There are two types of people: people that would happily give their credit card over to a travel agent so they can sit back, and people who look forward to planning trips almost more going on the actual trip. Guess which one I am?! (I do take payment via Venmo, cash, or PayPal if you are interested in my services)
There is, however, an art to planning trips. The internet, of course, makes the process easier than ever, but it’s also an overwhelming resource to have. So where to begin? I’ll tell you my process of how I book trips, stay organized, and make itineraries that I’m (almost) always happy with. Here we go.
Start with flights
Obviously, lol. One of the most fun ways to book a trip is to give yourself a window of time that you can travel and book a destination based off that and wherever is cheap at the time (instead of just searching for flights to Rome, for example). This way, there’s still some excitement left in where you’re going and what your trip could end up looking like. Something to always keep in mind: If you want a trip in Italy, your flight doesn’t have to land in Rome. Look at surrounding airports, even outside the country/city you truly want to see.
Google Flights is my top resource for booking, as they show convenient calendars with options to customize the length of the trip, good flight prices highlighted in green, and a new feature now stating whether a bag is included in the price or not.
One of the most disappointing things about planning trips is thinking you can bop over to another city/country just to realize it’s not close at all. I always look at Google Maps to see what’s a) realistic, b) possible, and c) available. For example, if you’re on a short weekend trip and a city you want to see is 6 hours away, you probably shouldn’t squeeze it in– it’s not realistic. If you don’t have a rental car and you want to visit a remote town in the countryside, it may not be even possible. And lastly, what opportunities are out there that you didn’t even think of or know of?
My friends and I are looking at planning a trip in the spring and there was a good flight deal into Zagreb, Croatia. I initially thought we’d visit Dubrovnik and whatever else was around there, but we realized we could see Slovenia and northern Italy without spending the whole trip in the car. Our beach-hopping Croatia trip turned into a mountain trek! My point is, being familiar with maps can completely change the route and vision of a trip.
This is my number one resource for planning the outline of trips. SO many bloggers share their itineraries and ideas on trips, and many times there will be 5 day, 10 day, or weekend trip itineraries that do almost all the work for you. Search keywords like “One week in Portugal” or “Los Angeles weekend trip” and you’re guaranteed to find both popular spots and places worth skipping.
On this same note, it can be easy to get swept into tourist traps or places that may be cool, but not for you. Know what you enjoy and look for that– even if you don’t think you can find it in that spot. On our next trip, my friends and I are trying to spend more time hiking and visiting cool nature spots, rather than strolling through museums and buildings. Instead of searching for European itineraries, I’m now looking at top European hikes, best nature spots in Europe, etc. Know. Yo. Style. And follow me on Pinterest where I compile MANY itineraries sorted by continent.
You know how everyone says social media is a scam and nothing is ever like it is on Instagram? Same goes for websites. A hostel/hotel/Airbnb is ONLY as good as its reviews. This part of trip planning takes time and patience sometimes, but looking through accomodation and transportation reviews is what keeps things going smoothly while traveling.
Surprisingly, this is a new addition to my planning services. I was always VERY focused on the towns we would visit and how we would get there that I didn’t spend much time looking for good food. LOOK FOR GOOD FOOD– enjoying every meal made our Central America trip 20 times better.
Most countries use TripAdvisor as their rating website over Yelp, so start there. One tip from me: sort your food by “most reviewed” instead of “highest ranked” to see the places that a ton of people have visited. Usually those ratings are worth a little more : )
Good ol’ word of mouth
Because speaking to people is helpful sometimes! In all honesty, though, trust the locals and trust the people who have done it before you. Sometimes I get ideas from people through social media, but asking people about their hometown or trip experience is an awesome way to get some insight on something that may not be public knowledge.
And there you have it! These methods aren’t for the people who need every spot planned out (I’m not that Type A) but for people who need a rough itinerary with ideas of what to do/eat once you get there. See below for an example of what my “itineraries” look like going into a trip. This way, you don’t waste time searching for restaurants and activities, but you still have the freedom to switch things around if needed.
How do you plan your trips? What am I missing out on?
One of the questions I get most often is simply, “How do you afford to travel?” Since I’m not exactly subtle about the financial struggles of working an entry-level job, (see my blog’s headline lol) I figured it makes sense for me to share my pointers on how I can afford international trips and weekend galivants throughout the year.
