Everyone always asks me what my secret is for finding great airfare, hotel prices, or simply being able to afford all of the amazing trips I’ve taken – not to mention how I know where I want to go. In response, I’ve compiled the below list of resources and tips that I use on a regular basis (you can also skip all the blather and go straight to the list of links at the bottom of the page). This by no means is supposed to be some authoritative list, it’s just the resources I’ve used in the past. In fact, if anyone has any other thoughts or suggestions feel free to leave a comment below. If you’re looking for destination specific suggestions on things to do, check out my destination guides.
Doing Your Research
Fist things first, you gotta know where you going before you can actually book anything. Everyone comes up with travel ideas using different resources: Friends and family, past travel experiences, some movie or TV show you watched (anyone else wander around New York City trying to find the diner from Seinfeld? No?). However you did it, you’ve got your basic destination in mind. Now it’s time to research where to stay, what to do, where to eat, and everything else that goes into making a trip, well…, a trip. So, where do you go for this research? Besides consulting friends and family, I look through travel guides (Lonely Planet, Eyewitness Travel Guides, and Let’s Go are my favorites), visit wikis (think Wikipedia and Wikitravel), and conduct good old Google searches to see what you find.
One word of caution: Every source you use is geared towards a different audience (I lean toward the backpacker and solo audiences). So if you know Aunt May likes the finer things in life while you’re saving every last penny to even take this trip, you may want to take her advice with a grain of salt.
Booking the Essentials: Flights, Hotels, and Rental Cars
Okay, now you’ve got everything planned and it’s time to book everything. How the hell do you do this without spending every waking moment on the internet or spending a fortune to go through a travel agent? Aggregator sites (my favorite is Kayak.com). These sites span the web and aggregate all the possible search results from as many different websites as they are allowed to use. In the US this normally means you can compare prices and availability for everyone except Southwest Airlines. So, you can see how much a flight will cost if you go directly to Delta or to Expedia or some other third party site. And, the same goes for hotels and rental cars. All you need to do is go to one site to book all the basic essentials. Welcome to the age of the internet, my friends.
Of course, if you go to your aggregator site and notice everything is priced out of your range you can always check out Hotwire.com, Priceline, or any other number of auction and blind purchase sites – they don’t reveal where you’re staying until after you pay, but you can save 25% – 50%.
If you don’t want to stay in hotel, you can check out vrbo.com or airbnb.com to rent condos and vacation homes directly from the owner. Another option for the budget conscience are hostels. I know everyone thinks hostels are only for hippies or college students, but they really are a great place to stay if you can get past sharing your living accommodations with complete strangers (trust me, never book a private room at a hostel unless you’re traveling with others). There’s always a kitchen if you want to cook a meal or two (read: save money on high priced restaurants), and there’s plenty of opportunities to meet new people and maybe find a new travel buddy. If you’re interested, hostels.com and hostelworld.com are two great resources to start.
One more note/word of caution before you actually book your flight or hotel or rental car. I prefer, and would strongly suggest, booking directly with the company and not through a third party site. That way if anything goes wrong (not saying anything will, but just in case) you’re dealing directly with the airline or hotel. You also may want to check out a site with reviews (I prefer TripAdvisor) to see if you’re about to book a hidden gem or stinking rat hole.
The Details: Shots, Visas, Insurance, and What to Pack
Okay, so now you have everything booked. What do you do about packing and getting your shots and visas? First off, if you’re traveling within your own country don’t worry about the shots and visas, and just be mindful of your airline’s luggage restrictions and fees if your flying to your destination.
For the more adventurous traveler who feels like wandering a little further afoot, you may need to obtain an entry visa and receive vaccinations before you go. You can check out the US State Department’s website for information on fees, forms, and other entry requirements by country for US citizens. If you do need an entry visa it will need to be obtained from that country’s embassy or consulate. Don’t live close enough to Washington DC or New York to stop in on your own? Don’t worry, you can use a courier service to handle the dirty work for you (for an extra fee, of course). I typically go through Travel Document, but if you do a Google search there are plenty of other options out there.
As for the shots, check out the Travelers’ Health section of the CDC’s website for country specific health information, including any suggested shots or medicine. You can either go to your doctor or a travel clinic for the actual consultation. I prefer the travel clinic since you’re dealing with people who are well versed in travel medicine (there’s more to it than “Don’t drink the water”), but it’s up to you.
Okay, you may be wondering why I would put insurance in the subtitle above. The answer is: because your normal medical insurance typically does not extend coverage outside the country. So, if you drink the water someplace and find you’ve contracted dysentery or some other horrible disease, you’ll not only shit your pants in hospital but also when you get home and see the medical bills. In addition to trip disruption or cancellation, you also can get travel insurance that will cover medical, dental, medical evacuation, and, in the event you decide to eat street food in India, death (just kidding, kind of). Where do you find these fancy policies? I usually go to an aggregator site like insuremytrip.com. I’ve also heard excellent things about International SOS if you just want to book directly with a company.
Now for the packing issue, or non issue.for some. I’m not here to tell you what to pack or how much to pack, but I will mention that if you’re looking to pack light you can always do laundry somewhere along the way (even if it means buying detergent and washing clothes in your room). I’d also like to mention that luggage weight restrictions and carry-on luggage limits for airlines vary from country to country. So, if you’re traveling abroad you may want to check with your airline before arriving at the airport and becoming those people frantically repacking all your bags at the check-in counter while everyone in line now knows whether you wear boxers or briefs.
