Calidris Compares: A Tale of Two Cities

London’s Tower Bridge. Photo by Marian Buechert.

I’m not really a city girl. I prefer natural spaces, quiet, and fresh air over crowds of people, noise, and bustle. But given that cities are hubs of transport, culture, and history, passing through them is nearly inevitable. Two cities that are always worth a stopover are The Big Apple and The Big Smoke. So how do they compare? Let’s take a look.

London New York
Shopping London wins on quaint, curious, and antique. Prices are prohibitively high on most things. New York wins on sheer quantity, diversity, and affordability.
Song Streets of London, Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner New York, New York, On the Town

 

Transit The Underground: Even well-dressed, apparently well-to-do Londoners take The Tube. The subway: Not so much.
Longest-running show The Mousetrap The Phantom of the Opera
Cabbies World famous for rigorous training & vast knowledge of the city. World famous for attitude and language.
Monarch’s residence Buckingham Palace Trump Tower
Live theatre Wow. Helen Mirren live on stage; what more do I need to say? Wow. Dustin Hoffman live on stage; what more do I need to say?
Local lingo #1 Rubbing: Something you experience in an ancient churchyard and which involves a granite headstone, a sheet of paper, and a stick of charcoal. Rubbing: Something you experience in an aging massage parlour and which involves a pillow, a sheet over the table, and a scantily clad person.
Policing Bobbies: Authority without guns. NYPD: Not so much.
Street signs Not so much. Clear & logical.
Local colour Pearly kings & queens dressed in button-encrusted duds. Times Square guy dressed in a diaper and cowboy hat.
Attitude Tourist opens a map and looks around. Local stops to ask if he can help. Tourist approaches information desk in giant department store and asks: “Excuse me, is there a restroom?” Local responds: “Why?”
Urban wildlife Pigeons & rats Pigeons & rats
Local lingo #2 Rubber: Something you use to erase mistakes. Rubber: Something you use to prevent mistakes.
Woman with a crown Queen Bess II Lady Liberty
Museums London all the way since three of the top museums in London—V&A, National Gallery, Museum of Natural History, all world-class—are all free. The Met suggested admission donation is $25, MoMa and the Guggenheim are a flat $25 each. Come on, NY, get with the program: museums need to be accessible and FREE.
Fine dining Forget it; you can’t afford it. Forget it; you can’t get in.

New York, from atop the Empire State Building. Photo by Marian Buechert.

NY or London: Do you have a favourite? Why? Let me know in a comment.

7 Tips for Reading Online Reviews

“Worst experience ever! I’ll never stay here again.”

“Cheerful staff, good pub-style food.”

“Slept like a baby. A real find!”

“Terrible. We waited an hour for our food and then they got the order wrong.”

Oh, those online reviews. TripAdvisor, Yelp, Urban Spoon, Google Reviews, Expedia, Airbnb, VRBO, blogs, and travel sites; there are more every day.

Every time I read an online review, I wonder what it’s worth. How can I allow anonymous opinions to influence decisions that may involve thousands of my precious dollars? But I do. It’s hard not to. In pre-Internet days, I relied heavily on recommendations in travel guides. I still read those guides, but the sheer volume of online reviews and the specifics of those opinions make them irresistible.

Is there any way to be sure that reviews are fair and accurate? The simple answer is no. You can never be sure. However, with a willingness to invest some time and basic common sense, I think those reviews can work for you. Here I’ve listed some ideas for sifting through online reviews.

  1. Don’t believe everything you read, bad or good. This is the crucial point. Read every review with a critical eye. Stilted, “bumpfed-up” language that sounds suspiciously like promo copy is a red flag that the review may be a fake posted by the business owner or her mother. On the other side, a review that runs down a business in vague terms and suggests you patronize a specific competitor instead may come from the rival (or his mother).
  2. Read between the lines. Is the reviewer complaining about a situation beyond the business’s control? Could it have been a one-time problem? Is the reviewer so angry about something that he or she is completely unfair? Sometimes a negative review is clearly based on a situation where any reasonable person would side with the business; e.g., I’ve read a review where the writer complained that the manager shut down their fun late-night party “just because” other guests were disturbed by the noise. This is not a legitimate basis for a negative review.
  3. Match your own expectations and standards against those of the reviewer. What you want from a hotel, restaurant, or tour may not be the same as what the writer wants. He might complain that meal portions are small, but if you’re a light eater, you might prefer small portions. She may be thrilled that an establishment allows smoking; you may not.
  4. Watch the numbers. The more reviews, the better. It’s unlikely that the manager will fake 50 reviews. Also, if there are 100 reviews and 97 say it’s great and 3 say it sucks, that’s significant. Read the ones that buck the trend: sometimes it will be clear that the dissenting reviews are unreasonable. Sometimes they will make a valid point.
  5. Notice the specifics. A long review with many details is more believable than a one-liner. In addition, the details can be very interesting. A review based on a visit during a specific time period could yield valuable information about what it’s like to be there during that time. If you’re planning to visit the Amazon during January, try to find reviews from people who went in that month. They may mention how bad the mosquitos were, what the weather was like, or how the humidity affected their electronic devices, great things to know in advance.
  6. Check the room tips, if they are included. Again, your preferences for noise/quiet, front street/back courtyard, clawfoot tub/walk-in shower may not align with the writer’s, but you can still use those room details to make a better choice.
  7. Flip through the photos. Photos can be faked, but for most people, it’s too much bother. Looking at photos can give you an idea how far the official business description veers away from reality. The classic case is references to “views.” Many properties will tout their “ocean view” or “mountain view,” but when you look at the photos posted by guests, you may notice that the “view” is a tiny sliver of distant horizon visible only when you stand in one corner of the balcony and lean way over the railing. This is the kind of truth-stretching that disappointed guests love to jump all over with photos revealing the actual picture.

