Planning the trip of a lifetime is both exciting and daunting in equal measure. Where do you even begin? It doesn’t have to be a stress-fest. By breaking your travel planning down into manageable chunks, you can make sure you don’t miss a beat. This guide explains all the essentials of how to plan a round-the-world trip in ten easy steps, based on our own first-hand experience.
For all the practicalities of taking a sabbatical on top of travel planning, also see our ultimate guide to taking a travel career break.
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In this article:
How to plan a round-the-world trip: guiding principles
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your travel plans be. Round-the-world trip planning is a big task, so before you get started it’s a good idea to set some basic guiding principles. This will help to give you a general direction and philosophy that you can apply throughout your journey.
Lisa and I spent almost five years planning and saving for our round-the-world travel career break. From our experience, I can say confidently that the most important principle of travel planning is not to over-plan. You don’t need to cover every detail down to the places you will eat every meal, or arrange where you will stay on every single night of your trip.
It’s best to allow plenty of flexibility in your travel itinerary. You will feel much more liberated if you can go with the flow and mix it up when you feel like it. A more open itinerary also gives you space for downtime when you need it, something that’s easy to overlook amid the excitement of travel planning.
Some things make sense to book in advance, however. Your main flights and bus journeys, visas when needed, accommodation for the first couple of nights in a new destination. The big bucket-list activities and tours. But beyond that, don’t overdo it, and allow yourself plenty of wiggle room.
It’s ok to miss out on some things
Travelling the world will give you opportunities to try many amazing experiences. But even if you are planning to travel for a year or more, you won’t be able to see and do everything you want. And that’s totally ok.
You will need to make sacrifices. That means prioritising some places and activities over others. Don’t worry about the stuff you’ll miss out on – instead focus your energy on the amazing things you will be doing.
You may be thinking about your round-the-world adventure as the ‘trip of a lifetime’, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to do more travelling later. For us, it was just the tip of the iceberg. Travel is about finding new passions that you can continue to explore. If you feel like you didn’t see enough of a place, you can always come back another time and discover more of it.
You don’t need to plan it all at once
It’s tempting to set off planning at a million miles per hour and start booking stuff straight away. However, good travel planning doesn’t happen overnight – you should allow yourself time to look at the options and be inspired.
Take it slowly and enjoy the process. Maybe set aside some time each week to do your research and planning. As your itinerary develops, you will find new inspiration constantly, whether from TV programmes, reading books or just talking to people. If you pace it gently, you can gradually build these fresh ideas into your plans.
Be prepared for unexpected change
Round-the-world trips require long-term planning, and you can bet your bottom dollar that your circumstances will be disrupted in some way by the time you set off. This is all part of the process, so you will need to be versatile and adaptable.
It could be something directly travel-related, such as your booked flights being cancelled or moved, or a change in circumstances at home, such as losing a job or income source.
There will almost certainly be a few bumps along the way, whether big or small, so be ready to take them in your stride. Once you have booked your round-the-world tickets, you can give yourself peace of mind by protecting yourself against major mishaps. Our guide to career break travel insurance explains what to look out for in long-term trip policies.
1. The dreaming stage: write down some ideas
This is the most fun part of travel planning. Start creating your own personal bucket list. Grab a pen and paper, and write down some places and activities that you would love to include in your travel itinerary. Maybe you’ve always wanted to hike the Inca Trail or see the Great Wall of China – this is your chance!
Travel planning can seem daunting at first, so this brainstorming process is a great way to ease yourself in and find inspiration. You may find some ideas in our South America bucket list to get started.
Talk to people who have travelled
Some of the best travel ideas come from other people. Talk to friends or family who have been on a big trip and see if they have any recommendations.
This worked great for us. My best friend and his partner went on a six-month round-the-world trip a few years before mine and Lisa’s trip. We were so inspired by their stories and pictures that we ended up taking a very similar route.
Read books and watch TV programmes
Seek inspiration from the arts and the media. Start watching travel documentaries and movies set in different places around the world. Read travel literature. All of this can feed into the inspiration loop for your round-the-world trip planning.
Consider big events and festivals
If you’re planning a long-term round-the-world trip, it’s possible that you will be away from home during some big celebration events. For example, where do you want to see in the new year? We took the opportunity to witness the incredible NYE fireworks in Sydney. And what about religious festivals?
Long-term travel also gives you an opportunity to experience major local celebrations in the countries you visit. Maybe you’d like to join the party for Carnival in Brazil (February/March), Thailand’s legendary Songkran new year festival (April), Germany’s Oktoberfest (September/October) or Thanksgiving in the USA (November). The possibilities are almost endless.
