On occasions I’m asked how I go about planning and researching trips, particularly when multiple locations, accommodations and getting from A to B is involved. I’m not going to turn this into a step-by-step blog piece because there are others out there who do this much better than I could, but this is my quick guide to travel planning. *Note – this focuses primarily on independent travel rather than through travel agents or tour companies, but most of the principles are still relevant 😀*
Where do I want to go? Mr Fletche and I have a bucket list as long as our (very long) arms, so sometimes we pencil in ideas for years in advance! Some years – like 2016 – are more about maximising our time with European trips; other years are built around a long haul destination, with shorter, cheaper trips either side. Croatia has been on our list for a couple of years now, and we felt that it deserved more than a week’s package holiday, so we’re building our main holiday round a Dalmatian Coast road trip in June.
But where do I want to go? We’ve got a country. Great! But whereabouts? This is where reading travel blogs comes in handy. Google where you want to go, stick “travel blog” after the name and then spend hours (and hours and hours if you’re me) reading about where other people have been, what they recommend – and what they don’t. I always have Google maps open so I can see where places are in relation to each other, and whether it would be feasible to visit multiple locations in one trip.
Ok, I know where I want to go…now when? We’re lucky in that we don’t have to work around school holidays, so we’ll often choose to go away in June or September. This works well for Europe – an all year round destination as long as you do a bit of research regarding temperatures and climate. If you want to go a bit further afield, make sure you take into account rainy seasons/hurricane – although if you’re willing to take a bit of a risk you can often get great deals. We visited Dominican Republic and Kenya right on the edge of the rainy season and had great weather on the whole!
Location decided? Tick! Annual leave booked? Tick! Now how do I get there? If we’re planning on flying, Skyscanner is our best friend. Pop in dates, preferred departure airport and destination, and it’ll search through multiple airlines to compare and identify the best deals. If you can be flexible on dates, or on departure airport – or even on your destination – then you can play around and find the best options for you. We’re happy to fly from other airports if we get a better deal than from Birmingham, hence we’re flying from Manchester to Copenhagen, and from Gatwick to Dubrovnik. If you see what you think is a fair price… Book it. Whilst you’re searching, prices have a horrible tendency to rise – as we’ve found from experience. On the other hand, never go back and check prices after you’ve booked… Murphy’s Law almost guarantees that this is the only time that flight prices will drop 😀
For France or Belgium, the Eurostar is a fab option…the biggest hassle (and usually expense) is getting from Birmingham to London!
Where to stay? This year, for Croatia, we’ve gone for a mix of hotels, guest houses and apartments, and it’s really kept accommodation costs down. For peace of mind, we’ve used Booking.com as a third party for all of our bookings. I searched for available accommodation for our dates in the various locations, then filtered for maximum price and customer reviews of “very good” and above. Comparing the options on Booking.com against TripAdvisor reviews then allowed me to build a list of potentials to be handed to Mr Fletche for final decision (usually accompanied by a note from me going “you decide…but I REALLY like this one..”)
I admit I’m a bit of a TripAdvisor obsessive but I’m also not naive enough to believe that all reviews are genuine. Consistently good scores are sufficient for me, and the occasional one star (and five star) reviews are usually taken with a pinch of salt. (No bathrobes and slippers? Squeaky floorboards? Small rooms? We’ve dealt with worse!)
7 different locations in two weeks? How are we going to move from place to place? We’ve been lucky to do two amazing US road trips, and although I’ve mainly planned the destinations, Mr Fletche has been responsible for the finer details of route planning, car hire and indeed the actual physical movement of us from one location to the next (I am still yet to test out my driving skills on foreign land…I am an excellent passenger and navigator though!). Croatia will be the first time we have hired a car in Europe though, and we have the added test of navigating car ferries for island hopping purposes! One of the benefits of being flexible is that we had to change our initial planned itinerary due to car hire charges – it worked out cheaper to do a loop from Dubrovnik rather than face one way charges as originally planned. Means we’ve had to drop Zagreb from the plan, but just gives us another excuse to go back!
In 2015, we used the train to travel around Northern Italy, and it was so easy…I would definitely recommend! A bit of sensible pre-booking and we even managed to get first class seats from Venice to Florence for cheaper than standard class (including free sparkling wine!). And the train/underground options from major hubs in France, Belgium and Italy mean that using one place as a base to travel is perfectly feasible.
And finally…what do we do when we’re there? Planning our sightseeing itinerary is one of my favourite things! Those travel blogs get another thorough reading and I put together a list of recommended sights, restaurants and bars from these. I’m also a fan of guide books – even though the internet makes them largely redundant these days, I like to flick through and mark pages. I plot everything on Google Maps so I have a clear idea of what sights are in the same area or direction – and most importantly, where we can stop for coffee, lunch or a sneaky alcoholic drink! I’ve found this planning is vital in large cities…without some sort of day by day plan in San Francisco, Paris or New York we would have been meandering aimlessly.
Because we’ve travelled together for almost 9 years now, we know what we like to do most. Neither of us are that bothered about museums and galleries (although we made an exception for Florence), but we do like churches, towers or buildings with spectacular views, and gardens/parks. Mr Fletche likes early mornings out and about photographing local life; I like afternoons in a cafe or bar with a glass of wine, either reading a book or just people-watching. We both like simple but tasty food, and we’re not averse to trying out the local cuisine; sometimes in a touristy bar or restaurant, sometimes in a small back street place that looks like a tourist has never set foot inside before.
Although it’s nice to wander around experiencing everything anew, I do recommend doing some research before you go, particularly things like opening times, admission fees and menus. In Europe, a lot of public buildings for example are closed on Mondays. Consider contingency plans for bad weather. Check restaurant menus, particularly if you have any special dietary requirements. Consider pre-booking tickets for shows or attractions before you go to save precious holiday time queuing. Book a table well in advance if there is a particular restaurant you may want to eat at (you could even book at a number of places, as long as you are courteous and cancel those you no longer need).
But sometimes the best plans are no plans. We were so tired in Boston that we ended up just sitting in the Public Garden for hours in the sunshine rather than trying to fit more “must-sees” into our last couple of days of our trip. After all, the Freedom Trail is going nowhere…
So that’s how we approach travel planning. It’s not necessarily the right way, or the perfect way, but it’s worked for us so far. A bit of research, a bit of flexibility, and a bit of confidence to try something new is all that’s needed! What are your top planning tips?