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