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Even though I only have the opportunity to go on a few adventures every year, I still feel like a traveler all the time. When planning a trip, I enjoy taking an intense look at where I’m going: I read about the recent and not-so-recent history of the people, use the street view on Google Maps to plan my primary and alternate routes, read novels set in the place where I’m going and develop itineraries that maximize my exposure to the locale, sorting out where I want to go and what I want to do.
Many tourists prefer showing up and figuring out their vacations on the fly. Maybe they have a general idea of what they’d like to do (e.g. lay on a beach, rent a bike, go clubbing). Maybe they’ve heard of an interesting spot to visit. Or maybe not. This lackadaisical approach may work for some, but I’ve found unplanned outings to be more expensive and less memorable. I get caught up in the tourist traps and never work my way out of them. Here’s why I think a well planned trip is more worth your while.
Planning an adventure puts you in the traveler mindset. When I come home from a long day of teaching high school students, I can be really tense. I might snap at my poor fiancée, Sarah, or waste an evening watching TV just trying to unwind. My best nights, though, are when I start thinking about traveling. I catch a glimpse of a place from a book or movie that looks interesting and I take off from there. Hopping on my desktop, I start browsing around and soon enough I’m off in another world hiking up a mountain trail or meandering through historical mansions. I’ll spend so much time researching that I lose track of time. When I actually start to make plans, book hotels and reserve plane tickets, I feel confident that I’m spending money on a trip I know I want to take. I can have an imaginary mini-vacation every night that leaves me in greater anticipation of the actual thing. When I finally arrive for real, I’m simply meeting back up with an old city I’m already acquainted with, revisiting fondly recalled haunts and digging up new treasures in otherwise familiar neighborhoods.
I dislike when travel writers encourage readers to become more like the locals; this is unrealistic for most tourists. A better goal, I think, is to not feel out of place. Most destinations that readers will be visiting have some sort of industry catering to the vacationers who drop in and out every season. I always make time to see what the bureau of tourism happens to be promoting, but you can easily fall into the trap of thinking that you’ve seen everything when really the surface hasn’t been scratched a bit. Are you going to the pub filled with other Americans who all read the same reviews, or do you know about the one a few blocks into town where the drinks are cheaper and they have a house special you can’t find anywhere else? Are you shopping on an overpriced strip where the price tags target people who want to splurge while they’re on vacation, or do you know about the flea market on Saturday whose vendors sell the same products at negotiable rates? Don’t get taken advantage of because you don’t know any better. You can find ways to support the local economy by being well informed and without throwing away good money; and you will find that you are welcomed as a guest by the locals instead of a cow to be milked for profit.
When I tell people how in-depth my planning gets, the most common criticism I receive is that it doesn’t allow for any spontaneity. They’re wrong. In fact, it’s my planning that allows for much greater flexibility when traveling. Most people can’t throw caution to the wind when they’re on vacation, despite the encouraging of countless travel show hosts and writers. In an unfamiliar setting, climbing on board an unexpected adventure could be unwise or even dangerous. If you know what you’re getting into, though, and what you should be avoiding – the popular local scams, the seedy neighborhoods, the predatory excursion companies – then, you can make better decisions when a truly great opportunity makes its way to you.
I also make plenty of time for unplanned time. My itineraries will sometimes have three or four hours blocked off that simply say, “Wander such-and-such neighborhood.” It was my planning that allowed me to know that is the area I want to be in, and what its cross streets and boundaries are so I don’t go too far out of my way, and the cool landmarks that I can recognize to orient myself without a map. And it was also my planning that allowed me to take this time and do something worthwhile: talk with shop owners or park goers, purchase a meaningful memento, have a great dinner at a reasonable price. I am able to do more because I put in the leg work beforehand. The time it would have taken to identify and select a neighborhood is now invested in exploring a place I already want to be.
A well planned trip is worth it. Get excited for your trip, and enjoy yourself more while you’re there. Make the most of your time and get acquainted with your destination before you go. You won’t be disappointed.
What do you think?
What trips are you planning?
What do you do to prepare before you leave?