Booking anything sight unseen is a risk, but it’s hard to avoid doing that when you travel. Reading reviews is just one way of reducing that risk. While reviews must be approached with a healthy degree of caution, ignoring the collective experience and knowledge of the online community would be foolish.

PS: Don’t forget to post your own reviews. It can be fun and certainly helps other people—some of my reviews on TripAdvisor have been read over a thousand times! It can even help the business in question if you provide a great review or point out a problem that they can fix. If you’ve used review sites yourself, it’s only fair to contribute to them.

Do you read or post reviews? Have you had a bad or good experience with an online review? Let me know in a comment.

Calidris Controversy: People Safaris

Tourists visiting a San community.

Imagine, for a moment, if every morning at 11:00, your doorbell rang and 20 strangers stood on your doorstep. As you welcomed them, they would troop through your home, peering at everything from photos to furniture, asking questions about your family and living, what you eat for breakfast, your clothes, your hairstyle, your bathroom habits. They might poke around in your possessions or want to hold your baby. They might express incredulity or disgust at your cultural practices. Later, you would be expected to demonstrate how you do your laundry or apply make-up. Most of all, they would want to photograph you in every imaginable setting, including with them draping an arm over your shoulders. You smile through all this because you don’t have a lot of money and you know these strangers do, and you hope that at the end of all this, you can sell them one of the paper airplanes you fold in the evenings.

On a trip to Thailand earlier this year, we sailed off on a three-day small-ship cruise in the Andaman Sea. The first morning, the captain informed us that we’d be using the Zodiac to head ashore and visit a village of the Moken, sometimes called the “sea gypsies.” My companion and I discussed it and decided we did not want to participate, and I told the captain we’d be staying aboard. He seemed offended and demanded to know why. In the moment, all I could come up with was “We prefer not to.” As paying customers, I don’t think we really owed him any further explanation, but later, as we watched the others pile into the dinghy for the transfer to the island, I mused over my resistance to the excursion.

Wildlife and birding safaris are a thrilling blend of excitement—you never know exactly what you’ll see—stalking, waiting, patience, and photography. But “people safaris,” trips to “authentic” spaces where people really live their lives and are willing to sell their privacy for the entertainment of tourists, are a different kettle of fish.

The Web abounds with awkward snappies of grinning tourists posing next to locals who look anything but happy about the situation. While I’m interested in how other cultures live, I respect indigenous people too much to want to invade their homes, gawk at their families and customs, and buy cheap facsimiles of traditional crafts.

The staging of stale tourist-focused demonstrations of artisanal techniques that once might have defined an entire family’s identity and standing in the community disturbs me. A craftsperson is meant to create, to challenge her skills by practicing her craft, not mindlessly repeat the same dumbed-down routine over and over each time a boatload or busload of foreigners shows up.

Almost invariably in these “cultural tours,” the visitors are “given the opportunity to buy” locally made products, racks of poor-quality carvings, beaded keychains, baskets, or painted clay knickknacks that are churned out somewhere and designed to fit a price-point attractive to tourist wallets. While the sellers may not be allowed to apply real sales pressure, there is an unspoken expectation: the items are cheap for a “wealthy foreigner” like yourself, the sellers are indisputably poor, you’ve presumed upon their community and their hospitality, the least you can do is buy some souvenirs, right?

Except that I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid buying useless stuff. Gone are the days when I filled my suitcase with doo-dads and cheap gifts for family and friends. I walk through the Salvation Army thrift store aisles lined with crude Somalian carvings of giraffes, crappy toy musical instruments from Guatemala, and shabby embroidered placemats from Thailand, and I know I’m not the only one who is rejecting this flotsam.

