“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” they say and after years of travel James and I have some tried and true methods when it comes to designing our adventures for smooth sailing. Like most people, we have constraints, especially time and money. Affordable group tours are not an option and frankly, we like to do some off the beaten path, unique kinda stuff that isn’t commonly included in mainstream itineraries. Therefore we have to create a personalised travel plan according to our unique criteria. Here is a short guide to how we select a destination and go about trip planning for the most relaxed and trouble free experience possible.
Firstly we decide on a destination, a high priority selection from our bucket list is generally the seed for each travel design. Currently, we are eyeing off the Galapagos Islands!
Geography and timing
If we are dancing around multiple ideas, we start to narrow it down by proximity and time. For example, seasonal experiences such as cherry blossoms in Japan or swimming with whale sharks in Mexico require certain timing. Furthermore, as expats, we try to wisely use our current location as a base to explore the surrounding region while we are geographically in short reach.
Generate a “must-see” list
Destinations that are high on our list are usually justified by a certain experience or experiences we’d like to have, and this forms the basis of our “must-see list.” From there we research other things to do and see in and around that location. There are plenty of “top 10 things to do in…” lists around the internet. I also find Instagram and Pinterest useful, fun ways to research.
Budgeting time and money
Next, we look at what is achievable in our timeframe and budget. To determine this we find group tour itineraries online that cover the bulk of our “must-see” list, giving us an indication of the time and money required.
To plan or not to plan, that is the question
The next step is to decide whether we feel comfortable designing the trip for ourselves or whether we need an expert collaborator. The determining factors are most commonly language and development. As mono-lingual English speakers, we call in help for many non-English speaking destinations. We also get help for developing countries, that often may present challenging political situations or might offer experiences that cannot be simply booked online or over the phone etc.
How do you like your travel?
From here it goes 3 ways, we’ll call them: Complete DIY, Partial DIY, or Expert Level
Complete DIY – On our recent trip to Mexico we decided it was safe and navigable enough even on our limited Spanish to go it alone. We booked flights, accommodation and hire car online; created a rough itinerary; mapped it out and away we went.
Partial DIY – On a Partial DIY we would generally book our own flights and accommodation, then book day tours for certain activities that require transport. For the rest, we explore freestyle based on our research and the plethora of free self-guided walking tours available around the internet and in guidebooks.
Expert Level – Sometimes we don’t have time to plan an extended trip with complicated connections. Imagine this – you’ve just spent 4 days driving across remote parts of the Bolivian Altiplano, and it is time to cross the border into Chile. You drive up to a shack in the middle of nowhere that marks the border checkpoint. There is nothing for hundreds of miles in this beautiful but cold, barren mountain landscape at over 4500m above sea level. Your Bolivian tour company can take you no further and thankfully your Chilean tour company is there to pick up their precious cargo – you! You don’t want to get this kind of connection wrong folks–best to get a tour company like the wonderful Contours who coordinated our month long, five country South American odyssey. In cases like this, we give our expert helpers as much information as possible, including our must-see list, hotel standard preferences, timeframe and budget, and let them do the heavy lifting.
NOTE: Generally we always book our own flights to/from our starting/ending point, no matter which of the three ways we go. You don’t want travel agent mark-ups eating into your budget and it’s so easy to book directly with airlines online.
Selecting your help
We rarely use the same travel service twice. This is because we select operators who are specialists in their destination. We prefer to support local businesses, and their intimate knowledge of their homeland can really benefit us in finding unique experiences. For instance, in Hue, Vietnam our tour guide arranged us a special meal in a female Buddhist monastery because his sister was a nun there.
I hope this insight into how we go about self-styling travel to suit our needs, reduce hiccups and maximize fun is useful. Comment below with anything you might like to add and help the Duende community to design their own unique travel plan.
If you would like us to step you through planning your next short getaway in 15mins x 15 days, join the FREE 15×15 Travel More Challenge! I’ll show you how to put the above into practice planning your own trip with daily email prompts and downloadable travel planner and checklist that you can use again and again!
Peace, love & inspiring travel,