Travel planning can be exciting but also overwhelming. And it all starts with the most important question – Where should I travel next? If you’ve found yourself in a decision paralysis given the plethora of incredible destinations around the globe or just returned from a trip that didn’t feel as fulfilling as you’d expected, read on. This guide breaks down the process of identifying your next trip destination in 8 easy steps.
1. Identify your travel themes
Start by identifying the themes for your upcoming trip. A theme is the main subject or area of focus during your travels. This really gets to the heart of who you are and what you enjoy. If you are traveling with one or more companions, this is something you need to do together to make sure the rest of the planning process is seamless.
Ask yourself these questions to identify your travel themes. What do you enjoy doing the most? What is something that you miss in your current place of residence? What were the most memorable highlights of your previous trips?
Once you ponder over these questions, you will see a pattern emerge. Identify at least one primary theme and you can tag an optional secondary theme. For example, my husband and I have identified hiking as our current primary theme. We discovered the joys of hiking only in our mid to late 20s and are now making up for all that lost time.
The most memorable moments we’ve enjoyed and reminisced about even years later are the times we’ve spent on trails putting one foot in front of another, standing speechless in front of the emerald waters of a lake or towering snow-capped peaks. We sometimes decide on a secondary theme like wildlife, beaches, or eating specific local foods which can be easily combined with our primary nature-based theme of hiking.
Here are some examples of themes to kickstart your idea machine – museums, literature, sports, food, nature, neighborhoods, art, music, and dance. Try to be as specific as you can while picking the theme. Remember, this will be your guiding light, your north star as you put the rest of the pieces of the travel puzzle together.
2. Introduce your restrictions
We all have certain restrictions around travel, like the time of the year when can take off from work, the budget that we can spend on a particular trip, or periods when we’re staying in town to host out-of-town friends. In the last couple of years, this has also gone on to include COVID-19 restrictions when certain countries may not be open to travelers or might have stringent entry requirements.
While restrictions can be limiting, they are a great tool for eliminating destinations that aren’t practical for us at this time. This is not to say that we will never visit those places, but just that now is not the right time to visit them.
This is also an excellent time to identify if a domestic or international destination is more suited for this trip. As an Indian passport holder, I’ve almost always had to get a visa for international travel since I do not have the luxury of visa-free or visa-on-arrival perks that many Western passport holders enjoy. I also had to worry about ensuring that my US work visa is stamped on my passport before I re-enter the country prior to obtaining my Green Card.
This meant that there were several periods in the year when my husband and I couldn’t travel internationally. We had to wait until we returned from India where we got our US work visas stamped on our passports, buying us a few months or a couple of years for international travel.
Start by making a list of all your restrictions using a good old pen and paper or a word doc. Focus on the topics of budget, time duration, potential travel periods, and transportation options.
By the end of this exercise, you should have an idea of possible time ranges when you can take this trip, the maximum duration of your trip, mode of transportation (whether you will be driving, using public transport, or guided day tours), weather preference and a rough overall budget for your trip.
3. Ideate potential destinations for your theme
Next, start with a clean slate and search for destinations that are centered around your theme. Based on my above example of hiking, I usually look at AllTrails or Google Maps at this point to search for countries and regions colored in green which is indicative of mountains. I start at a very high level with search queries like best national and state parks in the US, best cities and towns for active travelers in the US, best lakes around the world for hiking, etc.
You can flip through the opening sections of guidebooks, and look at blogs or YouTube for inspiration. The idea is not to get super detailed at this point but just look enough to see if a destination holds any promise for your needs.
At the end of this step, you should have a list of 5 – 10 potential destinations. These destinations should at least be at the country level at this stage. Try not to exceed 10 since adding more destinations will feel overwhelming.
4. Eliminate destinations based on your restrictions
Once you have a list of destinations that revolve around the theme, it is time to eliminate some options. Remember the list of restrictions you drew up in step #3. Now is the time to examine every place on the list and see if it passes the test of your restrictions. For example, if you’ve identified your budget as low to mid-range, then you’ll need to cross off any Nordic countries from your list.
Last year, we were looking for cities or towns with great hiking opportunities within the US. But we did not want to rent a car for the entire month-long duration of our trip. This was also when rental car shortages were sending car prices soaring so in hindsight I’m glad that we had already kept this restriction in mind. Based on our restriction, we needed to stick to places where hiking was accessible within or around the city and there was good public transportation.
We were also traveling in winter and wanted someplace relatively warm. We narrowed down cities and towns like San Luis Obispo and Palm Springs in California that satisfied both the weather and hiking requirements. We hit the jackpot with San Luis Obispo which has tons of great hiking and great public transportation not just within the city but to nearby destinations like Cambria, Morro Bay, and Pismo Beach.
At the end of this step, you want to pare down the original list and retain no more than 3 places before moving on to the next step.
