I’ve been sitting at my computer for two hours in my bathrobe. It’s midmorning and I’m thinking on the off chance someone rings the doorbell, I should be more presentable. There are about twenty windows open on my computer, and after long, hard research, I’ve just had a major epiphany:
It is going to cost a bunch of money to fly to the United States.
I am now ready to present my research findings to the board of directors, AKA, my husband.
While that may not sound revelatory, this is kind of how my trip-planning usually unfolds: a moment of clarity after muddy hours (days, usually) of Internet searching and trying to string things together in creative ways. (Epiphanies don’t have to be positive, you know.)
Before we moved abroad, we had a long-standing goal of one major trip once a year (2006: Greece; 2007: Hawaii; 2008: fiscal recovery from wedding; 2009: Portugal, Germany; 2010: Netherlands, then we moved here; France; weekend trips to Belgium and Austria). Lately I’ve been entrenched in research for trips later in 2011: a short trip to Barcelona and a longer trip to Italy and beyond, and (if feasible) a visit to the USA.
When I say entrenched, I mean it: I spend hours and hours and days approaching things from all angles, trying to figure out the cheapest way to do something or to find the one place I know we’re going to love. It takes a lot of time, but when it all comes together it can lead to great experiences. So I’ve started to accumulate some knowledge. And I’ve started to offer advice to family and friends who are planning trips. And I thought maybe I’d put some pointers up here for people who were interested.
Yes, we are at a relatively carefree phase of life: no kids, living in Europe, Tim gets a ridiculous amount of vacation and I make my own schedule. But let’s be clear: we don’t travel because we have lots of disposable income. Currently we are a postdoc and a freelance writer; in our last incarnation we were a graduate student and a church employee. Neither of us makes the big bucks. But we prioritize travel over other things (like saving for a house, like buying new clothes, like eating out more than occasionally).
The biggest pieces of advice I have for people who want to travel but don’t have a lot of extra cash are:
1. Be willing to spend time instead, looking for bargains.
2. Be really flexible. Have the goal of “an amazing vacation,” instead of “a vacation to Paris in May.”
Most of our trips do not begin with a destination. They usually begin with a time period: “I think we should do something in August.” Or, more commonly: “Let’s go somewhere in the spring or fall and maybe it will be cheaper than in the summer.” From there we make a huge long list of everywhere we’ve ever thought was interesting, and I run a few quick price checks on airfare (assuming airfare is what’s called for). Usually this is a good way to rule out a couple options. Because if you’re seeing lots of flights in the $1000 range, you might get lucky by searching harder and find flights for $800, but you’re probably not going to find them for $400. We also think about shoulder seasons—times of year when desirable destinations are less crowded and less expensive.
Starting with the biggest picture possible means the planning is really ungrounded at first, and the options are disparate. In February 2009, for example, we were either going to go to Portugal… or to Costa Rica. (Cost of airfare swung the vote.)
We commit to a place by buying the plane tickets when we find a reasonable deal. Then, because we’re officially going, we find a travel guide and start looking for hotels and other things. I usually wind up purchasing a travel guide, but I’m slowly going over to using the library’s. (Trouble is, I like to write in them. And I prefer Rick Steves, and our library doesn’t have him.) Sometimes we don’t book the hotels until much later along. (This can be beneficial if places need deposits, too; you don’t pay all your costs in one chunk.)
In terms of budgeting, I have to be realistic about what we’ll spend on the ground once we arrive. This is the category that always surprises me afterward. It’s why after a trip, we’ve learned to review. Look at your costs and what was spent where and if it was worth it. Over the years I’ve had to learn where I’m willing to compromise. Are you only comfortable in a certain level of hotel? Are you willing to do some cheaper meals (and maybe stay in a place with an efficiency kitchen) to offset the nice one out? Will you take a flight that departs at 6:00 AM? (I will not.) Do you need souvenirs? (Photos are our main souvenir.)
When I find those pie-in-the-sky ideas—a dream hotel that’s way out of our budget, or a location that’s absolutely stunning—I don’t ditch them. I bookmark them, and then the next time I start this whole process over again, I look them up again. You never know what changes.
Here are a bunch of my favorite resources for trip-planning:
SkyScanner Why? Not only does it do flight comparison (lots of sites do that; I like fly.com), it has my dream feature: you can choose your starting airport and date (say, Amsterdam April 30) and then for the destination choose EVERYWHERE and it will show you literally everywhere you can fly direct or indirect from that airport on that day, with costs. I had wished for this feature in my head before I found it here, and I was so happy. Now, for the huge airports (like Amsterdam), this can be overwhelming, but here’s an example of where it’s useful. We’re planning a trip that winds up at a small airport in Italy (Bari). We need to go somewhere from there, but we don’t have our heart set on any specific place. It can’t be somewhere too expensive to reach, and maybe we want it to take us closer to home rather than farther. So I can look and see everywhere I could fly on our date from Bari. It’s amazing! It opens up whole new ideas (“Hey, we could fly to Venice for…”) and is prime for cost-effectiveness.
Similarly, Wikipedia for airports. This is great, too. If you search a specific airport on Wikipedia, you will find a page showing what airlines fly to an airport and where they wind up. (You can also read accident stats, transportation info, and other useful things.)
Rick Steves’ Travelers’ Helpline. Ask questions, get answers. I ask questions here fairly often: Have you been to ___ in August and is air-conditioning a must? Can anyone describe the bus experience from __ to __? Almost always, people answer. And to pay it forward, I also scan for questions on areas I know.
And of course: Trip Advisor. I mainly use this for hotel reviews, though I know it has a lot of other features. I also contribute hotel reviews faithfully after trips. As I’ve probably already said on this blog, I became a convert to Trip Advisor after a bad hotel stay in 2007 (website looked great, B&B was a disappointment). Someone said, “Have you heard of Trip Advisor?” and then I went on it and read all these reviews were people said exactly what we’d gone and experienced in person. Nice. Yes, it’s full of individual experiences and opinions, so if there’s 99 great reviews and 1 terrible, we probably throw out the terrible. We also scan the reviews for people who “sound like us” or (you can see their info) come from the US and are in our age demographic, figuring that makes it more likely we have similar standards. I also am a notoriously light sleeper, so I scour the reviews for anything people say about street noise, bad sleep, etc.
Sticky notes! Who can plan a trip without them? Not I.
Friends! (No website for friends.) If I know someone who’s been or even lived someplace I’m thinking about going, I talk to them. Plain and simple. You get much clearer advice than any website or guidebook can offer. A French friend, for example, became nearly apoplectic when we mentioned Marseille. So we didn’t go there. We seem to know a lot of people with experience in Barcelona, so for that trip (upcoming) we have pages of e-mail recommendations on restaurants and activities.
How do you plan for travel? Or, more creatively, where do you really hope to visit someday?