Like snowflakes and fingerprints, each person is different when it comes to traveling. The innumerable possible variance of positions on the spectrum of why people travel, for how long, on what budget, with whom, and so on makes the planning process unique to each individual. For some, the task of planning their travel, given all the moving parts, is prohibitively overwhelming. Others, however, revel in the wonder and challenge that comes with planning their next excursion. I fall into the latter camp. It’s no surprise then, that I get nearly as much enjoyment out of planning a trip as I do while I’m on one. But I also know that not everyone is like me. With that in mind, the explanation that follows is loosely structured as a series of steps toward finding the right path for you, paired with general questions that you’ll have to answer for yourself.
Step 1: Consider broader life goals and personal values.
Questions for Step 1: How can traveling help me achieve my broader life goals, or where does traveling fit in with my values? What/how specifically can I utilize my travels to advance my goals or embrace my values?
Some people aspire to travel as though it’s the be all end all. Maybe they’ve toiled for years at a job and see travel as the fruits of their labor, or perhaps travel is something they do routinely, returning “home” only so long as to earn enough to go back out and do it again. I would encourage those who see travel for travel’s sake to take a step back and consider the bigger picture. If your mission is to simply be happy, so be it; but I’d urge you to strive for something greater, something bigger than yourself. It’s not that traveling is inherently without purpose, but it’s not until we think deeply about it and how it fits into a reality broader than our own that we can make our travel meaningful – to our lives and the world around us. To the girl who managed to visit every country in the world by the age of 27, I say this: Props to your passion and sticktoitiveness, but…think about your carbon footprint; think about the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent and how it could have otherwise been put to use; think about the great dedication it took and how that devotion could have been harnessed to help other people. Please ponder these unavoidable consequences of travel. Because it is with these contradictions of our values that, as travelers ourselves, we so often wrestle.
Personally, I don’t want traveling to define or consume my life. I believe in work as worship and that loving and helping others is the highest level of existence. While I understand that by recounting my own travels, I can inspire others to follow their dreams, I truly believe that there is a higher calling beyond traveling. Nonetheless, working constantly isn’t what life’s all about either. Traveling is simply a part of how I spend my free time, to better appreciate life and the world around me, and to learn something about myself and the place we all call home. But I also try to integrate what travel has given me into my life, professionally and personally, such that I may enrich the lives of others as travel has enriched my own.
Step 2: Consider your budgets (time and money).
Question (A) for Step 2: What is my time allowance? A week, a month, open-ended?
(Q) First, are you under any logistical time constraints, i.e., do you have any hard and fast work/family responsibilities? We knew we couldn’t leave before the end of the school year and that we would have to be back for our wedding in June. Other than that, our schedule was open ended. What’s yours? (Q) Second, how long can you justify being away from your career – professionally as well as financially? For some, their career is their life – it’s what defines them. They couldn’t imagine stepping away from it. We understood that, for us, there’s no such thing as career suicide. If I step away from my career to pursue something that is meaningful, no matter how out of the box it is, respectable people shouldn’t lose respect for me. I encourage you to summon the courage and audacity to speak frankly with your employers about your dreams and I would bet they become just as excited about them as you are. (Q) And finally, what’s your travel fatigue limit? Everyone who travels for extended periods of time experiences some kind of travel fatigue, which is when your mind and body simply reject the notion or act of travelling. For me, everything seems to be less interesting than the thing that came before it, after an extended period on the road. Such is the case with Snickers bars. You eat one, it’s amazing. You eat three, you don’t need any more. By about the fifth bar, you kind of wish you’d only bought three. My travel fatigue limit is about two months. After that point, the time and money spent on travel garner diminishing returns. Consider this when planning long trips. Aside from limiting your time away, one way of avoiding travel fatigue is to spend extended amounts of time in the same place doing the same thing (volunteering or working abroad is a good way) to regain a sense of normalcy from which your subsequent travel can free you. Another way is to treat yourself to a cushy hotel room and do nothing for a handful of days.
