So, you’ve booked your flight and hotel and no doubt you’re getting pretty excited for your upcoming trip! In the lead-up, a little bit of planning and research can go a long way to finding the coolest, best places to visit, eat, and explore according to your travel style, as well as help you decide where and how you should save and spend your money.
Everyone has different travel styles, interests, likes, and dislikes. Full disclosure: I really hate travel itineraries. I find them to be too constrictive and focuses more on ticking things off a list and hurrying from one place to the next without allowing yourself to fully enjoy a place by wandering or lingering at a spot if you want to. I would much rather go with the flow and see how things play out because if there’s one thing about travel, it can often be unpredictable and you need to be flexible enough to understand that it happens and not let it stress you out too much.
What I do like to do though is have an idea of the things I want to do and see, and the neighbourhoods they are in. I’ll then pick which neighbourhoods I’ll ‘bundle’ together on a given day for the trip. If there’s one tip I can give you, avoid criss-crossing around a city unless you absolutely can’t avoid it because it wastes time, money, and energy unnecessarily.
Look into your options for getting from the airport or station ahead of time.
- Many cities have great transit links from the airport via train, bus or coach –and at a fraction of the cost of taking a taxi.
For many cities, it will be more cost effective to buy a transit pass to get around once there because chances are you won’t be taking the bus/subway/tram just once.
- In London, for example, NEVER buy a one-off journey ticket because it is outrageously expensive.
- Instead, get yourself an Oyster card and top it up with money as you go, or buy a day pass if you are going to be using the tube more than four or five times in a day. Recently, ‘Contactless’ payment has been introduced where you can tap on and off with a bank card; however, it should be noted that this may not work with all foreign cards so check with ticket agents in advance.
- Alternatively, walking is my favourite way to see a city as you’ll be able to discover things that you’ll miss if you’re underground. Think back to the neighbourhood bundling I mentioned as I’ll typically take transit to the neighbourhood and walk all around from there.
Research & Planning
I like to look at blogs and Instagram accounts of local people in the destinations I’m going to visit to get some ideas and inspiration for the places and things local people like to go, do and see. Instagram hashtags for destinations are a great way to find these accounts.
For me, there is nothing worse than spending your time in places with lots of other tourists because you don’t get a real feel for the culture and life of a city.
There are, of course, some places that absolutely should be seen or visited as they are big sites for a reason, such as the Colosseum, Eiffel Tower, and Park Guell. But make sure to get yourself off the tourist trail too and experience what real life is like there. Consider alternatives in visiting these sites - for example, in addition to buying tickets in advance, major sites can often special events or programs.
For example, the Colosseum offers evening tours that you can book where there will likely be fewer people and you can avoid the searing Roman sun as there is no shade and the heat is unforgiving at this site during the summer. It’s also a pretty cool and different way to see it! The Castel Sant’Angelo also offers a really cool summer evening experience, where you can walk part of the secret path that connects it with the Vatican (especially for all of you Dan Brown fans!), as well as evening concerts (e.g., classical, opera, etc).
Consider doing something different than taking a bus tour to see the city. There are often very cool alternatives available with a bit of research. Two of my favourites were an awesome morning of exploring Rome with Annie from Scooteroma Tours on the back of a shiny red Vespa, or with Oz from Circle Tours which took us to many places off the beaten track in Istanbul. Not only do you get to see the city, but you get a much more personal and memorable experience.
For city guides, I like to get ideas from the New York Times 36 Hours In... series. This is a fantastic series of books (and a great gift for the travel lover in your life!).
- I will sometimes take a look at TripAdvisor but please use a healthy dose of skepticism when looking at it, and don’t use it as your only source of research.
- Restaurants, for example, may score more highly on TA either for actually being great, or simply due to a higher volume of reviews as opposed to a great restaurant off the beaten track or new.
- Also look at who is doing the reviewing. For example, which country are they from? How old are they? Do they sound like they have a similar travel style to you? Keep in mind what is important to you. Some places get lower scores because there may not be a kettle in the hotel room, the weather was bad, or museum was closed that day. Let TA be a guide but not the ultimate determinant.
