HOW I PLAN MY TRIP
PRACTICAL TIPS & RESOURCES
There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it.Charles Dudley Warner
The first in my brand new #PlanWithElan series is this page detailing how I plan my trip. This section includes tips and hacks culled from over a decade of independent travel along with information on every travel resource and App. I use in the process and during the journey.
LET’S GET PLANNING
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CHOOSE YOUR DESTINATION
How do I do it? I save ideas from Instagram hashtags, Pinterest and interesting blogs. My bookmark folders are treasure troves of inspiration and information.
With an Indian passport, my choice is also determined by visa regulations. I lucked out with a twelve month Germany Schengen visa last (2018) October so I shelved my Indonesia plans and concentrated on the Schengen region and countries that would let me in on one.
Affordability, tallying best times to visit with free dates, minimum time required to do a place justice and flight deals are other factors.
Vaccination requirements for some destinations might be a limiting factor if you have health issues. I will be including relevant details in individual guides.
DRAFT INITIAL ITINERARY
I start on my itinerary planning with a skeleton borrowed from online travel guides/tour companies/travel magazines.
They are usually too short and/or touristy for my liking so I then scour travel forums and blogs for any hidden gems I can include that might be of interest to me. Best to gather time and patience for this step.
FINALISE DATES & ACCOMMODATION
Having figured out roughly how long I need in each place I am ready to check out accommodation options.
Of late, where we stay hugely influences our enjoyment of a destination. So we try to find little charming home-stays and boutique hotels that we reserve well in advance. Always refundable to begin with and changed to non-refundable deals closer to the date.
I shortlist based on location, price and reviews cross-tallied between Trip Advisor and Booking.com. I juggle my dates at this point if I find a particularly attractive property. A central but quiet location that is walkable to most sights is worth a bit extra for us if we are short on time. Or one close to a well connected metro/tram/ bus station.
I always write to the property to check if they offer better rates. If not, or if the difference isn’t substantial, I use Booking.com to easily manage all bookings in one user friendly spot.
I have worked with Airbnb and have had some great experiences, but I’ve also had unscrupulous (super!) hosts cancel on me last minute. I still use it when I need to balance cost and space in pricey destinations.
When I am certain about the number of days I need (Is it ever enough?) it’s time to book international flights. Roughly 60 – 90 days ahead for the best fares. You might need to book more in advance if you choose to travel during peak season.
I check for the best connection/price combos on Skyscanner and Kayak, but almost always book directly with the airline.
Two things to keep in mind:
# It helps to have flexible dates.
# Always check fares from an incognito window (from the options at top right of your browser) until you are ready to book. It is suspected that cheaper fares do not show up for those displaying what appears to be serious intent!
On rare occasions I have blocked a great discounted airline offer before finalising destination or dates. Airlines frequently go on sale and it makes sense to be subscribed to their newsletters.
I use Seat Guru to identify the best seats and inflight amenities before booking.
If there is one thing you absolutely should not leave home without, it is travel insurance. There are so many things that can go wrong when you are on the road or even before you depart sometimes. The safety net of a good insurance policy at those times will far outweigh its cost.
If you are an Indian citizen, then you don’t have a choice in any case. No country will grant you entry without minimum specified insurance cover. So the choice you are left with is only which one to opt for.
World Nomads is by far the best option available in the Indian market. The only drawback is their upper age limit of 64 years.
If you are Indian & older, then Tata AIG is the next best bet. Their medical and repatriation coverage is good, but trip delay and cancellation clauses are not comparable. Where’s the logic, for example, in legitimate trip delay claims only being entertained on the inbound journey and not the outbound?
The bad news is no one else offers anything better currently for older travellers. A dedicated Insurance page is coming up. Do subscribe by email (below) so you stay in the loop.Please note: All of the information provided about travel insurance is a brief summary only. Coverage may not be available for residents of all countries, states or provinces. Please carefully read your policy wording for a full description of coverage.
APPLY FOR VISA
The bane of every Indian passport holder! Countries like Belgium and Germany process visas within a week. Others like Portugal take nearly a month. Remember, you need to buy insurance and have confirmed hotel bookings before you can apply for a visa.