Now, a quick disclaimer. While I think this goes without saying, everyone’s situation is different. Some of us are working around PTO and vacation days, others around class schedules and winter breaks. We all have different salaries, different student loan payments, you get the idea. None of the below ideas are GROUNDBREAKING, but I hope it inspires you to be more conscious of spending in order to get your dream trip booked. I promise it’s worth it every time.
Please enjoy photos from my trips of 2018, and without further ado, my tips to saving money for your next vacation:
1. Examine your monthly costs
I have a whole blog post dedicated to this (coming soon), but these costs are often the foundation of our spending. Are you signed up for music services? Can you join a family plan to save a few dollars? Are you really using your gym membership or can you deal with the gym at your school/office instead? What about the Birchbox free trial that you forgot to cancel? Make sure ANY monthly cost (including cable, etc.) is something you’re using daily. Cut the ones you don’t.
2. Stop eating out
I truly think this is the number one thing that sets people back when it comes to saving. I eat out maybe 1-2 times a week (1 lunch and 1 dinner), and the rest I cook at home. It’s better for your body, it’s better for your wallet, and hopefully you’ll pick up a skill or two in the kitchen. Stop buying Chick-fil-A every day and pack a lunch. 🙂
3. Be conscious of small spends
Yes, this includes coffee runs. *eye roll because this is everyone’s advice* Drink coffee at work, avoid getting overpriced candy at the movies, and finish your not-so-great can of hairspray before buying a new one. Small purchases really do add up, and often times we’re buying things we don’t need, which is a whole other topic that I’ll get to later.
4. Open up a travel account
Not accessible for everyone (including myself), but my boyfriend has a separate travel account that he puts money into monthly. This way, it’s easy to budget for trips and you know right off the bat if you can afford to book something. If you’re not great at limiting yourself on the day-to-day spend, this may be a good tactic for you.
5. Give yourself personal challenges
Cut down/take a month off of drinking (helloooo, dry January! Join me!), don’t buy clothes for a month, or limit your grocery runs to a set amount. This kind of makes saving feel like a game, but it’s definitely not always fun 😅 Sometimes I try and see how many days I can go without spending money, which is absolutely terrible but I recommend.
6. Book the flight
Once you have your flight, you’re going (unless you’re actually willing to pay the cancellation fee, which is just BONKERS if you ask me). Knowing that I have a trip coming up is usually what gives me the push to start saving and have more discipline with my spending.
The last thing to remember has less to do with saving and more to do with the actual travel aspect. In order to afford bigger or more frequent trips, paying for an average-priced ticket, staying in hotels, and having brunch daily just isn’t in the cards (not yet, at least lol). Use these hacks to find a cheap flight and stay open to the idea of hostels or small Airbnbs. My trips usually involve public (sometimes overnight) transportation and the same hostel breakfast daily. If you want to visit somewhere, this is how you make it happen. And again, I promise it’s worth it.
If you have tips to help you save for travel, let me know! Follow my Pinterest board for more travel inspiration, stay tuned for some more itinerary posts, and good luck not spending any money at all!
The post-vacation blues always get me, but they really get me when I come back to 20-degree weather and 400 e-mails. Our backpacking trip to Costa Rica and Panama was a last-minute scramble that turned out to be not only one of our most planned trips, but successful trips. I define success as: no tears, no fights, no boredom. I think we did well.
If you’re looking at exploring la Pura Vida or its neighboring country (or if you’re not interested at all but just want to see how my trip went), read on to see what to do, where to stay, and most importantly, where to eat! Vamos!
Our Itinerary: Overview Day 1 – Fly into San Jose
Day 2 – Monteverde/Santa Elena
Day 3 – Monteverde/Santa Elena
Day 4 – Manuel Antonio
Day 5 – Manuel Antonio
Day 6 – Manuel Antonio –> San Jose
Day 7 – San Jose –> Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Day 8 – Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Day 9 – Bocas Del Toro, Panama –> San Jose
Day 10 – Fly home
Note: This is not necessarily the itinerary I recommend, simply what we did. We loved all the stops we had, but would recommend more time in Panama.
Admittedly, we didn’t spend much time in San Jose. We had read there wasn’t much to stay in town for, and our limited hours seemed to confirm that. However, this is likely where you’ll be flying into/passing through, so we did end up staying a few nights there, accommodation below. If you end up having a couple hours to spare, I recommend browsing the San Jose Mercado Central and getting your souvenirs for the trip.