I also don’t see this kind of relationship with the displaced as sustainable in the long term. Will the grandchildren of these people still be selling tourist junk and staging demos of traditional medicinal practices in order to scrape by financially? I sincerely hope not.

Maybe I’m wrong and maybe these human zoos are a good way to bring much-needed cash into subsistence-level communities. If people choose to do this because they can earn money at it, I certainly cannot say they shouldn’t do it, but I don’t feel comfortable being on the receiving end. Since we, the tourists, come and go as we please, and we have all the money, there’s a power imbalance and a whiff of colonialism that makes me very uneasy.

How do you feel about “people safaris”? Have you experienced one? Did you enjoy it?

Calidris Compares: National Birds

Quetzal.

The recent debate in Canada about designating a national bird got me thinking about a couple of other “national birds” I’ve encountered.

Country: Guatemala

National bird: Resplendent quetzal

Without doubt, one of the most spectacular birds on Earth. With a metre-long tail cascading behind him, the male sports iridescent plumage on his head, back, and wings that shimmers from green to blue to gold, depending on the light, while his breast and belly are scarlet red.

The quetzal’s tail feathers were prized by the Aztecs and Maya, who viewed the bird as the god of the air and as an embodiment of goodness and light. Because it was long believed that the quetzal could not live in captivity, it was also seen as a symbol of liberty.

The quetzal is a celebrity who values its privacy; I once spent an entire day with a specialist guide in the mountains of Costa Rica, seeking the elusive bird. When we finally heard and then saw one magnificent male high in a tree, it was truly breathtaking. We enjoyed its company for a couple of minutes, then off it flew, trailing those fantastic tail feathers.

The quetzal must be the only bird on Earth to have a currency named after it: the Guatemalan quetzal (currently worth about 18 Canadian cents).

Reason for being named national bird: If being the flashiest feathered fellow in the forest wasn’t enough, there’s that historic association with freedom, always a popular theme in nationalism.

Clay-coloured robin.

Country: Costa Rica

National bird: Clay-coloured robin

The name gives you everything you need to know about the appearance of this bird: it looks very like our American robin, but with feathers the colour of dried mud. The Latin name is no better: Turdus grayi. Where the quetzal is resplendent, this robin is clay-coloured, with no markings. And where the Guatemalan symbol is scarce and hard to find, the Costa Rican bird—known as yigüirro to localsis ubiquitous, hopping around human habitation everywhere from city lawns and gardens to rural fields.

On a nature tour near the Arenal Volcano, I asked the guide why, with so many gorgeous birds to choose from, Costa Rica settled on the humble robin. I must admit, I half expected him to say, well, the quetzal was already taken. But his response, while slightly defensive in tone, as though he was weary of having to champion the drab and commonplace bird, was enlightening.

Firstly, the yigüirro has a lovely song (actually quite similar to the American robin’s, to my ear), which Ticos value more than brilliant plumage. That song is most typically heard at the start of the green season, which has led farmers to associate hearing it with the arrival of much-needed rains.

In addition, the clay-coloured robin is found everywhere in Costa Rica, is seen often by everyone, and is thus a better representative of the country as a whole than a bird with a limited range. Because it lives in close association with humans, the yigüirro has become a feature in Tico culture, appearing in folk songs, poems, and stories.

Two countries, two very different national birds. The quetzal is the Cher of the bird world, undeniably exotic, inimitable, and eye-catching, an obvious candidate for glorification. The clay-coloured robin is more like the guy at the hardware store who helps you find the right size of screw: affable, down to earth, getting the job done. Although I initially questioned the Costa Rican choice, I now feel that the clay-coloured robin is an apt symbol for the Ticos I observed: not flamboyant, but going about the business of day-to-day living with an unpretentious determination and a song in the heart.

What national birds do you know? Do you think they are good representatives of their countries? Let me know in a comment.

Resplendent Cher.

Clay-coloured hardware guy.

Does anyone still know what philately is?

My beloved stamp album.

Sorting through some boxes in the basement the other day, I came across my old stamp collection from when I was a youngster. As I flipped through the pages and opened up bags and folders of envelopes, I was reminded of how much those little bits of paper taught me:

1/ There’s a great big world out there, full of places I had never heard of. Gabon. Sharjah. Surinam.

2/ Countries aren’t permanent. They can change. Bits of the world get taken over by other countries and disappear as countries. Sometimes they reemerge eventually. Monarchies that proudly displayed the king on their stamps experience revolutions and suddenly their postage shows images of presidents. Egypt. King Farouk. Nasser.

