With the amount of travel I have done in the past 10 years, it stands to reason that I have a few rules I apply every time I start planning a new adventure. Here are my top tips – what are yours?
1. Plan ahead.
I plan most of my trips well in advance – sometimes up to a year or more, certainly at least 6 months.
Why? Because I need something to look forward to (a vague plan to go somewhere in August just won’t cut it for me); because I get better airfare prices and more options by booking a long way ahead; because it gives me more time to plan my trip and learn about the country I’m going to; and because it gives me time to budget.
I know there are some fantastic deals to be done last-minute, but to me the planning is half the fun!
Now, to be fair, I’m that person who records everything I spend and knows exactly how much goes on what, not just when I’m travelling but at home as well. But in my home life I don’t budget as such; I know what my normal spending pattern is like and can usually keep more or less on track.
That all changes when I plan a trip. For many years now, before I’ve even booked anything, I have cracked open an Excel spreadsheet and planned out every conceivable cost of the trip I’m considering, including all the hidden fees that are easy to overlook. Airfare? Hotels? Guided tours? Visas? And what about the smaller things – public transport, airport transfers, tipping? Mobile phone costs? And last but not least, FOOD. I don’t get too precious about it, and I tend to over-estimate slightly on purpose, but totalling up my trip in this much detail allows me to have a really firm handle on the overall cost and be absolutely sure that, when it comes to the crunch, there will be enough money in the bank to pay off the credit card. But then once I’m on the road I relax; if I’ve done my preparation well I know what I can afford, and any overspend normally gets covered by the savings I make by not being at home.
3. Location, location, location.
Not the destination I am visiting, but the hotel I choose. I normally travel either by joining an organised adventure travel tour, or completely on my own. Tours are great because someone else makes the decisions, and if you find yourself in a hotel which is miles from anywhere, it doesn’t matter because someone will be picking you up. But when I’m on my own, I am very particular about the location of my hotel. Although I’m budget-conscious, my top priority is to be in a very central location, which is safe, and from which I can walk to most sites of interest and a variety of affordable restaurants. Or, better still, I find a hotel which is close to a metro station. I have got some of my best deals this way: by choosing a hotel which is a little further out but located right beside a metro stop, I have kept my costs down but can still get home quickly and without a long, dark walk on my own.
4. Make a detailed, day-by-day plan – and then abandon it.
When I am travelling independently, without the support of a tour company, I plan my trips down to the nth degree. I spend weeks reading guidebooks, learning about sites, working out out where things are in relation to each other and how to travel between them, and creating a day-by-day itinerary for my trip. If nothing else, it’s fun!
But you know what? When I arrive in my destination, the plan goes out the window.
The reason for this is simple: by the time my plans have been finalised, I have a really good idea of what I want to see and where things are in relation to each other. My planning enables me to work out what is the most important to me, but I also leave myself open to adventure and spontaneity. You never know what new things you might find in your destination, or whether places you were keen to see disappoint you and take up less of your time than you had planned. And sometimes the weather plays a part. I recently made a day trip to Hong Kong from Taiwan because the weather was horrendous in Taipei and I had already done basic research on how feasible a whistlestop tour of Hong Kong would be. My planning enabled me to make a last-minute decision the day before, confident in the knowledge that my plan wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounded. Not quite.
5. Check the visa rules – and then check them again!
Because visa rules can, and do, change.
As a Brit, whenever I am travelling outside the EU, I always make a point of checking the visa situation before I even start to book my trip. Some countries are easier than others when it comes to visa processing; while some are significantly more expensive/difficult (I’m looking at you, Russia!). By checking ahead of time, I can budget for the visa costs (see point 2 ?) and make sure that I have the time and empty passport pages to get everything I need.
Assuming I will need a visa, I make a mental note of the date on which I need to start the application process (usually followed up with an iPhone reminder as well because, hey, my head is full these days…). But about 3 months out from my trip I will double-check. Nothing worse than realising with 3 weeks to go that the consulate has a huge backlog and your 7-day processing is now expected to take a month…
And if I’m going to a country with no visa requirements, or with visa on arrival, I check again a couple of weeks before leaving. Just this week, for example I found out that Canada has introduced electronic travel authorisations: my most recent experience was in 2010 when my passport was enough to get me through Canadian immigration. And just before a trip to Kenya in 2015, I discovered that visas on arrival were being abolished mere days before I was due to arrive, and I wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the country without a pre-arranged eVisa. Cue a huge last-minute panic.
