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!
During my travels over the past few months, I have noticed a trend. In today’s connected society and new, impressive devices, smart phones, and DSLRs, we are keen to snap photos and share them on our favourite social media sites. However, while taking in the views of the River Arno in Florence, it quite literally hit me when I was jostled out of the way by a group of 15 nuns on an organised sightseeing tour, who proceeded to reach their smartphones out in succession, snapping photos of the Ponte Vecchio and dashing away to the next sight without taking time to stop and look at it. I realised then that an epidemic of fast-food travel has hit us.
Don’t get me wrong - I love photography and enjoy social media. Photographing new places is a great joy. But over the past year in particular, I have been making a conscious attempt to stop, observe, and take in sights and the world around me first by taking a mental picture. I don’t want to have to recall my trip by having to scroll through my camera phone; I want to be an active participant in the world around me, and remember the experience and memories.
I have also been more consciously observing what others around me are doing. It’s a sea of smartphones snapping photos. People taking more selfies of themselves rather than the sights. Trying to manoeuvre around the masses of selfie sticks waving in the air. At a museum in Florence, I watched a large group of young people on a school trip walking past exhibits filming everything on their smartphones without stopping to read or take in what they were looking at. I saw others taking photos of relics where a sign next to it read to respect the sacred nature of the artefacts in the room.
I wonder how much the people around me are taking in of their experience. Travel should be about using all of your senses to interact with a new place and immersing yourself in the experience, rather than trying to cram in as much as possible to tick things off a list and take hundreds of snaps to post on social media.
The joy of travel comes from learning about a new place, a new culture, new people. On park benches, outdoor cafes, museums, and restaurants, on their own or with others, people are engrossed in their phones rather than their surroundings or company. Last weekend, while sitting in the hotel lounge with an incredible view of the Hong Kong skyline, I was enjoying lunch while taking in the view. A friendly waiter came by to inform me that they did indeed have free wifi, seemingly concerned that I was apparently the only one not using my smartphone and taking selfies with my lunch.
So, I’ve got a proposition for us. Let’s put down the smartphones more, enjoy our surroundings and make memories by being fully present when we’re exploring new places (or everyday life, for that matter). Take in new sights, meet new people. Let’s embrace ‘slow’ travel and observe the world through our own eyes and not just the lens of our camera. Life flies by quickly enough. Let’s slow it down by enjoying the precious holiday time we have by living in the moment in real life and not just on social media. Take the time to breathe, unplug, and enjoy the break that we have worked hard to get. Discard detailed itineraries and go with the flow. In essence, slow travel is the newest old way to travel and a luxury in today’s busy world.
I truly believe there is no money wasted on travelling. I remember telling this to friends last year, who promptly began to laugh but then stopped and realized I had a point – while also pointing out to me that travel can be really expensive.
Over the past few years, I’ve had lots of people make comments to me about how much I travel, asking how I can do it, have I won the lottery, how much do you earn, the classic ‘must be nice’. It was starting to get to me because at the end of the day, I work hard and travel is something I love to do.
It also got me thinking about travel perceptions, misconceptions, and realities about costs. Yes, travel involves money, but it genuinely does not have to be expensive. Over the years, I’ve picked up various lessons and tips through experience along the way, trial and error, speaking to friends, colleagues, reading websites, blogs, and magazines. I realized that instead of getting upset when I perceived people to be questioning me, why not share how I plan and budget my travel because spending my money effectively and wisely is important to me! It really doesn’t have to be expensive, I promise, and all it involves is a bit of patience and knowing a few tips and tricks. A wonderful trip, long or short, can always be tailored to your budget, priorities, and preference.
I believe there are three stages to any trip:
1) Selecting and Booking Your Destination
2) Trip Planning Ahead of Departure
3) While You’re There
Part I: Selecting and Booking Your Destination
- For me, this is often the hardest part because I have such a long list of places I want to visit – where do you even begin?? Sometimes you have somewhere specific in mind, which can be helpful sometimes, such as visiting a friend or event. Sometimes you just want to get away somewhere – anywhere – or want to do a short city break or epic long trip.
- There is one email that I enjoy receiving every Wednesday: Travelzoo’s Hot 20 Travel Picks of the Week. It’s always filled with some great inspiration. Not only are the Top 20 finds that they scour the Internet for great (free to sign up on their website), but they also have great deals that crop up for your local area (e.g., theatre, spa, restaurants). I’ve been using this site for years.