3/ A plebiscite is a thing where two countries both want the same piece of land, so they allow the people who live there to vote on which country they want to be part of. Schleswig-Holstein. 1920.

4/ The people in other countries don’t necessarily call their countries by the same names we do. Magyar. Deutschland. Norge.

5/ Other countries don’t use dollars. There are riyals, pounds, dinars, rupees, quetzals, pesos, and many other currencies.

Ethiopian stamps and postmarks from the first UN Security Council Meeting in Africa, 1972. Bought on a visit there in 1973.

6/ Other countries don’t necessarily write with the same alphabet as us. Greece. Ethiopia. Russia.

7/ Even in wartime—or maybe especially then—people send. Letters. Postcards.

8/ Mass-produced items are not necessarily all the same. You could have thousands of identical stamps and one that has a unique characteristic. A spot where the dye didn’t apply properly. The queen’s head upside down. The perforator failed to perforate.

9/ Hyperinflation is a thing where the value of money goes lower and lower, so people have to use more and more money to buy something. Bread. Milk. Stamps. One million marks. Lira.

10/ “Archival” storage is something that you use for things that you want to keep for a long, long time. Photos. Letters. Stamps.

I don’t remember how I first became interested in stamps; I think maybe an older relative gave me a small album with a few stamps. Stamp collecting was a common hobby, although I didn’t know any other children who collected.

My parents kept up ties to relatives in West Germany, DDR, and Denmark, so those were the countries I collected first. Of course, we also received mail from within Canada—in those days, pretty well everything that went through the mail had a stamp rather than the boring postal machine stickers and preprinted postage that eventually became common on commercial mail. There were occasionally stamps from Great Britain and the United States, often nabbed by my father from office mail. In my later childhood, he started to travel for his work as a supervising engineer, and I added Kuwait and Yemen to my collection.

Looking at stamps opened the way to discussions with my parents: my father spoke about seeing his father bringing home his weekly pay piled in a wheelbarrow during the time of German hyperinflation. My mother was drawn into talking about how the plebiscite held in Schleswig-Holstein affected her family, who lived right along the German-Danish border. We discussed the history of Danzig and how it existed as an autonomous state for a few years between the wars.

When I visited my uncle in Germany at the age of 12, I was overawed by his drawers full of albums with perfectly filed stamps. He had done a lot of traveling and always collected stamps from the places he toured. His gift of a packet of “doubles” inspired me to want to make my collection better. More comprehensive. Better organized. Better preserved.

A collection of Lebanese stamps, from a visit to that country in 1973.

I learned the proper word for stamp collecting early on. To paraphrase Wikipedia: The word philately is the English version of the French word philatélie, coined by Georges Herpin in 1864. He took the Greek root word phil(o), meaning “an attraction or affinity for something,” and ateleia, meaning “exempt from duties and taxes” to form philatelie” (with the introduction of postage stamps, receiving a letter was now free of charge, whereas before it was normal for postal charges to be paid by the letter’s recipient). I wonder, however, how many adults—let alone children—recognize the word today. Letters and postcards are becoming rare, and with them, those colorful, inspirational stamps. One of the big appeals of stamps was that they were everyday and exotic at the same time: the 10-pfennig stamp was ubiquitous in Germany, but a curiosity in Canada.

It’s sad that stamps are dying out as a common, practical, item. When you got a letter, you could tell just by looking at the stamp and postmark which country it came from. You knew that the paper you held in your hand actually traveled all the way from some distant place. We have replaced “snail mail” with emails, which all look the same, whether they come from Terrace or Timbuktu.

What has philately got to do with travel, the subject of this blog? Well, to this day, when I think of certain countries, the stamps that I pored over are the first things that spring to mind. When I think of Poland, I see the triangular stamps featuring beautiful horses that I loved so much. When Bhutan is mentioned, I remember the leopard stamp that I proudly pasted in my album.

I don’t know whether my passion for travel stems partly from the pleasure I found in collecting stamps from around the world, or whether I was born a wanderer and that drew me to the acquisition of stamps. Either way, those unassuming squares of gummed paper were travelers, just like me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I stashed my postal treasures in something called the Traveler Stamp Album.

The Traveler album inside. Note the pre-printed pictures of specific stamps. It was always a thrill to find the stamp that matched the picture and carefully mount it in place.

Does anyone you know collect stamps? Were you/are you a philatelist yourself? I’d be particularly interested to hear if you know a young person who collects stamps.

 

The Joy of Junk Mail

When I was a strange, reading-obsessed child, I would comb magazines from the library, looking for those tiny ads that promised to mail me something for free. “Ten Tips for Training Your Advanced Reining Horse.” “The Colorful Stamps of Gabon.” “Hinterland Who’s Who: The Beaver.”

