I've planned for so many trips and tours for myself and my friends that I thought I'd share how I do it. Of course, I'm assuming that you have already saved for your trip.
Although I agree that the best way to experience a place is to NOT plan at all but rather to just go and let your feet take you anywhere, this is sadly not an option for me. I have a full time job and only a number of available vacation leaves per year. I don't have the luxury of getting lost in some remote place because I simply don't have the time to kill.
So what happens is that most of the itineraries I make use time as efficiently as possible and is designed to visit the most number of attractions that we can in the allotted time. This kind of itinerary often involves taking overnight transportation to a destination and visiting multiple places in a day.
Sometimes, it can also get expensive because I opt to rent a vehicle instead of commuting to a place in order to save time. For me, time really is gold and I will usually choose to save time rather than money. But overall, I am a cheapskate and will try to get the best value for my money.
Also, since I usually travel with a group of friends, I don't need to check on child prices or a child-friendly environment. Please note this when reading this post.
So, enough about that. How do I plan for a trip?
1. The first thing I do is to when I already have a destination in mind is to visit PinoyExchange, click on the Travel and Leisure section, and search for the thread of my destination of choice. I always value the tips of fellow Filipinos who have already visited the place because they give me an idea of how much I will actually spend on the trip. If I read reviews from foreigners, especially Caucasians, what may be cheap for them may not be cheap for me. However, if Pinoys say it's cheap, then it really is!
Also, the sample itineraries posted by forum members usually coincide with our local airlines' flight schedules. This is especially true for trips abroad. Our budget airlines fly at odd hours (11PM-1AM) because they choose not to pay certain airport fees. These are some of the inconveniences we have to pay for their cheap prices.
2. Next, from the sample itineraries, I jot down all the places they have mentioned and then I google each one to see if it's a place I would like to visit. For example, parks and zoos don't really interest me but if there's something unique about the place, I will visit it.
Most of the time, a certain country or city will have a tourism site where all the information you need are already in one place. Sometimes, I discover other attractions not mentioned in the forums from these sites. You just have to be sure that their information is updated. Virtual Tourist and Trip Advisor are great ways to find out more about a place.
3. In a spreadsheet, note down important details. What are these?
a. What are the opening and closing times of the place
b. Is the place open all week?
c. How to get there. Via train? Subway? Bus? You may need to do more in depth research for this.
d. language used. Should you bring index cards with common phrases? Download a mobile app for translation?
e. Admission fees and other expenses
f. How long will it take to visit the place - this is important if you're pressed for time.
g. What other nearby places can be visited? Can this place be lumped together with other attractions for a day?
h. Usually, I also have a "comments" column in the spreadsheet to write down the highlights of the attraction
i. any must try food?
j. Are there shows at a specific time?
k. Where are the nearest money exchangers? Do shops accept credit cards?
l. VISA requirements?
m. Consider printing maps of a city or locale. A tourist map where all attractions are already highlighted is preferred.
4. If you're done with the above, then congratulate yourself. By now, you have a very good idea of what to expect from each place you plan to visit. The next step is optional but sometimes, I still make an effort to do it.
I look for the best places to eat. If they're close to the attractions I've chosen, all the better. I try to search for places that have unique dishes or have a unique ambiance (Taiwan's Modern Toilet, anyone?). Just be prepared that the menu prices don't give you a surprise. If possible, see if you can view the actual menu.
5. The next step is one of the most important, finding the right accommodation. First, if you're having a long trip, decide how long you will stay at one place or city. See how many nights you need to book. If you're taking an overnight transportation to somewhere, do you still need an additional night?
Consider guesthouses or inns. If you don't plan to stay very long in the room and only use it to sleep, do you really need other luxuries? For example, a television may not really be that important to have in a room. For me, though, a basic necessity is a private bathroom. Safety is also a primary concern, though I also sleep with my valuables like money or small electronic gadgets under my pillow.
As usual, location, location, location. If your hotel or inn isn't close to the attractions, it must at least be close to a subway or bus stop. Read reviews of the place. No matter how safe the place looks, never leave your valuables in the room.
The most common sites I use to book are Hostelworld and Hostelbookers. If you check reviews, make sure there are a good number of feedback and not merely 5 or less. For local Philippine inns and hostels, I usually rely on recommendations from PinoyExchange.com.
6. Souvenirs. Often, I need to buy souvenirs in bulk to give to office mates and family. Your best bet for this is the local market. But see if you can find other places.
7. The last thing I do, but certainly not the least important, is to google the place for tourist scams. It always pays to be careful. I was saved from one such scam in the Vietnam Airport because I knew of it. Otherwise, we would have forked over $10 for a $0.5 fee. Taxi scams are common all over the world. I only take a taxi if I don't have any other choice.
That's it! Have an enjoyable and safe trip!