Travel planning: useful links and practical guides
Travel planning can seem like a daunting task for many, between the abundance of offers, the language barrier to get food resources - this can all seem pretty overwhelming. Let's dig in into this and demystify the whole process. I'll be sharing below some advices and usefull tips that have been helping me travel planning for the past 9 years.
I have also created a excel travel itinerary template to help you get started - you can download it for free AND get even more tools & tips in this article.
1. Safety and Health
Once you have found the country that you wish to visit. Next steps is to check your country travelers' advice website. For France it's the below:
As a French citizen, I use the “advice to traveler” website from the French ministry of foreign affairs that enables me to get safety, vaccine and visa information to visit a country. It also provides all the official links towards a countrie’s embassy or visa services ( in France ). If you are travelling for less than 6 months, you can also register to the Ariane platform to help our government know where you are in case of emergency ! It's worth checking if your own country doesn't have a similar set up ?
I rely on my medical insurance for traveling, I have a private medical insurance for expat called MSH International, which covers expenses “by zone” so when I travel for personal reasons, I would check if the country is within the “zone” of coverage. They also provide evacuation services and my credit card also covers quite a few evacuation scenario.
If your travel is a short one, it's well advised to take a travel insurance. There are millions of blog post from other travelers who compare them. Since I am a bit of a special case, I never really needed one - and can't really recommend one too.
For many years, we have been purchasing DAN Family plan. We never had to use it so far (touching wood) but I feel better knowing I have it.
2. Find cheap flights
I usually start with Skyscanner to check the time, available companies and flights. I have booked through them on a couple of occasions as well, especially for smaller airlines who do not have English website or bugging payment systems (looking at you Vietjet and Cebu pacific!). But I often, once I selected the airlines that work for me, do a separate search on the airline itself to check out latest promotions and pricing there. Then I book on the cheapest platform.
I tend to not chose the cheapest flight too. As I get older (*sigh*), I am often in favor of reliable over cheap. I also often travel with luggage’s (namely my 20kg + diving gear) so low cost carriers often end up as expensive as the national carrier. If you are using an expensive credit card, it’s also worth giving a check on the insurance as you may not need to pay for the extra insurances that are often proposed during the booking process.
Indeed if it's the first time you are travelling with low cost airlines, on the airline comparator and aggregator, they put the price excluding the luggage, meal, seat selection or payment processing fees. These can add up to quite a substantial sum during the booking process. More often than not - you can end up pretty close to a national carrier price. Always check the net price of a flight ticket all inclusive to make sure the low cost is truly the cheapest option. You might be surprised !
Tips for divers: With some airlines, the diving equipment is considered sport gear and can be brought free on top of your check in luggage allowance ! It's always good to check out the luggage policies of the airlines you booked through. It's the case of Garuda Indonesia for example. That can save loads of money !
Finally if I am already well advanced into a fidelity program, and if the price difference is not too much, I would stay within the same alliance over low cost carriers.
As a rule, I also always favor national carriers over low cost for any flight connected to another more expensive one or to a time sensitive activity.
3. Find a good hotel
I always start by using points for any accrued fidelity programs that I have thanks to my business travels. Then my second visit is agoda.com . I have been using this website for both business and personal bookings for many many years. In Asia, they have the best network of a wide array of properties, from cheaper hostels to 5 stars, even private properties. Their sister company is booking.com and you can have access through agoda to the great European database for your travels in other part of the world.
I highly recommend them for every time I had an issue, their customer service was amazing on the phone and very fast to take care of me. Also when I book for family and friends, I can print out their booking sheet, which contains the address in local language, that’s helpful to direct a taxi and when they check in, all is taken care of. Being able to pay for them in advance so that they don’t have to carry cash or use their card is a good bonus for me to make my parent’s travel easier.
Their fidelity program can be linked to miles redemption ( on AirAsia for example ) and they have multiple partnership with other fidelity programs so you can accrue voucher to book hotel cheaper with them too. (Such as Gojek app for example). So link things up wisely to the partners you are most going to use.
I use both their website and app regularly.
How to select the right hotel
Choosing the right accommodation is crucial to the enjoyment of a trip. It's important to set up your expectations right as well as determine a selection of criteria to make better searches.
I always start with a guide ( the Lonely Planet mainly ), or I ask friends & family who have been to the destination themselves ! What I am looking for is the lower end and mid-range pricing. My intention is to find out if what I am willing to pay match my expectations by checking the listed or recommended hotels on the internet and by reading Tripadvisor reviews.
