I'm going to assume that you already have your time and money budget and that you have a destination in mind. Now for the real planning.
This is the first thing I really like to look at. This is your base of operations and usually your biggest expense. A little advanced research here will save you money and time when you get to your destination. A few considerations. First, and most important, location, location, location. You can eat up a lot of your precious vacation time by staying in a place that isn't close to what you want to see. Of course, everything is sort of relative, but you can save a lot of time and money by staying closer to attractions and not having to deal with transit. There are considerations though. Usually hotels that are close to everything have a matching price tag. This is why the map tool on travel websites, like hotels.com can be invaluable. I use google maps extensively when I'm planning. It helps to think of your potential routes and to visualize how close things are to one another. This helps in locating lodging that suits your needs.
Next, price of course is always a consideration. How much are you willing to spend? If your budget is for a hostel, of course, don't book a 5-star room. Amenities do count, but make sure they're the right amenities. Why pay extra for a hotel with a pool if you are not planning on swimming? In my opinion, as much as it's nice to have the glitz of a really top notch hotel, marble floors don't really justify an extra $100 per night. I'm more than ok with a hostel if it's just me travelling (more on travelling solo later), and some hostels do have private rooms, which is something to consider. I like a place that includes a fridge and at least a microwave. I've also done well with extended stay type hotels, even for short stays, when you can catch a deal on them for a short duration (places like Residence Inn, Staybridge suites, and others). They have kitchen facilities, often include not just breakfast, but also like dinner get-togethers or happy hours. One thing I like about hostels, especially if I'm on my own, is the other people there. It's been fun to meet people, go clubbing with them, maybe catch a museum, and have a friend from somewhere else. It's also a good way to find things off the beaten track, that aren't the publicized tourist attractions that someone just knows about. If the hostel has like a day room/food prep room, those are ideal. You can hit a grocery store and get cheap food, or even share with others and find new things. As far as security, do your research first. Also, don't be stupid. Luggage locks may not keep out a determined thief, but it will keep a curious hotel maid out of your stuff. Unfortunately, hostels aren't really a big thing in the US (but they do exist. I like the website hostelworld.com for finding deals), but extended stay hotels are. My biggest consideration is that my room is clean and reasonably comfortable.
The reason location is such a big deal is that it really sucks to spend half your vacation time either riding public transit or having to take a cab or uber to get to where you want to go, plus it tends to be expensive. So remember the trade-offs at the very least. If it saves you a bundle to get a room that suits your needs further away from things, is that savings worth the extra hassle and expense of having to get to where you want to go? Prime example is New York. Hotels in Brooklyn are generally cheaper than hotels in Manhattan, and while Brooklyn is nice, most of what you'll want to spend your time on is in Manhattan. Do you really want to spend an extra half an hour each day just getting from your hotel to what you want to do every day? Sometimes it's worth it, other times it's not. Just remember, what you're ultimately paying for with any vacation is time. How do you want to spend that time?
One other consideration, in a lot of tourist-heavy places, the best places fill up fast. If you want a killer place, book early. Especially if you're looking to do something like a major national park. Those trips I will talk about in future posts, because they're some of my favorites.
What do you want to do? The answers of course vary. I'm going to walk through a theoretical trip to one of my favorite cities, one I'm sort of planning a trip to for later this year in like October, Chicago.
I start by just doing a basic Google search of Chicago for tourists. There is hundreds of sites, some are better than others of course. I like trip advisor, but remember to read through a bunch of ratings and take things with giant grains of salt. I find there's too many people who will leave a bad review of a place trying to weasel out compensation or other things from the vendors. So bear that in mind. Some people just can't be pleased. I do find that a lot of the ratings for attractions are pretty good for the big things. Again, google maps are your friend. I get a good idea of what attractions are where, and at least in most cities, the tourist attractions tend to be in just a couple of general areas. In Chicago, there's the Loop and together with Grant Park and the Museum Campus makes for a good walking tour. There is the Navy Pier and Magnificent Mile area that also makes for another day's worth or walking.
