The first question- where do you want to go? From there, you can start the discovery process. A great piece of advice for budget traveling is to find an airfare deal and plan around THOSE dates instead of being stuck with a specific window. Oftentimes airfare deals are posted months in advance, so just have a month or two you want to visit and wait for the price to drop. Follow your favorites on Twitter or Facebook (@TPG_Alerts, @TheFlightDeal, and @SecretFlying are some mine) and keep an eye out; sometimes deals last a week, sometimes an hour, sometimes even less.
I find Google Flights to be the easiest interface to use for cash fares. You can quickly peruse their calendar in a few different formats to set a cost expectation for yourself. These prices change daily, so you can either track the route (with specific days) or just hop in regularly to monitor yourself.
Next, I use Google Sheets to set up a spreadsheet for my flight plans, daily itineraries (using that word softly), and unsorted ideas or things to consider. The word ‘itinerary’ scares people- I get it, you’re on vacation, you don’t want to have to follow rules and be stuck to plans. I think its important to have a list of things to do each day so you can a.) optimize your time in a specific neighborhood, especially if you’re in a big city and b.) don’t have the dreaded, “well I don’t care, what do you want to do?” time waster before hitting the town. What if you found a great tapas spot in the Gothic Quarter, but then also plan to see all the wonder that Gaudi created the following day? If you’re on a tight schedule, you don’t want to go 20-30 minutes back to the GQ just to get these specific tapas, you were right around the corner yesterday!
Google Sheets is useful because your files can be downloaded for offline mobile use, eschewing the need for WiFi. You can easily share with others in your group and its very similar to Microsoft Excel in functionality. If your friends think they’re amateur comedians, you can share read-only versions of your sheets to keep the graffiti off.
The image on this page is what I threw together for our first day in Dublin. We had timed tickets for Guinness (not necessary when we were there), but otherwise the day was driven by our location and walking path. We made most of these stops, decided to skip a few things in the middle, and then crashed early because of a no-sleep overnight flight from Chicago the night prior. Nothing crazy, the links point either to reviews or the business’s own website.
If you want to best scour a neighborhood map, pick a central point and search from there. Yelp (in the countries where it is available) allows you to search from any point, so just put in your hotel address, Sagrada Familia, The White House, whatever, and you can see the top-rated spots nearby to make the best use of your time. There are plenty of useful reviews on the internet, BUT REMEMBER, most of the people who have a bad experience want to complain about it, so just because you see 2-3-9 bad reviews, it doesn’t mean you should just avoid a place altogether. Sometimes folks just have a bad day or a perfect storm ensues. As a long-time member of the food service industry, unfortunate things occur at the most perfect places…and the customer isn’t always right. Use your best judgement. If a place was terrible all the time, the free market will ensure the establishment will be closed long before you get on the plane.
Lastly, HAVE FUN. Pick too many things to do. Invite friends. Go alone. Whatever, its your vacation, make the most of every second!
Want a deeper dive into the madness? Here is the view-only version of our European adventure, brought to you by Google Sheets. Let me know if I can help with your next big trip!