How to Plan Affordable International Travel in 8 Steps

plan an international trip

We’ve been asked how we are able to embark on so many adventures. So, here are our secrets!

Please keep in mind, we spend months planning to ensure a trip meets our budget, time frame, and travel goals. Having a detailed travel plan doesn’t take away from the spontaneity of our adventures. While it is a lot of work, 6 years later we still think it’s worth it. First, we confirm we have at least 8 vacation days available before planning international travel.

Traveling Gingerbread Note: We will walk through the steps of planning our 14 day trip in 2018 to Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia in our examples.

Choose a destination.

karma beach

  • This step is just the beginning of the excitement. We each have an ongoing and ever changing list of countries we want to visit.
  • Travel Time: With 1 week available, we typically choose 1 country to explore that we can reach in less than 1 day (example: North America, Europe, or South America). With 2+ weeks available, we target a small group of countries in close proximity of each other that takes longer for us to reach (example: Africa, Asia, or Australia). 
  • Budget: At this stage we can’t determine our budget, but consider our current financial situation based on upcoming and previous expenses. If we have/had higher expenses surrounding projected travel dates, we focus on countries and travel styles that are more affordable: Asia, some areas of Europe, or the Middle East. Although more than once, a trip we intended to be budget friendly evolved after adding in tours and our must see list, becoming out of our price range.

Example: We had 2 weeks of available vacation time and needed to plan a more affordable trip. Knowing we wanted to visit Thailand, we began looking at other nearby countries and added Singapore and Indonesia.

Decide what major cities in each country to visit.

view of bangkok

  • Usually, we know what major cities we will visit upon choosing a country. If you don’t, scroll down to Step 4: Read, Watch, Learn, and Ask!
  • We choose anywhere from 1-3 cities as a home base to stay and travel from. Depending on the country we may choose 1 inland, 1 coastal city, and 1 island or 1 Northern and 1 Southern city. 

Example: In Thailand we decided on Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Phuket.  In Indonesia we chose the island of Bali with a day trip to the Gili Islands. Singapore only has 1 city, Singapore.

Experiment with different travel routes and styles.

phi phi don boats thailand

  • We’ve learned, it isn’t always cheapest to travel North to South or from the farthest destination to the closest. We explore all flight combinations between our selected cities in each country and between countries. We also factor in the additional travel time if we’re not traveling in a linear pattern. Yes, it is time consuming. Yes, it is worth it and has saved us thousands of dollars.
  • Fast trains and overnight trains are great options travelling long distances between cities. While these options are usually more affordable, the increased travel time can be cumbersome. Time vs. Money

Example: Contrary to our initial plan, it wasn’t cheapest to fly from Northern Thailand to Southern (Chiang Mai –> Bangkok –> Phuket). After multiple routes we found it was cheapest to fly Bangkok –> Chiang Mai –> Phuket and would only add about 2 hours of travel time. After looking into overnight trains we determined the increased travel time wasn’t worth the savings. We also found it was most affordable to fly United States –> Thailand –> Singapore –> Indonesia –> United States.

Read, watch, learn, and ask.

elephant at kanta elephant sanctuary

  • Determine where to stay, what to do, and where to go. This is when the adventure starts to take shape. We start writing down must see restaurants, pubs, museums, landmarks, smaller cities, parks, breweries, activities, etc. 
  • We highly recommend DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. In addition to guides on entire countries, there are condensed Top 10 guides for major cities. Most local libraries have travel sections stocked with DVDs and books available to borrow at no cost. We learn as much as we can by reading blogs and guides, researching online, reaching out to friends/family/coworkers that have travelled to our destinations, and watching travel shows, documentaries, and movies. 

Example: We were making lists of what we wanted to see and do as we watched travel episodes on Netflix and Amazon Prime, scoured WordPress and the internet, reached out to friends and family, and read travel guides. 

Draft a detailed itinerary. 

railway market bangkok

  • With an idea of what to see and do, we create a rough itinerary of our trip; number of days per city, what days are available for tours and what days will be spent traveling between cities or countries, how many nights accommodation are needed in each city, etc.
  • Now, we also research tours and activities. Some full day tours offer hotel pickup and entrance fees in addition to providing a guide, commentary, and transportation between each destination. We compare price, availability, private vs. group, and what is included in each tour (entrance fees, lunch, drinks, etc.).
  • We look closer into each city to determine what area to stay in and compare Airbnb and hotel costs. When comparing, we consider distance from our place of arrival and departure (airport, train station, metro, bus stop) or rideshare fees, check in and check out times, complimentary luggage storage, parking fees, complimentary breakfast or kitchen equipped with cookware, etc. 

