© Corinne and Noel Fenech 2019

Shots and Tales - Enabling Independent and Responsible Travel

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    Six Steps to a Well-Planned Trip

    A holiday starts the moment planning kicks off, looking up places, finding hotels, checking out things to do and where to eat. It is all part of the fun! Make sure you give yourselves ample time to enjoy your adventures to the full.

    For us, every trip starts with a dream, a budget and a good plan.  Though we carry out very thorough research, we are always prepared to ditch the plan and improvise as necessary.  Research is never wasted time, because even if we have to change plans, having a good idea of alternatives, saves precious time. Given that we travel for relatively short periods of time, have flight tickets booked in advance and allocated leave from work, we want to make sure that we make the best out of the time we have available.  Here's the six steps we follow to make our plans are as fool-proof as possible.

    1. Choosing a location

    First things first. Where to? This depends on…

    If we have more than two weeks available and we have been saving for it, then we definitely opt for long haul (outside Europe in our case)!  We start off by monitoring flights.  Secret Flying is a great starting point, and we also keep an eye on Emirates and Turkish Airlines to find flights that fit our budget and dreams.  At the same time, we check if the country we are eyeing has good weather for travelling at that time of the year. Another nice way to start this off is by looking at Google Earth and wondering, or for the old school fans, by spinning the globe and trying our luck.  Once we find the country, we figure out from which airport we will be taking our flights. Sometimes it is wiser (and cheaper) to land in one airport and take off from another.  This way we ensure that we do not waste time visiting the same place twice. 

    For short haul flights (European trips or for trips where we catch one plane that takes no longer than five hours), Ryanair is great.  We have sometimes used also WizzAir, AirMalta (this is our national airline) and Lufthansa.  With short haul flights, leg space is not much of an issue and the airline staff screeching "refffresssshhhhmentsssss" is ok to put up with, when the next destination is just a couple of hours away.  Our choice of location for short haul depends mostly on the time we have available.  We usually choose flights that leave in the evening on a week day, so that we can save on precious leave, and arrive as late in the evening as possible back to Malta so that we will have another day at our destination.

    • How much time do we have available?

    • What is our budget?

    • When will we be travelling?

     

    We know! Budgeting is the boring stuff, but hey, we have to work hard and we need to ensure that we have enough money to take us there and bring us back home. So, every month we save some money to make the next trip a reality.  This serves two purposes.  The first being that we do not find travel expenses unrealistic, and secondly that  from the month after we are back from our travel experience, we allow ourselves to start dreaming and planning again.  When travelling we usually tend to opt for mid-way budget, not dirt cheap or trying to get everything (or nearly) for free, but not luxury as the other extreme. We also avoid multi-country travels so that we can get to know the country in quite some detail whilst saving on international flights. Transport options are often very interesting, thus we make sure that we take care of all the travel to and from each place ourselves.  When we decide that it is wiser to take a tour, we tend to travel to the tour start destination ourselves and join a small group of like-minded people.   Given that we are after real experiences, whilst being fair to the people whose country we are visiting, we make sure that, as much as possible, the money we spend goes into fueling the local economy and businesses.

     

    2. Allocating a Budget

     

    3. Book International Flights, Sketch an Itinerary and Plan Internal Transport

    With the destination decided and budget underway, the next steps are to book international flights, sketch the itinerary and plan internal transport.  These three steps are often intertwined and overlapping.

    It is important to understand which are the best spots to visit in a country, and one good way of understanding where the interesting places are, is by looking up tour group programs. One can still eventually opt for off the beaten path, but tour group programs give a good idea of itinerary length and main stream attractions. If we find that there are enough things to do within our time frames and in the country we are looking at, then we book international flights. 

    Now that our mind is set on the country, and on the arrival and departure airport, we turn our attention to sketching an itinerary. Since we do not like cities in general, we tend choosing to spend one to two nights on arrival in a city and then hop off to the next destination, whilst we also book the final night's sleep in a hotel close to the airport.  The rest of the time is all free. Having seen some sample programs and read as many online posts and blogs about the country as possible, we sketch an itinerary often planning two to maximum three nights in any one place. 

     

    Once we have a sketch of the places, we research transport between the locations we are interested in.  At this point, often the initial itinerary needs to change so that transport options are most convenient.  Sometimes, ease of travel does not equate to the distance but rather to the transport connections from and to each destination. We use excel sheets to sketch days and nights, listing where we will be spending nights and how we will travel between places. Once we are convinced of the sketches, we book any internal flights needed, and make sure that if we will be using trains or buses, these routes are operational and prices are affordable. 

    If plans are not concrete at this stage, free cancellation is very important, though we usually veer away from booking a place and then cancelling. We find it respectful not to cancel for no reason at all.

    Usually after having filled in the excel sheet, like a good husband and wife, we arrive at an amicable conclusion.  Be warned, there have been times where it took much more convincing! After all hotels are a big deal…until we realise that we will only be sleeping, showering and heading out asap!

