“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien
An unpleasant experience with a city tour left me wanting travel itinerary based on my own likings and not led around like herd of sheeps. Since then, I have been planning my own itinerary – sniffing travel deals, booking of transports, sorting out hotels, familiarizing the map and deciding attraction-to-visit etc. When I’m planning for upcoming trips, I will google and gather travel advice, related tips and reviews from travel blogs.
All those feedbacks make my planning and decision-making much easier. In return, I hope that sharing my experiences and information here can be of some use for others too.
What about you? Do you plan a trip by yourself or prefer to leave the hard work to the travel agents? Thanks to the ever expanding travel industry and the internet, it is so easy to make travel plans on your own now if you take some time to do some research.
There are many readily available travel plan and itinerary found at travel blogs, travel forums which provide tons of helpful information. Having your own travel itinerary allows you to change your travel program with every whim, cram in as much experience, exposure and sightseeing you wish to. There’s no rigidity, you determine where to go next, limited only by your imagination, time and of course, budget.
But is it really worth the hassles compared to selecting tour packages from travel agencies?
The Good and the Not-So-Good
The most exhilarating advantage of planning your own travel itinerary and what many independent travelers value the most is independence. You do not have to fit into a program, you make the program. Just imagine:
• Take your own sweet time wandering around without allocated time from travel tour guide
• Forget about tour members who’re always late (Or, no guilt if you are the one who’s always late instead lol)
• Change of plan if the attraction is not what you like – just move on to the next
• Stay and marvel at attraction which you are more interested in
• Shop leisurely at malls or outlets – the only gatekeepers are your credit limit and cash on hand
• Better opportunity to interact with the locals as they usually prefer to chat with smaller group
• Enjoy your breakfast leisurely – you are on vacation, duh
• Frame your photography shots or take long exposure shots without rushing
• Eat among the locals – no pre arrangements with (sometimes!) yucky establishments
Sounds great? Here come the bubble popping moment – the painful part of planning your own travel itinerary.
There are works to be done after all, before all that free-and-easy. Some research needs to be done – sniffing flight promotion, comparing hotel offers, deciding on connecting transports, familiarizing local maps and deciding attraction-to-visit while keeping an eye on your budget etc.
Not gonna lie, these can be taunting and exhausting depending on the amount of details. And there are those of us who are as indecisive as it gets since there are so many choices. The fact that when you do not have a set program could mean that you may travel to a new place, hit the nearest bar/ mall or laze around in the hotel room and never leave. This beats the entire purpose of traveling.
If you are somebody who needs certain structure to be on track or prefer hassle-free travel, then you might want to stick to an itinerary created by a travel agent. They have the know-hows and travel deals which cater to your budget.
How I plan for my travel
For me, the benefits trump the hassles to have my own travel plan. The planning process can be as satisfying and exhausting as the journey itself, though.
And this is how I usually come up with my travel plan to places like Europe;
1. When to go?
I have a ever-expanding shortlist of countries/ cities/ places which I long to visit. In which, I always keep a keen eye on flight promotions by signing up the newsletters of most airlines and travel sites like CheapTickets.sg, Tripzilla.sg and Zuji.com.sg. So whenever there are flight offers to one of my shortlisted destinations, it won’t take me long to grab it if the travel period is within my preferred non-peak period or the so-called shoulder seasons like Spring and Winter.
The drawbacks are of course more rainy days, the sun sets much earlier and some places have shorter operating hours. But these less popular months are best for me as I don’t have to squeeze or queue like mad to any attractions or restaurants.
2. What about the destination?
Once my flights are booked, I will always read up briefly about the country to understand about their history and culture. I don’t want to say or do anything deemed inappropriate by the locals. One thing I learned from traveling is that everyone is different and culture plays a big role in our uniqueness. Besides internet, I also get handy information from DK Books’ Eyewitness as well as travel books published mainly by the Taiwaneses and Hongkongers (borrowed from the library).
The pictures and write ups in the travel guides enable me to decide whether the attraction is interesting to me. I am a big fan of beautiful landscapes and imposing architectures so if I like what I see in the Travel Guide, I will make it a point to visit that attraction.
