How to Plan Any Trip in 5 Simple Steps

First things first: Pick your destination.

— -- If you haven't traveled in a while, planning a trip can seem like a chore. It doesn't have to be, not if you follow these simple steps. A little organization goes a long way.

It also helps if you start early. You can begin planning U.S. trips three months ahead of the travel date or five months before an international excursion. Just be sure to have flights booked 30 days ahead.

1. First, decide on a destination

If money is no object, you'll be flying directly to the city of your choice; skip ahead to No. 2.

For the rest of us, it's good to know some destinations are cheaper than others (but please note that the cheapest cities may vary from year to year).

U.S. destinations: Good value cities include Austin, Texas, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Plus odd bargains are always popping up; catch them by setting an airfare alert for whatever city that intrigues you.

Europe destinations: Regions that traditionally make the cheap list include Ireland (Dublin, Shannon) and Scandinavia (Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm). London and Rome remain on the pricy side but put Paris in the less-expensive category. Once you're in a cheap city, you're not stuck there, thanks to European discounters that fly all over the continent for cheap (but watch out for their fees).

2. Figure out where to stay

Friends, family or rental? If it's a hotel you want, you have a wealth of comparison options for budget-friendly rooms including TripAdvisor, Hotels.com, Trivago, Yelp and more. But also consider the less-traditional options on HomeAway and Airbnb that range from rented couches to apartments or even homes. If you'll be traveling in Europe and don't mind spare accommodations, you might want to check the listings on HostelWorld (and there are other listings for the budget-minded).

Tip: If something sounds good, toss out the very best and very worst reviews, then look again with an eye toward good location and specific amenities (maybe a pool or gym facilities). A super-bargain isn't much good if you're 10 miles away from the attractions you want to see but have few transportation options to get to them.

3. Plan your flights

If finding the cheapest flight is important to you, you must compare airfares. Sounds like a no-brainer but this simple strategy is often overlooked by those who have favorite airlines. The truth: No single airline always has the best deal and if you don't compare ticket prices, you could lose out.

If you do play favorites because of miles, and you want to use your miles on the trip you're planning, do not delay. Getting awards tickets is not as easy as it used to be with some airline miles programs so the sooner you work on this, the better. Tip: If you're close to the miles you need, it might pay to top-off with purchased miles.

4. Other transportation needs

You have your flights, you have your hotel, but how will you get between the two? A wealth of apps are out there to help like HopStop with information on trains, buses, subways and other public transportation. Consider the wildly popular Uber and Lyft options, too (sign up ahead of time, it's all done electronically).

Also, contact your hotel (call the local number) to see whether they have airport shuttle service and if you have to pay for it. If not, and Uber and Lyft aren't at your airport, compare the cost of a car and driver with taxi service; in some cities like New York, there's not a lot of difference and the extra comfort might be nice after a long, cramped flight.

As for getting around your city to see the attractions, I have two words for you: comfortable shoes.

5. Tie up loose ends

Phones: Are you going abroad? Get in touch with your mobile provider and find out what you need to do to avoid getting hit with overseas charges; AT&T, for example, has “passport” packages for international vacationers with a one-time charge ranging from $30 to $120. If you're an extremely heavy device user, consider investing in a local SIM card.

Credit cards: If traveling internationally, let the bank-credit card folks know you'll be out of the country to avoid frantic calls asking why a fellow from Iowa is suddenly dropping so much coin in Italy. Worse, you might get cut off, so make this call.

Passports: Don't have one? You can print out a U.S. passport application from Travel.State.Gov, but you cannot apply online. Note: Standard processing time for passports takes four to six weeks but you can pay extra for expedited service.

Speedier security: Now is the time to sign up for the TSA PreCheck program or Global Entry (for international travelers and it includes PreCheck). There is a brief in-person interview and costs range from $80 to $100. But membership is good for five years and you can't put a price on speedier airport lines.

Contacts: Put important numbers in your phone. Include the airline number (add the app, too), hotels, rental car companies, plus embassy/consulate contacts if going abroad (passports can get lost or stolen). Miscellaneous numbers to add might include credit card contact info, your auto insurer (if you'll be renting), the kennel you stuck Sparky in, and whatever else you think you need.

Packing: Pack from a good list. I don't have to tell you about baggage fees but the lighter you travel, the more you'll save so use a carry-on, pack sparingly and wear your heaviest-bulkiest items such as sneakers and your coat. Tip: Stuff all pockets with anything that won't fit in the bag.

Tip: Good old Southwest still gives us two checked-bags for free but a carry-on can't get lost and makes for a faster exit from the airport.

Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.