Planning for a Trip: How to Budget, Pack, and Draft an Itinerary

Note: This is written for an American who wants to travel to Europe, but it can be applied generally.

Consider this the first in a series on planning a trip. First is budgeting/packing/planning, which will be followed by how to find a flight, how to choose a hostel, and how to navigate transportation by bus and train.


Know how much you can spend.

Have an emergency fund beyond your trip budget. I budget conservatively (e.g. expect the $20 bus ticket to be $30, the $15 average meal to be $20, etc.) in case I miscalculated somewhere. If not, I can have a nice meal at the end of the trip, or roll over the cash into a fund for the next trip. Don’t bet on hitting the low end of meals, transportation, and accommodation. Only the anal and impoverished will spend the time required to hit those figures. My budget categories include the plane ticket, transportation, food, accommodation, entertainment, and miscellaneous spending. Which is good enough. Price of Travel has a useful list to ballpark the figures, but I find they’re unrealistically low for me (by 15 percent or so).

Be realistic.

Budget for who you are, not who you want to be. Don’t imagine that you’ll eat street food for every meal when you buy coffee every morning and an afternoon snack. No one is more persnickety about money when traveling than when at home. If you can’t limit eating out at home, you won’t buy groceries and cook at the hostel. Miscellaneous spending worms its way into a trip; be aware of your spending habits and budget around them.

Saving is about prioritizing.

Get Rich Slowly has great articles and resources about personal finance. Start there for how to conceptualize your income, build a budget, etc. A short list, however:

  1. Know your priorities
  2. Align the budget accordingly
  3. Establish a travel fund
  4. Cut unnecessary/lower-priority spending

A part-time job might help. Or eating out less. Or using less energy. I don’t know your life. Spend less and save more. It might take six months, it might take three years, but that’s the only way I know how to build a travel fund fund. Any suggestions are appreciated.


Pack light.

Packing tends to be easier for a man than a woman (because patriarchy). If possible, travel with someone who overpacks. If a friend has a suitcase and I have a backpack, it’s easier to fit a couple items in their suitcase to lessen the burden on myself.* I’ve taken three-week trips with a backpack from high school. Read Rick Steves on the benefits of packing light and his packing list to have an idea of what to bring and what to leave behind.

Don’t bring anything you’d hate to lose.

Don’t carry your funds together. I carry cash for the day and leave the rest locked up.

My past regrets in packing include bringing too many clothes and too large a suitcase. The biggest regret I’ve had was lacking a toboggan,** and I bought one in Dublin for 5 euros. Until I’ve hit the point where I think I’m underpacking, I know I have too much. It’s harder for airlines to lose a carry-on bag, and it’s less stress on my mind. Laundromats are everywhere. If I can’t wear something multiple times, I don’t bring it.

If I have an item I won’t use every other day, it’s not necessary. Leave the electronics at home. Maybe a smartphone for WiFi at the hostel. A cheap paperback is easier to replace than a Kindle. Laptops are fun to bring if I want to know how long it takes me to break one or get it stolen. Apart from a digital camera and a smartphone I wouldn’t mind losing, electronics are a cost, not a benefit. ~Packing light is packing right~.


Buy a guidebook.

Buy a guidebook.

Buy a guidebook.

Or spend hours online finding outdated information. Whatever. Guidebooks are wonderful, save you money, and mention places that get criminally overlooked. I like Rick Steves and Lonely Planet. I’m sure others are great. Go to a bookstore or library and flip through different editions. Figure out the target audience. Learn how to use one. Read it before the trip, find the highlights, and plan an itinerary around it. Guidebooks aren’t gospel. They’re a tool. Skip the boring suggestions. I don’t know how many times I’ll get to visit Europe, but I’m not going to let someone dictate what I must see or experience.


An outline, not a Bible.

The itinerary is the first thing I start when I have an idea for a trip, the last thing I finish, and the least accurate part of my trip planning.

Museums close, trains arrive late, and rain ruins the hiking trip. An itinerary is always a rough draft. I make my itinerary with options in case the first idea falls through. Or I switch days to make it more convenient. Itineraries should be flexible, but specific enough to be actionable.

I buy flight tickets as early as possible and hostel beds a week or two before leaving Ohio. Train and bus tickets are more flexible. International travel? I buy as early as I’m willing to commit. Domestic travel? A few days before departure if it’s a busy route, but 20 minutes before departure if not. That rule depends on context, though, so don’t trust me.

I’m not beholden to the itinerary, but creating one helps me avoid wasting time and money. The best one provides a schedule, but doesn’t eliminate spontaneity or flexibility.

More than anything, experimentation is key. Travel styles differ. Find inexpensive ways to fail at it, and the next trip will go better.

*Apologies to Tim, Keara, Alexandra, and others for my freeloading.

**Apparently, “toboggan” isn’t used much outside of southeastern Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and the South. It’s a hat. And a sled.