How to Plan a Long-Term Trip Abroad

how to plan a trip abroad
Writing “travel to Europe” on a “Before I die I want to …” outdoor chalkboard.

You know this much — you want to travel long-term. It’s time for a great, big adventure. You are eager to see the world. But how to plan it? That’s where it can be overwhelming. This resource serves as a step-by-step travel planning checklist, as it will guide you through how to plan a long-term trip abroad (and without the headache!).

Just follow these easy travel planning steps — from creating an international travel itinerary to booking your flight to your first destination.  Let the travel planning begin!

1. Create a very long travel bucket list.

The first step in how to plan a long-term trip is the “inspiration” phase. The goal isn’t to begin planning the logistics — it’s simply to get inspired. As you come across cities, sites and activities that pique your interest, write them down in the notes section of your phone.

Photo of a Lonely Planet Guidebook cover and a glass of orange juice.
Flip through travel magazines or guidebooks, like Lonely Planet, for inspiration. Mimosas are optional!

2. Craft your trip wish list and map it with Google Maps.

Look at the long list of places from step No. 1 and place an *asterisk* by the cities/places/events that most excite you. This new list is your trip wish list.

Using Google Maps, plot all the cities from your trip wish list.

  • Go to Google Maps. Click on “Your Places” and then “Create Map.”
  • Type in each city, and then click “save.” A star will appear over the city.
  • For activities/events, simply plot the city. For example, plot Munich if Oktoberfest is on your trip wish list.
  • Zoom out to see all starred cities. What is the proximity of the destinations? Can you visualize a route to connect them? Is there a cluster of cities in a region/continent, or are they scattered all over the world?

Add and remove destinations to your map.

  • Add close towns/cities: Let’s say that Rome is on your list, as you want to visit the Colosseum. You notice it’s near Florence, so you add it to the itinerary. “I can’t go all the way to Italy and not see Michelangelo’s David!” Trust me — you’ll start saying this to yourself.
  • Remove the outliers: Is there a city far from the rest of the cluster? Consider removing it from this trip and visiting on another occasion. For example, if the majority of the places are in Europe, but you want to visit Thailand, I recommend saving it for a separate trip to Southeast Asia (unless you are planning a round-the-world trip). With the rise of low-cost airline carriers, it’s easy and affordable to jet set around the world, but I find value in staying in a general region for longer and truly experiencing the area.
Map of Europe
Determine how to make a route out of your starred cities. This forms your flexible travel itinerary.

3. Plan a trip budget and duration.

What is your trip’s budget?

Money dictates everything. And it’s likely the most important topic to discuss with your travel buddy (if you aren’t traveling solo). Research the amount of money you need for the countries you are visiting. Are you on track to save a specific amount of money?

How long will you travel?

Typically, your trip duration is determined by the amount of money you can realistically save. Then, you can decide the duration of your trip. Do you want to travel for two months? Three months? A year? Do you want to travel until your money runs out?

  • If you’re a U.S. Citizen traveling to Europe, your time in most western and central countries will be limited to 90 days due to the Schengen Agreement. This means you can travel throughout most countries in Europe without a visa. If you want to travel longer than 90 days, be sure to leave any country part of the Schengen Zone and spend time outside of it. You must wait three months to re-enter the Schengen Zone.
  • Additional resources for budgets and saving:
Euro coins on a yearly planned.
Budgeting and saving money are two of the most important parts of planning a long-term trip abroad.

4. Choose the trip start date and finalize your travel itinerary.

Things to consider when picking your trip’s start date:

  • Is important to travel during a particular season? Do you want to lay on the beach or ski in the mountains?
  • Do you have a preference for high-season travel or low-season travel? Prices in the low season are typically more affordable.
  • Are there specific festivals, sporting events or activities you want to attend? A few examples:
    • Oktoberfest in Munich: Mid-September to early October
    • Christmas Markets across Europe: Mostly December
    • Wimbledon in London: July

You’re now ready to write out a realistic long-term trip itinerary, but keep it “flexible.”