The same can be said for San Francisco. There's the Market Street/Financial district area and Chinatown, there's the Fisherman's Wharf area, and there's Golden Gate Park that make up the majority of the tourist sites. Of course there are outlying things you may want to see and do, but by understanding how things are grouped together, you can minimize travel time between sites, and maximize your time actually seeing things.
Back to Chicago. If you notice on a map, the Field Museum (one of the best natural history museums in the world and must see, is next to the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. It is on the south end of Grant Park. Midway up Grant Park is the Art Institute of Chicago. All 4 of these attractions are things you don't want to miss, and the views from the Planetarium back to the city are fantastic. It's a doable walk, and quite nice, or even better, rent a bike or segway. I like to book a hotel in the Loop. There are many options. My last visit, I stayed at the Silversmith Hotel, which was nice. I'm a bit of an early riser and I absolutely love seeing a city in the morning. Most of the big attractions don't open until at least 9:00 am, but I like to get out a bit. So I walked from the hotel through Millennium Park and saw the Bean, then walked all through Grant Park, slowly because I was in no hurry, and took in the city, and the architecture (one of the best things about Chicago). I grabbed a quick breakfast snack, of a Chicago dog, from a vendor and at it while walking through the park. By the time I got to my first stop, the Field Museum, it was time for it to open and I was one of the first people in line for the day. When I was done with the Museum, I walked to the Shedd Aquarium, a little further down the way. After the Aquarium, I walked further to the Planetarium. By the time I was done there, I took one of those bike taxis back to the Field Museum. I wanted a good Chicago pizza so I stopped at Giordano's where they invented the stuffed pizza. It was a nice rest and then off again, to the Willis Tower and then the Art Institute. That evening we went to Soldier Field and watched my Chicago Bears beat the Green Bay Packers. It was awesome. The next day, we walked up Michigan Avenue, and to Navy Pier.
This example shows some of what I'm talking about. With advanced planning, I knew that the Field Museum opened an hour earlier than any of the other attractions I wanted to visit. I knew that a nice, enjoyable walk through Grant Park would get me to the museum right about the time it opened. I knew that not far from there was the other things that I wanted to see. I also purchased a Go Chicago card (www.smartdestinations.com) and it was a great deal. I will talk more about these cards in another post, but I love them. There are a few different ones, and some are better for some cities than others. Smart destinations sort of sucks for Seattle for example, but it's great for San Francisco and Chicago.
Public transit can either be awesome or a pain, depending on the city. In general, in Europe, I like it. I have mixed feelings about some of the systems in the United States, some are great and others are not. I love Uber, and the ride share stuff is a great way to get around for a decent price. Depending on where you are, and if the transit routes are direct and useful, or circuitous and expensive (San Francisco, I'm looking at you), public transit is usually your cheapest and fastest way to go. In most places you can get a transit pass for a few days that gives you unlimited rides for a relatively low price. Often these are combined with the tourist passes I've talked about.
So, going back to lodging, this is why location matters. If you look at the map, look at potential hotels, and find the best match for your needs. Sometimes you will find a place for the price you want in the place you want that meets everything you desire. Most of the time, you'll have to make tradeoffs, but just know that going in.
This can be the unforeseen budget killer. It is also one of the things I most enjoy about travelling. This is another area where research is a good thing. International travel has the added concerns of food safety (not saying you can't get food poisoning in the US, because obviously you can, but I am saying that some places don't have much in the way of health departments or clean water standards). If you're going to Europe or North America, aside from some of the more remote areas, you don't have much to worry about with food safety. So for now, I'm not going to really address it.
I like to do one splurge meal per city. This is usually a dinner, usually at a nicer, more famous restaurant. Michelin starred restaurants are generally on the amazing side, but if you don't plan your budget for them, and usually get very advanced reservations (and often meet a dress code) then don't even consider them. Famous restaurants are also usually pricey and too often tend to be a disappointment. This is a big reason why I take review sites with a giant grain of salt. Way too often, especially outside the US, people review something based on misplaced expectations. I've seen reviews ripping a restaurant because the staff doesn't speak English or because the food is not "authentic" when the most authentic Italian restaurant the review has ever visited is the Olive Garden. Actually reading reviews is usually a very good bet, and reading between the lines.