All this information available for just the cost of a stamp! Who could resist? What did it matter if I hardly knew what a reining horse was, much less owned or trained a horse of any description? The material would arrive in the mail addressed to ME—very exciting for a seven-year-old. I would devour every word and carefully file the item away in my drawer.

As an adult, the appeal paled. After all, I got so much junk mail every day. Why in the world would I ask for more? For a while, you had to write away to be taken off mailing lists. (I suspect that such requests were actually received as carte blanche to treble the amount of junk sent. “Here’s a live one, Joe. Mark that address for extra deliveries.”)

Nowadays, everything is on the Web. The most obscure information available at the click of a mouse. It’s great for instant facts. But it can be too easy to go directly to the info you want. Sometimes you do require straight-up cold, hard data. But sometimes you want to drift, to sample. You want to dream.

After my father died suddenly, my mother was left a widow at 51. She was lost. My father had been the centre of her life, her children were grown. She was financially comfortable but did not know what to do with herself. One day, on impulse, she walked into a travel agency and picked up a pile of brochures. She and I pored over those brochures together. We talked about the places she could go. I remember she became quite enamoured with the idea of taking a round-the-world cruise. We talked about it for a while. And then she let the notion drop. I think it was the idea that she could do this if she wanted that helped her move forward. Instead of feeling that her life was over, she started to see that she had choices, and some of them might even be fun choices.

I recently found myself clicking on a Facebook ad for a region I have never visited. It was the promise of “Birdwatcher’s Paradise” that pulled me in. Once I was on the website—a nicely constructed one, I may add—I browsed a bit, mildly interested. Beyond the birds, it was the usual “we’ve got wineries, we’ve got charming accommodations, we’ve got golf, etc.” But what drew my attention like a magnet was that little button: “For maps, tour suggestions, and a 64-page vacation guide, click here.” Filling in my name and address took me straight back to the excitement of my reining horse days.

Yes, I know that somewhere in cyberspace, personal information collection software is gleefully adding me to its database. But I don’t care. When that thick envelope arrives in my community mailbox slot, I will hurry home, snuggle into a comfy chair, tear the envelope open, and browse the old-fashioned way. I will unfold the maps, flip through the glossy-paged booklet, and peruse the “special offers.” I will read through the suggested itineraries and trace their routes on the maps. I may turn down corners of pages that interest me or circle text that I want to remember.

The experience of being taken on a carefully planned journey through information, as you hold a booklet in your hands, cannot be replicated by a website. The travel booklet presents information in a crafted sequence. I understand that the sequence is all focused on getting me to commit emotionally before thinking about practicalities like cost. But knowing that, I can still sit back and enjoy the ride. Do your best, I think happily. Sell me, if you can. This could be my next vacation, so go ahead and tell me why it should be.

Because I’m a travel junkie, even when I’m on a trip, I scan the horizon for free travel literature. Staying in a birding lodge, for example, often yields thick, slick, bird tour promos filled with stunning photos. On our meanderings around Cape Breton last year, I happened across a 66-page book advertising the upcoming Celtic Colours Festival. Although we were too early to visit the festival that year, I carried the book home and found it a treasure trove of information and inspiration for a potential future visit. (I’m hoping to visit that festival next year.)

Just so you know, downloadable brochures don’t cut the same mustard. They can be useful, but are just second-class citizens in the travel world. Clicking through an e-book is not the same as turning tangible pages. You may be saving trees by reading an electronic version, but just think of all the viruses and malware that a download could be carrying. At least when I open my paper copy, I don’t suddenly get the sniffles or find that my hands are off-line until I pay a ransom to some hacker.

No, as long as there’s snail mail, I’ll keep looking forward to my free travel literature. Anyone for a cup of tea and a copy of The Visitor’s Guide to Amish Country?

Am I dating myself terribly by clinging to my hard-copy travel brochures? Given a choice, do you prefer downloadable info and websites, or something you can hold in your hands? Let me know your opinion in a comment.

 

 

12 Steps to Obsessive Travel Planning: Part 2

In steps 1 through 6, I talked about buying a map, doing research, and creating a travel calendar.

7/ Start to personalize your Great Big Map. At different times, I’ve used these three methods:

  • Take your GBM and put sticky dots on places and events which interest you. If you want to be really obsessive (I’ve done this once), use one specific color sticky dot for events, another color for natural attractions, and another for historical sites; OR
  • Mount your GBM on a corkboard and stick pins into places of interest; OR
  • Photocopy your GBM and draw directly on the photocopy with dots marking your events.

It’s fun to post your GBM in a prominent place at home where you can stare at it often and imagine yourself journeying in the places you’ve marked.

