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A quick guide to travel planning

I was talking with a friend about my trips and I realized that people seeing that I travel quite a lot might assume that I have a lot of money, which is not at all true. The truth is that I do ok, but also have regular expenses that make me leave more than half of my salary at the bank monthly and this is something that will change in about 27 years or so.

Still, how do I manage to visit two or three countries a year and usually new ones? Well, I have a dream and with it I have developed a plan that I’m going to share with you.

Georgia by darkclauds

The trick is to dream small at first and then dream big. For now I have focused on Europe and this makes my plans even more achievable. One I’ll finish Europe and start dreaming of other continents things will change and I’ll probably only afford a trip  a year instead of 3 or 4, but this is long term planning since Europe still holds some secrets to me.

Travel planning is a passion of mine and it is so big that I would willingly and free of charge make plans for others also, and sometimes I do.

The goals is simple:  keep the expenses minimum, cover a lot of ground in the amount of time given and also, always try to sleep in decent conditions.

The last part, as experience has shown, means I will always say no to hostels with shared bathrooms, hitchhiking and losing days and days in bad busses to reach a destination. Tents are a solution, but not the chosen one when travelling because I have discovered that in order to function normally I need a good night’s sleep and obviously, a shower.

Having excluded the cheapest solutions I have do make the best of the next level: not so many stars hotels strategically located, cheap airlines, accommodation in the center of the town when possible in order to reduce internal travel costs, travel cards for discounts and most important, avoiding eating out and paying more for the food during a trip than the airplane ticket.

Let’s see now the main steps of travel planning, my way:

A. Setting a destination: This is the easiest part because you always have dreams and wishes that evolve so all you have to do is to be realistic and more important: make people( friends, family) embrace the idea because travelling alone is ok, but it’s not the best way to do it.

B. Basic planning: where to go, what to see.

Having set a destination, I always go to the first place to check in such cases: Wikitravel.com This is where I find the basic details for every destination, from a short list of things to see, some history about the place, the weather, main information about the transport to the destination and from there to other places.

On wikitravel you can either check out a country or a town and you’ll find most of the information needed in order to set some goals. Since I have discovered wikitravel it is my main instrument and usually, if I don’t have a travel guide at home the trip’s project is made based on it.

C. Price estimation

In order to convince people to join me I have to have not only a plan but also the estimated costs and this is where things get complicated. Lately I have found a great help at: http://www.mytravelcost.com/country_prices/

On the site you can get an idea of what’s expecting you in the chosen destination as compared with your country and this is a great start.

D. Travel costs by type:

           a. Reaching the destination.

My favorite means of travel is the car because it allows me to see a lot of places on my way to the final destination. This is achievable for the neighboring countries and this is how I visited Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Greece. Poland is also a destination not so hard to reach by car, also Serbia and Ukraine (terra incognita for me yet).

For future plans I also intend to travel by car to Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Croatia. Four persons in a car and a minimum of two drivers per car is an excellent combination for trips in Europe.

If the destination is a bit too far for driving, the second option is flying. I have flown with most of the low cost airlines and some serious airlines and I can say that the only company I do not like is Austrian because they only give you a small pack of biscuits for a 3 hours flight and I don’t quite know why, but flying really makes me hungry. Oh, and I hate Alitalia because they have managed to lose my luggage, but under the right circumstances I will still fly with them in the future.

When looking for tickets this is my guideline:

  • Avoid airport transfers. If airport transfers are a must since Romania is not an important knot on Europe’s map I opt either for short stops or for stops that allow me to explore the city I’m changing flights in( 8 hours during daytime, a full day if possible).
  • Luggage should be proportional to the destination. If you go to an expensive country, 23 kilos should be enough even if it’s winter and you have heavier clothes. If, for example, you fly to Spain during sale season a 35 kilos limit should be enough. J

           Always check the weight of the luggage before arriving at the desk and make changes, if necessary. Although uncomfortable, a    backpack can be used to store the excess weight of your big luggage if the airport scale goes crazy. On my last flight I have managed to fill my backpack with half of my clothes and shoes while the main luggage was filled with candy and presents.

Tip: Buying the airplane ticket well in advance is a good idea not only because it’s considerably cheaper but also because you’ll have time to focus on getting the money  for the rest of the trip: accommodation, food, sightseeing.  If you have the time and the ticket is bought, you can also pay the accommodation in advance. This way all the money you can save can be used during the trip and the cost will not have such a big impact on your budget.

             b. After deciding how to get in comes the accommodation and for it the perfect solution is booking.com. There you can search by period, destination, type of rooms, you can see the location and how far it is from what you have planned to see. The price range goes from extra luxurious to very cheap and shady, but in between you find excellent options. For me, paying around 50€ / double room, a night is the top limit, but lately I have found a lot cheaper option: booking apartments when travelling 3 or 4 persons the least.

Apartments are cheaper, some of them are located very conveniently, they are clean, have a lot of space and most importantly, kitchens where you can grab something to eat and save some money.

When looking for accommodation, after the price criterion I look for two things: a  secure parking space free of charge if travelling by car, staying in the middle of the city when travelling by airplane.

