Welcome to Plansify!
In coming weeks we’ll be explaining exactly who we are, exactly what we’re doing (here’s a brief taster) and why we’re exactly 100% thrilled to be putting travelers in contact with these enormously wise globetrotters to get the advice they need. Lots of good things are on the way.
But for today, let’s cut to the chase.
Um – OK. Sounds a bit . . . safe? A bit dull? Why not just wing it, like the true adventurers do?
Because actually, they don’t.
They wouldn’t be true adventurers if they didn’t have a plan. They run on tight budgets – and while there are a million good reasons why you need to plan your travels appropriately (a few of those coming shortly), the most important one is usually cost. Fail to plan properly, and you’ll pay through the nose. You’ll pay and pay until all your money is gone and you haven’t even got to the good stuff yet. Travel planning may actually be the only way to have your trip, let alone enjoy it.
No plan – no trip.
But you need to plan in the right way – and yes, sometimes it is important to make things up as you go along. There are practical reasons to leave some stuff until you hit the ground. (For starters, if you pack for every possible eventuality, you’ll end up with luggage like these people.)
So, to kick things off, here are 10 things you really should be planning in advance – and 6 things it’s smart to leave until you reach your destination.
1. Transport Tickets (Especially Flights And Trains)
Here’s a heartwarming story about price hiking. A certain writer (hi there) was returning from Greece by train, and his overnight sleeper from Bologna to Paris was delayed in the Alps. He missed his Eurostar connection – but thanks to that company’s lenient transfer policy, he caught the next one. No such luck with his train connection from London to the north of England. His advance ticket, booked 4 weeks ago, cost £9. The new ticket he now had to buy for that day’s travel . . . was £88.
Okay, so a 977% price hike is exceptional – but it’s a fact that leaving booking your tickets until just before you travel is an enormous financial risk. It can destroy your budget and massively curtail your future fun. (Perversely, the same can be true for booking tickets too far in advance. Here’s one example.)
You’ll see a lot of experienced travelers obsessing about their underclothes. Weird? Not if you’ve spent a day in drawers that refuse to stay dry, resulting in enough chafing to make you walk like John Wayne. That’s when you understand the fuss. When it comes to your most intimate garments, don’t half-*ss it – go for modern materials that wick moisture away, leave you fragrant and hygienic, and can be washed and dried in a couple of hours. Say, these guys.
When you reach the clothes part of your travel planning, make sure you start at the bottom.
3. Your Daily Budget
A daily budget is a bit like Schrödinger’s cat – if you’re not actually looking at it, it doesn’t exist. You may think you know how much you’re spending, but unless you’ve decided exactly how much you’re allowed to spend, and unless you’re tracking it with every single purchase, your budget is irrelevant – in fact, it’s even worse than not having a budget, because you think you have your spending under control (and maybe can “trim back a bit later to compensate”), so you spend even more.
When you’re planning your trip, your budget needs to manifest in two ways: a rock-solid daily amount (or weekly, if you’re super-organized), and a tool that instantly shows you a running total, and takes no effort to update with your latest purchase. If you’re on iOS, try Trail Wallet – or if you want something a little more in-depth, check out You Need A Budget 4, which comes its own app.
4. Offline Maps
Addicted to your online maps? Then you’ve never run out of signal or data allowance at a critical moment, without an offline backup. (Spoilers: it’s annoying if you’re lucky, miserable if you’re not, and you’ll hate yourself either way.) So, plan for disaster. Make sure you have an offline version ready to leap into action, either digitally or in fold-out papery form. For example, if you use Google Maps, save an offline version of where you’re going before you set off – and use it for basic navigation, saving your data for more important things.
And if you want to go really old-school and take a paper map? Here’s a bonus: it’s a great way to meet strangers. You stand in the street, you unfold your map, you rotate slowly in a circle, furrowing your brown and looking confused – and you are guaranteed to have a well-meaning stranger stop and help you out. (At which point you can ask important questions like, “Do you know of a place with good beer where I can charge up my phone?”)
