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Photography by Anna Grace Photography

I get so many DM’s on Instagram about how I plan our vacations.

I’m sure a bunch of you have already planned your summer getaways already but you can stash this information away for a rainy day!

Most recently, we went to Ireland. When we were there, these were the top questions I received:

  • Did you use a self-guided tour company?
  • Are you with a tour group?
  • Did you hire someone to plan your trip?
  • How did you plan this trip?
  • How did you know where to go?
  • Tell me all the things.

I’m here to tell you all the things and give you an overview on how I plan all our vacations/trips.

I’m pretty proud of our vacations because I do plan out everything. I really honestly should work for a travel agency, haha (humble brag but totally bragging here because I really am impressed with our trips, LOL…and I mean most of you guys are too with the amount of questions I get!)

Now, you have to realize, I’m a SUPER type A and I like to be in control. I have to know every little thing.

This is good and bad because sometimes I plan everything down to the little details where there is no wiggle room for spontaneity but it’s good because I know what to expect.

Over the years, I have learned that I need to plan in buffers and allow gaps in our itinerary for unforeseen circumstances — because there will ALWAYS be unforeseen circumstances. You simply cannot control every aspect of life.

I’m sure you know that but it has taken me a bit to realize this because I’m so routine and so rigorous with scheduling.

Anyway, let’s get down to it.

Do you use any sort of tour company?

No. This is personal preference but I hate tour companies.

You’re on THEIR timetable and you have no freedom to explore things off the beaten path.

You are stuck with what they want you to see and there’s no way to get out of it.

You don’t know the group you’re going with, haha…I mean, it’s nice to meet people and whatnot but I kind of feel that tour groups are aimed at a certain age demographic. Which is totally fine and I get the reasonings for wanting to do a tour (scared of the unknown, scared of navigating a foreign country, wanting everything planned out for you, etc). and I have no judgement.

This is simply what we prefer and everyone has a different preference and vacation pace.

Do you use a self-guided tour company?

No, and this is only because I like control. I don’t even know what a self-guided tour company entails. I’m sure there is more freedom than going with a tour group but I like doing the research myself.

Do you hire a travel agent or a trip planning agency?


How do you begin to plan out an international trip? Tell me about airfare.

Okay, first I use Google Flights.

Within Google Flights, I input a bunch of locations and random dates that I think would suit our schedule. For example, for 2019, I input Spain, France, Portugal, and Italy and picked the major airports. Then I picked dates in Spring.

From there, I tracked the flights. Meaning, you can track the prices and Google will email you when the prices go up and down.

For Spring 2019, Spain went down over $450 one Friday afternoon and I snagged the tickets. The next day, they were back up to over $800.

We basically let airfare dictate where we go for our big trips. That is why it’s good to have a list of locations. If you’re totally set on one location, that is fine, but you’ll have to realize you may not get the tickets at the price you want.

Also, this is kind of like gambling with the airlines. It’s completely in the air (ha, pun intended) as to what prices will do so there is no guarantee of anything…so don’t think that this is the magical formula for cheap tickets. It doesn’t always work out that way.

In addition to Google Flights, I also use the premium version of Scott’s Cheap Flights. It’s a newsletter you sign up for and it emails you every time there is a crazy deal on airfare. We saved over $1000 with our Amsterdam trip via this. The difference between premium and free is that with premium, you get far more alerts/secret deals and you can choose emails that you get strictly for your airport and not a general list.

I will say, though, that if you are just starting out, Google Flights works plenty well and so does the free version of Scott’s Cheap Flights. With those two, you are bound to score something!

You’ve got your destination. Here’s what you do next.

Yay! You booked your flights! Next comes the fun (or not so fun; depends on who you are) part.

Look at where you are going. Like, literally look at it on a map.

Pick the major cities you want to go to. All of them. This is just the preliminary. We aren’t knocking things off the list yet. This is your dream trip. If you had unlimited time to go to all the cities/towns, pick and list them all.

You got your list? Okay. How many days are you going to be on vacation total?

Now look at your list.

Given the amount of days you will be on vacation, where are these places on your list located in relation to each other?

Can some of them be reached via public transportation like train or bus? Do you have to take a flight to another part of the country? Can you drive there? Do you want to drive there? Can some be day trips from the major city i.e. Madrid?

This is the shitty part. This is where you start to cull.

Take for example, France or Italy. If you’re only there for 7-10 days, you can’t really do the entire country. So you’re going to have to start picking if you want to do North & East. North & South, North & West, etc.

And even that might be ambitious.

The one thing you don’t want to do on vacation is to run yourself so thin that you don’t actually get to enjoy it. You want to see all the things but you also want ample time in each place that you feel that you’ve thoroughly seen what there is to see.

Once you’ve picked generally where you want to be, such as, you want to just do the Paris and Normandy or Tuscany and Rome and maybe Cinque Terra, then you start doing research as to what is in each place that you would maybe want to see/do.

Add that to your list. Under each city, make a list of things to do, see, eat.

Then from that list, you can see how many days to ideally spend in each.

Once you figure out your cities and days to spend in each, that is when you start booking hotels or AirBnB’s.

