Planning a trip is half of the fun of travel.
Somehow a destination is planted inside my head. It sits there, sometimes for weeks and sometimes for years, and grows with each photo, article, TV show or blog post I see. Because I know it’s in there, everything I see or read about the destination is stored away until I have enough. Then I know it’s time to officially plan the trip.
Planning a trip is fun, but it can also be overwhelming. I need to study the destination, the history, culture and top sights. I look at time of year and begin to create a budget based on flights, rooms and living expenses. I put together an itinerary based on the time we have, the season, our budget.
Once I’m officially in trip planning mode, I use a wealth of different resources. These are by far my favorites:
Lonely Planet Guidebooks
Of course any guidebook will do, but my favorite by far is Lonely Planet. I think it has just the right amount of factual, quantitative information mixed in with history and culture. You might think you don’t need a guidebook, but if you’re going for longer than three days, your trip will only benefit from having one.
If Lonely Planet is the best print guidebook, Rough Guides is perhaps the best online guidebook. I like the layout, I like the basic information and the suggested itineraries. Few online guides will be as detailed as a print book, but this one is a good place to start.
Honestly, Afar Magazine is my all-time favorite travel magazine, and that’s why it’s on this list. I like the style, the voice, the stories, the information, the drawings, the photos. Though I subscribe to the print magazine, it seems most of the articles are available online for free as well. Whats more, the online guides are beautiful and thorough. (Here’s the Italy Guide) Scroll through and save your favorite reader submitted highlights to help you plan what to do and where to stay during your trip.
Full disclosure: I write blog posts for Walks of Italy. That said, the blog has hundreds of articles fully focused on art, history and travel in Italy. Any question you have about travel in Italy has likely been touched on. Read the day trips, itineraries or guides to the destinations for ideas or, check out the travel tips section to learn about train travel in Italy, driving in Italy, eating in Italy, shopping, hiking, skiing, lounging or really just doing anything while in Italy.
A cute online magazine, Italy Magazine has dozens of articles on all things Italy. Read about specific Italian holidays or recipes, check out the guides for different locations or day dream about the day you buy a house in the Italian countryside with the website’s regular property listings.
Freelance writer and blogger Jessica Spiegel originally wrote at Italylogue until May 2012 (it seems it got bought out from her by Why Go Italy or something other unpleasant). There, her posts remain relevant and ridiculously useful even today, but I’m excited to find that this Italy expert has now launched her own Italy travel site: Italy Explained
I’m addicted to podcasts, and one of my favorites is Rick Steves’ weekly travel podcast. Each week focuses on a different destination, or two, and interviews relevant tour guides or authors about travel in that country. With around 40 years experience traveling in Europe, it’s worth it to search and download all of Rick Steves’ podcasts on Italy (I download them directly to my podcast app on my phone). Learn about the culture from local experts and travel tips from local tour guides. Not only is it fun, but you can count it as “research” as well! If that’s not enough, turn to the Rick Steves’ forums, which have hundreds of specific conversations and answers to travel questions that you might have as well.
If we don’t rent an apartment, then we use booking.com to find accommodation. It’s rating system and easy to understand maps help us to find the perfect hotel at the perfect price and location in the city! We can choose to be near to a metro, near to a specific site we want to see or right in the center of the city, depending on our goals. Disclaimer: As with all booking sites, Booking.com takes a commission, meaning that you will usually be paying 20% more than the average price. If you’re willing and able, you could easily call the hotel directly and book to try and avoid that fee. To be honest, we’ve done both. Sometimes the convenience of a booking site is worth the price!
There are many other websites for home rentals, but I find that the most popular has its advantages. I’ve never been willing to share a house with someone I don’t know (I know a hostel is similar, but there’s something about being in their territory that is just too sketchy to me) so I’ve never had any problems with house owners or roommates. Airbnb can be a remarkably inexpensive way to travel – especially in expensive Italy. Check it out and get a glimpse at a typical Italian apartment, radiators, moka, bidet and all!
Hopper analyzes flights to find the best time to fly and buy, and the best deals. Though I would never use the Hopper app to actually book a flight, it’s convenient to keep an eye on prices, and even more so to learn what the average prices are. With Hopper I can play around with potential destinations during my upcoming vacations and see what the prices generally run, how they change and which airlines are giving the best deals. Hopper helps me to narrow days based on price (if I have the luxury of flexible time) and is key for budgeting.
Everyone has a favorite airfare search engine, and mine is Skyscanner. The website is clean and easy to use, but most importantly, there are no added on fees!! No “taxes” added on for using the site, no extra percentages for the algorithms hard work. The airline or travel agent pay Skyscanner a referral fee and the traveler is free to search for a flight in peace.
Ryanair is Europe’s most inexpensive budget airline (there’s also EasyJet, but it’s not as cheap). It’s like a public bus in the sky – awkward and uncomfortable, but wildly affordable. With inefficient systems and outrageous prices, European train travel’s heydey is long gone. Now, with prices sometimes as low as 14 euro one way, it’s well worth it to look in to Ryanair for in-destination travel. Before you book just be sure to calculate your time – the airports used by Ryanair are usually secondary airports and located a bit outside of the city.
It’s difficult to understand distances in a new country. Italy is so small that Milan to Rome can seem like a breeze, but the truth is that the roads are small, windy and indirect. With Rome2Rio you can see the distance, time and price from any location to any location in the world. Comparing the merits of train versus car travel, buses or ferries when planning your trip can save a mountain of stress once you get there.
Individual offline city maps – and metro maps!
Like a bag full of “just-in-case” medicines, the offline city maps are more Marco’s thing than my own. I’m just rarely that prepared. But they are super, super useful. Though a tourist is noticeable everywhere no matter what, I feel a lot more comfortable consulting the map on a smartphone rather than pulling out and flapping open an enormous city map. There are many apps that provide offline maps and navigation, but I prefer those made for specific cities as they usually come with “what’s nearby” tips as well. The same goes for individual city metro maps – so much easier to plan when the stops are at your fingertips.
Pen and Paper
Honestly, there’s little as useful as a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Of course we can click click away on our iPhones (we all know I’m down) but there’s nothing that will help you remember names and dive into your destination like making physical lists, sketching a map of the city and taking quick notes while traveling.