Have you started planning your next travel adventure?
I would be lying if I didn’t admit to regularly fantasising about giving up my job and travelling the world (sorry to my boss who will undoubtedly be reading this!), however, the reality is that neither my husband nor my bank balance are particularly supportive of this idea. Instead, I get 5 weeks a year, with no more than two weeks at a time, to maximise every travel opportunity.
We make sure to use those 5 weeks to their maximum potential. That means packing a lot in so we can truly explore whatever country we decide to go to. Quite often my friends and colleagues remark “Surely you need a holiday after your holiday!”, and they are not wrong, they are a very full on two weeks, of early starts and constant activity. We definitely do not go to any all-inclusive resorts to lie by the pool or on the beach each day.
I often get questions about our holidays, specifically about how we book them, how we know where to stay and what to do, so I I’ve decided to go through the most commonly asked questions to give you an insight into how we make the most of every trip whilst travelling independently and with time constraints.
What's in this post:
Tour vs independent travel?
It is worth noting that we now mainly travel independently. I do all the planning and logistics as well as all the booking. Of course, we do join day tours and excursions to get the most out of certain attractions, but generally, we do it all on our own. It hasn’t always been like that though. In fact, our first three trips (China, Thailand and Argentina ) were all booked through Rickshaw Travel.
They offer bite sized itineraries that you can use to create your own full two week adventure. These provided us with the perfect combination of flexibility over where to go and what to see, whilst being safe in the knowledge that someone with experience was actually sorting out all the important stuff. And once in the country we travelled on our own following the itinerary they had laid out for us. It was definitely a great introduction into travelling and I’m glad we used them when we first started out.
Braving Independent Travel
As our travels progressed however, we found that the hotels weren’t quite what we wanted, or the itinerary didn’t quite meet our needs. There are other more expensive options such as Audly Travel that will fully personalise the itinerary for you, however, I refuse to pay the kind of money they ask for which is why when it came to planning Brazil, I did it all myself.
It was terrifying, but equally really rewarding. Not only did I spend longer planning the trip and learning about the country, we also discovered local tours we wouldn’t otherwise have come across and when it all came together it felt totally amazing! Below are my tips for booking your own epic adventures!
Where to go
Seems like an obvious question, and maybe you know exactly where you want to go. If you are anything like me though, there are probably 100 different places on your bucket list and at least a dozen of those are fighting for the top spot.
Maybe, also like me, you have a partner you need to convince. I couldn’t ask for a better companion than Doug when it comes to travelling, however, he is an absolute nightmare to get commitment from. Whereas I am spontaneous and impulsive, he is reflective to a point of agony. It takes anywhere between 4 months to a year to get him to agree on our next big adventure, and it takes a lot of selling!! (Good job I work in sales or else we would never have been on half the journeys!).
In a way though, because I have to create a proposal, which includes a Power Point with all the destination highlights as well as a spreadsheet with a breakdown of costs, I find I will go through 3 or 4 countries before we get to our final choice. In fact, sometimes, I give up and just go on my own without him like I’m planning to do with Sierra Leone!.
So how do I narrow it down?
- I always have a long list in my mind so I write them all down and have a quick Google. I look mainly at two things: 1. Pictures. 2. Top 10 Things to do in said country. That very superficial overview generally gives me a feeling which helps me narrow it down.
- At this stage I check the Government website to check they are safe destinations to travel to. No point getting excited if it’s automatically going to be a no go.
- I then visit the travel company websites to let them sell me the idea of each of those countries. After all, they should have the best pitch as they are looking for paying customers. My go-to websites to search are Rickshaw Travel, Audley Travel and Wild Frontiers (Wild Frontiers in particular have some amazing looking Group Tours that I am seriously considering!). They do a great job of giving me a flavour of what to expect. This where I start prepping Doug by “throwing ideas out there”. He undoubtedly vetoes a few which narrows it down further.
- Normally by this stage I have decided on my favourite so I start watching all the Travel Vlogs I can find on that particular country (Kara and Nate is a great one to follow) as well as reading any blogs or seeking out any TV programs or movies about the place.
By this stage I’ve hopefully picked the country with a generic nod of agreement from Doug so I can start delving further.
It’s now time to create an itinerary
Country selected it is now about building an itinerary. This follows a similar process to picking the country.
- First, I look at all the published destinations for that given country and any that look appealing I mark down on a map. I also look at any hidden gems or areas that may not be particularly touristy and make a note of them too.
- This list is generally far too large for 2 weeks’ worth of travel, however, since I tend to find cost and transport do most of the eliminating for me I proceed to look at how viable each option is.
- As well as having everything laid on a map I also start putting the data into Excel to include date of arrival, city, number of nights (we like to stay a minimum of 2 nights in each location, ideally 3 to allow us to explore, however, there are sometimes some exceptions), cost of hotel, things to do and cost of it all.
- Cost of hotel at this point I take as an average. I’ll have a quick look on TripAdvisor for hotels with a 4 ½ star reviews or higher and I get a sense of what kind of price points come up within the first 30-40 listings. I will take that as an assumption of cost.
