While you might love the idea of being spontaneous when you travel, do you really want to spend the time you could be out exploring on a device planning your onward travel? Here’s how much planning you should you do before you travel so you’re not spending your trip in your hotel room.
The walls in the hotel we’ve been staying at in Hoi An, Vietnam, for the past seven weeks are paper-thin. We can’t help but hear our neighbours’ conversations and note the many hours they waste in their hotel rooms discussing what to do and where to go. Every morning, afternoon and evening, we hear the couple next door making travel plans.
They have endless, ongoing conservations about what they should do that day, where they should go, where they should eat, which tour looks like the best, which destination they should head to next, how they should get there, which flight is the cheapest, should they take a bus, where they should stay, and so on.
If our neighbours aren’t in their hotel rooms reading passages out loud to each other from their guidebooks and (it sounds like) Trip Advisor, they are on the computers downstairs, doing research and making bookings online. Or they are at the reception desk quizzing staff about train timetables and tour prices. We can head out to dinner and drinks and the same couple will still be on those computers when we return.
It’s driving us nuts. I just want to go and shake them and turn them around and make them look out the window at the streets of Hoi An and see what they’re missing out on outside. And then I want to help them.
It has had me thinking about how much planning you should do before you travel so you don’t waste precious time when you arrive. What our neighbours are doing isn’t travel. It’s trip planning.
How much planning you should do before you travel
Travel in the internet age is all about the trip planning
Travellers here seem to spend more time at the hotel planning their next moves than out on the streets discovering Hoi An. And no doubt it will be the same when they get to their next destination.
It’s obviously not a great use of their time while they’re actually on their trip.
For the travellers we’re seeing here, travel seems to have become not about the journey or the destination, but the planning of the journey to the next destination.
It’s very different to how we used to travel before we became travel writers and before the rise of the Internet as a travel research tool.
In the guidebook days travellers focus was on travel
I remember our first overseas trip in the early ’90s to Mexico. We bought our air tickets and bought a guidebook (the first edition of the Berkeley Students Mexico Travel Guide, which was brilliant – whatever happened to that series?). From that guide we selected a hotel and telephoned Mexico City from Sydney to book our first few nights accommodation. That was it.
Once in Mexico, aside from asking hotel staff for eating tips, we used the guidebook to book onward accommodation, calling up hotels one or two days in advance. Or if we couldn’t decide which hotel we preferred from the guidebook reviews, we’d arrive in a town and one of us would wait with the backpacks at a café while the other went to look at rooms.
The guidebook was all we used for choosing sights and museums to see, finding bus stations, buying tickets, negotiating public transport, and identifying restaurants to eat at, which we’d then cross-reference with local tips.
We didn’t waste a lot of time discussing plans or making arrangements – just as we don’t now. We just made them. It was easy and it freed up our time to focus on having a great time, scrambling about archaeological sites, shopping at local markets, lazing on idyllic beaches, and devouring Mexican food.
If we read any guidebook passages aloud to each other, it was on the history and culture of the place, and it was on a bus or in a cafe or bar. It wasn’t holed up in our hotel room.
Find a travel tool you’re in tune with and trust it
I remember before the trip when I was in a Sydney bookshop trying to decide which guidebook to buy, I skimmed through a couple of chapters of each of Let’s Go and the Berkeley guide. I can’t even remember if Lonely Planet had a Mexico guide back then, but I remember the bookshop staff recommending the two American guides as the best options for Mexico.
Fifteen minutes flicking through the books was enough to tell me we were more in tune with the Berkeley kids than the Harvard students.
And that’s the key, no matter what sources of information you use – whether it’s a guidebook, travel site, a forum, or travel blog – find a source of travel information that you’re in tune with and trust it.
It shouldn’t only be about the information being new and current, it should also be about you sharing a similar outlook and approach to travel to the guidebook brand (or online publisher or blogger) and a similar taste and style of travel to the authors.
I highly doubt we’d travel with the Berkeley guide now, but as late 20-somethings, it suited us just fine.
Opt for expert created information over user-generated content
A problem these days is that, firstly, people have it in their heads that the Internet – and specifically Trip Advisor – is where they should be doing their research.
The thinking is that print is dead, all guidebooks are out of date, and all the information a traveller could need is online, at their fingertips, just a few clicks away, and it’s obviously more current and accurate because it is online – or so they believe.
Although of course we know that isn’t always the case, especially when it’s user-generated content created by ordinary travellers who don’t know places as intimately as destination experts do.