     

    By now, international flights have been booked, we have a sketch itinerary and a good idea of how travel between locations will happen. The next step for us is to book accommodations.  Most of the time we prefer to book the accommodation beforehand as much as possible, with free cancellation so that when we are on location we do not waste time looking around.  

     

    We choose an accommodation location based on whether we will be driving ourselves or if it's wise to rely on public transport.  If we will not be driving ourselves, we make sure that the accommodation is close to public transport, to some good restaurants, and that it is located in a generally good neighborhood.  If, on the other hand we are driving ourselves, we can afford to choose a place that is about a thirty minute drive away from a good hub.  We use Hotels Combined to get a general feel of the places around, but then for placing the booking, we always tend to gravitate towards Booking and Agoda, given the trust we have in these brands. 

     

    Well, hey, we are a married couple, so we never ever agree on which accommodation we like best.  So, to take arguments out of the equation, we sit down, list and rate on a table the most important features we want in accommodations, and then decide while comparing our favorites. This list usually comes down to something like this:

    4. Choosing the Right Accommodation

     

    5.Planning the Days in Detail

    If you love spending time by the pool sipping margaritas all day, you may want to skip this section.  We realised on our honeymoon trip to the Dominican Republic, way back in 2004, that vegetating by pools is not the thing for us.

    Now that the nights are planned and so is transport, we turn to the really fun stuff. What are we going to do during the days? 

    It is relatively easy for us to travel in Europe and with "roam like at home" data rates, everything is at our finger tips 24/7, so our plans do not need to be super detailed.  But, the scene changes when we’re going outside Europe, where the more detailed the plans, the better.

     

    At this stage of planning, blogs of fellow travelers come in handy, as well as TripAdvisor. We check out things to do and how to get there. This is where we sometimes find it better to choose day tours.  In Europe we have met with many ‘Free Walking Tours’ that make it very interesting. These people live on tips, so we never go on a free walking tour and expect not to tip. On the contrary we prefer to tip a bit above average depending on the knowledge, story-telling skills, efforts and genuineness of the guide.

    We start filling up our itinerary with links to events, prices, start times, landmarks we’d love to see, places we want to go to, and last but not least restaurants we want to eat in.

    Entry Visa requirements – For our fellow Maltese, since we do not have diplomatic missions all over the world, we contact the Ministry for Foreign Affairs to guide us.  We always find them very helpful!

    Currency – We check the currency (or currencies) that are used in the country we are off to. If it is possible to purchase currency from our home country, we order a minimum amount to get by.  We also check the ATM network of our destination to make sure that we will have availability to withdraw money using our VISA card as we do not like to travel with great amounts of cash.  Also, we take age old advice, not to exchange money nor withdraw at airports, because they have higher charges.

    Get Health Shots in order – We always visit our local immunization clinic (with whom we have gotten to first name basis), to understand our health risks.  There are also two very good sites which we also reference with; CDC and Fit for Travel.  We also visit our GP so that we take with us general medicine just in case we need it.  We usually come back with the medicine pack full, but there were times when we needed medicines and particularly from China we came back with empty packs as we had to use everything up to the last pill!

    Learn Basic Language - I am a geek to languages. So, I learn a few basic words in the local language.  It works magic.  I use Youtube and listen to videos as I am driving to work in the morning.  It makes the drive nicer and I really learn a lot!  Top things I like to learn are; hello, thank you, sorry (because we make many cultural gaffs), numbers, this food is great and directions (left, right, straight ahead).

    Scams - It’s not great fun, but we also read all about the scams in the country we are going to visit.  This is not to put us off in any way.  After all scams exist everywhere, but reading all about scams has saved us several embarrassing moments and often a great deal of money.

    This is our SUPER TIP.  We create a document that acts as our guide book when we are away.  In it we take note of:

    • Currency rates (in the form of a table, so that we know how much things cost)

    • Maps of; ATM machines; restaurants; hotels; transport stations; and attractions

    • Photos of official Taxis, so that we can recognise them

    • Photos of the places we want to go to.  This comes in handy when showing people whom you cannot communicate with in language, where you want to go to

    • Information about the places we are going to, including entrance fees, trek routes as well as general information (example history), which we like to read before entering an attraction, so that we can appreciate the place better.

    • Communication rates, using our Sim card and using a local Sim card

    • Embassy address and contact details, plus a copy of our passports

    With this document we do three things.  Print a copy whilst using the backside of the papers for taking our journal notes, send a copy of the document by email to our email addresses, in case we need to access it remotely and print a copy for our family to keep abreast with our adventures.

     

    Here's some things we look out for when travelling to more exotic destinations:

    6. Long Haul Preparations Checklist

    With all the plans laid out, we are armed and ready to head off to our adventure, always making sure that we enjoy every moment of it whatever happens!