Travel Planning for Free: The First Few Steps

Every traveler is different. Some love solo travel, while others embrace group trips. Before agonizing over preferred travel routes, AirBnB specials, and TripAdvisor results, take time to mentally prepare before embarking on your next adventure.  Ask yourself these important (but often overlooked) questions to learn how you travel best.

As I begrudgingly asked, “do you want fries with that?” to every customer, I reminded myself to have my sights set on the big city. I mopped the floors every day at McDonald’s knowing that it was for one purpose: saving money for a trip to New York City. Later that summer, as I stood in Time Square holding my warm street cart pretzel, surrounded by tourists from all the corners of the Earth, I was awed by how insignificant I felt in the world. At 14, I was bit by the travel bug and haven’t stopped traveling since.

Now, I’m 26 and working as an U.S. Air Force officer. I’ve had the privilege of living abroad in Europe, South America,  and Africa. In college, I took a three-month backpacking trip across the United States and Europe where, as a broke college student, I lived off of free appetizers and relied on hostels, the Eurorail Pass, and pub crawls for entertainment.

Throughout my adventures, I’ve learned that not all people travel the same way. There are people who are comfortable taking a map, a few hundred dollars, and traveling across the ocean to a place where no one understands their language. There are others that enjoy the comforts and familiarities of home during a visit. While there’s no wrong way to travel, with proper preparation, there are ways to get the most out of your travel experience depending on what continent you want to explore. Answering these questions is the first step in finding your travel style so you can plan a trip that best suits you.

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What does my budget look like?

Shameless confession: About two weeks into my Europe backpacking trip, I almost ran out of money. My budget was $3,000 for six weeks in Europe, but I actually spent an entire week’s worth in just a few days. After saving a little more money over the next few weeks, I was faced with the reality that if I did not find a way to either make money or not spend any money for the rest of the trip, I was going to have to go home.

A friend and I decided to break off from the group we were traveling with.  We traded sleeping at hostels for sleeping at homes we found on Couchsurfing International Inc. This completely free service allows people to advertise their couch or room online the same way hotels post listings.

We also found inexpensive ways to eat by substituting fancy restaurant dinners for grocery store runs, which actually allowed us to learn how different cultures see grocery shopping. Instead of cappuccinos and lavish breakfasts at tourist locations, we opted for produce and food that we could make at home. Many hostels had a kitchen area that allowed us to cook, and even shared food with fellow travelers passing through. In the end, the shift in our eating and lodging habits allowed us to continue traveling.

To avoid my mistake, ask yourself: “What’s my budget?” Knowing this, and allotting daily funds before making your trip, will allow you to live more in the moment and stress less about your cash stash. Some helpful tools I use are budgeting calculators or travel calculators. Each day, I know how much I have available to spend and I only carry that with me to avoid excess spending.

Additionally, know how much you’ll need stashed for emergency funds. Accidents happen, so ensure at a minimum that you have enough money for a last-minute plane ticket home. If you plan on traveling to a potentially dangerous area, be sure to get travel insurance no more than 30 days after purchasing your ticket. By doing so, you can usually always find a plan that allows cancellation for any reason at up to 75 percent of the cost of your original ticket. That way, if you have to modify your trip while en route, you won’t end up paying double.

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How do I want to sleep?

Maybe you want a private bathroom or maybe you don’t want to share a room with 10 other people. No judgement! From party hostels to quiet, private AirBnB rooms, there’s plenty of different accommodation options as long as your do your research. Don't be afraid to take a vacation from your vacation on long trips and invest in varied housing options. While the extroverted side of you may want to meet new people every minute of the day, remember that traveling is tiring, and sometimes, it's worth it to come home to a quiet room to sleep at night.

Read about how to survive hostels as an introvert here. 

If you want an easier way to stay on budget and have time to work while traveling, there are short-term opportunities allowing you to work for your lodging like WWOOFing or working in a hostel.

Additionally, some hostels, Couchsurfing, and AirBnB locations offer shared rooms, which are significantly cheaper than other options. Knowing how you feel about sharing a room or making time to work for your stay can greatly impact your budget—and your happiness—while traveling abroad.

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Getty Images

How long should my trip be?

Are you exhilarated by the prospect of hitting Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and the Galapagos in three weeks, or would you prefer take a week off  in one city and really get to know the town? How many of your vacation days are you willing to dedicate to travel? How many vacation days can you take off from work?

Deciding your travel location and how long you want to stay will help you maximize your time in a particular country versus spending needless hours on planes, busses, or trains. Also, be sure to research your destination’s season and major events taking place in the area. The most touristy time to visit Brazil is Carnevale in February. If you want to rock sundresses or shorts in Buenos Aires, visit some time in November through February. The best months to climb Machu Picchu in Peru are May through August.

