Vacation Planning 101

If you haven’t guessed already from my Instagram account, I am in taking a little fall trip out to Scandinavia.  We will be in 4 different countries: Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.  The trip is mostly for my family (my husband, daughter, and I), but my parents will be joining us to Norway as they had never been before.  We are traveling by plane, car, train, and cruise boat to 6 different cities, so planning took some time and coordination.

I have been talking to some friends about it recently who have been pretty shocked to hear the deals that we’ve found and the tips to travel when organizing for this vacation.  We’ve tried to do the bulk of the prep work early on, so I don’t remember all of details, but I can share with you what I thought were key things to my planning.

FINDING A LOCATION

So we knew we wanted to plan a vacation and I was dead set on going to South America at the time, but moved on to another bucket- list travel destination of Scandinavia.  I started looking up tickets.  There’s always the regular channels of Lonely Planet, Skyscanner, and Expedia to start a general view of what pricing for different areas will start looking like.   I also check high, low, and shoulder seasons for the countries and when is best to travel.  Aside from these sites, I am a points member with a couple different airline groups and subscribe to travel deal websites/blogs, so I get emails for deals that pop up every now and again.  That was how I first came to find the deals with Norwegian Air.  Apparently, they fly directly out of Oakland airport so they have a couple great deals.  It came up from an email I got from a travel site and I am not sure which one at this point, but it showed $330 round trip from Oakland to Oslo!  I couldn’t believe my eyes, I’ve spent more on a regrettable trip to the hair salon before. It really is funny how much we spend on unnecessary things, when you can experience other countries of the world for less.

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DECIDING TO PURCHASE

I don’t usually like waiting a long time to purchase tickets as they can change and sell out so quickly, but I had to consider a lot of things that could quickly become an issue.  Obviously, getting time off with work is a consideration for my husband and I.  We also have a small child to consider, and if we would be able to get around with her.  I had contemplate wandering the mountains of Patagonia at one point and that would be a very difficult vacation for a four year old.  Then there’s things like where will you stay and what food and transportation costs look like.  Those things can add up really quick on a trip and we were lucky enough to have some friends who had previously gone to give us some insider info on that.  Although costs are low to fly, the costs of eating and drinking out are high in those areas.  We started looking at hostel, AirBnBs, and rental apartments so we could just purchase groceries (priced closer to what we would price similar items at) and cook our foods in kitchens.  With work dates confirmed and a general travel plan in mind, we decided to book the tickets which had gone up to $370 at that point.  It still was low in consideration, but I was a little bummed to see it go up.

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TIPS TO ADDING MORE CITIES

When you are all the way in another part of the world and have so many unexplored countries so close by, it’s hard not to want to jump on other opportunities to travel.  We knew a couple cities or experiences that we wanted to add and started to see what the logistics would be.  We created a loose trip itinerary based on an idea of how long we wanted to stay at each city.  Planning so far in advance gives you opportunity to really watch fares and look at other options.  We used Skyscanner to enter a to and from location and a date, and they would email me on when the price drops (or goes up).  As you watch the fare, you can gauge when it gets to a low point and jump on a deal.  This was great as we were able to book tickets around to other countries for about $50 each.  We even found Helsinki to Oslo for $30 each! I had booked my parents a return flight from Stockholm back to Oakland using Skyscanner too, and I was able to wait until the price dropped to about $160 to purchase.  Seriously, for less than a steak dinner you can fly half way around the world.  There are other ways to save on getting around besides flights too.  A common trick to save a night in a hotel is to travel at night.  We have found 2 instances where we can sleep on a train or sleep in a cruise ship to avoid paying another night in the cities and to get to the next location.  It’s not the most comfortable night’s sleep but a nice way to save a couple hundred.

