Seattle, WA USA
For the better part of two years, I have been planning every minute detail of my 3 month sabbatical trip to 12 countries around the world (Peru, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Jordan, South Africa, Botswana, India, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). Because I elected to organize this trip on my own without a travel agent, I spent countless hours on TripAdvisor, Travelfish, Rough Guides and a myriad of local websites and travel forums researching information about the various countries I would be visiting. Once you start planning a trip of this magnitude, you realize how many details must be worked out and planned ahead of time before you leave.
First, the transportation logisitics was an interesting challenge. Once I knew the places I planned to visit, I had to figure out in what order to visit each place while minimizing weather issues. Fortunately, the plan fell into place pretty quickly once I determined that I could circle the globe traveling west to east beginning in mid August to maximize the weather conditions in each location.
After that, it was a matter of figuring out what modes of transportation to use. Obviously airlines were going to play a huge part in my trip so I had to figure out what airlines to use and what connections to make for my journey. I spent a lot of time on Kayak, Expedia and TripAdvisor obtaining information about national, regional and local airlines so I could figure out what airlines fly, what routes and what airlines were safe and what airlines were … not so safe. (I recall a lovely little flight on a Russian made Eastern China Airlines plane I took from Xian to Guilin in China. I honestly thought I was going to be one of those statistics you read about on the 4th page of the newspaper… flight goes down in central China with no survivors, including one Canadian. I wanted to make sure I did not have a repeat of THAT experience.)
One thing I soon learned after spending time on these sites: it often pays to go directly to the airline website to book flights. For example, in planning my flight from Lima to Cusco, Expedia only listed the highest refundable price for a ticket on LAN Airways. However, if you checked the LAN website (and logged in as Peru resident) you could pull up nonrefundable fares that were almost $200 cheaper. Now granted, the website is in Spanish, but I merely logged in simulatenously from the US site and presto you have automatic translation as you proceeded. I also learned that Expedia does not have all of the airfares and flight times listed for locations. As a result, it again paid to visit the airline websites. In addition, Expedia does not list a lot of the local airlines that may have direct connections. For example, Expedia does not list Laos Airlines. Had I not looked on the Laos Airlines website I would not have known I could take a nonstop flight from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap.
In addition to air flights, I had decided I wanted to experience some train travel as well. The Man in Seat 61 website was a great resource and helped me plan train trips in Peru, Russia, Greece, South Africa and India. I had to figure out how to book the trips, how to pay for the trips on line and when I could book the trips. Without the Man in Seat 61, I don’t think I could have done it.
The second big task was to figure out hotels. As many know, I am a VERY picky person when it comes to lodging. I am not a camper, am too old for hostels and am too accustomed to shall we say stylish hotels to settle for just any old place. However, when I travel I do not like the large chain style accomodations. I love to find those unique, boutique type hotels that give you a flavor for the area and a more genuine experince with the culture and locals. This time TripAdvisor was my sole source for advice. Since its inception, I have used TripAdvisor as a guide for finding good, hidden gem hotels and have never been steered wrong. So after much research I settled on many of the highly rated hotels or B&Bs listed on Trip Advisor for each of the the locations I would visit. In order to ensure available accomodations in many of the hotels I selected (which tend to be on the small side – ie 20 rooms or less), I started booking my hotels a year in advance. Yesterday, I booked the last hotel, so my accomodation are all set.
The third big task was to figure out guides for each location I planned to visit. I am not one to jump on a bus with 40 other people and trapse through historical sites in 30 mintutes. I like to take my time, have a local guide and some one on one discussion about the sites. So… back to TripAdvisor and this time the Forum section for each location I would be visiting. The Forums are a wealth of information about local guides, good and bad, sites to see and off the beaten path areas to explore. Sure there are guides and locals invading the forums touting their services and hotels, but if you spend enough time on the forums you begin to see a pattern with respect to accomodations and guides/tour information. As a result, I probably spent the most amount of time for my trip planning on this research because the opinions were so varied. What I did learn, however, is that many of the countries I would be visiting require the guides to be certified by their governments. There are obviously many, many guides who offer siteseeing services, but a lot of those folks are not certified or licensed by the state. The trick was to find guides who were flexible, spoke English well and really knew their stuff. I ended up communicating with a number of guides and their responses told me a lot about themselves. If for example, they asked me a lot of questions and/or advised me that the itinerary I had come up with could be improved upon, fixed or just plain sucked, I knew I was on the right track.
I did realize early on that a couple places I am visiting required some special assistance because things I wanted to do could not be organized on my own. In Egypt, for example, I wanted to travel down the Nile for a week on a dahabiya and in Botswana I wanted to go on a safari. As a result, I booked my Nile cruise through Memphis Tours Egypt and African Adventure Company. Both came highly recommended and the service I have received so far (including two calls from my man Ahmed Fayez in Egypt at 3 in the morning Cairo time) have left me assured that I am working with some good folks.
In reaching out to guides around the world, what really amazed me wass the complete trust so many of these guides have. I have seldom been asked for advance payment, and instead have been provided with a wealth of information about the place I am visiting, as well as contact numbers, dates and times for meeting and so on. It really restored my faith that business can be done with a handshake (or in this case a virtual handshake).
Once the travel trinity (transportation, accomodation and guides) was settled, I had to start thinking about the logistics for this trip. What visas did I need? What currency is accepted? Can credit cards be used? What medications (in addition to my anti-rejection meds) would I need? What immunizations would be required? What about clothing and customs? (As a female travelling alone there would be some common sense steps I needed to take in terms of dress, particularly for some of the more conservative countries I would be visiting.) What about my passport? Some countries require that you have a specific number of blank pages available and other countries require that your passport’s expiration date be greater than 6 months from the date you intend to leave the country you are visiting. What about food and drink? And on and on and on.
So….. TripAdvisor Forums again became my friend. By perusing the Forums, I came across a wealth of tips and information for my trip. For example, in Peru there is some phobia against taking wrinkled currency. As a result, when paying in cash it is best to have new money direct from a cash machine. I also learned that in order to avoid altitude sickness I need to consult my doctor about taking diamox two days before I leave for the Andes (and the foothills of the Himalayas). In Russia, you have to receive a letter of invitation from your hotel or tour company in order to obtain a VISA (a throwback to the Soviet era). In India the best way to have touts leave you alone is to turn, put your hand in the air and shout jee naheeng (no). Anyway, you get the picture.
So…. having worked on this trip ad nasueum, I am now in the final planning stage. Now its time to start thinking about how to limit my packing, what cash/credit cards I will need and all of the minutia that I will want to have a handle on given how anal I am. Having said all of this, however, the experience of organizing this trip has been (to coin a very overused phrase) an absolute labor of love. The countdown has begun!