Planning as a couple? Combine and compare your lists
If you’re planning a round-the-world trip as a couple, it’s a good idea to each create your own bucket list, and then combine and compare them. Lisa and I found this really helpful for defining our basic route, as it identified the ‘must-do’ experiences that we shared.
It turned out that we both had the Inca Trail (Peru) and Halong Bay (Vietnam) near the top of our lists. So we made those the basis for our journey. We began our trip in Peru, ended in Vietnam, and along the way we did our best to incorporate more places and activities on our shared wish list.
Friends in faraway places? Hit them up
Round-the-world trips open the opportunity to see any friends or family that live overseas. If you have any contacts based abroad, consider building a visit into your travel itinerary.
On our trip we took the chance to hang out with an old school friend of mine living in Peru, and an old school friend of Lisa’s in New Zealand. It’s always great to catch up, and there’s the added bonus of being introduced to a place by someone who lives there.
2. What travel style will suit you best?
Now that you have an amazing wish list of places to visit, there’s nothing to stop you from planning your travel route, right? Not so fast… there are still a few things you need to consider before you start building a concrete itinerary.
First of all, think about your personal travel style. This will have an impact on things like your trip timing, budget, the amount you will need to save, and the places and experiences you can realistically include. If this is your first big travel experience, here are some of the aspects that will define your travel style:
Slow travel vs visiting lots of places
Would you prefer to spend long periods of time in a smaller number of locations, and really explore them in depth? Or would you prefer to hop constantly from one place to another, just seeing the highlights and capturing a snapshot of the culture in each?
You might not figure this out completely until you start travelling and begin to explore what works best for you. This is another reason why it’s better to have a flexible itinerary, as it allows you to evolve. We found over time that our preferred travel style was somewhere in between the two I described above.
For the first few weeks of our trip through South America, we jumped from place to place, spending a couple of days in each before moving on. The nonstop pace caught up with us, and we decided to slow down and spend a week in a small town in Chile. We were able to do this because we had an open period of about four months between two of our main flights.
Have a think about the pace of travel you will enjoy most, and then you can apply it to your travel planning. There will always be room to make adjustments later on if you keep it flexible.
Budget, mid-range or luxury?
This question will have the biggest impact on what is possible in your travel planning. What budget level will you be comfortable with when it comes to things like accommodation, transport and food?
Will you be ok staying in hostel dorm rooms, taking overnight buses and cooking your own food? Or will you only be content with hotels, flights and restaurants? If your answer is the latter, then you may need to plan a much shorter trip, or focus on low-cost destinations.
You may want to mix it up a bit. On our round-the-world trip, we were happy to go for budget options on accommodation and transport, as it enabled us to spend more on activities and trying the best local food and drink. And occasionally we treated ourselves to a night in a hotel to give ourselves a break.
Budget Your Trip is a great tool that will help you estimate how far your money will go in each destination. It provides estimates on costs for budget, mid-range and luxury travel styles in locations all over the world. Also check out our guide to how much it cost to travel the world for more insights.
3. Think about trip timing and length
Before you can start turning your destination ideas into fabulous plans, you also need to think about the timings for your round-the-world trip. When do you want to go travelling, and for how long?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself when deciding on trip timing and length:
Are there any events at home you don’t want to miss?
Is there a family wedding coming up, or a major birthday? There will always be something going on at home, and you can’t avoid missing everything, but you can do your best to work around the major events. Check out our article on coping with long-distance family relationships when travelling if this is something that worries you.
What timing will fit best with your job?
If you are taking a sabbatical from work – or hoping to – this is something you should consider. For example, is there a period of general downtime in your office, or would taking leave at a particular time cause less disruption?
We timed our round-the-world trip to begin a month after a major event I was involved with at work. This meant that I wasn’t adding extra stress to my colleagues, and made sure I maintained a good relationship with the organisation, even though I was leaving.
What are the optimal seasons for travel in the places you want to visit?
It’s not just the timings at home you need to consider, but also in the places you will be visiting. Before you start planning a concrete route, do some research into the seasons for tourism in your wish list destinations.
Peak tourist season is not necessarily the best time to travel. It may be when the weather will be the most pleasant, but there will be downsides too, such as overcrowding and higher prices. For example, in our guide to the best times to visit Patagonia, we explain the benefits of visiting during the off-season or ‘shoulder’ season.