My mother is convinced that asking random locals is the best way to find a gem. To a point this works and I've found some really great places like this, but it's not a sure bet because, just like everyone, locals don't eat at every single place in their neighborhood and may not know about that true gem because they never go there for whatever reason. I do find that hotel staff is usually a great resource. On my recent trip to Glacier, we stopped for a night in Butte, Montana. Hotel staff recommended a couple of places, but it's always good to ask the follow up question of "where would you go?" The first places they named off were just the closest places. When we asked where they would go, they recommended a place called the Montana Club (and we found out it's a chain with restaurants in the bigger cities of Montana). It was slightly farther than the first couple of places they said, but not much, just a couple of blocks. We loved the place so much, when we found that there was another location next to our hotel in Missoula, we of course went there. So use this resource.
I highly recommend that if you are going someplace new, to try the local stuff. Whether it's a Chicago hot dog or goulash in Budapest, whatever you do, try something local. I really like street food. It tends to be much more budget friendly, it's the local taste, and most of the time even if it's not delicious, it's at least worth a good story. In Berlin, for example, the local street specialty is currywurst. It's just a sausage that they cover with curry ketchup. While it's worth it to try it, and they were around 5 Euros for a meal, it wasn't my favorite thing. But, for that price, not a bad deal. The variety of street food is also great. Some of the best things I've ever had, I found at nondescript stands at bus stops or similar.
Most hotels now include a breakfast. While I wouldn't pay extra for one, because usually it's not worth it, if your hotel includes one, don't skip it. One thing to remember, especially in Europe, don't take stuff from the buffet out of the breakfast room. They regard this as theft. So don't do it. Don't save it for later.
My favorite food experience in another country is to visit a market, whether it's like a farmer's market or a regular supermarket. It's interesting to see the familiar things like Coca Cola, but also how different things are, like eggs not in a refrigerator and milk in a box. This is how you save huge money, just like at home. If you can buy ingredients instead of finished food, it saves a bundle. Even if it's a simple lunch. One of my favorite travel food memories was going to a grocery store in Venice, Italy and buying a few things for lunch, including some fresh apricots. Now, any time I eat apricots, I think of sitting on the Lido beach and eating them. One thing to consider, when traveling internationally, don't bring fresh fruits or vegetables or other non packaged food back to the United States. If you're lucky, customs will just confiscate them. If you're unlucky, you will get fined and possibly charged with a crime. So don't do it!
I am not a huge fan of shopping. That said, most people expect to buy stuff like souvenirs. A few bits of advice. If it's typical tourist junk, like t shirts, shot glasses, fridge magnets, thimbles, bells, or whatever, the best place to buy them are in the tourist areas. There's lots of competition around, because most of the vendors have about the same stock, and so that's where you'll find the best prices. I like buying t shirts for various reasons. First, you can immediately wear them. This means you can pack less and don't have to haul as much around. I will do a post on packing later, but as a general rule, everyone over packs. I will say, if you think you just "might" need it, you probably don't and if you do, you can buy it wherever you are going. I think it's a lot better to pack light and buy yourself out of an emergency than it is to take a bunch of stuff you don't need. Pretty much anywhere you go, you're going to have to haul that luggage around and every ounce counts. So buying t shirts is great because they make good souvenirs, and you have to pack fewer clothes.
As far as other items, like Bohemian lead crystal glass, jewelry, things that have fewer shops and much more variety and are not necessarily intended for tourist consumption, don't buy them where the tourists shop. When I was last in Prague, I saw glass for about 4 times as much in the tourist streets as it was less than a mile away in places that didn't have the tourist traffic. Of course, the likelihood that someone speaks English is lower the farther you get from the tourist areas, but it's amazing how much progress you can make if you just attempt the local language. Most people will take pity on you if you're not very good. That said, I speak native level Czech and in speaking Czech to shop owners, they either gave me discounts or told me places that had what I was looking for at a better price. I don't speak French, but attempting to also got me a lot of help. Being a dick rarely gets you what you want. Don't be an ugly American. At least do a Google search of some the local customs.
Have fun traveling and I'll post more later.
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