Our M.O. for arriving somewhere new- (as non-planners)

backpack

There are just as many ways to prepare for travel as there are ways TO travel. But I get the idea that a lot of people book every piece of their trip before they leave. From hotels to sites and tours and everything.

Drew and I don’t.

We are supposed to leave for Beijing in a few hours and we’ve got one hotel booked for the very first night. That’s it. But in line with our general mode of operation for arriving somewhere new, that’s all we need.

Here are the things we try to do when traveling somewhere new:

1.) Visa research.

Pretty much as we’re booking tickets I usually do a quick search on travel.state.gov to see what kind of visa set-up we’re dealing with. Common “requirements” include proof of onward flight (which means an onward flight needs to exist!), at least 6 months of validity left on your passport, at least 1 blank page, etc etc.

2.) Book a hotel for the first night.

We don’t always do this but our travel is a hundred times less stressful when we do. Especially considering we didn’t have a phone until recently. I’m trying to get Drew to write a post about what we do when we arrive somewhere WITHOUT any reservations made, but for this post let’s assume we’re following our own advice and booking a room for at least the first night. (Especially if you land in the evening.)

The first night’s room doesn’t really matter, location-wise. It’s just allowing you to go somewhere with your luggage when you’re exhausted from your flight. Often we’ll book it a few days before we arrive.

3.) Save the hotel address somewhere on my phone or on a sheet of paper that we can show the cab driver, bus driver, whatever.

Depending on what country you’re going to, you may want to screenshot the hotel’s address written in the local language. Particularly in parts of China, Ukraine, or any place where English isn’t commonly spoken.

This, again, is a rule we haven’t always followed. Perhaps you’ve read about our 10 hour failure to find a taxi who understood our English address when we first visited China. Or maybe you’ve read about the time we drew a picture of a cathedral hoping the bus driver would take us to the right cathedral in Kiev.

Now we try to at least have the address written down somewhere, or better yet, in the language in which it’s needed.

4.) Figure out fair transit costs.

As soon as we arrive somewhere, we’ll try to figure out what the fair taxi rates are. Sometimes this is as easy as reading the rates that are posted on the inside of a cab. Sometimes we ask concierge, but they’ll often give the hotel cab rates and not the city cab rates unless you ask specifically.

We’ll usually get somewhat screwed on that first cab ride from the airport to our hotel, but by the second ride, we try to know what price we’re aiming for. This is especially true in meter-less countries. For instance in India a tuk tuk or cab ride will cost as much or as little as you could imagine, so we tried to familiarize ourselves with an acceptable rate by just memorizing the rate we saw advertised on the side of a cab.

5.) Find a cheap place to eat…everyday

When we were first traveling Asia years ago we found this little spot down a side-alley in Kuta where locals went to get food away from the tourists. I am pretty sure we found out about it by asking a young local guy where he eats. (You have to emphasize this quite a bit. “No, no, I’m not asking where I should go eat. I’m asking you where YOU eat.”) It worked like a charm and he told us to go down this little back alley where there was a guy selling fried rice.

We called him the “rice man” and for the next year, every time we arrived somewhere new we would say to one another, “we have to go find our rice man.” Pretty much every where w go, we need to find that little back-alley place where the locals go on their lunch breaks.

This may be difficult for foodies who like to try a little bit of everything, but once we find this “rice man” we pretty much eat there every day. Of course it’s not literally rice all the time. In Cali, Colombia it was a little bustling restaurant that served the most delicious “Menu del dia” with chicken and fish filets served with lentils or beans. In Panama City it was a little cafeteria-style restaurant in the old city. In Bucharest it was a little pastry shop behind the InterContinental. Even in Koh Phi Phi we found a little booth a short walk down the beach where all the boat-men would eat. And so on and so on.

Why eat at the same place every day? One, because sometimes it actually takes up a lot of time to find an affordable restaurant, so when we find it, we keep it. And two, because then we start to feel like we know the staff. I like that a lot. We are somewhere different or new almost every week and it really does feel nice to have someone recognize you.

6.) Ask the locals what we should see

This is another thing most people will try to plan ahead. And I know it can be a really fun way to get pumped up for your next trip. But we rarely have much of an idea of what we’ll see before we arrive anywhere.

