Wanting to travel? It’s like setting up a blind date with yourself and the universe. Neither of you really know each other that well— but you’re about to.
I think figuring out travel want is a product of destination and expectation. That is, what do you want to do? And where do you want to do it? The answer to this question will determine how you go about it.
For us, the first step is always counting the cheese money. Just how much is in your ceramic-Totoro-bank? Maybe it comes from design-related back-grounds, where projects are always over budget, but I say, figure out what you have set aside, and then cut it in half. That’s a good number to start with.
Next, well, we make a list. There are a few boxes to fill in:
- What do we want to do?
- Where might we want to go?
- Is it off-season and does that matter?
- How much does it cost to go there?
- Will the trip be long or short?
- Can we be on a fixed itinerary?
- How much does it cost to sleep there?
- What will it cost to do what we want to do there?
- And finally, How much does it cost, and what can we eat there?
Probably these points aren’t worth belabouring, but they might be worth discussing a bit . . . so here goes! What do we want to do?
This might be difficult to answer but seems an obvious question right?
It’s probably both, but it can start out simple. Sometimes things have been hectic and you want a little luxury, maybe you’re looking for a romantic retreat, or maybe you are going stir-crazy in the sunless winter months of the Pacific-Northwest and just need some fucking sun. My advice- hold tenaciously to your hankering and don’t let yourself get side-tracked. Anything less than your shiny little dream is likely to seem a little bit dull.
Where do we want to go?
Whenever we are about to leave, we start brainstorming travel cravings, there are so many places in the world to choose from—often more than one will allow us to satisfy whatever craving, but we also quite frequently like to go to a particular place. Sometimes this is a queer impulse, like the sudden overwhelming urge to experience (even if only peripherally) Latin America, ruins, and contemporary art that led us to Mexico City in February. We started out with the idea of going somewhere sunny, then narrowed it down to heading South, and went from there.
Is it off-season, and does that matter?
Regardless of budget I believe that there are advantages to travelling in off-season, fewer line-ups at attractions, cheaper accommodations, quiet beaches, sometimes even cheaper food. But there are times when off-season matters— Having spent even just a few days of monsoon season in Bihar, I can tell you that it’s not the best time to go. And, if you want to go to Dollywood, you’d better be sure the park is going to be open. On the other hand, spring in Hawaii is often on sale, and the time we went— was delicious.
Succinctly, this is a question of timing. The timing of your own life, as well as the timing of where you want to go. It’s best if they’re both in synch. Off-season might be the only time that you can afford to go, but you may need to pay full price if you expect the full experience. “Christmas” or “Spring Break” are good examples of this, I often end up travelling during the winter holiday season to spend time with my folks, it’s my least favourite time of the year, especially to travel—but it’s important to them. And, if you expect the cabana’s to be rocking with co-eds, you’re not likely to find them there just any old time of year.
How much does is cost to get there?
Alright, I’m going to get down to brass tacks in a second here, with some ideas about finding fares et cetera, but suffice it to say that once we have a short-list we start figuring out cost. We try and consider not only fare in terms of cold-hard-cash (or plastic impact)—but also we try to consider two other vectors, time, and environmental fallout. If we’re just going for a few days, it’s not worth spending a whole day getting to and from the airport—a weekend in Paris sounds great, but if you can go to a neighbouring city or the mountains for an extra two days and half the cost, you may find yourself enjoying the whole experience a lot more. I really hate the word “staycation,” but some of our best trips have been local. And, while I think it’s important for us to travel, I think we can get so frenetic about crossing countries of our to-go list that we forget sometimes that the environment we are out there to see can be harmed by our presence. A lot of airlines are offering carbon-offsets, which are controversial, but can at least ameliorate some of the impact of your voyaging. Similarly, taking ground transport often makes more sense for medium distances. It can be lighter on the Earth, cheaper on your wallet, and often can be taken overnight, avoiding an evening’s accommodation cost.
Will the trip be long or short?
Obviously travel bears the cost of time off work, of being away from our responsibilities. And of course there is the question of how long you can go for—yet, at the same time, often the trick to getting a good deal is finding a specific interval. Airfares are often cheaper across certain periods, business hotels are often cheapest over the weekends, while B&B’s or resorts are sometimes cheapest during the week. If you combine the right formula of periods, you can often do what you want for longer, for less. It’s pretty common for hotels to have a third night free for example, so by stringing together two hotels in neighbouring cities with an overnight train/ferry ride, you can spend a whole week somewhere exotic for what is effectively 3/7s (~40%) off.
