International Adventures typically start with an inspiring photo that makes you imagine yourself being there. But it’s quite a bit of a leap to go from that inspiring photo to actually being there in person. So in this article we share 10 steps that we take to prepare for an international adventure.
Indeed, most of the inspiring and worthwhile places we go to involve going on an adventure, where you jump out of the ordinary and mundane to immerse yourself in the unfamiliar and unknown as you become exposed to different languages, different cultures, different sights, different smells, and just an overall different way of seeing the world.
Thus, the essence of what makes an adventure so fulfilling and memorable is that exposure to everything that is different from what you’re familiar with. That’s what makes life exciting, enriching, profound, and very worth living and sharing.
Conversely, if the “adventure” is made too easy or all the sights are too well known, then you’re likely to face other unpleasant things like crowds, commercialism, and that general sense that your trip is a “me too” cookie-cutter kind of a trip that lacks the essence of what makes adventure travel so beneficial in the first place.
Granted, some of these things can’t be avoided, but we tend to prefer being in control of our own destiny and only relinquish that control where we think it makes the most sense.
In any case, I think the band U2 summed up the essence of an adventure best in one of their songs (City Of Blinding Lights), where the lyric began with, “The more you see, the less you know, unless you find out as you go. I knew much more then, than I do now…”
Through the ten steps we’re outlining here, we’re going to walk you through our routine or process of how we go from inspiration to reality – i.e. making such adventures happen in real life. To give you an idea of who we are, where we’ve been, and how often we’ve gone through this process, you can read more about us.
By the way, this process also works for domestic (i.e. in the United States) adventures as well. It’s a routine that we’ve been employing now for well over a decade (and counting), and with all our experiences (taking what works and avoiding repeating mistakes), it’s refined to the point that our trip planning is not that far off from reality.
As a result, we generally know what we’re getting into before we go, yet we still have room for discoveries and surprises (both good and bad) with the flexibility to roll with the punches. Hopefully, you’ll find this routine useful for your own adventures.
Step 1: Identify What To See And Do
The first step in planning for an international adventure is to list out all the things we want to see and do on this trip.
The value of going through this exercise is that it ultimately would give us a pretty good initial indication of how long of a trip we would need to take.
It’s only with this preliminary information that we could start to wrestle with the idea of how much we could do within the constraints of how much time we could take off and how much money we would have to spend. But it all starts with taking an inventory of the things we’d imagine ourselves doing while abroad.
I generally start this inventory by getting a guide book like a Lonely Planet or a DK and use them to seed my deeper searches. If buying the books are too expensive, we’ve also borrowed such books from the local library.
Not only do the guide books start to paint a picture of what it’s like to go to the trip destination, but it gives me a good starting point to continue investigating further what there is to see and do.
Our particular adventure travels also incorporate waterfalls, which often take us off the beaten path (and they’re often not mentioned in the guide books). Thus, it’s usually the case that guide books aren’t enough and I’d have to do internet searches or look for other specialized books or word-of-mouth to get more information about the not-so-obvious sights like waterfalls.
Keep in mind that it’s these “hidden gems” and not-so-obvious attractions that make adventure travel so rewarding and unique, and it’s also a big reason why we think waterfalling (by the nature of their obscurity in general) is the best way to see the world.
As I develop this list, I also start up research files on each attraction. And with each new nugget of information that I acquire, I augment each of these research files as I continue to get a better idea of what each attraction involves.
Not only does all this pre-trip research get me excited about the upcoming trip, but it also helps me build a library of information that ultimately can be used for the next steps of trip planning.
Step 2: Prioritize The Sights / Activities
Once I’ve taken an inventory of all the sights we’re hoping to see on the upcoming trip, I then try to prioritize them based on my impressions from the research that I’ve done to this point. I usually come up with a small spreadsheet where I try to condense all the at-a-glance information into this one table to quickly determine whether we should put the attraction in the itinerary or not.
In my system, I have a six-column table.
- Column 1 is the desired attraction under consideration.
- Column 2 tracks whether I’ve started a research file for it yet.
- Column 3 tracks whether I’m done with the research for that attraction or if I’m satisfied enough with it to move on.
- Column 4 is where I assign a number from 1-5 with 5 being an absolute must-see attraction.
