Travel planning checklist: 11 steps to plan your trip

A woman doing travel planning with a laptop, pen, notepad, and phone

It’s a blast to dream about travel, but tackling the logistics that make it actually happen can be a lot less fun.

Whether it’s choosing from a bunch of tempting options, sorting out trip finances, or learning the art of savvy packing, this travel-planning checklist can help you proceed with more confidence and direction.

1. Read the reviews

It’s never been easier to research travel destinations. While we’re firm believers in the value of a good guidebook (such as AAA's TourBook® guides and maps), there’s also a lot of quality information in online reviews. They can provide recent updates on access, closures, fees, and the like, as well as serve up practical advice—some of which you’d be unlikely to find elsewhere.

Another source of up-to-date online info is AAA's new digital TourBook Guides, a rapidly growing collection which will soon cover a wide range of North American destinations.

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2. Research your destination's climate

Go beyond knowing that, say, Costa Rica is tropical and Hokkaido is snowy. Learn about the seasonal differences (or lack thereof), and pay attention to the average temperature highs and lows and rain or snow patterns for the time of year you’re considering visiting. This can help you pack the right clothing and gear, improve your all-around comfort, and narrow down your schedule options.

A knowledgeable travel advisor can be a big help, especially if they've visited the destination before—they can share what the weather was like and what did (and didn't) work for them.

3. Start putting aside travel funds early

Once you’ve decided on a location and schedule, you'll have enough to know your budget. Start saving for the getaway ASAP. Fulfilling travel doesn’t have to break the bank, and you can further lessen the financial burden by setting aside small amounts over a longer period.

4. Schedule some downtime

It’s tempting to pack your itinerary with as much activity as possible, especially with limited time. If you know from experience that this kind of travel works for you, go for it. But for many of us, it’s going to be exhausting and stressful, and we may leave feeling like we didn't get a real sense of place.

Break up the schedule with some “free days”—or at least some free mornings—for blissfully unstructured R&R, decompression, and a little spontaneity. Once you're at your destination, you’re going to find things to do and see you didn’t know about, and if you’re completely booked, you may end up kicking yourself.

Working with a travel advisor can help you better distribute your time, as they'll likely be more familiar with what you can reasonably expect to fit into your schedule, and more aware of time-consuming quirks specific to your destination.

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5. Test out new equipment

Planning a big backpacking trip in a national park, going on safari, or doing a guided hut-to-hut trek? If you’re new to these kinds of activities, you might make the all-too-common mistake of buying fancy new apparel and equipment but not trying them out until the trip.

Boots need to be broken in, backpacks properly fitted, and headlamps, GPS units, and weather radios tested out in field conditions. It’s no fun to find yourself blistered or chafed from ill-fitting gear a few days into your adventure, or that your expensive gadgetry doesn’t actually work. 

RELATED: Going abroad? Make sure to bring the right power adapters and converters

6. Pack early to maximize space & minimize bulk

We’d say leaving packing until the morning of your flight is a beginner’s mistake, but experienced globetrotters do it too. Packing in a stressed-out rush leads to forgetting essential items while possibly hauling a bunch of unnecessary stuff.

Give yourself a few weeks to get ready so you can be sure you’re bringing truly useful, space-efficient items and can play around with different packing methods to find one that best suits you.

7. Notify your bank & credit card company

It’s easy to forget this step, but ATM withdrawals and credit card charges from the other side of the world may be flagged as suspicious, and you may even find your card frozen unexpectedly. Let your bank or credit card company know where you're going and for how long to keep this from happening.

8. Bring backup credit & debit cards

Speaking of banking: Bring a couple of your go-to debit and credit cards on your trip. That way, if one is lost, damaged, or not working for whatever reason, you’ve got a backup ready.

RELATED: Don't want to carry cash overseas? Consider the AAA MemberPay Visa® Prepaid Card.1

Learn more about the AAA MemberPay Visa Prepaid Card

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9. Book your flight at the optimal time

Every once in a while you may luck out with a last-minute cheap flight, but generally, booking airfare in advance is the way to go. For domestic flights, several weeks or a couple months in advance is ideal. For international flights, booking as early as possible—as in at least several months out—is usually best. Remember, if you’re planning a trip over a holiday window, or to a destination during its peak tourism season, you’ll want to reserve your spot that much earlier.

If you're hunting for a true steal, working with a travel advisor can give you a leg up. They may know about the latest airfare trends and can help sort out what's really a deal from what airlines what you to think is a deal.

10. Research COVID safety & rules while planning

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made both domestic and overseas travel a bit more complicated, but getaways are still possible with planning. Research the COVID situation in destinations you’re interested in, check any travel restrictions, and contact hotels, resorts, and other accommodations to find out their COVID protocols so you’re choosing safe, responsibly run lodgings. A travel advisor can help streamline the process by, for example, guiding you to resorts that are offering on-site COVID testing.

11. Speak with a travel advisor

A travel advisor can be a huge help when it comes to planning a trip, from choosing a destination and finding the best deals to figuring out the logistics and many of the topics listed above. Learn more about why you should consider getting a AAA Travel Advisor's help.


AAA can help you navigate a changing travel world

Handling all the details is no small task when planning a vacation this year. A knowledgeable travel advisor will be familiar with the travel rules, testing requirements on departure and return, and shifting change and cancellation policies that could impact your trip.

Get a AAA Travel Advisor's help by calling our dedicated travel advisor phone line, submitting a request for assistance online, or finding a AAA branch near you.


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