I was talking to someone recently, and this person asked the question "How do you choose which countries you visit?"
When I heard that question, it got me thinking about how I actually plan these trips out. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I do actually have something of a method to this madness. It is not just me throwing a dart at a map and then heading there. Instead, planning a trip often (but not always) starts several months in advance although there have been times where I've planned a trip in a matter of hours mainly due to procrastination or the occasional exhaustion that comes from figuring out flight and travel routes.
Here is a step-by-step account of how I go about choosing which countries which visit.
1) Look at a List of Visa-Free Countries
When I'm planning a trip, the first thing I do is I refer to my list of countries that Americans can get into visa free. Generally, I would just use Wikipedia, but as an educator, I know very well that Wikipedia's information is not always accurate. Therefore, I use Wikipedia as an introductory source to see what is needed. I then go to the US State Department Travel website and type in the country I want to visit. This has the most up-to-date information, and it goes into detail on what kind of documents are needed for each country and what to be aware of.
It is well-known that my goal is to visit every country in the world. However, even though Americans can get into a lot of countries without issue, there are some that require a bit more legwork and finesse (Iran, North Korea, Democratic Republic of Congo, etc). At this current time, I typically avoid those countries since I live in a place where it is not easy to travel to embassies or consulates, and I do not really have the ability to deal with official paperwork where I currently live.
Generally speaking, I travel to the countries I do not need a visa for or that I can get on arrival easily. This makes Europe, Central America, and a decent part of South America relatively easy to gain access to since the visa process is usually little more than going to immigration and getting a stamp. However, there are occasions where I need to go to a visa desk or pay, but that is easy enough to do, and it usually takes a matter of minutes.
2) Look at Where I Have Not Been
Once I have determined if I need a visa for a country, I then look again at the list of visa-free or visa-on-arrival countries and choose maybe 1-3 countries (depending on the amount of vacation time I have). Generally, I try to pick countries that are in the same region since it makes it easier to travel and is a bit easier on the wallet. However, there have been times when I've spent part of a holiday in Europe then headed to the Middle East.
Weather is not the same throughout the world. While it might be winter in the US, it might be summer in South America. Whereas Europe might be frigid in winter, it might be humid and the start of rainy season in Southeast Asia.
Whenever I have vacation, I always look at the general weather patterns for each country. I don't want to spend a holiday stuck in a hotel room while a monsoon is outside, and I don't want to be absolutely sweltering in near 100% humidity. However, sometimes it is not always possible to avoid these issues, but this is an issue that I do take into account when I decide on countries to visit.
4) Airport Connections
I live in a city which has an international airport, but flights to foreign countries are currently suspended for a variety of reasons. Therefore, in order for me to travel to a country, I need to fly from the airport in the city I live to the capital city's airport, and then from there I head to foreign destinations. This is definitely an annoyance, but it is part and parcel of where I live, so it is necessary to breathe, relax, and realize this is part of life here.
Depending on the country I am planning on traveling to will depend on the airport that I end up flying to from the capital city. For instance, if I want to go to Europe or even Africa, I would probably fly to Turkey. If the goal is for more North African or a limited number of European countries, I would fly to Jordan. However, if I want to go east, the best options would be either Dubai in the United Arab Emirates or Doha, Qatar. All of these airports (Istanbul, Amman, Dubai, and Doha) are major hubs and have connections to a huge amount of countries that span the globe. Of course, they do not go everywhere, but they certainly offer more options than what most airports in the US can do because of geography.
5) Layover and Connection Times
Once I have a general plan of where I want to go, I then look at whether it truly possible to get there within a reasonable amount of time. When I choose a place, I always try my best to pick a place where the flight will be nonstop. However, this is often not the case, and 95% of the time, a layover is required.
I've experienced both really long layovers and really short layovers where I've almost missed flights. In general, I try to avoid flights where layovers are over 10 hours and less than 2 hours. For me, the optimal time for a layover is generally 3-4 hours. This is alright with me because I often spend time in an airport lounge and take it easy. Thankfully, most airports have lounges, so it makes the wait a bit more bearable.
Regarding layover times, for me, anything over 10 hours is too long and exhausting, and anything below 2 hours makes me nervous. Every airport is different with transit rules, and I once almost missed a flight to Nicaragua because even though I had an hour and half layover, there was a security check, and I was at the end of it. I only got to the flight in the middle of boarding because other people in the security line let me cut in front of them.
The biggest factor that determines what country I visit is price. This differs depending on whom you ask, but for me, travel is not particularly cheap. To be specific, it is generally getting there that is the most expensive part. I do consider myself a budget traveler to a certain extent, and once I am in a country, I have ways of keeping expenses relatively minimum, but when it comes to flights, it is the thing that I always expect to be the most expensive, and it often is but not always.
Generally speaking, before I commit to traveling to a country, I look at how much it will be to get there, how much accommodation will be, how much tours will be, and then I make a decision based on that. There have actually been places that I've held off on because of price, and the fact that I would like to save a bit more money before heading there. However, since I want to visit every country in the world, I know I will get to those places eventually.
Overall, those are the steps I usually go through when I'm trying to figure which countries to visit next. This is not an exact science and things always change, but this is usually how I go about trying to pick a new location. Every trip I have taken recently has dealt with all these issues before, and my upcoming trip in a couple of days went through these same steps although that was done in a much more rushed manner.
I'd love to hear how you determine where you want to visit? Do you have a particular system or method?