Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Travel Talk: How to Plan a Great Vacation

For years I have informally documented our vacations as it provides a nice little reminder of what we enjoyed most and what portions we might like to have as a 'do over'.  Every once in awhile, I revisit an old report from a previous holiday as a means of travelling vicariously, if only in  my own imagination.   Mainly, I'm a huge supporter of information sharing.  I mean, really, what's the point of having information if you don't share it?  I'm interested in others' experiences because it helps me determine whether it's a place I might like to visit.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not above a spontaneous destination vacation, some of which have worked out beautifully and others, not-so-much. Nobody wants to come back from a vacation feeling as if they didn't get their dollar's worth or, worse yet, that it may have been better had they stayed home.  It's those odd 'trips to Hell' that have taught me the importance of research, and particularly so when planning a vacation for a group adventure.  Most of us don't really relish the thought of having all of our travel friends disappointed and, while I don't think we would experience any nasty finger pointing, why take the chance? 

 I have been the primary vacation planner, whether it be for the two of us or with a group.  Some might say it's because I'm a control freak; others would say it's because I'm good at it.  I suspect it's a bit of both.  When travelling with a group, it can be a lot of pressure simply because it's not easy to please everyone.  While we might not travel in the same style as others may be seeking, I believe I have slowly but surely stumbled upon some winning strategies to find destinations and accommodations to suit.  It's not really a secret:  it takes time and effort, pure and simple.  Here's a few tips that might help you on your way to your own amazing holiday.
  Budget:  You simply can't plan a vacation if you have no idea how much money you are prepared to spend.  The monetary value of your holiday will directly influence where you go and what type of accommodation you will be staying in.  Remember to take into account extra spending money.While there are some activities included in an all-inclusive (AI) resort, many are not.  Parasailing, jet boats, snorkeling, hair braiding, etc. comes at an additional cost and there's always some shopping that you will want to do.  For me, food at an AI resort gets boring fast.  Remember to plan for a few drinks or a couple of meals off a resort.  Most off-site excursions will cost approximately $80-$120 US per person.  Take some time to decide how active you like to be.  In our experience, most people will do something off resort, once or twice a week, even if it's as simple as going into one of the local villages for a look-see and lunch.
Vacation Time:  It's not only about how many days you have but whether the dates can be flexible.  There is a vast array of preplanned vacations which bundle flights, accommodation, meals and even vehicle rentals.  Most of these packages not only fly on specific days of the week but are often limited to 7 or 14 days.  By booking airfare and accommodation separately, or working through a travel agent, you may be able to tailor your vacation to your specific needs but this will be dependent on how frequently the airlines fly to that destination.  You should also be aware that tinkering with these packages may ultimately cost as much or more.

Most destinations will not have a direct flight; as such, you need to consider what your personal limits are regarding time spent in getting

to and from your destination.  If you have only a 1-week window, you may not be willing to spend 15 hours to get to your destination, only to turn around 5 days later and spend 15 hours getting home.  As an example, a direct flight from Edmonton AB to Montego Bay, Jamaica is about a 7 hour flight.  If it's not direct, you may be catching the Red Eye to Toronto, and sitting around the airport for several hours until your connecting flight departs.   Depending on the popularity of the route, packages may only be offered during peak tourist season.  If you are travelling with friends that will depart from other cities, what works for you may not work for them.  While Western Canadians can readily access all of Mexico and Hawaii, for example, it's not such a simple matter for Eastern Canadians.  By the same token, they have easy access to most of the Caribbean whereas Western Canadians are routed through Toronto.  If you have enough time and interest in a destination, you may consider long hauls well worth it; it's not a question of whether you should go, it's about what you are prepared to do to get there.  We often chuckle at our Maritime friends, who have become accustomed to 2 and 3-hour flights to our destinations.  If we Western Canadians restricted our travel time to 3 hours we are going to find ourselves somewhere in Northern Ontario!
For many years, I told myself all I needed was a clean room and a comfortable bed when I travelled.  After a number of consecutive years treating ourselves to 5-star accommodations, I have come to know the ugly truth:  I was just kidding myself.  We have come to expect certain perks:  an ocean view that doesn't require craning one's head at an unnatural angle in order to catch a glimpse of the sea sandwiched between buildings; a 2-man in-room jacuzzi AND walk-in shower;  easy walking distance from key resort amenities -- beach; lobby; theatre; restaurants, were, for many years on the 'must have' list.  We have, over time, learned the art of compromise. . . sort of.   Especially when considering an all-inclusive resort, there is one thing we are not prepared to compromise on and that is quality food.  

