London’s Tube reminds us to “mind the gap” so that we may get from St. Pancras to Green Park with our life and belongings intact so we can enjoy a soft serve with Flake as we stroll to Buckingham and then through St. James’ Park. The gap between the train and the platform is obvious; we see it. But gaps exist everywhere and are not acknowledged. Currently I am experiencing a watercolor gap. I’m teaching myself how to paint and have watched many beginner tutorials on YouTube, but they all start with painting a picture, and the host starts painting away describing his technique while the brush disappears and reappears on the screen with fresh paint. The gap is what happens off-screen: What kind of paint is he using? How much water does he use? Is he blending colors? This is common knowledge and routine to him, but not so much for me. I would really like to know the paint to water ratio. Even though I paint pictures anyway and am developing my own unique “style”, I know that there’s a lot I’m missing.
This is true for traveling. There are those who want to get away but just aren’t sure how. Let’s be honest: planning a trip can be daunting and for many travel is limited to a finite amount of time and is a big investment. How can they best spend their time and their money to gain a priceless experience? Fortunately there are many resources out there to help a budding voyager get from point A to any where on the map.
I am fortunate enough to be from a family that values traveling. I have clear memories of reading the AAA hotel and dining guides like novels, my mom teaching me how to read a map, and many family adventures that allowed me navigate new places. I learned to make the most of small towns and conquer big cities. However, it wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I felt like I was a traveler. In 2010 my friend Jessica and I decided to hike the Cotswold Trail in England. I had been overseas once before for a school trip, but I didn’t have to do anything for that except show up. This trip required research and preparation. It was daunting; it was intimidating; it was empowering. That trip taught me two things: how to do it and that I could do it.
Here are a few tips that I hope can close the gap between wanting to get away to actually going:
- Know Thyself. What do you enjoy doing? What do you want to see? Experience? How far are you willing to push your comfort zone? What is the purpose of your trip? What is your mobility? When Jessica and I decided to go on a hiking trip overseas, we had to assess our comfort level. We knew we were going to be out in the boondocks where we might get lost and need help, and to mitigate our nervousness, we decided that we did not want to face a language barrier. Hence, England. England is a hiker’s paradise; there are a multitude of trails spanning the country. We knew that we would be hiking for about eight days, and since we are not hard-core hikers, we chose the Cotswolds. In the Lonely Planet guide to British Hikes, the Cotswolds were ranked as “moderate” (which does not equate to the American meaning) and that we could hike from pub to pub (and we earned our ale). The Cotswolds also appealed to our love of all things British: sprawling countryside tucked with little villages and steeples; hedgerows and sheep; charming stone houses with thatched roofs; cosy pubs with hearty chowders and oversized utensils; English breakfast replete with broiled tomatoes, mushrooms, and beans on toast. Because we knew our abilities and what we wanted to get out of the trip, we had a great time.
- Know Thy Destination. The key word here is research. It bears repeating: research, research, research. Learn the lay of the land. If you are going to a new city and need to figure out where to stay, look up the sights you want to see on Google Maps. Search the directions from one sight to another. Find out how far it is and look at the car mode, the public transportation route, and how far it is to walk. If there are different neighborhoods, read up on them. Use this information to help determine where you want to stay, what kind of transportation you need, and what kind of experience you want to have. Where ever you decide to stay, read the reviews. They not only tell you if that place is going to be a good fit for you, oftentimes reviewers will share places they enjoyed eating, how they got around, what to see, and other helpful tips. Jessica and I needed to learn how to get from London’s Heathrow airport to Bath and back again for a couple of days in Town. We read up on information about Heathrow and the English rail system. We learned that the Heathrow Connect train would take passengers free of charge to Paddington Station. From there we could buy a train ticket to Bath. We also researched train stops near the end of the trail so we could get back. Since we needed to get back to Heathrow and wanted to use the Connect again, we booked our hotel in London near Paddington. Paddington is also a major Tube station and allowed us to get any where we wanted to go. On the hike we had maps, a compass, and the little pink Cotswold bed and breakfast guide. (We called a day ahead to make reservations based on how far we wanted to hike the next day. We went in the off-season; I wouldn’t recommend this approach in the summer.)
- Know Thy Budget. This is huge. How much money do you have to travel and what do you want to spend it on? Again, research is key here. If you are planning a trip, start looking at how much airfare is, the going rates for hotels, transportation, and the cost of things in general (for example, you can go to TripAdvisor and look up restaurants in your destination, read their menus and look at the cost of food and drink). Start doing a realistic estimate of how much it’s going to cost you and think of the things you might want to buy. Then start saving. Jessica and I had ten months to plan for our trip. Looking at airfare, bed and breakfasts, transportation, food, and the supplies I had to buy beforehand (boots, a pack, hiking clothes, special socks), I estimated what I would need, divided it by ten, and I saved that much more extra each month. When all was said and done, I didn’t need as much money as I thought I did, but my trip was paid for ahead of time, I didn’t have to worry about finances during the trip, and I learned that I could save for travel. On the trip Jessica and I didn’t live large. We found ways to stretch our pounds: we shared a room and split the cost, B&Bs provide breakfast, and we found a clean budget hotel in London. But we had everything we needed, and when I found a hand-crafted wooden clock made from the wood of a yew tree by a local craftsman, I bought it.
- Know Thy Resources. We live in a great time for travel. We have the internet, Pinterest, Uber, and Airbnb. Traveling has never been easier, but you have to know where to look. One of my favorite things lately is to google flights. Literally, type in “flights from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg” and google will pull up the cheapest flights for you. If you go to the calendar, you can see the cheapest flight everyday for months. How cool is that?! You cannot book through Google, but you can go to the airline’s website and book there. Pinterest is not only for arts and crafts; it also allows you to get crafty with your travel plans. Type in your destination into the search bar and all kinds of articles about that place will pop up– even for places as far flung as Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Uber was a life-saver in New York during peak taxi hours on a Friday night, and can easily get you to where you want to go. And Airbnb has revolutionized the way that I travel. Trips that would have been out of my budget because of hotel costs were made feasible by Airbnb. I stayed with a couple on the Upper West Side in Manhattan for $76 a night– unheard of in that city. The hubs and I stayed in apartments in London, Paris, and Rome, where we had a kitchen and laundry facilities for way less money than a hotel. I have used it in Savannah, St. Paul, Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC. Next month I am staying in a room in Budapest for only $43 a night– and it includes breakfast. Again, though, the key word is research. Make sure the place will suit your needs and location and read the reviews. If it doesn’t feel right, then don’t book that particular place.
So here they are, some of my tips for planning a trip. Travel can be daunting, but it is also a great time to spread your wings, challenge yourself, and see the world.
Readers, what are your travel tips?