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TIPS FOR PLANNING WHAT TO DO

I am a big fan of travel bloggers, TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet suggestions, Pinterest, and other places to do some initial research on places to go to.  Whether traveling with my friend, Rachelle, to Thailand or with my husband to Bali, I found a couple of key things that I wanted to for-sure see.  I started with that list, adding them to a Google Map, then determining approximately how much time that would take.  One of the places I wanted to definitely check out was the Bua Thong Waterfalls in Thailand.  Since that was outside the city, and we would have to account for travel times to and from- I basically set a whole day aside for it.  The experience is not a whole day adventure, but it left us to have some play-it-by-ear adventures before and after.  You don’t want to have all your vacation scheduled or you could miss out on a lot of fun.  From my map, I can see what was close by each other and plan for about 2 places of interest per day, keeping in mind what points are close by each other.  I would also have a secondary list, some things that would be great if I could see but not a “must”.  That way, if there is extra time, I am close by, or even if I decide not to so the scheduled activity- there are some backup suggestions for the downtime.  I get a little detailed when it comes to my Google Maps, especially when I come across a great blog post that gives me some inside information.  I found a post on great playgrounds in Helsinki that I’ve mapped out just in case.  Some of my maps have great photography locations and food stops, that would be great to see if I was close to it but I’m not making a day of being there.  Especially because I am traveling with a little one, you just never know when she’s going to get tired of walking or how many museums she’s willing to endure, so I try not to be too strict with the itinerary, you never know what may happen.  Even in Thailand, we had days where we swapped out items on the itinerary or changed directions entirely.  It isn’t so much as the set plan as much as it is some loose ideas.

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TIPS FOR SAVING SOME MONEY

Now this part will vary from destination to destination, so the best answer is doing your research.  Some of the past couple trips (like Bali, the Philippines, and Thailand) were pretty easy on the budget where you can get around and eat for not a lot of money, and really the most expensive part of the travel was the ticket there.  Scandinavia can be really expensive when you are there, so I was looking for all the ways to cut a corner or two.  The first bit of advice I had received was purchasing food at the grocery store and saving on eating out, which is one a lot of websites had confirmed.  Then I found other ways that could make a difference.  The Olso Pass is a 24/48/72 hour pass that covers FREE travel on all public transportation as well as A LOT of things you will want to do there.  “A LOT” meaning free entry to more than 30 museums and attractions, free entry to outdoor swimming pools, free walking tours, discounts on sightseeing, ski simulator, Tusenfryd Amusement Park, concert tickets, climbing, ski and bike rental, and special offers in restaurants, shops, entertainment and leisure venues. Oslo was not the only city to have this, I think I had basically found a similar card in all the other major cities in Scandinavia that we were visiting.  After evaluating my Google Map, it really doesn’t make too much sense for us to get one of these, but if I was alone and traveling I would probably want to cover as much as possible and may invest here.  There are a lot of free tours available as well, which we may totally jump on while we are there and have some of these noted on my maps.  I have also purposefully planned not to be in shopping areas to avoid spending on all the awesome thing I know I will be drawn to once I see it.  However, I did mark the Copenhagen Lego Flagship Store on my Google Map as Denmark is the home country of the beloved toy and we are unfortnueately going when the Legoland in Billund is closed for the winter season.  While I am not a fan of using a credit card for mileage points, I have used discounts and promotions from airline partners and travel site memberships.  I think we used my Expedia membership to earn more discounts with every booking, and even downloaded the app for an additional discount.  I’ve used Trip Advisor to negotiate other transportation arrangements with the hotel’s booking manager.  Of course I’ve found in some places, on-the-spot negotiating for prices on everything from hotel stays to tours is common.

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All of these tips helped me to plan the vacation a while back, and I have been just drooling at all the images I’ve seen ever since.  It did require a few nights of research, but I was able to do it, book tickets and places to stay, and plan out a loose itinerary, before life started getting much busier for me.  It would have been much harder to do all of this at the last minute.  I can get a little OCD with my planning, especially when people see my Google Maps, but it works for me.  If you have a tip to share, I’d love to hear it in the comments.  Happy travels!

 

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