I met my partner Seamus shortly after he arrived in London after travelling from New Zealand. He was in the middle of planning a 6-month trip through South and Central America and unfortunately I was not at a stage where I could join him. I was still making my way up the career ladder.
Seamus ignited my passion for travel again. I joined him for 3 weeks in Costa Rica. Those weeks were some of the best weeks of my life.
Costa Rica changed everything
I had 3 weeks, a boyfriend who was going to be away for another 3 months and I had invested nearly all of my savings in this trip – DAMN RIGHT I was going to plan, so that not one moment would be wasted trying to figure out where to go or what to do.
I researched, read books and reviews, I Googled.
Why everyone should plan
Imagine there’s a scale of planning:
|0 – 3||Just book flights and turn up|
|3-5||Invest some time in a bit of background reading|
|5-7||Cover all essential information – visas, budget planning, accommodation options|
|7-10||Everything covered – most things like accommodation booked in advance|
I sit at around 7-8 on that scale. Anything from 5 is fine but if you think going abroad is just about booking flights and landing and finding things out when you get there, you may be in for a few unpleasant surprises, such as not being able to board the plane because you haven’t sorted out a visa or not having a Yellow Fever certificate. Check out my list of top 5 things you must do before you leave.
Why I plan
Everyone travels differently and there is not one set way of doing things.
Whilst I appreciate that you can’t plan for everything, for me, planning has been an essential part of my trip.
1. I don’t like going in blind
I want to:
- Understand the geography and culture of a location
- Have a few options available to me without having to pull out a guidebook
- Feel a certain level of confidence to avoid feeling vulnerable.
2. I don’t want to miss the boat
Some places are hard to access and you need to book them weeks, if not months in advance. If one place really sings to you (e.g. a remote jungle lodge; the Galapagos Islands) book it and then plan the rest of your trip around it.
3. Booking flights – getting them cheap!
If you’re going away for a long time (6 months to a year+) and the trip is a build it yourself style trip like mine, then the cheapest flights you’re likely to get are through a specialist travel agency. They get decent discounts with certain airlines they are partnered with, and you can book up to 11 months in advance of a flight. You can rarely do that independently – so the sooner you book, the cheaper it is!
Therefore, for this trip I really needed to know in advance how long I wanted to stay in each place. I had to research.
Step-by-step guide to planning the most ultimate trip
A lot of what happened in Costa Rica I didn’t plan for. A lot of what I saw, I didn’t expect. Occasionally I strayed from the plan and did something else. You meet people and they suggest different things, and you make a call. However, I didn’t open my guidebook once. I had my maps and had marked on them the various things I needed to know.
How I do it:
Visit an agency. I used STA Travel Agency.
Been there – done that!
- Have an idea of where you want to go and book yourself an agent who is from there or who has been there. (For this trip I got John who has travelled nearly everywhere around South and Central America).
- Talking with someone face-to-face who has been and done what you want to do gives you the best insight.
Less work for you
- Having an agent working on your behalf takes the pressure away enormously, particularly when it comes to booking flights
- You don’t get charged for their time so they’re pretty much there to answer your questions or to help you out as and when you need them.
- STA have partnerships with certain airlines (such as Virgin Atlantic), making air travel a little bit cheaper for their customers. Agencies can also reserve your place on a flight for a few days, giving you the freedom to work out logistics, finances and to see if prices go down.
- I also managed to get 10% off travel insurance through STA, as there happened to be a promotional offer on at the time. I also got 10% off the Galapagos tour because it was my birthday.
- I happened to need a Yellow Fever vaccination at a time when there was a national shortage. My GP charged £70 for that vaccination but because of the shortage referred me to a clinic up the road…that charged £95! I ran a Google search to see if I could find a better price and STA came up on the search – these guys even have their own travel clinic! Yellow Fever vaccination at STA – £58.
- Every little helps!
Like with any other agency, of course they’ll mention certain ‘tailor-made’ solutions that no doubt get them all sorts of commission but don’t let that put you off. These guys are not pushy. They have also been and experienced what it is you want to go and experience.
There are other agencies, such as Trail Finders but when I compared prices STA came out much cheaper.
I allow about 2 weeks of solid research and planning for each country and follow what I call the SKELETON PLANNING SYSTEM:
- BONES: Guide books – rough ideas, maps, routes, timings
- MUSCLE: Internet, Google, community sites, local tourist agencies, blogs
- SKIN: Allocate your time, make a spreadsheet – start booking
- MAKE-UP: Friends and friends of friends – recommendations
- Highlights key areas to go to with decent overview for every town, city, province
- Has great easy to use maps
- Gives you estimated journey times/costs and accessibility.
