People often ask me how I decide where I’m going next in my travels. It’s usually a combination of two things, one is suggestions from other travelers (and travel bloggers) and the other is cheap flights. I try to ask everyone I meet on the road what’s the best place they’ve visited. I have a list on my iPhone of recommended places and places I want to go, and it’s been growing fast. The second way I determine where to go next is looking for cheap flights. For example, I knew I wanted to head to Asia in September, and I have a huge list of places I want to go, including Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Japan, so I consulted my favorite flight search website Skyscanner. You can enter your departure airport and the destination as “everywhere”, and the site will give you a list or a map of destinations and costs. When I did this, I checked flights both from San Francisco and New York, and the best I could find in September was a direct, one-way flight to Seoul, South Korea from San Francisco for $422. South Korea. Not on my list and I knew very little about it, but I thought, hey, why not? So South Korea will be my first stop in Asia. Now what?
How I Prepare:
If you are time-limited, I recommend planning the crap out of your trip ahead of time. Book ahead of time, so you aren’t wasting precious vacation minutes doing this. If you love this research and planning, it’s a great way to get psyched up before your trip. If you find it tedious (like me) you can find a travel agent to do it for you. I used an agent to plan out my 3 week whirlwind around Australia and New Zealand. The agent planned and booked every flight, hotel, transfer and even some activities. This made things so simple for me to just show up and go.
I don’t love the process, and I have the luxury of time, so advanced planning is not required for me. If you have time, I recommend booking things as you go, so you have the flexibility to make on-the-fly decisions. There is some basic planning that I always like to do ahead of time, though…
- Research the safety issues of the country or city. For me, this is important to know before stepping foot in country. What’s the crime like? What are possible scams? Are there potential natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes, or hurricanes? Are there particular neighborhoods in cities that should be avoided? Recent terrorism, protests, strikes, political unrest? A quick internet search can get you this info, but I also try to talk to other travelers who have visited recently for real-time facts. After I get a feel for the situation, I file the information in the back of my mind and move on. I am not easily freaked out, I understand that there are risks everywhere, and I try to behave in a way to minimize the probability of something bad happening to me. I think that arriving completely ignorant is foolish, but obsessing over the potential things that could go wrong is paralyzing.
- Register with the U.S. Department of State and keep in touch. I am not trying to run off-the-grid or hide in a foreign country. Whenever I go, I let the U.S. government know where I’m going to be. In case something goes wrong, I want the government to know I’m there and to help me get out. I also let my family know where I am and where I’m going, usually via Facebook. If I know that I am going to be out-of-touch for a few days, I let my family know that as well.
- Find out about money. Before I arrive, I want to know what the currency used is, and what the approximate exchange rate is to U.S. dollars. Are credit cards accepted? Are U.S. dollars accepted? Are ATMs safe and available? Can I easily get or exchange money at the border or the airport? I also research approximate costs for travelling there. You can do a simple google search like “cost per day South Korea” to get some benchmarks for budgeting. Be careful though, as you need benchmarks from like-minded travelers. I’m not a ramen noodle-eating backpacker hoping to spend $20 per day, but I’m also not a luxury, 5-star resort kinda gal. I have found some travel bloggers with similar travel styles, who can provide me guidance, so there’s no sticker shock when I arrive.
- Find out if you have any friends or friends of friends in the area. I like to put out on Facebook where I’m headed next to see if anyone lives or has lived there or visited, or knows someone to put me in touch with. Having a local contact has always been useful. There is also a Facebook app I like to use called “My Friend Map”, where you can see on a map the home towns of all of you Facebook friends. This was especially useful during my U.S.A. road trip.
- Book the first few nights. As a solo traveler, I am not comfortable just showing up to a city without a place to stay. I have done this, but it often gives me a bit of panic, worried that everything is booked and I’ll be sleeping on the street. My current favorite lodging for the first days in a new city is Airbnb. You are often staying with a local family, which is great to get an understanding of the culture first-hand and get great local tips. I find that Airbnb is better in big cities, so I did this in Lima, Peru, Bogota, Colombia and will be doing it in Seoul, South Korea. Hostels are good if you are more interested in meeting other travelers and hotels are great if you are more interested in having your own space.
- Read a book. I tend to avoid travel guides, as they are expensive and heavy, and I hate navigating them on my Kindle. What I do like is to find a book that takes place in the country where I’m going to visit. Reading a book about a place (either fiction or non-fiction) can give you a glimpse into the country. Some of my favorites: Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today by Yoani Sanchez (Cuba), Gringo Nightmare: A Young American Framed for Murder in Nicaragua by Eric Volz (Nicaragua), Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail by Rusty Young (Bolivia), and Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams (Peru).
- Check the weather. I try to determine what kind of clothes and supplies I need before I arrive, but like the crime, I don’t dwell on this too much.
What do you think? My ‘no planning’ actually involves some research. How do you travel? Leave me some comments and suggestions below.
And stay tuned for Part 2 of this post, where I tell you what I do when I get there…