Tips for travel planning

16 January 2015

Despite being on a pretty tight budget, John and I have gone on some amazing trips together. From the first major vacation we took, a road trip to Cumberland Island in Georgia six years ago, to our most recent adventure, a week-long venture to California, we’ve never spent better money than on seeing new parts of the world together. However, we spend a lot of time making sure we’re putting that money to good use, and we’ve picked up some tips for travel planning along the way that I’d love to share!


Budget your vacation days
In 2013, 169 million vacation days were forfeited by American workers! Travesty! We are big (big, BIG!) believers in taking all of your allotted vacation days, but make sure you use them wisely! We’ve found that if we aren’t intentional about planning to take vacation days, and then planning what we’re going to do with those vacation days, vacation doesn’t happen… and we get grumpy.

At the beginning of the year, we parcel out any days we know need to be spent on non-discretionary vaca, like family holidays. Then, we brainstorm where we want to go, how many days each trip will be, and what month would be best for each with what’s left (we use Accuweather to check average temps and rainfall!). For us, it works to take one big week-long trip per year (we hope to alternate domestic and international) and then several weekend trips. Finally, we pull out our calendars and choose dates for each.


Budget your money
Know what’s important to you, and spend your money accordingly! Do you prioritize accommodations? Food? The remoteness of the location? You can go to Charleston and spend $500 or $5,000. You can camp or you can stay in a 5-star hotel. You can eat from a taco stand or from a fine dining establishment. You can charter a day sail or you can hike to the top of a beautiful hill. Some vacations we go all out, and sometimes we stay at Hampton Inns. We usually have an equally great time at both.

Within our vacation budget for the year we set a budget for our big trip, and then parcel out the rest to the weekend or day trips as needed.


Prioritize physical beauty
Even though we reminisce about delicious meals we’ve eaten and sumptuous hotel rooms we’ve stayed in, our most vivid memories are from the beautiful places we’ve visited. There are very few things as soul-expanding as breathtaking vistas, coves, trails, forests, and horizons, and the best part is, they’re usually free!


Do your research
We pound the pavement before we spend one dollar! A few of our favorite resources:

— If a blogger you admire lives in the area you’re visiting, search their blog to see if they’ve written about it, or email them if not! Some of my favorite folks who take lots of trips include Meredith, Joanna, Jamie, Jamie, and Jordan.
— We like national magazines, particularly Travel + Leisure, and also like to ferret out great regional magazines, like Sunset in the West, Our State in North Carolina, Garden & Gun, and Southern Living. The NY Times 36 Hours series and Design*Sponge’s City Guides are also great resources.
— While a lot of pins of beautiful places lead nowhere, searching the location you’re interested in on Pinterest can turn up great blog posts, articles, and sites to see. Same with Flickr.
— Look up the city you’re traveling to on Wikipedia. The climate section can be helpful, and you never know where the listing, photos, or tourism section will lead.
— Plug in your destination on Google Maps – you can see parks and attractions, and click through to find photos and more info.
— Our North Carolina hiking trails book is invaluable for local trips, and we look for similar sources when traveling farther afield.
— John uses TripAdvisor for hotel and activity recommendations and I prefer Yelp for restaurant reviews. It’s easy to get bogged down in crowd-sourced review sites, but we look for themes in the reviews, and then ask ourselves, is that something that would bother us? There will always be negative feedback, but it often isn’t that meaningful. Jetsetter is also a great place to find hotels, and we love Airbnb, too!

Even if we don’t have a trip on the books, I’m constantly adding potential travel ideas to various locations to one of my iPhone notes!


Use Google Docs
For big trips, we like to collect all of the information and ideas we’re gathering in a Google Doc, which we can access anywhere, easily share back and forth, and both add to. I go into a little more detail in my post on planning a point-to-point trip!


Even with all of these tips, I still maintain that some people just have a knack for turning up the most picturesque locations, the most delicious meals, and the most fun activities. Luckily for me, my husband is one of them – I think travel planning is truly his calling! He actually does custom planning for a few lucky clients each year, so if you’d like some help with your own trip or honeymoon, feel free to email me and I will put you in touch!

In case you’re looking for some inspiration, here are a few of our past trips:
Charleston (also here, here, here, and here)
Camping in NC
Northern Michigan
Nevis (here and here)
Asheville (also here, here, and here)
Beaufort, SC (also here)
Hiking in Boone, NC
Beaufort, NC
Highlands, NC

Friends, I’d love to hear where you’re traveling this year, or any of your favorite travel resources!

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January 16, 2015 8:39 am

Love this!! There are SO many things I would cut from my budget before touching my travel savings–I think travel is an investment in living a full life, stretching outside your comfort zone, and expanding your worldview, all of which are worth it 100%. Dave and I haven’t been on too many big trips since our study abroad days, but when we do go places, we almost always put some credit card points (and miles if we can) toward a hotel or flight to help with those big costs. We’re counting down the days to our honeymoon, and we’re also looking forward to a trip to Singapore and Bali in 2016 if my dad is still there to visit!

January 16, 2015 9:30 am

If Rick Steves has a travel guide for where you are going, you NEED it. His recommendations are spot on and we’ve saved hours of waiting in lines on international trips because of his insider tips. He also offers excellent audio tours you can download in advance and then listen to without using data. We used these a lot in Italy.

January 16, 2015 9:41 am

What a fun post! I loved reading that John enjoys travel planning as much as I do. I think you both do a great job of prioritizing natural beauty on your trips – your photos prove it! Some of our most memorable meals have been the picnic dinners we’ve shared while traveling – it’s cheaper and almost always prettier than dining in a restaurant. But you know we love setting travel itineraries around our meals, too – for that we love the Find.Eat.Drink app (free!) and our Where Chefs Eat book! Thanks for sharing your tips, Em + John!

January 16, 2015 10:19 am

Loved this.I’m the trip planner in our family, but last year for our honeymoon to Greece we did something we never thought we would ever do: we used a honeymoon planner! And it was so worth it. My health issues/all the things needed to coordinate island hopping in Greece made our decision easier. And this guy did everything. He set everything up (tours, transportation, hotels, restaurants). It was amazing. For our big trip this year, we’re going back to our roots and doing things ourselves. But I’m not ruling out using a planner again in the future.

January 16, 2015 9:08 pm

Just watching the “Make It Happen” book chat recording (as an Aussie, I can never watch it live!). Emily, you look gorgeous in it! Truly gorgeous. Love your natural make-up look.

Katie C
January 20, 2015 5:06 pm

Thanks for this post!!
Learned about some new resources and now it’s time to start planning!
One tip: has awesome reviews of boutique hotels around the world. Some are pretty pricey, but we used them for our trip to Italy and the hotel/service was impeccable.

January 21, 2015 2:47 pm

My husband and I love trip planning also! We are headed to SF in a month and I’ve been using your posts as a resource!!

January 27, 2015 7:45 pm

What a perfect post to read!! My husband and I are in the middle of planning our big trip for the year – a road trip from San Fran to Seattle (with a “detour” to Vancouver). We are always planning a trip or two ahead – next year we will be traveling to Costa Rica with his family! Planning ahead definitely ensures you utilize your vacation time to the best of your ability and minimizes the stress! Your point-to-point post helped us get our road trip started. We have our flights and just finished our hotels – most are airbnb! What a GREAT way to see a city or town and really get a feel for the area without a giant price tag! We’re looking forward to now taking a bit of a break and worrying about the details when we get closer to our departure date in May! Our go-tos when planning trips are friends and family, and then trip advisor. It’s never let us down, and we’ve had some amazing experiences that way!