- Column 5 is where I track whether the attraction is strong enough to put into the itinerary and incorporate it into the plans.
- Column 6 is for any additional at-a-glance comments I wanted to make about the attraction.
Naturally, there’s some degree of judgment and subjectiveness in filling out this spreadsheet. I’m sure there’s a temptation to label everything a 5 at first, but with time and experience, you’ll start to become more discerning as you gain a sense of what things were really worth it and what things might not have been worth the trouble.
The above table is an excerpt of a spreadsheet that I created for a trip to the UK. Keep in mind that this is my own little system. You can make your prioritization scheme anything that works for you. It doesn’t have to be like mine.
The bottom line is once you have your list of attractions and prioritized the things you really want to see and do, now you’re in position to work on the next steps.
By the way, it’s also possible that during this prioritization exercise, new information comes about that impacts the research as well as inventory of sights.
Thus, we could go back to step 1 to incorporate this new information before returning to this step to figure out how to prioritize everything with the new information acquired.
Indeed, this is an iterative process where every new discovery or information gained from going through steps 1 and 2 could be used to augment our research and better assign priorities.
Step 3: Map Out Sights & Places To Stay
Now that you have a prioritized list of things to see and do, it’s time to figure out where they are on a map. This is a very important step because once you’ve placed everything on a map, you can get a sense of where everything is in relation to each other.
And only with this information does it become possible to plan out when to do what, and how long it will take. Moreover, having everything put on a map also puts us in position to figure out where we should start and end the trip as well as where we should be staying as we move from place to place.
Long before Google Maps and many of these other mapping softwares have come out, I’ve been using Garmin Mapsource (and I still do) to place waypoints that I’ve acquired from my research onto the map software itself.
While these maps are increasingly becoming more obsolete over the years (I’ve noticed many of the maps are no longer sold nor supported these days), I still find it useful to go through the exercise of mapping everything on Mapsource then transferring the waypoints onto our Garmin Nuvi device.
I’ve found that Google Maps still is limited in its search and user interface, and that some of the map products we’ve acquired over the years actually have detail as well as place names that don’t yet exist on the Google Maps database. In fact, some information pinned on Google Maps has been misleading or straight out wrong!
So I still foresee myself sticking with our purchased Mapsource products for as long as we can until Google Maps or other widely available mapping software on the internet finally lives up to its potential.
The bottom line is whatever scheme you use to map everything out for the purposes of your trip planning, at least have your map populated so you know where everything is in relation to each other. In a recent trip to New Caledonia, I was too lazy or too cocky to follow this step, and I paid dearly for it by not properly seeing or missing out completely on three of the five targeted waterfalls on the trip!
So in addition to making sure you get to see and do what you’re targeting (especially if you’re self-touring), you’ll also find out that going through this step will make it much easier to move on to the next step (step 4)…
Finally, it’s possible to re-prioritize sights in step 2 based on what we discover once we’ve mapped everything out. In fact, I’ve had instances where I would discover things on our Mapsource map products that I previously didn’t encounter in my research to that point.
Then, I would even go back to step 1 to incorporate the new attraction that I previously didn’t account for. Then, I could go back through Steps 1 and 2 to refine my priorities as well as which routes I might consider taking once I have everything mapped out again.
Step 4: Create / Refine An Itinerary
Once we have everything mapped out and the sights we want to see have been prioritized, we’re now in position to try to put together an itinerary. This is basically a plan of how we would manage our time abroad.
While I’ve been criticized for even going through this step (the criticism being that we’re not spontaneous enough on our trips once we’re committed to sticking to an itinerary), I’ve learned that more often than not, when you go into a trip without a plan, you’re more likely to waste time and have regrets as opposed to having a plan and being more efficient with your precious vacation time.
So take it for what it is. The itinerary is a time management tool which helps us be efficient with precious time and thereby being efficient while minimizing what I would call “penalty” costs. These “penalty” costs are what I associate with the cost of any do-overs or just living with the regret of having missed out on something we had the opportunity to do but didn’t as a result of poor planning or poor execution.
Besides, once you finally do have an itinerary (a major milestone in itself), the rest of the steps pretty much fall into place. Any go backs revolve around responding to circumstances and situations mostly involving tours or accommodations selling out thereby forcing us to find alternatives or re-arranging the order in which we had planned on doing things in the first place.