Often we’ll ask our very first taxi driver for recommendations of what we should see. In Guatemala our taxi driver recommended Antigua and that ended up being really great. Or, as Drew mentioned in our very first video post, our couch-surfing host in Zakynthos gave us a long list of amazing spots. Even if we have somewhat of an idea of the things we might like to see, we usually hold our plans loosely and let chance somewhat determine our plans for us.

I like doing things this way because then serendipity can more easily take over. For instance when we visited Bali we had very few plans. We had followed a man we’d met up to Lovina where we staid for a few days. After deciding we were too broke to hire a car back down south, we started walking around the East coast of the island with plans of walking until we reached the south in time for our flight. We walked 9 hours before another tourist picked us up and dropped us off in the town Drew had plotted out as being a good stop for day 1. That is now one of our all-time favorite destinations- Amid, Bali.

7.) If a deal comes along, we book as much as we can

Most of the time we book hotel rooms as we go, giving ourselves 1-3 night stays depending on how many points we have, etc. But if a special deal comes along like that Orbitz, $100 off a room of $100 or more thing, we’ll suddenly become plan-makers. We’ll do our best to decide how long we’ll want to stay in any given place and make reservations based on those guess-timates.

We hate being locked into plans though. There’s nothing so exciting as flexibility- knowing that you can say yes to that epic mistake-fare or adventure or whatever. But if the deal’s good enough, we’ll book rooms for all our upcoming trips.

 

As you might guess, these are not hard, fast rules. This is what our general mode of operation tends to be. Probably the item on this list we’re most consistent about is #4 actually but in general the theme of not-planning ahead is very true to our style.

My main point in posting about this isn’t to try to give you actionable steps to follow, but rather to give you a sense for how easy it is to just work things out once you arrive somewhere. You don’t need to spend an hour on TA researching local restaurants. We pretty much only do that in the US! And you don’t need to have tours booked in advance.

However…

There are exceptions to the “don’t plan ahead” rule:

1.) Machu Pichu.

We didn’t plan that ahead, but it took days. So if you’re visiting Peru for a long, time, no worries. Just start to set out your schedule when you get there. But if you’ve only got a week, you may want to come up with a plan in advance. (Read about our crazy route to Machu Pichu here.) Not to mention you’ll want to plan one day in Cusco just to adjust to the elevation.

2.) India

If you’ve read about our terrifying train mishap, you may know why this destination is on the list. In India, you need to make train reservations in advance and in many cases you’ll need to just book them through some kind of Indian travel agency. In any case, it’s a nightmare if you try to do it last-minute and you may not even get a ticket that way. Do at least that one piece of your trip plans in advance.

3.) Grand Canyon

Whether you are camping or overnighting at the Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon, you will need to prepare in advance. Camping requires a special permit (which you can get online) and staying at Phantom Ranch requires reservations pretty far in advance. You can read about our favorite Grand Canyon trail here. Without these plans, you would be stuck just hiking down to the Indian Gardens (half way down) and back as a day hike.

 

There you have it. Now you can get a taste of our mode of operations for arriving somewhere new.

 

 

4 Comments on “Our M.O. for arriving somewhere new- (as non-planners)

  1. Great post. It’s really interesting to hear what you guys do. I would like do more open-ended travel like that, but I always seem to plan out all our accommodations just in case (now that I think of it, usually we’re staying with friends and family, so set plans are a courtesy to them). But I definitely want to try your approach next time we’re off exploring completely on our own.
    PS. So true about the Grand Canyon. We put in a request for that campground way in advance and it was already booked! I would also add that train tickets in some places (like France) are cheaper if booked 2 or 3 months in advance.

    • Ya go for it! Some people aren’t wired to do things that way. For some people it decreases stress to plan ahead. For us it would probably increase it. Just depends on your traveler-personality! 😀

  2. For me I’m often a planner. Much of the fun for me is pretravel figuring out the details. I also have a way lower budget than you guys (I think I’ll have $7-8k for one year) so I do need to nickel and dime within reason. Stuff on the ground is pretty fixed expense, it’s hotels (cough hostels cough CS) where you can save the most if you plan. For what to do I’m more with you guys. For eating I always look for street food with the biggest line in front ha ha.
    Also another one for GC pre booking fail. I called a month in advance for Xmas holidays. Luckily I was able to get a hostel nearby.

    • Your budget is impressive! Ya we do a lot of street food too, where it’s available. And hostels and CS are amazing resources for travelers. I think if we did trips instead of non-stop, nomadic travel, we’d probably do more of that kind of thing. Plus they’re both very fun options that make it easy to make friends!

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