I’m an accountant and I love spreadsheeting. There. It’s out there.
So obviously for me, the first step to planning anything is creating an itinerary in Excel. This was actually vital for planning our long term trip.
First, we had to determine where we wanted to go and how much we needed to save. Remember my initial list was the whole world in a year? Right. I had to narrow that down a little.
Step 1: pick a continent. I had already seen a lot of Asia and would probably be able to visit more in the future since I frequently visit family in that direction, so it was really between Europe, South America, Africa, or Australia. (Anartica wasn’t considered.) My favorite thing about traveling in Southeast Asia was being able to experience and see the undeveloped world- the towns that still haven’t been influenced by globalization or commercialism. I figured Australia and Europe were both pretty developed and expensive (at the time)- so they were out. That left Africa and South America. Since many parts of Africa that I wanted to see were/are still pretty dangerous, South America was decided!
Step 2: pick the countries and have an idea for a budget. Once the continent was decided, I immediately borrowed a guidebook from the library to help me plan my trip. I went with my favorite and most trusted source: Lonely Planet. Using the maps and suggested itineraries from South America on a Shoestring, I summarized points of interest by country (each country had its own tab in Excel). I slowly narrowed it down by removing countries/islands that were too dangerous (Venezuela), too expensive and time consuming (Galapagos Islands, Easter Island), and fairly out of the way from other countries I wanted to see (Guyana, Suriname). Over three months, I narrowed it down to seven countries. From here, I agonized over what else to cut out. After another three months, I made the final decision to take out Brazil. I accepted that I would need more time to see the country and it would be a separate trip another time. The finalists were Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia.
Step 3: build an itinerary and budget. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the Lonely Planet guidebook was pretty limited. I started reading other people’s blogs, using other guides like Frommer’s, and reading reviews on TripAdvisor. I did a lot of research and figured out my must-see list. From there, I figured out the best time of the year to visit each country (I knew Machu Picchu had to be seen by October and Patagonia later in the year). I planned a high-level day-to-day itinerary and figured out the bulk of the cost from hostels/B&Bs, tours, and transportation (mostly flights). I stayed within a budget of $10,000 per person, including all travel costs and items of purchase (this didn’t include insurance or possibly covering the rent on our apartment in NYC.)
Excel is really a great tool to help you plan. Since I was budgeting so far in advance, I even found a macro to track currency exchange rates! My Excel itinerary is kind of the backbone of my trip, it is how I built my trip. But during the trip, I plan on carrying a small notebook with everything in it. It’s easier to make changes to and carry around. I can refer to the excel itinerary on my iPad if necessary. I can’t stand carrying lose paper and I can’t imagine carrying a binder around (I have friends who do this).
I love reading about travel and imagining myself in these new places, so doing all this research was a lot of fun for me. It was also exciting watching my long-time dream materialize.