Another thing that we realized over the years is that we have to be realistic about how much we can fit into our itinerary.
We’ve learned from experience that if we cram too many things into the itinerary, the trip becomes so busy that it doesn’t feel like much of a vacation.
We’ve even had cases where the pre-trip literature lacked certain worthwhile sights (thereby creating holes in our pre-trip research) and we only become aware of them once we’re in the field. So in those circumstances, we made on-the-fly adjustments during our trip.
Heck, we’ve even had several occasions where things haven’t gone to plan (e.g. weather-related complications, tour cancellations, fatigue, etc.) that also caused us make rearrangements on the fly while abroad.
While these unforeseen events meant deviating from the hour-by-hour plan on the itinerary, we still had enough perspective to figure out how to still do the things we wanted to do, but just in a different order. In other cases, we had to make intelligent omissions given all the information we’ve acquired from doing this exercise in the first place.
Thus, we had to respect the driving distances, the pace at which things happen, and provide enough buffer or margin in the itinerary to be flexible for such unforeseen events as well as unplanned discoveries.
No one is perfect and can foresee everything prior to the trip happening so let the itinerary be a useful tool, but don’t take it so literally that you become inflexible for what life can throw at you as the trip happens.
In my itineraries, I generally make a color-coded spreadsheet that acts like an hour-by-hour calendar.
Each color represents a particular activity like driving, hiking, guided tour, city touring, free time, sleeping, eating, etc.
Then, I fill in the spreadsheet with estimates of how long it takes to drive to and do the various things we planned to do. If I find that there’s too many things crammed into a given day, then we might have to spend an additional night nearby in order to accommodate.
If we find that we’re running out of time (or requiring too long of a vacation) from cramming too many things into the itinerary, then we’d have to look at the priorities identified in Step 2 and make the hard decision to leave a particular attraction out of the trip.
As you can imagine, this step alone can take quite a while, and there may be multiple versions of the itinerary before we finally settle in on something workable.
This is where Julie and I go back and forth as we negotiate what we think are worthwhile while also making sure that we can still have our meals at normal times and sleep at normal times.
Nonetheless, by going through this rigorous and iterative step, at least we have the information needed to determine what’s realistic and what’s not. And just knowing that goes a very long way to moving onto the next steps to making the dream adventure a reality.
Step 5: Identify Accommodations
Once we have a draft of the itinerary containing a budget of how long it takes to accomplish the main goals of the trip, we next have to pick out which cities or towns to stay at as well as which accommodations we would want to choose from those cities or towns.
The importance of picking the right accommodations can’t be understated. It can mean the difference between a restful night or a miserable one without much sleep.
It can be the difference between having a nice hot shower after a long day of activity versus a bitterly cold shower.
It can be the difference between a relaxing night versus a stressful one where you’re worried about your safety as well as worrying about things getting stolen from the room.
It can even be the difference between having a magical evening discovering the sights of a city (when most of the day tours have gone) versus an uneventful night where the lodging was too much out-of-the-way to even get to the city to experience its magic.
The itinerary from Step 4 would allow us to identify the cities or towns that we should be staying at. That would narrow down our search for accommodations on each day of our trip. Then, Julie would look up reviews and trip reports as well as the location of each candidate lodging to help us decide which one to stay at.
She’d also look at the prices to see which ones best fit our cost versus comfort criteria.
Once Julie identifies the accommodation we want to stay at (as well as identifying alternates just in case something is booked out), she then keeps track of her decisions (as well as candidates for those places she has yet to decide) in a spreadsheet (kind of like her own itinerary) tracking the dates for each place to stay, addresses, phone numbers, websites, estimated prices, and other notes.
She’d then relay that information back to me so I can put their locations on the map (from Step 3) and refine the itinerary once more (Step 4). With each iteration that we do this, our itinerary becomes more and more realistic, and we become more confident in moving onto the next step.
Step 6: Make Bookings
Once we have a pretty mature itinerary, we’re now in position to put our money where our mouths are, and start investing money in this trip by making bookings.
Since the most price-sensitive (and most expensive) part of the trip is air, that’s the very first thing we book. Of course, once we book the air, that pretty much locks us into the trip dates, which has consequences if the schedule has to change (like the trip needs to be longer or shorter). Nevertheless, I think incurring change fees is arguably better than the losing out on a deal or on flight availability.
