Planning a great holiday can be tough: you need time and headspace to deliver results, and that commitment can be hard to come by. The small details have the power to make or break a trip — especially one you’ve been saving up months for.
You need the right hotel, in the right location, at the right price. Add flights, transport and a series of bucket list moments into the mix, and you can have yourself a logistical nightmare. But it can be done. Get your planning cap on and it can make the difference between a trip that is a bit ‘meh’ and one that is outstandingly, remember-my-whole-life brilliant. Here are our tips to help plan stress-free travel…
Sort your passport, visa and insurance
It sounds obvious but if you miss this step or don’t leave enough time, your entire holiday could hang in the balance. Always start by checking the validity of your passport (some destinations require it to be valid for up to six months after your trip). Depending on your nationality and where you’re travelling to, you may also need to arrange a visa: check your country’s embassy website to find out more.
Insurance is a must: you never know what may happen on a trip. Medical costs, in particular, can rack up quickly. Make sure your insurance also covers any special activities you’re planning on doing (e.g. diving). Finally, store a photo of the ID page of your passport, your visa visa and your insurance details in your phone and on email, just in case you lose any documents while you’re away.
Cover your medical needs
There’s a lot of stress that comes from being ill abroad, but a few quick steps will help minimise this. Check with the relevant embassy or on public health websites to see if vaccinations are required for the country you’re visiting — these usually need to be arranged at least six weeks in advance of travel. You may also need malaria tablets, insect repellant, a mini medical kit and high-SPF sun cream (again, check for country-specific advice).
Don’t forget any prescription meds either, along with your prescription for each. If you have a medical condition or allergy that requires particular attention, bring a doctor’s letter on your travels that describes the nature of the condition and the treatment needed.
Refine your budget
Set a grand total spend for your trip, depending on the health of your bank account. Then subtract the costs of flights and transfers to work out a daily cash pot for hotels, meals and activities. This figure will govern absolutely everything from where you stay to what you do and where you eat, so it’s important to get it right. It may help to break it down between hotels, meals, experiences and so on (with awareness that these costs might vary at different times throughout your trip).
Try and leave a little over, if you can, to account for unexpected costs. Remember to include any hidden spends, such as withdrawal fees or departure taxes, too. And consider the average costs for where you’re going — are they higher or lower than what you’re used to spending on a daily basis at home?
Plan ahead for bucket list activities
If you’re keen to make one activity the standout highlight of your trip – a snowmobile safari in Finland, say, or ziplining in the rainforests of Laos – it’s vital that you organise it well in advance. Some experiences, such as going on safari, require a lot of research for the best prices, dates and operators. Others, for example canyoning in Jordan, only operate at certain times of year. By doing your homework properly, you stand the best chance of making that bucket list wish come true.
Treat tourist hot spots with caution
That said, there are some experiences you should consider skipping on altogether. Overtourism has become an increasing problem. For example, sections of The Great Wall of China rival rush hour in Manhattan for sheer crowd capacity at certain times of year. Pick and choose what really matters to you, and be strategic about trade-ins. The Himalayas has plenty of routes that veer off the massively popular Everest trail, and Peru is home to lesser-known Inca treasures beyond Machu Picchu.
Leave some room for spontaneity
A surefire way to generate stress on holiday is by packing in too many things. Not only will this start to resemble a work schedule rather than a break, but it also misses the point. Some of the best kind of travel will come from simply wandering around and getting the measure of a place, or by meeting other travellers along the way and joining plans.
Wherever you are in the world, you want to head away from the centre and hunt down hidden neighbourhoods, where you can simply soak up the tempo of local life. Instead of being tethered to review sites and a must-see list, get a little lost – and ask locals for help along the way.
Research exactly where you're staying
It’s all very well going for a great hotel rate but make sure you research it before booking. There’s little point paying less if you’re going to have to splurge on taxi fees every night. Where is your hotel in relation to nearby restaurants and bars? What neighbourhood is it in? Are you going to be able to walk around easily after dark? How will you get from A to B? Get on street view and gift yourself the knowledge.
Avoid popular business and holiday routes
Off-peak flights will always be cheaper and less hassle. When you’re booking your journey, try and avoid popular business and school holiday times. This includes regional holidays, like carnival season in Brazil, and one-off sporting and cultural events. When it comes to getting a good fare, it’s also worth remembering that two single flights may land you a better deal than one return.
