“Not I, nor anyone else, can travel that road for you. You must travel it for yourself” Walt Whitman
To Plan or not to Plan
In the true spirit of adventure, the ideal way to travel is to let the journey take you. For us, part of the appeal of long-term travel is the freedom of the open road. In reality, things have changed and most travellers take advantage of technology by planning trips in advance. The internet can pave the way and save you money, but it is important to retain an element of spontaneity, or you may as well be on a package tour.
These days, you are required to pre-book pretty much everything, often making it difficult to be impulsive when travelling. Although, in many ways it makes life easier, there is a lack of spontaneity to travelling nowadays. As a matter of fact, travelling has, in many cases, become more predictable and less intrepid.
In all honesty, there are pros and cons of both planning and spontaneity, and it is largely a personal preference. Booking accommodation online often costs less. Furthermore, you can sometimes get good deals by booking either very early or very late. Booking.com, Agoda, Trivago and Airbnb are among the sites which are worth checking out.
The other advantage is that if you arrive in a new city late at night, having somewhere booked makes sense. Prior to the advent of the internet, we regularly found ourselves in strange cities with nowhere to stay in the early hours. Booking ahead was just too complicated back in the day and it was often easier to wing it.
We have spent many an uncomfortable (and sometimes risky) night in seedy bus stations and lonely ferry terminals. On one occasion, we arrived in New York City on spec. The only place we could find cost a whopping $150.00, and that was quite a few years back. These days, it is so easy to book accommodation online, that there is no need to suffer from discomfort or put yourself in a potentially risky situation.
Likewise, depending on where you are going, it can pay to book transport in advance. We once spent three months in South East Asia, where we became accustomed to the extensive and regular bus networks. Most of the time, we would simply roll up at the bus station and purchase a ticket on the spot. We then flew to New Zealand and got caught out when we didn’t pre-book a short bus trip between towns. Naively, we presumed that because the towns were just two hours apart, there would be several buses a day. However, we discovered, much to our surprise, that the only two buses running that day were fully booked! We consequently had to fork out for costly accommodation in a town we didn’t want to be in anyway.
The disadvantage of pre-booking for both accomodation and transport is that it can be difficult to change your plans. You may have discovered a gem of a place and decide that you wish to linger a little longer. This could be a problem if you already have accommodation lined up in the next town, and maybe the one after that.
When Freewheeling Works
Total spontaneity (our favourite way to go) can work, depending on the type of trip you are taking. On a road trip through New Zealand, Australia, USA or Canada, travelling freestyle is a breeze. These countries are home to a network of motels, cabins, campgrounds and hostels, all set up with the nomad in mind. Australia and New Zealand are especially backpacker-friendly. Carrying a tent gives you even more flexibility and independence.
Festivals and Public Holidays
The effect that festivals and public holidays have on local transport and accommodation availability (or lack of), also have an impact on the extent that you will need to think about planning ahead. Generally speaking, a little research to establish the situation locally, can go a long way.
Although we are independent travellers, it does make life easier to take an organised tour on occasion. On a trip to Vietnam, we took a day trip from Hoi An to My Son to visit some Chan temples. A mini-bus took us to the ruins, and we returned on a boat along the river. Lunch was included. It cost $5.00!
Consequently, we don’t rule out the possibility of taking an organised tour if it works for us. There are times when getting somewhere under our own steam is difficult and costly, and letting someone else take care of things makes sense logistically and financially. It can be hard to adjust, but we only have to tolerate being herded around and talked at for a limited amount of time!
The Advantages of a Guidebook
The use of guidebooks is also something to consider. The advantages are obvious. You won’t miss out on local attractions and you can make use of the maps. You will be made aware of potential scams and you will probably gain some useful insight into the local history, culture and traditions.
In relation to scams, we recall one occasion at the Thai-Cambodian border which could have been both stressful and expensive if we hadn’t undertaken some research and been made aware of the situation. Instead of taking us directly to the border, as we requested, the rickshaw driver took us to a ‘fake’ border, where official looking men attempted to sell us visas at inflated prices. Luckily, we were ‘in the know’ about this common practise, having read about it previously. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.
When arriving in a big city for the first time, it can be extremely difficult to orientate yourself with the layout and transport systems, especially when English is not widely spoken. You can waste a lot of time and energy without some help.
We do attempt to escape ‘the guide book trail’ every now and again. We like to make our own discoveries and don’t treat the guidebooks with too much reverence. However, there’s no doubt that guidebooks can be very worthwhile.
The Disadvantages of a Guidebook
The disadvantage of a guidebook is that everyone else is likely to be reading the same book as you, and therefore eating at the same restaurants and staying at the same hostels or hotels. There is much cynicism these days about the backpacker trails created by Lonely Planet and Rough Guides and it is true that many backpackers don’t look further than their guidebooks. Indeed, we have discovered some amazing places which haven’t been mentioned in the guidebooks.
A Summary – The Pros
#1 The feeling of total freedom! Of waking up and thinking “Where in the world shall I go today?”
#2 If you fall in love with a place, meet a great bunch of people and decide to travel with them for a while or receive an invite from a local, you can. In fact, you can stay wherever you want to for however long you want to.
#3 Relying on online reviews and reading up on every aspect of a trip can make a trip feel over-planned. Sometimes its best to knock planning on the head and take local advice when you arrive, opening the doors to experiences that other travellers don’t know about. Unexpected experiences can be the best.
#4 If you do happen to look for accomodation on spec, at least you know exactly what you are getting. We have occasionally booked hotels and guest houses with excellent reviews and descriptions, to nevertheless discover that they weren’t quite what we were expecting.
#1 When planning in advance and booking accomodation, you have the security of knowing you have somewhere to lay your head when you arrive at a new destination.
#2 Pre-booking transport means that you won’t have to queue for tickets or risk the possibility of not getting a seat on the train or bus you want to be on.
#3 Planning ahead means that you will undoubtedly save time. Finding accomodation, queuing for tickets and waiting for a bus that you hadn’t pre-booked all take precious hours out of a travelling day.
#4 Planning accomodation and transport ahead of a trip allows you to compare and chose, something you don’t always have the luxury to do when you are freewheeling.