“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 a herd of sheep. 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 travellers 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 other 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 comes the bubble popping moment – the painful part of planning on your own.
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 daunting depending on the 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 travelling.
If you are somebody who needs a 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-how 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 and some practical tips to Europe.
PLANNING: Where and when to visit Europe?
I keep an ever-expanding shortlist of countries/ cities/ places which I want to visit. Hence, 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. Hence, the ticket price is one of the main deciding factors on which part of Europe I ended up visiting, most of the times.
My preferred travel period is during the non-peak period or the so-called shoulder seasons like early spring or anytime during winter. This lull period works best for me since it I am less likely to squeeze or queue like mad to any attractions or restaurants. The accommodation prices will usually be cheaper too (minus Christmas and New Year). But the drawbacks are rainier days, earlier sunsets which result in some attractions having shorter operating hours. Yes, it will be colder but that is a happy problem for me as I thrive in cold weather.
PLANNING: Which Airlines to use?
As mentioned I have signed up with most major airlines flying from Singapore to Europe, in order to keep tabs on the latest flight promotion. Personally, I have previously travelled to Europe with Air France, Finnair, KLM, Oman Air, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Swiss Air and Thai Airways.
I am not fussy about comfort, entertainment or transits so I don’t have any airline preference. That is because I can never fall asleep during flights so I would have already loaded my phone with movies and TV series to keep myself entertained. The most important thing to me is the ticket price. And I am really happy to see prices falling from the yesteryears’ SGD 1,300+ to the commonly seen SGD 700-900 nowadays. Yes, the competitive pricing will usually include a stopover but this is no biggie to me. Cash is king!
PLANNING: What about the destination?
Once my flights are booked, I will read up briefly about the country to understand their history and culture. I do not want to say or do anything deemed inappropriate by the locals. One thing I learned is that everyone is different and culture plays a big role in our uniqueness. I will search Google images for the destinations to find beautiful landscapes, imposing or unusual architectures, which I am a big fan. Besides the internet, I also get handy information from DK Books’ Eyewitness as well as travel books from the library. The pictures and write-ups enable me to decide whether the attraction is of interest to me.
After shortlisting the attractions, I will note down the operating days/ hours, entrance fees and the best way to get there. 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 Combo Pass which covers both transportation and entry to attractions at the city’s official tourism website.
PLANNING: How much time to allocate at each place?
Time allocation depends largely on individual travel style and habit. I only find out about my own travel style and habit a few trips later. I personally detest rushing from point to point but I am also unable to do slow-travel as I tend to get bored easily. So the time allocation should be according to one’s interests and there must be some flexibility to that. I will just keep a simple list of attractions or places to visit each day.
But besides setting a time to leave the hotel each 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. I often spend lots of time trying in vain to capture some passable photos of those beautiful landscapes or visually-pleasing places. But it is unlikely to see me spending long hours in any museum.
PLANNING: Where to stay?
Hotel or accommodation 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 cost and 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 short travel distance to local transportation and I will locate nearby amenities (like Supermarkets) and attractions using Google Map or Google Street View. Lastly, I will search for Users’ reviews at travel blogs and Tripadvisor.com to browse through non-edited pictures of the hotel rooms.
I will then compare prices on the hotel’s official website, Hotels.com, Booking.com, Agoda.com and book from whichever is cheaper. AirBnB.com is another good option which works well for me in certain countries but please make sure that the accommodation is easy to locate and there is lift in the building!
PRACTICAL TIPS 1: How much cash to bring?
I will tally up all known or estimated costs for the entrance fee, transport, meal while setting aside some emergency funds. So I can roughly estimate the amount of currency to exchange and one good place to do that is at Change Alley, Raffles Place. To safe keep the cash, my daily budgeted funds will be easily accessed from my jeans’ pocket while the remaining 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.
PRACTICAL TIPS 2: 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 in 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 combo passes will save me some bucks.
PRACTICAL TIPS 3: How to find local food?
Travel is a good time to learn more about oneself. I have 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 bread, cheese, potatoes and meats. While travelling, I make it a point to try out local cuisine by researching common dishes and which local restaurant to go. This information can be easily found at local blogs or sites.
I will also look for travel books by the Taiwanese and Hongkonger which offer good tips as their taste buds are similar to mine as compared to those recommended in Lonely Planet or Rough Guides. Then I keep a note of those recommended eating places around my places of visit. Sometimes I will seek recommendations from those locals whom I crossed path with as well.
PRACTICAL TIPS 4: How to safeguard the Passport?
Passport is the most important document when travelling and losing it will be nightmarish. Imagine trying to locate the nearest Singapore Embassy and to prove your identity. It is easier for the Embassy to assist when there is a photocopied passport. Hence, I keep photocopies and stuffed them in my camera bag, backpack or luggage. In unfortunate circumstances, the hidden photocopies can be ownership proof too.
It is cited that Singapore Passport which grants VISA free access to many countries is a worthy commodity in the black market. So I will only take out my passport on three occasions – flight boarding purposes, custom control and VAT refund. If foreign police officers were to ask for my passport in the streets, I will show them the photocopied one which is an accepted practice.
PRACTICAL TIPS 5: How to stay out of trouble?
The charms of Europe attract a huge flow of tourists which is probably why the people with ill-intention aims to target. They usually strike at popular tourist attractions and common petty crimes will be pickpockets and snatchers. Thankfully *touch wood* I have never been a victim to any of those nasty encounters. My take to that is to stay vigilant and perhaps to think like these criminals for a moment.
Pickpockets and snatchers target the easiest prey with the given time. Their hit and run operations will aim to reap maximum returns within the shortest timeframe possible. So I make myself the hardest target among all, like holding on to my stuff like how Army recruits held on to their rifles during outfield training. Like the saying goes – You don’t have to run the fastest, just outrun those behind you. Besides lurking at popular attractions looking for clueless tourists, these crooks also strike in the Metro (aka MRT). I am extra careful with my stuff when the train is crowded with people. Also while the train doors are closing as they may grab hold of a valuable item and dash out of the train.
Most time, common sense and situational awareness can save one from a rotten day. Avoiding dark alleys, shady places and stay on main paths or walkways with a sizeable crowd whenever possible.
PRACTICAL TIPS 6: How to travel with a peace of mind
For any unforeseen circumstances, it is good to take note of emergency contacts like 112 (for the whole of Europe) and the nearest Singapore Embassy just in case. For quick medical relief, I bring along a pouch which consists of Panadol, Lozenges, Zyrtec, Norit Charcoal Pills, Voltaren Gel and Tiger Balm Pain Relieving Patch.
It is a norm for me to purchase travel insurance for the trip. For some people, travel insurance is deemed as unnecessary. But for me, I cannot stress enough how important it is. I would prefer to travel with a peace of mind, knowing I am covered against trip cancellation, missed flights, delayed flight/ luggage, theft, terrorism, loss of belongings, 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.
Alex @ WanderLex.com
Singapore Travel Blog
Travel safe always!! And I would love to hear from you too!
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