Probably the comment I hear the most is, “That’s awesome that you can just pick up and travel on your own.” This is quickly followed by the comment I hear the second most, “I wish I could do that.” People, it’s not that hard to do. In fact, it can feel quite liberating to know you can survive on your own – especially if your solo travels take you to a foreign country.
So, what’s the secret to taking the big plunge and being able to overcome your fears and insecurities to wander off alone? Well, it’s that you really don’t have to be alone at all. I book small group guided trips that are geared toward singles. As long as you don’t mind sharing a room with a random person, these trips can be amazing experiences. You get to meet new people, share some pretty cool experiences, and hopefully forge some new friendships. There’s several companies out there, but the one’s I usually go through are Gap Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Contiki Tours, and Shamrocker Irish Adventures.
Here are some other tips for making solo travel easier:
- If you’re planning to travel abroad by yourself for the first time, I always suggest going to to a country that speaks the same language as you. This strategy will allow you to dip your toe into the world of solo travel and feel more comfortable because you’ll be able to talk with locals, get around more easily, and better understand what’s going on around you. For the US, this means Ireland, the UK, Australia, and Canada might be good choices.
- If there’s an option, try sitting at the bar when you go out to eat by yourself. Even if there’s no other patrons sitting there, you can always strike up a conversation with the bartender and get the inside scoop from a local on where to go and things to do. Plus, you don’t have to worry about feeling self conscious while you sit at a table in the middle of the dining room by yourself.
- As mentioned previously, staying at hostels is a great way to meet people and maybe even find a drinking or travel buddy for a few days.
- Looking for activities to do? Check out Urban Adventures for half-day guided tours and activities that are geared towards solo travelers and small groups.
- From the department of safety – try not to let random strangers know you’re by yourself. Also, the more friendly a stranger is towards you the more on guard you should become. Not everyone’s a bad guy out there, but when you’re flying solo there’s far less margin for error if you get yourself in bad situation.
How to Save Money
Here’s some additional money saving tips that I get asked about a lot:
- When booking flights it might be cheaper to purchase two one-way flights instead of a round-trip flight.
- If you’re traveling abroad, check for low cost airlines. The ones that immediately come to mind are Southwest Airlines, Jet Blue, Spirit Airlines, and Virgin America in the US, Ryanair and easyJet in Europe, Virgin Australia and Jetstar Airways in Australia, Tiger Airways in Southeast Asia, and WestJet and Porter Airlines in Canada. Just be aware that you may get nickeled and dimed for all kinds of basic services that are packaged into a ticket from bigger airlines (even using the bathroom may not be safe for much longer). I tend to book the cheapest round trip flight to my international destination and then book low cost flights or trains to get around within the destination country or continent.
- You may also want to consider overnight trains or buses to save on the cost of a hotel night.
- Join reward clubs. Rack up enough points and you’ll be getting free hotel nights, flights, or maybe even a Harrier fighter jet… If you can achieve elite status, most airlines also waive most bag fees and give you priority boarding (which means you’re not battling grandma for the last space in the overhead bin).
- Check out Groupon, Living Social, and other local resources for deeply discounted or free events and activities.
- Check into packaged deals that combine flights, hotels, and rental cars (usually offered by the airlines) if you’re flying someplace and staying in one spot. Also, it may be cheaper to rent a condo instead of staying in a hotel if you’re staying somewhere for an extended period of time.
Links to Various Travel Resource
- Travel Guides:
- Lonely Planet – www.lonelyplanet.com
- Eyewitness Travel Guides – http://us.dk.com/static/cs/us/11/travel/intro.html
- Let’s Go – www.letsgo.com
- Wikipedia – www.wikipedia.org
- Wikitravel – www.wikitravel.org
- TripAdvisor – www.tripadvisor.com
- Aggregator Sites:
- Kayak.com (Flights, Hotels, Rental Cars) – www.kayak.com
- InsureMyTrip.com (Travel Insurance) – www.insuremytrip.com
- Third Party Booking Sites:
- Priceline (Flights, Hotels, Rental Cars) – www.priceline.com
- Hotwire.com (Flights, Hotels, Rental Cars) – www.hotwire.com
- Vrbo.com (Condo Rentals) – www.vrbo.com
- Airbnb.com (Condo Rentals) – www.airbnb.com
- Hostels.com (Hostels) – www.hostels.com
- Hostelworld.com (Hostels, B&B’s) – www.hostelworld.com
- Travel Insurance:
- Travelers’ Health:
- CDC Travelers’ Health Info – wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel
- List of Travel Clinics – wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/find-clinic.htm
- Visa Information:
- US State Department (Visa Requirements) – http://travel.state.gov/visa/americans/americans_1252.html
- Travel Document (Courier Service) – www.traveldocument.com
- Tour Companies:
- Gap Adventures – www.gapadventures.com
- Intrepid Travel – www.intrepidtravel.com
- Contiki Tours – www.contiki.com
- Urban Adventures – www.urbanadventures.com
- Shamrocker Irish Adventures – www.shamrockeradventures.com
- Low Cost Airlines:
- Southwest Airlines (US) – www.southwest.com
- Virgin America (US) – www.virginamerica.com
- Spirit Airlines (US) – www.spirit.com
- Jet Blue (US) – www.jetblue.com
- Ryanair (Europe) – www.ryanair.com
- easyJet (Europe) – www.easyjet.com
- Virgin Australia (Australia) – www.virginaustralia.com
- Jetstar Airways (Australia) – www.jetstar.com
- Tiger Airways (Southeast Asia) – www.tigerairways.com
- WestJet (Canada) – www.westjet.com
- Porter Airlines (Canada) – www.flyporter.com