Conversely, there may be times when the climate will make it difficult or even impossible to travel. You may want to avoid typhoon season in the Philippines or deepest winter in Canada, for example. If you love hot weather, then you can try to chase summer around the globe – we experienced constant average temperatures above 25 degrees celsius for about nine months!
If there are any national celebrations or festivals you are planning to incorporate into your journey, you will need to factor those into your timings too. These will probably overlap and contradict with other aspects of your travel plans, so you will need to make sacrifices – this bit can be tricky.
There’s no perfect travel itinerary. Just focus on the things that excite you most, and remember that you will probably have more opportunities to travel in the future.
How long will it take to save for the trip you want?
It will be tempting to aim for your trip to happen as soon as possible. But is this realistic when you consider your travel style and the things you want to do? If you fix a departure date too soon, you might struggle to save the amount you need, and then have to downgrade your plans.
By the time our trip arrived, we were glad that we had chosen to spend a long time saving for it. We could have done it sooner, but the extra saving time meant that we could afford to do the things we wanted on the trip. It was worth the wait.
4. Set your travel budget and start saving
Now that you have an idea of the timing for your round-the-world trip, your travel style and the destinations you want to visit, you can set an approximate travel budget. Then it’s time to start saving!
Our essential guide to saving money for a travel career break details the steps you can take to build your travel savings in a way that is manageable and achievable. Hint: it’s not as simple as dividing your overall target by the number of months, and then saving that amount each month. It’s much better to set incremental goals and build up over time.
Will you need to work on the way?
If you do the maths and your savings target seems insurmountable, there are other options available. One is to work while you travel. This could be on a freelance basis, or finding local work in the places you visit. Many travellers volunteer in exchange for lodgings and food, for example at hostels or farms.
5. Plot a rough trip itinerary
With all the essential preliminary considerations covered, you can now begin to formulate a trip itinerary. Keep it basic at this stage, and simply plot some countries and big activities onto a timeline.
Our rough trip itinerary looked something like this when we first drew it up:
|Timing||Place / activity|
|June||Fly to Peru|
|July||Inca Trail in Peru|
|July–October||Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil|
|October–November||Trekking in Patagonia|
|November||Fly to New Zealand|
|November–January||New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, with Christmas and new year in Sydney|
|January||Whitsundays cruise in Australia|
|January||Fly to Singapore|
|January–May||Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam (traditional new year in April)|
|May||Halong Bay cruise in Vietnam|
|May||Fly back to the UK|
6. Book your main round-the-world flights
It’s time to make it real. Now that you have established a basic travel route (and saved some money), there’s nothing stopping you from booking flights!
Flights generally go on sale around a year before the departure date, and this is when they are usually cheapest to book. Therefore, the best time to start looking into this is around 12–15 months out from your trip.
There are different ways you can book your round-the-world flights. The two main options are to buy round-the-world flight tickets or to book your own regular tickets. Let’s take a quick look at each of these.
Round-the-world flight tickets
Round-the-world tickets are multi-flight packages that enable you to purchase all your main flights for a single price. You can book them through an airline alliance (which means all of your flights will be with a single airline and its partners), such as Star Alliance or SkyTeam, or via a travel agent, such as AirTreks.
This is the option we chose when planning our travel career break. We used the UK travel agent Travel Nation, who are specialists in round-the-world trips. We had a dedicated account manager who worked closely with us to plot our route and choose the right flights.
Round-the-world tickets are the best option if you want to save time and prefer the work to be taken out of your hands. In some cases they can also be cheaper, but not always. The biggest downside is that you need to fix dates for all the main flights before your trip begins, so there is little flexibility and it is costly to make changes.
This guide by Thrifty Nomads gives a deep insight into round-the-world flight tickets and the best ways to approach them.
Booking your own flights
A bolder and more adventurous option is to do the work yourself and book your own flights. If you can be flexible with your itinerary and travel dates, this will often work out cheaper if you know where to look. It also means that you don’t need to fix the main flight dates before you set off, and you can book as you go.
Skyscanner is our go-to for booking flights. To find the cheapest routes available, set the ‘depart’ box to ‘cheapest month’, and search ‘whole month’ rather than a specific date. There is also a multi-city feature that enables you to plot multiple flights, but it is quite limited.
You can also use resources such as Jacks Flight Club and TravelFree.info to find cheap flights via current discounts and error fares. This gives you access to savings that are not possible with round-the-world tickets.
The main downside to this approach is that it requires a lot more work on your part. Some people may also feel that is risky, as you haven’t got your future flights booked with prices locked down.
