Travel; some call it a bug, others count it as a hobby and for the truly afflicted it is an obsession. A simple dip outside the confines of our small world can illicit whispers from across the earth, promises of discovery, enlightenment and adventure becoming louder and more demanding as your experiences grow. This is a state I’ve found myself in often over the past ten years, ever since Z and I left college and took a hard look at where we were and where we hoped to go. When we married in 2008 we set off on a dream trip to Tuscany and spent two weeks getting lost in the hills and grapevines of this magical place, spoiled rotten by a local friend who made sure our experience was never anything less than exceptional. We returned home with a serious travel hangover, the wistfulness for our Tuscan paradise almost painful. We daydreamed out loud about returning to Italy, or Europe, or anywhere, for that matter. It started innocently – “we should go to France next year” – and we’d smile and allow our minds to wander for a bit. But we kept saying it. And the mini-mental vacations took a deeper root. Soon “we should” became “we are” and we found ourselves up late one evening wringing our hands as we pressed ‘purchase’ on flights to Paris and the South of France. That was when we jumped off the cliff. We were ‘supposed’ to go on a honeymoon. We weren’t ‘supposed’ to take a trip to France just because. But I’ve found that just because can be the very best reason of all.
Six years and over a dozen adventures later we’ve refined our own version of the art of travel planning, an element of the travel processes that I enjoy immensely. We were naive heading to France and we definitely had some missteps. Here I outline my top five travel planning tips and share tricks that we have found to be helpful and balanced – allowing us to plan without over planning, to be confident but still maintain a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants air. And I hope they will help turn your “we should’s” into “we are’s”.
1. Pick & Commit
As mentioned in the opener, commitment to a trip is the key to actually seeing it through. There are many factors that go into making a trip happen, of course, the most significant of which is money. Everyone has a different way of budgeting. For Z and me, it meant making travel a mental priority and we cut back on shopping, saved any extra money we were gifted or gained, and ate in more often. Travel became a commitment – one we soon found easy to keep.
It’s natural to want to go somewhere familiar. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that either. But if you give yourself the opportunity to think outside of the box you may find a plethora of adventures in a most unexpected place. You can start with your hobby or passion. Is it music? Food? The outdoors? Google ‘top ten places to travel for ______ lovers’ and see what comes up. Creating a theme to travel is fun and adds purpose. For Z and me it is wine. It started with our trip to Italy and we found ourselves wanting to explore parts of the world where wine is a key element of life. This has taken us to more obvious corners such as Mendoza and the Napa Valley and it also led us to discover Istria, a region of Croatia that I didn’t know existed until two years ago. Wine was reason enough for us to consider Croatia even though we weren’t able to sample a drop before we arrived in the country. I can’t tell you how glad I am that we took that leap of faith.
Only have a weekend? Take a look at a listing of all of the direct flights from your go-to airport. You’re likely to find the obvious hubs – ATL, JFK, ORD – but some other destinations may surprise you. Minneapolis, for example. I’ve never been but it’s a quick two hour flight from Louisville and I hear the food and cocktail scene there is not to be missed. That’s reason enough for me to hop on
|The vineyards of Rioja|
Perhaps I was late to the game on this one but the concept of booking a multi-city flight was new to me when we were planning our first trip abroad. Forget one-way or round-trip, if you are trying to cover a bit of ground you can simply leave out of a different airport from where you landed. The cost is often close to, if not the same, as a round-trip ticket and it can really expand your travel options. It is also smart to look into inter-country flights. Europe in particular has a wide range of discount airlines and specials are run all of the time. It may be more affordable to fly than you think.
In between locations, if you are not flying, plan to rent a car, take the train or research the bus system. The best option will vary from place to place. While the train system in Spain is fantastic, it was not the most efficient or affordable choice when we were trying to determine how we were going to transfer from Barcelona to Laguardia, a tiny village in the Rioja wine region. Renting a car turned out to be the ideal method and we were able to break up the five hour drive with a stop over in Zaragoza for a long walk and lunch. One thing to keep in mind when renting a car abroad… a great majority of cars will be stick-shift, not automatic. Lucky for me, Z is an experienced manual driver. It is not impossible to find an automatic car but they are few and far between and you will likely pay double. It’s something to consider.
|Travel tip: when renting a car abroad, make sure to take parking payment instructions seriously…|
3. Plan But Don’t Overplan
When we arrived in Tuscany we met Filippo, a friend of my Father-in-Law’s and life-long Tuscan resident. He gave us a map and highlighted every town we needed to see. He told us of his cousin’s pizza restaurant in this village and his best friend’s trattoria in the next town over. It was a slam-dunk of a trip and we never found ourselves trapped like the tourists we were. And we hadn’t planned one minute of our trip, other than our flight. We adopted this mentality that we didn’t need to plan for travel. That we were spontaneous and carefree. Fast-forward a year and we were standing in the middle of Paris absolutely lost as to where to go and desperate for authenticity. We learned many lessons during this vacation (which was incredible, nonetheless!) and came back ready to take on Argentina, our next stop, with a healthy plan for an organized but not-too-organized adventure.