Anyways, because we tend to value time over money, we typically prefer the most direct routes over more roundabout routes (which usually happens when attempting to accrue or spend miles or reward points).
So from this point forward, it’s hard to add days or change the dates without the consequences of additional cost from change fees. Therefore, we have to make sure our itinerary is up-to-date. We also have to make it accounts for all the trip goals we’ve identified in Step 1, and it is realistic.
This is the biggest reason why we go through Steps 1-5 in our process so we have the confidence to get to this point and minimize the chances of having costly mistakes.
Booking Tours And/Or Self-Touring Logistics
Once the air is booked and we’re locked into our trip, we next have to evaluate whether the place that we’re going to can be toured independently or on a custom guided tour. Our general rule of thumb is that if it’s a developed country, we’d self-tour independently. If it’s a developing country, then we’d go with a customized guided tour.
The reason for this is that in a developed country, we would find it easier to self-drive or independently move around with public transportation or a combination of both. Usually the signs are clearly marked, the roads are in good shape, and the overall public infrastructure is good enough to not be that far off from the standard that we’re used to back at home in the United States.
In a developing country, the driving conditions tend to be much more chaotic. For example:
- Traffic lights are more likely to be ignored or merely suggestions,
- most places are poorly signed (or without English),
- the concept of road lanes is pretty much non-existent,
- you have to get used to the organized chaos of the larger vehicles getting the right-of-way while pedestrians cross at their own risk,
- you also have to get your head wrapped around the idea that you’ll be sharing the road with cows, camels, elephants, tuk tuks, scooters, bicyclists, etc.
Indeed, it’s a very different way of driving, and it’s a bit overwhelming to come to terms with all these differences without having the benefit of having lived there and getting used to the conditions.
Therefore, we would leave the driving up to a local, who knows the methods to the madness, knows how to ask for directions, generally has a good idea of how to get from place to place, etc.
So this is where we usually work with a tour operator to have a customized guided tour tailored to the itinerary that we’ve come up with in Step 4. We may also relay to the tour operator our preferred accommodations (identified in Step 5) unless they come up with something better. They may also provide us feedback on how realistic our itinerary is for specific parts of the trip.
If we do go with a custom guided tour, then the rest of the work is pretty much done for that part of the trip. However, for the sections of the trip where we’re on our own, then we still have to continue to make bookings.
So to that end, we next have to make accommodation bookings (we tend to prefer Booking.com or book directly with the hotel).
Julie typically tries to balance location, decor, comfort, amenities, and price. We usually put more emphasis on location so we don’t waste precious time in transport. This is where Julie utilizes her travel agent expertise and intuition to pick out the best places without breaking the bank.
That said, often times, the best accommodations get booked out well in advance so we have to find suitable alternates. Moreover, for long trips covering a lot of real estate, we could wind up making many bookings for all the different accommodations spread throughout the upcoming trip.
So as you can see, this can be a pretty involved process.
The bottom line is that the more time we allow ourselves to do the bookings, the more options we’ll have in terms of accommodations and alternatives. Of course if things become last minute, then we may have to settle for accommodations that weren’t our first or second or even third choices.
Nevertheless, as long as we have a place to stay for each night (that fits within our itinerary), that would at least help us to replenish our energies and take on the next day fully refreshed.
Other Transportation Logistics To Be Booked In Advance
After booking the accommodations, we then look into the logistics behind other transportation methods like long distance trains, ferries, regional flights, etc.
With the exception of flights, typically the land- and water-based transportation methods don’t get booked out that far in advance (unless we’re talking about sleeper trains or other modes of transportation where we can sleep in it). So that’s why we usually do the accommodations first before we get into making these bookings.
Once the logistical hurdles are done, then we check and see if there are activities that require advanced bookings.
Usually we don’t have a problem with this, but on a recent trip to Spain, we were quite surprised at how quickly things got booked out for places like the Nazaries Palace in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain as well as the Antonio Gaudi sights in Barcelona like the Nativity Towers in the Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera (the paid part of Park Guell), and the Casa Batllo.