If these hotels match what I am looking for, then I note down the price range. Then I use these parameters and plug them in Agoda search box to finally use the "see on map" function. I l check on the map for a hotel that fits with the needs of my travel itinerary.
Before booking any hotel, I always check their review on TripAdvisor. I look for reviews that are objective, detailed and most importantly recent. It's also important to take all reviews with a pinch of salt: experienced travelers will tend to review quite harshly as they can benchmark better and know what standard to expect, whereas new travelers tend to review everything (too) positively. I focus on reviews that have detailed reasons on why it was good or on the contrary why it was horrible. What displeases some can be of no matter to me.
I also have seen so many comments on guesthouses complaining that they were not re-doing the bed daily ! Well if you stay at a guesthouse it is seldom the case. Again: set your expectations. You get what you pay for in most cases.
A little guide to setting up expectations
Guesthouse / youth hostels / hostels
- Mainly offer dorms and private rooms with shared bathroom
- Does NOT have turn down services, have often quite thin wall
- Is often attached to a restaurant or a bar where you can have your diner & lunch or a drink
- Is cheap, has often great atmosphere, a communal area where you can meet fellow travelers
- The local staff knows their area like the back of their hand and has loads of tips to travel cheaply
- The free breakfast often consist of: toasts, peanut butter, jam (strawberry or orange marmalade...) of quite low quality, instant coffee, the cheapest black tea bags on the market. Free water refill.
- They offer basic touristic services: booking of tours, purchase of train/bus ticket, motorcycle rental and laundry (either self service or done by kg)
- Can offer rooms without A/C - or limit the usage of A/C to certain hours of the day
- Daily room cleaning
- A basic breakfast, that can be a buffet or a set meal Sometimes has a bar
- A proper reception / concierge services 24h or at fix times
- Swimming pool can be available but rarely a gym
- In some really good spots, you can find private bungalows and unique locations
- In this category one can find B&B and really good high quality home stay with unique locations
- Ensuite bedrooms
- On the lower segment, no TV and sometimes if there only with local channels.
On a personal note, when I stay in this category of hotels - I seldom eat there or buy the rooms without breakfast. The rooms are often great but the food & beverage part is sometimes not of great value for money. As such, I would look for a hotel which is conveniently location for my travel itinerary AND that is also located close to restaurants and coffee shops. But I am a bit picky when it comes to food, so...
- Concierge, 24h/24h reception
- Swimming pool gym and sometimes a nice rooftop
- A larger bedroom with ensuite and good quality beddings
- A TV with international channels
- A nice area, unique location, even sometimes a private beach !
- A buffet breakfast or private breakfast, with a better quality and variety offering.
- Great service
4. Stay connected: phone and internet
In Indonesia roaming packages for South East Asia are super cheap with my operator (telkomsel). So I often just use that while traveling. Otherwise, I use Skype calls when I am connected to wifi - their rate are cheap and it’s connected to my credit card so it auto-refill. Quality of the calls are great and I can call for hours at a cheap rate to finalize bookings while travelling.
It’s rare that I buy a traveler SIM card, and when it happens I often do so at the airport - a quick online search ahead of travel gets me usually the information I need to find the best provider.
If I am looking for a live board and I had no prior recommendations from a diving buddy. I always check & can book via liveaboard.com . Some boats don’t have their own page, so this is the only platform to do so. You can find there a wide choice from budget to luxury diving cruises, making it the best one-stop shop for your diving trips.
Otherwise to find dive centers, I would google “diving in place name” and if I can’t find much, I would look at google maps and look physically at the pins written there and make more specific search.
6. Tours and activities
I am still very much using the Lonely planet guide books as a place to start. I own a lot of them by now (so I am moving to digital copies to save space in my living room! ). Their website offer some good data. What I use the most in these books are the itinerary samples, and then I try to scour through their forums which contain nuggets of great value information.
7. Expat Facebook Groups
I also ask for recommendations & use the search function on local expat facebook groups. They have often recommended a guide phone number , a tour or have first hand knowledge of what something should cost. I am not that budget sensitive but I do want to pay the standard price and not the tourist inflated offering.
Please note: I am 9 years an expat, and part of many expat groups. Please please please use the search function before posting any question. There is nothing more frustrating to have someone ask, like, about the weather on these groups... The question must have been asked a million times before ! If you expect a courteous and useful answers from the people in the group - always use the search function first. In hyper touristic countries ( say Thailand for example ) the expat communities can be quite annoyed at answering a question that a simple google search could have.
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