6 Steps to Planning a Fantastic Trip


As a young twenty-and-thirties-something couple, Mr. Nerd and I have to find that sweet spot between traveling as much as we can and working desk jobs full time to afford travel. It creates an interesting balance—but we do plan, and we do travel. Often and successfully.

Currently, we're in the middle of planning our 7 day trip to Iceland. Since lots of other people tend to plan trips around working full time too, we thought we'd share our method of planning (using Iceland as the example), from the moment the idea pops into our brain to the moment we leave for the airport.

Step 1: Choose a location and date

At any given time, Mr. Nerd and I have a list of 5-7 places that we'd like to visit. Our list (right at this very moment) looks a little something like this:

  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Hawaii
  • New Zealand

With this list in hand, we look at our calendars to determine when we might be able to take some time off. Because we work full time, we have two weeks of vacation and a handful of US holidays to use, so we make sure we pick times that fall over long weekends to maximize our travel days.

This means we often travel over Memorial Day (late May), Thanksgiving (November), or Christmas/New Years.

Once we have a few dates in mind, we check the flight prices for each of the destinations we want to visit. Of course, traveling over the holidays means it may be more expensive, so we try to do this as far in advance as possible.

For our trip to Iceland, we found that it was the cheapest destination (of the ones on our wishlist) over Thanksgiving this year, so we booked it in late May.

Step 2: Do research

Once we have a location and have booked our tickets, we put our heads together and start combing through the internet. We read other travel blogs on the places we want to visit, we talk to the travel communities we're a part of, we look up reviews on hostels and Airbnb, we look up information on local excursions and tours...

We do a lot of research.

Specifically, when I (Mrs. Nerd) sit down after booking plane tickets, I look for answers to the following questions:

  • What language do the people here speak?
  • What is the conversion rate from the US dollar to their currency?
    • Can I use credit/debit cards at most places?
  • Are there any travel advisories active for this destination?
  • Are there any places we should avoid going (for safety reasons)?
  • What is the local transportation like?
  • What is the weather like for the time of year we're going?

These are some of the important core questions I need to make follow-up decisions, such as how much money to budget for the trip, if we should learn a bit of the local language, where we should stay, if we should rent a car or use the city's transportation, and if we should pack light or heavy.

Iceland is pretty tame, so we didn't have to dig too deeply, but we know enough now to make sure we pack lots of layers for a late November trip. We will also be renting a car (woo! — don't worry, we live in Minnesota. We always have snow and ice here) and staying in a hostel in downtown Reykjavik so that we can walk most places.

Step 3: Book all the things

After we've done our research, read all the blogs (shout out to Feet Do Travel for their lovely blog on Iceland that inspired us to take the leap and bump our Iceland plans from sometime next year to this year!), and make a tentative plan of the things we want to do...

We commence with the booking!

Note: We highly recommend doing this early, just in case prices fluctuate the closer the trip gets.

First, we pick a hostel or Airbnb (we often have two or three different places that we consider for any given trip, but it's usually the cheapest one OR the one with the best destination that wins out) and book our stay there. For Iceland, we chose a hostel that provides free WiFi, pillows and sheets, and has a private bathroom that's a mere 15-20 minute walk from downtown.

Next, we choose one or two all-day excursions/tours from our list (let's face it, they all sound pretty cool!) and book those. For Iceland, we're going to visit the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa one day (transport not included, since we're renting a car) and conduct our own day-long tour of the Golden Circle. We may add something else in there (Northern Lights boat tour, maybe?); we're not sure yet.

Finally, when the big ticket items are out of the way, we make miscellaneous bookings for anything that needs a reservation in advance. As an example, Mr. Nerd wants to get an Icelandic tattoo while we're there (his first ever! Yay!), so he'll need to book that in advance. A special meal at a high-end restaurant, which we like to do once a trip, may also require reservations.

If there are any museums or other attractions we want to see, we'll purchase those tickets prior to the trip as well. It saves us time, stress, and potential disappointment in the event it booked up before we arrived.

Step 4: Make a packing list

Packing, packing, packing. It's one of those things you don't want to think about (like doing the laundry, unless you're Mr. Nerd and love doing the laundry. What can I say? I married a strange guy) but can absolutely make-or-break your trip.

Have the perfect sweater to wear on a blustery cold day? Trip made!

Have a headache and forgot to pack some Aspirin? Trip unmade.

See what I mean? So when planning a trip, the next thing we do is create a packing list. We do this as far in advance as we can stomach (probably 4-6 weeks before leaving) to make sure we have time to order in special items, like hiking pants, quick-drying travel towels, miniature bottles for shampoo and toothpaste...

Of course, we also want to travel as light as possible, so we limit ourselves to one bag each. This means that some packing strategy is involved. Giving ourselves time to pack is essential to making sure we leave for the airport completely put together (after all, packing last minute while trying to catch a plane is never, ever a good time).

Here are just some of the basics we involve when creating a packing list:

  • Toiletries (travel toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, razors, perfume, face wash, a bar of soap, any special medication)
  • Two types of shoes (comfortable hiking shoes and sandals or dress shoes, depending on where we're going and the time of year)
  • 1 coat and 1 warm sweater
  • 2-3 t-shirts
  • 1-2 pairs of jeans (or 1 pair of jeans and 1 pair of shorts, depending on the location)
  • 2-3 pairs of socks
  • Nikon camera
  • iPad/iPhone
  • Chargers
  • Notepad and pen
  • Collapsible water bottle
  • Backpack/suitcase locks

And it goes on from there. When we have our list, we carefully select the backpack or suitcase we want to use and make sure everything fits. If it doesn't, we whittle down our list until it does.

Step 5: Tie up any loose ends

About two weeks before we're scheduled to leave on a trip, we take an afternoon and tie up any remaining loose ends—anything that we weren't able to get done earlier or couldn't do way ahead of time.

For every trip, we make sure we have a cat sitter (so our babies don't get lonely! I mean, look at them. How could you leave these cute faces without love and food) to check in on our cats every other day.

We also make sure we turn off the water in the house and, if we're traveling in the summertime, have a neighbor come over and water the garden so the tomatoes don't die!

We call our banks and put travel alerts on our debit and credit cards. They usually want to know where we're going and for how long. If you have a spending limit on your credit card, consider bumping it up for the duration of the trip just in case of an emergency.

We make sure we have our passports and travel insurance in order (as in, we make sure we know where they are and what the info is, make copies of our passports in the event ours get stolen or lost, etc).

If there's any necessary medication we need to take with us, like acne medication or Zoloft, we make sure we'll have enough for the trip so we don't run out. Sometimes this requires a frantic run to the pharmacy for a refill ... but it always works out!

Anything with batteries (camera, iPhone, iPad, flashlight, hiking headlamp, etc) is promptly charged and stored off until we leave. There's nothing worse than arriving somewhere awesome and realizing your camera is dead. Oof.

And finally, if we're going somewhere with a huge time difference, we start changing our sleep patterns about a week before the trip to make sure the jet lag doesn't kill us that first day. Check out this awesome infographic on Pinterest for ways to beat jet lag!

Step 6: Get on that plane!

Congratulations! You've successfully taken a trip and planned it from dream to reality, which is an amazing feat and shouldn't be sneezed at. Planning a trip isn't always easy, but it is rewarding, at least in my opinion.

Now that the planning stages are over, grab your bags and get your vacation on!

:) You've earned this. Have fun, and make sure to come back and tell us all about it!