How I Plan and Book my Budget Backpacking Trips | Why I Don't Like Travel Agents
Updated: Apr 27, 2019
I must admit, I LOVE planning trips. I'm always constantly scheming plans for future adventures and researching new countries and things to do. I always plan and book everything myself and in this blog post I tell you my top tips for planning the perfect itinerary and booking your budget backpacking trips!
Maybe I'm a control freak, but I like to have full control over everything when I'm planning and booking a trip and like to do everything myself rather than use a travel agent. In the past I've had negative experiences with travel agents who didn't take the time to understand what I wanted and seem to only be commission motivated. Plus, I believe that taking the time to plan something yourself means you have better knowledge about where you're going and your trip can work out cheaper as travel agents often up-sell or charge more to compensate for their commission.
When planning and booking my trips, I usually follow the steps of:
Deciding on and researching the destination/s
Creating an itinerary
Creating a budget
Deciding on and Researching the Destination/s
A number of factors influence my decisions when deciding on destinations for a trip. It's also important to research these factors so you know what to expect when you arrive:
Time of year - wether it's the high/low season or wet/dry season
Type of attractions e.g. beach, national parks, cities, tourist hot-spots
Visas you might need to organise in advance
Immunisations you might need
Average daily cost of travelling e.g. how much to expect to pay for a hostel bed
Cost of flights to/from the destination, bus connection routes
Current exchange rates
Ease of travelling in the country e.g. cheap transport options, availability of hostels, popular backpacker routes
Current issues that may be safety concern
When researching a destination I value other people's recommendations very highly and mostly look to Facebook groups and forums for advice. Facebook groups like Girls LOVE Travel, Girls Who Travel, Lonely Planet Travellers, The Solo Female Traveller Network and Where's Mollie Global Travellers are a great source of information for me. I like to use the search functions in the group and enter e.g. "Philippines" to see what's popular in a certain country/region. This is how I found out about the incredible Tao Expedition I went on.
I also turn to websites like Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet guide books and I find the Australian Government's Smart Traveller website really handy particularly for visa advice and current safety/security information.
When planning a route I like to look up routes of organised tour groups like Intrepid, G Adventures etc or google search '2 week backpacking China routes'. This is helpful to ensure that I'm visiting my destinations in a logical order and helps me determine the best way to get to/from destinations and also helps to give me a rough idea of the top places to go and things to see.
Flights can often be the most expensive portion of a trip. I do my best to find the cheapest flights possible and prioritise cheap flights over comfort - in my opinion, as long as you get from A to B safely the airline doesn't matter - it's more about the destination!
I used to always use Skyscanner, but recently I've become a big fan of Google Flights. I like how you can track the prices of flights and it allows you to select the cheapest flights from different airlines on multi-city booking which can save a heap of money.
Using Google Flights to track the price history of a flight
Often it's cheaper to fly in/out of bigger airports: for example, for my China, Borneo and Bali trip I worked out that it would cheapest to fly home from Bali rather than Borneo as the Denpasar to Brisbane flight route is a busier route than Kota Kinabalu to Brisbane which makes prices more competitive.
Play around with different flight route combinations - if you can be flexible playing around can save you heaps. I've been spending quite a bit of time researching the best order for flights for my Central/South American trip. For example, I found that flying Vancouver - Cancun, San Jose - Lima, Lima - LA was $400 cheaper than flying Vancouver - Lima, Lima - San Jose, Cancun - LA even though both routes are visiting the same destinations.
It's also smart to research which airports which budget airlines operate out of and be prepared to fly out of a nearby airport. For example, the budget airline AirAsia operates out of the Gold Coast airport and I saved over $300 on a flight to Beijing by driving just over an hour down the coast to catch a flight rather than flying out of Brisbane Airport.
I like to use stopovers to my advantage. Extending your trip by making the most of a stopover is a great way to add on another city during your trip - for essentially no extra cost!
