With a full map of unvisited countries, it seems easy to choose where to go next. Maybe so, if you have unlimited resources and all the free time in the world. Sadly, we’ve got neither.
Our destinations had usually been determined first and foremost by where it was cheaper to fly to. I say ‘fly’ because that’s the-people-that-wanna-go-far-in-less-time choice of transportation means. Plus, for some strange reason, to me the interesting-ness factor of a place seems to correlate with how far it is from where I live at that particular moment. Or with fewer words: the longer the plane ride, the better… Mexico is a cliché, Tuvalu is a mystery…
So first step – open Google Maps. It’s not like I haven’t already memorized the countries’ position at each level of magnification, but I’d do it anyway, as an inspiration rather than anything else. Then I choose our destination.
Of course, it is not always so random. Planning our latest trip was an exception with Japan only moving to the top of our list after the March 11th Earthquake. A bit opportunistic, I agree, but with the expected tourism slow down after the events following the earthquake, I hoped that Japan would, in a window of time, be gentler to our pockets, than it normally would have been. Friends & family did not have much appreciation for our admirable thriftiness and tried to scare us away with nuclear-o-earthquake horror stories. We held strong (while secretly checking the radiation levels in Tokyo when in doubt).
Next step? – figuring out how long to stay and where to go within each country. With so little time on our hands, it is important to pinpoint the key places to visit and allot an adequate number of days to explore each of them. It’s fairly easy with cities; there is plenty of information about where to go and what to do. I generally rely on forum info on tripadvisor.com to get some ideas, but we mostly stick with tourist guides as we get them ‘on location’.
Cities are not my thing though; I am more into nature and scenic beauty. The problem with finding these spots is that they are not necessarily on the list of most popular places to see. And vice versa, plenty of ‘natural wonders’ that appear no wondrous to my senses, seem to attract hordes of tourists for no apparent reason.
I usually start with Google; just type up the name of the country and then try to sort through the million hits until I come across a fairly decent website summarizing that country’s most interesting locations. As a general rule, most such websites come with lousy and very few pictures and at that point I still cannot decide whether it is worth visiting or not. I end up researching each place individually – I go on Flickr and look at inspirational photographs and/or candid shots taken there. If it passes the interestingness bar, it’s a go. Eventually, I’ll have ‘a list’ which needs to materialize itself into an itinerary. Obviously if money or time were no object, this would have been as simple as a dot-to-dot on all selected locations. But in our case, I have to make sure a) there is affordable accommodation for the time of the year we’re interested in going and b) there are affordable means of transporting us there at that time.
On point a) – I go on expedia.com and look up the costs of 3+ star hotels in the area. If they are within my range, it’s a good sign! On point b) – I ask kayak.com (which in my opinion is the best side for comparison airfare shopping existing). If there are flights available for a reasonable price, we’re one step closer! It gets trickier in case of road trips, though, particularly when planning a drive in countries that I am barely familiar with. One such fine example was our road trip in Taiwan, where with the help of Google Maps, I had to enter the latitude and longitude of each desired place of interest (example: 23.123193,121.407241) in order to estimate travel time. Oh… you’re asking why I didn’t just use the address? Because it was in Chinese. Traditional. Plus, the Pinyin versions were a hit and miss with Google. But more on that in a later post.
So when you have 4-5 countries that you are looking into, and each has a handful of places that fell into your ‘good to see’ box, your travel research efforts just stretch and branch out exponentially. I must have spent over 200 (two hundred) astronomical hours until I finalized our Japan/Taiwan/SoKorea tour. This, of course, includes the process of purchasing plane tickets and booking hotels and cars, which deserves to be dissected in a separate post of its own.
Until next time!
PS A post is not complete without a picture, so I figured I’d show you the location with the funky GPS address above – 23.123193,121.407241. This is 三仙台 (Pinyin: Sanxiantai or Xanxiantai or Sansiantai) in SouthEastern Taiwan. Truly beautiful, wish I’d seen it at dusk.