Another workaround, if you have time, is to cut your route up somewhere unexpected. For example, a return flight from London to Tenerife would be expensive in high season, but you could stopover in the Spanish city of Valencia and take a domestic flight onwards from there. Not only is this cheaper but you get to max out your travel experience, exploring a new place on the way.
Accept that not everything will go to plan
Even the best laid plans are liable to go awry. In fact, the very best adventures rely on it. When you go travelling, it’s best to leave your expectations at the door and go with the flow when unexpected things crop up. If you stick with zeal to a pre-planned schedule, you’re likely to be disappointed. Instead, relax and accept that you can’t control everything.
Things take longer than you think with travel, too. To minimise the stress of dashing from place to place, factor in at least an hour more than you need between each transfer and activity. This will allow breathing room for inevitable delays, including traffic, bad weather, cows in the road and, well, you get the picture.
Don't be afraid to take time out
If you are planning on travelling with others, remember that you don’t have to spend every minute together — doing so may bring out your less honourable instincts. Figure out time that can be spent alone if needed; maybe in the form of a few evenings apart, or an extended holiday after one of you has left. This may happen naturally as a result of you wanting to try different activities. It’s not about being antisocial so much as ensuring you all have the space you need to get on.
Pack as light as you can
The more belongings you bring, the more stressed you may feel in trying to keep track of everything. So the gospel of all good travel planning comes in packing as little as you can (and less than you think). There’s a few things to remember, like how you can wash your clothes along the way. If you’re travelling in a group, you can arrange to divide things between you, too. It’s also likely that, wherever you’re heading to, you can buy anything you’ve forgotten on the ground.
Overpacking usually comes down to indecision and uncertainty rather than need. So be ruthless and whittle down your packing list to the absolute essentials. Bar your passport, it’s unlikely you’ll regret leaving anything behind. And a bulky, bloated backpack will drag you down for the duration of your trip.
Make room for a sarong
One thing that is worth bringing is a sarong, simply because it’s the hardest working multitasker around. You can use a sarong as a scarf when you’re cold, as a towel when you’re wet, and rolled up as a pillow when you don’t have one. It’ll work as a makeshift cover-up, for wrapping fragile items in your backpack and, of course, you can use it on the beach. Plus, it’s lightweight and washes easily.
Bring a deck of cards
Cards are another useful thing to have. It’s amazing how far a humble pack of cards can stretch in almost any travel situation. This age-old ritual will see you through overnight train journeys, agonising airport delays, two days in a hostel in the backend of nowhere – you name it, cards will rise to the occasion. And, not only do they kill time, they’re also a great way of meeting new people and overcoming language barriers in the process.
Store important contact numbers
Email yourself with a list of toll-free international numbers for your credit/debit card and mobile phone providers, in case you need to cancel either from abroad. Also, include contact numbers for local emergency services and your in-country embassy, along with your insurance and flight providers. It’s unlikely you’ll need any of them, and a lot of information will be available online or via apps, but it’s still useful to have in one place as a quick reference back-up.
Buy a local SIM card and download apps
If you want to use your phone abroad without being tethered to WI-FI spots, consider buying a local SIM. For some destinations, e.g. Japan, you can arrange to have this sent to you before travelling. But it’s also easy to pick up at airports and on the road: just do a little research on the best networks for different countries, along with the typical price for deals. A trove of carefully selected travel apps will also serve you well. Start with the likes of Google Maps, Google Translate, XE exchange and TripAdvisor, then top up with country-specific apps (there are loads of great ones out there).
Organise a few days off post-trip
If your holiday allowance can stretch to it, aim for a few days off immediately after you come back. There’s nothing more stressful than jumping straight off a plane and into the office, where a huge pile of deadlines and demands await. A few days’ extra will give you breathing room to unpack, shake off any jet lag and do fun things like curate your holiday photos, go for drinks and mull over your travel highlights. If time doesn’t allow it, at least set your out of office message so that it extends for a few days after your return, to give yourself time to get through emails.
Choose your travel companions carefully
Picking a travel companion is a bit like choosing a housemate: you need different qualities to the ones that might seem immediately attractive. And just because you hit it off on a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t mean you’ll have a ball on the road. Group travel dilutes this problem a little, because there are more people to mix it up. Booking a group travel experience can also take the stress out of planning a trip, with a lot of the work done for you.
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