Make This the Year You Plan Your Dream Trip

Check out our blueprint for bucket-list vacation planning that includes tips about where to go, how to find a travel agent and how pay for it all.

Make This the Year Your Plan Your Dream Trip - Couple Taking A Selfie Together on Front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

by NEA Member Benefits


Whether your dream trip is your upcoming honeymoon, your much-awaited retirement adventure or you just want to cross a destination off your bucket list, NEA Member Benefits wants to help you achieve that dream trip this year. Do you want to explore the streets of Tokyo, swim with dolphins in Honolulu, climb Mount Kilimanjaro or hit the streets of Barcelona, Spain? Here’s what you need to do to start planning your fantasy trip—TODAY!

What’s your dream trip?

Some people already have a very clear picture of that “once in a lifetime” dream trip. Maybe you’ve always wanted to hike through Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest, or explore the museums in Rome, Florence and Venice.

For others, maybe those who haven’t traveled that much in the past, it could be more difficult to determine exactly where you want to go and what you want to see and do. Sit down with a piece of paper and spend five minutes writing down locations off the top of your head that you’ve always wanted to visit or that intrigue you.

If that exercise doesn’t bear fruit, write down everything you love instead: active outdoor adventures, water sports, music, wildlife, etc. You can always turn to a travel agent to help you brainstorm possible dream trip destinations based on your interests. For example, if you love animals, a yacht cruise along Alaska’s Inside Passage or a safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park could be the stuff from which dreams are made. If your passion is cooking, you may want to travel to the famed cooking schools in Europe, such as Paris’ Ritz Escoffier or Cucina con Vista in Florence.

For anyone wishing for something more exotic, take out a map and look to some of the world’s far reaches, like Myanmar (formerly Burma), Antarctica, the Arctic, the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador or the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

Look to these resources for other dream destinations: UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Top 10 Happiest Countries in the World, National Geographic’s Journeys of a Lifetime and Patricia Schultz’s book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

Once you’ve narrowed down your ideas to one dream destination, you’re ready to start planning.

How will you pay for the trip?

Chasing a dream takes money, and that’s certainly the case with trips of a lifetime. African safaris can carry a hefty price tag, as can round-the-world cruises. Of course, there are bargains to be had, and you can look for those if you’re more interested in getting a great value instead of seeing a particular destination. Whenever possible, travel during a destination’s “shoulder” season between peak and offseason. You’ll encounter fewer crowds and book everything from flights to hotels to excursions at a discount.

But, we suggest following your dream and not the bargains. You’ve probably spent your lifetime planning budget trips. If there was ever a time to splurge, it’s on a bucket-list vacation.

It’s best to start planning for a trip like this years in advance. Begin contributing to a vacation fund savings account on a weekly basis. You may be able to set up automatic deductions from your paycheck. You may also decide to forego a few luxuries throughout the year and earmark those savings toward your future dream trip. Do you really need that $3 Starbucks coffee every day? Skip that dose of caffeine and you’ll save more than $1,000 for that dream trip in just one year. For more ideas about how to save for any trip, see “How to Reach Your Financial Goals Faster.”

Plan your trip with a pro

Once you know where you want to go and you’ve started a savings plan, it’s time to iron out more specific details about the trip itself. You can cut through the overwhelming planning tasks by working with a professional travel agent. Someone who specializes in your dream destination can customize a trip—perhaps arranging a cooking class in Paris, mapping out the best places to buy leather and gold in Venice or advising which safari parks in Africa allow off-road exploration and which don’t.

Most travel agents won’t cost a dime; they earn commissions from the hotels, flights, cruises and tours they book on your behalf. Good travel agents also get you preferential treatment at hotels—the best available rates, plus room upgrades or perks like an in-room welcome gift, daily complimentary breakfast or a spa treatment. They can also recommend less expensive options—like booking a tour through CostSaver, operated by Trafalgar, instead of a traditional group tour. When you travel the CostSaver way, you’ll take advantage of the company’s bulk buying power and save up to 30% compared to planning the same trip on your own. Plus, CostSaver secures perks—such as priority access to major sightseeing attractions—for its guests.

Find an agent by searching the American Society of Travel Agents database. Cruise specialists are listed at Cruise Lines International Association, and if you’re looking for an adviser that focuses on a specific type of getaway—say, a stay in a Tuscan villa or a South Pacific retreat—look at travel expert Wendy Perrin’s WOW List.

Make memories with fellow travelers on a group tour

If you don’t have experience planning major trips, consider booking a group tour. Expert guides can make any trip more exciting and enjoyable.

Trafalgar is one option. For more than 70 years, Trafalgar has been the leader of guided vacations giving more than 5 million guests the opportunity to unwind, meet locals, taste new flavors and enjoy their journey. NEA members get a 10% discount on all trips, and itineraries range from all over Europe; North, Central and South America; Asia; Australia and New Zealand. You can make monthly payments or receive an additional discount of up to 10% if you pay for your trip all at one time, and you can save even more if you go with a group of friends, have young travelers in your party or are a past Trafalgar guest.

You can also book group tours, hotels, resorts and cruises at a discount via NEA Vacations

When to book airline tickets

If you’re not working with a travel agent, you’ll have to make some bookings on your own, including your airline tickets. Whether you book your flights at the airline’s website or through an online travel agency like Expedia or Orbitz, the most optimal times to book airline tickets are Tuesdays and Wednesdays when airlines post fare sales, and 115–21 days (or about four months to three weeks) is one of the best times to snag a deal to a U.S. destination. But airfare depends on many factors, so it’s best to determine what a good deal is for your desired route and track it for your preferred travel dates. Then, when a low rate appears, you can act on it. Use the tracking tools at Airfarewatchdog and FareCompare.

How to pick a hotel

Seek hotel recommendations from family, friends and colleagues and read reviews from resources like Fodor’s, Frommer’s and TripAdvisor. Draw up a short list and compare prices.

Select your hotel based on your priorities: price, location or amenities. Finally, prior to booking, call the hotel to ask about any renovations scheduled for your travel dates. Nothing disappoints more than finding the pool closed for repairs when you want to take a dip.

Shop around for the best hotel prices using your NEA Vacations benefit, where you can save money with more than 300,000 hotels and resorts available worldwide.

Rent a car instead of using your own

Don’t put unnecessary wear and tear on your personal vehicle. Check out the NEA Car Rental Program that provides discounts and other benefits through Alamo, Dollar, Hertz, National and Enterprise. These companies all have locations at major domestic and international airports in case you need transportation when you arrive. 

Know when NOT to go

Before booking any trip, discern if there’s a time of year to avoid it due to weather, crowds or other negative conditions. Check the destination’s convention and visitors bureau to find when festivals and special events are happening. Consult Weather Underground for historical weather charts.

When you take these planning steps to heart, it will be easier than you think to plan even the most complicated trip of a lifetime. Start dreaming today and make a plan to see the world!

Book your dream vacation