We are leaving soon for a month in Peru and Ecuador, including the Galapagos Islands ~ as usual, we are booking it all ourselves. This happens to be the question I'm asked the most, by the way, "How do you do that?" So I'll attempt an answer here ~
This is a different kind of trip for us ~ lots of outdoor trekking and hiking ~ so there's some prep to be done.
It's sort of a tough pack, too. We are starting with a week long cruise to the Galapagos Islands, so that's boat clothes and water shoes; and from there we shoot from sea level to 11,000 foot elevation of Cuzco, where we need warm mountain clothing and hiking shoes. As always, we are attempting to do it in just one medium sized suitcase each......
We are used to walking lots and lots when we travel, but good walking shoes that are kind to your feet all day long and are still comfortable after 10K aren't the same thing as hiking the Inca Trail kinda' boots. I want to thank our friends at the "Shoe Mill" (sort of like The Walking Company) in Portland, Oregon for all their help and advice.
For Peru, I ended up with these "Wave Walkers" by Clark; sort of a cross between tennies (which are insufficient for the task at hand) and hiking boots (which take up too much real estate in the suitcase). They are comfy, they have sturdy rubbery soles, they are waterproof, and best of all, they don't look goofy.
Same for clothing ~ our local Eddie Bauer Outlet store staff helped get us set up with their outdoor trekking line of clothing ~ it's called Travex ~ the kind that you can wash out in the sink at night and it dries by morning ~ but! At last they are making some of this that looks at least a little stylish. I don't really care to look like Mountain Woman, even when I'm in the mountains.
We've noted temps for each destination, and have a list of activities, so I've started my pre-pack, pulling out what I think will work for all of this.
And meanwhile, we are finalizing our itinerary.
This is our process for booking the perfect trip, all on our own:
Once we pick a destination, we start by reading everything we can get our hands on. Travel books, articles, blogs, Trip Advisor forums, etc. We follow other people's trips to see what they did, and why they liked it, or what they would do differently. We talk to people who've been there, ask about what they did and loved / and conversely, what they could have skipped, in hindsight, and why. I have much advice on what to skip in Japan, in case any one's interested.
First thing to do is check the expiration date on your passport. You can't get into most countries if it expires withing 6 months of your visit.
Early on we check to see if a visa is required, and how long that application process takes. They will need the final itinerary (exact dates coming into and leaving the country), so we can't apply for the visa till we are booked, but we don't want to get caught short of processing time.
We also check to see if special shots are required and how far ahead they must be obtained. I read that we needed just the one shot, Yellow Fever; and we were surprised that we could not get this from our Doctor, but have to go the County Health Department instead. Then Mr. C stepped in and, from his research, added Hepatitis A & Hepatitis B; Tetanus and Diphtheria; and he's picking up Malaria and Typhoid pills to take along, as well as altitude sickness pills (those would be for me).
(My band aid was hot pink.
But I didn't get a sticker at the end, even though I didn't cry.)
Now Mr. C starts to watch the airline ticket prices, so he has a feel for what's a good deal and what's not. We have the luxury of being flexible, so that makes it easier ~ leaving a day or two earlier, coming home a day or two later can sometimes make a difference of hundreds of dollars each ticket.
I start to compile a list of activities and sights to see in each location. We try to strike a balance between seeing what's most important when we travel, but not trying to take in every single thing, 'cause then you're just on the run and it all becomes a blur. So it's a prioritized list, and often something gets sacrificed for the sake of keeping a reasonable pace and being able to "soak up" the experiences we DO have.
I like the Eyewitness Travel books for this; and I draw from Patricia Schultz's book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die ~ A Traveler's Life List as "don't miss". I also have a couple of National G travel books Journey's of a Lifetime (500 of the World's Greatest Trips; 500 of the World's Greatest Travel Gems) that I look to for inspiration, as well.
