There are two extremes of travel planners/travelers.
The first extreme is the “fly by the seat of your pants” traveler. This traveler, wanting to be free and spontaneous, often ends up going to museums when they are closed, pays walk-in rack rates for hotels in a late night bid for someplace to sleep, and waits two hours for the ferry when he or she could have slept longer.
The second extreme is the “plan every last detail” traveler. This traveler, wanting to have certainty in all aspects of life, researches and documents everything related to a trip in a master Excel spreadsheet (including money spent each day on gelato), checks off each site visited and rates it on a scale of 1 to 10, and drives his or her spouse/significant other/traveling companions crazy.
Most of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes. I’ll admit to being well on the way to the second extreme. But as I used to say to my kids – I’d rather have something when I need it, than need something and not have it (this doesn’t apply to packing however…).
1. The first tip from Captain Obvious is to decide where to go and how much time you have available. That’s not always so easy to determine. There are so many places in the world to discover and most people greatly underestimate the time needed to get somewhere and actually enjoy it as a vacation. This might be as simple as “I have two weeks vacation and I want to see the highlights of Italy.” Get agreement from your spouse/significant other/travel companion on this right up front (usually one of you is the instigator and planner, the other just packs the morning of the trip).
2. Decide what places to visit in your mission statement and how long to stay in each place. This can be a difficult call when actively touring. Staying too short a time in places makes your vacation seem like the Bataan Death March and staying too long a time in some places makes you feel like you have retired to Boca Raton to play shuffleboard. To help answer this question I consult various websites such as www.ricksteves.com, www.fodors.com, www.frommers.com, www.tripadvisor.com, and www.lonelyplanet.com.
I build a simple text document that I call the “travel plan” where I list each day of the trip. I start with the travel days on either end, and then add in the places I intend to be for each day. I usually end up editing this document many, many times before the day of departure. At first it is merely a rough guide, but it gets refined as I make more definite plans and reservations.
The travel plan is the repository of all of the information I need for the trip. I print out a copy and take it with me. It typically is only about two to four pages long, depending on the length and complexity of the trip. I will also bring printouts of any confirmation emails and necessary maps. As I go through the trip I throw away anything no longer needed. If you are bringing a computer, keep an electronic copy (perhaps also on a portable memory drive).
You might think that you will use your smart phone and just look things up as you go. Maybe that will work for you, maybe not. It depends on the type of phone you have, what country you are in, your phone plan and cost structure, available local coverage, etc. I prefer to go “old school” on this step since it’s much less expensive. Plus it is easier and quicker to look up what you need in your paper document than waste time on your vacation searching websites or running apps for details on your phone.
If you’re like me and can’t sleep on a plane remember to allocate one full day at the start of the trip to getting over jet lag and adjusting to the new time zone. Don’t think you are going to walk all over Paris on the first day of the trip or your spouse/significant other will push you under the Metro train.
3. Next plan out the routing between the places (i.e., the order in which to visit). Should I go in a circular route (for a round trip air ticket) or an “open-jaw” route (fly into Rome and from Frankfurt back home)? For this step, I check www.maps.google.com and www.viamichelin.com to make sure the route is efficient and logical.
4. Once I have the skeleton structure of the trip planned, the next step is to lock in airfares. I won’t go into detail on this because there are many resources out there on this point. Conventional wisdom is to monitor airfares on a weekly basis four to six months before your trip, buy the tickets 6 to 12 weeks beforehand on a Tuesday night, and be ready to commit to the purchase at any time you see a good deal on your route. I put all airfare details into the travel plan, including confirmation codes and phone numbers for the airlines.
For ground transportation I research train schedules before I leave home. A good resource is the German railroad website www.bahn.com, which I believe lists all trains in Europe. I copy the information on likely trains to take on specific days, including departing and arriving times and train numbers, into the travel plan. By knowing the train number in advance you can avoid confusion when looking at train information displays in the station that lists the biggest city or end of the line instead of the actual city you want to go to. For Italy, the website is www.trenitalia.com. Other countries have similar websites.
For the last few trips involving trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific travel, I arrange for a ride from the airport to my hotel at the destination. This convenience is absolutely worth the extra money and safer. I learned this lesson after getting into an illegal taxi in Beijing while extremely tired and jetlagged from a long flight. You also don’t want to navigate trains and subways with your luggage on too little sleep. Otherwise you’ll probably have a bad start to your vacation. A private car/shuttle service will typically meet you outside the baggage claim area, carry your bags, and deposit you where you want to go to rest, instead of…. well, that’s another long story for another time. Use www.google.com or www.bing.com to find this service provider.
5. For places to stay, I visit a number of different websites, such as www.tripadvisor.com, www.expedia.com, www.homeaway.com, www.vrbo.com, and www.airbnb.com. Depending on where I am going, for what purpose, and for how long, I choose whether to stay in a hotel, or rent a condo or apartment. I always print out my correspondence (including addresses, phone numbers, and confirmation numbers), and relevant maps. Sometimes I will look up the place to stay using Google Maps Street View or Google Earth. Consider apartments instead of hotels. There are pros and cons to both of course. Some benefits of apartments are kitchens to have breakfast and make a lunch, more living space, cheaper accommodations for families instead of multiple hotel rooms, and separate sleeping rooms for parents and children.
6. I use www.tripadvisor.com to build a small list of suitable, well regarded restaurants in specific neighborhoods of a city, including address, website, phone number, and type of food. That way I can go to a particular restaurant with some confidence of what I am going to get and for what price. Without such a list, I usually end up randomly picking someplace within view and have bad food at high prices (avoid restaurants near major tourist attractions for this reason). Beware of false inflation of ratings. I’ve found that some restaurants actively encourage diners to write a positive review, which skews the rankings. Also, before walking across Milan in August in 98 degree heat and high humidity, call the restaurant before leaving your hotel to make sure they’re open.
If you are adequately prepared with your travel plan, you can relax and enjoy the trip. You can have the right information at your fingertips, even when the battery in your smart phone is dead. You don’t have to use every detail, but having the information there allows you to be flexible and avoid many common travel pitfalls. Information is power!
Of course, if you are reading this on our travel clubs blog, skip all the dirty work above and come on an amazing, private adventure with us!
About the Author: Steve Skabrat is an avid traveler and has a fantastic travel blog of his own. His desire and obsession with travel has sparked the career change process from software engineer & attorney to digital nomad!