I don’t know how much YOU know about this, but planning a trip has become a far more rewarding activity than it was only a couple, maybe three years ago.
You would say, well, we all have online maps in our palms now. Yeah, that helps. I can say with much accurateness that easy wi-fi was not as easy to find outside of the US (and that includes many a big city in Europe) a mere three years ago, in spite of us being well ahead in the iPod revolution. For instance, I’m not sure if I was the idiot (be kind if that is the case) but when I went to Barcelona some years ago, I couldn’t access their free public wireless network, no matter how hard I tried — I was standing right there beside the W signs and nothing, nothing happened. So yes, internet connection and digital guides do help a lot. But I’m talking about more than that. I’m talking about pre-travel, something that is not that dependent on mobility. I’m talking about content.
I think one of the reasons why I like to share my trips with you in this blog is because I have enjoyed so many good experiences that were made possible by kind people who shared them on the web just to help other travelers have a better value for their time and money in a place they are willing to know, but still don’t. It’s very hard to connect with the spirit of cities such as New York or Paris without having someone with whom you share some affinities to help you through the choices, and not many people have close friends in all the right places.
Now… I don’t know. I think it’s somewhat easier. We have Booking.com and TripAdvisor doing an amazing job at uniting and organizing the community of travelers around the globe for the noble cause of helping fellow tourists find and judge his possibilities for themselves, allowing them to understand how their needs and interests will be met at each place. We have bloggers. And I think we have more. We have local magazines online. Anyone who goes to NYC can type “10 best burgers nyc” on Google and find lists crafted by a variety of authors from blogs to Zagat to CBS. Have an idea, search it, you’ll easily know. Or do the opposite: read about an idea, search it, and decide if you’ll do it.
I think over the years I’ve become pretty good at planning trips packed up with details — I’ll tell you about some itineraries and you’ll think I did them in a week when in fact, I compressed them in three or four days (without rushing, of course — it wouldn’t make sense to brag if otherwise). I’ll share my innocent tricks with you, and pardon me if you feel they are obvious — I feel I have many friends who would find this extremely helpful, but maybe they’re just not very smart. These will work for a good bunch of places, especially urban destinations.
keep a Google Maps tab at your service at all times – the other must-have tabs are those relating to public transit information, such as bus schedules and subway maps. This is how you optimize your daily schedule.
if you have NO IDEA of what to do - it was like that for me when I went to Singapore last year — you don’t need to buy city guides anymore. Just type: things to do in [city of choice] on your favored browser and check out what the first ten results have to tell you. This will provide you with a fine beginning, but it is only the beginning.
check tips that come from many different types of sources – don’t limit yourself to advice coming from specialized websites, because you are likely to get mostly the very touristic information — they are still what is predominant on travel-oriented websites because tourists are not locals and therefore usually are more interested (or only have time, or money) to go to the most famous places and landmarks. Look for personal blogs instead of just the travel-oriented ones — see if you connect with the blogger and if you do, try their tips out. Check stuff like the fashion magazine’s culture and travel sections (here’s net-a-porter’s this week), entertainment sections on local news websites or, I don’t know, The Economist. Seriously, the Economist. Or Richard Quest’s Business Traveler on CNN. I also like to check the what to do section on hotels located where I’m going on the Jetsetter — that’s how I found out about the amazing Royce’ Chocolate and their delicious maccha nama chocolate in Singapore (and now I just found out they just opened a store in NYC!! go, New Yorkers, go! It’s fresh news, from less than two months ago. Madison and 53rd).
deciding where to stay - I don’t go any farther than Booking.com, but I always double check on TripAdvisor the guest’s opinions on the hotels I like the most and I ALWAYS check at the hotel’s own homepage if their rates are actually lower than those offered on Booking.com — often they are, so don’t skip this step unless you don’t care about your money.
do stuff you like – don’t just go see buildings and landscape. Do that too, but what else do you normally enjoy doing? Check the entire cultural schedule: the opera, the ballet, the classical and rock concerts, the plays that will be on while you are in town. I caught Simon & Garfunkel in Paris, and got an autograph from Paul afterwards; unforgettable. Think of jazz joints, cheese festivals, film festivals. Think of things you really wanted to buy but are very hard to find at home (if at all possible) such as, I don’t know, lavender honey, or really good and cheap foie gras. Go beyond spirits, chocolate and electronic devices…
if you do want to buy spirits and chocolate – at least while in Europe try to get them at the local supermarkets. It’s much, much cheaper than at the duty free shops.
after figuring out all the places you’d like to visit, do two things – find them on the map and check their websites. You must know their opening hours, closed days and free admissions/pay what you wish days (in NYC and Paris this might save you a fortune if you have the time to juggle your museum days according to their free admissions schedule). Have all this information clear in your head and start planning each day in a way that, if possible, you will not spend more than half an hour in your transportation mode of choice (including your own feet) from one place to another. Standard time spent on medium sized museums should be between two and three hours (see Guggenheim, MoMA, the Pompidou if you’re fast) and there is no limit for places like the Louvre or the Met.
try to insert your sightseeing (like: oh, there’s the Chrysler!) in your transportation schedule – like this: when you do your must-do walk up the 5th Avenue, stop for pictures at the Empire State, stop for pictures at the Chrysler, stop for pictures at St. Patricks Cathedral, etc. etc., arrive at MoMA.
no hesitation, make reservations – for EVERYTHING that is important to you, especially if there are no costs attached.
try to have a plan B for the cases when you miscalculate distances or the time spent on a particular place – see: Louvre. It can take many entire days… don’t give it less than four or five hours. You may have to skip a place on your original schedule and well, it’s nice to be able to still go there anyway at another time.
save the nicer meals for the evening – except if you have good reason for them to occur during lunch. Check the Michelin guide — even if you’re not into spending much — and all the specific local restaurant guides (again, search too in fashion magazines, business and news websites…). Look for your cravings (1o best burgers…). Don’t ignore market places… they are good and joyful choices for lunch.
there is no reason why you will exceed your budget on a trip – prices are sooo available on the internet. Do your research. Send emails. You can even decide what you will eat at most restaurants in large cities and know what the check will look like before even leaving for the airport. Remember: food, drink, gratuities, taxes, hotel, public transportation (calculate your trips per day to see what’s best: a three-day passport or purchasing each ticket at a time), admissions, purchases, plus 10 to 20%. This is what you’ll likely spend if you’re organized.
This is a lot of words, but hopefully an useful bunch of them. So, go plan your trip or something.