how to plan the trip of a lifetime
Joe Marshall is a seasoned world traveller. Follow @joe_marshall36
In the back of our minds, we all have that dream destination in mind. The ‘Bucket List’ adventure. The trip of a lifetime. Hiking to Machu Picchu. Exploring Patagonia. Surfing remote waves in Southeast Asia. Backpacking through Europe. Or if you’re my father, following the wildebeest migration in the African Serengeti.
Too often these trips get put on the back burner because they are too expensive, too inconceivable, or whatever reason/excuse we give. But with a little bit of planning, these trips are not only feasible, but
First things first: choose your destination and what you want to accomplish.
If you don’t know what you are trying to do or where you are trying to go, it makes things pretty impossible to plan. Often, people’s dreams are exotic, far away locations like scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef, visiting the pyramids, or seeing the Northern Lights. But yours might be completely different. It could be something much closer to home like driving all of Route 66. Or you might travel to see your favorite soccer team play.
The key is to do what is special and important to you. Don’t go somewhere because it will get the most Instagram likes. It’s your trip, not theirs. You want to go somewhere that is meaningful to you.
**A word to the wise. Focus on quality over quantity. You might be tempted to fit in as many locations and countries as you possibly can. I certainly have learned this the hard way. I would recommend visiting fewer places and staying for longer periods of time. Places and countries are a lot more vast than they appear. It’s often time consuming and difficult to get from A to B to C. You want to spend your trip creating memories and having fun, not sitting on a bus.
Now you have established where to go and hopefully what you want to do. Now the fun part begins. Grab a cup of coffee or a good beer and start researching where you are going, learning the history, figuring out best ways to get there and get around, etc. I recommend Googling away, Wikitravel.com, and the Lonely Planet guidebooks, but you can just as easily learn and be inspired from documentaries, TV shows, or brochures. The possibilities are endless.
Two tips: 1) It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole, begin researching like crazy, and get overwhelmed by the 50 tabs you have open and the 3 books you’re reading. There’s so much information out there, don’t feel like you need to read it all. 2) Keep in mind that sometimes it’s not an advantage to know and plan every little thing. It’s pretty fun to get to a new place, not know what to expect, and just get lost.
Now you should have a rough idea of what your trip is going to look like. Next, you need to figure out approximately how much it’s going to cost. First off, if you are anything like me, you’re probably going to end up spending more money than you planned on, so make sure you have a buffer zone. You may think you are going to be disciplined with your money abut all of the sudden you spot an opportunity to go river rafting, salsa dancing, try some exotic food, buy some souvenirs, or another moneypit. It happens to almost everyone.
Beyond that, think about all the things you will need to buy or spend money on: flights (hopefully not if you read the next section), accommodation, food, visa fees, vaccinations, travel insurance, additional clothes, bags, tours you may want to go on, and spending money, among others.
Fly For Free
You heard me right. FLY FOR FREE! On a big trip like this, especially if it’s international, the price of plane ticket can be daunting. But that doesn’t have to be the case if you play your cards right (pun partially intended, read on).
See, what United States airlines lack in quality of flights, they make up with awesome mileage programs. With a little work and spending money on things you would already be buying (i.e. food, gas, etc), you can get tons of miles and then use them to redeem free flights. It’s amazing...I almost never pay for a flight and most importantly have never gone into debt. More on this in a little.
It works like this. Lots of credit cards offer a significant bonus for signing up and meeting a minimum spend in a certain period of time. All are different, but it’s often something like $1000 in 3 months or $3000 in 3 months. After that point, you get a bonus amount of miles usually ranging between 25,000 and 50,000. Typically, 25,000 miles is redeemable for one domestic flight in the continental 48 states and 50,000 can get you a round trip flight to many international destinations. Plus, you earn miles on everything you buy, and it adds up over time.