Question (B) for Step 2: What financial constraints am I under?
(Q) First, how much will you need, how much do you have, and how much will you have to save? This is simple arithmetic. But, without having researched your destination(s) to see how much they will cost, you may want to come back to this calculation later. If, however, you are journeying based on the amount of money you have (or are fairly certain you’ll have at a given future date), the saving component becomes less critical. And, simply having a lot of money isn’t the balm to heal all wounds…one’s travel should reflect how they prefer to spend their money. Second, (Q) how will you save it? My blog post, How We Did It, explains in some detail the simple ways I’ve been able to save up enough money to travel the world (on the cheap, of course), even on a teacher’s salary. And finally, (Q) how much should you retain for when you return? This depends on what your plans are upon repatriation. If you’re traveling for an extended period of time and need to find gainful employment, leave yourself a good three months worth of living expenses, including whatever moving/move in expenses you may accrue. Traveling is no excuse to bankrupt yourself so be sensible and just about anyone, regardless of how much they make, can afford it.
Step 3: Consider your travel priorities.
Question for Step 3: What is it exactly that I seek in travel?
This is something that everyone should search their wandersoul to answer, as it is one of the most critical to a satisfying journey. In a perfect world, there is a place that possesses all of the following attributes: natural beauty, culture, adventure sports, history, good food, opportunities to buy local handicrafts, off the beaten path locales, and low prices. Alas, we live in the real world, where one can hopefully find satisfaction with just a few of those things. Nonetheless, the search for travel utopia continues. The question above regarding your priorities in travel may be the most important of any question you ask yourself when planning for a journey, so allow me to elaborate on my own here, that you may find some inspiration to craft a list of your own priorities.
Probably the thing I seek most in travel is to (1) witness awe-inspiring natural beauty. The places I find it are in the (a) mountains/canyons, on (b) beaches/coastlines, in (c) lakes/rivers/waterfalls, in (d) sand dunes/deserts, during (e) sunrises/sunset/stars/meteor showers, and amongst unique and exotic (f) flora/fauna. A close second to nature, is my quest to (2) experience different cultures. One should ask themselves, “How different?” and be honest with themselves about how comfortable they will be in a culture that varies vastly from their own. Some of the best ways to experience a new and different culture I’ve found are (a) taking cooking classes, (b) doing homestays, (c) talking with friendly locals, (d) exploring local markets, and (e) attending local festivals. A close neighbor to culture is the ability on the road to (3) interact with interesting people, particularly (a) local and (b) fellow travelers. Another way I appreciate different cultures is culinarily by (4) trying new and exciting foods. The most intimate way of exploring the food culture of a new place is by taking (a) cooking classes and sampling some the same (b) street food that locals grab on the go. I also try to inquire on and (c) sample the most renowned local dish at (d) busy restaurants. Restaurants with a lot of people generally have a lot of people for a reason. Ones with few people are empty for a reason. The final piece of the cultural puzzle for me when traveling is (5) learning about and soaking in the history of a place, usually through (a) museums, (b) religious sites, (c) architecture, and (d) other archaeological sites. Natural beauty and indigenous cultures are like geographic fingerprints and are typically what lead my “where” decision process.
