Unless you're the sort of person who enjoys disorganized chaos, the most essential element of any good trip may lie in the planning. It makes the execution a lot easier when you've got a solid itinerary in place. I'm not talking about overplaying everything down to the minute by minute activities, but having a general schedule and reservations can mean the difference between doing and seeing everything you want to and see, or kicking yourself later for having missed something essential. There's walkways room to change things once you're there and can assess the scene, but without that all-important "outline", you may miss some important opportunities.
|Outside the box|
So, as I said, you don't have to overdo it. Your plan may be as simple as "Going to Cancun. Tanning." It's basic, but it certainly tells you what you are expecting to get out of the trip. Bronzed may be the only thing you want to accomplish. The rest of the time is up in the air and minute by minute -- and there's nothing wrong with this approach is that's your goal. Some people find this to be the true relaxation -- no stress, no plans, no running. And it works for them.
But if you're like me, you like to not only indulge in the realization but also want to get a taste of the local culture, see the local sights (sites?) and make certain you leave any destination with a sense that you've truly been there, not just passed through. Is there a food in the local cuisine you've always wanted to try? An historic site you really want to see for yourself? An activity which is beckoning you off that beach and maybe into the water? Leaving it all to chance timing might cause you to miss something essential.
That in mind, here are a few of the ways I check out the local scene before arriving. Some of them are tour companies. Even if you elect not to take a tour, their itineraries may give you a heads' up as to something you hadn't considered.
VIATOR, Cruise-booked Activities - While I don't take package tours, guided day trip are a terrific way to get out and see something not contained in the walk between your hotel and the beach. We've used Viator repeatedly and been very pleased with the results. They check out many of the local tours and allow you to look at the activity, previous passenger comments and (usually) photographs of the proceedings. Having booked trips through their site ranging from my recent sunrise trip to the summit of Mount Haleakala to day long journeys around Italy and the South of France, each has gone smoothly with easy coordination once you're in the local area. If you're taking a cruise, even though the cost of some of the in-port activities might seem expensive and you're tempted to try to do it yourself, there's real value in booking through the cruise line. They do the research, they do the coordination. All you (generally) need to do it show up and board the bus…or boat…or whatever. I use Viator whenever our trip in land-based, and the cruise line for whenever we're on the water (a strategic point of the latter is that the ship will no leave port if a tour with a cruise-booked operator is late. If you DO book your own and suffer a flat tire, you're pretty well at the mercy of the tides and may return to the dock only to see your accommodations sailing out of the harbor without you.)
BLOGS, local papers - Okay, this may seem a bit self-serving, but hear me out. Local blogs can often tell you things you'd never know reading some of the online travel sites. TRIPADVISOR, for instance, might give you ratings for hotels and a bunch of pictures, but it won't tell you the best places in town for a real home-cooked meal. Even their list of restaurants are going to be biased. I've found that hotel concierges, by and large, are good sources of information, but in many cases they simply refer what they've referred a hundred times -- or worse, hand you a pamphlet of things without much in the way of personal comment. This is where local blogs come in. You can find quite a few of them by locating the online presence of the local newspaper, and going to their blogs section. Most papers have both travel and local pages you can check out, and restaurant reviews. If you go to your favorite search engine, try searching for your destination and "blog" to see what comes up. If you're feeling particularly cheeky, try a particular subject. If you're a fan of the ale and are heading for Los Angeles, try "Southern California brewpub blog". Chances are you'll find something like tappedinsocal.blogspot.com, where you can get local notes on what is good and where to find it.
GOOGLE Maps - For me, this one's invaluable. If you've ever gone to a city and wandered about in a bit of a daze trying to get your bearings, Google Maps' Street View is an essential tool for familiarizing yourself with a place before you set foot on the ground. Just a short time spent there can show you the neighborhood around a hotel you're considering booking, or how close that might be to a museum you want to see. Are taxis readily available? Is it too urban/suburban for your tastes. Is your boutique hotel difficult to find, deliberately eschewing signage for "cool". (This happened to us in New York. A hotel, name withheld, lacked any major outdoor signs indicating it was there, right behind the smoked glass double door. Our initial reaction when the taxi dumped us, fresh from the train station, in the middle of what looked like a busy but hotel-less street, caused concern for a moment or two until we peeked behind the door. Nice, but not great hotel, but not so cool we forgave the angst of that first minute. A simple checking of Street View first would have shown us what to expect.)
TRAVELER SITES - There are several very solid travel sites on the web who find their primary value in sharing what others think, but ensuring a degree of professional reporting in addition to forums and other modes of exchange. AFAR and Cruise Critic are two such sites. AFAR caters to a bit more of the adventurous crowd, while Cruise Critic, as the name suggests, is for cruise enthusiasts. Both contain a solid visual element to their information, and offer comments and articles written expressly for their target audience. In particular, they have great ideas but also let you know what others have experienced under circumstances you're likely to be encountering. A caveat for any of these websites is to make sure you're checking the dates of the entries. No sense in worrying about the street closures in London during the Olympics since they're gone and done with -- but some of the entries regarding the traffic might have related to construction or security, and have since gone away. (Well, perhaps using London for the example was a bad idea. Traffic there is absurd unsure any circumstances, and I'm from LA!) Travel sites can give you the inside skinny on any number of things you want to do, and things to avoid at all costs.
DREAMING - Lastly, don't be afraid to dream. Part of the fun of travel is exploring new places and having new adventures. There's a real value in spending some time just daydreaming about a specific destination you may "some day" get a chance to visit. I have commented several times regarding Phil Keoghan's No Opportunity Wasted philosophy, and at its core is the taking of actions to fulfill those daydreams. Despite all of the traveling we've been fortunate enough to do, there are other, much more exotic destinations and trips we want to take. Antarctica; The Amazon; cruising the Danube; an African Safari. Each of these are currently in the realm of dreams for us, but we do intend to accomplish them at some point. To keep my engines revved and keep the focus on some day taking those trips I frequent sites such as G Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions and Viking River Cruises. Not only are these companies excellent places to plan a trip, they're also not bad for letting you spend a few minutes dreaming.
Planning a trip out in advance can often be part of the fun, and lets you begin your vacation before you even start to pack your bags. It's a way to get a sneak peek and build the excitement, while at the same time ensuring that once you're there, you won't forget that one little something, that little extra thing, that you'll regret later on. Something that, with that extra step, you "cooda' had a V8"!