Can we be on a fixed itinerary?
Depending upon where you go, this can be the biggest factor in achieving savings. In our experience having a fixed itinerary results in much less expensive, and less stressful trips. I’m not talking about being on a tour necessarily, or having breakfast, lunch, dinner and all points in between mapped out, but several trips both ways have seemed to prove the idea that showing up at the last minute to book hotels at big discounts is a travel myth. Not to mention that as customs and border controls become increasingly tightened, travelling without a specific place to stay is almost impossible, and certainly attracts increased scrutiny. I wouldn’t recommend it.
But, it’s not always possible to know where you are going to be each night, particularly on those spur-of-the-moment domestic road trips. If you find yourself travelling without a specific itinerary my primary piece of advice is to call around to local hotels rather than showing up in person.
Preferably call in the local language, or have a local call for you. We haven’t done this a lot, but I know that emailing or calling hotels in China in my rudimentary Mandarin when planning our recent trip, resulted in prices quite different than rack, web, or English rates.
Then, if you’re obsessive about getting the best deal, check the quoted hotel prices against the hotels website and last-minute booking sites, if you get a chance and feel like it. We often find ourselves waiting around at places with wi-fi (airports, cafés in railway stations et cetera), with nothing better to do.
How much does it cost to sleep there?
Oh sweet discount airfares. We’ve seen (and gotten) some pretty amazing deals. But, sometimes there is a catch. More often than not, while fare is the first thing that we think of, the larger part of the cost is in fact accommodation.
The fact of the matter is that there is almost always somewhere cheap to sleep, wherever you want to go. The questions are—do you want to? will the cheap sleep still allow you to experience the place? and, is it available?
What will it cost to do what we want to do there?
We’re such nerds that we are practically incapacitated. We can’t cross the street without looking at each and every engineering marvel around us. Or maybe it’s just that Canada has an embarrassment of wilderness riches—at any rate, when we’re on the road, it’s most often for culture-tourism and/or sunshine. We want to be able to check out the local galleries and the best food, hit the museums and check out where the locals shop. . .
Depending on where we go, these things can be free, or they might cost a lot. In Berlin for example, there are these super-mega-museum passes that get you admission to almost every museum in the city for a single price. If you wanted to spend a week-end almost exclusively at museums, I couldn’t recommend it enough.
On the other hand, the museums in Rome are amazing, but admission prices are huge. Getting in may even require advance booking, as is the case at the (completely worth-it) Villa Borghese. If you weren’t particular about what type of art you felt like seeing, both cities offer a variety of galleries of ancient and contemporary art at radically different price points.
Another big part of this is getting around between these things. If your going to be travelling between cities on your trip, obviously it’s a good idea to know how much it will cost to get between points by land, sea, or air. And then—do you need to rent a car at your destination? How much is the bus or transit?
Regardless of where you go, being able to do what you want is going to be the biggest factor in your trip hitting the sweet-spot. For specialist activities like scuba-diving or yacht-charter, there can be vast differences in price based on destination, season, or local economic conditions. Picking the right destination can make having an adventure holiday surprisingly affordable.
All of this is just to say to keep an open mind. If you want to see castles, consider Eastern Europe as well as the UK and Western Europe. If you want to go sailing, consider not just the Bahamas but also the wider Caribbean and even the Mediterranean. If you just want somewhere warm, why not look for a sale?
Finally, how much does it cost, and what can we eat there?
I’m sure that regardless of whether or not you’re vegan like us, there are particular kinds of food you like to eat.
If you, like us, hate the word foodie but have to reluctantly confess to being picky about what constitutes a meal—this may be a significant factor in deciding how you spend your time and money on the road.
I know, just for example, that if we’re going to San Fran, we’re going to want to hit Millennium, or at least Herbivore. We can’t even whisper Seattle without salivating over Mighty-O! And every time we taste Chinese food we compare it to 我想我素 in Beijing.
So, it’s a good idea to factor this into your buget and place selection. For me, a happy stomach is a happy fellow.
I wonder, now that I’ve listed them all out, if these questions are all obvious, or if this set of priorities is completely skewed. Comments? Any vital where-to-go questions I’ve missed?
Soon, I’m going to try and break down some of the above into specific sets of hints, tricks, and resources that I usually refer to to book trips. In the meantime, because I’m completely obsessed with food, I’m next going to share just a few thoughts on eats.
What are your thrifty travel tips?