8/ At this point, I’m going back and forth between my research materials (websites and travel books), my calendar, and my GBM. This phase could last for weeks or months. From my Internet research, I bookmark sites for hotels, events, and stores and put them all into a special favourites folder.

Each box on your calendar might initially have multiple items: a couple of hotels, some activities available on that day, a store that looks interesting. Eventually, however, you will need to eliminate some options. This can be tough, but think of yourself as a kid in a candy store: choosing just one treat is hard, but whatever you pick, it will likely be sweet.

Don’t forget to note any driving (or other transport) times. For example, if I’m driving from Quito to Mindo, I would write on that date: Dr 1.5 hr to Mindo. That way, I can quickly see how much time I have to build into the day’s schedule for transit between locations and I can plan the rest of the day’s activities around that. Nowadays, it’s easy to get driving times instantly: just Google “driving distance Point A to Point B.”

9/ As you fill in your GBM, with luck you will start to see some clusters of dots. These are the areas you should focus on in your itinerary planning. Ideally, you can stay in one place for several days and do day trips in the vicinity.

If there are dots all alone and far from any others, you are going to have to decide whether that one thing is worth travelling to. If not, you’ll have to shelve that item for this trip.

Also, you need to start considering how far apart your clusters are. Can you drive between or will you need to fly? How much is that going to cost you, in time or money? Should you narrow down the geographical scope of your trip? E.g., You might start by thinking you would like to visit “Spain,” quickly realize that seeing the whole country is far too ambitious for a two-week trip, and eventually settle on a more realistic focus of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia.

As you develop your itinerary, keep in mind that you can fly out of a city other than your arrival point if this works better for you. I learned recently that flights aren’t necessarily more expensive if you do this (although you will almost certainly pay a bit more for your rental car), so be sure to investigate options.

10/ Okay, you have a map, a calendar, and a tentative itinerary—and you’ve had quite enough of all this research. Time to start booking.

Whether to book accommodations first or flights first is a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation. Most flights are non-refundable, so you don’t want to have to cancel them because the lodge you’ve set your heart on has no availability for the week you’ve chosen, but they do have an opening the following week. On the other hand, there’s not much point in getting your accommodations lined up only to discover that the flight you need is sold out. I usually try to check availability for the important accommodations just before I book flights.

Although you might be tempted to book your accommodations in order, starting with day 1 etc., it’s probably wiser to first reserve the ones that are most important to you or most likely to be full up. That way, if Pepe’s Perfect Jungle Lodge is unavailable on your first choice of dates, you can be a bit flexible with your itinerary. If you’ve already booked a bunch of other lodgings, you might find it impossible to fit Pepe in. You don’t want to miss out on Pepe’s!

If you’re having trouble booking parts of the itinerary, don’t be afraid to try shuffling the pieces around or even running the schedule backwards, if that might help.

This is how a typical itinerary looks before I start booking.

Aus calendar

11/ As you book each item on your calendar, mark it green. That way you can see at a glance which items still need to be booked and which are fixed.

Some of the information I like to note on my calendar once something is booked:

  • Name of hotel or event
  • City
  • Reservation #
  • Name on booking (yours or your companion’s)

As you get closer to your departure date, you might want to flag unbooked items on your calendar with red to remind yourself that action is still needed.

12/ In addition to the calendar (because not everything will fit in those little boxes), keep notes on each destination: activities, museums, theatres, markets, restaurants, tours, and shops that you may or may not have time for.

Once your entire calendar is glowing with green, you can relax and look forward to enjoying the fruits of all your labor.

Oh, yeah, there’s still the packing to do…but that’s another list.

Am I crazy for doing all this? How do you plan your trips? Or do you plan at all? Let me know in a comment.

12 Steps to Obsessive Travel Planning: Part 1

Are you one of those spontaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travelers? The kind who books a flight, throws a few things into a carry-on bag, and takes off? If so, this is not the blog for you. I admit to being a careful—many would even say “obsessive”—travel planner. I have every night booked long before I leave home and I usually have a general idea of what I’ll be doing each day. Having plotted out many trips over the years, I find this works for me. I find decision-making one of the most stressful parts of travel, so I like to have the bulk of that out of the way so I can relax and enjoy the actual trip.

I have friends who like nothing better than to hop from one bed and breakfast to another, never knowing where they will lay their heads that evening. To me, that would be a nightmare; I would spend far too much of my precious vacation time worrying about finding a place to sleep.

Yes, there are disadvantages to my method: I can’t decide on the spur of the moment to stay another night somewhere or tear off across the country when I hear there’s a great festival happening “up north.” I try to mitigate those disadvantages with detailed research that allows me to make good choices in advance. Besides, I tell myself, I can always return in the future if a particular spot warrants a longer visit or I miss an event.