Time Out is great for ideas of things to do in big Cities (New York, Paris, London).
I spend roughly 2 weeks reading about each country on my list.
- familiarises you with the geography
- the things you can do
- how much time you might want to spend in places.
Make your mark – join the dots
- I mark with a pen/pencil on the map in the book the bits that I think will appeal and connect the dots. Can you get from A to B as easily as you think?
- I look in more detail about accessibility and the time I need to spend in each place.
- On the map I put a number 5 for 5 days if that’s how long I think I should spend in that particular place. I total it all up and figure that’s how long I would like to spend in that country.
It’s not concrete and I know when I go away that this will more than likely change. I might decide to spend twice as long in a particular area, or scrap another area altogether, but if I want to get the cheapest flights by booking in advance, I need to have a rough idea of how long I’m going to want to spend in each country.
These are my BONES to planning.
Google the town names that you’ve marked and see what comes up
- Smaller, community sites (a lot of the towns have their own sites and local tourist agencies).
Google Vs Guide Book
In the Costa Rica guide book there was a town on the Caribbean side that sounded great but the words ‘party vibe’ caught my attention – and not in a good way. Just a 30 minute bus ride up from that town was the town of Cahuita, which got a mention in the guide book for its wildlife and small town vibe but it was nowhere near as hyped as the previous town.
I Googled Cahuita and the town had its own community website through which I booked amazing accommodation (think, The Garden of Eden).
The week I spent in Cahuita was magical. I did pass through the other town out of interest and I was shocked by the number of tourists on the beach. How different my stay would have been.
So – guidebooks – great for an overview, but don’t stop there.
Internet research adds MUSCLE to planning.
Allocate Your Time – Book!
This is when you start to make things real and start booking stuff.
- Revisit the maps you’ve marked up and make sure you can get from A to B (use guides like Lonely Planet to figure out accessibility).
- Once you know how much time you think you should spend in a country, book your flights (check the TIPS below before you book).
- If you are booking trips to exclusive places like The Galapagos, flights only go at certain times of the year for certain trips.
This is the SKIN to my planning – what binds all my planning together.
NEVER ASSUME that your travel agent will tell you everything you need to know. Visas, taxes, airport and baggage regulations…check out my Top 5 Must Do’s Before You Leave to ensure you’re covered.
|Tip 1: Length of stay||Before booking your flights double check how long you are able to stay in the country for as a tourist. It may cost extra the longer you stay. This is the case for Cuba and Indonesia on our trip. Check my ‘Top 5’ lists (above) for more info.|
|Tip 2: Seasons||Check the season of countries before you start booking. High season tends to double in cost, low season may be cheaper but you may be heading into a wet season where certain areas may be closed due to flooding.|
I’m surprised at how many people I know who have been to places I’m travelling to and who have family and friends who live in the countries I am visiting. Facebook is great for putting your feelers out. Through word-of-mouth I have accommodation sorted for nearly everywhere on my trip.
Staying with people you know through association means you not only get FREE or cheaper accommodation but it is also a chance to experience life like a local.
This is the final icing on the cake to trip planning – the MAKE-UP
BUT I CAN’T PLAN!
You just need a technique. Even if you don’t plan to the extent that I do, some planning is essential and it’s important to allocate time to trip planning before you hit the road.
Seamus couldn’t plan – now he can, and he’s glad he did!
My job has always evolved around obscene amounts of planning using spreadsheets, graphs and research. This is how I make my living.
Seamus is travelling with me and I found it so frustrating that most of the planning ended up on my shoulders. To be fair though, Seamus never worked as an administrator or in an office environment. His brain works differently to mine. Planning and multi-tasking just don’t come as naturally. Some people just need a strategy that’s easy to work to.
I introduced Seamus to The Pomodoro Technique. The first stage in the technique is to set yourself a detailed task list. A task isn’t BALI, a task is: ‘interesting places to see in the north of Bali’ or ‘interesting places to see in the south of Bali’ or ‘cost of living in Bali.’ Whatever it is, segment your tasks down as much as you can into manageable chunks that take you no longer than 25 minutes to complete.
After every 25 minutes you take a 5-minute break. After 5 lots of 25 minutes you take a longer 20-minute break. Well it worked! Seamus’s productivity shot right up and what he thought would take him a whole week, took 1 day.
Check out The Pomodoro Technique if you need help with time management and task setting.