Finally the time has come: your vacations are not far away! Unless you have a summerhouse, or a time-share property, or simply willing to stay home, you need to decide where to go and what to do. More often than not you call a travel agent. With the feeling that now everything is taken care of, you relax and wait for your vacations to begin.
It is true that travel agents make your life easier: they offer destinations, find hotels, arrange for transportation, and make your vacation planning worry-free. However, their services are not free, often adding considerable sum to your travel expenses. If you bought a tour, your itinerary will be limited to the choices offered by the agency, and you might miss places you would like to visit, or have to enjoy them in a hurry. For many people willing to overlook these limitations travel agencies provide the most convenient option. Making your trip a reality on your own terms, and arranging your vacations yourself is not as difficult as it seems. So, where do you start?
Needless to say, you have do decide on your destination. Are you traveling locally, or prefer to go abroad? A local library can become your first source of information: look through travel magazines and travel publications such as Fodor’s travel guides to pick a destination. Fodor’s guide has an online presence (http://www.fodors.com) complete with busy forums where you can ask for an advise from experienced travelers. A few months ago a question “What is the best country to visit?” triggered an extensive and informative discussion.
Assuming you have made your choice, it is time to educate yourself: a good itinerary requires some planning. If you willing to study your destination in depth, go back to your local library and ask for well-written books about the country you plan to visit (or a state, if you plan to travel within the USA). An easier approach will involve acquiring a travel guide. Michelin “Green Guide” was my publication of choice when deciding which places to visit in Spain. Depending on your time limit, and your preferences, you will have to select just a few towns/places to visit. Michelin guide has a system of ranking destinations based on their uniqueness and overall interest to visitors. Since my knowledge of Spain was not very extensive, I trusted Michelin’s advice and selected cities and towns marked with three stars: their highest rank.
My vacation time was limited to two and a half weeks, which made a task of selecting those places difficult: I wanted to see so much more! One has to realize that while it is possible to hop from town to town every day, such experience can be very tiring. On average, two to three days in one town give some opportunity to acquaint you with its attractions. Michelin guide even provides time necessary to complete a tour of a museum or a walk around a historic part of a city. The guide contains maps of the most interesting destinations; however you might decide to buy a separate map of the city complete with subway and bus stations. My favorite source of such maps is http://www.streetwisemaps.com/index.html. They are sturdy, easy to fold and carry around.
Once you have determined which towns and in what order you want to visit, it is time to buy airplane tickets (assuming your travel plans involve faraway destinations). There are several websites allowing you to compare ticket prices and buy them online: http://www.cheaptickets.com/, http://www.orbitz.com/ , http://www.travelocity.com/ among others. They include other options such as a hotel search, and a car rental. Sometimes it is better to first search for flights and airlines for your destination, and then decide whether to book your flight from the website (Orbitz, Travelocity, or another), or directly from the airlines (Continental, Delta, or whatever else it may be). If you have a credit card with the frequent flyer promotion, you might be better off buying from the airline and redeeming your accumulated miles.
Do not forget about travel insurance: you might need it when you least expect it. My insurance of choice was Travel Guard (http://www.travelguard.com/). This company offers coverage for various unplanned events from trip cancellation, to emergency medical expenses. A simple food poisoning can delay your flight and involve a doctor’s visit as my family learned the hard way while staying in Paris. Without travel insurance the cost of that trip would have been much higher. Regardless of which travel insurance company you choose, learn about their policies, and decide what type of coverage you prefer.
Now your next task is to find lodgings. It sounds extremely challenging: there are so many places to choose from, and how do you know which hotel will suit your needs best? To start somewhere, use your travel guide. I looked through Michelin: for every destination it offers places to eat and to stay, ranking from budget to expensive. Try to research those suggestions online: this is an opportunity to compare reviews posted by other travelers. Fodor’s forums welcome such questions. An excellent website where you can find reviews of vacations and hotels is http://www.tripadvisor.com/. Just enter your destination, or a hotel name in a search box, and read through reviews. Obviously, there is no guarantee that your final selection will meet all your expectations, however, more often than not fellow travelers’ advice was very helpful to me.
By now, your itinerary begins to take shape; it is time to put it in writing (if you have not done so already). I fill out every day, starting from departure; complete with airline and hotel information, and emergency phone numbers. Even if a task of arranging your vacations yourself seems formidable if not impossible, it is well worth your efforts. By becoming your own travel agent you will experience the freedom of making your own choices, and enjoying your dream destination on your own terms.