Oh, and for the love of all that is good and pure, read visa instructions carefully. The process really isn’t that complicated as long as you read it properly. And I’ve seen too many examples of people who didn’t…
6. Keep your packing lists.
Because I’m a techie kind of person, most of my life is on my computer or phone. That includes packing lists; for every trip I take, I create a packing list in Excel (yes, I love a good spreadsheet) which then gets saved to the great big cloud in the sky for all eternity. Why keep it? Well, the next time I go on a similar trip I can reuse that packing list and half the work is done for me. I just need to tweak it for new clothes, clothes that no longer fit(!) and equipment I remember wishing I’d taken last time, and I’m good to go. It’s also a great way to remind myself of things I might have forgotten otherwise. Sun cream? Good point!
7. Take a pre-paid currency card.
I only came around to these a few years ago, and now I wouldn’t be without them. If you’re not familiar with pre-paid cards, they look and feel just like a credit card (and are backed by either Visa or MasterCard), but the difference is that you load them with credit online in advance. I have two, one in GBP and one in euros, and they have two massive advantages. One, they help my budgeting (especially the euro card where the exchange rate is fixed when you load it up), and if I get the budget wrong and run out of money they are very easy to top up online. And two, they avoid the need for me to give foreign ATMs a direct connection to my bank account. If the card gets stolen or is skimmed, I can only lose what is already loaded on it, and in any case I can cancel the card online as soon as I realise there is a problem and the money will be safe. And there is no chance of the card being rejected by the ATM because my bank can’t get its head round the fact that I could have travelled to Australia in the 7 days since I last used my debit card, leaving me stranded in the Blue Mountains making a $10 phone call to the bank in London to get it unblocked. No, of course that never happened, and no, I’m not bitter about it at all.
8. Check your vaccinations well in advance.
When I first started travelling to less developed countries, I was really good about booking appointments at the travel clinic. I went religiously each time I was due to travel, got all the advice and sorted out my vaccinations.
But after a few years, I started to notice that the nurse invariably checked out the vaccination requirements on a public website, and I had usually had most of them already. So I started taking care of this myself. As a Brit, I am a big fan of www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk. It is the site my friendly local nurses tend to refer to, so I know the information is medically approved, and it has saved me many an unnecessary trip to the doctor’s surgery. Now I read up, and only make an appointment if my vaccines are getting out of date.
However, this has led to complacency. My personal highlight was just before a trip to Brazil, where I was due to visit Iguazu Falls. The falls are in a high-risk area for yellow fever and, quite aside from needing to take preventative action, many other countries require a yellow fever certificate if you have been there. Finding out I needed the vaccine 10 days before my trip, when it is only administered by prior appointment at specialist yellow fever clinics, was cutting it a little close to the bone. Lesson learned.
It’s also wise to re-check the requirements a few weeks before you travel, even if you’ve already looked before. In particular, malaria risk can change over the course of the year, and I’ve been the situation where a country with zero malaria risk when I first checked was advising antimalarials by the time I actually went. So it’s important to keep your information up-to-date.
9. Get a local sim or mobile wifi.
I love the fact that my phone carrier in the UK, 3 Mobile, allows me to use my UK contract with no roaming charges in a large number of countries (and we’ll stop right there before this becomes a commercial ?). However, in most cases I face the same hefty roaming charges as everyone else when I’m travelling.
Most of the time this doesn’t matter. When I am travelling round India with a group, occasional hotel wifi is more than enough to handle my social media requirements, and I can resort to good old-fashioned text messaging for friends and family. But when I travel independently, particularly in countries where I can’t read the language, my phone is my lifeline.
In that situation, I am a big fan of getting a local sim card or a mobile wifi dongle. On a recent trip to Taiwan, I splashed out £14 (less than $20) on a Taiwanese sim that gave me unlimited free 4G internet for 10 days. And boy did I get my money’s worth. In South Korea I had mobile wifi, which meant that I could whip my phone out wherever I was to look up metro routes, opening hours for tourist sites and every conceivable type of information in English in a world where the Korean signs left me helpless. In many countries, sims and dongles can be rented very easily at the airport, and I can’t recommend them enough.
10. Make the most of layovers.
Unless you live close to a major hub airport (and even if you do), most of your trips are going to involve a change of plane. And I decided many years ago that I wouldn’t let those stopovers go to waste. If you have a few extra days, breaking your journey en route can be a great way to see a new city on the cheap, as the flight is usually the same price whether you stop over or not. I have had some fantastic city breaks in places like Dubai, Singapore and Nairobi for next to nothing that way.
So there you have it, my top 10 tips. Is there any advice you would share with fellow travellers? What golden rules do you always follow?
If you’re looking for more travel advice and inspiration, check out these posts!
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Solo travel: Why you don’t need to be brave to travel alone
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The World is a Book: What travel means to me
Top travel health tips you need to know
Travel culture shock: What it is and how to handle it
When travel plans go wrong
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