When planning a long-term trip, you want the flexibility to change your route last-minute. When traveling, you learn about new cities and places that you didn’t think about during the travel planning phase. You will be glad you have the flexibility in your itinerary to add them! Because of a loose itinerary, I was able to visit new friends in Freiburg, Germany.

Be sure to add the number of days you want to stay in each city, too. You can use Google Maps to build your route or check out the many other fantastic tools and apps (such as RoadTrippers and TripHappy).

travel planning itinerary
A rough (and flexible) itinerary for three months in Europe.

5. Research transportation, accommodations and activities.

Book your flight to your first destination.

  • Set a price alert on Google Flights. Google will notify you when the price decreases. There are several apps that help do this, as well, such as Hopper and Skyscanner.

Research transportation from city to city.

  • Booking sites, such as OMIO, make it easy to review and book flight, bus and train options. You may pay a bit more than if you booked with the exact train, bus or flight company.
  • I find trains the most scenic and least stressful. Overnight trains are also a great way to save a bit of money! For Europe, check the train prices on point-to-point tickets versus a multi-city rail pass, which you can easily look up on RailEurope.

Research accommodations.

  • Hostels: Budget-friendly, community-centric. Staying in a hostel is an affordable way to meet other travelers. Before booking a hostel, review the guide to choosing the perfect hostel for you. You can then search and book hostels on Hostelworld.
  • Airbnb, VRBO
  • Hotels/Guesthouses/B&B: Search accommodation options through sites like Booking.com.
  • Couchsurfing

Research activities and things to do in each city:

  • Check out travel guides to each city and make a list of possible activities and sights to see. For Europe travel, check out these destination guides, which include things to do, restaurants, food/beverages, accommodations and helpful travel tips.
  • This is also a good time to research each country on the U.S. State Department’s Travel site:
    • Check for visa requirements.
    • Look at the vaccine requirements.
    • Review the passport requirements: To be safe, be sure you have at least six months of validity left on your passport before entering a country.
    • If you do not have a passport, apply for one ASAP

Something to note — if you want flexibility in your trip, it’s not necessary to book your transportation and accommodations far in advance. My advice is to research a few places simply to know your options. If you know your travel plans are concrete, book as far in advance as you’d like. Now, if you’d rather go with the flow, you can get away with booking only a few days in advance [and sometimes the day of!]. Just note, you may not get the exact hotel or hostel you had in mind (like on my visit to Salzburg).

Four bunkbeds in a hostel dorm room
Hostel dorm room in Porto, Portugal.

6. Notify appropriate people and companies of your long-term trip.

Register with the U.S. State Department.

Submit your trip through the department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, as it is completely free and will give you and your family peace of mind.

  • You will receive an email in the event of an emergency in the country you are visiting. It is also helpful for the U.S. government to know an American may be in or near the city where an emergency took place.
  • They will also notify you of minor events, such as a planned protest outside of the embassy or capital.
  • In addition to emails, like the U.S. State Department on Facebook and set the posts to “first see,” meaning it’s the first post you see when you open the app.

Post Office

Provide a forwarding address for your mail.

Credit card companies and bank

Inquire whether your credit card charges an international ATM fee. If so, research and apply for a new credit card. Reach out to your bank to inform them of your long-term travels and request only electronic communication. Write down an international customer service phone number for your bank and credit card company in case you have issues with your cards/bank on your trip.

Family, friends and employer

Of course, you need to share the exciting news with your family, friends and employer. Nervous to tell your employer? Maybe my story will inspire you.

7. Research, purchase and pack your clothes, gadgets and gear.

Packing clothes

Spend ample time determining what to pack for your trip. Many factors will determine what you pack, such as the weather, environment, culture, personal preference and luggage type. You can check out my detailed packing list for backpacking Europe. Two important packing tips for any long-term trip:

  • Pack as if you are going for 7 – 10 days.
  • Pack quality clothes.