The process I use for planning is the same whether it’s a long or short trip, but I find that the longer the trip, the more difficult the logistics, so the itinerary becomes even more crucial.

1/ Get the biggest map of your destination that you can find. There are map stores or travel specialty stores in most large cities, or you can buy online.

2/ Research as much general information as you can about the destination. What is the climate like at different times of the year? Are there times you need to avoid e.g., hurricane season, hot season, local school holidays? When is high season, low season, shoulder season? Will you need to take health precautions? What are the different areas of the country? Which city(ies) are you likely to arrive in and depart from? How much will the major flights cost? What is the standard of accommodations in city and country? How far apart are the accommodations in the country? What are the roads like? How difficult will it be to travel if you don’t speak the local language? Will you need to fly between areas or will you drive? Are there trains, buses, ferries? Are there safety issues e.g., carjacking, kidnapping, conflict zones?

I’m still old-fashioned enough to do most of this research via travel guidebooks, but I also consult online trip reports, blogs, Tripadvisor, and forums like Thorn Tree (Lonely Planet’s site) for specific and timely information.

3/ In simple list form, note the dates of any specific events you would like to experience, such as festivals, holidays, natural events (e.g., animal or bird migrations, flowers blooming, trees in fall colors). Based on the time of year you can or want to visit, which events might you be able to attend?

Note the names, general locations, and points of interest of specific towns or areas. For example, you might write:

Mindo (1.5 hr west of Quito) – excellent birding, zipline, Sunday market, Milpe Lodge

4/ Start to build a calendar. I use a table in Microsoft Word with seven columns (one for each day of the week) and as many rows as I need for the weeks I’ll be travelling. I fill in tentative dates for each box. Here’s what it looks like (far left column is Sundays).

Sometimes, I’ll have two of these tables at first with alternative sets of dates. This lets me build a couple of itinerary options based around specific flight dates, for example (April 18 and May 16 vs May 3 and May 31) or travel season (high season vs shoulder season).

5/ Transfer over to your calendar those event dates and the points of interest from #3 above. If an event stretches over several days, include it on each calendar day that it runs. You may only want to attend one day, but at this stage, you don’t necessary know which day that will be. Also include where you’ll need to be for each item.

6/ Research flights for best routes and cheapest options. Now that you’ve got a general idea of when and where you want to be, you can start looking at flights. Unless you’re bound to a very strict timeline, always check several departure dates and return dates, as prices can vary quite significantly depending on which day of the week you fly. You can also research airport options. For example, most people fly in and out of Costa Rica through San Jose. We found that arriving at and departing from Liberia worked better for our itinerary and gave us better routing. As it turned out, the smaller airport was a real breeze and we were more than happy with our choice.

More next week on finalizing your plans.

Is this all waaaaay too fussy for you? Do you think spontaneity is the essence of travel pleasure? Tell me your opinion in a comment.

 

 

 

Spending Wisely

Not the moderate $80-per-night lodging I chose in Phuket.

As you begin to plan a trip, one of your first considerations may be budget. Unless you’re a part of the lucky elite who live and travel without a thought for money, you’ll likely have to work within some kind of limit. Does this mean you can’t have fun and enjoy travel? Not at all. One of the keys is choosing where to spend your money—and where not to spend it.

On a recent trip, I had a two-night layover on the resort island of Phuket in Thailand. I had to find accommodations, not a small task, as Phuket has upwards of 5,000 hotels/guesthouses/rentals. I was dreaming of an ultra-luxury resort, the kind you see in ads, with poolside teak bungalows, uniformed waiters delivering drinks to cabanas on a private beach, Thai massage in sublime surrounding, and lotus blossoms floating in the toilet. Thailand is—relatively speaking—cheap, so I could afford the kind of place I could never visit otherwise. Besides, I was only there for two nights, so why not splurge?

But on further thought, I realized this was not a good use of money. I would be arriving late on the first day, so wouldn’t have a chance to really enjoy the place. Maybe the lotus blossoms in the toilet, but not much else. I would be leaving early on the last day, so, again, not much time to play. That left me with one full day. Whatever luxury I enjoyed on that one day, would it be worth the hundreds of dollars it would cost me to book two nights?

Would I really have a massage? Would I want a cabana on the beach? Would I order drinks? Would it be significantly less pleasurable to walk a few metres to the pool instead of jumping in from the bedroom door?

Other factors came into play: were there other, comfortable and clean, if not luxurious, places to stay that offered facilities I really would use? Yup. These were the final two nights of a long trip through Thailand. I knew I would be tired and want to be away from crowds and noise. For convenience, I wanted to be fairly close to the airport.