Two notes. First, this isn’t an endorsement to go out, get a credit card, start spending frivolously, dig yourself into soul crushing debt, then come back and complain to me that I got into this mess. The point is that if you are already going to be spending money on new clothes or a dinner out or gas or groceries, you might as well get a reward for it. But spend sensibly! I can’t hammer home this point enough. Second, this is not a comprehensive guide to travel hacking by any means. I am only trying to introduce the concept and make you aware that you can often travel to amazing destinations for free or heavily discounted. If you want to learn more and get into travel hacking, I cannot recommend Chris Guillebeau’s Frequent Flyer Master program enough. The program has paid for itself many times over.
You’ve figured out where you want to go and approximately how much it’s going to cost (and hopefully you’ve saved a ton by flying on the cheap). Now comes the tough part, saving up the money to go.
It’s hard because you will constantly be pressured to spend money on a new car or to go out and grab drinks or literally any of the thousands of messages bombarding us to spend our money each day. It is so easy to give into temptation. The important thing is to keep things in perspective. This is so key. Think to yourself, is this latte or TV or night of drinking worth more to me than my trip of a lifetime? Because if you are struggling to save because you continue to spend money on items such as these, your trip probably isn’t worth as much to you as you thought. That’s ok. But if your trip is truly worth it, you will make the sacrifices needed to save up.
Here’s a few ways to make saving go faster:
Limit social drinking. Going to bars, clubs or a secret speakeasy is one of the most expensive hobbies around. If you are going out multiple times a week and buying drinks each time, that adds up quickly. Cut down on these types of activities for a bit and put that money into saving.
Brew your own coffee instead of going to the coffee shop.
Cook more and eat out less
On a related note, pack your lunch
Be creative. There are countless ways to start saving for a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Your hard work is paying off. Now you’ve got a decent sized nest egg for traveling. It’s time to start booking (some) stuff. Hopefully you are redeeming your airline miles for a free flight (if you can’t tell, I am a huge proponent of travel hacking). Beyond that, what you book is largely dependent on your personality, your timeframe, and what you hope to accomplish. If you are going for a week and have a specific plan in mind (i.e. hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef) you should book most things beforehand. Big tourist attractions often sell out especially during busy season.
But if you have more time, less plans, or a more laissez faire attitude you can get away with booking a lot less. In fact, other than your plane trip, you can probably get away without booking anything. I did not take this approach this during my seven months of travels and always booked my initial hostels in advance as I wanted to make sure I had a place to crash when I first landed.
If you have the means, you could have a travel agent or group completely book everything out for you. It’s completely up to you.
Disclaimer: I am a massive fan of traveling lightly. During my seven months abroad I travelled with two carry on sized bags (also I just hate checking bags). I ended up wearing the same things repeatedly, but I wasn’t there to win any fashion awards. The small pack allowed me to move quickly and efficiently and of course was much easier/lighter to bring on multi day treks. I would chuckle to myself as I would see people, often women, with packs that looked about as big and heavy as they were.
My packing ideas were influenced heavily by the following passage from Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding. (Bonus tip...get the book. It’s absolutely fantastic. Big shout out for the tip to do laundry in the shower. That saved me a lot of money):
“This small pack, of course, will allow you only the minimum: a guidebook, a pair of sandals, standard hygiene items, a few relevant medicines (including sunscreen), disposable earplugs (for those inevitable noisy environments), and some small gift items for your future hosts and friends. Add a few changes of simple, functional clothes and one somewhat nice outfit for customs checks and social occasions. Toss in a good pocketknife, a small flashlight, a decent pair of sunglasses, a day pack (for carrying smaller items when you leave your hotel or guesthouse), and an inexpensive camera. And then—looking down to make sure you have a sturdy pair of boots or walking shoes on your feet—close the bag and affix a small, strong padlock.”
This is the best part. The nervous butterflies in your stomach as you cross days off the calendar, bringing you ever closer to departure. Each day is one day closer to hopping on a plane or a car and going on your wildest, craziest trip and making memories for a lifetime. Because as JRR Tolkien put it, “Remember what Bilbo used to say: It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
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