Purchasing luggage

I recommend a backpack for a long-term trip abroad, as a backpack is typically easier to carry, and it certainly beats dragging a suitcase across the cobbled streets of Europe. The Osprey Women’s Kyte 46 Backpack has been my go-to back for nearly three years. It’s comfortable to carry and holds everything I need for any trip – whether it’s a six-day trip to Italy or a three-month trip across Europe. Furthermore, be sure to purchase a lock for securing your luggage/backpack in hostels and possibly on trains.

Gadgets and adapters

Research the type of adapter and converter needed in each country.

travel planning for a long term international trip
Everything needed for a long-term trip to Europe packed nicely in this 46-liter backpack.

8. Finalize the last-minute details of your trip.

Phone access

There are endless options to use your phone internationally. Inquire about offerings from your current provider. Other options are to simply use your phone when you’re connected to public wifi, or purchase a SIM card once you arrive in your destination. Before leaving your home country, ask your phone provider to “unlock” your smartphone so that you can put another SIM card in it.

Bills

Automate your recurring bills, and sign up for electronic notifications.

Insurance

Reach out to your medical insurance provider to determine your international coverage. Research and purchase a travel insurance policy for your trip, as well.

Login/Passwords

Import your important logins and passwords to a secure password storing application. Ensure that a trusted family member or friends can access it in case of an emergency.

Passport copies

Make several copies of your passport. Email a copy to yourself, give a printed copy to a family member and pack two copies.

International Driving License

Whether you plan to drive or not, it’s useful to obtain an international driving license, which is easy [and cheap] to obtain through AAA. While most rental companies do not ask for an international license, on a long-term trip, it’s best to be safe than sorry.

how to travel long term
An international driver’s license can come in handy on a long-term trip – like driving the Irish countryside with this car rental, nicknamed “Little Bug.”

9. Head to the airport … Prepare for takeoff!

You’ve planned. You’ve saved. Your bags are packed. You’re ready to travel long-term! Head to the airport and prepare for takeoff. Here’s to your great, big long-term travel adventure!

•••

Are you traveling extensively? Have you taken a long-term trip? Share your questions, ideas and experiences in the comments below.

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Looking for a step-by-step checklist for planning a trip abroad? This travel planning guide will show you how to plan a long-term international trip. Follow these steps to start planning your adventure!
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22 Comments Add yours

  1. Mandy says:

    Great article. I didn’t know you could register with the State Department. That’s such a good idea for longer term trips.

    1. Yes, I always do! I think it brings my family more peace-of-mind than it does me. However, it is nice to receive updates from them when I am on my trip (such as planned protests, events at the embassy, events that will bring large crowds, etc.).

  2. Great tips here. Been traveling all of my life so for me, much of what is in here is second nature, but pretty spot on! 😉 One place I would suggest you modify though is NEVER write down your usernames and passwords in an unsecure Word document … EVER!!! A far better alternative is to utilize a password generation and storage service, such as Dashlane, that will also allow you to set up emergency contact access and designated beneficiary access to your accounts. A written document is too easy to lose, misplace and if you have that Word doc residing on your computer, become the victim of hacking and nearly immediate identity theft.

    1. That is such a great tip, Michael! I haven’t heard of Dashlane. I am checking it out right now because you are so right – a word document is not secure enough!

  3. Omg, I love the idea with Google Maps, that’s what I do every time I’m planning a trip, be it just a city or more! Everybody tells me I’m crazy to spend so much time with that, but it’s so useful for planning the perfect trip. I’m so happy I’m not alone in thinking this <3

    1. I couldn’t agree with you any more! I love being able to star restaurants, sights, cafes, etc., on Google maps. It’s the best!

  4. I love all your trips here especially when you mentioned about looking at the map and from there lists all the nearby cities and what are the things you like to do. It’s really the things I do when we traveled but mine have an additional lists as I traveled with small children and or by myself with my kids. Great tips especially those who never traveled 1-3 months yet. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for checking it out! Yes, the “inspiration” phase of planning is my favorite 🙂 Also, I am sure you have plenty more “to-dos” to add to your checklist when traveling with kiddos. How neat that you have little explorers to travel with!

