Occasional Traveler

A collection of my thoughts and photos on travel.

Posts Tagged ‘travel planning

10 Steps for Planning a Vacation

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These are the steps I take to plan a vacation.  I’m on a fairly tight budget, so I tend to go over every detail to make sure I can stay within my budget.  I’m going to use Panama as an example.  The best way to approach travel research is to go from general to specific– reverse pyramid.

Many people prefer to just buy a guidebook and rely on it for everything.  I find that it’s best to gather information from multiple sources and purchase one or two guide books to bring on the trip for reference.

WARNING:  I’m a very detailed planner and  not every single step I take is always necessary!!  However, having a tight budget means it’s good to know more NOW to have a better idea of how much you will spend.

(1) Basic Information

First, the basics.  I research the best and worst times to visit Panama, as well as other practical information, such as safety, currency, language,  and other tips.

Frommer’s Planning a Trip
CIA’s The World Factbook: Panama

(2) Getting There

For most people, a huge expense for a vacation is transportation.  Luckily, my family has AA mileage!  However, using mileage means that there may be certain restrictions, especially because we want to use the least amount of mileage possible.  While tickets are essentially free, there are still taxes and luggage fees that must be added to the budget.

I’m no pro on finding airfare, but I usually start with bestfares.com (for domestic flights), and then look at the suggested airlines’ webpage.

(3) Best of Panama

I use the “Best of” lists to get an idea of the popular sites.   Frommers.com is an excellent source of information, starting with “Frommer’s Favorite Experience“.  (Frommer’s also has “The Best Natural Attractions”, “The Best Destinations for Families”, “The Best Beaches”, “The Best Adventures”, to name a few!)

Of course, it’s always smart to use multiple sources.   Here are some other helpful lists:

Lonely Planet’s Our Top Picks for Panama
Trip Advisor’s Things to Do in Panama
Virtual Tourist’s Popular Destinations in Panama

Fodor’s is also useful, although their Panama guide is split up by areas of the country so this will come in handy more so later on.  And, of course, Google.com!!  There may be additional resources that are just specific to your location.  These may not have “best of” lists but they may be useful in collecting information.

The Panama Report

For a 8-day, 7-night trip, 3 locations is probably all we can fit in, taking into consideration the distance between the cities.   Here’s what I came up with:

Panama City — Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal, Amador Causeway
Boquete — Los Quetzales,  Boquete Outdoor Adventures
Bocas del Toro — scuba diving/snorkeling

(4) “Best of” for Each Location

Once the cities are determined, I move on to make a “best of” list for activities/attraction/etc for each city, following a similar route with some of the same resources as I did in the previous step.  This basically expands on to the list I made above.

(5) Activity/Attraction Details

This can be done at the same time as the previous step, whatever is easier.  Now, I collect information for each activity/attraction, including hours, location, duration, and prices.  Then, I figure out which activities my family and I want to do most, taking into consideration price and location.  From there, I make a vague schedule to estimate how many days to spend in each city.

(6) Accommodations

Next, I pick out potential accommodations, looking for places that are affordable and within a reasonable distance from the places I’d like to visit.  Pay attention to what is included in the price!   Additional costs may be required, such as extra-person fees and taxes.  On the other hand, some places have discounts for staying more than one night.

In Panama, hotels often have two rates– high season and low season.  November is right before busy season, and thus, different hotels have different policies for whether or not the higher rates applied.

If a hotel website isn’t clear, contact them for more information!  Better to know sooner than later.  I prefer email over international calls.

Smaller inns/hostels/B&B’s s may only have a handful of units, so availability could be an issue. I definitely recommend keeping a list of  alternative accommodations.  Planning early doesn’t hurt either!

(7) Restaurants

While researching restaurants is done similarly to researching accommodations, it’s not nearly as important.  You can always ask for recommendations around town.  I prefer planning a couple of nice dinners and it’s nice knowing the prices before I show up!  I also like to locate good restaurants with local cuisine.

(8) Transportation

Transportation should be considered throughout the planning process.  The usual choices are car rentals, taxis, or public transportation.  The upside to buses is that they’re cheap.  The downside is that they’re very slow and may not always be available.

For financial reasons, I’m planning on taking buses to get from city to city instead of purchasing airline tickets.  Plus, It’s a great way of seeing the country from a more local perspective.

For Panama City, streets are often confusing and unmarked, making it easy to get lost.  Since it’s relatively cheap to get taxis in Panama City, I’m opting to get around by taxi.

As you can see, there’s no right answer for transportation.  It’s more personal preference than anything else and there’s always trade-offs.

(9) Put Together a Schedule

I like using excel or google docs spreadsheet– the rows are half hour intervals in the day, and the columns are days.  It definitely takes some tweaking to fit everything.  Check the details!  For example, make sure that an attraction won’t be closed when you get there.

Don’t make your schedule too tight!  Give yourself extra time so that you won’t feel rushed on your trip and if you can, there’s extra time to simply explore!  At the same time, make sure to give ample time for traveling between places.  For example, sources tell me that bus schedules are fairly relaxed and may run late, so I add on an extra hour or two (for a 6.5 hour bus ride).


sample schedule made with Google Documents

(10) Make Reservations

Make the hotel reservations as well as reservations for tours/guides.  Again, it’s good to have backup options.  Sometimes you show up and discover a hotel/restaurant/etc may have gone out of business.

Read the fine print.   Different hotels have different rules.  Some places require 100% upfront payment, some don’t require any payment at all.  Check policies for payment methods, cancellation fees, etc.

Always keep copies of price quotes. I recommend printing those out and bringing them with you in case there are any discrepancies.  Ditto for tours/guides.


10 steps might not sound a lot, but I spend hours and hours getting through these steps!

Be flexible!  Sometimes you realize part way through that it’s simply too expensive and you just have to go back to square one.  It’s okay!  Save the info you’ve collected so far for another trip and move on.

NOTE: When I collect the info, I don’t ever delete the ‘extra’ information that I don’t plan on using.  It’s helpful to have backups and you never know when you or a friend might want the info!

Any questions?  Did I leave anything out?  Leave a comment! =)


Written by Jessica

May 31, 2009 at 1:37 PM

Posted in Panama, travel

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