Monday, July 31, 2017

Planning part 1

The travel bug is biting and you just want to get out.  Where to go, what to do, what is your budget? These sorts of questions are the make or break of any trip.  Too many people do not do the pre-planning necessary to really make a trip memorable.  Too often people are intimidated and have little clue on what to do and even where to start.  This is why planned tours, especially to international destinations, remain popular.  You pay a fee and show up.  Simple right?  Unfortunately with too many tours, while you see a lot of the sites you want, you miss others because the tour isn't customized to your tastes, but to the wider tastes of the entire group.  If you want some customizations, either you can't do it, or there's a massive upcharge.

Obviously, I prefer to plan my own trips.  It may seem a bit intimidating, but really, it's not too hard. Planning a trip, just like planning anything, makes executing much simpler.  It is a lot easier to adapt to changes when you already have a few different options in your head, because all too often, our best plans never survive the first contact.  Having at least a basic familiarity with where you are going will help you adjust on the fly.  

So where to start?


There are two components to your budget.  Financial is the most obvious because when you hear the word budget, you usually think of money.  Money is always a consideration, but there's ways to stretch it that I will discuss in future posts.  

Time.  Time is the one commodity that everyone has in a finite amount.  When you go on vacation, you are essentially paying for time to do whatever you want to do with the vacation.  So the first step is to figure out how much time you have to go somewhere.  If you only have a weekend, you probably don't want to go to Europe.  How much time can you take off from work?  How much travel time do you have?  A consideration to this is how much travel time does it take to reach your destination.  The reason you don't want to do a two day weekend trip to Europe is that you'll eat up one day getting there and one day getting back, so at best you'd only get a few hours to enjoy anything.  The time budget also leads into deciding how you're going to go.  Are you going on a road trip, are you flying, maybe taking the train?  Lots of things to consider that are determined by how much time you can take.  Also, as you get more specific on your plans, you will want to get more specific on how much time you want to spend in each place, if you're moving around a bit, and at different attractions.  Also remember to budget for travel time between where you're going.  As you get more specific with your planning, this can get more specific.  Don't get married to the timeline, other than things that have specific reservation times.  Part of what makes a vacation nice is enjoying yourself, so if you find something you like and want to spend more time at, do it.  I like to build some flexibility into my schedule where I can.  That said, don't be late for reservations, departure times, whatever.  If there is a set time on the ticket, make sure that you hit that time.  Nothing sucks worse than missing something you had your heart set on, that was a once in a lifetime chance, just because you were late and missed your reservation, or worse,you get back to the dock and see the cruise ship sailing away. 

The other budget is money.  How much can you spend?  You need to have a number in mind, because this helps determine things like where you want to/can stay.  If you insist on first class hotels, then your money budget obviously has to be a lot higher than if you are ok with a hostel or camping.  One aspect that many do not consider when budgeting, how much do you have to buy to prep for the trip.  An example, if you are going camping, do you have to buy a tent, or do you already have one?  Do you need to buy new shoes because you're going to do a lot of walking?  With the magic of the internet, you can find things like admissions prices before you leave, so you know how much you need.  Even better, you can pre-book things, or my favorite, buy one of the various tourist passes that include admission to major attractions before you ever leave.  I love the passes, I think that if you plan your routes, you can save bundles of money, plus, they let you spread your costs for the trip out to months prior to leaving.  I admit to not being the best saver, so buying a pass for a city for $75 (something easily in my discretionary weekly budget) I don't have to worry about taking gobs of cash with me when I leave.  Recently, these passes have morphed into just a smartphone app that you scan when you get in to an attraction, so you don't even have to worry so much about replacing it if you have things stolen, you just sign back in to the app and it's all there.  I will talk a lot more about these passes, because I absolutely love them!

Things to consider with your budget: your biggest expenses will be lodging and food.  A lot depends on your touring style.  I don't care as much about having a posh, first-class hotel, but I like to eat and especially to try the local fare.  The good news with eating is, with some easy research, you can find places where locals eat that are a lot more budget friendly, even in tourist areas.  I like street food, but food safety is a concern in some places, so make sure you understand the risks and what to look for when it comes to eating street food.  That said, you can still get food poisoning at a Michelin starred restaurant.  As much as I like local food, I think one of the funnest and most enlightening things you can do on vacation, especially in a foreign country, is to visit the local food market.  Not only is this a good way to save money on food by buying much cheaper ingredients than finished food, the cultural experience is pretty fun.  It's fun to go to Europe and see that they have the boxes of milk and packages of eggs that don't require refrigeration (and for reasons, but we won't get into that).  It is also a great way to find good quality local products, like cheese.  that you normally would not find in a restaurant and are super expensive at a tourist shop.  Some of my best travel memories are just having a simple lunch somewhere that I purchased at a grocery store. 

One big way to save on food is to look for lodging that includes basic kitchen facilities, even if it's just a fridge and a microwave.  Often, you can find these sorts of places in the same areas and for roughly the same price as places without these facilities.  On a recent trip to Glacier National Park in Montana, we rented a cabin that had a kitchen and a BBQ grill on the deck.  The deck had an outstanding view, and we purchased relatively cheap steaks at home that we made there, while we just relaxed and enjoyed the view.  The steak at home cost $7, and was better quality than the steaks they were serving at the restaurant down the road for $30.  The cost of the cabin was about the same price as what rooms at the neighboring lodge cost and we had more room and that outstanding experience. 

Selecting a Destination

Now the more tedious aspects of trip planning are done, here's where the fun starts.  Where do you want to go?  Since you've already answered the questions of how long do you have and how much can you spend, you can start to narrow down your search.  The beauty of this step is there's not really any wrong answers, since you determine the criteria.  The only wrong answer is something that isn't what YOU want.  Of course, there are still plenty of things to consider, but now it's all about you. So where do you want to go?  

I will continue this later, so in the meantime, have fun traveling!  

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