  5. Jane@abfabtravels.com says:

    Some really useful advice here. There are so many things to be aware of when taking long trips.We often travel for 3 months at a time and one of the reasons for this is insurance. Most annual policies in the UK restrict a single trip to 3 months and then you have to return home for at least one day! It is expensive to upgrade from this. Phones and credit cards are a nightmare. We have UK, Canadian and US Sims and buy others if we need them (Japan). Unfortunately I have just received a bill for my phone from when I did not switch to my Canadian SIM when we entered Canada from the US and I was using Google Maps! Think I will make a check list using your post!

    1. The three month insurance policy is interesting! I haven’t heard of that. And I agree with you – the phone situation is usually the most complicated. Have you used Google’s offline maps? When on wifi, you can download the map of the city. Then, you can use Google maps without using data. It’s a game-changer!

  6. nitnatshredder says:

    Ohhhh. I just love planning long term travel! This post is full of great tips. Although I always have a rough itinerary, I love having flexibility so that if I really love a place I can stay longer. I did not have a return ticket booked which is something you need (proof of onward travel) especially if flying.

    1. I completely agree – I love the flexibility of being able to stay longer (or leave earlier). Have you ever been asked of proof for onward travel? I know it’s required … thankfully, I haven’t been asked!

  7. Milijana says:

    Great tips. I would just add related to credit cards to consider using travel top-up / pre-paid cards that no charge international ATM fees (like Revolut). Top-up cards are a good option to avoid possible credit cards hacks, what’s is especially important when you are far away from home.

    1. Thanks for sharing that tip! I haven’t considered that on past trips. Thankfully, my credit card does not charge international fees and is very quick to alert of suspicious activity. But I agree with you – that’s a great option for long-term travelers!

  8. This is a solid list. I love all the planning you do. I especially love your use of Google Maps. One of the things we did was get an itinerary program like TripIt. It helped keep us on track and we could share the trips with our moms. That way, they would know exactly where we were and didn’t have to worry. They could also help find us if things really went south.

    1. Thanks for the note! I absolutely agree with you – TripIt is awesome. It’s so nice that it will automatically upload your itinerary/confirmations from your email. I didn’t think about sharing it with family friends – will definitely do that on my next long-term trip!

  9. Jerry and Fiona says:

    Solid tips here. I really love your take on not always needing to book accommodation – having the ability to be flexible is crucial. Knowing about inner city and inter city transportation however, is pretty important. Great article!

    For the budget-minded, I would like to add that pre-booking accommodation in certain parts of the world will cost you more in the long run – haggling for better rates by walking in off the street will save you money. Discounts for stays of multiple nights are readily available in these cases. Not always ideal to NOT know where you are staying when you arrive, but can be much cheaper than pre-booking in certain parts of the world like Mexico, Central America, South America, Southeast Asia.

    1. That’s a fantastic tip! And you are spot on. Typically, you pay a premium for peace of mind – knowing for sure where you will be staying. If a traveler is open to the flexibility and unknown, they will likely save a lot!

  10. Ketki Gadre says:

    Somehow long term travel just doesn’t not work for me. I start longing for my bed and my family back home, especially if I am out during festivals. You have listed some great tips. Hopefully someone will get inspired 🙂

    1. I agree – it isn’t for everyone. Ironically, I missed my bed the most on a 14-day trip versus a three month trip. Thanks for the kind note!

  11. Sabina says:

    This is a lot of good advice. I love trains too! I’m not sure an international driver’s license is necessary for Americans. I use my US license with no problem, but I guess some countries probably wouldn’t accept it. I like your advice about packing as if you’ll only be gone for 7 days. I’ve never heard that and never done it. It would help!

    1. Thanks for the kind note! The only time I was asked for an international driver’s license was in Dublin, Ireland, so now I always get one. It’s 20 bucks or so – I say it’s worth the cost if you’re traveling to many cities or countries. But I agree with you, probably not completely necessary.

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