I get a lot of questions about my travels. How I manage to travel without totally breaking the bank (I’ll get to that one eventually). How I come up with my travel itineraries. And how to research and plan an international vacation.
That last one has been popping up more and more ever since I announced my trip to London, Edinburgh, and Paris.
Planning a trip to a foreign country can have a few challenges… And planning a trip to a foreign country in which English is not the majority spoken language can have a few more. But, as this past trip was my third international trip in 2017, I’ve come up with a few tricks to help make the planning process a bit easier.
What I’m Wearing:
Shirt: Nordstrom / Sweater: Buttoned Down / Pants: similar / Jacket: The North Face
Scarf: similar / Boot Socks: Hunter / Boots: Hunter / Tote: Sole Society / Gloves: J.Crew / Earrings: J.Crew
Okay before we dive in, let’s talk about this outfit. I wore this look on our day of adventuring on the Outlander tour while we were in Edinburgh. We visited a bunch of the filming sites for the show… and it was really cold.
Edinburgh itself was surprisingly mild, but the moment we got out of the city, there was a biting cold to the air. I had picked up this down jacket right before my trip and I was so glad to have it with me – it was so warm! Under it, I wore this plaid button down and my favorite cashmere v-neck. Don’t make fun of me, but the sweater is actually a men’s sweater (Amazon sent it to me for free and there’s currently no man in my life in any romantic capacity so I nabbed it). I have it in a small and it fits really well.
I also had fleece liners in my Hunter boots – which I was very happy to have as it rained intermittently throughout the day on top of the biting cold! By the way, if you don’t yet have a pair of Hunter boots, I highly recommend getting this pair. They pack flat aka are perfect for throwing in your suitcase for an international holiday!
And speaking of which, let’s dive in to the real crux of today’s post:
How to Research and Plan an International Vacation
Speaking (or reading!) the Language
If this is your first time traveling internationally and you’re nervous about language barriers, I would start off by making sure you have Chrome as your browser and downloading the Google Translate app to your phone.
Chrome will automatically translate webpages for you if it senses that they’re not in English. Most hotels and popular restaurants in major cities will have translations in English already built into their sites (just look for the British or American flag!). However, if you’re going to smaller towns or off-the-beaten-path restaurants, you might need to use the browser to translate. Because being able to decode the language makes it a lot easier to research and plan an international vacation.
Growing up, I took five years of Spanish (and then my teacher told me he’d give me an A if I quit because I was so bad at it… so I did). I also picked up little bits of Italian, French, and German through opera. But definitely not enough to get myself from A to B in a foreign language. Or to even get myself from the table to the bathroom. As a result, I use the Google Translate app religiously when traveling.
Not only can you write or speak sentences in English and it will translate it for you (or even speak it out loud!), you can also take photos of menus and it will translate the entire photo. I used this feature a lot while I was in Shanghai – we wandered into these amazing hole-in-the-wall spots, but the menus were in Mandarin and very few of the waiters spoke English!
Do you want to go touristy or local? Often, the touristy areas are very walkable and near the popular attractions of that city. But the local route can be fun for finding really unique restaurants. I typically advise people to stay in or near the more touristy areas on their first trip to a particular city… especially if you only have 4-5 days in that city. It’ll give you a great taste of that city. Plus, you can always adventure into local areas for restaurants!
For instance, in Barcelona we stayed in a pretty touristy area. But, each day, we adventured far and wide for our dining options… and found some amazing local spots that weren’t too touristy! On the other hand, as this past trip was my fourth time in Paris, we stayed in an AirBNB in Le Marais. This area is much less touristy than the areas in and around the Louvre/Place Vendôme and the Champs-Élysées. We were the only Americans in several of the restaurants we visited… and we thought the city was completely empty for Christmas until we wandered over to the Musée d’Orsay one afternoon.
My first step when starting to research and plan an international vacation is figuring out where to stay. When I’m researching hotels, I typically begin by creating a search on Google maps (just type in “hotels in [city]”) and the price range within which I would like to stay. I also recommend always setting the minimum user rating to 4.5 stars… and reading the reviews on both Google and TripAdvisor.
One thing to note: European hotels are – on average – much smaller and tend to be more dated than American hotels. The rooms will most likely be smaller than the rooms in which you typically stay in the States. And, sometimes, there isn’t even an elevator (or it is very small).
Researching and Planning Dining Options
I must admit, when I travel, I tend to be a bit extra with my food choices. I will often stay in less expensive accommodations and then dine at the top restaurants in the city. Sure, I’m always on the hunt for a great value meal… But I’m never surprised to realize at the end of the trip that most of my dinners cost more than my accommodations. But that is what I value when traveling: food and experiences.
When I’m looking for restaurants as I research and plan an international vacation, I always check the Michelin guide. I know, I know: I sound so extra. But the guide lists restaurants that are Michelin recommended, even if they’re not Michelin starred! There are options for every price point on the Michelin guide, so it tends to be a really great resource. It’s also great for hotels by the way!
In addition, I always read my favorite blogs to get ideas for restaurants. Some of my favorite travel bloggers when it comes to food and activities recommendations include Gal Meets Glam, The Londoner, and Travel in Her Shoes. AKA the ladies I follow on Instagram who take photos of what they’re eating and I immediately go “wow that looks delicious” when I see the photo.
And last but not least: ask your friends or the concierge at your hotel for options! Before my trip to London, I asked all of my foodie friends for recommendations… and they did not disappoint!
Determining the Itinerary
This is my last section for how to research and plan an international vacation… mostly because there are so many things that go into planning a trip, this post could go on forever! If, at the end of the post, you still have unanswered questions, please leave me a message in the comments below (or drop me an email!) and I’ll answer your specific questions then.
Your itinerary for your travels really depends on what kind of traveler you are. Do you prefer to be scheduled or do you like to just wander aimlessly through a city? Are you a museum person? What time of day do you typically get up and out of bed on vacation?
There are hundreds (if not thousands!) of apps that can help you organize your travel. I tend to just keep track of everything in my calendar app and my notes app on my phone. My general rule of thumb is to book hotels and 75% of the dinner restaurants before the trip (leaving room to explore one night and each day for lunch!). I also try to balance my museums and wandering – I believe that’s the best way to understand the culture of a city.
For instance, in Paris, I might write on my itinerary to do Musée d’Orsay in the morning one day (and purchase my tickets ahead of time). But then I’ll leave that afternoon open for wandering, perhaps around Saint Germain. And, because I have my random bouts of being hyper-organized, I’ll legitimately write “wander around Saint Germain” in my itinerary.
Wandering is how you get to truly know a city… and the best way to find beautiful architecture, fun happenings, and learn the city’s culture.