4.5 Months Abroad: The Planning Phase

A travel-planning-novice attempting to plan for semi-long term travel.

A few weeks ago, I was ecstatic to have made official airline reservations. I knew, I would leave SFO on March 18th, and would return on August 1st. That’s about all I knew. I realized, I really have very little experience in planning for this length of a trip. Immediately I thought about, where do I want to go? For how long? Do I need visas? How is transportation in the country? Should I book ahead, or just show up? What’s the weather going to be? And more, and more. With over 130 blank days I felt a bit overwhelmed on how I should tackle planning. It’s a bit of an awkward length of time. Not so short that I feel confident pre-planning everything, but not long enough to just wing it the whole time. I needed semi-structure. As a compulsive research-overplanner, the thought of “just showing up” causes a bit of panic. Not because I’m not flexible, but because I worry I’ll land, in say Bali, in July and every decent place to stay in Ubud is booked up. Or if I need to take a train from Yogyakarta to Surabaya, but all trains are full. What if I had only planned a bit in advance?

And truth be told, I LOVE research and planning. Like finding that perfect hidden bed and breakfast, away from the chaos of the city that makes my stay in Kathmandu infinitely better than had I just stayed any-old-place. But there’s balance to be had. Planning the whole trip down to every detail would probably induce more anxiety than just showing up, or booking a week out of my next destination.

So, now that I have a rough plan, here’s how I got it:

1. Buy tickets to/from Asia. I only did this first because I was booking with miles (more on that in a later post) and was worried my dates wouldn’t be available if I waited.

2. Write down where I know I want to go, and read up on where other people recommend (guidebooks/forums).

3.Determine a reasonable weekly budget and Put together a VERY rough itinerary and time line.

4. Research practicality of said itinerary and likely re-work it a dozen times (I think I’m on draft 13), including weather, visa (re-entry/time allowances), costs and transportation issues. For example, I’m using Air Asia for most flights, it’s my LC airline while in the area, and they’re based in Kuala Lumpur, and thus, I’m using that as a sort of hub, along with Bangkok. I ended up cutting probably 20% of the places I wanted to go because I didn’t want to spend every other day on a bus/train. That included a fair bit of sacrifice, but ultimately I know I can always come back, and that this way I’ll enjoy where I do go much more.

5. Visas. Nothing would be worse than showing up in a country that requires a visa that you have to obtain before arrival. For the dozen or so countries I’m visiting, the majority are VOA (visa on arrival), but some aren’t.

6. Once I had a basic outline that made sense, I started looking more closely at each area, and writing down places I wanted to go, things I wanted to see, hotels that looked interesting, and of course, restaurant/street food recommendations. I’m really picky about where I eat. One of my greatest travel annoyances is the ubiquitous presence of western fast food chains. I’m far more interested in local street food, and find that exploring a country through its’ culinary heritage greatly enhances my experience. And I want to try as much and as many varied dishes as I can. This takes a bit of research, though in south east Asia, it seems your best bet is the local hawker center. Find lines, point at what looks good. Egullet, Chowhound, New York times are all great places to start. Then slowly, tapping into local food bloggers and what they eat. It’s a bit of work, but so worth it (and not to mention delicious).

7. Travel Insurance. Before you start buying domestic flights or making hotel bookings, make sure you’re covered in case (or when) something doesn’t quite go as planned. It’s an added expense, but it’s not so bad for the young and healthy, especially if you need an evacuation that would have cost you $100,000USD. Just be sure to check you’re policies coverages and limitations.

8. More research. Subtle tweaking, and finally making myself back away. I once spent 8 straight hours in front of my computer researching top picks of hostels in each city I was likely to visit. While I strangely loved it, most people don’t, and it’s probably not necessary. Unless you’re traveling in peak season, there isn’t much need to worry too much about availabilities. My main reason for such detailed research is that I’m on a budget, so I want to stay in the nicest place I can for the money I have. So I rely on things like free (and edible) breakfasts to help stretch my budget. Plus, I do really care about where I sleep, even if it’s just for a few nights. My accommodation and atmosphere is important to me, I don’t need upscale, but I do need clean.

This is as far as I’ve gotten. I have a basic schedule, with enough flexibility to encounter the inevitable, and enough structure to ease my over-planning mind. While it certainly will change again, I feel confident in the current shape this trip is taking.

Mid March-Early April: Nepal and Trekking in the Himalayas.

April: India (Rajasthan and Kerala)

May: Burma/Myanmar, Northern Thailand, Laos

June: Vietnam, Cambodia, Southern Thailand

July: Java, Bali, Malaysia, Hong Kong.

T-38 days!


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