Everyone dreams of a relaxing, comfortable and rejuvenating vacation. In a life with hectic work schedules, high stress and constant fatigue, nothing but a good vacation can reconcile us with happy living. Generally people look forward to the vacation as a soothing experience and unpleasant surprises are always unwelcome. Traveling is an art. Like any other art, traveling can be perfected only by practice. However, one can always benefit from the wisdom of the masses and avoid repeating the same mistakes while planning a vacation. In this article we are going to look at the complete cycle of travel planning, with occasional tips prepared from the hard learned lessons from my travels.
There can be two starting points for vacation planning. Either you start planning with a date in mind or with a destination in mind. This idea can be a bit confusing as both these starting points happen at the same time for most of the vacation planning. We choose a place, a date and then go ahead.
Anchor Point 1: DateIf your travel dates are fixed but you have flexibility on the travel destination, then choose a destination by considering the season. Check for a holiday destination which is best suited for the dates that you have chosen. Bad weather can spoil the vacation experience. For example, going on a beach holiday during a rainy season or a desert holiday during summers can kill the vacation. While most of the people are aware of the wrong-season-kills-vacation fact, mostly we tend to overlook it. But this is a crucial step in a vacation planning. Apart from unfavorable climate, some activities might not be available in the holiday destinations during the off season. For example, beach shacks and beach sports like paragliding are not available from May to September in Goa. Some desert camps don’t operate from May to September in Jaisalmer. So the first important step is to match the season and destination.
Anchor Point 2: Destination
If you are particular about a specific destination, then you need to show the patience to wait till the suitable season in that destination. Usually, people cannot wait going somewhere, so they end up going to that exotic destination on the very next holidays they can grab. If you go to a place with great expectations in a wrong weather/ season, the entire image of the beautiful destination might get damaged. Some of the airlines/hotels gives discount during the off season; but I would suggest, don’t fall a prey for it. If you don’t have a specific itinerary suitable even for the off season, don’t go to a destination during the wrong season. So the rule is patience pays. You must have the courage to put your dream destination in the shelf till the season comes. Believe me, patience pays!
Step 2: Search and Research
Seasoned travelers know that preparing for the travel is as exciting as the travel itself. Researching a bit about your travel destination makes the travel easier and more meaningful. I know what rings in your head now. “I set aside the time for this trip with so much difficulty; I don’t have the time to do “research” now”. I completely understand your situation. However, in case you can find some spare time, please do not skip doing this step. Researching can be as simple as going over the trip adviser to find out the main attractions in your destination or as involved as reading the wiki pages to find out the history and culture of the place. Research can also be coupled with making the itinerary. As you will see in the following sections, it is not possible to include all the attractions in a particular travel destination in your trip. A good research about the destination would help you eliminate (yeah, I know it is painful, I too want to see it all!) the things which you don’t find much interesting.
Step 3: Start with the flexi-budget planning
Now that you have decided on the approximate date and destination, the free of cost steps are over! Hence the next step is to start the budget planning for the trip. Budget planning need not be as extensive as the government does. But, you should have a rough idea about how much money you are going to spend on each item during the vacation and a total upper limit. The itinerary also depends upon the budget. The rule is simple. The longer your stay, the costlier it is going to get. In the next step when we build the itinerary, you can keep an “expense” column against each itinerary item, and Voila! You already know how much you are going to spend. One word of caution here, if you are planning to do extensive shopping please keep the money aside for it in the beginning. Be liberal about money when it comes to experiences. Don’t miss that speed boat riding that you were dreaming about just because it is bit too costly. My personal opinion is not to spend too much money on things, but spend money on the experiences which -according to some researchers- is more gratifying.
