How to Plan your Vacation, part 1
Posted on June 25, 2015
Think about it
For Pepe and Popo traveling feeds a limitless curiosity for the world. We have a combined traveled log of thirty countries and counting, mostly visited together. Here is a short list of tips that have been honed through years of day trips and elaborate vacations.
Thinking about where you want to go is the first step toward getting out there. You can dream up a far away vacation but keep in mind too, that day trips and vacations do not need to be far away from where you live to be fulfilling. How many times have you chatted with someone about a famous landmark/park/lake close by and said, “you know, I’ve never been to (insert place) and I’ve lived here for X number of years.” Any Saturday can be a vacation day! We like to always know what our next trip will be, even if it is to somewhere close by, or for only a day. As soon as we finish one trip, we start thinking and dreaming about what we want to do next. This way, we always have something to look forward to.
For short trips to places near home, you might not have to do much research at all, but for longer trips and further destinations, this is a big component that can be overwhelming. For these trips, it can help to break things down into stages, doing some of your research in advance and the rest over time.
Two things to look at first are: when to go and what is your budget. Determining these two things first will narrow your focus, making it easier to figure out the next steps of where you will stay, what you will see and what you will eat.
When to go: If you have a specific festival or other date-dependent travel desires, when to travel is answered pretty swiftly. However, if you have flexibility with time of year, this can open up a whole host of options that can both save you money and enrich your vacation.
Most everywhere has economic seasons broken down into high, low and shoulder seasons. Research the time of year travel with three parameters in mind – weather, what will be open, and cost. If you have enough days planned for your trip that a day or two of bad weather will not hinder your plans, then shoulder or low seasons can be ideal for missing crowds and high prices. But look up if your destination closes down in the off seasons. Island destinations and places where the economy is heavily tourist driven, may have reduced hours and limited resources in their off seasons. While bad weather and limited amenities are generally less of an issue with high season travel (there’s are reason why it’s a popular time), prices go up and places can get packed. For us, we try to always travel in shoulder seasons to save money, avoid crowds and see the places with locals instead of fellow tourists.
Budget: Once you have determined your time of year, you need to decide your budget in the local currency if it differs from your own. It can be useful to look up cost of living at your vacation destination. This will give you a rough guide for costs and how much money to bring with you. Everyone travels with different budgets, but a good rule of thumb is to figure out your daily spending at home (cost of movies, groceries, concerts, etc.), add in the cost of any site seeing you will do (tour, museum passes, activities) and see if that amount is affordable for you. If there is an exchange rate to factor in, review the cost of a few items at your destination, compared to the average cost where you live. For example, dinner in a 3-star restaurant in Budapest is about 50% less expensive than the same meal in San Francisco which tells me food will be affordable in Budapest for a traveler from my home city. Travel forums such as TripAdvisor can provide helpful budget advice, as can guidebooks, however guidebook cost categories like “budget” and “luxury” are subjective. Keep in mind that costs are relative, and forums and books have many different authors, so it’s best to review costs from a few sources in order to budget well.
After you have determined where you are going, time of year that’s best for you, and what average daily expenses may be, now it’s time for the trip planning. If you picked somewhere that now seems too expensive – don’t give up! Remember that once you arrive in a destination, there are always ways to enjoy the place cheaply. In notoriously expensive cities like Paris, Copenhagen, New York, or London, there are always hostels, free museum days, student discounts, and cheap places to eat. Check out the New York Times Frugal Traveler columns or Broke Ass Stewart’s blog and guidebook series for some tips on living it up for less. You can spend entire days just walking through the city streets, looking at magnificent architecture and gorgeous city parks, noticing the differences from your hometown. If walking isn’t your thing, you can find a perch in a city square or on a park bench, and watch people go by. You can pack sandwiches and snacks in your backpack – everything tastes better in a new and beautiful place. Wherever you go, bring a pen and a notebook – even if you’ve never done it before, writing down your thoughts and observations in a foreign city can provoke the kinds of changes in your perspective that make travel so deeply rewarding and can enrich your life forever – it’s these moments that you will keep with you longer than any purchased souvenir.