Beware, when booking online if you choose the non-refundable type of rooms they will take the money immediately from your credit card so chose this type of rooms when you are sure that there is no way the plans will be canceled.

            d. Internal transport. If you intend to move a lot during a trip and see more cities, for example, google maps is the main travel helper. With the itinerary option it is easy to see the distances that need to be covered, more possible routes ( as some might be more scenic or shorter than others) and estimated costs for gas if you’re travelling by car). On wikitravel you’ll mostly find links to the local transport companies, trains, busses, boats so you’ll be able to check the prices and then decide if it’s cheaper to rent a car or to use the national transport.

If you think that renting a car might be cheaper check out the national sites for car rental to see fares. I have noticed that the prices for the cars decrease as the rental period increases. It is cheaper also if the driver is experienced and over 30 or so.

Be careful, most car companies will ask for a deposit worth a couple of hundreds of euros on a credit card or cash. They will return the money if you bring back the car without a scratch but it’s best to check the rules each company has and ask a lot of questions before making the deal or you’ll end up paying a lot more than the estimated cost you’ll find on the site.

My experience shows that for countries like Spain, Portugal, France it is cheaper to rent a car while traveling in between cities than taking the train or the buss if you are in a group or 3 to 5 persons. For inside the cities cars are mostly useless and public transport is preferable.

     e. Sightseeing. If in countries like Romania, Georgia, Bulgaria the prices for sightseeing are quite small, in famous destinations the prices can blow your mind away so it’s best to be prepared. Official sites of the museums, parks,  castles and other various interest points will display fares and even have the option for booking online so you can get there well informed.

After checking out the prices you can see if the respective city has a travel card that can get you to the same places but cheaper. The card usually work when you have more than a couple of days to spare and they include also transport. There are cities for which the cards do not give you an advantage so what you have to do is compare the price of the card with the individual costs.

I used such a card in Venice and Lisbon and it was a great deal. http://www.golisbon.com/Lisboa-Card/

You can find more about the cards and the cities that have them here: http://www.europeancitycards.com/listing.asp?id=5

Tip: Always take your student id with you when traveling it will save you a lot of money, also check if the teacher discount (50%) applies to the place you’re visiting if you are a teacher. Also, most sights have a time of the day or of the month when they are free of charge so see if you can make it there at the right time.(details on Wikipedia or wikitravel)

       f. The choice between eating out or eating in. Here I’ll speak from recent experience so hear me out. While planning this summer’s trip to Greece and following all the steps above I have managed the performance of planning the transport, accommodation and sightseeing at around 250€ / person which is incredibly cheap considering we saw more than half of the continental Greece. The plan was to avoid eating out and buying stuff from the supermarket instead,  but we got lazy, did not find supermarkets and finally ended up paying for not so great food more money than for the transport or the accommodation.

Obviously, you don’t have to be cheap the entire trip and not eat out once or twice but eating out twice a day in countries like Italy, France, Spain or Greece is a waste of good money when you can buy something from the supermarket and use the money for souvenirs or seeing something spectacular.

Also, do not go to tourist sites where you’ll spend more than a couple of hours without a bottle of water and a sandwich bought in a store or you’ll have to pay way too much for a mere bottle of water.

       g. What about city tours, daily trips and many attractive offers that sound so good and tempt you so much from the second you get to a major city? A waste of money, if you ask me. Why don’t you, instead of paying 50 or 75 € for a day tour, check the tour’s details and do it by yourself for half the cost? You can get by yourself to any of the locations tourism agencies sell so well with smaller costs and your sense of adventure will also be satisfied.

In general, city tours or country tours described by tourism agencies are a great help in planning your trips; If you have a car or good connections for national transport you can plan the same things or even better, adapt the trips to your needs and it will cost you so little as compared to what they charge.

    h. What to do while in a vacation? Feel good, make the best use of your time, enjoy everything and while doing so look for the traditional elements: from the apple strudel at Schonbrunn, a seafood dinner in Venice or Dubrovnik, to a flamenco show in Spain or a delicious cake in Belem, Portugal.

As a conclusion, you don’t really need a travel agency if you’re a curious, passionate traveler and you have some time to invest into planning and looking for best deals. Tourism agencies are for people looking for a clean beach, some blue water and all inclusive offers, people who evaluate the success of their trips in terms of tan, hour slept, cocktails and kilos gained, but you are not that kind of people or you would not have read this long article. You are like me and you count a trip as being successful if it has made you lose sleep, have sore feet and take so many photos that anyone beside you would be bored to death watching them.

Traveling is like going to school for grownups, you learn about geography, politics, art, history and after every lesson learned you become a better person, ready for the next one.

The ideas and tips mentioned above have helped me see 19 European countries and 14 capitals  in the last 5 years and this is around 10% of the worlds’s countries, not so bad, I think.

As a great traveler once said: I would rather own little and see the world than own the world and see little of it.

If you want to check-out photos from my trips around Europe you should take a look at my picasa albums: https://picasaweb.google.com/101276069977748376794

Dream big, my friends, and travel far!


One Response

  1. I would add “rent a bike!” when possible. It’s a great way to explore a city or a coastline and it saves a lot of time.


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