So, in summary:
|Round-the-world flight tickets||Booking your own flights|
|Pros||Saves time and hassle|
Takes the work out of your hands
One easy transaction
It can be cheaper
|Likely to be cheaper if you are flexible with your itinerary
You can book as you go
You can change or extend your trip with less hassle and cost
|Cons||Your flights are fixed to specific dates for the whole trip|
Any changes require a fee
Alliance packages may have limited route options
More rules and regulations to follow
|It's more work as you need to do your own research and booking
It's not guaranteed to be cheaper
7. Flesh out the details of your itinerary
Once your main flights are booked, you can start to flesh our your itinerary and add in more detail. You don’t need to overdo it, but it’s helpful to have an approximate idea of where you will be and when.
You can download our Travel itinerary planning template spreadsheet to get started. The first sections are partially filled out as an example based on our own trip.
Do as much or as little planning as you like. We found it useful to research costs for suitable accommodation, food and activities in each place we planned to visit. By the time we set off we had drawn up a full ‘provisional itinerary’ for our trip with basic costings. We changed it a lot as we went, but it was really helpful to have for guidance.
Use social media and search engines for travel planning
Social media platforms are a great resource for building your travel itinerary in each destination. Even if you’re not active on social media, it’s quick and easy to set up a couple of accounts and learn the basics for travel planning.
This is the social media platform we love to hate. But while Instagram has its downsides, it’s a pretty useful resource for finding inspiration for trips. Here are some quick tips:
- Getting started: download the Instagram app to your mobile and set up an account (if you don’t have one already). If you don’t want to use it interactively then you can set your account to private, which means nobody can follow you without your approval.
- Search for images: tap the search icon at the bottom and look up the places you are visiting. If you click on the ‘places’ tab you will see a feed of images for that destination.
- Go on a hashtag journey: if you tap the ‘tags’ tab in your search results, it will bring up a list of trending hashtags on that topic. Hit one and it will bring up a feed of images for that tag. At the top you will see a strip of ‘related’ hashtags – tap one that catches your eye, and keep going down the spiral!
- Save stuff you like: if you tap an image you like, you will see a ribbon icon in the bottom right. This will give you an option to ‘Save to Collection’. It’s a good idea to create a collection for each place you’re going.
- Follow relevant accounts: follow people and organisations that post great stuff on the places you’re visiting. Tourist boards, travel companies and bloggers, for example. Then you’ll see a feed of photos by all the accounts you follow whenever you open the app.
You can use Pinterest to collate and save ideas and resources on the places you’re going. It allows you to create ‘boards’ on particular topics (for example, destinations) and then ‘pin’ images to them. Your boards become a collection of cool stuff to help you dream and plan – essentially it’s like your own personal noticeboard, but on the internet.
Get started by signing up on Pinterest, setting up an account and creating some boards for your destinations. For a complete step-by-step guide, check out this article on using Pinterest for travel planning which explains how to get the most out of it.
Google image search
You’re probably familiar with using search engines like Google for travel research. That might even be how you found this guide. But have you used Google image search to its full potential?
Similarly to visual platforms like Instagram, you can use Google image search to find ideas and inspiration for your travels. It’s pretty simple. First, do a standard Google search for a place – try Laos, for example. When the results come up, click on the ‘images’ tab underneath the search bar. This will bring up a feed of images showings attractions in Laos.
You will see rivers, jungle scenery, rural villages, ornate temples, hot air balloons, agricultural terraces, and many more images of Laos. Click on an image that catches your eye, and you can then click through to the source to find out more. We’ve often discovered new and interesting things about a destination by doing this.
Follow some travel blogs
Travel blogs are a great source of advice and inspiration on travel destinations. We prefer to use them rather than big travel websites like Culture Trip or the Crazy Tourist, as the recommendations are usually first-hand and personal.
These are some of our favourite travel blogs to check out:
- Adventure In You – adventure travel advice and inspiration with a focus on Southeast Asia and Europe
- Along Dusty Roads – beautifully presented travel guides and photography journals with a focus on Latin America
- Anywhere We Roam – off-the-beaten-track destinations with a focus on socio-political stories
- Earth Trekkers – practical content on destinations in all six continents by a travelling family
- These Foreign Roads – travel guides with a focus on food culture by a couple of globetrotting chefs from Canada
Whenever you find a blog that has good content on your travel destinations, sign up to their mailing list to receive regular updates.
8. Start booking accommodation, activities and transport
As your departure date approaches, you can start booking in some activities, accommodation and transport. At the very least it’s a good idea to do this for the first few days in each destination. Here are some of the best resources to use for comparing options and booking ahead of time.
