Trip Tip #3: Five Steps to Making the Grand Plan (by Carmen)
Where are you going?
This is the first question to ask yourself as the idea of travel transitions from fantasy to reality. The world is full of beautiful and intriguing places to visit so the answer to this simple question is never easy. Yet it’s an essential part of the travel planning process, or what I like to call making the Grand Plan.
TRIP TIP #3: Plan early and leave room for spontaneity.
Managing travel logistics is the less sexy side of exploring the world – a tiring but necessary coordination of details. At times it can all seem overwhelming. But there are steps that I use to make the process go smoothly. The key is finding a balance between planning too much and too little. Plan too much and you miss out on things you learn about by talking to people along the way. Plan too little and you spend a lot of time abroad figuring out your next step instead of exploring. Your personal balance will be influenced by travel style and length of trip.
Travel is so personal. That’s why I consider myself lucky to have found a partner with a similar travel style. We aren’t exactly the same – Nathan loves to push himself to see and experience as much as he can, while I like a slightly slower pace. But for the most part we have found a happy middle ground. I wrote this post as a sort of summary to how we plan our travels. I like to have a general itinerary of countries I’m visiting as well as an end date. I really value having an overall plan as it gives me peace of mind as well as events to look forward to along the way.
Yet some people prefer the complete opposite. They want total freedom to go wherever they fancy along the way, returning home at some unspecified time in the future. Such was the case with Claudia, a wonderful family friend who left her home in the UK and never really made it back. Instead, her travels eventually led her to settle in Los Angeles, where my family and I enjoyed her company for almost two decades. Claudia recently passed away and since then I’ve heard stories about how she would buy a one way ticket somewhere, have very little money and expect to be able to work her way back home. At this point in my life I feel that I could appreciate her travel stories more than ever. I regret not learning more about her journeys and adventures before she left us. But her courage to travel reminds me to push myself too. To approach places with an open mind and sometimes even an open-ended ticket.
So without further ado, I present the 4feet2mouths method for creating our Grand Plan. May it help you in determining your own balance.
1) Map your “must sees” and “like to sees” – The most important (and fun) step. First list all the countries and places you know you want to visit. Then consult friends and guidebooks, specifically the suggested country itineraries within the books, to get a sense of a country’s highlights. Narrow to a list of “must sees” versus “like to sees.” From there, it is super useful to have all the points of interest mapped out. I like to use the “My Places” function on Google Maps. I color coded the must sees vs like to sees then played a game of connect the dots. Soon enough a pattern will emerge that can become your route. Note: the same is true of planning within an individual city. Mapping always makes figuring out the days activities much easier. Be sure to pick up a city map at the airport or bus station you arrive at – they’re not always easy to find once you get to the city center.
2) Draw a rough calendar – After reviewing the cities and places along your route, assign an amount of time in each and compare that to how much time you have overall. Chances are you won’t have enough time to see it all, in which case you have to cut either time in each place or the number of places you visit. Brutal, I know. We had to cut out Italy and Croatia and Morocco and Egypt and Nepal and…well you get the idea. But we knew we couldn’t part with Greece and Turkey. Here is an example of my calendar process for those two countries: “I want to see a couple islands, with at least three or four days in each one, so at least a week for that. I’ll have to fly into Athens anyway so I have to reserve time for the city as well. Let’s just say 2 weeks for Greece. I can take a boat to Turkey and if I work my way up the coast that could take a week. Then I want some time in Istanbul so lets say at least two weeks in Turkey too.” Finally, put all this info on a calendar. This helps give the trip some structure without being overwhelming to plan all at once.
3) Buy your major flights – Almsot everyone has to buy at least one flight in order to start their travels. I use Kayak as my first step to finding flight prices, except in China where Ctrip dominates. I do not have any real tricks to finding good prices; they an go up $100 one day and then go on sale the next. I find this to be one of the more frustrating parts of travel planning – you just have to be diligent and patient and hope for the best! If you are long term traveling you will have an additional consideration: a ’round the world (RTW) package versus individual flights. Be sure to compare your options. We ended up saving thousands of dollars by purchasing five individual flights to make our way around the world instead of a RTW package. Of course, there is the third option – no flights at all! For true travelers cred you can cross the globe completely overland and oversea. I heard of this, but we did not meet people doing this. It sounds legendary.
4) Locate ho(s)tels – I’ve heard that most things in life can be only two of these three categories: good, fast or cheap. This is definitely true of figuring out where to sleep. The cheapest way to get a good night’s sleep is Couchsurfing. This comes with the added bonus of being immersed in a culture and connected to a broader traveler’s network full of some of the friendliest people ever. Our experiences Couchsurfing in Athens, Rhodes and Hong Kong were awesome but required time to set up. (Sidenote: Check out this photographer’s year spent couchsurfing, especially the ones on grandmas’s cooking – complete with recipes!) Time is also required to set up AirBnB, a great way to get a deal as well as a taste of local life. Whether you’re planning ahead or at the last minute I love using Hostelworld for the honest reviews. At the very least, look up where a few hostels are in the guidebook before you arrive so that you’re not at the bus station looking clueless while touts shout at you. We’ve done all these methods – from planning ahead to walking around town looking for a bargain. Again this comes down to personal choice but, for me, I despise that time wasted looking for a place. Especially if it turns out to be a holiday and everything is full. So my advice is to plan ahead if you can (especially for bigger cities) and know as best as possible where your hotel is. Nathan and I would embark on the Great Hotel Search upon arriving at a place and occasionally failed. Maps or directions can be wrong, there are rarely street signs. Every bit of information you can gather helps keep your sucess rate high.
5) Find food and fun – Here we come back to the exciting part of travel planning! There are some things that are best to plan ahead, such as volunteer opportunities or work programs, in order to really find an organization that suits you. I was also happy that I took the time to research and compare language schools in Buenos Aires. Vamos Spanish Academy was a fantastic experience with great staff and students. The rest of it you can probably wait to figure out there but I know I have a hard time resisting scrolling through local food blogs, drooling over my potential future meals. I generally find my blogs by searching Google, clicking the “More” tab at the top and selecting “Blogs.” Blogs eventually lead to other blogs and you’ll have some great recommendations before you know it.
I repeated these series of steps on various scales (country, region, city) many, many times in the past year and a half. I’d take advantage of bus rides or down time to do some reading and planning. Being diligent helped free my time in the cities we visited in order to just enjoy myself, eat well, take pictures and share it with all of you! Whatever your personal method, these logistics all work out in the end. The most important thing is approach travel with an open mind and open heart. As you take your journey also let the journey take you. As Claudia demonstrated for me, you never know where you might end up.