My personal experience when travelling has always been to plan the trips myself, I have only ever used a travel agency for special trips such as RTW and Antarctica. I have nothing against travel agencies but aside from special trips (ski holidays, trekking trips etc) i believe you can get a better deal when you book your own trip and with the Internet and various comparison websites it has never been easier to do so. I have included a few tips on how to go about doing this below:
The first part of planning any trip is to find and then book flights and one of the first places I start is doing a search on Skyscanner. This site is a comparison site for flights, it searches a mixture of direct deals from all the main airlines and some travel agencies. I also usually run another search on Expedia just to check out any other deals. It is worth searching on different days as flight prices tend to be constantly changing and sometimes waiting a few days can get you a better deal.
I always have a preference for trying to book direct with the airline I am flying with, there is a couple of reasons that i prefer this, firstly you can usually get the cheapest deals as many airlines have a price guarantee for booking direct. Also when you book direct you have more flexibility if things go wrong, an issue with booking through a travel agency (Expedia, Opodo etc) is that you are relying on the agency to let you know about flight changes or cancellations and if they fail to do this the airline will usually refer you back to the travel agency to resolve the issue if you book direct you dont have this issue.
In searching for a good hotel there are loads of good sites out there, the two I use the most are LastMinute and Expedia. Both of these websites will give you prices for a range of hotels in the area along with guest reviews and other basic information, again once you find a good hotel it is worth checking with the hotels official website for rates to see if its cheaper going direct. A top tip here is that if you find a hotel rate cheaper on a booking website than the hotel website then give them a call and tell them that rate you found and ask if they can match it, they will almost always match the rate.
If you do book through a online travel website then it is also worth seeing if you can find a voucher to get extra money off, for my last booking on LastMinute I also did a search on google for a voucher (Lastminute.com voucher code) and managed to get an extra £20 off. When booking on any site where you see the option to enter a “promo code” always do a google search for that sites name and promo or voucher code to see if you can find anything.
3. Airport Transfers
I like to be proactive when visiting a new country, one of the biggest stressors you can find is having a long flight then arriving at the airport and being surrounded by dozens of people shouting and gesturing at you asking if you need a taxi/tuk tuk/unicorn transport. The best way to avoid this is to do a little pre arrival research, the majority of international airports have good local transport options which can work out much cheaper than taxi/private shuttle and if you know where you are going rather than looking lost you are less likley to get hassled by touts.
This information can usually be found on the airports website under getting to/from airport which will have bus/train information. If you cant find any good local options you can sometimes get a good deal on a private transfer (when I travel alone i look for shared options), this can be found through a google search (airport name + transfer) or a site such as Viator. This option usually does come at a bit of a premium but sometimes it can be nice to have a bit of piece of mind when arriving especially when arriving at non english speaking airports which can be daunting.
4. Travel Insurance
This is one for personal preference but i always have travel insurance when going on a trip, I like to plan for the worst and having insurance is useful if you miss a connection or have medical issues (I have seen a doctor in 3 different continents so far, i have a thing about attracting poisonous insects!). I don’t have a preferred Travel insurance provide but i usually do a search on a comparison website such as Comparethemarket or Travel Supermarket and they give a good selection of options. The key things to look out here for are what the excess is (what you pay before you make a claim) and also to ensure that missed departure, cancellation cover and good medical cover (esp for USA) are included. Also if you are doing something like a cruise, skiing or hiking you will need to be sure to add these on to your cover (for additional cost).
One final tip on Travel Insurance, if you are a frequent traveller then it might be worth getting a multi trip cover rather than a single trip, this will cover you for the year (usually 31 days per trip) and it will be cheaper than taking out multiple single trip covers.
I almost always only take carry on luggage on my trips, sometimes like 2 week trips this is not possible but I strongly suggest this approach. For one it saves you having to wait ages to retrieve your bag after you land (I talking about you Heathrow) and also it means that there is no chance of your luggage going missing or getting damaged. I bought the cabin max bag from Amazon and you would be surprised how much stuff you can pack inside it.
I final tip, when deciding who to fly with it can be useful to fly with companies that have a shared mileage program, as the more miles you get the more chance you have of getting a free flight. I have had 2 free flights to Vegas and I just booked a one way first class ticket to Vegas with Virgin for only £350. I have found American Airlines to have one of the most generous air miles programs in terms of miles needed to get a free flight and as they are part of the oneworld alliance it is easy to earn miles. It is free to sign up to a mileage program and you can often earn miles with affiliate deals through credit cards, grocery shopping and hotels as well as flights.