Always opt for information written by destination experts who live and write on a place or at least visit it regularly. Look at the bios of the writers.
Why would you trust a Trip Advisor user (who might never have been to the place they’re writing about before, and probably only stayed three days) when they say X restaurant makes the best pizza in town and X hotel has the best rooms? Always rely on experts.
Online travel information isn’t always fresh and current
Just because information is online doesn’t mean it’s current and is updated regularly. In the case of some of the travel guidebook sites, information from a printed book has just been uploaded to the site and might remain there for a year or two until the author updates the book again.
Travel bloggers may be continually on the road, and might spend weeks and months in a place, but how many make multiple trips to destinations or have the time to continually update their blog posts? Trust us, we know how hard it can be.
Just this week a couple of people on Twitter pointed out that a restaurant in Saigon we’d written about had closed. We’ll be back in Saigon soon, so we’ll update that post, but it’s hard, even for experts to maintain and update information.
Before you trust a source or a piece of information on a site (especially if it’s an online travel guide or a guidebook, newspaper or magazine website), look for a date to see when the story was published and scroll to the bottom of the page to see when it was last updated.
If it’s a blog, leave a comment and ask the blogger if they’ve returned recently (maybe they just haven’t had time to update the information) and whether they know if their recommendations are still up to date or if they have other tips.
Shared outlook, taste, preferences and style of travel are key
And then there are those issues of outlook and taste again. The way we perceive the world and our preferences and style of travelling should guide the travel decisions we make.
I have friends with whom I share a similar way of seeing the world and a similar taste in food, films, music, fashion, and so on. I trust their opinion more than I trust the opinion of a friend who, as much as I might love and respect her dearly, has a very different viewpoint and different sensibilities.
It’s the same with travel writers, magazines, newspapers, guidebooks, web sites, and travel blogs. For information on cities and places, I love Monocle, Guardian Travel and, for Asia, DestinAsian, to name a few.
But I don’t trust or share the same taste of every single writer they publish. After decades of reading I know which travel writers or restaurant reviewers I relate to and whose opinions I respect, and which writers have their fingers on the pulse.
Don’t trust – and use – everything you read
My point is just because you have all this information online at your fingertips – this monumental, mind-boggling amount of information – doesn’t mean you need to use it or trust it.
Whether you do it before your trip or as you travel, you are wasting time by spending hours online every day searching and collating information from a wide array of different sources and reading pages and pages of Trip Advisor reviews.
In the same way, you’d be wasting your time if you just walked up to a stranger on the street and asked where the best lunch spot was or where you should go see some live music.
So how much planning should you do before you travel so you don’t end up spending all your time at the hotel?
How much planning you should do before you travel
- Identify a handful of trusted sources of information on travel, and rely on those – and that’s what you should be spending time on now, if you don’t know already know what those sources are. For example, if I’m planning a trip to Sydney and looking for the best restaurants, cafes and bars, I’ll use just a couple of sources I trust in that destination, like Time Out Sydney and Good Food Guide. That’s all.
- Identify a handful of trusted planning tools, and stick to those – there’s no need to search across half a dozen airline and hotel booking sites, as I know some people do. To use Sydney as an example again, I’ll go directly to cheapflights for flights (which I’ve always found to be cheapest), Booking.com for hotels (again, because I’ve found them to be the cheapest, and easiest to cancel bookings), HomeAway for holiday rentals, Adina if we want an apartment.
- If you’re going to be on a tight schedule or tight budget, create an itinerary and book all of your flights and accommodation in advance so you don’t have to worry about those when you’re away, and can focus on activities and experiences, which is much more fun than booking hotels.
- If you have a reasonable budget and plenty of time, do plan flights and some hotels in advance, but don’t plan everything, and allow room for flexibility.
- If you want greater flexibility when you’re away, book flights and accommodation directly with airlines and hotels – sometimes it can be cheaper, sometimes it isn’t, however, it’s far easier to change plans when the booking has been made direct.
- If you have all the time in the world, book the flight and first few nights’ accommodation, and then consult those trusted sources and planning tools along the way – whether it’s a guidebook, magazine or travel blog, or a flight or hotel booking site – so you’re not wasting your time spending hours on the web.
- Relax and don’t obsess about the idea of doing the perfect trip – if you love a place so much that you want to stay longer and do more things there, change your plans on the way. If you can’t change your plans, then enjoy the time you have and plan to return one day.
Life is too short and travel is too much fun to waste time online and in hotel rooms.