Talk to several different travelers about their travel tips and you probably won’t hear the same answer twice. Everybody has their own preferences and techniques or they don’t bother planning at all. Both sides have their advantages and both have their disadvantages.
Some people enjoy planning their every moment from which hotel or hostel they’ll be staying out (including booking ahead of time) to which sights and activities they’ll enjoy. What most people find out is that things hardly go according to plan. This will probably create an internal dissonance that is stressful and threatening to the rest of your trip.
There’s also the traveler who plays everything by ear. They don’t know where they’ll be, what they’ll do, or where they’ll stay. This sort of laissez-faire attitude is probably much better for the psyche since it’s difficult to be disappointed in anything if you don’t have any plans, hopes, or desires.
Buy a guidebook
You’ll hear people against guidebooks all the time citing that they don’t want to follow the gringo trail, or simply do what Lonely Planet tells them to do. Of course, I hear all these things while staying in the same hostels that were listed in guidebooks, so go figure. The simple truth is that a guidebook offers a great resource to help plan your trip. I probably read more of the book in the weeks prior to my departure than I do while traveling and planning my days. There are just too many things that you should know beforehand. All of the things listed below should be covered in a good guidebook.
Travel time and transportation
How long does it take to get from point A to point B? How are you going to travel between two places and how much is it going to cost? You’ll be much better off if you know these things ahead of time.
I recently booked a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina on a whim thanks to some great ticket deals. I could rattle off the things I know about Argentina but logistically, I know very little. When a friend asked what I planned on doing (about an hour after booking my ticket) I told him I’d like to see the Iguazu falls, check out Patagonia, and of course, enjoy some time in Buenos Aires. After reading my Argentina guidebook I quickly realized that all of this would be very difficult to do in nine days with the long bus rides and I’d have to purchase plane tickets to get between these places quickly. Something that’s probably not in my budget. Time to rethink my plans, hopes, and desires and decide what is most important to squeeze in.
Location and availability of hotels and hostels
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like to book someplace to sleep beyond my first night of arrival. Although I’ve had nothing but good luck with hostels and budget hotels while traveling, I don’t want to pre-pay for someplace that might turn out to be dirty or unsafe. I do like to know where they’re located though. I usually scope out two or three places in my guidebook before arriving and have a plan of attack to figure out which one I want to stay in. You should know ahead of time the average room price and where they are generally located. If you’re visiting a larger city, make sure the neighborhood you are looking at is safe and you might consider its location relative to any sights or activities you want to enjoy. There isn’t much of a point in staying at a place that’s $2 cheaper if you have to spend an hour crossing town.
Ideas and desires for sightseeing and activities
This should be a no-brainer. What sights do you want to take in? Are there any museums, monuments, etc that you plan to see? You don’t need to map them out, but have a good idea where they are and what they cost. If you are on a semi-limited time frame, maybe think about squeezing a few of them in during a single day.
Don’t forget to plan your finances for your trip. An often heard joke is to take half the clothes you think you need and twice the cash. Nothing could be more true. You’ll almost always need more money than you think so make sure you have a backup source, especially for emergencies.
If you’re using a guidebook for planning be sure to check the publication date. If it was published two years ago you better be ready to pay more than was written.
When I went to Budapest last year I was surprised to find that prices for nearly every restaurant were double what was printed in the guidebooks. Often when places get listed in a guidebook they quickly increase their prices. This is a great reason why you should venture out and experience local places that aren’t in guidebooks.
Important phrases from local language
A great thing to know when traveling abroad is some knowledge of the local language. Not only can it help logistically, but isn’t it much more polite to greet somebody in their language? You don’t need to be fluent, but try to learn a few key phrases and remember to be polite when language differences occur.
You might think you know what you want to do for a week or however long you’re planning on staying somewhere but it’s wise to have some backup plans.
What happens if you can’t afford to stay in the big city? Maybe heading out to a smaller and cheaper town. Just because it’s not the popular tourist destination doesn’t mean it’s any less interesting. After all, the most authentic cultural experiences probably aren’t found downtown or near the airport.