One of the biggest obstacles when planning a trip to a place where you have no connections is knowing where to stay. We relish walking through cities while on vacation and Z came up with a handy way to chart our path and to ensure that we were selecting a home base that would put us just where we wanted to be. We create a google map for each of our intended destinations, like the one below from our trip to San Francisco. As we’re searching for hotels/restaurants/hot spots we’ll plug the locations into the map. As the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together it is clear where we want to stay and which must-see spots are walkable or not. When we are going somewhere more off the map (i.e. Croatia) and we really have no idea about popular neighborhoods or parts of town, we will begin by entering the ‘top 10 must see spots’ for the town to gain a better sense of the area and how it is laid out. Additionally, we keep a google doc for each trip. It acts as a space where we can cut and paste portions of articles that we may read or we can simply jot down the name of a restaurant that was recommended to us. As we start to outline our trip we can refer back to what we have gathered over the previous months and feel confident in where we are going.
4. Guide Books & Travel Sites
The first stop we make once we’ve decided on a location for our next adventure is the library. We check out every guide book we can find on our intended location and dig in. But we do so with the knowledge that each book has it’s own agenda and it’s own strengths and weaknesses. Take Rick Steves for example. Rick’s books are steeped with historical facts and information. His guides are an excellent resource for city-landmarks and museum information. I have also found that Rick and I have different taste when it comes to food, my priority when traveling, so I don’t allow this part of his book to weigh too heavily on my selections. My favorite part about Rick Steves’s guides are his walking tours. They will take you on an hour or so stroll through a section of a city, points of historical interest highlighted along the way. It gives you a great sense of place while not making you feel like you are stuck in history class again, waiting for the bell to ring.
Outside of the guidebook sector, TripAdvisor is one of, if not the, most popular sites for travel recommendations and restaurant and hotel information. While I will always take a quick scan of the reviews for a specific hotel or restaurant we are interested in visiting, I take what I read with a large grain of salt. You never know what has motivated the reviewer to take the time to rip a place apart or to draft an overly-glowing thank you recounting the best trip of their life. I know what matters to me when looking for accommodations (location and cleanliness) and I generally look past the more trivial comments relating to someone complaining about an incorrect bill or their room not being ready ahead of their arrival time. What I do love about TripAdvisor is their travel forum. You can hone in on a specific location, post a question and receive answers from people who have experience with that particular place. You are also able to search for particular topics and review previous conversations that have taken place regarding your intended destination.
We are also fans of Chowhound, New York Times Travel and we always make a point to seek out blogs (surprise, surprise) focused on the food and drink culture of the city. And don’t hesitate to email a blogger directly. I promise they will be happy to help!
|Baby Z and Lindsey exploring the beautiful St. Paul de Vence, France|
5. Don’t Try To Do Too Much
No matter where we are going we always plan at least one ‘do-nothing’ day. This particular day may consist of laying on the beach or by the water, curling up with a book and a drink in a local park or posting up at a cafe and wasting away the afternoon. We try to make sure each trip is relaxing and that we find time to recharge. These particular days often end up being some of my favorites. In advance of a trip, we will have a general idea of any museums we are inclined to visit or any landmarks that we don’t want to miss. But we do not allow ourselves to feel pressured to see and do IT ALL. We’ve found that generally one museum visit in a city is enough for us. It may be two or three for you. And we pick a museum that we are excited to explore, which is not always the most popular museum in that particular city. Just be aware of where your interests lie and don’t force yourself to go to a particular site simply because the guidebook tells you to. As food and wine are often the focal points of our adventures, we will have a long list of must-eat and must-drink spots on our itinerary, all of which we plug into our google map in advance. But this simply serves as a point of reference. We will make reservations for one over-the-top dinner but other than that we play it by ear. If we are walking and find ourselves hungry, we’ll reference the map and see what restaurants or bars we’ve noted are in the vicinity. This gives us confidence that we are going to a spot which comes recommended but also allows us to not be too scheduled and to simply let things happen.
|Relaxing poolside and taking in the rooftops of Ljubljana, Slovenia|
The best part about travel? It grounds you to your home. I often come back passionate and proud of my little piece of this earth, excited to share stories of Louisville/Kentucky/America wherever I am lucky enough to go. Bon Voyage, friends!
|The Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina|