Many people have asked me how in the world I come up with some of my itineraries and if I had this all planned out when I left the US over a year ago. Granted – my previous profession was all about planning – budgets, resources, tasks – but I’m not THAT good at planning. There’s no way I could have planned my 1 ½ years of travel itineraries prior to me leaving! Instead – I do most of my planning ‘on the fly’. Sure – it sounds carefree and fun…but I must admit – it’s my most hated part of the vagabond life – mainly because it takes a lot of work. It consumes my mind until I can’t think of anything else but figuring out where I’m going, how I’m getting there, what I’m doing, and where I will stay – add to that the myriad of internet research (I don’t use books – I would have gone broke just buying all of them!), the hundreds of emails to hotels, travel agents, tour companies, and don’t forget all of the research on climate, travel warnings, conversion rates, and reviews. I normally go about planning 2 months at a time which means I am bogged down trying to find flights, hotels, transportation, the best way to get from here to there, and where I need to go to get a visa. I normally can’t rest easy until I at least have a plan. The old project mangaer in me just won’t die.
The review sites alone are mind boggling but strangely addicting. One of my favorite sites to use is Trip Advisor. It offers some good reviews by people who traveled there – not advertisers or travel agents. Plus it provides information on the type of people that did the review so you can know if you are reading a review from a honeymoon couple, a solo traveler, a backpacker, a business traveler – all these things matter. The addicting part is that when you do start narrowing in on a hotel or tout that you want to choose, then you start to read the reviews on the internet about it. You will find as many good reviews as bad reviews – your mind starts to swim – seldom is there a clear choice. You start to Google search randomly on the hotel to find out if more information exists. Unfortunately more information ALWAYS exists. You get so fed up with the fact that you wasted the last 2 hours reading conflicting reviews and clicking through to worthless websites – finally I’ve had enough! I’ve learned that I waste too much time trying to make the ‘right decision’, and instead I need to trust my gut and make the best out of any situation.
For illustrative purposes, here’s how I went about planning my trip back to the US:
First I flirted with the idea of flying to S. America and sailing with an organized group to Antarctica. I started searching the net for sailing trip to Antarctica in December – I quickly was brought into reality when I saw the price tag and then looked at my dwindling bank account…that adventure will have to be saved for another time…but I will absolutely take it one day.
Next I looked at splurging on a Singapore Airlines ticket with a direct flight to the US – also – too expensive.
So – I stepped back into reality and did searches on Expedia.com for the cheapest tickets to the US. I noticed that I would have layovers that were quite long. That’s when I decided to think about laying over for a few days in a city that I hadn’t been to on the way home. It seemed like it might be a good way to ease my way back into the concept that I was going home. One last solo adventure for 2007 in a new place sounded like a great idea, delving me further into denial of going back to the US. Based on my ticket research, I made a list of cities that are typical layovers from Singapore to San Francisco (Dubai, Paris, London,Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Tokyo). Two stuck out to me as places that I’d love to see – Dubai and Tokyo.
I was most interested in Dubai due to climate and because I met some people while traveling that talked about this great 4X4 ride through the desert in Dubai that sounded just my speed. I had visions of me 4 wheeling on sand dunes – it felt right. Plus, the climate would be spot on since I only have warm weather clothes and shoes. Sometimes my suitcase can dictate where I go, and sometimes a crazy idea can dictate where I go…the crazy ideas normally win out.
I started doing a bunch of internet research on places to stay in Dubai. I started looking at nice 3 star hotels (hoping I could splurge a bit) – I quickly realized that I couldn’t even afford the 3 star in Dubai. I started looking at hostels in Dubai – going back to my normal mode of travel and reality. The hostels weren’t documented well on the internet and the ones I found were in dodgy parts of town. Plus, one of my requirements in lodging these days is internet access…preferably free. I started putting a bunch of emails out to the hostels and tour companies, as well as reading reviews of the hostels. Slowly responses started coming in, but nothing was grabbing my interest and generally the information left me with a million more questions and concerns. As I continued to do internet research, I realized that the main thing to do in Dubai was to shop and spend money. Granted – the desert 4X4 trip sounded great – but that was only 1 day. I didn’t have the money to simply hang out in crappy hostels and shop in high end shops – so I was quickly getting frustrated with Dubai.
Out of curiosity I started doing some hotel searches on Tokyo to compare prices. I came across a highly recommended Ryokan (old Japanese home) that was consistently recommended for an ‘authentic cultural experience’…and it had internet access, my lifeblood. Boom…that’s all I needed to hear – Marketers – listen up!!! I’m a sucker for those words. I found their website and was enchanted by what it had to say about seeing the old Tokyo and experiencing the true culture. Plus, the owner of the Ryokan had written a book about Japanese culture and Ryokans. All of a sudden I had visions of me putting all of my warm weather clothes on layered over the top of each other…I wanted to go to Tokyo. The Ryokan was the same price as the hostels I was looking at in Dubai and the more I read about Tokyo online the more intrigued I became. My Google searches led me to tours, photos, restaurant recommendations, events, quirky activities, and Tokyo facts. Mainly – I became intrigued with photographing it. I saw some photographs that captured my interest – the youth culture, the fish market, the plastic food, sumo wrestling – I wanted to photograph it all – I had visions of Geishas intermixed with modern buildings, boldly colored fashion and plastic food. I started doing searches on ‘cultural tours’, ‘unique cultural experiences’ and found other ideas. All I had to do was brave the cold for a few days – and if worse came to worse, I would buy a sweater. I contacted the Ryokan via Skype (cheap internet phone calls) to see if they had availability. The man I spoke with was lovely and full of personality. I could feel all of the momentum shifting…to Tokyo. Now all I had to do was find plane tickets – that’s where Expedia came in. I did searches on multiple stop trips from Singapore to Tokyo to San Francisco, to Minneapolis, to New York. A little known fact is that you can often get a multiple stop ticket much cheaper than buying these separately. Sure enough, I found this complete ticket for about what it would cost to simply fly from Singapore to San Francisco.
This whole process took about 4 days of back and forth emailing, internet searching, and Skype calls…and many hours of worrying about if I was doing the right thing. But in the end, it’s the places that will offer me a unique experience – one off the tourist track that peak my interest. Tell me that I get to live as a local, or see a freakish spectacle and I’m generally hooked. In addition, this is my opportunity to round out Asia as a continent. Then I can officially call myself an Asia travel expert.
My gut made the decision – much the way it does when I decide to go out on a 2nd date. However I think my ‘itinerary gut decision’ is much better than my ‘2nd date’ gut decisions! Not one book was involved – just an internet connection and time – lots of time – is all it takes.
Some of my most used planning sites:
Aifare to/from the US – www.Expedia.com
Airfare for Europe – and parts of Asia – www.Expedia.co.uk
Airfare for Asia – www.Zuji.com
Trip Advisor – www.tripadvisor.com – hotel ratings and other great info regarding local transportation, tours, etc.
Hostelworld – www.hostelworld.com
Google…my Trip Planning Bible
Skype – www.skype.com