Trust me, nothing ruins a vacation faster than unappealing, unappetizing food unless, of course, it's poorly prepared and maintained food that causes illness.  Hence, the reason the subject of food rates a category of its own.  Yes, we have experienced our share of food poisoning.  While I would agree, illness is often a result of over-indulgence, when one or both of us have been sick every time we ate at a certain establishment, sick to the point of not being able to leave the room for one or more consecutive days, then it makes sense to us that the culprit is most likely food preparation and handling.  And believe me folks, there is nothing that strips the good from 'good time' faster than spending a profuse amount of time running between your bed and the bathroom.  No doubt, you are now wondering how one can be certain of getting good food.  We will come to that but it all boils down to  the one important element which is a theme throughout:  research!
Health & Safety: 
Not only do we have different safety needs as individuals, there is the issue of different health requirements.  When planning a vacation with anyone with serious health issues, I eliminate destinations that don't have a full scale hospital.  While all vacation packaged destinations I'm aware of  have good hospitals, like Canada or the US, many cities' medical facilities have limitations.  In severe cases, patients would need to be transported to major centres for treatment.  While I'm quite prepared to accept this fact of life, not only where I live, but when travelling throughout most of North America, I am not keen on experiencing this in a foreign country where I do not speak the language and am unfamiliar with its customs.  If you think this one through, if you or a travel partner become critically ill and require specialized medical care, in all likelihood, someone is going to need to find their own way to that major centre and around that major centre.  Personally, that isn't something I'm really interested in experiencing.  While there are no guarantees it couldn't happen to anyone, why risk it when you are travelling with someone whose health is compromised.  There are similar considerations in travelling with very young children.  While you might not limit yourself to destinations offering full medical care, you may decide backpacking through jungle is, perhaps, not on the list in the short term.   The point I'm trying to make is, be aware of your own comfort levels and working within those parameters.

With a bit of legwork, you can also find out how safe the area is when it comes to wondering around on your own.  We have stayed at AI resorts where we were told to avoid certain areas at night or altogether.  I have a rule about personal safety; stay in well lit areas where there are other people, particularly, in tourist destinations and, when my spider senses tingle, I heed the warning.  If I find myself in what feels like a precarious situation, I move immediately to extricate myself.  It's all about using the common sense you were born with; if ou happen to have been born without it, then take someone along who was. 

Back to the issue of food safety, we have eaten at everything from high end restaurants to Mexican truck stops and the only places we have ever suffered as a result of poor food management are in those 5 star resorts and on airplanes.  If you are travelling to a tourist destination, all restaurants generally offer bottled water and prepare their food with purified water.  The best preventative advice I have is to visit your local pharmacist at least two weeks before you leave and discuss the benefits and risks of a vaccine called Dukoral.  You usually need two separate doses, after which you may qualify for a booster dose.  Because bacteria in warm, tropical countries has no natural enemies, everything you touch is contaminated so it's also important to be a bit more hypersensitive to good hygiene habits such as washing your hands with soap often, keeping your hands away from your face, etc.  If you find yourself with a bout of Travelers' diarrhea, we also carry significant quantities of OTC anti-diarrheal drugs such as Loperamide.   If all else fails, we travel with a prescription of ciprofloxin, a broad spectrum antibiotic.  Don't just follow my advise; discuss these options with your physician or pharmacy.  If you are travelling off the beaten track, check through your local Travel Healh Clinic whether you require vaccinations, information on water quality and national health standards, etc. 

If you are going to a warm destination, consider taking all the sunscreen you think you will need.  Not only is it very expensive to purchase in most tourist destinations, you never have it when you need it.  There is more, however, than just making sure you have it with you; you actually need to wear it.  Novel
concept for some, I know.  I tend to put it on as soon as I get up in the morning and, as I am susceptible to sunstroke, I keep my head covered if I'm going to be in the sun for very long and if we are out on the beach or at the pool, you will most likely find me in the shade.  Nothing feels worse on a holiday than sunstroke. . . unless its food poisoning.  I still get a comfortable shade of brown without the uncomfortable aspect of burning. . . now if only I can figure out how to avoid the dreaded 'racoon eye'. . .

