Until we decided to travel full time we had almost always visited other countries as part of a package holiday deal. We’ve spent so much money with Thomson over the years (I estimate around £14,000) that we should have been shareholders.
Now I look back at all the places we visited and didn’t really see and I kick myself for being too scared / lazy to go it alone.
I think that fear is a big barrier that stops people from branching out and allows companies like Thomson to thrive. We’ve never had a bad holiday with them and would still book a holiday with Thomson if we wanted ease, luxury and had no desire to get to really know the country we were visiting, but to get the most out of the two week break that most people get a year, I’d highly recommend planning your own low cost holiday.
You might be like we were 8 months ago and have no idea where to start and so below I’ll tell you exactly how we plan a trip from start to finish and how you can do the same for a fraction of the cost of your normal holiday.
It might be tempting to use a travel agent and if money is no consideration, they can be a great resource. But if you’re looking to plan an amazing holiday that doesn’t break the bank, you’re better off doing it on your own where you’re much better able to take advantage of cheap holiday deals. Not only will you save a fortune, you’ll also get to know a lot about the country you’re visiting before you arrive which will be a big help.
Step 1 – Decide where you want to go
I’ve got a never ending list of countries that I want to visit and you’ve probably got some in mind too. We have the luxury of freely travelling for a year and so we pick our next destination based mostly on flight prices to neighbouring countries but you should think about the following:
- How many days will you be away for? Long-haul travel for a 7 day break isn’t a great idea as you’ll spend most of your time on a plane.
- What is your budget? Malta is always going to cost less than the Maldives and so be realistic with your expectations.
- When is the right time to visit? It’s important to check out the weather systems of other countries before you book. You might find a really cheap deal for Cuba but it’s probably because you’ll be turning up in hurricane season. Take 5 minutes to Google the average temperature and rainfall for any given country.
- Do you need a visa to enter the country? Make sure you check whether you need to apply for a visa for the country you are visiting. We use Visa HQ who will tell you the visa requirements for every country and will even sort the visa out for you.
Step 2 – Finding flights
Once you’ve chosen your destination and rough dates the next step is to find a flight. If you’ve never booked your own flight before this might seem intimidating but thanks to some great flight search engines its actually very easy. We use Momondo and Skyscanner and would highly recommend them. Both will search a number of airline and travel websites before returning a list of the available flights to your destination in price order. If you’re flexible with your dates you can even search for the cheapest flights within a month to make sure you get the very best price.
Don’t worry if you’re not sure whether you’ll have one direct flight or two connecting flights, Skyscanner and Momondo will tell you exactly what flights you need. Normally the cheapest flights will have a stop, for example if you were flying to Thailand you may be offered a flight from London to Moscow where you will then get off and board a new plane for the rest of the flight. Nobody really wants to do this and so it will always costs less.
Direct flights where you board in London and are delivered directly to Thailand tend to cost more but are worth the extra cash, especially if you’ve only got two weeks away from work. We’ve got a year and we still only fly direct.
Step 3 – The right accommodation
If you’re used to having package holidays then you’re probably also used to staying in smart hotels when you travel. It’s quite easy to find nice hotels on any budget when you have the right resources but for the ultimate travel experience that’s a bit easier on the wallet, I’d really suggest getting to grips with Airbnb. This website will connect you with people who rent out their homes as short term lets (thought these days it also includes hotels). It’s possible to rent just a room but we prefer to limit our search to entire apartments as we like to have the space and privacy. From our experience the apartments are usually much more comfortable than a hotel room and we love getting to live like locals. Click here to see how we lived on a deserted beach in Thailand for an entire month for just £250 each!
We have found some of our best accommodation to date on this site, although so far we have managed to avoid paying their booking fee by finding an apartment we like and then searching for it on Google, finding a private website for it and booking directly. Every little helps!
If however you do need to book via Airbnb use this link to get £16 off your first booking.
The website we use if we want to stay in a hostel, a guesthouse or a hotel is Agoda. I love it because you can find budget rooms for as little as $5 per night but you can also find the same luxury accommodation that you would get from Thomson all in one place. Agoda makes it really easy to book hotels online too meaning that you don’t have to figure out how to communicate with a receptionist a thousand miles away who speaks a different language!
Backpackers should check out Couchsurfing. This website hooks you up with people who will let you stay on their couch for free. It’s great for the budget solo traveller looking to make friends but always exercise caution when staying with strangers. We don’t use it simply because we need the space and our budget isn’t that tight.
Then you just need to search for what you want. We always pick spacious places with a kitchen, fast WiFi and good links to town / beach but you can choose whatever you want. When you find a place that you’re happy with have a quick look on Trip Advisor before you book for reviews from previous guests just to make sure that it really is as good as it looks.
Step 4 – Airport transfer
One of my biggest worries about travelling was what to do upon arrival in a new country. Normally there’s a chirpy rep with a clipboard waiting to pack me onto a coach with a load of other brits (usually the very same people that annoyed me for the whole flight over) which will then drop me right at my hotel.
The truth is getting away from any airport couldn’t be easier. Most countries will have a simple to use bus and/or train service running from the airport into the town centre which is likely to be near to where you are staying. Instructions are usually given in both local language and English but if you get stuck do the unthinkable, ask someone. Most people are happy to help confused people out!
If you don’t fancy public transport just jump into a cab. Most airports only allow pre-approved registered cab companies to operate at the airport but if you’re unsure look out for an I.D badge and keep an eye on where you are being taken. Always agree on a price before you get in and to get an idea of what you should be paying, search online. Millions of people have done the journey before you and lots of them will have written about it.
Step 5 – Excursion and activities
You’ve probably already got an idea of what you want to see in the country you are visiting but for ideas just search online or look at the excursion list of a package holiday company. Whatever price they are offering you’ll get it cheaper locally.
It’s probably cheaper to wait and book a trip when you arrive in country and can talk to locals but if you do prefer to be super organised you’ll find websites for every activity going online and can book there and then to get your itinerary in place before you even leave home.
If you are planning on travelling around a country but are not sure how to do so check out Rome2Rio. With this site you simply input your starting point and final destination and it tells you exactly how to get from A-B using multiple transportation methods. It even gives you the price for each method and a link to go and book your tickets. I use this website constantly and I think it’s one of the best resources out there for travellers.
For all the insider knowledge on the country you’re visiting I’d recommend buying a guide book. We’re using this South East Asian guide book and would be lost without it but you can get one for any country, just search here.
By going through the steps of planning your own trip you get to do what you want when you want to do it. No more half assed trips where you’re never far away from your English guide or worse, you never actually leave your hotel. The world isn’t as scary as the 10 o’clock news makes it out to be. Travel more for less money and with much better experiences by going it alone, you won’t regret it and you may well have your best holiday yet.
Want help planning your trip? Get in touch and we’ll help you out