HI. It seemed like a really safe place during the day, but randomly at night (in the female only room) one of my friends would wake up to a man standing in our room! It was not only terrifying because he wasn’t supposed to be there, but also because people were regularly drinking and engaging in ~unknown substances~ if you will in the downstairs of the hostel. We were asleep and there was no way of locking the door to ensure no one would enter who wasn’t supposed to! Check Booking.com for great deals on hotels. Oh! I forgot to mention the GLT community. If you aren’t already, you NEED to join the Girls Love Travel Facebook Group! This group is amazing for so many reasons, but also because they have an Overnight group. If you aren’t familiar, Overnight is like Airbnb, but with selected groups of people so you know that you have at least one link with the person you will be staying with.  :)

Food is great, but it can really skyrocket the cost of your trip if you aren’t careful! I suggest budgeting $10 for breakfast, $15 per lunch, and $20 for most dinners! If you’re frugal you can probably do lunch for $10 and dinner for $20! Also include a $35-45 meal in every four to five days, not because you should go out of your way to find an expensive place, but sometimes finding an authentic meal that allows you to get a look into the cultural of the place you are in can be a bit more expensive.  

Planes, trains, cars, bikes, uber, buses? Travel in between can be really cool or really boring. If you are looking to explore between different cities or even countries in one trip, check a variety of options. Flights can sometimes be cheaper than trains depending on airports. However, taking a train can sometimes allow you to see part of a country that you wouldn’t other wise get to see. It’s a give and take.

As far as packing, I will make another blog post concerning what to bring and what not to bring/purchase there!

 

3. Visas, Applications, Commitment, oh my!

So here’s where it gets real. It’s time to start making permanent steps toward your trip. I could literally write a novel on visa applications, but I’ll save you (for now) and put that in another post! Check to see what the countries you will visit require to enter. China and Switzerland require visas! The Swiss visa application is a doozy, seriously. More on that later, but in general, time is of the essence! Plan to send in your visa application 2.5 months before you plan to leave. Many have several stages and if you aren’t careful, you’ll be paying $50 for overnight shipping to get the application to the consulate. Don’t book your flight until you receive your visa approval. Seriously, it can take longer than expected and it’s tricky to find ways around it!

 

4. Packing, and Goodbyes, and Going!

So once you get to this stage you’re bound to be feeling a combination of excitement and nerves. It’s normal to be nervous even if you are about to go and live your best life! If you are anything like me, goodbyes can be the hardest part. Plan adequate time for goodbyes to family members and friends before leaving, especially older members of your family. If you’re going on a long term trip, a lot can change between when you leave and when you come home. I can’t stress how important it is to have a few good memories with those people before leaving, if nothing else, it can ease your heart and mind before leaving.

Packing, okay wait another blog post is coming, I promise!! For now, check out Trello.com for list making! It was super helpful for me when making lists of what I needed to pack and then sorting those things into different suitcases/bags.

Privacy. Okay, I feel you here. You want to be a real adult here and be spontaneous on your trip, but you also planned a lot, but also you don’t want your family to know how much you actually don’t know about your trip. Take a few hours to put together a “travel packet” for your family who want to know the deets of your trip. It can be as simple as a few pages that gives hotel addresses and phone numbers and dates/approximate times of arrival. This can really make things a lot less stressful for your family as well as yourself (mostly because you won’t have nearly as many phone calls to take to explain everything while on your trip). I can tell you first hand how important this is-- on my trip to Greece I didn’t have cell service and was planning to rely on wifi. I told my parents I would contact them at airports and hotels, but when I got to the Athens airport, via CDG, I couldn’t connect for some reason. We made our way to the hotel (whose wifi happened to be down) and when we were checking in the phone rang. The concierge got a strange look on his face and told me the call was for me! WHAT THE. Honestly, we had so much drama with the cab driver and I already thought I was about to be featured in Taken 3 that I was a little startled. It was my dad calling to see if we made it! We had no idea but our plane was the last to take off from CDG before the airport went on lockdown due to the Charlie Hebdo shooting. All communication between people at CDG was shut down so no one could contact home and the website was shut down so no flights could be tracked because it was unclear if the attack was over with the first wave. Without the information I had given my family they I don’t know when they would have gotten news that we were safe and had made it to Athens.

Going. The good part. Pack at least 24 hours in advance, leaving out only the essentials. Coordinate rides two weeks in advance to the airport. Avoid leaving a car at the airport at ALL costs. It’s expensive and is just another thing you have to deal with on the way there. Let’s be real, are you really going to be up for driving after taking a red-eye flight back and walking your feet down to the bone for weeks? Nope. I recommend getting an economy flight and just planning for a few extra hours of rest when you arrive. Unless you’re getting up there in age or just have money to blow, spend your money on experiences in the country you visit, not an extra reused pillows and blanket.

I’m sure I missed some things, but I will make edits as comments arise. Please comment, I’d loveeeee your feedback and to hear about your experiences!