Close behind those travel concerns are the various ways that I (enjoy) (6) challenging myself physically and mentally on moderate-extreme adventures. As a (a) climber, I utilize (i) guidebooks and (ii) mountainproject.com for my beta needs, and for reaching country or regional (b) high points via hiking, I submit to (i) summitpost.com and (ii) topo maps. One of the main challenges in finding authenticity is (7) getting off the beaten path. I’ve found that (a) trekking and (b) motorbikes are two of the best ways to escape the hustle of the well-worn backpacker trail. What’s even better is (c) if you know someone living in country who can direct you to the little known places away from other western tourists and local touts. And if you don’t know someone, just try (d) talking with knowledgeable locals. The funny thing is that most locals don’t know very much about where they live. Antithetical, I know, but just make sure your newfound knowledge cistern is actually a well instead of a stick. The final way I enjoy challenging myself is to (8) utilize and expand my modest Spanish language skills. It’s really a satisfying experience when you can communicate with someone in their language and I believe (and science will back me up on this one) that learning and speaking another language benefit overall brain functioning. Having taken a few years of Spanish in high school and another in college, my vocabulary and grammar is admittedly still basic at best. Nonetheless, I’ve traveled throughout parts of Central and South America as well as the Spanish speaking Caribbean, and found the best place to learn or expand one’s broken Spanish is in Guatemala. This is because Guatemala, despite it’s diminutive size, has 27 different languages. For most people living in the countryside, their indigenous Mayan language is their mother tongue. Because Spanish is their second language, they speak it slowly and simply, making it easier for us gringos to wrap our heads around and respond in kind. No matter the language or the adventure you’re pursuing, it’s the challenge, as much as anything, that drives me to travel.
Another way I look at traveling is in advanced retrospect, meaning that I look for places that are capable of making lasting memories and adding meaning to my life. One of the best ways to do this is to (9) buy foreign handicrafts as gifts and to keep as mementos. Some good rules of thumb for shopping the local handicraft scene are (a) unless you see something that can’t be bought anywhere else, wait to do your shopping until you’re about to leave a place. This means you won’t have to carry it all over creation possibly losing it, having it stolen, or breaking it. Also, (b) local markets are often for produce, etc, so tourist markets (however kichy) are usually your best bet. Often, they are found near the tourist district (where all the tourist hotels are located) in town as well as at the tourist sights. Another way I enjoy adding meaning is to (10) find photogenic things to capture on film for posterity. When it comes to photography, I like to consider (a) lighting (time of day, angle of sun, sunrises and sunsets), (b) camera angles, (c) framing, (d) foreground-subject-background composition, and (e) camera settings. I find that pictures with people are usually the most interesting; as much as we may poke fun of that group of Asian tourists taking pictures of each other taking pictures of each other (that’s not a typo), it makes sense. The human form is more interesting to us than anything else. And is it any wonder? We are visual creatures, and pictures paint the canvass on which we can recall our best of times. As much as I enjoy capturing a moment visually in an image, I also treasure (11) writing about it all for posterity and to share my experiences and appreciation of a place with others. I find the best way to do this is on my crappy old Chromebook using (a) Google Docs and then copying it to my (b) blog on WordPress. Even if there is nothing redeeming whatsoever about a place – it possesses none of the aforementioned beauty or intrigue – I can still be drawn to travel there to (12) link up with friends and/or family away from home. Hell, I’ve been to New Jersey countless times, and it’s not because of the beauty of the Meadowlands, I can tell you that. For me, as much as travel means being in and appreciating the moment – carpe diem, if you will – it’s about creating meaning and lasting memories – capta heri, crastinum invadere (capture yesterday, seize tomorrow).
While I like to pack it in when traveling, seeing and doing as much as possible, as efficiently as possible, I also realize that in order to fend off the ills of travel fatigue I must also (13) find time to reflect and relax amidst the adventure and beauty of it all. My favorite resting places are (a) islands and beaches, (b) hill stations, (c) finding to do things that I love, and using my free time on rest days or in transit to (d) catch up on my reading. Additionally, it’s kind of hard to reflect and relax if I’m constantly stressing about how to get from point A to B, where we’re going to stay, and what we’re going to do, so finding a place that’s (14) easy to navigate and coordinate has got to be on the list. And finally, for someone as interested in traveling on the cheap as I am, I take great pleasure in (15) finding good value in places. Thus far, the best bang for my buck I’ve found has been in the following areas: (a) Southeast Asia (best value), (b) India/Nepal (cheap but hard), (c) Latin America (no visas required), and (d) USA/Canada (best for camping road trips). Of course, there are countless hidden gems out there that also provide relaxation and good value, but you have to seek them out and make it a priority and plan them into your itinerary or you may be stuck in a ratty hotel room in a noisy city for days or more at a time, decompressing and preparing for the next leg of your journey.
