How to Plan the Holiday of a Lifetime

Have A Cunning PlanHave you spent the winter wondering what it would be like to trek through the northern hills of Thailand on an elephant? Or sand board down the gigantic dunes of the Omani interior? Maybe your commuting hours have been filled with iconic travel images, stampeding bulls in Pamplona or the thumping rhythms of the Rio carnival. Or perhaps, just before you drop off to sleep, you hanker after the orange glow of an African sunset. If this is happening to you, you’re suffering from traveller’s itch. It’s a persistent affliction that can’t be entirely cured by a two-week package tour. The most effective treatment is to plan a trip of a lifetime. You need to do a little planning though.Pre-planningYou know how the old clich√© goes; fail to plan and you plan to fail. This observation will, of course, be of no consolation to you whatsoever if you find yourself squeezed between two hefty border guards, waving goodbye to your Beijing bound train, from a station platform on the eastern edge of Siberia, simply because you forgot to register your Russian visa. So, where’s the best place to start?Most people have their dream trip squirreled away in their brain, in the file marked “One Day.” Leave it there for a moment. The best place to start planning is with an honest self-appraisal.Self-AppraisalDo you have the level of fitness required to trek through the Amazonian rainforest? If you don’t are you willing to get fit before you go? Don’t even think about it if you dislike spiders. Are you planning to travel alone or with others? If it’s with other people, will everyone’s interests be aligned? Travelling with a friend on the Trans-Siberian Express might sound like fun, but it takes seven days. Your luxurious first class sleeping compartment can quickly become a 10′ X 8′ cell if your friend discovers, after a couple of days, that train journeys aren’t really very interesting at all.Budget and TimeAfter your self-appraisal you need to consider two more things: money and time. Again, be realistic. Discount that camel safari across the Namibian desert if you only have five days free and ¬£200 to spend. A trip of a lifetime can be done in a weekend and it doesn’t have to break the bank. Think laterally.OK, by now you should have a rough budget, you know the amount of time you have available, and you’ve discounted Gibraltar on account of your morbid fear of apes. Now its time to open the filing cabinet marked “One Day.” Is your original idea still worth pursuing, or should you be looking at alternatives? Whichever it is, you now need to do some research. This can be fun, almost like doing the journey itself, and there are lots of websites that will help you. The most obvious are TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet but there are plenty of others that will specialise in the area you’re interested in. Spend a bit of time trawling through them.However, don’t start salivating over the majesty of the Taj Mahal or the vastness of the Grand Canyon until you check out the mundane stuff. What are the visa requirements? Do you qualify? Is obtaining one bureaucratic? If you can only travel next week, and the visa takes two weeks to organise, cross that option off your list.What should drop out of the bottom of this pre-planning exercise is a dream holiday that you have time to do, and can actually afford. Draw up a draft itinerary, quickly – before you change your mind. Then draw up another list detailing the tasks you have to undertake to deliver the itinerary. Make sure it’s in a logical order, for example, never buy tickets or accommodation without getting the visas first.So, now you’ve made a decision on where to go. What next?Well, the good news is, it doesn’t matter if its an overland trip through South America, or a long weekend in Paris, there are only three things to concentrate on when planning a trip; time, budget, and available resources. Decisions you make on each, impact on the other. Lets look at them in reverse order.ResourcesThe simple equation here is, the more you do yourself the less resources you need. For example, there is no need to employ a travel agent when you can just as easily book a train, or find a hotel on the Internet. But then again, their local knowledge may actually save you money and time. And if you use a specialist travel agent they can often assist with other things, like visa applications, for example. You have to find a balance that’s right for you and your budget. Offer a selection of specialist travel agencies your itinerary and ask them for a quote to organise it. You might be surprised how competitive they can be.Try to pre-book the accommodation, irrespective of who does the bookings, and arrive at each destination at a reasonable hour. It can be confusing enough arriving in a strange city without doing so at three in the morning after twenty hours of non-stop travel. If possible get the accommodation you’ve booked to meet you. Many will do this at little or no cost. By so doing you’ll avoid running the gauntlet of taxi and accommodation touts that tend to hunt in packs around stations and airports.BudgetWhen working out your budget, start with the big-ticket items, transport, accommodation and so on. You’ll have a good idea of these costs as they often have to be paid for in advance. Meals and activities, on the other hand, are variable and harder to estimate. Err on the side of caution. Also, when considering your finances, don’t underestimate what can go wrong. Build in a contingency fund. Aim for about fifteen percent.TimeTime is the commonest reason for travel plans turning to jelly. There is the finite period of the trip, but it’s the segments within it where the danger lies. This is especially true if there’s a lot of travelling involved. Do not underestimate what is required. Distances that look like a short hike on