Planning your own foreign trip, with Sri Lanka as example

22nd Nov 2018

This guide is about how I went about planning my own Sri Lanka trip. My actual itinerary and travelogue will be published in a separate post after I complete the trip. This is supposed to help you provide resources and steps in planning any trip your own, and is based on a series of steps I follow when I need to plan any foreign trip.

When & Duration

First thing to plan is when you will travel, and for how long. Generally each place a peak season and off-peak season. Peak tourist season is characterized by significant event, good weather, but crowded places, long queues, and higher airfare/hotel/sightseeing charges. Off-season provides cheaper travel experience but almost unfriendly weather which can impact your experience. A decent option is transition between off-peak to peak, also called shoulder season, which offers a reasonable compromise between both experiences.

Open ended search on Skyscanner (e.g. from Chennai) can tell you what's cheapest airfare you can expect to your desired destination. Now you can compare your own airfare for proposed period against this to decide if your period of travel, and any excess airfare is acceptable for you or not. Based on your vacations, leaves, personal desires, and so on you can choose to pay little (or very) more than cheapest fare for your proposed period. You can also play around few other months to check what's suitable costing for you. You can also go to Wikitravel to find if your period will have good enough weather. This decides your when.

New go to few tour operators to find out duration of ready-made packages to your destination. Selecting your holiday destination on (e.g.) MakeMyTrip, TravelTriangle, ThomasCook, and SOTC can give you idea of typical duration (and cost) of trip. For Sri Lanka, this was about 4-7 days. Quick Google search or Tripoto search can confirm your decision. This whole thing shouldn't take more than 15 minute as our focus is just overall duration and not cost and not itinerary. For Sri Lanka, I realized that less than 5 is too short and more than 10 is probably too long. This decides your duration.

Flight Tickets

Flights being most expensive component, you want to nail this down first. Create permutations for duration based on your decision, say 22-28, or 23-29, or 22-29, etc. to find suitable option based on fare and convenience. I usually look at few websites like,,, airline's own website, and few offers if available on credit cards I hold and book the tickets. This step can take 1-2 hours across days.

You may be tempted to try out many websites and offers, but my lesson is that these days prices are pretty consistent across portals and any offer is mostly teaser and benefit will be lost in transaction fee or convenience fee. Prices tend to go up (Murphy's law) during your search period so you should just book within 1-2 days. Do keep in mind arrival and departure times of flights and travel times too (and not just airfare) since odd timings may add to hotel at origin station, or have inconvenience of night wait at airport, or cost of extra meal, or unreasonable cost of airport transfer, and so on. Airfare cost alone isn't everything!

Your Itinerary

This is biggest and most time consuming process. Goal of this is to come up with cities you will stay in, and number of days within each, and transport between cities. This step may take 4-40 hours of time depending on how much in detail you want to go!

You will have to read a lot! Refer itineraries on tour operators websites,, itineraries, and TripAdvisor forum's to identify potential cities you may be interested in. You can plot these on Google Maps to plan a route which is roughly circular and doesn't required returning back, and minimizes overall travel distance and time. You can also get broad sense of distance and travel times between places so that you can incorporate travel time between cities in your daily plans. You need to decide if day of travel can also accommodate some sight seeing or will only be spent in travel due to distance and exhaustion.

Refer to TripAdvisor's Things to Do for those places to decide for yourself what things will interest you - not every tourist spot works for everyone, I like slow paced vacations, and not much interested in historical buildings, for example - and how long you think you need to cover those. Read TripAdvisor reviews of tourist spots and see pictures. Split things into 'Must See' and 'Good to See' and 'Avoid' options based on your preference, cost and reviews. This will broadly inform how many days are needed to cover each city. Do note that many places may have ticket cost which isn't easily available (may have to read few reviews), or free days (may have to check attraction's website), or closed days (e.g. every Tuesday), or limited opening (e.g. morning 10am-2pm) which you need to factor in deciding your local route. Use existing itineraries to double-check you duration at each city. At this stage, you can also drop a city from your plan, or choose between cities if you are in two minds. You will have to decide if you want to shift hotel at each city, or can cover one city with another city as base in day's round-trip.

For each place of stay, plot your sight seeing places on Google Maps to broadly understand density of activities which will later on help guide your hotel location and need for local transport.

Based on previous itineraries, your comfort level, and cost comparison you can also decide if you will drive your car (not an option for Sri Lanka), take public transport (an option if you are adventurous, in Sri Lanka), or have dedicated cab for full duration. Documents on TripAdvisor's Sri Lanka forum have good information on this. Given that I was travelling with family and prioritized convenience, I chose to go with dedicated cab.

Once your itineraries and places of interest are finalized, you will have to decide if you need to pre-book anything. For instance, Safari at National Parks in Sri Lanka may be pre-booked (but will cost extra) or booked via hotel or done on the spot. Similarly for Whale Watching tours at beaches.

It may be also useful to check out unique and interesting places to eat and local cuisine and delicacies at each places to experience the authentic experience.

