Before booking an international trip, there’s some research you can do to lay the foundation for success.
This is a comprehensive list—I’m covering all bases. Take what you need from it.
Lonely planet has a “when to go and weather” page for each destination. In addition, you can see an “average monthly temperature and rainfall map” for locations all over the world on besttimetogo.com. A little rain never hurt anyone, but you probably don’t want to be in Thailand during monsoon season.
2. High and low seasons.
There’s advantages and disadvantages of both high and low seasons, so you’ll need to decide what’s most important to you. It might be cheaper to travel to certain destinations during low season, but it’s also possible that the weather could be bad and not everything will be open. In high season you’ll have better weather, but it will most likely be more expensive and it could be crowded.
3. National holidays.
Find out if there’s any national holidays, official or otherwise, during the time you’ll be in a destination, so you don’t get there and discover that everything is closed. August in Europe has traditionally been vacation time for the locals, so if there’s particular places you want to go, make sure they’ll be open. (That said, I’ve found in past years that tourism has enticed many European business owners to skip the holiday and stay open for at least part of the month.)
A festival might be the reason you’re going to a destination. On the other hand, a festival can also mean higher prices and bigger crowds. Fest300 highlights the 300 best festivals in the world and their dates. Time Out City Guides can also tell you what’s going on when.
5. Safety and health
For obvious reasons, you might want to check these websites for current travel alerts and warnings around the world, with regards to safety and health concerns.
I’m not going to give you advice on how to book your flight—there’s at least a million websites and apps that can help you. I will, however, advise checking your seat assignment on Seat Guru. You can’t prevent sitting next to a screaming baby, but you can at least ensure that your seat reclines.
You can book European trains and print out tickets ahead of time on Rail Europe.
I have often traveled to and from locations that require more than one type of transportation. Rome2rio has a great search engine that can help you figure it out. Enter your to and from locations and Rome2rio will show you flight, train, bus, ferry and driving options with estimated travel times, fares, and links.
I like to stay in unique hotels. (No high rise chain hotels for me—not that there’s anything wrong with that.) I’ve stayed in an 11th century fortress on an island in Brittany, a riad in Tangier, a monastery in Prague, and a Maharaja’s hunting lodge in India.
I wish I could give you a quick answer on how I find these unusual hotels, but there isn’t one. Unless you have a fail-safe recommendation from a trusted source, finding hotels is a process that involves a fair amount of time on the computer—so get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, settle in, and commence your due diligence.
If you don’t find what you need here, I’ve found the following to be good sources of basic information.
2. Boutique hotel websites
These websites specifically feature boutique hotels—so your research is almost done for you.
Look at guidebooks for recommendations. (You can also use them as, well, guidebooks.)
You can order my favorites (Wallpaper Guides, Luxe Guides, Knopf Map Guides, and Lonely Planet Encounter Guides) in my Just One Suitcase Amazon store. [More on travel guides in a future post.]
Once you’ve found a hotel that you like the look of, check the reviews on several different websites. Be sure to weed out the negative comments that are justified (dirty bedding) or just bellyaching (unhappy with beer selection). In addition, weed out the reviews where it’s obvious that the guest, not the hotel, was the problem.
I do like the reviews where the hotel manager gives a reply. It shows they care—and they can also be entertaining when you get the other side of the story.
Here’s some sites to check:
Kayak (which covers several travel sites)
I take note of valid bad reviews (if there’s bed bugs, it’s a no-go), and look for comments about the location. (A half hour walk to the nearest metro station in a large city is also crossed off the list.)
In a large city, I prefer to stay in a central area. It’s not just safer, it’s more convenient. I would much rather walk out my door and be in the thick of things, close to restaurants and attractions, than have to waste time and money on transportation to and from an out-of-the-way hotel.
If stairs are a problem for you, take note of the presence, or lack of, an elevator in small hotels in European cities. A fourth floor room can mean five flights of stairs, which is a long way to go if you get outside and realize you’ve forgotten your phone.
I have also been known to stay in more than one hotel in a single location, to get to know different neighborhoods. In Buenos Aires I started out in the refined area of Recoleta, and then moved to the hip and happening neighborhood of Palermo Soho. On the same trip I also took a ferry to Uruguay for one night, and spent a night at an estancia in San Antonio de Areco, outside of Buenos Aires.
6. Find the best rate
Once you’ve made a choice, go back and compare the hotel’s rate to all the other sites, and book the best one. (Even if I book with another site, I like to confirm directly with the hotel, especially if my flight is landing at 5 am and I’d “really-like-early-check-in-if-at-all-possible.”)
AFTER YOU’VE BOOKED YOUR TRIP:
Keep your itinerary and confirmations easily accessible and ready to go, either electronically or the old-fashioned way (on paper in a folder).
Check Travel.State.gov for visas and vaccinations required for your destination. (And get them.)
Make arrangements for your mail to be held while you’re away. holdmail.usps.com
Make sure you have prescriptions refilled for the length of time you’ll be away.
Notify bank and credit card companies of your travel plans. (To avoid the dreaded block on your card for suspicious activity.)
Make copies of your passport and credit cards in case you lose them. Take one set with you and leave another set at home.
Add an international plan to your mobile phone.
Finally, check my How To Travel section for more information, and subscribe to the blog (at top of sidebar) for upcoming detailed posts on preparing for a trip.