How to Plan an International Trip in 7 Steps

Planning an international trip can seem daunting.  It’s not as complicated as it seems, but there are still a lot of moving pieces to consider.  I’ve put together this checklist to walk you through how to plan an international trip in just 7 steps to make sorting through the details just a little bit easier.  I’ve included timeframes (how far in advance you should be booking flights, hotels, and activities) to help you organize your planning.

overlooking the city of florence how to plan an international trip in 7 steps

My planning process

Before jumping into the checklist, there’s one important thing I always like to mention.  All of this WILL seem incredibly overwhelming if you think you can sit down and plan an entire trip in one day.  I always decide ahead of time how many hours I think I will need to spend each week, and then I just break it up into 60-minute chunks.  One 60-minute planning session for x days per week.  This is the right way to do it!

Step 1: Decide where you want to go

6 months to 1 year in advance

This is my favorite part of planning, deciding where I want to go and what I want to do!  I always think of what specifically I want to DO because this often influences where I end up going. 

My traveling usually focuses on outdoor activities.  Am I wanting to do a multi-day trek?  Day hikes?  Visit a certain national park?  Explore a city?  What specifically do I want to do in the city I’m considering?  You get the idea. 

Deciding what you want to do is also important in knowing when you need to start planning.  For example, if you want to do the 4-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu with one of the best tour companies, you need to start reserving tickets much further in advance than say, if you just want to travel to Peru and explore Lima.

Step 2: Decide when you want to go and for how long

6 months to 1 year in advance

I always figure out the WHEN after I’ve decided the ‘where’ because every destination has ideal and less-than-ideal months to visit.  Once I’ve decided on a destination, I look up the following:

  • best months to visit based on the climate
  • best months to visit based on crowds (I always aim to travel during the shoulder season)

Step 3: Estimate costs

Budgeting is incredibly important and will enable you to travel more and travel longer.  The better you keep track of your costs, the more able you are to plan.  I always estimate how much a trip to a certain destination will cost before I start planning.  I want to be able to travel long-term, and that means I need to travel within my means.

Step 3: Book any ‘hard-to-reserve’ activities

1-12 months in advance

Again, when you do this step entirely depends on WHAT you want to do, which is why I decide the ‘what’ very first thing. 

I’ve found that the most hard-to-reserve activities are often the popular hikes. For us, these hard-to-reserve hikes have been Half Dome in Yosemite, our lodging for hiking rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon, and our Machu Picchu trek. Even though we trekked in May (one of the best months for weather and fewer crowds), we had to book six months in advance. So, check this first thing so you can reserve early if needed!

I book much later (maybe a month in advance) for most other activities that don’t fill up as fast.  This is to avoid the hassle of canceling if my plans change or something comes up.

Step 4: Book flights

3-6 months in advance

There are MANY different opinions on when you should book an international flight.  I usually start looking at flight options up to six months in advance and then actually book my flight around the 3-4 month window.  If you are traveling during peak tourist season or the holidays you will likely need to book earlier.  Domestic flights can be reserved much later (I usually aim for 2 months in advance).

The short version of my process for booking flights is as follows:

  • I go to Google Flights and plug in my home airport and hit ‘explore’.  This pulls up a map of the prices (from my home airport) to airports around the world.  I LOVE this feature.  It gives me a quick view of how much a flight to my destination will cost, and if it would be significantly cheaper to fly to a nearby airport and then just take a domestic flight to my final destination.  For example, when I was looking at flights to Barcelona, I quickly realized that it would be much cheaper to fly into London (tickets for $800 ish dollars) and then take a short flight to Barcelona (around $100) whereas flying straight into Barcelona was going to cost me around $1200.  
  • Once I’ve used Google Flights to find the cheapest route, I plug that route into Skyscanner.com.  This is the best flight search engine I’ve found and almost always has the lowest prices.

Step 5: Book lodging and rental cars

2-3 months in advance

How far in advance you need to book your lodging and rental car also depends on where you are going.  I usually take a quick look on booking.com (for hotels) or Airbnb.com (for homestays) 6 months to 1 year in advance, just to get a feel for how far in advance I need to book.  My favorite sites for finding rental car deals are momondo.com and discovercars.com.  And don’t forget rental car insurance!  This is my favorite article on the ins and outs of buying rental car insurance.

Step 6: Buy Travel Insurance

2-3 months in advance, as soon as I’ve booked all the ‘big purchase’ items

This is another area where there are different opinions on when is the best time to do this.  I prefer to wait until I’ve made all my big ticket purchases so I can plug in an accurate estimate of my total trip cost (travel insurance companies ask for this before giving a quote). 

My current favorite travel insurance company is Tin Leg (we usually go with their gold policy).  They offer comprehensive medical, evacuation, and cancellation coverage for an affordable price.  

We used this policy for our trip to Peru, and it covered all the activities we did in the city of Cusco as well as the trekking and ziplining we did outside the city.

Step 7: Last-minute extras

2 weeks to 1 month before

  • Report my trip on all credit card company websites and all bank websites (this is so my transactions don’t get flagged as fraudulent).
  • Buy an international roaming data plan through your cell phone company (if not already included on your cell phone plan)
  • Look up the currency exchange rate 
  • Look up tipping culture
  • Email a copy of your travel itinerary to a family member or friend (it’s always a good idea to have someone who knows exactly where you are). 

This may seem like a lot, but like I said before, if you spread it out into short planning sessions you’ll have your first trip planned in no time.

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