- I will also have a quick look at what kind of activities are available and again roughly the cost. Neither the hotels nor excursions I include at this point are the final ones, but it helps me build a picture.
- I then look at how I can get from A to B and again what the cost is and how long it will take. For example, when we were in Vietnam we really wanted to visit Sapa, however it would have involved going North from Hanoi to then proceed South and would have eaten up a day into our holiday just travelling. However, Phong Nha, which is less known, offered a similar remote experience (but less touristy which was a bonus) and would give us the chance to continue our journey south without losing a day. It also meant we could stop at Hue, where we wanted to see the abandoned water park, which was also cheaper than going to Sapa. As it happens, it ended up being the favourite part of my trip!
- When looking at transport I consider flights (I use Google flights), bus, train, boat and private transfer. It isn’t just time and money I consider but also comfort. Whereas I relish the idea of a sweaty bus ride with locals carrying chicken cages it is Doug’s idea of hell. And marriage is about compromise!
Narrowing it down
By this stage, as well as realising I have 30 days worth of destinations written down I’ve probably also realised that some seem a little too complicated to get to, or are too expensive, whilst others just fail to grab my interest. At this stage I reduce the list down further to the ones that make sense and I prepare to make my final pitch!
Power Point and Excel ready, either one of two things comes out of my “pitch” to Doug. I’m either starting from scratch with another country, or he has helped me narrow down the final destinations so I can cram it into two weeks.
When to go
I’m lucky in that I have a good idea of when I can and can’t take time off at work as I’m in charge of my own diary and Doug doesn’t really have any restrictions. So when we go is based on the information I can find as to the best time to visit and fitting it around my work commitments. We like to avoid the high season and we also want to avoid the worst of the weather, so we tend to visit on the shoulder season. This may mean it’s a bit colder, or that the chances of getting wet are a little higher, but as of yet, it hasn’t dampened our trips too badly.
There’s only really been one time that the weather has properly put a stop to our plans. We were in El Chalten, in Argentina, and we had to endure torrential rain which made it impossible to do anything. And because it was the shoulder season hardly anything was open. It has rained on other occasions, but never to the degree that we haven’t been able to get out and about. It didn’t even manage to dampen our stay on a desert island in Brazil!
To decide when the best time to go is, I first of all look at one of those trusted Travel Agency websites that I mentioned at the beginning, to see what they recommend. I then exclude any months that are a no go with work and figure it out with what’s left. I read as many articles and blogs and reviews for that location from people who have travelled at that time, and as long as on the whole they have had a good time we brave it.
We are big fans of the shoulder seasons as it does mean prices are cheaper, there are less people, and generally there is a lot more last minute availability on tours, transport and hotels, which gives us more flexibility to make changes once we are in the country. It also gives us greater opportunities to interact with locals.
One mistake I did make however was not checking the Chinese holidays when we went to Vietnam and our trip to Hoi An coincided with a Chinese National Holiday. We could not move!! Worthwhile checking what other countries contribute significantly to that destinations’ tourism and check their holidays too!
First things first: flights
Once I have the dates we book the flights. Fluctuation in prices between days can make a big difference so we get these booked and then work to those dates. I personally use Google Flights to get a feeling for price and timings. Although there are generally cheaper options than we end up choosing, we do like to avoid layovers and like to make sure the timings are convenient (overnight!). Reducing the amount of layovers makes a significant difference to the carbon footprint of the journey but also has the added benefit of keeping Doug happy. That, and extra legroom seats!
One location at a time
Once the flights are booked and I have a time frame to work with, I start planning every destination one at a time: what hotel, how to get to the it, and what there is to do in the area. I do like to plan, more so probably than others who may like to freewheel it a bit more. There are two reasons why I plan as much as I do: to know how much it’s going to cost and spread the cost accordingly; and because we like to get as much done in those two weeks as we possible can, and that does require some fine logistics! However, we always have enough time to explore and get lost as well. It’s all about finding the balance!
Finding the hotel is the most time consuming part. We like to avoid big international hotels and instead like to stay in local B&B type hotels that offer a good level of comfort without breaking the bank. For Vietnam and Cambodia we set a budget of £40 a night which provided us with really charismatic accommodation, the warmest of welcomes and really comfortable stays. We had a mix of hotels, B&B’s, a Farmstay and even a couple of very upmarket hotels (we were in disbelief that £40 could get us quite so much luxury!). Some of those stays didn’t even break £30 a night!
My search happens on Tripadvisor. I filter by Traveller ranked, select the amenities that are required (Aircon and WIFI) and set the price guide £20 above our budget. I then read! And I read between the lines! I pore over the 5 star, 4 star, 3 star, 2 star and 1 star reviews. And I ignore the ones where I feel the complaints are petty, but I also pay attention to small mentions that are concealed in the highly rated reviews.
Avoid the scams!
As an example, it was very hard to figure out what were good hotels and what were not in Vietnam as it soon become apparent that every review was 5 star and that 99% of reviews had been completed at checkout having been told “If you write a good review for us now we will give you 10% off your bill”. Of course they were glorious reviews! Read a good selection, check out other traveller photos (not the professional ones!) and get a sense of what that hotel feels like.
