As one of the most commonly asked question is how I plan for my travels, I decided to give everyone a low-down on the way I research most – if not all – of my semi open-ended backpacking travels. Also included are some invaluable tips I’ve learnt either from personal experience or from the numerous conversations with tour operators, hostel managers and travel agency employees I met along the way.
Common fact: I have a thing for travelling to unfamiliar places. So I always start with GoogleMaps once I have decided on my continent or country of choice.
Starting by getting an idea of how a destination is set out means taking note of the major cities as they will most likely be mentioned in travel guides and will serve as a reference point for more isolated towns in the area. You also get to suss out if overland travel is preferable between different points and the approximate time it takes.
When tackling multi-country travel, sorting out the geography of a destination will help determine in what general direction your trip will take you i.e. North to South, East to West etc. and making that work to your advantage in terms of budget and time.
2. LONELY PLANET AND TRIPADVISOR
However, I’m no big fan of these sites as the lesser-known and sometimes more interesting activities rank low or do not show up at all. It’s really up to the individual to decide how much they allow reviews to dictate their own decisions as I know some people live and die by TripAdvisor ratings.
I personally, try to take these things with a pinch of salt unless there’s an undeniably strong concensus about Restaurant “Good Best Food” in Vietnam serving human meat pies laced with cocaine, in which case I must say I will abide.
3. PRICE OF TRAVEL
My absolute favourite site for budgeting is Price of Travel.
It essentially sorts cities by affordability according to a given index giving you an approximate per day spend in a particular destination. Given that they set out what’s included in the index i.e. food, transport, standard drinks a day – you can adjust the estimation according to the type of consumption you plan on making. Besides their focal Backpacker Index, there are also 3 star, 4 star indices for reference.
Wikitravel is amazingly understated with the type of information they provide. The site increases in usefulness the more specific you are with searches.
So I usually read up about a country on Lonely Planet and after having broken them down to cities, I enter these into Wikitravel. They have easy to follow one-page guides about everything from currency to weather to getting in and out and all the respective costs.
Triposo: Founded by 2 Dutch brothers and their Australian friend, they set themselves apart by being an on-the-go, portable travel guide.
Their downloadable location guides on your mobile means contributing to the book stores’ declining revenue by not having to fork out $60 for a Lonely Planet, lugging it around book only to serve to collect dust after having travelled a particular country.
You leech off the hostel’s WiFi and you find the destination for which location guide you want to download, after which it is available on your phone without the need for a data plan – perfect for a traveller. One of my favourite things about this app is that it has a wide coverage of destinations (15,000+ locations) and the founders have travelled extensively themselves, averaging 100 countries each or so per person so they give you a personalised encounter with each of these.
They are especially good for long haul flights with multiple transits as they allow sorting results by an Agony criteria i.e. the length of layovers. The layout also allows easy comparability between airlines and is extremely helpful when you need to organise connecting flights with multiple airline companies.
I am an absolute shocker at mathematics, which is almost illegal as I am not only Asian, but also work in finance.
If you are anything like me, I use the Oanda app on my phone for easy currency conversion.
Find out if ATMs and FX exchanges are highly inaccessible, which means you have to load up on cash in the nearest city/capital before you head out to your village or island destination. Some countries have unusual practices for e.g. Uganda has a more favourable exchange rate for the USD if the note is of a $50 denomination so I sure got ripped when I rocked up in Kampala with a pocketful of $20’s. Mauritius, for example, has more favourable exchange rates for traveller’s cheques so I loaded up on these before I got there.
8. HOSTELBOOKERS AND HOSTELWORLD
I prefer open-ended travels so I book accommodation sparingly. I do use these sites frequently for approximate accommodation prices and to determine if there is high seasonality during the time of my visit.
If you have to book, narrow your search down using these sites. Once you have made your choice, get onto the hostel’s website and send them a booking inquiry directly. This achieves 2 things:
(a) Bypasses the commission fees.
Most times, the commission is just a cut of the standard per room price. But sometimes, the hostel chooses to pass this cost on to the customer. This is where you can go around paying a little extra. A couple of bucks a night might not be an issue, but it will surely make a difference if you’re making a booking for 2 for a fortnight for example.
(b) Aligns your expectation of the place.
This, I’ve learnt from speaking to multiple hostel managers. Booking sites like Hostelbookers for example, have a standardised form in which hostels post availabilities and room descriptions. Due to this standardisation, the specifics of an availability may not always be communicated for example when you book a 5 bed dorm, you are really booking a 6 bed because this does not appear on the standardised availability forms. This results in the not uncommon bad rating on TripAdvisor which usually sounds like this: “I booked a 4 bed dorm, but when I got there, we were forced to split between an 8, 6 and 12 bed!” etc.
Rest assured there is a sliver of incompetent service in the world, but communicating directly with the hostels allow you to ascertain for sure if they have what you want and puts you in a better position for compensation if they do not deliver.
And if planning a trip is giving you more grief than it is exhilaration, and taking longer than you thought, then you’re not doing it right. Impulsive decisions pay off much better than planned itineraries so sometimes it pays to wing it!