Indeed, we found ourselves booking ahead for these things, and we were quite glad that we did. For once we got to these places, we saw firsthand many disappointed tourists being turned away from not planning ahead and booking these things in advance.
Not only that, but some of our advanced bookings meant we had to rearrange the order in which we had to do our sightseeing just to accommodate these time-sensitive activities (meaning I had to go back to Step 4 and re-tweak the itinerary).
Booking Car Rental
Finally, the last thing we book prior to our trip is car rental.
Depending on the type of trip, I’ve gotten advice that it’s a good idea to book with a car rental company that offers the lowest price, then monitor the prices and see if they drop as we get closer to the trip. If this happens, then we should be able to cancel and re-book with no monetary consequence. I believe this works fine for domestic trips, but for international trips, I don’t think we can play that game.
So when it comes to hiring a car abroad, we’ve learned to go with a consolidator (for European countries at least).
The biggest reason why is because we have an emergency number to call, and the operators are available at all times plus they speak English.
This actually saved our Spain trip when our ferry from Morocco showed up over an hour late, which caused us to miss the Europcar closing hours at 2pm on a Saturday in Algeciras.
So after calling our consolidator, they managed to get us a last-minute rental in Malaga (at no additional cost), but we’d have to pay our own taxi to get from Algeciras to Malaga before finally getting a car hire and moving on with our trip.
Imagine having to work that out with Europcar in Spain, where no one was picking up the phone and we’d have to somehow communicate with the central office in Madrid speaking Spanish to work out this mess. While we’ve taken Spanish in school and could work some simple things out, we were definitely in no position to solve these kinds of problems with our limited Spanish.
Generally I have to do all the driving on most of our trips (especially in Europe) because I can drive a stick shift.
Apparently, automatic cars tend to be much higher priced and booked out easily. But with at least being able to drive stick, we can hire a car at pretty reasonable prices, get a nice fuel-efficient compact diesel car, and even have alternates available to us if something unforeseen happens that might cause us to have to switch cars in the middle of the trip (this actually happens more often than you think for long trips).
Step 7: Print Out All Confirmations (And Pictures Of Attractions)
Once all of the bookings are done in step 6, Julie would then update her spreadsheet with actual costs as well as a status of which vendors we had already paid or placed a deposit on and which vendors will collect payment at the time of service.
This helps us prevent anyone from trying to double-charge us as well as having an understanding of what outstanding balances remain (so we can better keep track of our budget and how well we’re doing against it).
On top of that, she would also print out booking confirmations for everything – from air, land- and water-based transport, tour operators, popular excursions, accommodations, and car rental. Thus, when it comes time to check in to a flight and get our boarding passes, Julie can refer to her confirmation (without fudging with her phone, which can be prone to bad network connection or running out of batteries).
When we check into an accommodation, Julie whips out her confirmation so the hotel clerk knows exactly who we are and can get us our booked room no problem. The same thing happens for paid excursions, where we can print out our tickets and have the line proctors scan them at the door.
Indeed, it pays to have a hard copy of everything and keep them all together so it’s easy to confirm in person that we’re the right customers who’ve made the advance bookings for the services to be rendered.
To that end, this is also when we would photocopy our passports (just in case it gets lost and we would at least be able to prove that we are who we say we are to the authorities). Then store that photocopy in a different spot than the passports themselves (so if the bag with the passports gets stolen, we have a fallback).
One more thing I wanted to add to this step is to also print out pictures of the sights you’re targeting. By having a hard copy of what the attraction is supposed to look like, this will help you avoid the problem of whether or not you’re left guessing if you’ve reached your destination (especially on a hike or where things aren’t well signposted).
I’m kicking myself for not doing this on our New Caledonia trip in 2015, and we paid dearly for it by actually missing out on all of our targeted North Province Waterfalls.
Step 8: Get Travel Insurance
Experience tells us that life happens and we’re often faced with unexpected circumstances that can throw a wrench into the most carefully laid plans.
On a small scale, Julie and I once cancelled a Napa Valley trip (with everything already paid for) because our daughter had an ear infection, and we couldn’t risk going with her in that condition. We were lucky that the vendors were sympathetic and actually willing to refund us our money.