It would take me 1 or 2 evenings of research for each location, but it was worth it. We’ve not had a single complaint about any hotel booked using this process. Not in Brazil, nor in Vietnam nor in Cambodia.
Once I have agreed on the hotel I look at the various prices available on Tripadvisor and Booking.com and then I contact the hotel directly to see what their price is. More often than not it is lower than booking through a website as they have to pay a referral fee. So not only is it cheaper for us, but if they are smart they won’t quite give us the full discount and they will keep a little extra profit for themselves (hence setting the budget higher for search purposes as we tend to get it back).
What to do
I like to get a sense of what there is to do so that I know how long we would want to stay but also whether we need to make sure the departure from that particular town needs to be after a certain time. We may not get round to booking any of the things I search for, but it does help shape our time in each city.
One thing we always like doing though is booking a food tour for our first night. We generally land early in the morning, get 2-3 hours sleep and then head out exploring ready for an evening food tour. Firstly it gives us a reason to stay awake, secondly it generally takes you off the beaten path, and thirdly, you get a true immersion into the culture, giving you the confidence for the rest of the holiday. (And it may help you avoid a few faux pas!).
We are now also fans of photography tours, not only do they help us capture some amazing photos, but we end up leaving the tourist trail behind, which is what we both love doing. All the touristy stuff we can do on our own, and we do wander aimlessly a lot purposefully trying to get lost. That did involve us being faced with a junky who had a needle hanging out his arm in HCMC though (but that’s a story for another day)! It is also good to get involved with some local tours , particularly historical tours where you need someone to tell the story. The Cu Chi Tunnels would never have been as good without the guide we had that day. As a veteran of the war who had fought in Cu Chi he was really able to bring the reality of what happened to life.
I don’t usually book anything until a week or two before going (unless it is somewhere like Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam or Auschwitz that get booked up months in advance) however, I never stop researching as I always stumble across little gems when I least expect it!
Another important factor is how to get from A to B whilst minimising time wasted sitting on transport vs cost. I wouldn’t be opposed to overnight buses and trains, however, they are a no go for Doug (mainly because he is very tall and they don’t typically offer much room). In Vietnam we used a mix of onward transport methods: two flights; one mini bus ride which included a couple of touristy stops; a road trip on a scooter and a taxi.
Figuring out the best way is easy thanks to all the information that is available on the internet. Someone will have written about it, it’s just a matter of asking Google the question “How do I get from A to B”. Google will know!
Do they have Uber?
At the same time we also research how to get around in the particular city. We mainly walk, but we also like to rent bikes, and we also like to get an understanding of the public transport. How do trains, trams and buses work? We like it when they have Uber (or Grab like in Vietnam), as it takes the hassle out of negotiating and you know the price before you get in. You don’t even need to exchange money either and because you pop in to the the app where you want to go there are no language misunderstandings!
Of course, getting on local transport does give you a chance to immerse yourself in the local culture. We used the boats in Bangkok to get around the city which gave as a chance to leave the other tourists behind and travel with and like the locals. Sometimes it doesn’t work out though. Using the bus in HCMC we managed to get off 30 minutes before our actual stop and in Rome we got completely lost on the trams. However, these moments are also part of the travel story and lead to finding areas you may otherwise never stumble across!
The boring stuff
That just about sums up everything that goes into planning the trip. As you can see, it is actually pretty straightforward. If you like to feel organised like me, then it will take you sometime to get everything booked and researched, but that is part of the appeal and the process, and it really gives you a chance to get excited!
Of course, you also have to think about the boring stuff too, such as visas, immunisations, and local currency. The Government website is a great tool for figuring out everything that is needed. Not only will it give you details on the VISA requirements, but it will also link through to the health department and will give you information about currency, ease of getting cash out and ease of exchanging in country (and any scams that may exist).
We have become rather lazy when travelling through Europe, never bothering to have any cash on us and simply taking money out when we get to our destination. TIP! Always have a little bit of the local currency, even if you only have the chance to buy it at a terrible exchange rate at the airport. We didn’t bother doing this when we went to Argentina only to realise our bank cards didn’t work in most banks and that the withdrawal limits were tiny! It was a very stressful first day!!
Turning 25 days of holiday into 49!
I hope some of the above information has been useful in helping you book your next adventure. There are of course many benefits of booking through a tour company, and there are tours to suit every individual’s needs and that cover every country you could possible want to visit. However, if you want to be in control of your own adventure (and save a significant amount of money!), then give it a go!
As for how to balance work and adventure? I only use holiday to travel and I make every day count! We make the most of every bank holiday and always make sure our 2 week trips include three weekends. Suddenly, 25 days of holiday (working days) becomes 49 days abroad!
And if you like short breaks you can make that even more. You could turn 25 days of holiday into 25 weekends abroad which would give you 75 days abroad (tried it, it does get expensive)! Don’t waste your time off, use it wisely and you can feel like a true adventurer without sacrificing the one thing that pays for it!
Get in touch
I’d love to hear what you think of the above advice so please do get in touch! Let me know what travel adventures you are planning. And if you have any tips you think I’ve missed out, do comment below so everyone can read them and take them on board.