Once upon a time, I posted a travel checklist that covered all the details I think about before I go on a trip. It was about managing my life so I was able to actually leave for the vacation! Now I’ll turn my attention to actual trip planning. Everyone has such different priorities, tastes, limitations and budgets when they travel. My choices are individual to me, but I’ll run through my thinking process. The way I see it, except for the super-rich, everyone has to balance convenience and cost. Do I want to travel cheap or travel smooth? I am always juggling the two.
Let’s say I have decided on a destination and made all my arrangements for taking time off work, cat care, and so on.
There are 6 things I spend a lot of time planning before I travel:
- Attractions and Shows
- Record Keeping
I’ll throw in the disclaimer that I have never taken a cruise or a package tour, stayed at an all-inclusive resort or travelled in an RV! For the past 5 years, Rom and I have travelled to Toronto and London each year. In addition, we made one trip to Paris and one to New York. Making 12 trips in 5 years means that travel itself has become old-hat, and we have a lot of Standard Operating Procedures! The following are related to self-booked, independent travel.
I keep 4 questions in mind:
- What are the necessities? (shoes for walking, a warm coat in November)
- How much can I manage? How much do I want to manage?
- How do I want to look?
I can manage one checked full-size wheeled suitcase (24”) and a carry-on backpack (large 34-litre size). On my last trip, my suitcase weighed 14 kg (31 lbs.) I know I can maneuver that much, even on stairs and in subways if I have to. So I don’t choose to travel lighter. It also gives me some room to buy a few gifts and souvenirs. Almost all of my vacations are to just one city / one hotel. When we travelled from London to Paris and back last year by Eurostar, it was not so easy. If I were making a grand tour, I would consider going carry-on only.
Because I like to travel to bigger cities and go to museums, art galleries, concerts and plays, I do like to dress non-touristy and have a variety of looks to choose from. I would not wear cargo pants, a windbreaker and sneakers in St. Germain 🙂 Call me vain.
I have never brought a second suitcase or paid for an over weight limit bag. However, I used to travel with an extra camera bag for a digital SLR and accessories. I gave it up and now travel with a super-zoom pocket digital camera, because the size/weight/awkwardness of the camera bag was too much. I do carry an empty purse or tote bag in my luggage and use it when I go out for the day.
I live in a somewhat remote area, and getting anywhere is half the battle. We do have an international airport, train and bus service which enable us to connect to anywhere. Other than the nearby Maritime provinces, we fly to all of our destinations. Just for fun, I checked out the logistics of getting to Toronto (1800 km or 1120 miles):
- By air. 2.5 hours each way. Current prices are $1150 for 2 adults (direct) or $960 for a budget airline with a short stop. That includes baggage fees and prepaid seat selection.
- By car. Did this once with own car (not rental). 20 hours driving. Required overnight stay en route. The return trip cost $995 for gas, tolls, 1 night cheap motel each way, meals and coffee stops.
- By train. 28-29 hours each way. Cost $872 for 2 adults, plus meals. Very generous free baggage allowance.
- By bus. 25-26 hours each way if best connection is made. Cost $706 for 2 adults, including luggage fees but not meals.
I never have more than two weeks off to travel, so I don’t even consider travelling 24 hours, ten times longer than the flight time (besides, I could get to Sydney, Australia in 26 hours!) I am all for paying the convenience fee of air travel and arriving alert and ready for a day and night on the town. Despite this, because I book the lowest economy fares and I use a cash-back credit card instead of an air miles card, I never get any free flights.
Still in the transport category is local, ground travel after I arrive. Using Toronto as an example again, the flat rate for a cab from the airport to downtown is about $50. There are shuttles for about $22/person. Meanwhile, there is a new train service for only $24 (2 adults) followed by a slog from the downtown train station to the hotel by subway or cab. Guess which we choose?
While we are in the city, we would never rent a car because public transit is excellent (same in London, Paris and New York). In most cities, we stay somewhere central, walk most places, and take the subway. However, in London we stay at an inexpensive airport hotel (£65) and buy Oyster cards (top-up fare cards for the Tube) to travel into the city daily. It takes an hour each way, but saves buckets on hotel costs. The last time we were there, we stayed 5 nights, and bought weekly all-access passes, which cost far less than the daily fares. We just had to pay attention to the time so we didn’t miss the last evening stop at the hotel at 12:20 a.m.! In each city, we look at subway maps and get an overview of the routes before we travel. I need to feel oriented to the map when I go somewhere! The one time we didn’t, in Paris, we came close to getting lost in a vast, isolated area late at night.
When travelling to cities, the airports are often distant from downtown which creates a dilemma: do you stay near the airport so it’s easy to get away when you leave, stay downtown near attractions but amidst the noise and haste, or stay somewhere in the suburbs where it is quiet and cheap?
I used to book inexpensive chain motels everywhere I went, because they are clean and sufficient. Now I prefer B&Bs because we can usually find centrally-located and charming rooms with wonderful breakfasts for the same or less cost. I am an early riser and I love breakfast! Call me squeamish, but I won’t share a bathroom with other travellers, except at a campground with shower stalls. So we have not booked rooms in hostels or student dorms. In NYC and Paris, we stayed at small independent hotels that served breakfast. In the past, on family trips, I have stayed in suites with kitchenettes (self-catering), shared cabins and campgrounds. I think the next time we stay in London, I will find an affordable place downtown on Trivago, and stay at the airport hotel on the last night to calm Rom’s nerves 🙂
As for amenities, even though I walk a lot when we travel (as much as 10 km a day), it doesn’t come close to my activity level at home where I do workouts most days. So if I can afford it, I like a place with a fitness room. I am 50/50 on hotel pools. Large hotels with nice pools are great, but I have been to some small motels with pretty sketchy-looking pool maintenance, so it is not a priority for me!
I will end by telling you about my best hotel pool experience. I was sent to Banff for a conference (poor me!) in the Canadian Rockies one November, and was even put up at the historic Banff Springs Hotel. The room was just average, but the hotel had a heated outdoor pool. My co-worker and I went for a swim, and a few minutes later it started to snow. So there we were, bathing in warm water on a cold night, surrounded by majestic mountains, with snowflakes dancing all around us. Unforgettable!
Next time: food, attractions, shows and…paperwork
Tell me how you like to travel!