a map can turn out to be epic in execution. Bus journey timetables in some parts of the world can be wonderful works of fiction. Assume delays and build them in to your plan. By the way, travel forums, like those found on Trip Adviser can help you here. You might get feedback from someone who’s actually done the journey recently.By now your plan should be taking shape, so its now time to concentrate on the travellers’ tools of the trade; passport, tickets, and money. Pay attention to these and you will go a long way to enjoying a trouble free holiday.PassportsFor which also read visas. They give you a right to enter a country but only if you meet all the conditions. Check each country’s requirements on their embassy websites. If you’re planning a long way in advance, keep checking back, conditions frequently have a habit of changing. And don’t assume, when you get your visa stamped into your passport, that it automatically qualifies you for entry. I know someone who obtained a visa for China and was still refused entry at the border. The issuing embassy had failed to notice his passport expiry pre-dated the visa expiry date they’d issued. So had he. The border official didn’t. And here’s a good point to highlight a travel fact you would do well to commit to memory. Border officials are always right – even when they’re wrong. Meeting passport and visa requirements are your responsibility, no one else’s. When they come back – check them.TicketsRead them and make sure they are what you asked for. Request a translation if they’re in a foreign language. Alternatively you could try, like I did once, to persuade a tired, miserable, non-English speaking railway attendant that I really had paid for a first class cabin, and not the one I was forced to share, for two days, with a man as big, and as smelly, as a mammoth.MoneyNot all credit cards are the same. We favour Visa in our part of the world, in others MasterCard rules supreme. Take one with each symbol if you can. Travellers’ cheques are secure, but are of no use to you whatsoever if the nearest bank is a hundred miles away. Ditto ATMs. Cash is king, but if you want to avoid giving your airport taxi driver a month’s wages for dropping you at your hotel, make sure you have some small denomination notes. And here’s another well-known travel fact – it doesn’t matter what country you travel in, taxi drivers never have any change.If you’re travelling through a number of countries, it’s easy to miscalculate the amount of cash you might need for each. Consider taking some US dollars as a universal back up in case you run out. It goes without saying; keep money safe. Invest in a good money belt, keep back up stashes hidden for emergencies, and spread daily spending money around your pockets.Right, you haven’t gone anywhere yet, but you’re in pretty good shape. Your paperwork is in order, you have your money sorted and you know your itinerary. You’re on your way. What could go wrong?Well, lots. One of the attractions of independent travel is its unpredictability. But you want that unpredictability to manifest itself in a positive way, getting lost and finding a lifelong friend or inadvertently becoming a guest of honour at a Greek wedding, for example. What you don’t want is to leave your passport on a bus that’s now a speck on the horizon. A little contingency planning will pay dividends if you get in a fix.Before you leave take copies of all your important documentation, passport, visas, tickets, and add in some spare passport photos. Don’t keep the copies with the real ones. Then, send yourself an e-mail listing the visa and passport numbers. Add telephone numbers of UK embassies operating in the countries you’re visiting, and of course, the policy number of your travel insurance and their emergency contact numbers.These precautions won’t improve the misery you feel if you lose your passport, but they will make it easier to replace it.Now you really are ready for that trip of a lifetime, and the effort you’ve put into planning it will go a long way to making it a safe and smooth journey. That’s because you’ve concentrated on things you have an element of control over. But, its still possible you will encounter situations that are out of your control. The point to stress here is they are out of your control.Don’t waste time and energy trying to influence events that you can’t possibly influence. Stay calm. Stay rational. What is the impact of that broken down bus, or the cancelled flight? Assess your situation, then calmly consider your options. Your original travel plans may have to change as a result. But don’t worry. The change might enhance the trip. It might even take you to somewhere you just wouldn’t have found, or thought of, in the planning stage. In fact it might just make it the trip of a lifetime.Project Checklist

Start with a self-appraisal
Select a destination that is achievable
Do your research
Make sure you have enough time to complete the trip
Produce a draft itinerary and task list early
Produce a draft budget and build in a contingency fund
Get quotes from travel agencies to deliver all or part of your itineraryGolden Rules

Concentrate on things you have control over
Get your paperwork in order early
Make sure you understand what you’ve bought – get translations of tickets if you need to, and take accommodation confirmations with you
E-mail yourself important information
Take more than one form of money – consider Dollars as a universal cash back up
Don’t waste your energy fighting officials – they are always right
Don’t expend effort trying to change things out of your control – concentrate on how to work around them.
Independent travel throws up the unexpected – don’t try to plan for every contingency, you’ll fail
Retain a sense of humour – you’ll see comedy in the most stressful situations if you do

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