Planning a trip: Part 1 – Where to go?

1799_cruttwell_map_of_the_world_in_hemispheres_-_geographicus_-_worldhemisphere-cruttwell-1799The vagabond, off to see the world with nothing more than a backpack and a dream, is a romantic image, in reality it is probably not the best way to approach your next travel adventure. The other extreme, a spread sheet with the entire trip laid out in 15 minute increments has a certain penal quality that stifles spontaneity and serendipity. I am a believer in planned spontaneity – just enough structure to give a bit of security.

So what should you plan at the minimum? There are three questions you should ask, they seem obvious but let’s explore them a bit more in this blog and some future blogs.

1 Where to go? – Itinerary

Unless you are blessed with unlimited time and money you need an itinerary of places to visit, your basic pathway.

2 Where to stay? – Accommodations 

Rick Steves has suggested finding your hotel or in when you arrive in the city, visiting the tourist information office, calling or visiting hostels and hotels until you find one that works. Yes that is easily doable, and may even save a few dollars, it certainly will connect you with the people and the place. Yet, for me, it takes up time better spent with a sketch pad in my lap, a meal to savor, or some place to explore. So I make accommodation part of the planning.

3 How to get there? – Transport

Basically your: air transport, trains, and rental cars, from major location to location, as well as getting around while in the area.

Planning a trip for me is not a linear process, it is pretty random  – looking at a BnB one moment, a train trip the next; plenty of ideas that need to be collected for future reference so they can easily be searched. And a way to get the basic structures in place that also prevents missing something important. After we look at some thoughts on the three questions above I will offer some suggestions on organization. But first…

Where to go?

I often ask people, “If we had tickets to go anywhere in the world, where would we go?” The top three answers are: Greece, Italy, Australia. Surprisingly, at least in my mind, is how frequently Greece is the number one. Since I have never been to Greece I wonder if I am missing something?

There are some considerations when deciding your destinations. Destinations and itinerary are not the same thing: Destinations are pins on a map, itinerary is the sequence you will travel. Itinerary takes into account time available, transportation logistics, and budgets. For me it works best to start by picking places unconstrained by time and money. Then, unfortunately for those of us with the realities of limited time and money, the list gets refined and usually reduced.

First identify your travel context. Why do you travel? I am sure there are many ways to approach this but here are three:

  1. Exploration – you travel to see and experience other countries and people, it is the destination that is important, someplace you have never been or returning to a place that you loved. When people ask me where I would go with those free tickets I quite often respond with Scotland or France, I love those countries, the people and the culture.
  2. Interests – some activity or topic motivates you to travel, you are looking for a place to do something specific or to experience. Skiers might be motivated to try the slopes on another continent, golfers to play in Scotland where it all started. History buffs would find a trip to learn more about some period in history attractive. Hikers, mountain climbers looking to add to the peaks that they have challenged.
  3. What makes it a good trip for you? Think of past trips, what were the best parts, the most memorable days, and why were they good? What were the times you found yourself restless, why? Do you prefer big cities or countryside? How important are museums and iconic sites? How important is nightlife or shopping? How important is good food, dining out? Lots of activity or plenty of relaxing time? Time and place for photography or art?

Personally, seeing new places and experience the culture is high on my list. I would rather spend a few days in one location and not visit as many places. What is perfect is when I can stay long enough to have morning tea at the same tea shop that they recognize me when I walk in. Painting and sketching are major interests, but so far they are what I do while in a place and not the motivation to pick a place. Good food is going to get me to San Sebastian in Spain one day, but I like Spain anyway. We tend to stay in big cities only briefly, anxious to rent a car or take a train to get out into the smaller towns and the countryside. Shopping is low on our list, and nightlife pretty much nonexistent.

As important as it is to consider these things about yourself, it is even more important when you are traveling with other people. Unless there is some harmony on these basics there will be conflict on the trip. Frank discussions are essential.

Start with broad geographical areas then work your way to specifics. What part of the world is attracting you right now? Europe? Asia? South America? Yes, I would start at the continent level.

Browse images, travel pages, maps, guidebooks, talk to people. Then start listing possible areas and cities. At this stage don’t worry about sequence or time spent in each. Once you have some key locations identified it helps to look at them on a map. Look for patterns, try to see how it would flow going from one to another. If there is one city that is quite distant from the others, think about how important it really is – the travel to reach it may be expensive or take time from more important places.

Now comes the sequencing, list the destinations out in a logical order, taking geography into account. Then begin to factor in time for the overall trip, and the time you would like to spend in each location. My personal preference is to spend more time in fewer places as opposed to racing from town to town, place to place just to say you have been there. It is rare that I would ever want to spend less than two nights in a place, because if you travel in the morning, you arrive at the new location in the afternoon, or late morning at best. Then you spend the night and get up and travel again, so you really do not get to experience much of the culture or get a sense of the place. With two nights you get an evening, a whole day, and maybe just a bit of the next morning. If a place is not worth staying two nights I would question how important it really is.

In the next blog we will discuss setting up a table to track all of this simply, and talk about transport.

Travel – tear down the walls

tower-of-londonYears ago we were staying at The Tower Hotel in London. As the name suggests it is next to The Tower of London, which is a Medieval Fortress that housed the Royal Armory and still houses  the Crown Jewels of England. It was built for protection, a place for the Monarch to retreat and defend themselves if they were attacked.

One morning, as usual, I was up early and went out for a walk. The Tower sits next to the River Thames, it is surrounded by a park – a perfect place for a walk. It was early enough that the London traffic was not yet awake, nor were there many other people out. As I walked around the walls, I considered what it must have been like to live inside the Tower. Though the Tower was used as a prison as late as 1952, its original purpose was a Royal residence, and a lavish one at that.

As I thought of what life would have been like in the parklike setting of moats and stone buildings, gardens and trees, as well as security from all dangers, eventually my mind began to focus more on the walls. Walls to protect you, walls that kept you safe from the enemies outside, walls that gave you security – walls that kept you in. Then it hit me, “the very walls that we build to protect us become the walls that in-prison us.” Fear builds walls, we find safety behind them, those on the other side of our walls become the adversary; outside the wall is a scary place, better to be incarcerated within our walls than to risk the perceived dangers beyond the wall. Walls may protect but they are a barrier to freedom.

This is one reason I like to travel, it breaks down walls. Prejudice is based on ignorance which leads to fear, and our fears build up walls for protection. When we travel and meet people that are different we discover that most folks in this world are pretty much the same. We all want to just do our jobs, have a place to live and food to eat, raise our kids, and have some fun along the way.

I remember that morning often, and am reminded that to really live life to the fullest you can’t hide from it. We live in a crazy world, with politics that frighten, yet I refuse to stop traveling, in fact I am motivated to travel all the more and I encourage others to travel as well. Relationships and understanding tear down walls, we need that these days.