As you can probably tell, I’ve put some thought into my travel priorities, and it has come to fruition in a slightly weird paragraph shaped outline. If nothing else, I hope sharing my travel goals can help inspire you to do the same. If we don’t think critically about what we’re looking for and where we can find it, the search may not be as fruitful as it could be with reflection and planning.
Step 4: Research various countries based on your priorities and budget, and create your master list.
Questions for Step 4: Where should I look for travel information? What should I know before I go?
Research is critical to planning. Without at least a bit of it, you’re sure to flail and be left frustrated. I’m not going to sit here and tell you to google something. That would be insulting. What I would tell you to do, is if you are a person interested in the visual – in the image, to be immersed in it in the moment and to keep as a lasting visage of a place you’ve traveled – try (a) google imaging whatever it is that you’re into. I generally type in something like, “most beautiful waterfalls in the northwest,” or “beautiful Ecuador scenery,” or “world’s best rice terrace villages.” Scrolling through the images, whichever catches your eye, jot it down on your brainstorming page with a score next to it (I like to use the 1-10 scale). Beware that some of the time the images you see are mislabeled and you’ll want to doubly or triply confirm that the image you saw is, in fact, the place the web claims it to be. Honestly, this simple method is the way I tend to start my research – by hunting down the best natural beauty or culture or marketplaces or adventure a place has to offer.
There are some good ways to supplement this simple strategy though, which I’ll list as concisely as I can below. The (b) Lonely Planet website is a good indicator of what a country has to offer and is arranged in a straightforward way, as are their books. So, whether you go to the library/bookstore and page through (c) Lonely Planet guidebooks, or go online, for as much as I deride LP for being overly positive about its destinations and the inevitable funneling of travelers to the few places they recommend, it is another solid place to start your research. In the Americas, the (d) Moon travel guidebook series is also very good. On the topic of region specific resources, (e) Travelfish.com is offers a wealth of information on Southeast Asia and (f) BeardandCurly.com has the African continent pretty well documented. (g) Rando travel blogs come a dime a dozen (not mine of course, this is free), and you should be able to easily find a blogger whose recounted their experience on pretty much anywhere, doing anything, some being better than others.
Once you’ve identified a specific place you’d like to look into further, (h) Wikitravel.com is a good resource for general info on almost any area, large or small, while its godfather, (i) Wikipedia.org, is helpful in checking the weather patterns (average temps, rainfall) of a place to identify the best times to go. The gold standard for determining country requirements for visas, vaccinations, travel bans/warnings is the US State Department website, (j) travel.state.gov. If you have specific logistical questions that can’t be found online or in a travel guidebook, consult either the (k) Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor forums. Before asking a question on the forums, see if an answer already exists in an ongoing thread. These forums are not easily searchable, so I tend to just google “How do you get from point A to point B thorn tree forum” or likewise for Trip Advisor. If your search doesn’t uncover anything helpful or the info you did manage to locate is out of date, then post a question to the community. There’s also the option of trying to contact previous posters directly via private message.
Researching most of the nitty gritty details will probably come later, but just to make sure these places you’re salivating over aren’t prohibitively expensive to get to or get around, you’ll want to price them out. I’ve found (l) Skyscanner.com’s monthly view to be the best way to identify the cheapest flights and the (m) major airlines awards maps such as United’s and American’s to be helpful in spending airline miles. Hotel, hostel, and guesthouse accommodations can be priced very easily in most guidebooks or by using an online service such as (n) Agoda.com, Booking.com, or Hostelworld.com, to make sure simply being in a country isn’t beyond your means.