Resources for booking accommodation
- Hostelworld: find and book hostels and other budget accommodation all over the world and compare guest reviews
- Booking.com: find and book a range of accommodation all over the world and compare guest reviews
- Couchsurfing: a community of lovely people around the world offering free accommodation in their homes
- Vrbo: find self-catered apartments all over the world
- Also check out the best alternatives to Airbnb to shop the market widely for self-catered accommodation.
Resources for booking activities
- G Adventures: small group adventure travel tours and packages – we had a fantastic experience on their Inca Trail tour
- GetYourGuide: find and book tours and activities all over the world, with a lowest price guarantee and free cancellation
- Viator.com: tour-booking service similar to GetYourGuide – it often has more tours, but the cancellation policy isn’t as good
Resources for booking transport
- Skyscanner: find, compare and book the cheapest flight options available
- Busbud: find, compare and book the cheapest bus services available
- Rentalcars: find, compare and book the cheapest car hire options
9. What you need to do before setting off
By now you should be well on top of your travel planning, but there is still a pile of preparation and admin you need to get done before you set off. Luckily we have some great resources to help you through the process:
- Our long-term travel checklist covers all the essential pre-travel admin in detail
- Make sure you have everything you need for the journey with our long-term travel packing list
- If you are planning a travel career break, read our guide to maximising your professional development
10. Travel planning as you go
The travel planning process doesn’t stop once you set off on your journey. In this final section of our guide, we take a look at how you can stay on top of your travel plans while on the road.
What to do before you arrive in a new destination
Each time you travel to a new place, there are a few things you can do beforehand to make your arrival smoother and your experience better.
First of all, think about how you will get to your accommodation from the airport, bus terminal or wherever you will be arriving. Research whether public transport is available and convenient, or book transfers if needed. If you plan to take a taxi, try and find out the typical fare before you arrive – this will help you avoid getting ripped off. The easiest way to do this is to ask your accommodation for advice via email.
It’s also important to research any common scams and potential safety risks in the destination. Check the current travel advice, and look up scams in the destination on Google to educate yourself about the dangers.
You can set up news alerts on Google to receive regular information about what’s going on in your next destination. This might help you to find out about any interesting events, or warn you about any problems or unrest.
If you will have limited to the internet, download the maps.me app, and then download the relevant location map within the app so you can use it offline.
The TripAdvisor language hack
TripAdvisor can be a useful tool for researching activities, eateries and other things, but it’s not always the most reliable. You may have heard the story about the man who made a fake restaurant in his shed the top-rated spot in London on TripAdvisor.
If you know what to look out for and learn a few tricks, however, it can work really well. For example, take this language hack we’ve discovered. If you want to find the best local food, you can use TripAdvisor’s language settings to get better recommendations. Simply set the reviews to only show entries in the native language of the destination. This filters out all the tourist reviews, and will show you what the locals like best.
Read our article on TripAdvisor tips and hacks for more ideas on how you can get the most out of the platform, and travel reviews in general.
Speak to other travellers
Most of the best destination advice we’ve been given has come from other travellers on the road. You will often meet people on your way who are travelling in the opposite direction. Trade tips with them on your future plans.
Listen to podcasts
You will probably experience a fair few long journeys on your round-the-world trip. Podcasts are a great way to pass the time on planes and buses while finding new inspiration. These are some of our favourite travel podcasts to listen to:
- Zero to Travel – weekly inspiration including interviews with explorers and travel tips
- World Wanderers – a couple from Canada on travel lifestyle, stories and philosophy
- Wander Woman – behind the scenes of different destinations with travel writer Phoebe Smith
Keep reading too – it’s fun to learn stories about places before you arrive. I remember reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia while on a 24-hour bus from Buenos Aires to Bariloche. It got me really pumped up for our journey down to the end of the world.
Travel planning apps to use on the go
Finally, before we go… here are some awesome travel planning apps you can download to make your life easier on the road:
- TripIt – creates a personalised travel schedule from your confirmation emails
- Kayak – useful for finding deals on flights, hotels and car rentals
- Hostelworld – the app version for finding and booking budget accommodation
- Skyscanner – the app version for finding and booking the cheapest flights
- Roadtrippers – great for organising road trips
- PackPoint – helps you ace your packing list, customisable to your journey
- TravelSpend – for tracking your travel expenses
- XE – check the latest current exchange rates
Good luck planning, and most importantly – enjoy the trip!
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