You can also search groupon to find offers related to or around your tourist spots. Sometimes it can provide cheap/unique add-ons to your plans or new experiences to try on.

Local Transport

Every country has different options with different cost, and you need to read a lot to find out what will work for you. Rome2Rio is good portal to quickly get list of various available options for local transport. As mentioned above, I decided to go with dedicated cab and hence shot an email to key tour operators Tangerine Tours, Red Dot Tours, Walkers Tour, and few others from google search. I also dropped an inquiry at which is informal collective of non-branded operators (link found from TripAdvisor's forum).

After comparing cost, few Q&A based on what is covered and what is not covered, and comparing cost of all day hire, or partial hire I decided to go with one operator. Before finalizing the operator, I read its review on Facebook and TripAdvisor, wherever possible, since not all operator have reviews. Be careful to not just go by star-rating but read reviews. It takes time but there are lots of fake reviews! Reviews which are not accompanied by description, or timed in short duration are suspect. You can even click on reviewers on FB to see their profile and ascertain if they are genuine tourists or not. I found many times operators or drivers or folks based in Sri Lanka themselves were giving 5* to their page. I also found few operator having multiple FB pages. All these are unreliable in my mind, though of course I cannot claim that for certainty as I didn't avail their services.

You can also search on airport transfer options, based on your flight timings. Most airports will have taxis available 24x7 but public transport may be cheaper. You can go through airport's website or search web to find suitable options. Your hotel may offer too though that's likely to be expensive. Pre-booking may work, or maybe expensive. Uber is omnipresent but every country has it's local taxi network as well.

For some locations, on the spot taxi or car will come out to be cheaper than prior booking. This is more likely to be true in Asia (e.g. Thailand, India, Sri Lanka based on our experience). Since you will need to get into search and negotiation at every trip, you can take call on trade off on convenience versus cost.

As everywhere, evaluate options holistically for convenience and freedom and not just on price. You don't want to spoil you 100k vacations for saving 5k. Since vacations are experiences, day to day convenience matters a lot in making those memories happy or unhappy!


Hotels may not be very expensive in overall cost of trip, but have undue influence in your vacation experience. Different countries have different hotel booking websites which work better.,, and are good ones to start wtih. AirBnB can be explored and can come out cheaper for Europe and US, but for Asia hotel operators have flooded listing on and it's not much different. Your map of tourist spots will come handy here and you can select few hotels based on budget, amenities, views, breakfast, and location on map. Go through pictures and customer reviews of hotel on TripAdvisor and Facebook to filter out some, and do remember to keep you 'fake review' detector on.

Do remember to email or call hotel to confirm the booking, and don't just rely on booking portal's confirmation. Many a times inventory is not be updated or hotel may simply overbook and refuse you. You don't want to stuck searching at last minute in foreign country. If you are staying longer at one place, or like to cook in, you can search hotel with kitchen. Hostels and dormitories are good options if you are single or have tight budget.

Visa, Forex, and SIM

There are multiple guides on this on web and this is standard official process so you have to do what you have to do. For Europe, I have heard that some countries are more lenient than others in granting Schengen Visa so your itinerary should keep that in mind as port of entry. For every other country, your Visa is specific to that country so you follow official process. Sri Lanka Visa is online approval which took less than 30 min to fill and 5 min for approval.

These days you will be carrying combination of foreign-currency pre-paid card and foreign-currency cash for your trip. Based on hotel cost, local transport cost, meal cost, attraction fee, and healthy buffer you can estimate how much to carry. Depending on acceptance of card vs cash you can split your amount. For Sri Lanka, you need to convert into local currency in destination only and carrying USD is recommended, though INR may also be acceptable. TripAdvisor forums had good information on where to exchange money.

Similarly local SIM card from airport, city, or pre-paid SIM card from your origin country can be taken based on price and convenience. For Sri Lanka, general advise is to take local SIM from the city. You may search for telecom operator with decent coverage at cities in your itineraries. Google, google and google away!

Other Things

For some countries, you will be required to, or advised to take travel insurance and health insurance. Find suitable insurer from your origin country, or compare with WorldNomads. If you are self-driving, you need to find convenient, reliable and cheap car rental company. Few other things to bother are transit visa, luggage allowance on your flight, and frequent flyer miles for your trip.

As I've highlighted few times, I believe end goal of travel is to enrich experience and build memories and not cover places - though in place of travel and not in your hotel room! Learning bits of phrases in local language saying "thank you", "great food", "very good", "got it/okay", "how are you" can add to this experience by adding positiveness to your interactions.

Plan and Unplan

There are generally two types of people in travel - those who plan everything, and those who leave everything impromptu. Depending on your persona and comfort level, you can plan further minute details of your day, or leave everything unplanned except flight tickets. Despite all the planning, you have to remember that things may take longer than expected, or unexpected hiccups may occur, or unplanned activities may be found interesting. Travel is for fun, and you shouldn't have to skip fun because you planned way too much! On the other hand, after visiting you may realize that somethings could have been done differently and better, and that's okay! Not everything will be perfect, and least you can do after coming back is to put your advise in travelogue to help someone else next time around!