3. Which attractions to visit?
After I have shortlisted the attractions to visit, I will note down the operating days/ hours and entrance fees. Best if the tickets can be bought online and in advance, so I can save time and avoid queuing. I would check whether the cities offer any Tourist Day Pass which covers both transportation and entry to attractions, best if it offers skip-the-queue priority.
The best way to find information is to via the city’s official tourism website. But take note that not all Day Passes are of great value, so do your math beforehand.
4. Where to stay?
Hotel hunting will be next. For me, the 4 main criteria are P.I.L.U which stands for Price, Internet, Location and Users’ reviews. Price is self-explanatory, to fit my budget. Internet access is a must for me at zero charges, it’s maddening that there are still hotels charging for the usage while it should have been included mandatory! Location wise – hotels must be within walking or short travel distance to the local transportation and I will locate nearby amenities (eg. Supermarkets) and attractions using Google Map. Lastly, I will search for Users’ reviews at travel blogs and Tripadvisor.com to browse through non edited pictures of the hotel rooms.
Thereafter, I will compare prices between hotel’s official website, Hotels.com, Booking.com, Agoda.com and book from whoever is cheaper. AirBnB.com is another good option which works well for me in certain countries but does make sure that the accommodation is easy to locate and there is lift in the building!
5(a). How to move around?
Like a trooper, I prefer to wander around on foot. But it can be wiser to use the public transport to conserve energy and to blend in. Hence, I make it a point to Google and learn about the transportation system of the place where I intend to visit. Knowing the estimated travel time between destinations helps. Less commuting time means more time to explore. I rarely plan in detail on how to get around but more to have an idea as to their system. I will also check whether the transport + attraction day passes will save me some bucks.
5(b). How much time to allocate at each place?
Time allocation depends on individual style and while I dislikes rushing from point to point, slow-travel is not my kind of travel. I tends to get bored easily and prefers to wander off to another visual stunning destination. As for which attractions to visit at each destination, I would keep a simple list of attractions to visit each day. But besides setting the time to leave the hotel every morning, the rest of the day will be on play-by-the-ear mode. I rarely dictate the time spent at the attractions, linger a while longer if I like it else just move on.
5(c). How to find local food?
Travel is a good time to learn more about oneself. I always thought I cannot go on without rice or noodles for a day and I am no bread lover. But I came to realize that I can survive for weeks by having just breads, cheese, potatoes and meats. I always make it a point to try out local cuisine by researching the common dishes and which restaurant to go. And for that, travel books by the Taiwaneses and Hongkongers do offer good tips as their taste buds are similar to ours as compared to those in Lonely Planet and Rough Guides.
5(d). How much money to bring?
I will tally up all known costs like entrance fee, transport, meals while setting aside some emergency funds. So I can estimate the amount of currency to exchange and one good place to do that is at Change Alley, Raffles Place. My daily budget funds will be easily access from my pockets and the remaining funds kept either in money belt or stuff elsewhere. Big purchases will be done using Credit Cards that have bumped-up reward points for overseas spending.
5(e). How to stay out of trouble?
Common sense and situation awareness can save you from a rotten day. Avoiding dark alleys, shady places and instead staying on main paths or walkways with a sizeable crowd will keep you away from major trouble. For petty crimes like pickpockets or snatchers, it is usually hit and run operation, which means the crooks are more likely to fish the easiest prey with the given time. So make yourself the hardest target among all, like holding on to your belongings like how we held our rifles against the sergeants back in the Army. Like the saying goes – you don’t have to run the fastest, just outrun those behind you.
5(f). How to travel with a peace of mind
Take note of the local emergency contacts and the nearest Singapore Embassy. Also, stuff a few photocopies of your passport somewhere just in case. Lastly, getting covered with travel insurance for the trip duration. For some people, travel insurance is deemed as unnecessary. But for me, I can’t stress enough how important it is to me. I would very much prefer to travel with a piece of mind, knowing I am covered against trip cancellation, missed flights, delayed flight/ luggage, loss of belongings, theft, terrorism, accidents, medical illness and rented car excess.
That’s all for now and I will add on if I can remember anything else. Hope these will help your travel planning! Do subscribe to the blog and get the latest update.
Travel safe always!! And I would love to hear from you too!
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Alex @ WanderLex.com
Singapore Travel Blog