Some people have been in awe of my travel plans, and not because they include wildly creative and adventurous activities. Rather, it’s because I did not yield to a tour. I plan most of my trips from A to Z. I love doing the research!
DIY travel planning lets you go deep to discover a place long before you get there. You build anticipation for the vacation, or what I call the “pre-vacation glow.” I research websites, like TripAdvisor, and other blogs, and read travel guides and travel memoirs. I give myself plenty of time to customize my vacation.
First, make some basic decisions, and then add layers of detail.
1. Length of time: Long weekend? One to two weeks? Longer?
2. Pick a continent or region; and then country, state, or province.
3. Refine your destination through a signature event or activity.
You can design your travel itinerary around a signature event or activity. These are examples:
Sports competition or sports events
Festivals and concerts
National or state parks
Other fun examples: cycling, snow and water sports, beaches, hiking and camping, cooking schools, conferences, visiting friends, family reunion, and amusement parks.
4. Climate: What climate is ideal for your activities? Hot, cold, or temperate?
Answers to these questions will also help you further refine your destination(s) and when you’ll travel.
For example, if you want to go to Australia and hike the Tasmania Overland Trail, peak hiking time begins in October. That is Australia’s spring season.
As another example, snow sports require cold, snow, and mountains. Though, as I recall, the unique destination of Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics seemed to have a little of something for everyone. Sochi’s weather was temperate, affecting ski and snowboarding slopes. But, at sea level, among the palm trees, visitors to the Sochi Olympics had the experience of being in Russia during winter and not freezing half to death.
5. Travel Mode: Plane, train, or automobile?
Look at a map. Check airline routes, if you’ll be traveling by plane. You may need to consider a combination of transportation modes.
For instance, if you’re going to Martha’s Vineyard, you might fly to Boston, take the bus to Woods Hole, and the ferry from there to Vineyard Haven or Oak Bluffs. Or, if you drive and want to have your car with you, make a reservation in advance to ferry your car over.
6. Mix it up.
When I knew I would be going to Abu Dhabi (UAE), my flights in both directions included a stop in London. So, I added London as the second major travel destination and spent eight days there in late May. This required packing for two different climates: desert hot-as-hell and London cool-and-drizzly. (London, by the way, was a very pleasant surprise…only one rainy day and the other days were warm.)
You can also mix it up with coastal, mountain, rural, and city destinations.
7. Plot your destination(s).
Think about the kind of traveler you are (or want to be). Do you want to cram in as many places as possible? Or, do you want “slow travel,” that is, taking time to linger, tarry, and absorb local culture? (I plotted four destinations in my two week trip to Spain that only covered a small slice of the country from Madrid to the Mediterranean coast.)
8. Plot out activities at each destination.
This will help you figure out how much time to spend at each destination. I always start with this list of “must-see” places. Check out whether a destination can serve as “home base” for day trips.
For example, when I went to Belgium, I used Brussels as a “home base” for my first week. From there, I took day trips to other Belgian provinces within a two hour train ride of the city.
9. Plot out activities for each day.
Some activities will have fixed times, like a concert or the theater. You can build in leisure time and factor in travel time, if your destination is a day trip. This way you’ll at least have a clue as to how you might spend each day. I don’t know if you feel the same way, but vacation time and the cost are too precious to waste. I want to make the most of each day.
If you’re traveling overseas to a city, a bus tour could be a good first day activity to help you get oriented, especially if you arrive jet-lagged. Thereafter, you can strike off on your own by urban transit or on foot.
Once you’ve finished Steps 1 – 9, you’ll have your DIY itinerary.
10. Review your itinerary daily.
The beauty of DIY travel planning is that you create a flexible itinerary. Except for ticketed events, like the theater, sports event, and concerts, you can deviate from the itinerary. It’s a plan and things can change. You might drop some activities because you changed your mind; you discovered something else great to do; or, you wanted more freestyle time in your day.
Check the weather forecast each day for outdoor activities. While you can do museums and shopping in any weather, rainy days are great for those activities.
Now that this phase of DIY travel planning is complete, you can work out the travel and lodging arrangements!
My well-planned and balanced trip to Spain exceeded expectations! Transfers between cities and modes of transportation were seamless. All was perfect…until it was time to come home.
Maybe it was that last rainy, windy, dismal day and night in Madrid…it was about 40 degrees outside and I was under-dressed. It was late May, after all, and I had packed for heat in Spain; not chilly rain. Add to that my cheap attack that led me to stay in a lousy hotel. The morning of my flight, I was finally ready to go.
But first, some good stuff. The first leg of my flight from Madrid to Philadelphia was uneventful, which is always a good thing. I made a friend from Brussels while waiting for my next flight. You’d think Mollie and I had known each other for more than a minute. We exchanged numbers and email, and said we’d meet again. I also had a delicious, though premium-priced, meal at the airport and was able to charge my devices at the bar.
Now, for the hot mess.
The airline cancelled my flight from Philadelphia to Baltimore-Washington International Airport because of the weather. I managed to book another flight that would leave about three hours later than the original. Mind you, home was tantalizingly close — less than three hours’ drive away — making the delay all the more brutal. I considered taking the train, and then realized my checked bag would arrive at BWI without me. I let that idea go. I ate another meal and found ways to kill time, including losing my cell phone, retracing my steps all over the terminal, and finally retrieving the phone from the person who found it right as my flight was boarding.
I arrived in Baltimore around 9:50 p.m; my bag did not. I realized I’d left my house key and driver’s license in it. So, I called my sister, Cheryl, who had a copy of my house key. Luckily, she was still up and said she’d bring it and meet me curbside outside the baggage claim area.
Meanwhile, a Bulgarian guy was also at the lost baggage counter looking lost himself. (I knew his nationality because I had glanced at his passport when we were in Philly.) The lost baggage lady couldn’t communicate with him to find out where to deliver his bags; I couldn’t either. Then, it dawned on me that I could call my Bulgarian friend, Krisi. By then, it was around 10:45 p.m. I hesitated to call her at that hour, but the lost guy looked pitiful. I called her, anyway.
Krisi became the interpreter between the lost baggage lady and the lost Bulgarian. I was happy to help, and happy my friend could help. Hopefully, things got sorted out because my sister arrived curbside and I needed my phone back. Cheryl gave me the key.
I had to wait almost two hours for my prepaid shuttle van because the service was also affected by flight delays. The van dropped me off at home – finally – around 1:30 a.m. As the shuttle van pulled away, I realized I had a problem. I put the key in my door lock: it didn’t turn. The key looked like my house key, but it wasn’t. Crap. My sister was no longer answering her phone. (Thanks a lot, Cheryl.)
Lesson learned: Don’t pack your house key and driver’s license in the bag you check at the airport.
I put my vacation after-glow on pause….
I didn’t want to wake the neighbors at that hour with my sad, embarrassing tale. I was exhausted and only had a little bit of charge left on my cell phone. I called a cab and waited for it while curled up on top of my car trunk, using my backpack as a pillow. It was actually a warm night in Maryland, unlike my last night in Madrid. For all my efforts to economize my travel, I ended up paying for another night in a hotel and the cab fare to get there. Home: tantalizingly close, for real, and I couldn’t even get in the door.
Cheryl wasn’t able to bring me the right key until around 2 p.m. the next day; and the airline delivered my luggage about 12 hours later in the middle of the night.
The tail end of my travel was messy, but it didn’t detract from my great experience in Spain. Once I was back in my house and my luggage delivered, my equilibrium and vacation after-glow were restored!
Balancing Travel – Spain: The End