Instead of trying to knock out five countries in one month, consider grouping one or two cities in a shorter, week-long vacation to spend less time on travel between countries. Maybe try focusing on a particular event, festival, or season instead of seeing the continent as a whole. This type of travel also allows for a chance to return with a little more insight and advice from locals you may meet while abroad.

Finally, the simplest way to plan your itinerary is to break it down: Make a list of  “Must See” (places you absolutely are set on visiting), “Want to See” (near the top of your to-do list),  and “Would Love to See” (places to visit if there’s time left) for your location. Be careful not to plan every second of the day though, as you may miss spontaneous adventures that always seem to pop up when you least expect it. Even something as simple as planning the areas where you want to eat can be a great start. Let your adventure unravel from there.

Do I prefer traveling alone or in groups?

Traveling Solo: 

Solo travel is good for the person who wants full control of daily activities and sightseeing or someone who wants full immersion into a country’s language and culture. Before you leave, do your research to learn some basic language phrases or plan a general itinerary to give to your family or friends. Put safety first and be sure to check in with someone who has your itinerary along your route. This mode of travel can arguably be the most fulfilling for introverts and people who aren’t afraid of a little independence abroad.

Maybe you want to visit Dublin to see their history instead of knocking out pub crawls and beer tastings. Or perhaps you prefer to spend money on high-adrenaline activities versus 5-star meals at Michelin star  restaurants. A lot of conflict in groups traveling together happens before the trip begins, so work out a basic itinerary before you leave and bail if it doesn’t fit your needs. Understanding your own deal-breakers will help maintain expectations so you’re not forced to do something that makes you uncomfortable along the way.

Finally, be flexible. Maybe you intended on seeing a historic monument day one, but showed up and realized you arrived in the middle of a once-a-year festival that you can’t miss. Be open with the group about travel priorities so that you can leave the country regret-free.

Traveling in Groups

When embarking on backpacking trips, I plan where I’m going first, then determine if I want to journey solo or in a group. While on a trip in the Greek Isles, I rented a few houses on AirBnB with 5 or 6 people. There, it was cheaper per person to rent out a house with more rooms than pay almost double or triple for a small hotel room in the town center.

But groups also mean compromising. The original crew I set out to backpack through Europe with had a larger budget than mine, and wanted to stay in nicer hostels. Had I asked them to embark on my 100 percent free, but 50 percent uncertain method of Couchsurfing, I know most of them would have declined. A deal-breaker for one person may be an entire lifestyle for another, but it’s important to understand that group dynamic up front.

Traveling in a Pair: 

While in Israel and Egypt, I traveled with one other person, creating less logistical concerns. It also kept us from being targeted as Westerners since we weren’t moving around in a pack. You can vary your travel experience with groups and solo travel and also allow time to visit a certain place without catering to large group needs.

If you want to travel with just one or two other people, make sure your goals and travel styles are compatible. Are you the kind of person who sleeps in and stays out late at bars? Or do you prefer to wake up early to catch the morning markets and sight-see? Maybe you want to visit every church and museum possible in the city? Find someone who matches what you want to see and do and you’ll have a satisfying travel experience with less compromising and more time to check off your sightseeing list.

What am I hoping to get out of my trip?

Maybe it’s to just have a good time. Maybe you want to prove that you can travel alone. Maybe it’s to learn a language or to experience a different culture and try new foods. Maybe it’s to build your confidence.

Whatever the reason, knowing what you want to get out of it will keep you true to your mission and will help you strategically dive into any travel experience with an openness to better yourself as a person. Even if everything goes wrong (and it often will), you’ll still have something to learn from it and grow from your reaction to the experience. Whether it’s building patience, forcing yourself to learn a little bit of the language, or forgoing your hotel for the night in exchange for a cheaper, shared hostel, the best travels never unfold exactly as they were planned. But, knowing your travel style and sticking to it will always make good experiences and memories that last long after your flight home. Remember that nobody is in charge of your adventure, you have to find it yourself.


Allie Delury is a born-and-raised Wisconsinite pledging allegiance to the Packers, cheese curds, and beer. Allie started her travel, writing, and military career upon graduating from the University of Minnesota 2012. There, she double-majored in broadcast journalism and communication studies while working part-time for the Big Ten Network and interning at FOX Sports North and WCCO-TV. In September 2012, she began her active duty U.S. Air Force career and was selected as a public affairs officer for the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy. She now leads and trains airmen to document combat operations at the 3rd Combat Camera Squadron in San Antonio, Texas. She recently deployed to East Africa and routinely backpacks around the world to blog and provides travel advice to other military members.