- I have signed up for various email notifications with airlines such as Air Canada, British Airways, KLM, Easyjet, Ryanair, Lufthansa, Porter, etc, to let me know of any sales that are on airfare. This is a great source of inspiration (and saving money!).
- Do you have friends living abroad? Family? That can help you narrow your destination down. Or, just dive into your list and start somewhere when a great deal arises.
- One of my new favourite apps is Hopper. This great little app helps calculate flight costs with a twist: it helps identify for you with a high degree of accuracy the best time to book your flight. You can put a ‘watch’ on a certain flight route you’re interested in and it will message you with updates if it goes down, up, or to take the plunge and buy now.
- I recently also discovered a site called SkyPicker, which I used for my flight to Stockholm recently. It identified a fare to travel here for the weekend form London for £66 – how to say no to that! It also has a cool feature where you can put in your starting destination and select a radius (e.g., for me, I will pinpoint London and radiate out across Europe to find the best deals available).
- The one site for flight research I always check out is Kayak – especially for planning multi-city trips as it gathers information from a large number of different airlines and websites worldwide and pulls together loads of options to choose from and customise, finding the best deals and combinations to pick from.
- When searching for flights, regardless of website, check the ‘flexible with dates’ box (if you have flexibility). This will show you whether it is cheaper or more expensive to fly in or out a day or so earlier or later. This has definitely been helpful to me in the past.
- Connecting flights can often be cheaper than direct. But, consider the money saved against time lost. There are some connection cities I avoid at all costs – NYC and Chicago airports in particular. I have rarely had a flight to or from these cities that has not been delayed or baggage lost. If this happens, missing your connection can be highly likely, which then cuts into your time, cost, and stress levels. Some cities are extremely efficient at connections though – Munich and Frankfurt in particular. But keep in mind that both of these airports are enormous and you need to be focused in finding your next gate to avoid missing your connection.
- Ok, so you’ve secured your flight, let’s work on your accommodation. In many ways, it’s all dependent on where I’m traveling and if I’m going with someone or on my own.
- I have had a lot of luck over the past year with using Priceline – specifically, their Blind Bids or Express Deals. The catch with these is that you can grab a fantastic deal for 4 and 5*plus hotels, but you won’t know what the hotel is until after you complete the purchase. This can feel risky to many people (myself included) because you want to stay somewhere that you’ll feel comfortable and enjoy. But, you can do this using calculated risk:
- Priceline allows you to select the neighbourhood you are interested in and the star level.
- What I usually do then is do a google search for the hotels in the city and/or that particular neighbourhood under the star levels I’m interested in to get an idea of what I might secure.
- Withthe Express Deals, there is a significantly reduced price named; with the Bids, you enter a price, which checks with the hotels to see if they will accept your bid.
- Other sites that I have used are hotels.com, booking.com and Agoda, all of which have found me terrific deals. Agoda is particularly good for finding amazing hotel deals across Asia.
- I’ve had terrific luck with Airbnb over the past few years, staying in terrific flats in European cities, such as Paris, Athens, and Rome, as well as beautiful villas in Greece. You can find fab places at customizable prices based on your budget. I’ve never had a problem with the Airbnb properties I’ve stayed in.
- It works by setting up a profile and requesting to stay at a property. The owner has the ability to select who they have stay at their property because understandably, they want someone that will take care of their place too. Read the reviews of the property and do a bit of research on the area, and select where you’d like to stay. Consider factors such as proximity to transit, amenities, and safety.
- A colleague of mine says that no travel should be ‘point-less’ and he’s right. If you are travelling and/or staying with a company that offers a reward program, sign up for it and get the points. You never know what the future holds as you may end up staying with the hotel chain again or flying frequently with the airline (or affiliates, such as Star Alliance or One World).
Check out Part II: Before You Go here
On my first morning in Paris, fresh off an overnight flight from Toronto and desperate to stay awake and beat jet lag, I took a walk around the Marais after dropping off my bags at my apartment. Having left Canada in snow flurries, the bright blue skies and 20 degree temperatures felt invigorating! I grabbed a tea from my favourite tea institution, Mariage Freres, and a sandwich and began walking to Place des Vosges to have a picnic. As this was one of the first nice days in Paris this spring, I think the rest of Paris had the same idea! Although the lawn was packed with people, it was lovely to see everyone outside enjoying the beautiful weather in high spirits.