I'm amassing quite a collection as we go along. I like having these as reference books once we get back and I start to catalog my photos and work on the blog stories, as I have all the pertinent facts at my fingertips. What year was that cathedral started? How many royal families have lived in that castle? Some of those key facts which didn't make it into my notes while traveling are @ easy reference in my Eyewitness books.
We always take a cooking class at some point in our destination country, so that falls to me to research classes that have not only high ratings, but also have a menu that we can re-create for our International dinner parties once we're back home.
Once we get an idea of how we're going to divide up the time slot, how long we will be gone, where's the most economical place to fly in to and depart from (not always the same thing), we find a good deal and book the airline tickets first.
From there we start to "shape" the trip. We sketch out how many days in each location in order to see and do what's caught our eye to see and do. This is where the flexibility of doing it ourselves really comes into play. We schedule an extra day at the beginning for jet lag recovery and to adjust to the time zone, for example. We might do the same mid-trip for a Laundromat Day. Or, if we're moving frequently for several segments, we might schedule an extra hang-out day following that.
This is all done in pencil, and it gets frequent revisions. It's a work in progress.
Next, we start to look at booking the "big" things; the one or two things that are the most limited, the most difficult to book. For this trip, for example, we booked the last spot on the Galapagos cruise, so once that was done, the rest of the trip forms itself around that out of necessity. In Chiang Rai it was Elephant Camp. In Sydney we worked around the availability of the Bridge Climb tickets.
Now that we have our destination cities, Mr. C starts to work on booking hotel rooms, in order of destination. He spends literally hours and days on this. It's part of what makes our travel especially wonderful. He takes into consideration location, services, and ratings, as well as price. We can always stay at a chain hotel, and sometimes we do. But he has a real talent for ferreting out the small boutique hotels (Spain); or the old castles (Budapest); or the monasteries (Japan); even B&B's (Australia); ~ places that are unique to that area, that add to the cultural experience.
And the last step is to book transportation in-between destinations. Train? Plane? Guide? Driving / or hired driver? Bus?
Reading, booking, reading, booking, filling in the blanks, then booking some more.
I will say, one big advantage to all this is that our trips are completely customized to us. I think that's why we have such a fabulous time. And if we don't, we've nobody to blame but ourselves........
A word on seeing the sights: I have a short list for each city of
- Must do's;
- We'd like to do;
- If we have extra time we'll do
We always have a plan, but it's not set in stone; we do and see what we're in the mood for that day. We would rather see less and experience more. The first day in a new town we don the walking shoes and just go wandering to acquaint ourselves and see what we can discover. Many times we stumble upon things that are already on our list, but it's so much more fun to "discover" them instead of just pursuing the check mark.
There's usually a museum we want to visit, and we save that for a rainy or lazy day. Or a day where we just want to hang out with some AC for a few hours! Flexibility is key for us.
Same goes for foods, I keep a short list with me of the new foods and local dishes I want to try in each region. This helps me recognize them on the menu when I see it. We had to try kangaroo in Australia;
In Paris it was Escargot;
It was oxtail soup in Italy ~ and yes, it's really the tail of an ox.
(the goat I tried here was a bonus, it was not on the list);
In Japan it was was eel;
Spain was crayfish (it's actually a giant lobster!);
In Czech Republic it was pork knee;
And in Peru it looks to be Alpaca (llama family) and guinea pig. Oh my.
The result of all this planning is that we are fully immersed in the country before we ever leave our doorstep. We are already acquainted, so it feels like we are visiting an old friend, rater than meeting somebody for the first time.
I realize that not everybody would enjoy putting this much work into their travels. There's a huge time advantage to booking with a tour company. You get it all done with just one click. Itinerary, lodging, activities, all of it. Cruises are great like this, too. You just get yourself on board, unpack, and the "hotel" moves so you don't have to!
It's certainly a travel-style kind of preference. There's always more than one way to do it, that's what makes the world go 'round.
I think the key is to find what suits you best, and go with that.
Now, if you'll pardon me, I have to go look up a recipe
for roasted guinea pig.