Seems funny to say, but I think I enjoy planning a vacation as much as the vacation itself. And with so many great trips under our belts, my husband and I have developed a pretty solid planning formula. As I thought about this formula of ours, it reminded me of my kids’ favorite “fast food” spot, Subway, where each sandwich is made “assembly line” style. They start with the bread, move to the meats and cheeses, and then top it off with condiments and extras. Our travel planning follows a strikingly similar pattern.
I liken the two pieces of bread in a sandwich to the two legs of a roundtrip flight. Just as the sandwich makers at Subway start by asking you what type of bread you want, our trip planning always begins with booking the air. In my opinion, if you haven’t figured out how you’re going to reach your destination (or if you can even afford to get there,) there’s really no use making other arrangements.
In our family, my husband is the “flight guy” and keeper of all frequent flyer and travel reward accounts. It’s job priority #3, right under paying the bills and taking out the trash. Once we’re serious about booking flights, he kicks into research mode, relying on Kayak to check multiple carriers at one time. He’s a pro at manipulating Kayak’s various fare tools to find the best deals. Once we find a flight, he typically books directly through the airline as long as the fare is the same.
Another tip for longer-range flight planning is to follow Twitter feeds of services like Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel and Travelzoo, and to schedule fare alerts. On Kayak, you can set these up for specific travel dates, or broader timeframes, and receive multiple alerts for multiple destinations. Heck, I’ve got travel alerts for at least half my bucket list, so I can pounce on that awesome fare to Machu Pichu someday!
To me, this is the most delicious part – researching and booking our accommodations. Like the meat in a sandwich, the place you stay on vacation defines the overall flavor of the experience. It can be the difference between the trip of a lifetime and the trip from hell. Just as the taste of a tuna sandwich is distinct from that of a Reuben, a week-long stay at Paris’ luxurious George V will offer an entirely different experience than renting a cozy pied-a-terre in the Marais district. One’s not necessarily better than the other; they’re just different.
Once my husband successfully books the flights, I sink my teeth into the “meat of the trip” by checking out guidebooks from the library and combing TripAdvisor reviews for hotels (or VRBO for rentals.) For guidebooks, I like Frommer’s because it tends to have the best selection of accommodations in what I’d describe as our “comfortable-but-not-extravagant” budget range. That said, I like variety so I’ll look at whatever’s available.
I also research hotels on TripAdvisor to see what people have to say about them. While it’s important to take some TripAdvisor comments with a grain of salt, overall, I find the site to be an incredibly useful tool. I lean towards profiles that have lots of reviews, figuring that even if there are some “fake” ones sprinkled in, there are more than enough authentic ones to create a pretty accurate overall picture. I also look to see if there is some pattern to the negative feedback. If unsavory reviews relate to something I don’t care about (e.g. slow service at the restaurant), I ignore them, but if it’s something that means a lot to me (e.g. the rooms were dirty and smelled smoky), I’ll cross it off my list. You can usually tell the reviewers who are just being picky and have off-the-radar expectations.
As I find places I like, I go directly to their web site for more detailed information and photos, and send emails requesting availability and pricing. I never book online without having at least a couple of rounds of back and forth with the hotel to make sure the accommodation meets our needs, and I never, ever book a non-refundable room.
The Condiments and the Extras
If your vacation is like a sandwich, which sandwich do you prefer – turkey with a little mayo, or turkey with cranberry chutney, crumbled blue cheese, arugula, and a little Dijon? Now I have nothing against the plain turkey sandwich; it’s what I usually make for work when I’m in a rush. But all the time? How ho-hum! If I had my druthers, I’d take the other version any day of the week. That’s pretty much how I feel about traveling.
If I’m going to divert precious disposable income to travel half way across the globe, I’m not going to settle for an average experience. I don’t want to just enjoy French cuisine at a café along the Champs-Elysée; I want to spend time learning the technique, preferably from a jovial French chef in a 500 year-old Provencal farm kitchen. I don’t want to take a quick afternoon peak at Guatemala’s magnificent ruins at Tikal; I want to stay a night or two in the park and take a sunrise tour with a local archaeologist. You get the picture.
These are the add-ons to the “must-sees” that can elevate any vacation from “nice” to “the experience of a lifetime.” For me, it’s a way to dig deeper into a culture and have a more authentic experience.
I use a whole lot of different resources to uncover these more unique experiences. Guidebooks are helpful in this pursuit, especially Lonely Planet, which caters more to off-the-beaten path traveling. I also love prowling travel forums. Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor have particularly good ones. It’s amazing how many interesting people are out there sharing nuggets of wisdom that often don’t make it into the guidebooks. By asking questions or searching for specific businesses, you can find a gem of a tour guide, or learn that the shuttle service you were thinking of hiring has unreliable drivers.
Biting of More than You Can Chew
Of course, it is sometimes possible to overstuff the sandwich. In the never-ending pursuit of exotic adventures half-a-world away, we sometimes find ourselves yearning for the basic comforts of home.
On a trip to Germany a few years ago, we spent a very enjoyable, but long day visiting Bavaria’s fairytale castles and hiking around the region. We returned to Munich well after 9 p.m. with two exhausted, cranky, and starving kids. The hotel restaurant and those in the immediate neighborhood were closed. When we finally came across an open storefront, my daughters brightened. It was a Subway, and the turkey sandwiches we devoured hit the spot.