It's a creekmore world

Planning the Family Travel Adventure to Asia

the COCK-pit of travel planning for Asia 2011
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My laptop says 2AM.  I’m not going to get enough sleep tonight.   Wide awake, I balance the over-heating laptop on my knees while I stretch for another book from the stack of Lonely Planets:  India, Japan, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Rough guide China.  (Nepal and Bhutan are in a box ready to be sent back to Amazon, unopened.  We eliminated those countries early on.)

On the screen, the browser has a half dozen Trip Advisor tabs open, and a few more with airline flight schedules on ctrip.com and travelzen.com.  A new android tablet next to me has kindle editions of China and Cambodia guides open to maps that I use.

The spreadsheet, where it all begins.

The phone buzzes with a new email from a hotel in the Gobi desert that won’t have room for us.  Dammit.  I adjust the spreadsheet (above) and compose the email to our next best choice.

Planning the adventure

Jiankou Great Wall
We like to travel intensely. The goal is to stay on the move, fill the time with adventure and see as much as we can.  (This post has pictures of many of the sites we hope to get to.  Right is the Jiankou Great Wall section considered one of the great hikes of the world.)

But it takes a lot of planning.  I always have to know the train or bus schedules in advance, exact closing times of museums, and the distance between attractions.  And of course, travelling with four is expensive, so we look for reasonably priced hotel, food and transportation.

I don’t plan to the minute, but I can usually predict what we’ll be doing within an a few hours.  Of course, there are always adjustments because of local opportunities and the problems of travel.

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Thailand
This trip, 36 days, is our longest ever and it’s even more important to think ahead.  I’ve put in at least a hundred hours researching, choosing and documenting our itinerary.  (Angkor Wat, Cambodia left.)

That sounds like a lot, and it is.  But for me it’s enjoyable.  I love the combination of research, communications, money and time planning.  And then the best part is we get to see if my plan works!  (It better work or we are screwed.)  Here is how I do it:

Phase One – Dates, Continents, and Countries.

If you are travelling on vacation, you can pick the place of your dreams, like we did with Peru, Italy and Mexico.  But this is partly a work trip, like our Middle East trip of 2009, and as such, there are only certain places that I can/need to go.  Fortunately they are some pretty cool places, and I can tack on some vacation time to get a little more flexibility.

Chiang Mai Elephant Center
We actually had to cancel this trip once already, last summer, because of stupid cancer.  But I was determined to prevent cancer from winning, and late in the chemotherapy I optimistically booked four tickets on United Airlines to Bangkok for this summer. I was even able to get two frequent flyer tickets because it was so far in advance. (Chiang Mai, Thailand, Elephant Center)

I chose Bangkok as our entry and exit point from Asia because it’s a great travel hub and, was as good a place as any to stage a Creekmore attack on Asia.

Bangkok, Royal Palace
By late winter it became clear that my work would be in Pakistan and China (in addition to Thailand).   It didn’t take long to throw Pakistan out as a family destination.  We take risks, yes.  But active military operations is a line we will not cross.   I will go to Islamabad on my own and the girls will have to do something else, presumably in Thailand.

China, however, is a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit.   That became the anchor of our trip.

Terracotta Warriors
By April, shortly after we were back from Peru, I finalized Thailand and Cambodia  to the mix.  I would have loved to see Vietnam, Nepal and India too, but it’s amazing how little time 5 weeks really is. We go fast, but not that fast.

Phase Two:  Cities, Flights and Schedule

Phase two is the most fun but also has the saddest moments.  It’s in this phase that I build a realistic day-by-day, city-by-city plan including transportation options (mostly flights, but sometimes trains and busses.)  This is where the spreadsheet emerges as my most important tool. I have a row for each day, and have columns for flights, cities and hotels. And I divide each day into 3 columns – morning, afternoon and evening. I fill in a rough daily plan.

Dragon's backbone Rice Terraces, Longsheng province
I generally use Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor to explore the activities and sights.    Lonely Planet is good for building the itinerary and identifying the best sights at a macro level.

