For first time travellers planning a long trip can seem like an almost impossible task. Trying to get everything to fit together may seem more difficult than a complex algebraic problem but by following some simple steps it doesn’t have to be. No matter how mentally prepared you feel, if you don’t have at least a basic plan, all that will go out of the window as the plane lands and you have to navigate the crazy streets of Bangkok or Hanoi. Even if this isn’t your first time, trip planning can still seem a bit of a logistical nightmare. For this reason many people tend to ignore the need to plan and would rather just go with the flow. So why is trip planning such an important step?
Budget – If you are in the small group of people who can afford to travel without a budget then this doesn’t really apply, however if, like me, you only have a finite budget, then knowing approximately how much you will spend is going to be key. Would you want to get the Siem Reap and have no money to see Angkor Wat? By planning your budget beforehand you can make sure that you will have approximately the right amount of money for doing everything you want to do. It will also hopefully help you to keep on top of your finances and make you realise when you are being taken for a ride. If all your sources suggest that a bus should cost $10 and the driver demands $30 then you know you can stand your ground, I find that without at least a basic plan things can get out of hand quickly.
Time – The majority of people who travel only have a set period of time they can spend away from home. The art to travel planning is fitting in everything you want to see in the time you have. The key here is always to be flexible, unfortunately just like public transport here in the UK, the majority of transport abroad is equally as bad and sometimes much worse when it comes to time management. Therefore planning accurately is quite difficult before you actually get on the road. With this in mind I always like to give myself a contingency in my initial plan so that I am a day in hand every few days, this not only prevents me from falling behind but also allows me to have extra time in places I enjoy.
Logistics – Often major parts of your trip such as festivals or very long distance trains only run on certain days or weeks. Knowing exactly when they run is extremely important if you wish to make the most of your time away. You wouldn’t want to arrive on a Tuesday evening in Hanoi to find you have to wait until Friday for the next train, when you had planned to be in Beijing the next day would you? Most guidebooks are pretty accurate with regards to official train and bus times, but again in your initial plan I wouldn’t suggest trying to arrive in a city and catching transport immediately out before you have confirmed it on the ground.
The main thing to consider is the pacing of your travels, I find that trying to cover too much ground can lead to you feeling like you are constantly on the move. Sometimes just taking a few moments to step back and slow down can allow you to explore deeper in the places you visit and focus on areas away from the usual tourist crowd. From my experience this is where you are least likely to get hassled by touts, most likely to see genuinely interesting things and normally get the best images.
I have found that the easiest way to organise your time and money effectively is through a simple spread sheet. If you don’t have Excel or a similar program, it can be done just as well on a simple table in most word processing packages. I just prefer spread sheets because the formulas make calculating costs and budget much easier. Setting this up before leaving allows you to have a good idea of how you are going to structure your time away. This may not seem as important for the ordinary traveller in comparison to a photographer, but having a solid focus to how you are going to spend your time is certainly not a bad thing.
Below I have a free to download version of the spreadsheet which I used for my travels last year. It is a really simple spreadsheet and is pretty much fool-proof. The spreadsheet will calculate how much you have under/overspent each day as well as calculating, projected spend, surplus money (always nice to know you have money for that extra Chang) and average spend. It also allows you to keep a track of your itinerary and any notes you may need to remember. If you carry a small laptop, netbook or tablet with you, you will be able to edit and amend on the way to make sure you aren’t over spending unnecessarily. I will however repeat the need to be flexible, not just with time but also with money. Having a small contingency in place can save the day if you get ill or prices have changed from what you expected.
Generally when I am budgeting I use a multitude of sources, starting with a Lonely Planet travel guide. The key to using travel guides is realising that they are out of date before you have even purchased them. Don’t get me wrong, for details and information on each place, guide books are virtually indispensable but don’t follow them word for word. I find that more detailed and up to date costs can be found on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum (despite all its downfalls it is an information goldmine )(NOTE: It appears the forum has been closed for a period and all old threads are currently being moderated, it may take some time to get all the information back but they have promised it will come back) or more specialist independent travel blogs such as http://www.seat61.com/ for trains and http://www.indianbackpacker.com/ for cheap travel in India.
If you new to travelling I would advise you to try planning, nothing has to be set in stone but it will give you a focus on what you wish to achieve from your time away. If you are an experienced traveller who has never properly planned before I challenge you to plan your next trip, you may just be surprised about what you discover by spending a little time researching. Also if you do end up using the spreadsheet above, I would love to hear your feedback!
Key things to remember!
- Planning doesn’t have to be difficult
- Remain flexible
- Don’t forget extra expenses (visas etc)
- Make sure your information is up-to-date
- Don’t follow guide books word for word
- Don’t rush whilst you are away, pace yourself
- ENJOY YOUR TIME AWAY!
This post was taken from my travel photography blog, please check it out: http://jacobjamesphotography.co.uk