However, on international trips, it’s much more difficult to recover our money in this way. That’s why we spend the extra 3%-5% of our trip costs as a hedge against the unthinkable, where a nearly $10k trip could be cancelled and we wouldn’t want to be out that much money because of it.
Knock on wood, we haven’t had the misfortune of filing a claim with a travel insurance company to recover money from a cancelled trip.
However, we could have been reimbursed for smaller incidents that did happen to us like the flat tire costs from our UK trip, or the emergency taxi from Algeciras to Malaga that we had to take to pick up our car rental (thanks to a delayed ferry that caused us to miss our car hire pickup in Algeciras on a Saturday at siesta time).
I guess we just didn’t bother filing these claims for one reason or another so our laziness was our own small claims loss.
In any case, having this travel insurance gives us options. I’m sure it’s not a good feeling to be spending upwards of $10,000 and have nothing to show for it. So the $500 cost (5% of $10k) for that piece of mind was certainly a price we were willing to pay for it.
Step 9: Pack
Once all of the pre-trip formalities from steps 1-8 have been done, it’s now time to pack. There’s many considerations to make in terms of how to pack and what to pack.
Should we strive to make everything all carry on luggage?
What would we need to bring to keep our daughter from making the trip miserable for everyone?
What equipment do we need to pack to ensure we’re prepared for our waterfalling hikes?
And the list goes on and on.
We do have a list of travel essentials that gives you an idea of what we tend to bring with us on just about every trip we go on, which you can read about here. I do expect to write more articles about the art of packing in the future. So stay tuned…
Step 10: Execute
The last step in our international adventure process is to actually execute on our plan. This is where we’re out in the field and try to stay disciplined to our itinerary unless it makes sense to deviate and adjust on the fly.
Again, the itinerary is merely a time management tool to guide us in our day-to-day activities on our trip, but if we’ve made our itinerary intelligently, then there should be margin and flexibility in there to handle surprises.
If you want to take a look at all of our travels, and see how we’ve managed to execute for each trip, you can look at our trip reports page, which has links to every travel story we’ve written about pertaining to our adventures.
So the diagram above pretty much summarizes the ten steps we’ve highlighted in this article.
As you can see, it’s a pretty iterative process that tries to incorporate every new bit of information in the pre-trip planning while accommodating the unplanned events and discoveries when we’re abroad.
Pretty much all of our waterfalling trips have followed this process in some way shape or form. And whenever we’ve had fails, it’s usually because we either took shortcuts, waiting for the last minute, or were overly ambitious in our trip planning. Our recent trip to New Caledonia was a classic example of a lot of fails due to not following the process we’ve highlighted above.
As you can see, our “International Adventure Process” can be pretty involved. But in life, you generally get out what you put in.
Of course if all this preparing seems a bit overwhelming, there are tour operators to help make these adventures happen. Sure you’re sacrificing the independence and unique experiences from self discovery for the convenience of having someone else do the planning for you. However, you can rest assured that the processes involved in the pre-trip planning that we do are being employed by these professional tour companies.
The exception is that they have a preferred network of local guides, drivers, local tour companies, etc. to help control costs and ensure a smooth experience for their clients.
Regardless of how you go about partaking in an adventure, there’s no denying that adventures in general are very rewarding.
As you can see from the waterfalling adventures that we’ve been on, we’ve moved beyond the oversimplifications and stereotypes associated with most tourists who say they’ve visited a particular city and claim they’ve seen the country (try saying that in Barcelona, where they identify themselves more with Catalonia than Spain).
Indeed, we’ve encountered hidden gems, understood the complexities and diversity of the peoples within each country, better appreciated why and how people do what they do to get by in life, better appreciated the environment of various places around the world, and overall just gained a better appreciation that we’re all pretty much people with similar needs and wants (though we just go about these things differently).
It doesn’t make anyone more right or wrong than the other. They’re just dealing with what life throws at them just like what we try to do.
And that is the essence of travel – to throw ourselves outside of the familiar and mundane into the unknown and unfamiliar – all with the benefit of learning something new about the world and ourselves.
We hope you’ve found this article useful in taking that next step from inspiration to realization.
If you have other strategies beyond our own method behind our madness, feel free to share them in the comment form below. I figure that the more we share our experiences, the more people partake in adventure travel, and thus the more people better appreciate how the world works while finding ways to improve it in their own way.
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