Be flexible with your dates and wait for sales. Most airlines frequently have sales and it's worth waiting around and being ready to snap up a sale when it happens. If you are able to be flexible with your travel dates you can really use this to your advantage. For example, it is well known that every year JetStar has 'return for free' and 'bring a friend for free' flight sales to Japan!
'Glamping' in an Airbnb in Batemans Bay, NSW
Accommodation is likely to be your second biggest expense after flights. I look to pay the absolute minimum for accommodation as I find I spend most of my time out exploring and just need a bed to come back to. I tend to mostly stay in hostels but also sometimes use Airbnb. I find that when travelling solo hostels can be cheaper but when travelling with a group, Airbnbs can often be better value.
Hostels - when researching hostels I use Hostelworld to read reviews, but I often book direct with the hostel if possible as some (like Hostelling International hostels) offer a cheaper if you book direct for them.
Airbnb - I love airbnb and I've stayed in some pretty unique Airbnbs whilst travelling (see my blog post here). However, I've found that whilst often you can often save money on accommodation by staying on the outskirts of a city, sometimes the cost of commuting in/out makes it more worthwhile to spend a bit of extra money in the first place to stay somewhere closer. If you haven't already signed up with Airbnb, you can get $25 off your first stay with this link.
Hotels - I don't often stay in hotels but when I do I usually book through booking.com as I like that you can book ahead without paying a deposit and most places have free cancellation up until 24-48hrs before you arrive. You can get $20 off your first stay with this link!
Friends and family - It's also worthwhile seeing if you have friends/family or friends of friends you can stay with to cut down accommodation costs.
Couchsurfing - I haven't been game enough to try couch-surfing yet, as when I created a profile on Couchsurfing.com I got messages from a lot of creeps. But I think if you can navigate couchsurfing in a safe way, it's a pretty cool way to save money and meet new people. There are also lots of people that offer up their couches or spare bedrooms in Facebook groups like the Solo Female Traveller Network which I think I would be more inclined to take up.
Creating an Itinerary
When creating an itinerary it's important to find a system that works for you. The way that works for me is that I like to create a table/calendar in Microsoft Word and first make a rough outline of my plan. I like to colour-code the dates depending on the country and when I've booked/confirmed something I make it bold. I find this gives me a good overview of my plan and allows me to make sure I haven't missed any dates or overlapped anything.
There are many apps like Travefy which let you build itineraries online, but I really prefer just doing it on Word!
Example of my April 2018 Itinerary
Creating a Budget
I'm not someone that follows a strict daily budget when travelling, but I like to keep track of what I'm spending as I'm booking things and have a rough idea of how much spending money I'll need when I'm there.
I like to make a basic excel document in which I keep track of the cost of everything I've booked and use the research I've done on a country to determine how much I will need to bring as spendings. I always over-estimate the amount I will need to allow for emergencies and unexpected costs!!
I always like to book flights first as they are usually the most susceptible to big price increases - once you find a good deal you want to lock it in! When booking flights make sure you double check your luggage allowances and quad-triple check the airports you're flying in/out of and your travel dates - making changes to flights can be expensive!
Once I've booked my flights I like to go ahead a book anything else - hostels, tours, trains etc - I feel I will need to book in advance for my trip. Many places you can just rock up, but some places (like the Canadian Rockies), you will need to ensure you book well in advance.
Once I know my travel dates and the countries I will be visiting I make sure I book my travel insurance as soon as possible. This is incase I experience an unexpected event/illness in the lead-up to my trip that results in me needing to cancel/postpone the trip and ensures I will have the protection of travel insurance to claim the cost back of the travel I've pre-booked.
I also like to print out all my booking confirmations and my travel insurance policy so I have physical copies on me. At many borders immigration officers want to see proof of your onward travel and I find it's handy to have print-outs of my accommodation in case my phone ever went flat while looking for a hostel. I also like to put all the digital copies of my booking confirmations along with digital copies of my passport onto a USB to have with my while travelling.
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Check out my other travel tip articles on my blog here!