Trip Advisor is the better tool when zeroing in on actual hotels and tours. I have, however, found some cool stuff in Trip Advisor that Lonely planet missed (or ignored) entirely.

Just as my excitement about the travel possibilities peaks, the plan inevitably becomes too expensive and long.   For example, in China I had also wanted to do Lijiang, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Pinyao, but they just didn’t fit.  We will do those next time.

Phase Three:  Locking down the reservations

At some point, the trip approaches and I know I have to get flights. The night I book flights is scary.  The plan only works as a whole, so to begin buying (mostly) non-refundable tickets one at a time is a gamble.  If one doesn’t work out, or I’ve made a mistake, it can really screw up the whole thing.  For this trip each of the four members of the family will fly 20 flight segments booked on 12 different tickets.

Li River, Yangshuo
I had a lot of trouble this time with my credit cards booking on various Asian airline websites.  And inputting everyone’s id and passports over and over is a pain in the ass.  (I put Emma’s old passport number on a few of the tickets mistakenly.  I hope they don’t give us a hard time. We’ll bring her old one and try to explain)

And then finally for each city I pour over hotel reviews, contact tour operators and drivers, and finally make the reservations.  I am always surprised at how many hotels are booked up.  Sometimes it’s easier to figure it out when you get there, but it’s a gamble we don’t often take.  It’s not so bad to have to find a hotel, but it wastes time, which is precious. It is often cheaper to make reservations once you are there, however.

And so I am very close to finishing the itinerary, and just in time. We leave tomorrow! I’ll post the day-by-day travel plan in the morning.

4 thoughts on “Planning the Family Travel Adventure to Asia

  1. Kim S

    I just stumbled upon your website today as I plan for our trip to Italy for summer 2012. We have a bunch in common…..I also have been in RX for cancer (of the thyroid kind). I have a hubby and a 10 year old son. My cancer was diagnosed when my son was 2 and when that happened I vowed to stop worrying about money and time and work and stupid other random small things. Hubby and I promised to take everyday and make it the best adventure ever. After my cancer went into full remission we planned our first trip to Ireland and N. Ireland. We spent 6 weeks there exploring the country. We had a blast. Our next trip will be to Italy. 3 weeks next summer. I loved your video of the hike on the Path of the Gods! That is on our itinerary as well! Hubby and I are both school teachers in our 40’s so we have all summer to adventure. We absolutely love Europe and the memories we make are ones we talk about everyday!! I would love to hear any advice you may have on Italy! Currently we have planned….4 nights in Tuscany and 4 nights in Umbria for the medieval hill towns, 4 nights on the Amalfi coast (maybe Positano) and 4 nights in Rome. We will save Florence and Venice for a northern Italy and Austria trip the following summer. Your blog inspired me and made me smile. Keep fighting! F%$# Cancer!!!

  2. Elizabeth Atalay (amomknowsbest.com)

    Wow, what a fantastic post, and website! This is going to be my new spot to vicariously travel, and dream of doing the same with my family. Thanks for sharing and re-ignighting my wanderlust! My husband and I went to Positano a few years ago, and pulled into Pompeii when we saw the signs and realized we were passing right by on our way from Rome, your kids may like it too. It was a fascinating stop. Positano is magical, although we stayed in a reasonable 3 star hotel, we opened our window to an incredible view. I can’t imagine a bad place to stay there. Enjoy!!!

  3. David Post author

    Oh yes! We tried to do too much at once in Italy and should have stayed either north or south of Rome as you are doing. I spent a lot of time trying to get the family to Stromboli for the night walk to the live volcano. It sounded great, but it’s best done in the summer because of the ferry schedules.

    And we missed Pompeii – it’s a lot farther from the AMalfi coast that it looked. I was bummed about that.

    But you can’t go wrong with Italy. It’s got so much. Enjoy your travels!

  4. David Post author

    And thanks for the encouragement! We obviously love to travel. THis one, the 36 day trip, will be our biggest. I’ll post the itinerary in a few hours and then we take off tomorrow morning for Bangkok.

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