My friends and I are planning trips for the upcoming year, and it has given me the opportunity to reflect on what I think makes for a good-to-great trip. These are my own personal preferences, and some of them may not work for you.
Before I leave:
- Know Your Budget: Before even looking at flights or hotel rooms, you should have an idea on what you are willing to spend, per day, for where you want to go. This budget is important because it will limit you on where you can stay and what you can do. When you travel, it is easy to go beyond one’s means, and a budget will help you know when you can splurge or when you need to save.
Set the Length of the Trip: The best thing I’ve learned is that it’s difficult for me to do more than two weeks of travel at any given time, unless I move around a LOT.
I’ve also learned that traveling with other people has a time limit based on the patience of the least patient person in our traveling party. If I am traveling with other people, up to ten days seems to be doable. Anything longer seems to bring people to into the “What am I still doing here?” phase.
- Book your hotels several months in advance: This does two things. One, it ensures you get a room in locations where rooms will be sparse the closer you get to the date (Try finding a decent hotel room for Munich’s Oktoberfest or Seattle’s Labor Day in July). Second, an early made itinerary allows your excitement for the trip to grow for several months, rather than stress about when or if you’ll even get a room.
Research, Research, Research where you are going to stay: This means looking at more than one site. For every room I book, I tend to look at a minimum of three sites (Kayak.com or Booking.com, tripadvisor, and then the website of the hotel or apartment that I found.)
I look at Kayak for pricing, and Booking for details on rooms I find interesting.
I look at Tripadvisor to see how other travelers have rated the place, and I will consider any mid-range reviewed locations or higher because I’m okay with average hotel rooms. This is particularly important when you head to cities that have hundreds of hotels available, where a hotel ranked 150 out of 300 can still be considered ‘adequate for the task’.
- Flights: Researching flights can be difficult, because I know that the quality of many flights are dependent upon many things out of the airlines control. Do I blame United because O’Hare airport is a bear to get out of? Or that one particular flight attendant is cranky? The only thing I really try to do is avoid too many layovers. One is doable, two is difficult, three is god-awful.
Research Things to Do on the trip: I have learned two things about Itineraries. First – They should be written in pencil. What I mean by that is that you need to be adaptable because sometimes people just don’t want to go to a museum, or circumstances prevent you from heading to the market you wanted to go to. Have a list of things you wish to do on the trip, but be satisfied if you only get to do half of that plan.
Secondly, something should be available to do every day. It is better to have an event planed and not do it, then it is do want to do something, yet have no idea on what to do. I have found that it is worth it to have two places to go see per day, and one planned thing to eat or drink. We don’t have to do any of them, but having the option available is quite comforting.
And yes, I make plans on eating at certain restaurants or looking for particular foods or drinks. I have particularly fond memories about the quest for haggis, trying to find the best Kölsch in Cologne, and looking for a good bratwurst in Milwaukee. Food and drink can be really strong ties to where you are at.
During the Trip
Write off your travel days: We have taken to calling the days we travel “purgatory”, regardless of whether its by plane, train, or automobiles. Plane travel is NEVER pleasant, being either adequate to the task, or frustrating beyond belief. I’ve never had a great day of plane travel. I’ve had a few where there were no problems, but I have found that standing in line (check-in or baggage drop) after line (security) after line (getting on the plan) to be, at best tedious, and at worst, dreadful.
Trains are somewhat better than airlines, and have been known to sneak up into the ‘pleasant’ region from time to time. But those times are rare, and are often dependent upon who run the train and the amount of people in your car.
Surprisingly, cars afford the best opportunity for a pleasant trip, as you can come across a scenic route whilst driving, and can actually stop the car to appreciate wherever you are at. I’m reminded of my friend Andrea’s and my last minute decision to stop and enjoy coffee at a place in the Rhine river valley, and the stop Tara and I made to enjoy the Tantalus Range in British Columbia. These moments are rare but notable. If you drive on major highways or Interstates, it’s mostly dull.
Have a light first day: This is especially true if you travel overseas. Jet lag sucks, and it’s worth your time to not push yourself when you’ve had anywhere from zero to four hours of sleep. Stay close to your hotel if you can.