If your originally chosen destination still seems too expensive, think about what attracts you to that place, and then try to find similar activities somewhere more affordable. For example, we love to spend time in a cosmopolitan city with a rich cultural history, beautiful architecture, a thriving arts scene, and a nearby body of water. This describes many cities, and we could have spent a month in Paris and gone broke, or we could – as we decided to do – spend a month in Budapest, which has all of the things we love about Paris but also a cost of living we could afford. An added bonus of this approach is that it will push you to discover destinations you might not have previously considered.
Some travelers want every second accounted for even if they plan to go to one hotel and sit on one beach for seven days. Other travelers will get off the plane in Honduras and pay a cab driver 20 bucks to drive them around until they find a place to stay. Both are fine. Both are itineraries. Most important, of course, is knowing which kind of itinerary is best for you. This means knowing why you are where you are. It helps to know something about the culture, history or landscape about where you are going before you get there.
We were waiting in line to enter the Trinity University Library in Dublin, Ireland – home to a 1500 year old illustrated manuscript called the Book of Kells – when the mother of the family in front of us turned and asked “do you know what we are going to see in there, and why we’re going?” Tickets for the exhibit were 16 euros (about 18USD) per person. They were a family of five, so their total ticket cost would be 80 euros, but they had no idea why they were going there. We watched them enter the exhibit with blank faces, making a few unhappy comments to each other before disappearing about five minutes later. It was clearly not for them, and a little research would have helped them to avoid wasting both their time and their money. No matter how popular a tourist attraction or historical site is, if you aren’t interested in what is there, there is no reason for you to go. Travel is not a to do list, it’s an adventure.
The Louvre Museum in Paris is packed with anxious crowds, craning their necks to see past the mass of bodies in front of the Mona Lisa (spoiler alert: you can’t see it), and wandering the rest of the museum with their faces covered by their phones and cameras and camera-phones, pushing buttons and never actually looking at any of the art. What they are seeing – images of the artwork on an iPhone screen – could be viewed for a lot less in their own bedrooms. Be honest with yourself – if you don’t want to slow down and be present in a place, but simply want to go in order to say you’ve been, it’s likely your time will be better spent elsewhere. I promise that your stories AND your photos will be better if you go somewhere you actually want to be.
Of course, the only way to guess what you’ll enjoy doing is to learn a little bit about where you’re going before you go. When you know the context or have knowledge about where you are going, two things happen – you are less of an ignorant person in a new culture and city, and you have a more satisfying trip. Just imagine the difference between seeing something life changing or walking oblivious one street away from it because you had no idea it was there. In the age of Wikipedia and Wikitravel, and countless other online resources, there is no excuse or reason.
The forums on TripAdvisor.com are a great resource for itinerary planning with expansive feedback, reviews and information from locals and travelers who have been to your destination and have already asked the exact questions you have about the location, restaurant, sights etc. We use TripAdvisor when planning things from where to eat to where to stay, advice on services etc. See our “Traveling Resources” section for more planning sites.
And with all of that said, our contradictory advice is: don’t be afraid to let go of your plans. Even after doing all of your research and learning about everything you want to do, you will sometimes find that the museum is too crowded, the restaurant is closed for renovations, and a storm hits just when you were about to climb the mountain – in any of these situations, simply being open to another plan is the difference between regret and adventure. Rain and fog foiled our plans for hiking and stargazing in Ballinskelligs in Southern Ireland, but we went to a cafe for soup and were invited by a local violinist to hear live music that night in Portmagee. We ended up tasting whiskeys beside a circle of musicians who played incredible trad music until late into the night. In Budapest, we wandered out in the heat one afternoon uncertain of our destination, realizing that the museum we’d planned to go to wasn’t what we wanted after all. We kept walking, admiring the palatial architecture, and then followed the sound of drumbeats to discover a group of teenagers in medieval dress playing drums and horns and dancing with large flags. We still don’t know who they were or why they performed their twenty minute routine in the middle of a square beside a church. They made no announcements, just marched away again when they were done. The lesson is: when your other plans fail, follow the music.
Now we’re not done, but this post is getting looooong, we split it up into two parts – for the continuation of this list, please read “How to Plan Your Vacation, part 2”.