5. Dive deeper into top destinations
Take a close look at the list of top 3 destinations that you’ve finalized and go deeper now. If you’ve identified the destinations at the country level, now is the time to dig in and get more specific. Especially for larger countries, you will want to identify the region you are interested in visiting. The temperatures, terrain, and activities vary vastly across the expanse of a country.
I am personally a fan of slow travel and exploring selected destinations more deeply rather than rushing to check off a place on my list. Scope out the destination depending on the length of the trip that you’ve identified earlier and your preferred pace of travel.
We can spend an entire year exploring a country and still not see all of it. So list what is important to you, keeping your theme in mind, and pick the specific cities, towns, villages, or forests that speak most to you.
6. Monitor flight deals for the nearest airports
The rising fuel prices may make it seem like you will never be able to take a trip again. But there are deals to be found even in today’s times if you are observant and flexible. Identifying more than one destination gives you a great deal of flexibility. Find the closest airports to your top destinations and start monitoring flight deals for them.
Scott’s Cheap Flights and Dollar Flight Club are great ways to stay abreast of the latest deals. Set up email alerts on Google Flights for each of your destinations and rough date options. You can set up an alert on the search results page by toggling the Track prices button right below the filters. It can be enabled for the dates you searched or any dates.
Flights are cheaper if you can travel on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays rather than over the weekend. And if you have to stick to the weekend, Saturdays are usually cheaper than Sundays. Google also shows whether your flight prices are currently low, typical, or high for your trip.
Now you can sit back and monitor the price changes that Google sends to your inbox. Based on your original search and the variations, you will get an idea about the baseline fare. Give yourself a few days or weeks for monitoring depending on how much in advance you’re booking the trip. Recently I found flights to Dubai for $747.
As I had started monitoring the flights a few days earlier, I knew that the lowest they had gone in recent times was $670. A few days of monitoring made me realize that flight prices would sometimes drop on Friday or Saturday and rise again before the weekend was over.
Once I recognized this pattern, it was easy to be ready to spring into action as soon as the next opportunity arose.
7. Research accommodation options and costs
The two biggest costs of travel are flights and accommodations. With the flight deals set up in the previous step, you can now turn your attention to accommodations. First, identify what are your must-haves and nice-to-haves in an accommodation.
Over the last few years, my husband and I have leaned towards accommodations with kitchens or kitchenettes which helps us cook at least one quick meal at home and keep the food costs down. We also prefer to stay in a one-bedroom place whenever possible if one or both of us are working for a portion of the trip. For longer stays, we need a washer and dryer in the unit, building, or at least in the vicinity.
Based on these criteria you can search for hotels on Expedia and Booking.com, hostels on Hostelworld, or vacation rentals on sites like Vrbo and Airbnb that match your preferences. Knowing these preferences will help you understand the approximate price range for accommodations.
Bear in mind that you may be able to find a great flight deal to say Iceland but the savings from the flight will be rendered moot if you are unable to find accommodations within your budget during that period. Accommodation savings are even more important for longer trips since a $100 flight difference might feel like a big deal but will pale in comparison to a $50 extra nightly rate on lodging.
Researching the accommodation costs may fine-tune your plans further. Certain destinations or time periods may make more sense than others. In that case, you can go back and remove those flight alerts to narrow down your search.
8. Act fast once a flight deal pops up
Once you receive a deal notification from Scott’s Cheap Flights or Dollar Flight Club or find a solid price drop via Google Flights alert, it is time to act. Usually, the deals last anywhere from just a few hours to a couple of days.
Double-check the accommodations to ensure that there are still some options within your budget and then click away to secure the flight deal. You’ll still have time to finalize the accommodation later so you just want to make sure that you have at least a few options you’ve seen in step 7 to choose from.
US travelers are especially fortunate to have the 24-hour free flight cancellation policy instituted by the United States Department of Transportation. This allows you to cancel flights to or from the US as long as they are booked at least 7 days in advance. This means you can take the plunge and still have a day to confirm your time off from work and your companions’ schedules or line up anything else that’s needed in order to make the trip.
And with that, you have finalized the destination of your next trip!
That’s how you can turn an abstract idea of a trip into a reality by deciding where you should travel next. This post started off as a step-by-step process on how to plan a trip. But so much thought goes into this very first step of trip planning that I felt it deserved its own post.
A lot of travel destination advice out there can be very generic. A Disney vacation or cities like Paris and New York are often touted as must-visit destinations. But the fact is that no one knows you better than yourself. Not all of us enjoy the same types of adventures. Creating our trips by simply applying another person’s idea of an ideal vacation will never leave us satiated.
When we introspect and mindfully take the trips that spark joy for us, we can begin to enjoy the entire process including the travel planning. The best part about this approach is that you don’t need to start from scratch every time. If your themes and interests remain the same for a while, you can pick one of the shortlisted destinations for a future trip when you score a flight deal for it.
What’s going to be the destination for your next trip? Let me know in the comments below!