One of the greatest stressors that seems to overwhelm people and make them hate even the thought of travel planning is the analysis paralysis of trying to squeeze in every imaginable point of interest at a destination, in an effort to avoid missing out on something. In normal times, I try not to overschedule travel, but I don’t often travel without any plans, either. I like to find a happy medium between the two. Here are my four steps to no-stress travel planning:
Decide Where to Go
I try not to overthink it. If I want to go somewhere, or if opportunities arise to visit for work, to travel with a family member, friend, or organization I belong to, tag along on a friend’s work trip, visit family or friends, or even if a too-good-to-pass-up travel sale pops up, I just go. I typically will check the weather to ensure I won’t be miserable because of extreme heat or cold on the trip, but even those conditions can be overcome with a little planning. If the opportunity is there, and you can make it work, go! In many ways, our current environment of limited travel options, whether for personal reasons, closures or reduced hours, cancellations of events and reduced access can be a blessing in disguise. Without a literal world of options, it’s much easier to pick a destination.
Once I have an idea where and when I’m going, before or just after booking I’ll check to see what’s going on in the area at that time – this is obviously more applicable to non-pandemic situations, but still makes sense at any time. Are there any holidays or major festivals/sporting events taking place that might make the trip extra special, or cause the places I want to visit to be closed? What are the actual days I will be there? Are there any quintessential architectural or natural sites or museums I want to visit, and any restrictions or preferred times to visit those places? Any particular local cuisine or live music to experience? At that point, I’ll start a travel planning document, usually a shared Google document if I’m traveling with someone, and prioritize everything I’d like to do, and investigate the best days and times to do them, as well as when they aren’t accessible. If this sounds a little nerdy and stressful, don’t fret, because here’s where things chill out quite a bit.
Book and Chill
Once I’ve determined what I absolutely must do that requires advance booking or planning, such as train or in-demand tour tickets, dinner reservations or anything requiring a timed entry, I lock those things in, and sit back and chill out. I try to book as little time- and date-specific “stuff” as possible and then make a bulleted list of options for each of the other days. If I have multiple flexible days, when I’m on the actual trip I try to visit the sights that are most important to me first, in the event that something could be sold out, overcrowded or best experienced under certain weather conditions. I organize my days with bullet lists and options. For example, in Paris, “Hang out by the Eiffel Tower” could be done on any day, preferably if there are clear skies to ensure you stay dry and can take quality photos. However, “Visit the Musée d’Orsay” isn’t possible on Mondays, because it’s closed. I don’t stress about trying to squeeze in every single thing to do, because travel is supposed to be fun. I’d rather have the option to relax at a cafe for an hour then exhaust myself running around like a crazy person. I also enjoy having a little flexibility every day to choose what I want to do, or even to try something completely different. There’s also opportunity to get input from locals on their “must-do’s” if you build a little flexibility into your schedule.
Throughout the planning process, and as the trip approaches, it’s fun to learn more about the destination and its history through a variety of sources, such as: historical fiction books and movies, guides, blogs, travel shows and documentaries. Most of this “edutainment” content is available for free or a nominal price through libraries, thrift stores, used book stores and streaming services. It’s so much more exciting to learn about a place knowing you are headed there, and really rewarding to see landmarks and understand a culture because you’ve done your research. Sometimes I even go down rabbit holes learning more about a place and its culture after I return home. Even now, no matter your tolerance and ability to travel, is a good time to start researching your personal bucket list destinations and learning about a place you’d like to visit one day. You’ll get a little taste of planning, which can go a long way to placate even the most despondent travel bug.
What’s your planning style? Do you schedule every minute and run your vacations with the military discipline of a drill instructor, or do you slow roll through life and go with the flow? How do you make major travel decisions, and how has that changed with the pandemic?