Vacation Style:  Finding one's vacation style has been, for us, by trial and error; sometimes, you have to try it to know whether or not you like it.  I used to think large, all-inclusive resorts was the way to go.  Eventually, we discovered that we preferred smaller, well organized properties.  They are usually more intimate and, while not offering as many options such as on-site sports activities, we have found they excel in our top two priorities, being food and accommodation).  All-inclusive (AI) resorts, though expensive, have their place.  For the most part, they are no-brainers.  Once booked and paid for, all you really need to do is get yourself to the airport; the rest is pretty much done for you until you are deposited back at the airport a week or so later.  The typical questions of where you will sleep tonight and where you will eat have all been answered.  Some people are less worried about personal safety as AI resorts employ their own security.  Having strolled through several where I was not even a guest, I'm not convinced security is quite what it might appear to be on the surface.  That is not to say I have not felt safe at a resort; I still believe one needs to travel 'smart' even in an AI.  For example, if you wouldn't send your 12-year-old wondering around a hotel alone in your own country, why would you do so in a foreign country?  AI resorts afford you the luxury of excursions with professionals who have planned your every step.  They can offer a taste of a destination and introduce you to the local community.  Cruises, in my opinion, are similar, with the major difference being it floats and not everything is 'all inclusive'.  Whatever the preference, these businesses are built on what sells and the risk of calamity is much less likely than when choosing your own transportation, accommodations, etc.
If opting for a condominium, the process is similar, though more complex.  We have enjoyed condominiums that are similar to an all-inclusive resort in that they offer nice accommodations, pools, beach front and a snack bar, but we get our own living space with a full kitchen.  I get sick of restaurant food very quickly and I love being able to crawl out of bed, sip my coffee, eat my toast and peanut butter, and never be out of my pajamas.  I'm also content to have a meal or two in as a change of pace but that's about as much cooking as I'm in for.  If I had a young family, or there were special dietary considerations, that might be a different story.

Some of the questions you need to ask:  Does the complex offer the level of amenities you desire such as a pool, beach front, food and beverages? Are are other services within walking distance or is public transportation adequate?  These questions are key if you don't plan on cooking all of your meals or renting a vehicle.  A car may provide more flexibility in where you stay and allow you to fly by the seat of your pants with multiple destinations.  Are you comfortable driving a car?  That may depend on your destination.   The availability of accommodations will depend not only on where you go  and your personal preferences (2* vs. 5*) but on the time of year you go.  If you are going to a tourist destination during peak season, options may be limited as your choice facilities may already be fully booked.  In low season, some may be closed and, as it is here at home, if there is a special event going on in the community, rooms may not be readily available.  If you are travelling in a shoulder season, you can likely always find a place to stay provided you are willing to compromise.  A little research will go a long way in helping you decide which plan is best for you. 
If your budget allows, you may want to consider your flight arrangements.  If its a long haul, we sometimes splurge and upgrade if the seats are larger and there are other perks.  In traditional seating, we now choose aisle seats across from each other.  They're larger, easier to get up and down, if only to stretch your legs, and nobody has to sit in the dreaded middle seat. 
Once you have a solid understanding of your budget, time constraints and travel style, you are ready to explore destinations.  Once again, it's about having realistic expectations and gaining the knowledge you need to make the right choices.  If you go to the Rockies in October, don't be surprised if it snows.  If you go to a tropical country during its wet season, make sure you take rain gear.  In choosing a destination, there is an order of magnitude:  continent, country, broad location, region,  and eventually working all the way down to the physical location of the place you want to stay.  As we rarely rent a vehicle, we have restricted our destinations to well developed tourist areas.  By now, we have developed a 'must have' and a 'wish list': a nice beach, preferably safe for swimming (this cannot be assumed); within walking distance of a few amenities such as stores and restaurants; and a good public transportation network.  We like to explore the community, preferably on our own, so we like to assure ourselves that the community is friendly and safe. 
Our first, second and third languages are English, though we have, over time, acquired a hint of Spanglish.  We are not adverse to wondering around in areas where English is spoken very little; in fact, we love the challenge it brings.  A word of advice: it's unrealistic to visit a foreign country where English is not the first language and expect the local population to address you in English.  It simply isn't going to happen.  Do not assume that, because you are staying at a resort frequented by English speaking tourists, that the staff will be fluent.  Think about it:  positions such as housekeeping and kitchen staff are not going to be well paying; just like they are at home, they are often filled by individuals that are not well educated in their own language, let alone in yours.  If being addressed in your native language is important to you, then add it to your list of priorities and choose your destinations accordingly.

