September 1, 2014

Step One: Planning the Trip

Since travel agents are a thing of the past how does one plan for a multi country, multi month trip? Be obsessed with pre-departure research... and geography.

I find the planning stages before a trip exciting so to spend hours researching is something I look forward to instead of dread. I truly enjoy starting at zero and building a trip itinerary. With that being said I rarely stick to a prearranged plan as backpacking is all about going with the flow... but there are some needed details before jet setting around the world.

Brainstorming the Trip:

1. A trip idea. For the most part I think small - "I'll go there for a few weeks"
2. Research
3. I start to think bigger - "While I am there, I might as well go there too"
4. More research
5. I think even bigger - "The world is my oyster, I can go everywhere"
6. Start to think about my budget
7. Go back to #3
8. Create a rough itinerary/set required dates/make must see lists
9. Buy plane tickets
10. More research
11. Stress about not having enough money and stop buying anything that isn't mandatory to my survival

South East Asia: Started with a three month backpacking trip. I had a return ticket from Bangkok in December. Three weeks before I left Seattle I signed up for a TESOL course in Cambodia and never used my return ticket. I flew home 1.5 years later from Australia, a country I had no intention of visiting or living in.

South America: My friend Laura and I started with Chile. We knew we wanted to go there. The trip turned into 5.5 months of backpacking from Ecuador to Argentina.

St. Thomas: The idea of living in the Caribbean started with being accepted to the Peace Corps in Jamaica. After a lot of research I decided to turn down the opportunity. However, I still wanted to live in the tropics. A few months later a friend, who lived in St. Thomas, said there was a job opportunity if I wanted to live out my Caribbean dream.

Central America: Started with an idea to bartend at Loki in Salta, Argentina for a month. Since I didn't think I would have any money this seemed like the cheapest abroad option. Realizing I would have more then zero dollars I looked into backpacking Colombia to Panama. I also added Honduras in there at one point. Finally landed on Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.

UK, East to South Africa & Mexico: The trip idea started with volunteering in Arusha for three weeks with a week in Cape Town. I then remembered a fellow backpacker from South America telling me about overlands in Africa which has secretly been on my bucket list since. At this point a short trip was out of the question and I was thinking larger... the UK, Tanzania to South Africa and Mexico.

Planning the Trip:

First. How do I keep all this new information organized? Draft emails. You can edit them easily and access them anywhere. One draft email per country and then categorized by city.

Travel Research. I have a trip idea so now it is time to figure out the details - Google, order Lonely Plant guidebooks, read travel blogs, trip advisor comments and guidebook online forums. I then read more of everything, over and over and over again. Any question I have, I find the answer.

The research phase is a slow process because everything is new. I don't recognize city names and I am constantly having to Google map everything to find the location. The generally itinerary can take a while to build and therefore there can be a lot of changes. Eventually names start becoming familiar and I am able to wrap my head around the country. At this point I naturally start figuring out a route based on the cities I want to see, where they are located and the amount of time I have.

Transportation. I also start researching how I will get from one place to the next - bus, train, ferry or fly. I use online forums and company websites (if they are in English) a lot for this information because guidebooks have limited information and can be out of date. 
Are there decent buses in Mexico? Should I rent a car... for the adventure?

Are there bus options from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to Johannesburg, South Africa?
How long will this take me because I don't have time to waste on this commute?

Setting Dates. The need for setting dates will depend on the trip. Sometimes the trip is so long there is no end date or a need for an itinerary (South East Asia), sometimes it is short and I want to make the most of my time so I set a more structured schedule (Central America) or sometimes it involves additional people and there are multiple legs so dates and details are required (UK, Tanzania and Mexico).

Setting the dates that are needed will start to happen once I have a rough itinerary, but if I am struggling, even if I have an itinerary, I just pick a date and go with it. Sometimes you have to commit to something. With all the differences each trip brings the one thing I know is there is no need to set dates within a country as the amount of time I spend in each city will definitely vary (Luang Prabang, Laos - we planned for two days but ended up staying for four. Moalboal, Philippians - we planned for a week but ended up staying for one hour).

Plane Tickets. Once the countries have been chosen and I have a general outline it is time to take the leap and buy the plane ticket(s). At this point I have already been scouring the internet for ticket prices. I have searched and have played around with dates to find the cheapest tickets. After looking on search engines I try to book my plane ticket on the airlines actual website. I find that if I need to change a ticket for some reason it is easier to work with one company instead of the search engine telling me to call the airline and the airline telling me to call the search engine.

Now that the tickets are booked and I am actually going (!) I continue to research and develop must see and do lists for each country until I have had enough and just count down the days to my departure.

With all this being said the more trips I plan the more I learn things always change once you are on the road. I left for South East Asia with an excel spreadsheet of dates and by week two I had canceled my plane ticket from Chiang Mai, Thailand to George Town, Malaysia and was traveling Thailand with an Australian I met at an orphanage in Chaing Rai, Thailand.


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