5. Being Robbed
Say what? This sounds perverse. Who in their right mind would plan to be robbed?
Here’s the theory: prepare for the worst, and it never happens. (You know how you can guarantee it won’t rain? Take an umbrella with you. It’s like that.) But this philosophy also makes great practical sense. Sit down and work out what would happen if you were robbed, and then put backup systems in place so if it did happen, you’d be fine. This includes:
- knowing where your country’s local embassy is, in case your passport is stolen
- taking digital scans of all your most important documents, and storing them securely somewhere online
- noting down all your most important contact details into a tiny slim notebook, and attaching it to your passport with an elastic band
- creating a convincing dummy wallet that you can hand over in the real one’s place
Staying on the subject of emergencies, planning to get sick is another lifesaver, maybe even in the literal sense. No doubt you’ll be packing a first aid kit of some kind. But what would happen if you caught x, or had an attack of y? What would happen if you were incapable of telling the people around you what medication you need? Think about that. Plan for that. Have a document on your person that explains who you are , what medical conditions you suffer from, and what you’re allergic to.
But of course there’s the other stuff – the painkillers, the migraine-busters, everything you need to ward off common illnesses. No sweat? You’re in a foreign country, and the same drugs have different brand names there. If you want to save yourself some hassle, find out what those brands are, and stick them in your important details notebook (see previous point). That research might also ward off a few disasters before they happen, such as finding the medicine you need isn’t sold over the counter where you’re going.
7. Back It Up, Back It Up, Back It Up
Tickets get lost. Wallets get pinched. Luggage gets mislaid. Backpacks get rifled through when you’re not looking. Any number of things could happen to separate you from any number of critical documents and vitally important information. Thankfully, we live in the age of redundancy! Not in terms of the economic climate, but in the many ways you can back things up. The average modern traveler carries an impressive collection of portable hard-drives: the phone, the iPad, the Kindle, the laptop, the memory stick, the list goes on. Many already use electronic tickets (see above) – and it’s a simple matter to save multiple copies of those. If that wasn’t enough – photocopies. Remember those? Rediscover the gentle art of physical copying, and put those backups somewhere really safe on your person.
And as a last resort, scribbled notes.
(Autobiographical aside: I was robbed in Germany in 2012. They took all my travel wallet, including my flight tickets – but I’d backed them up on my Kindle, and it was a simple job to print them out again. When you need it, it feels like a tiny miracle.)
8. SIM cards
Next year, Europe is scrapping the much-hated roaming fees that have ruined many a trip. Huzzah! But forget that for a second – why are you even thinking of using a non-native SIM card? Is your name Monty Brewster?
Wherever you are in the world, local SIMs will usually save you a ton of money – but you need to know where to get them. Do that research while you have an internet connection.
9. Solitude Kit
Travel is all about embracing the world and being part of something bigger. But sometimes, you’d give anything to be something smaller. Like when you’re trying to sleep, for example, and that guy in the seat behind you is playing David Guetta’s Titanium on loop and at a volume that easily escapes out the side of his ear-buds. Or you’re desperately trying to get a few hours sleep on a bench at the airport, but – it’s an airport. The world is wonderful, but why can’t it just go AWAY for a while?
This is why you need a custom Solitude Kit, containing a snug eyemask that blocks all the light, and a pair of heavy-duty earplugs that would be equally useful on a construction site. My ‘plugs of choice are from Snorestore, but whichever ones you choose, don’t go for the cheapest foam type that squish into a useless ball the first time you use them.
When economist Tyler Cowan is exploring a museum, he imagines he’s going to rob it. He cases the joint carefully, looking at the architecture and paying special attention to the displays. The result? His attention is keenly focused in a way it would be if he just wandered around, his mind a blank.
Similarly, if you want to experience a place in an unusually memorable way – do a little roleplaying. What would an engineer be paying attention to here? How about an interior designer, or a typography nerd? And if you don’t know how these people would pay attention, well, there’s your research! Here’s a wonderful book that’s all about that approach.