By the way, 'destination' is synonymous with 'wherever your fancy takes you'.  It can, in fact, be right out your back door.  While I love to experience new cultures, I am almost as excited to explore any place I am unfamiliar with, be it quadding in the west country or a Saturday afternoon road trip.  Eric just bought himself a fancy-ass sports car and, while I honestly don't 'get' what that is all about, it brings him great joy and I am totally stoked to find out where we go in it!   In fact, I'm mentally putting together a local bucket list this very moment!  

It's All In the Details: 
Once again, the level of success you have in planning your vacation will be directly related to the time and effort someone puts into it.  I am always happy when I receive a recommendation from individuals I know well and have an idea of their travel style.  But beware; the onus is on YOU to ask the right questions.  Use the advice of a good travel agent but, here again, the emphasis is on the word, good.  This usually means someone with many years of experience and an extensive client base.  When they book a trip, a good agent will contact you upon your return to ask how it was.  If you give a place a glowing report, they are likely to recommend it to other clients.  If you don't have a good travel agent, give ours a try.  Her contact information is:  Luana Johnsgaard, luana@travelonly.net.  No matter where you live, because this service is now internet based, she will likely be able to help you and handle any arrangements you might desire.   We are religiously faithful to Luana and use her services every opportunity we have, even to book airfare.  It costs us nothing and helps support her business.  We experienced a family emergency while on vacation and I can tell you now, she is the only reason we got home when we did.  It made us realize the value of having someone with her skills in emergency situations.  While there are many opportunities to book your own vacations on-line, remember that you will be relying on YOU if anything goes wrong.

There are a multitude of sites, such as TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet offering first-hand accounts.  Read enough of them and you will eventually know how to dig through the verbiage to find what you need to know.  There is always someone that complains about everything but if everybody complains about the food, then likely, the food is bad.  One thing I have noticed, while many will comment on the condition of the beach, it's often difficult to find out whether the beach is safe for swimming.  It's used to be hard for me to fathom but there are people who desire a beach front resort but never step foot in the ocean.  There's a reason you can join these sites, people.  It allows you to send a quick email, and ask questions of people who have been there.  Those who take the time to post reviews are trying to be helpful.  It may take a few days, or even a few weeks, but they always answer.  We often exchange contact information with people we meet on vacation.  I never discard it because one day, they might come in handy as another valued resource in the quest for the perfect vacation.

If you are considering renting a condominium, check out sites like HomeAway or VRBO.  Used by private vacation homeowners and rental agencies alike, most encourage users to comment.  There is safety in someone telling you, 'the condo looks exactly like it does in the photos' or that it met or exceeded all their expectations.   There are many owners who like to provide a few extras, such as a couple of days of coffee, laundry and dish detergent.  We have seen it both ways.  When we book a condo, we take a supply of everything we will need for the first few days, right down to the toilet paper.  If you think that's being excessive, spend a night without toilet paper and let me know how that works for you.

We have had everything from driving vacations to winter destination vacations and still, the best piece of advice I can give you is get out there and do it!  Eric and I have different preferences.  He loves to fish and hunt or, alternatively, lie under a palapa listening to his iPod.  He would be happy returning to the same destination every single year, providing it delivered what he went for -- fish, animals, palapas on the beach.  I, on the other hand, like to experience new places and new things.  Sometimes that can be accomplished by returning to a familiar destination, but seeking out new experiences; usually, that means trying something new.  It's a big old world out there and it's on my bucket list to experience as much of it as I possibly can.  Not only is there a compromise in where we go, we both realize, as we extend our winter vacation time, we are going to have to revisit our list of priorities because we simply won't be able to afford it any other way.   We know we could both be quite comfortable in a little casita somewhere within walking distance of the beach; where is what we are stuck on for the moment, but it will come, I'm sure.
When travelling in a groups, you need to expect compromises.  Sometimes the compromise is simply letting someone else make the plans and going along (okay, perhaps I'm not 'there' yet).  When you are the one making the plans, sometimes, it's about trying to find the place that will meet the majority of expectations within the limits of an agreed upon budget.  While we've had some interesting times, we've never had a bad vacation.  We've had bad experiences, but even that is in the eye of the individual.  Some people consider it a bad experience when you're flying club class and the first thing you discover is that they didn't stock Baileys. . . .okay, that would be me. . .okay, that WAS me. . . .and while it WAS disappointing, the stewards were great and did everything they could to make up for it. . . .

So!  I think I've shared all the tidbits and travel nuggets that I've presently got up my sleeve.  The next step is up to you.  I encourage you to share this information, ask questions or correct me.  It's all about sharing information, right?  Meanwhile, get out there and get going!  Happy Trails to You!