A final note on research is focused on the (o) recommendations from friends or fellow travelers, which should be taken with a grain of salt. I’m not suggesting to discount them completely (they are your friends, of course, and you respect them for a reason) but do understand that nearly everyone when speaking about a place they’ve visited with almost invariably say it was amazing and that you should go there. The psychology behind this aside, do do your research on a place recommended by a friend and make sure it’s a place you’d actually want to go rather than a place you’re going because someone wasn’t able to admit they made a mistake by going there, i.e., that it actually mostly sucked. What I’d suggest is to get your recommending friend in a quiet place, away from others (who they may feel could judge them), and ask them about the good and bad aspects of a place so you can get the full story. Friends and fellow travelers are a great resource, but like anything, do yourself a favor and do your own research before jumping on a plane based on hearsay. Your investigation should yield a list of countries or places that you want to travel, and don’t expect to be able to tackle them all on a single trip. If your master list is anything like mine, it can’t be contained on a single page.
Step 5: Group your states/countries into geographic areas that can be tackled together.
Question for Step 5: What states or countries could be sensibly combined to form an extended trip based, of course, on my time and financial budgets?
With one look at a map, you can see how easily a place like Chile could be combined with Bolivia and Peru, whereas it could not so easily be combined with South Africa and New Zealand. With common sense as your guide, combine your hot list countries into areas that you can feasibly tackle within your allotted time and monetary budgets. Obviously, (a) loops or direct lines are most efficient, if you’re planning to travel around in a country or between a number of countries. Most of the time, flying will be the more (efficient) way to get from country to country, but (b) land border crossings are cool too. If you’re someone like me with vast and varied priorities in traveling, consideration should be given to (c) diversifying your groupings in order to address your many priorities and so that you don’t get bored doing the same thing all the time, i.e., getting “templed out.”
Step 6: Choose a geographic area to visit.
Question for Step 6: How does one go about whittling down their master list?
You’ve considered your goals, budgets, and priorities. You’ve done your research. You have a long list of countries and you’ve grouped them into areas. Your next task is choosing one geographic area from many. You’ll likely have (a) a feeling about certain places before you can even explain exactly why you want to go there. That’s the way the human mind operates. We’re innately governed by our emotions rather than our rational minds. As much as we attempt to transcend emotion, we are eternally governed by it. Inexplicable emotion will surely play the largest role in which geographic area you choose. But, if you’re like me, there’s a good chance you’ll be hard pressed to analytically decide on which where is the where.
Whittling down your master list to just one place means prioritizing by preference. In other words, based on your travel priorities and limitations, deciding logically which place best matches your travel needs. Not that you’ll decide based on this logical approach, but at least it will inform your ultimately emotional decision. The best technique for evaluating various possible decisions with multitudinous factors is called the (b) factor rating method and it’s used in boardrooms across the world to help influential decision makers choose the best path forward for their organizations. But instead of deciding which markets to expand into and all the factors influencing each one, we’ll be looking at each potential destination in terms of how it can help us achieve our travel priorities.
Your travel goals and preferences are likely going to be different from mine, so feel free to copy the spreadsheet from here, and modify it as you see fit. But in terms of my own factor rating model, I’ve condensed my goals and preferences to six factors: (1) Pricey vs Cheap, (2) Humdrum vs Beautiful/Interesting, (3) Difficult to navigate vs Easy, (4) Boring (no activities) vs Fun (lots of activities), (5) Touristic vs Authentic, and (6) Uncomfortable vs Comfortable. List the factors from most to least important and then assign them each a weight, which will be used as a multiplier when grading each location. Grade each location on each of the factors and let the model do the work/math for you (via embedded equations in the spreadsheet I’ve linked above). In the example below, location 3 is the clear winner, scoring 8.2 out of 10.
What often happens during this analysis is that one’s emotional inclination toward traveling somewhere is either confirmed or challenged. If confirmed, great, you’re solid. If challenged, understand that whichever location you’re arguing for (and against the results of the model) most is probably the one for you. My geekiness shines through on this, as I use it for lots of big decisions in life, not just travel.
Step 7: Research specific transport, accommodations, and activities/sights for each destination in your chosen area.