In the end, I chose a small, locally-owned guesthouse for under $80 that had good reviews and everything I needed for a pleasant two-night stay. I figured I could buy a lotus blossom and throw it in the toilet if the mood hit me.

I can better justify spending big bucks on accommodations that offer something I can’t get anywhere else, or are situated in remote locales. The year we visited Namibia’s Etosha National Park—one of my bucket-list destinations—the park opened up a vast new area previously closed to tourists. The only way to visit this area was to book at their exclusive camp, Dolomite. The camp offers accommodations in permanent safari tents and has a small pool and restaurant. Comfy but not nearly worth the high price tag. I booked because I really wanted to experience that part of the park. As they say: location, location, location.

I feel the same about food and drink when I travel. Generally, I don’t seek out expensive or gourmet food because I just don’t appreciate it enough.* I’m happy to eat simpler fare in humble surroundings. I know this about myself. But when circumstances demand it—like I’m stuck in a lodge with only one, overpriced, restaurant, or I’m thirsty and the only drinks available are selling for three or four times the retail value—I don’t deny myself to economize.

My point is that sometimes you do have to make hard choices about money when you travel. Maybe you just can’t swing the cost of both the deluxe hotel and front-row tickets to that hot Broadway show, and you have to choose. Many times, though, if you examine the options closely, you might find that what you think you want is based more on glossy advertising and other people’s fantasies than your own preferences. Know yourself and understand what truly makes you travel-happy and you’ll be able to dole out your hard-earned cash when and where it counts most.

*Chocolate excepted, of course.

Where do you choose to spend your travel dollar? Luxury resorts with 5-star service? Remote locations? Unusual activities? All-inclusives? First-class airline tickets? Expensive souvenirs? Stupendous food? I’d love to hear about it, so leave a comment.

Morning Has Broken

Image source: easybackpacker.com

From my sixth-floor picture window in the Sheraton Royal Orchid, I am watching dawn come to the Chao Phraya river.

Late into the night, it was filled with brightly lit party cruises, neon pink, electric blue, sunlit wat gold, decks given over to the ultimate hedonism of dancing “The YMCA” upon a waterway both ancient and venerable. Some things are just universal in time and space.

The dockside was crammed with tourists and locals seeking food, fun, or friends–usually all three.

Then, for a few hours, it was dark and quiet, except for the occasional tug and barges on a stealth run.

As the faintest of light arrives, the first commuter ferry departs from the dock below. I hear piercing marmot-like whistles that I take for the calls of magpies, but which I later discover are the code the aft boatmen use to call instructions to the steersmen.

Sounding a bit like a white-crowned sparrow, the earliest bird commences its song.

Boats of diverse types begin to ply the water. The infamous longtails, narrow, painted in vivid colours, dart here and there like cormorants. The local ferries, plump ovoids of yellow or red-orange, bob their way back and forth. The fast ferries, larger, sleeker, and assertively pointed, cut through the water purposefully. Their destinations are indicated with coloured flags, an ingenious solution for a system where many of the users can neither read nor understand Thai. “Does this boat go to …?” The conductor meets all inquiries from confused foreigners the same way: “Go inside! Go inside!” she shrieks impatiently. Clearly, if the boat doesn’t go where you’re going, it’s no concern of hers.

Working ships of indeterminate industry chug by. Tiny bright orange speedboats–Safety vessels? River police?–buzz among the busyness.

In one boat, a woman wearing a broad-brimmed bamboo hat wields a net. Ah, a picturesque Thai fisher, no doubt following centuries of family tradition. No: look again. She’s scooping up garbage from the never-ending supply that rides the brown water. Is she paid by the city to do this, or does she do it to sell what she can: bottles, plastics, who knows what else she finds? The river travels a long way and encounters many things before it arrives here in Bangkok.

Above, a flock of cattle egrets, their white bodies reflecting the strengthening sun, fly by on their way to feed. Over the city buildings, a few wat spires and one church tower compete with electronic aerials for extreme verticality.

As the morning warms, swifts dodge and twist in pursuit of insects.

I reflect on how many people, both today and for centuries past, live or have lived most of their days on and around this river. Locals still fish off hidden piers and between the giant luxury hotels, tumbledown shacks cling to their piece of the shore, drying laundry sharing space with family shrines on the soggy, rotted porches. Well-used canals branch off to other residential areas, to painted wats with steps washed by the water, to still spaces filled with mats of floating lilies.

But none of that can I see from my exalted tower; I am a newcomer here and until I climb down, my view is limited.

My first day in Bangkok beckons.

Do you have a favorite first impression of a place? Let me know in a comment.