woman hiking in machu picchu

Some trips belong on the bucket list. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tips + Trends

The Art of Planning a Wish-List Vacation: 8 Steps to Make Your Dream Trip a Reality

Dreaming of someday setting sail on an Antarctic cruise? Or visiting the ruins of Machu Picchu? No matter what future adventure you’re imagining, planning is key to checking destinations off your wish list. But if you’re new to organizing a trip, navigating the logistics and budget can be complicated.

Use this guide to learn how to make your dream trip a reality in eight easy steps, then take the quiz to discover your ideal, one-in-a-million vacation.

1. Brainstorm and research.

No two travel wish lists are alike, and a dream trip for some might be the wrong fit for you. Decide what’s important by surrounding yourself with inspiration. Whether it’s reading travel blogs, following Pinterest boards, joining travel-centric Facebook groups or asking your besties about their favorite destinations, use trusted sources to vet the places you want to go.

Traveling with a crew? Use Virtuoso Wanderlist to survey yourself and traveling companions to create a potential list of destinations and adventures you’ll love. Once filled with wanderlust, make a list prioritizing the places you most want to visit.

Maybe your ideal vacation is the red rock wonderland of Zion National Park or a Caribbean beach resort with your toes in the sand. Whatever your travel fantasy is, put pen to paper (or finger to touchscreen) and start building your bucket list.

woman trip planning with map
Research your dream trip and keep a journal with thoughts and plans. (Photo: Getty Images)

2. Make a vision board.

Once you’ve listed your dream destinations, use a vision board — physical or virtual tools designed to corral your plans into a single resource — to narrow down your options and start trip planning.

Go old-school and make a poster board of vacation aspirations using magazine photos and a glue stick. Or use Pinterest to build a virtual vision board that goes with you anywhere.

If checklists are your jam, hang a scratch-off map in your home and mark where you’ve been so far and where you want to go next.

3. Prioritize your top trip pick.

Just because a destination is number one on your must-visit list doesn’t mean it’s the right time to go. Shift your dream trip target based on your budget, health and availability.

Want to cycle around Europe? Consider booking that trip when you’re in great shape. Ready for a South African safari? Make sure you have the time off and funds for this big experience.

Another route for prioritizing trips is around airfare. Create a top-five list, and when you see a screamingly good deal for airfare, use that as your opportunity to book.

4. Create a budget and a timeline.

When you’re ready to start planning your first bucket list trip, determine when you want to go and how much it will cost. Divide that cost by the number of months before the trip to decide if you can save enough to make it happen.

If you can’t, consider traveling later, taking on extra work or choosing a more affordable destination. Create a travel-specific savings account and start saving now for future adventures. Track your savings in a budgeting app like Mint to ensure you’re on track with your timeline.

5. Hunt for travel deals.

While saving for travel matters, it doesn’t have to break the bank. Deals abound, but you must know how to find them. Even if you hate promotional emails, sign up for members-only deal digests to find weekly deals, from flights to vacation packages to experiences.

If your travel is date-specific, use Skyscanner or Google Flights to enter your travel time frame and find a bucket list option with the best flight pricing.

woman planning a bucket list trip at laptop
Use online tools and apps to help you find travel deals and more. (Photo: Getty Images)

6. Find “app-spiration” from mobile apps.

Living in the digital age has its perks: You no longer have to scour guidebooks for vacation ideas. Instead, turn to the wide world of mobile apps for trip recommendations and tools to manage your travel bucket list from anywhere.

Using Soon or iWish, add experiences near and far to your must-do list. Soon’s buddy bucket list tracking helps find a like-minded friend for your next road trip to Ireland or beach vacay.

7. Book in advance (when necessary).

If you’re tempted to wait for a last-minute deal on a spontaneous getaway, remember that advanced planning is required to save your spot for some destinations. From total solar eclipse cruises to tours of the Galapagos Islands, for areas that restrict tourism or date-specific travel, book way in advance.

Even if you don’t need to book far in advance, getting a trip on your calendar is one way to turn vague travel ideas into concrete plans and make your dream a reality. Plus, researchers say planning a trip makes you anticipate the excitement ahead and may make you feel even happier than taking it.

8. Be flexible.

Sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t work out. Whether a hurricane heads for Florida or a ski resort closes early due to a lack of snow, you may have to change or cancel a trip. But that doesn’t mean your whole vacay is a bust!

Protect yourself from unexpected cancelations and changes by checking your hotel, tour operator and airline’s policy. If they don’t offer free cancelation, add travel insurance, or use a credit card with trip protection to guard your investment.

When big plans change or get canceled entirely, pivot to a road trip or weekend getaway. Be a tourist in your local area and see close-to-home sights you’ve always missed out on. Use Google Maps to save must-visit locations and you’ll have ideas at the ready when a spontaneous adventure calls. Now grab a pen and paper (or the Pinterest app) and start planning your next dream getaway.