How to Plan a Trip
In order to tide me over while I calmly (anxiously) await my next trip, I figured I could start writing a few short pieces about the process of traveling-not just my travels themselves. Upon reaching this decision, I then thought to myself, “Self, what would be a good starting point to write about?” This in turn led me to the action of planning a trip.
Now you must first realize that the act of trip planning, whether for real or imaginary trips is an activity that consumes a large portion of my life. I love the act of researching, of taking virtual vacations, of salivating over the scenery and of imagining myself passed out on a double pillow top mattress after a long day of sight seeing in some exotic locale. Therefore, when the time to actually book a trip is eminent, I proceed into trip planning overdrive. You may follow the musings of my (neurotic) orderly mind below.
I have a notebook. It cost approximately twenty cents, and is a lovely college-ruled, royal blue notebook. Within this notebook there are page headings for various places that I know I’d like to visit someday (which I will tackle at a later point in a completely different article). See, throughout the hours I spend on the Internet, or reading magazines, or talking to friends about travel, I get ideas. A photo tagged on Facebook, a review on Trip Advisor-they all spur a form of lust in me. Where would I be, if five years later I forgot about said beach or restaurant or hotel, and couldn’t find the information? Hence the beauty of the notebook. For each location, I keep running notes on things I would like to do, places I would love to stay, restaurants and bars that are begging for me to show up. All the information I could ever want, in one small, beat up little notebook.
Even after I take a trip, I often amend the page for that location, or start a new page. What did I see while I was traveling that I would love to do next time? What would I love to go back to? What did I just not have time to do? It’s a beautiful thing, my notebook.
Narrowing it Down
Unfortunately, with a list of about 100 places I’d like to see (that I promise are orderly organized and catalogued), it become somewhat difficult to narrow down. In fact, I have resorted in the past to attempting the old pick out of a hat option. However, once a location is determined the real fun begins! I usually like to book things in the following order:
Dates of travel: This is usually pretty pre-determined for me, since I am a teacher and don’t have the use of vacation days (I promise I’m not complaining!), and need to go over school breaks. My options are usually summer, a week in February, and a week in April. Considering I’m a complete holiday fanatic, December doesn’t really work for me.
Hotel and Flight: Depending on the type of trip I’m taking, booking a hotel and flights usually go hand in hand-especially if I’m only headed towards one location. This is where my lovely notebook becomes invaluable; since there is already a decently extensive list of options, I can refer to them before booking. I also tend to use a variety of resources when booking our hotels and flights.
For the Caribbean: www.cheapcaribbean.com runs fantastic sales that package together airfare and hotels. I’ve used them for both Cancun and the Dominican Republic, and it really is the easiest ever. You can compare hotels and resorts, and pick out your flight times all on the same site, and they offer not only a price-match guarantee, but also a credit if it rains at all during your stay as well.
Airfare: Given the choice, I fly JetBlue. Always, without fail. They fly so many places out of JFK (my preferred airport), and they still offer free snacks on board, along with your own personal TV. Fantastic. And although they recently redid their rewards program (I may have shed a few tears at this point), I still regularly accumulate free flights. It makes me smile.
Hotels: I use a few sites to book hotels. Although I’ll occasionally book through the hotel itself, I often use sites like Expedia and Travelocity. My recent favorite is Hotwire. For both Boston and Washington DC I was able to get amazing deals on hotels-our stay in Boston actually cost less for 2 nights than it would have for 1 night should I have booked through the hotel’s website.
Reviews: TripAdvisor is my friend. I like to think, at times, that we have a special relationship. Not only do I use them to check individual reviews of hotels, but I am also a gigantic fan of their trip forums. I always receive impeccable advice about places to stay, and what locations to look for within a big city.
Deciphering sites like Hotwire: www.betterbidding.com looks at all of the places Hotwire covers, and offers you insight as to what hotels you may be getting (since you are “blind” bidding on the hotels, and don’t discover which hotel you’re staying at until after you pay). While it’s not 100% accurate, I’ve found that it is, for the most part, reliable. It also gives someone like me an amazing sense of security knowing that I can still do research on hotels and then be comfortable with the chance I’m taking on sites like Hotwire and Priceline.
What to Do and Where to Eat
After the large bulk of a trip is planned, I start to finalize the smaller details. What do I want to do each day? Where are we going to eat? I tend to over-plan all my trips, giving myself plenty of options to pick and choose as I see fit while I’m actually there. I actually constantly joke that when I do things, not only is there plan A and B, but C, D, E and F as well. So I start with a list (again referring to my best friend of a notebook), and list all of the things I could possibly want to do during my vacation. I talk to friends, I check out chatboards, and Google becomes a fixture on my computer screen. This list in turn gets discussed and mulled over with my travel partner(s) (e.g., often my very wonderful boyfriend), and narrowed down/ranked in order of appeal.
Then comes the itinerary. Now, I should preface this by saying that I don’t believe I’ve actually followed an itinerary to the letter since I began writing them, but they’re my security blanket. They allow me to have an idea of how much I should expect to see in a day. They allow me to give myself a buffer if I decide I want a nap, or run behind. My itineraries are who I am. They are detailed, down to the hour (I believed I warned you that I have slight OCD issues). They include prices, hours of operation, contact info and other pertinent information. I print them out and bring them with me while I travel, and then often ignore the majority of them based on how I feel that day. However, I usually still manage to accomplish the majority of what I want to do.
Once the itinerary is carefully, and lovingly, completed, I begin to make reservations. Occasionally I will book a pre-arranged tour, although I prefer to do things on my own, and at my own pace. Reservation information is then gathered up in my travel folder, so that I have all my information in one easy to reach place. I know it may seem silly to spend so much time working on something that often doesn’t get followed, but it really allows me to understand more about the place I’m visiting; even though I inevitably leave a location with even more things that I’d love to do upon returning. As anal as I am about my lists and itineraries, part of the beauty of travel is the act of exploration. It is walking down a street, and discovering a bar that you would love to step into. It is the act of serendipity, and I love the discovery of new gems just as much as I adore my lists.
Couldn’t I just use a travel agent?
When it comes down to it, it is up to you. I’ve used travel agents in the past, but honestly? I’ve never felt that they accomplished more for me than I could on my own, whether in regards to price, locale, information or any other aspect of a trip. Then again, I’m sure you’ve noticed by now the amount of time I spend researching and booking trips; I’m lucky in this account and have the time to do so, which I realize might not work for everyone. However, I feel a certain sense of satisfaction knowing that my trip is exactly what I want it to be-it’s not based solely on the help of one other person. I’ve also had travel agents “promise” perks that were never delivered, which was upsetting to discover upon arrival at my destination.
After trying to book trips both ways, I’ve decided at this point to do it on my own. I’m more confident in my abilities to successfully book a trip, and there’s such a plethora of information available on the internet that I never feel limited in my options.