– Capital Hostel de Ciudad – Pictured above! Very cute hostel a little out of the way of town, but offered gated parking, a good breakfast, and a super friendly staff.
– Stray Cat Hostel – Stray Cat was very hospitable, and we enjoyed our stay here, though we didn’t LOVE the area.
Because of our limited time, we had to decide between exploring Monteverde, a smaller rainforest-centered tourist town, and La Fortuna/Arenal Volcano, the other big tourist spot in Costa Rica based around the active volcano. Ultimately, Monteverde won (mostly because of bungee jumping).
We drove from San Jose to Monteverde along the coast in our little rental car, cringing the entirety of our drive on unpaved roads, but loving every view. I’ll give tips below, but do be warned – we don’t recommend getting a sedan. Play it safe and get something with 4-wheel drive so you can cringe a little less.
The town of Monteverde is charming, entirely walkable, and totally geared toward tourists. There’s activities for everyone– suspension bridges through the rainforest, zip-lining, whitewater rafting, hiking, hot springs, ATV excursions, and of course, bungee jumping.
Our first day in Monteverde, we visited the Selvatura Park, and spent about an hour and a half walking through the trails in Monteverde’s famous cloud forests. The eight bridges, plants, and wildlife kept us entertained and every spot was a good photo op. At $30-$35 a ticket, prices were a little steep, but we’re glad we saw the town’s claim to fame.
Our second day in Monteverde was the day we were most excited and most anxious about– bungee jumping. As terrifying as it sounded, this was absolutely a bucket-list thing for me and the girls. Monteverde eXtremo Park holds the title of Central America’s highest bungee jumping spot, so we didn’t have to do much thinking. We reserved our spot for $75 and made our way up the hills to eventually jump off a cable car suspended over 600 feet in the air.
Now, I can probably talk about this experience for hours. I won’t, because I know you probably don’t care how it felt, but I do recommend doing it. It is horrifying and life-changing and by far the coolest and scariest thing I’ve ever done, and everyone deserves that bragging right.
After jumping and trying to rid ourselves of the shakes we had for about an hour afterward, we drank a beer and watched others make the leap. Highly highly recommend.
Food: Surprisingly, this trip is the first time I had ever used TripAdvisor to extensively search out restaurants. I came prepared, and boy was it worth it. Here’s where to eat in Monteverde:
– Taco Taco – Easily one our of our favorite meals. Grab a local (or craft) beer and get some chips, salsa, and tacos. The fish tacos come highly recommended! – El Restaurante Sabor Tico – For those wanting to try out the local dishes, like casados (a Costa Rican dish typically comprised of rice, beans, protein, veggies, and a fried plantain), we loved Sabor Tico. For such a simple plate, the food was outstanding. – The Open Kitchen – We stopped here for lunch and got some pretty decent Mediterranean food. – Tree House Restaurante and Cafe – The food was okay (I’m sure it’d be better if we had a higher budget lol), but the atmosphere is definitely what makes the restaurant. Built around a giant tree, filled with lights and live music, we would still recommend.
Accommodation: Camino Verde Hostel and B&B – One of our favorite hostels of the trip, Camino Verde had the friendliest staff, a delicious breakfast, and a super clean space. A travel tip in general is to look for places that have B&Bs/cabins/regular rooms on the side. Usually, the place is just a bit nicer than a dorm-only hostel. Cabinas Vista Al Golfo – These people helped us book all of our excursions, and our room was fine. Would recommend either, and they’re right next to each other in Santa Elena.
We spent approximately 47 minutes in Jaco on our way from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio. I’m only adding this in here because our burritos at Taco Joint were life-changing, and if you’re relatively close to the area, you must go. That is all.
Manuel Antonio was our next stop on the trip, and we were excited to get out of windy and misty Monteverde and into some sun. While we did get some downpours in Manuel Antonio, it wasn’t until after we got fried at some of the town’s beaches.
Playa Espadillawas a quick drive through town from our hostel, and it was one of the town’s larger beaches. This beach has restaurants and shops nearby, as well as a gorgeous jungle-lined coast and rocks jutting out of the ocean.