DON’T PLAN THESE
1. Unnecessary Clothes
No doubt you’ve heard the travel mantra, “Pack half the clothes and twice the cash.” It’s usually good advice. If you’re going somewhere hot, you can be sure to find clothes designed to cool people down – and vice versa. Don’t sweat it – take a minimal change of good-quality clothes, and go shopping for the rest when you arrive (ideally with the help of someone who knows where the bargains are).
Not only that – the act of buying and wearing local clothes will feel like an adventure in itself. Maybe you’ll get to haggle! Maybe you’ll be mistaken for a local! You definitely can’t plan that stuff in advance.
2. Becoming Fluent First
If you’re going on holiday, don’t try to become fluent in the language before you set off.
Now, before I get publicly shredded, I’m not suggesting you don’t attempt to learn the language of the place you’re visiting. That’s arrogant, culturally insensitive nonsense. No, this is about practical language-learning, and about the best, quickest way to become fluent (say, with Benny’s help).
Here’s how I used to approach learning the language of a place I was going to visit:
- Panic. (I’ve barely mastered my own language, let alone trying to learn others.)
- Get a language course and spend a month making slow but steady progress.
- Travel to where I’m going, and immediately learn more in a day than I did in the last month.
If you’re wanting to make the most of your preparation time, don’t attempt to learn more than the basics – and when you arrive and you’re surrounded by the language in action, that’s when you throw yourself into it. You can then complete the full course when you get back, while your head and your heart are still full of the place. Just don’t plan to become fluent before you arrive. The timing’s all wrong.
Thanks to modern customs restrictions, it’s impossible to carry much in the way of liquids onto planes. When this comes to toiletries, you’re forced to go for tiny, expensive bottles that are used up almost instantly. It’s ridiculous. It’s especially ridiculous if you’re staying in a hotel at the other end, with a bathroom well-stocked with everything from razors to nail-files. And if you aren’t? Buy it when you get there, in quantities larger than 50 ml/3 oz, and learn how the locals perform their daily ablutions in the process.
4. “Don’t Talk To Strangers”
This still counts for “good advice” in some quarters. But – really? Seasoned travelers will tell you it’s nonsense, but the popular media, not always so much. If that’s part of your travel planning, if your default response is to avoid everyone and assume every stranger is a villain waiting to strike, you miss half the reason you should travel in the first place. This also applies if you’re a woman traveling alone – because yes, it’s possible to talk to strangers and be personal-safety conscious at all times.
There’s always a way. Go find it.
In the pre-Internet, pre-smartphone days when everything was black & white, and people walked around to piano music (no, really), you used to take paper books on holiday with you. They’d take up roughly the same space as a 1 TB external hard-drive, which nowadays could carry the equivalent of a hundred bazillion e-books. When it comes to entertainment on the move, we are inundated, snowed under, gridlocked to the eyeballs. We can fill our devices with thousands of hours of TV and audio, and millions of pages to read. We could go through an entire journey and not have to look up once.
This is what we’re in danger of losing. When the options for entertaining yourself are limited, your eyes and your mind start to wander. You gaze out the window, you watch other people, you feel the rhythms of the world around you. You hypnotize yourself into a sense of watchfulness that spots things you’d never usually have the time to notice. In short, you travel.
And if you truly want to travel like that, don’t plan on catching up with the whole of Game of Thrones before you get to where you’re going.
Don’t skip your most important meal of the day! Also, don’t plan for it either. Give yourself one meal a day where you allow chance and serendipity to have complete power over you. Drag yourself up, slug back some coffee to wake your brain up, and go on the hunt for breakfast without a clue where it can be found. Ask people who know more than you do on the subject – say, a taxi driver. Follow your nose and chase down delicious aromas. Watch what everyone else is doing, particularly the locals, if you can spot them. Make it up as you go along and make the first hour of your day an adventure that ends deliciously.
(Just don’t skip it. It’s not good for you – and it’s cheating. You’re not allowed, OK?)