Step 4: Planning an itinerary
Planning an itinerary starts with listing down all the places you intent to visit in a particular destination. Online sites like trip adviser or tour guides can help you in identifying the places to visit. Once you have identified all the attractions you *want* to visit, the mapping between time and destination starts. The first tendency of any traveler is to make most of their travel by adding as much of items to their itinerary. Everyone starts planning the itinerary by the assumption that they have infinite time at hand. This is too good to be true. Hence one needs to decide what kind of a tour one wants to take. Some people want to have a glance at everything in a travel destination. They just want to have a look at the monuments, natural sites, museums etc. Some people want to spend time on the locations, learn and understand the history and story of the location and take it slow. They are not concerned about missing some attractions. Both approaches are fine, but the important thing is you must come to terms with the flaws of your approach. Also you can mix and match approaches, like you can decide to just glance through some places where spend more time on others. All these details must go into your itinerary.
Once you decide on the approach, it’s time to start surfing the map and come up with the day wise plan. For each day, you can find a set of locations that you are planning to visit. The most logical way of grouping a set of places to visit is by their geographical location. You must group together places which are on one logical route and make sure that you don’t back-track the route. Also, you must assign a time limit for each of the destinations. It might sound like you are on a deadline. But believe me, it is not so bad if you assign some lazy hours at some selected spots. But also be aware that you don’t have infinite time to spend hours in every place in your itinerary. I have had the experience of getting carried away and spending too much of time in a place, so I missed my other plans. Assigning time for each destination and try to finish it by that time will help you keep your travel under control and avoid disappointments later on. This is particularly useful when you travel with a group of people with varied interests. Some want to spend more time in a museum which others find utterly boring. If there is an agreement on time limit, such bitterness can be avoided. There can be unexpected delays like a long queue in front of the ticket counter. These delays cannot be predicted and may tamper your time-bound itinerary. To reduce the damage, you must have some tourist spots in the itinerary, marked as “can-be-missed”. For example if you are not keen on archeology, you can make the museum visit a “miss-able”. In case you know that you are losing time in one place, skip the miss-able items in your itinerary without disappointment.
There may be other activities than sightseeing, like shopping or tasting local cuisine. You must allocate sufficient time for these activities. Shopping for sure is a part of the experience, but you must have rough estimate on how much time you are going to spend on shopping and other activities.
When allocating time for the itineraries, one should check for the best timings to visit a place. For example, visiting a hill station to see the sun set or sun rise makes a lot of sense and the whole experience is elevated. On the other extreme, don’t end up being in wrong place at the wrong times; like visiting a hot beach at the noon. The indoor activities like museums or monuments can be done during that time.
In an attempt to extract more time at your travel destination, you may plan for night flights and reach the destination before dawn and plan to start the travel just after the sun rises. If you are planning to do things in this manner, please make sure that you get enough rest before you start the sightseeing. The worst way to go to a place is being jet lagged, sleepy and tired. Make sure that you get enough rest before starting the itinerary. The time spend on resting would never be a time wasted. On the day of arrival, you can check out the tourist sports walk-able from your hotel or just do a round around the city. So, it is very important to decide what you are going to do on the first day, and make sure you get enough rest. Otherwise at the end of the vacation, you might feel more tired and stressed than when you started it.
Another thing to be considered while creating a travel itinerary is to figure out the opening and closing times of the museum and historic monuments. Figuring out what is open when is an important step in itinerary planning. The weekly holidays also varies across places. In some regions the weekly holiday is on Friday, some have it on Monday and even some have weekly holiday on Sunday. It is very important to cross check the weekly holidays as different establishments in a city may have different holiday patterns and some of the online sites just assume that if majority of the monuments has Monday holiday, the others also have holiday on the same day. This need not be true in all cases.
Step 5: Ticket booking
Once you have the itinerary, one of the tedious task is to booking the tickets. If you are traveling by train in India, the ticket can be booked even two months in advance. There is a high possibility that the tickets get over on the opening day itself. So it would be great if you book your tickets two months in advance. If you are still confused about the itinerary and struggling to freeze a day to commence travel, you can book train tickets for multiple days and cancel the unwanted ones just before the journey. The Indian railway cancellation charges are not very high. The case with flight ticket is different. There will be a variation of flight charges over a time period. Usually the flight fares will be high around the holiday season. There are various websites to compare the flight charges. So, one needs compare the prices and you might get a cheaper price at another online booking site. Some airlines offers discount if you take a round trip, however if you are planning to end your travel in a different city, then you might have to consider the return tickets from that city. If it is international travel, then some airlines offers one domestic transfer for free. Check with your airlines and make sure you make use of this service if required.
Step 6: Hotel booking
The natural way of searching for hotels is from online booking sites. I usually use trip adviser. If your budget indicates an amount for hotel, then you can start searching based on the cost per night for the hotel. You might think that you may miss the exotic hotels by this process, but believe me, even if you are going to browse through the exotic hotel’s fancy amenities for days, you would finally end up booking something in your budget. So, why waste the time and energy and start worrying about your monitory status and question even your very existence? So jokes apart, it is best to stick with hotels in your budget.
Location, Reachability and availability
Once a hotel satisfies the cost filter, then the main thing to look for is the location of the hotel. The hotel may be very near to the airport, but it might be one hour drive from all other attractions. This would cause you spending more money for the rented cabs. Most of the hotels advertise that they are reachable to all the attractions in the city, but you might want to find if their claim is real by checking the Google maps. You can start marking the distance between your hotel and famous tourist attractions. While it is tough to get a hotel which is near to everything, it is better if you get a hotel which is reachable to all destinations and to the place you are planning to visit the first day.
Next comes the availability factor: - Most of the times the hotels do have restaurants, stationery shops etc. but they might be insanely costly. So when booking a hotel, you should make sure that there are some collections of restaurants, shops - which have personal care and hygiene items- and small grocery shops etc. Having enough restaurants nearby the hotel gives you more options to save money and at the same time taste the local cuisine. What if you want a shaving cream, tooth paste or a mere safety pin and you cannot get hold of it in the neighborhood?
By now you would have narrowed down to a few hotels, next step is to check for the check-in and check-out times and other deals that the hotel provides. Most of the hotels specify the check-in and check-out times but they are flexible with a window of 1 or two hours. It doesn’t mean that there are some hotels which are very strict. So, if your arrival time doesn’t match with the check in time, you need to call the hotel and check if the early arrival/late departure time would cost you a day more. Also you can check for the complimentary breakfast option. Most of the hotels either gives a complimentary breakfast or allow adding that for a minimal cost. I would say the best way to start a vacation day is having a lovely complimentary breakfast! You should make sure that there are no hidden charges like a huge service charge in addition to the basic tariff. If you are traveling with children, you need to check for the terms of extra bed, and if the double room is big enough to contain an extra bed. This would avoid any surprises at the time of check in.
Another source of finding out hotels is asking the friends who are from your destination of travel. Locals will have real time data about the place; they may be able to suggest some home-stays which are nice but not listed in any of the online sites. Only issue here is the locals most of the times tend to suggest cheaper hotels with just-to-do amenities. No one can think of staying in a start hotel in one’s own home town. Having said about home-stays, one thing needed to be added; you must do the due diligence before deciding to stay in a home-stay. Home stays are sometimes run by non-professionals, which may because you issues. However I, by no means say that home-stays are inferior to the hotels.
Choice of hotel also depends upon the type of travel you are planning. For example if you are planning a pilgrimage to an ashram, it is good to stay the ashram provided facility, which would be cheap and calm. If you are going for a holiday and if you stay in the ashram facility just because it’s cheap, it may cause you a lot of trouble later. Mostly these kinds of places have strict rules about incoming and outgoing time, and food. So identifying the type of the travel you want to perform is very important.
Online reviews, How much to rely on them?
One point to keep in mind while reading the online reviews is that – don’t get carried away by a few bad comments about the hotel. As with the real world, there would be circumstances that a few customers might be dissatisfied for what so ever reason. So out of 100 comments if you see 5 bad reviews, I think you must not hold on to them. This is an important point as our brain tries to cling to the negative point more than positive. Make sure that there are no serious complaints about the safety, security and ethics of the hotel. If the complaints are like, “my room was noisy”, “my pipe was broken” etc, ignore them. By most of the chance the hotel would have replaced them. It is also important to check the time stamp of the reviews. You should not discard a hotel based on a few bad reviews about 5 years back. By all means hotel would have improved by now. Give high weight to the recent reviews.
Now that you have decided on the hotel, booking time starts. Even though most of the travels booking sites claim to provide you with the lowest rates and best deals, it is always good to call the hotel directly for booking, or use the hotel’s own online booking facility. You can call up the hotel, asking for rates and quote the rate that the third party vendor offering you. If they cannot offer the cheaper or equal rates, then you can consider booking from the third party vendor site. It is an unwritten rule with the hotels that, the best view rooms always goes to people who directly book with the hotel. By calling the hotel directly you can also come to know about their check-in check-out rules, any special offer going on, their tariff structure etc.
Step 7: Picking the items and Packing your Luggage
“Travel light” is in fad now. It is always good to have light luggage but it is extremely important to pack everything you need. There are a lot of online help available when it comes to the list of things needed for a travel. One can download a few lists and discard the items that are not relevant to come up with a customized list. Looking at other’s list remind you of the things that you overlooked. One thing note is about medication – you must carry extra supply of the medication and the prescription, as exact brand of the medicine might not be available in your travel destination. You need to make sure you have enough medication to last till the end of the travel. Also applicable is common medication for flue, stomach upset and muscle cramps.
When making a list for things to take, it is very important to consider the climate at your destination, and the type of activities that you are planning to do. By activities I not only mean the sports and adventure activities, it may be even visiting a temple where covering your head is mandatory. Also important is the culture and ethnicity of the destination. While in most parts of the world it is allowed to wear whatever cloths and gears you like. Make sure that your cloths don’t make you stand out in the crowd and announce your tourist status very loudly. While packing things, give importance to the items that cannot be obtained at your destination. For example your credit card, travel documents can never get a duplicate. For other items like tooth brush or shaving gel, even if you miss them there is always a way to obtain the same.
While packing the items, you need to keep the final checklist with you. The moment you put in an item to the travel bag, strike it out on the checklist. It is a common mistake that people don’t mark the check list as they pack and at the end of packing they wonder if they have packed a small item. Unpacking and repacking can be a nightmare. So please do religiously follow this. PS: This situation is hilariously described in Jerome K Jerome' book “Three Men in a Boat”.
While everyone loves to travel with just a single bag, the wish is generally granted only to the back pack tourists. I write this article not only for those. I write this article for people who travel with kids (yeah, who said you cannot travel after having kids?). My advice is to keep the number of baggage as minimal even if you cannot limit to one. Take care not to carry small but clumsy carry bags along with your main luggage. Arrange every item neatly into two or three bags. I personally prefer back packs as it gives the freedom to move your hands around. If you pack the last minute small items into the small carry bags and plastic covers, you might miss them somewhere, or might get confiscated at the airport.
While traveling by air, clearly understand what is allowed in the check-in luggage and in the cabin luggage. Once I was at the Hyderabad airport, I saw a group of girls, they had a 200ml shampoo bottle but liquid up to only 100ml was allowed in the cabin bag. Their argument was interesting as they claimed that half of the shampoo is used up so they qualify the 100ml limit. Guess what, their argument was rejected and they missed the flight! So please make sure that you don’t end up in such arguments which are obviously pointless.
Step 8: Get your Apps Handy
Today, smartphones rule the world. There are thousands of applications that can help travelers. At the top of my list is Google Maps. I cannot think of going anywhere without it. In India, the online taxi booking companies like Ola, Taxi For Sure and Uber has their own apps. When you are in a real need to get a reliable taxi service, these apps can be the savior. Just like the taxi booking, even you can do the hotel bookings from the mobile apps. Some companies offer special discount for the bookings through their mobile application. There are many other apps – to create a packing checklist, to save itineraries, to have information about a particular city, local language translator – the list never ends. Your mobile phone also has a great advantage of knowing your location each and every minute. There are some safety applications that enable you to send SOS messages, broadcasting your location if required. So it is very important that you keep your smartphone updated with useful apps and a good internet connection. Nowadays phones come with dual SIM feature. If you have two Sims from two operators running on your phone, chances of having range and connectivity issues can be minimized. So the rule is simple, think of anything that you might need to assist you in travel, check if there is a mobile application to do it. Most of the cases it would!
