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.
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
- 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.