Playa Biesanz was another quick drive, but this time a 10-minute hike away from the main street, so bring appropriate shoes. The beach itself is a small cove, and it’s perfect if you’re looking for something quieter. We spent $15 on a few lawn chairs (worth it when you don’t have towels lol) and laid out and relaxed until the weather turned.
The main attraction, Manuel Antonio National Park, had to be saved for the last day in town as it’s closed on Mondays (take note, people). We got there early, as in opening time/7am early, and spent around $16 for entry. Visitors have the option of booking a guide to show you around the park, and plenty of people will ask you if you want one when you arrive to the area. We opted to go without a guide, and we were perfectly fine wandering and straining our eyes for sloth sightings by ourselves 🙂 The park itself has a lot of wildlife and plants to observe, but we really focused our energy on the beach.
And rightfully so. The beach had the perfect amount of waves, soft sand, and animals darting around at all times. This was great when it was monkeys that minded their own business, but not great when you wake up to a raccoon rustling through your backpack. TIP: eat before you go to the park and don’t bring in any food… learn from us!
– Manuel Antonio Falafel Bar – My favorite spot in Manuel Antonio was the cheapest and quickest one – falafel! The ingredients were super fresh and you won’t leave hungry.
– Emilio’s Cafe – Come here for breakfast or lunch to enjoy Manuel Antonio’s gorgeous views, along with some great food.
– El Patio de Cafe Milagro – We came here for craft beers and good food, and that’s what we got. We weren’t able to, but everyone recommended sitting out on the patio for the best experience.
– El Avion – A standout restaurant in Manuel Antonio thats known for the giant plane inside the restaurant, El Avion was a good place for us to grab appetizers and drinks.
– Hostel Plinio – We stayed here to have a quieter hostel experience and really enjoyed it. A quick note, however, there is no A/C and the place, being in the tropical location that it is, is constantly… damp. Our clothes never quite smelled right/fully dried, but sometimes that’s just the beauty of the tropics : )
– Selina Hostel – If you’re looking for a place that’s got a little more going on, we’ve heard good things about Selina (a hostel chain in Latin America) and this particular hostel was in a fun area.
BOCAS DEL TORO
We always try to see more than one country in an international trip, even if it’s a little out of the way. For us, Bocas Del Toro was a way to not only add Panama to our list, but to see the Caribbean side of Central America, as our last beach town was on the Pacific side. While we’re glad we squeezed in Bocas Del Toro, I recommend dedicating more than 2 days– first because it was somewhat of a nightmare to get there (more on this process later), and second because we really, really enjoyed it and wish we had more time.
Our Panama plans were simple– beach, lounge, relax, eat, etc. That’s really all we did. Because of this, I don’t have excursion or food recommendations. I do, however, have accommodation recommendations:
Stay at Palmar Beach Lodge. Ha! That’s it. My only recommendation. On our tenth hour of travel from San Jose, second water taxi, and third mode of transportation, we set our expectations high on this place (aka this hostel better be worth the hell it was to get here).
It was worth it. This eco-lodge was a one-stop shop– there was a full-service restaurant with amazing food, happy hours, morning yoga, group activities, beach volleyball, and the list goes on. Guests don’t have to wear shoes (and because every path was made of sand, we didn’t), purchases go on a room tab, and everything was just simple.
The eco-friendly side of me loved the informational signs on how solar panels work, and while the showers could be quite nippy, it was RAINWATER and that’s the coolest thing ever.
The property has many “levels” of accommodation– we did a hostel, which was a cabin-style dorms, but they also offer glamping tents (wow!) and some more luxury-style cabins. Again, I can’t stress enough trying to find a place that offers levels of accommodation. And, did I mention a sloth crawled over us during our Thanksgiving dinner? I shall say no more.
Notes: The Palmar Beach Lodge is located outside of Bocas Del Toro’s main island (Isla Colon), on Isla Basimento. Try and catch one of Palmar’s free taxi times, but otherwise, any of the water taxis in town will take you to the Red Frog Beach dock for $8.
Overall, the trip surpassed expectations and the post-vacation blues are still at an all-time high. Have you visited Costa Rica or Panama? Have I convinced you that it’s worth your time and hard-earned dollars? Let me know in the comments below, and if you have any questions on our trip I’d be happy to answer them!
Thanks for reading this long one, if you made it this far!