Here’s what I do on the first day: I become acquainted with the closest commercial street, where it is in relation to the hotel, and where I can find it on the map. This allows me to establish where I am in relation to the rest of the city. My friends are amazed at my ability to never get lost in a new city. My success in this is almost entirely due to acquainting myself with where the hotel is located.
I also try to acquaint myself with the local metro system. Nothing sucks more than learning that 50 minute walk you took could have been accomplished in 10 minutes with a ride on the subway. I’ve learned this the hard way.
Learn its okay to be a tourist, but acknowledge that you ARE a tourist: Many people dislike being called tourists. But the fact remains, you will be a tourist at some point. You can’t avoid it, unless you wish to avoid visiting areas where tourists congregate. To put it another way, if you want to go to Pike Place Market, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Tower of London, or the Eiffel Tower, but are not from the areas where these places are located, you will be a tourist. It’s unavoidable.
This isn’t to say that you should always do touristy things. Good god, NO! It is a good thing to find things off of the beaten path, looking for the people, places, or things that the tour books are unaware of, yet help define your experiences. THESE experiences will differ from person to person and will make your trips different from everyone else’s. Besides, being a tourist is exhausting.
- Get a Souvenir, but not from a Souvenir shop: I define a souvenir as any item that illicit a strong, pleasant memory from a trip you have taken. These can include pictures you have taken, to a piece of clothing you forgot to pack that you had to purchase to replace. I consider a small travel alarm clock that I purchased in London, and a scarf I purchased in Edinburgh as both souvenirs. I didn’t realize they were at the time I bought them, but when I look at them now, they both bring back a strong memory of specific moment in time that I find
wonderful. Learning this, I’ve realized that I don’t need to purchase anything from the souvenir shops, as anything I find that brings back those memories will work. The only thing I buy from those places are $1 flag or coat of arm decals that I stick on my laptop.
Take pictures, but don’t go crazy about it: As I said above, pictures can work as souvenirs. By all means, take them and then get them printed out and framed to put in your house, as reviewing them on Flickr is nice, but not as effective as having a picture that you can touch and feel and move about your house.
However, I have found that there’s a fine line between having an experience versus recording an experience. If you are continually taking pictures, then your memories may be entirely about you taking pictures.
- Send Postcards, especially to the children in your life: Your friends really do want to hear (briefly) about your trips. Kids, doubly so, and many of my friends have used the post cards as a brief teaching experience. Additionally, I have found that there are friends who will get motivated to travel based on hearing of their friends experiences.
When possible, live (and engage) in the moment: That itinerary I told you to have above? You need to be able to adapt it, even to the point of throwing it aside if something better comes along. Traveling is not your schedule. Traveling is enjoying being somewhere else. Sometimes life will provide an alternative to what you have planned. Recognize it and engage it.
Andrea and I were in a higher end restaurant in Palermo, one mostly dedicated to the locals. In walks a mime/clown (not in white-face, thank god). This clown would try to engage other customers who really didn’t want anything to do with him. Andrea and I took the opposite tact, and we engaged him, and he made us laugh and we made him laugh. Because we did that little bit of engagement, we have a very strong shared memory.
Be Safe, but don’t be paranoid: There are two things that, if you lose, make your life difficult when you travel – your identification, and financial resources. (Note that I said difficult, but not impossible). Everything else is easily replaceable, up to and including airline tickets. Have a plan to deal with the loss of these items, certainly. But the odds of you of being pickpocketed or having the staff of your hotel steal stuff out of your room is small. It happens, yes, but only to a minority of travelers. Taking small but notable actions will lessen those odds. Use common sense (don’t flash money about, keep your ID in a place where it’s difficult to pickpocket, etc. etc).
Also, it’s here where not being in a touristy area works in your favor. Criminals can and do work Pike Place Market, North Beach, and the Eiffel Tower. Added consideration should be taken in these areas. If your at a coffee-shop in a residential area of a city, the odds drop dramatically.
Additionally, if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, then leave. There’s a difference between having a clown come up to you at a reputable restaurant, and having a stranger try to lead you away from the crowds of a commercial street.
My point here is that, yes, be aware of crime and criminals. But don’t let the odds prevent you from enjoying yourself. Be smart, don’t be paranoid.
hat’s all I have now. I may add to this at a later date.