Questions for Step 7: How will you get to each destination and around, where might you stay and for how long, and what will you do? How much will each of these cost?
Once you’ve decided where to spread your laurels, the nitty gritty research really begins. You’ll want to find out as much information as you think you’ll need on transport (getting there and around), accommodations and lengths of stay, and activities/sights for each destination in your chosen geographic area of travel. For each of these three areas of research you should consider their value, seasonality, and redundancy to determine the feasibility of each.
In terms of finding (1) value in accommodations and transport, look for the (a) best trade off between cost and convenience/comfort and don’t forget to consider extending stopovers when possible. With respect to value in activities, it’s really up to the individual, so (b) refer to your list of travel priorities to determine what’s most important to you and how much you’re willing to pay for each prospective experience. (c) Bucket list items are generally exempt from value constraints because price is usually of less concern when pursuing a lifelong goal. I’ve bailed on planned activities if they just don’t seem like they are worth the money or are just too complicated.
Sometimes (2) seasonality isn’t a factor, particularly when there is no defined tourist season and weather is the same (equally good) all year. However, most places have (a) high and low seasons for tourism, which is usually tied to the (b) good and bad weather seasons. You’ll have to determine whether the higher costs and larger crowds during the high season are worth it to you. In general, (c) hotel rates will increase during high season, usually doubling or more, and sometimes, (d) activities are closed (or shitty) during low season and may be overbooked during high season. In addition, some places are just not worth visiting in off season, unless you want to be marooned in you beachside hut by unrelenting rains as we were in Thailand. With all this being said, rainy seasons often aren’t always rainy and you may be able to (e) find value in traveling during off-peak times.
If your list of travel priorities is as long as mine, you may want to consider (3) reducing redundancy in your travels. For instance, after visiting temples three days in a row, do you really think you should go to another city principally for its temples? Change it up! It’s also nice to sample many different modes of transport a country has to offer as well as its various types of accommodations. When considering the feasibility of place, one has to consider a number of issues at once, including costs, timing, convenience, and preferences.
Step 8: Sketch out your route and draw up your itinerary.
Questions for Step 8: What attractions would you like to see, in what order, and how much time would you like to allot at each one?
The itinerary. This is where it all comes together, or at least begins to take shape like a tadpole into a frog. But don’t get ahead of yourself and put your A-list items right at the top. First, open up (a) a map, pinpoint your destinations, and determine the most effective path to see them. Once again, straight lines or loops are most efficient, but do investigate a bit of how to get from place to place before assuming that since they are in a row, one can just hop on a bus or train. Many locations, particularly those off the beaten path, aren’t on standard bus or train routes.
If you really want to be particularly on point, use (b) a calendar and either schedule things down to the day (with flex days built in in between) or just eyeball it, making a rough sketch for how long you think you’ll be in each place so you’ll know if you need to cut a place out or if you can extend your stay in another. (c) Build in travel days and rest days and a few flexibility days now and then. Sometimes, if I think a friend or family member may be interested in a place, I’ll (d) share my itinerary with them and see if there’s any point along the way they’d like to join. Having people you care about there to enjoy your experiences with you adds meaning to your wander; and having a well planned itinerary helps alleviate the stress of figuring out what comes next, especially if it’s not only your shadow joining you on the trail.
Step 9: Buy the required tickets and book at least the first night’s stay for wherever you’ll land.
That was easy, wasn’t it?
Step 10: Assemble the required gear/vaccinations/visas for your trip.
You’ve answered all the questions. It’s time to get excited!
I’ll keep this brief since you’ve nearly finished this Odyssey of a blog post and are hopefully chomping at the bit to get starting planning your next great adventure. Regarding vaccinations, appointments at travel clinics fill up quickly and visas sometimes take months to procure, so dally not. My next post will outline the gear we’ve used on our journeys, so click here (when it’s finished, of course) to be taken there.
Whew…that was a marathon. But, we made it. You’re now ready to start thinking about the trip of a lifetime. Go forth and plan!