It is too complicated a subject to condense into a couple of paragraphs..a dedicated Visa Guide (for Indian nationals) is coming up with more details.
Time now to fine tune the travel plan. Finalise activities based on personal interests. Reserve local transport or tickets to some shows/attractions ahead of time. (Check Individual guides for more information.)
European high speed trains offer great discounts between 60-90 days ahead. Best for longer journeys on fixed dates. For day excursions local trains work very well. We rarely book more than a day in advance. The Man In Seat 61 is the ultimate guide to planning rail journeys in Europe and the UK.
Rome to Rio is a great tool for route planning. It displays distance and time taken and provides bus, train, plane or ferry options along with approximate costs.
Some hugely popular attractions – like the Last Supper in Milan that our host managed to get us tickets for – require some ingenuity to procure. I’ll be including more details in the individual guide sections.
I sometimes use local guides/ drivers for some excursions and reserve their services at least a month ahead. Get Your Guide offers a wide variety of local tours and excursions in a number of destinations.
A note of caution here. Do not over plan. Allow enough room for the unexpected. It is better to experience a few things well rather than rush through ‘everything’. I usually have one free day in each place.
CREDIT CARDS & MONEY
I always carry spare cash and a spare credit card. Especially since a pick-pocketing incident in Maastricht when our bank indicated that replacement would take a week.
Travellers cheques are a big no-no. They are nearly obsolete now and involve wasting time in banks to encash.
Forex cards are great to lock in exchange rates if you expect transactions to be in the uploaded currency. Most include between 6 – 16 countries.
But what isn’t commonly understood is that cross-currency charges for excluded currencies can be way higher than a regular credit card. That’s because cross currency spends are fist converted to a base currency – USD in the case of most Indian banks – and then to the relevant currency.
So if you are going to Iceland, for example, and still prefer using a forex card, load it with USD and not Euros. I compared rates on both for my trip to Iceland and found my regular card relatively cheaper with the added benefit of accrued rewards/ miles.
Regardless of which card you take, remember to insist on billing in local currency to avoid hidden conversion charges. Dynamic conversion is never beneficial to you.
A credit-card with complimentary lounge access is always useful. Here’s a comparison of some of the best travel credit cards in India for 2020. The American Express Platinum Card seems the best option with relatively lower FX charges. But Amex isn’t universally accepted in India and many places in Europe and SE Asia, so you’ll need to carry a supplementary card at all times.
We opted for the CITI Premier Miles card when it still had a tie-up with Priority Pass. That’s been removed since. But the 10 reward miles on every ₹100 spent on airline websites and a relative number on all other spends along with the non expiry of accrued miles still makes it good value for our needs.
Priority Pass membership on its own is more oriented towards business travellers and does not hold value for us since we do not fly often enough to merit the cost. We prefer buying access during longer layovers if our tickets or cards do not cover the desired lounge. Here’s a *compilation of lounges that economy class travellers can access by paying at the door, purchasing a lounge pass or joining a lounge membership program. LoungeBuddy used to be a good option but is now exclusive to American Express Card members.
Always cross check with relevant airline/ lounge before booking.
I like reading a book or watching movies based on the destination whenever I can. Also, practicing a few basic phrases in the local language demonstrates consideration and helps break the ice on the word go.
DOWNLOAD APPS FOR THE JOURNEY
Google Maps is a must-have. I use custom colour coded icons in Google MyMaps (from my laptop) to mark places of interest and create a personalised map with layers that I am then able to access on the go on my phone App.
Google Translate is a huge asset to have in places English isn’t spoken freely. Download language of choice for offline use.
A weather forecast App helps juggle your itinerary in case of bad weather. I use Accuweather mostly.
XE is useful for currency conversion. Remember, rates will be marginally higher for actual transactions.
Internet Package: I usually activate an international roaming pack from my local service provider (Airtel) or pick-up cheap data + voice sim cards once I reach my destination.
VPN: Nord VPN or similarl virtual private network helps bypass insecure internet connections by making data unreadable. It’s also useful to access region-restricted websites in places like China
I normally follow a pre-departure wok flow so I don’t forget anything last minute. I’ve compiled all of it, including the tips above into a concise checklist specially for email subscribers.