I get the appeal of AirBnb’s (cheaper) but we don’t really like them. There has only been one AirBnB that we stayed at that we liked. For us, we’re sticking to hotels.

Where do you get your information from? Like, how do you know what to do, eat, see?

I use TripAdvisor forums a lot. A lot of people have posted their past experiences on there and it really helps you narrow things down.

For example, if you REALLY want to do something, then do it, but if you’re on the fence about one thing, it’s nice to go into the forums because it’ll help you decide if it’s worth it or not to do it based on other people’s experiences.

However, do take everyone’s opinion with a grain of salt because I have noticed people exaggerate a lot in the forums and not everyone travels the same or has the same experience.

For Ireland, I was so freaked out because everyone was talking about how narrow the roads were and how terrifying some stuff was. And it ended up being 100% okay. Like nothing anyone said about Ireland (getting flat tires, having horrible rental car experience, etc.) were true in our case. Maybe we were just lucky but I have also found a lot of things that people generally rave about; we have found to be meh or not the case.

I use Pinterest a lot too. There are some really great blog posts out there that can help you formulate your list of to do’s and to eats. I hate the general articles that you find via a Google search. Those are so misleading most of the time and I find that influencers really stay true to being like a local and finding out the best things.

That totally sounds bias but in trip planning, I have found this to be the case. I mean, sure, there will be some blogs out there that are totally obvious that it’s not legit or not your cup of tea but there are some stuff that I have found that I wouldn’t otherwise; especially tips and tricks when it comes to popular tourist destinations.

Car rental and getting to/from airports

Most times we rent from the big American names in car rental. It’s easier because if you have an issue upon return, you can still call them in the United States to talk to them.

We’ve used Costco Travel to book rental cars before too and it’s nice because of the extra perks from your Costco membership.

Going to and from the airport here in the DC area, I like to use Execucar. It’s just easier to schedule and gives you a little luxe to start off your trip. I’ve had so many issues with Uber and Lyft here that it’s just easier to schedule something via Execucar so you know exactly what you’re getting and the professional quality you are expecting.

Internationally, if we aren’t renting a car, we have used Blacklane (thanks Lauren!), which is similar to Execucar.

In conclusion

I think I have touched on most everything I do when I plan our vacations.

If you still have further questions, feel free to comment below and I’ll get back to you ASAP!

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  1. Yes! This is my process, too, and it’s great to see someone else who does all of their detailed travel planning. My problem is when my kids want to hang out in a hotel room when that’s not on my agenda. :)

  2. You are so right about Pinterest. I was surprised at how much useful travel info I found on there when I was planning our trip to Costa Rica!

  3. Oh my heavens you sound like my husband, he plans to the nth degree. He starts a calendar and plans each day, to sunrise, sunset, tides, where to eat, drink, etc. When we went to Alaska he figured out the best nights to see the aurora borealis and dang if he wasn’t right, they were beautiful. Right now he is planning a trip to Normandy and we just found out our plane home has been cancelled, so we are up a creek without a paddle. We shall see…… I am glad to know he isn’t the only one and he loves the planning.

  4. Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you with my response! It was just so serendipitous that I couldn’t believe it! This has happened a couple of other times, once with something I was considering cooking and I can’t remember the other. Figured I would say something this time, though, because it was so spot on!

  5. I plan much the same way! One trick, since me and my hubby both have iPhones, I copy a rough daily schedule into a shared note. Include any reservation info, etc so it’s all in one place. We can both update and it syncs (with internet).

    1. Oh yes! I use iPhone notes too!!! It’s great now that they allow you to insert images and stuff too!

  6. Hi Julie,
    Just wondering do you use some sort of itinerary form when you do your research for your vacations? I’m so much like you when it comes to being in control of our adventures. No tours for us, I do it all and we have so much more fun hitting all the hot spots on our own time. Right now I’m planning a trip to New England and I’m all over the place because there is so much to see like all the history. Just got back from Montreal and that was so beautiful. . .

    1. Hi! No, I don’t use a form or anything. I just use a blank Word document and then just write each day I’m there. For example, March 10-15. Then I would write, as a header, March 10 (then everything I want to do that day), etc.

  7. I just discovered the amazingness of Google flights – it’s so satisfying to get the email saying that the flight price is more than what you paid! Good tips – thanks for the post. :)

    1. It really is! I love the emails that show a drastic drop in price, too and then the day after I book it, I get the email showing the price jumped back up. So satisfying! Haha

  8. I can’t even believe this is your post today. I spent all day planning our honeymoon (we’ve been married for three years) to Europe (we’re a bit older and have never been ) and these tips are awesome. I used Google Flights but didn’t know I could get notifications on when prices drop. Since our trip is extensive and over a year from now, this will be a big help in saving money.

    Thanks for the tips and awesome timing!

    1. Haha omg, when I read your first sentence, I thought it was going to be berating me for not writing a post on food LOL – I’m happy to see that is NOT the case and that this is going to potentially help you out in planning your honeymoon!! Where in Europe are you guys thinking of going?

  9. Love these tips! Very similar to how my husband and I have planned trips in the past. I will definitely look up Google Flights. Thanks!

  10. We are planning a trip to Paris next February and we are so excited to plan !!! I think
    That’s half of the fun . Thanks for the tips