- Also beware that there may be fake reviews (for better or worse) from competitors. Although TA has taken steps to cut down on this, be aware that this happens.
Check out the details of some of the places you want to visit. Are they closed on certain days? Are there any public holidays happening that can shut things down (I made this mistake in Florence recently by forgetting about the May Day holiday)? Are they offering any special free days? Are there special late night openings?
- Many museums are free (such as in London) or free on certain days of the week or month, as well as staying open late.
- If you’re planning on seeing lots of different sights, museums, and attractions, it might be worth looking into whether the city has a ‘City Pass’. A City Pass offers discounted admission and often includes a transit access and other perks. It will be worth it if you are planning on visiting many of the sights offered within the time you will be there. Check any restrictions though, such as having to use it within a certain period of time (e.g., over 72 consecutive hours).
Food can also be a tricky thing while travelling. Doing a bit of research on areas and restaurants/cafes/markets ahead of time can take the stress of choosing a place to eat away. There are some great sites to do research on, such as Chowhound.
Before you go, look into the currency you will need and foreign exchange rates. Also consider whether you need a visa or not. For this, check with your country’s Foreign Office for the latest information. Some countries require you to apply beforehand, and some you can purchase when you arrive at the airport (such as in Istanbul). Please also double check the expiry date on your passport as some countries will not accept them if it is within a certain period of time to expiry (e.g., three to six months).
I recommend bringing some local currency with you because you don’t want to be caught out in a situation when you arrive where it’s needed. I was recently in Hong Kong and discovered that the taxis there only take cash, so that resulted in a long search for a bank machine to withdraw money. A few notes:
For some currency, your bank may need to order it in because they may not have it (or enough of it) in stock and you’ll need to factor that time in.
Don’t change currency at the airport unless you really can’t avoid it as the commission rates tend to be exorbitant.
Keep your receipt from your foreign exchange provider as if you return with money, you can be guaranteed the rate you exchanged at. Note that the vast majority of currency exchange/banks will not take back coins, so spend those before coming home! Some of my favourite currency exchange places are Marks and Spencer’s Bureau de Change as they are easy, reputable, usually well-stocked and convenient within store locations across the UK, as well as the TD Bank Foreign Exchange desk located in Toronto in the Path in the TD Centre. I like this place because they have many different currencies available and in stock versus a regular bank.
I will usually use debit or credit cards for other purchases along the way during the trip. Just check with your bank around any need to notify them that you are travelling so that you aren’t cut off (also an important point about having cash just in case your bank card won’t work).
Check for any key things you need to do ahead for flight with your airline, such as luggage restrictions (have you purchased baggage; size restrictions; etc) and printing your boarding pass ahead of time (especially for Ryanair and Easyjet) to avoid potentially significant fees. Also check what time boarding is as some airlines (such as Easyjet at Gatwick Airport) have become increasingly strict in refusing entry to people and closing the gate 30 minutes before the flight.
If you collect airline points (which you definitely should - remember, no travel should be point-less!), check whether you have enough to upgrade your seat, or if you have status to use the lounge (saves money if you do because you can get a good meal, drinks, and/or magazines and newspapers complimentary at the lounge rather than buying things at high prices in the airport itself).
Check the weather ahead of time so you can tailor your packing and maximize space in your suitcase (and avoid luggage weight restrictions, which can potentially be very pricey!).
Do you need to check-in and/or print/bring your boarding pass to the airport with you? Many low-cost airlines require this. Don’t get caught out as this can be very costly.
If luggage weight might be an issue or you want to go hand luggage only, consider alternatives to the liquid toiletries you need to bring. For example, if you’re going on a beach holiday, consider buying your sunscreen and other toiletries after you’ve gone through security at a drugstore like Boots at the airport, or at your destination. At the end of the day though, there are few places in the world where you won’t be able to find a little shop at the very least to buy something that you forget.
Part III - While You’re There - will be coming soon!