Things to take care before going to the vacation
1. Enable the automatic reply or “out of office” message in your official e-mail.
2. Inform a few people (family/ colleagues / Neighbors) where you are going when you are expected to come back.
3. Don’t let your home look like a mess when you come back from vacation. Before departure dispose the garbage, make sure there is no perishable items in the fridge.
4. Prepare a complete set of cloths – washed and ironed - to wear on the day that you come back. By all chances you might be bringing home a bag of laundry. Having a set of clean cloths would greatly ease your post-vacation trauma.
5. Before setting out for a vacation, completely drain the water filter, if you are using one. On the day of arrival, you can save yourself the work of draining the old water.
6. Make sure there are no perishable items in the kitchen. Clean all the used utensils and the kitchen before leaving. A clean kitchen is a relief when you come back and start your normal life.
7. If you have a letter box at home, arrange someone to pick up the mail. A bursting mail box is a clear sign that you are away. Same applies to the newspapers.
8.Shut down electrical and electronics items and don’t leave any valuable items nearby the windows. Keeps things locked in the cupboard or unreachable tables.
9. Water lawn/garden/plants and make arrangements to water indoor plants if necessary.
10. Close all the blinds and curtains before leaving, also make sure windows are shut.
11. Pay all the outstanding bills which may become due during your trip, recharge mobile phone for adequate amount and it is best to take a 3G data plan.
12.Note down all the emergency numbers on a diary. Have two copies of the tickets and itinerary and put it in different bags.
13. If you have a dual sim phone, take a SIM from another operator. It will help you stay connected, even if one mobile network doesn’t have range in your destination.
14. Have your partner/friend double check if you have switched off all electrical items, locked the garage door and the main door. There are some poor souls like me who starts worrying the moment I start my journey.
Things to remember during your vacation
1.Being fit is the first criteria for enjoyment. Make sure you are getting necessary rest during the vacation and don’t stress out yourself while trying to cover all the places. A well planned itinerary can help you here
2. There may be uncertainties like a delayed flight/train or unexpected bad weather – understand that those are beyond our limits of controls so don’t get pissed off; just go with the holiday mood.
3. The food may not be always great, but make sure even if the food doesn’t suit your palate, it doesn’t hurt your stomach. At the same time, don’t be prejudiced against the local cuisine.
4. Be ready for adventure and be flexible while traveling. It is OK to stand an extra 15 minutes in the queue to catch up that ferry ride; after all you have no deadline to finish.
5. Be liberal about money when it comes to experiences. Don’t miss that speed boat riding that you were dreaming about just because it is bit too costly. My personal opinion is not to spend too much money on things, things can be bought later and couriered but experience cannot be.
6. Try to wear clothes that don’t stand out in the crowd. During travel, always be alert and use your common sense to assess the situation.
7. Take a qualified guide while visiting historical or archeological sites. While guides do exaggerate, they also add value to your experience. I remember once a guide told us in the great stone monuments of Mahabalipuram – “Without me, it is just stones for you. With me you will know the story of these stones.”
8. Don’t start bargaining for stuff which you have no plan for buying. If you at least slightly intend to buy then start the bargaining. Don’t waste time and energy to just check how good you are at bargaining.
9. Don’t expect everything would be in your way while you travel. It is new place and possibly new climate and culture, keep calm and behave courteously with everyone.
10. While it is nice to throw some words in the local language, make sure that you are not pronouncing it wrong in a degree to offend someone. If someone corrects you, accept and thank them courteously.