Example: As we research tours, our estimated days in each country or city may change. After reading about costs in Singapore, we decided 2 full days would best fit our budget. Hotels were more affordable than Airbnbs in Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia. Here is our completed itinerary. We weren’t finding a tour of the Phi Phi islands that met our expectations. After reading a blog post about a day tour to the islands, we booked it, and it ended up being exactly what we were looking for.

Reveal the total cost.

view of singapore from level 33

  • We start documenting estimated costs of all transportation, accommodations, tours, travel insurance, all known entrance fees to attractions, and anything else relevant to avoid unexpected costs in an Excel Spreadsheet.  
  • After we have an estimated total, we consider redeeming hotel loyalty points, airline miles, and using credit card offers or reward points to cut costs. Unfortunately with foreign companies, this isn’t always an option when traveling to another country.
  • We don’t factor drinks, food, or souvenir costs into our trips simply because we aren’t sure. We always commit to a trip knowing there will be additional expenses.

thailand itinerary

Example: Most flights traveling between Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore were foreign airlines so we were unable to use airline miles. Hotels we were loyalty members with were extremely expensive and long term it was best to save our points for another time. 

Start reserving and saving.

active volcanco in bali

  • We create monthly savings plans from the day we start talking about a trip until the month we leave. Some months we may set aside double our plan and others far less, but it allows us to determine if we really shouldn’t go out to eat and instead try cooking a new dish at home or skip the baseball game and just stop by the tailgate. 
  • We like to start booking travel, accommodation, and tours in advance to avoid incurring all expenses at once. In most situations, we have our trips paid in full before leaving for the airport. We also can take advantage of early booking discounts, more options, and time to shop around.

Example: Kanta Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand is extremely popular and often sells out months in advance. Had we not been proactive, we would have missed out on an amazing experience. If plans change, most Viator tours allow cancellation up to 24 hours before departure with a full refund.

Let the countdown begin! 

hibiscus in bali

  • As the countdown beings learn a few phrases in the native language (good morning, thank you, hello, you’re welcome, nice to meet you, etc.), local customs, and familiarize yourself with local transportation routes.
  • We start documenting hours of operation for our must see places and list them from closest to our accommodation to farthest away. This research has prevented us from arriving outside of operating hours and retracing our steps.
  • All this researching and planning doesn’t take away spontaneity from our trip. We may detour from our list and never get back on track. Places on our list may not meet expectations so we immediately move onto the next one. The main reason we research and create lists before our trip is to avoid taking time away from exploring to research what to do while we’re there. 
  • Even with months of research and preparing, things may not go as planned.

Example: We had planned to spend 1 day at the Gili Islands during our time in Bali. After discussing with our hotel, we were informed the trip required a minimum of 2 days. Not having an additional day available, we spent the time allocated for Gili Islands on a self organized 3 mile walk along the beaches of Bali. Because of our research prior to the trip, we easily created a new plan for the day.

March 2020

Author: The Traveling Gingerbread

The Traveling Gingerbread is a place for us to share budget travel tips for people with full time jobs, fun facts, itineraries, and where to find the best craft beer. We have been traveling together since 2013. Living and working full-time in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we travel as much as our vacation days and finances allow. We cram each adventure with activities, tours, experiences, and local breweries. We can't walk by an Irish pub without stopping in for a pint of Guinness. In 2019, we brewed our first beer and were hooked, although, we have no intentions of brewing more than small batches. We'll continue our self appointed roles of professional testers and creating craft beer trails.

2 thoughts

  1. My wife and I recently found the two days of flying from Miami to India via Qatar unappealing to say the least. What might you recommend to make this option more appealing?


    1. -Only finding flights with multiple, long layovers from Madagascar to Pittsburgh, we
      checked travel sites (Expedia/Travelocity) for common layovers. We found a couple layovers could be eliminated booking a one way flight Madagascar to Paris and a one way flight from Paris to Pittsburgh. Even with 3 hours to recheck bags, it would save us a lot of travel time (and we could use
      airline miles for the flight from Paris).
      -Not having a lot of options in Pittsburgh, we’ll often use airline miles to book a flight to Boston or NYC and fly from there to eliminate layovers.


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