On Planning Trips … and Not Bothering to Plan Trips

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The How To sites are full of advice about planning trips, some ingenious, some questionable, some straight from the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious. I read none of it, though; and I ignored the advice from my friends. I arrived in Bangkok with nothing but a back-of-the-fag-packet list of countries, cities and islands I might want to visit.

My plan – half idealism, half naivety – was to book accommodation a night at a time, then decide each day whether to stay on or to go somewhere else. Where to go would depend where the buses, the boats, or the trains might run, and how long it took to get there. I had plenty of time. I was relaxed.

I stayed in Bangkok for longer than I should while I pondered whether to go north to Chiang Mai, south west to Phuket or south east to Ko Samui, and ended up going nowhere. Then I found out by chance that I needed to get my Vietnam visa in advance and had to stay longer while I made some hurried arrangements. The embassy wanted dates, and I had to guess on the spot how long it would take to get through Thailand and Cambodia, and I was too optimistic by several weeks, and wound up having to cut short the journey round the coast and forget about Chiang Mai. But that worked out okay, because I had time enough left after Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos to see the rest of Thailand.

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There were a few times, as well, when I had to move from a guesthouse in which I could have stayed if I had booked two nights in the first place; and times when the trains were all fully booked and I had to wait until the next day, or settle for a long, uncomfortable journey on a bus. But the guesthouses were always clustered together, and there always was a train or a bus I could take without reserving.

The setbacks were small, and I have rarely felt as free as I did then, in the knowledge that I could, at any time, pack my bags, check out and get on a bus to the next town, the next country. I chanced upon amazing places that I had never heard of and would not have picked out of the guidebook if I had spent days going through it with a highlighter pen. It was a lot more fun than working through a detailed itinerary and knowing where I would be every day for the next six months.

It worked all the way through Southeast Asia; but in Australia I had to compromise. I paid several times more than I wanted to pay for the only place I could find in Sydney with vacancies, and trudged round until almost midnight to find a hostel bed in Byron Bay. (I was lucky – a friend spent the night on the beach there.) I was still reluctant to book any more than a night at a time, but now booked it online the day before, at the same time as I booked my bus ticket. I got as far up the East Coast as Hervey Bay, then found that the bus to Airlie Beach left at five in the morning and took fourteen hours to get there. It was a discomfort too far for me, so I backtracked to Brisbane and flew. No worries.

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Eventually, though, I ran out of time and never saw Alice Springs or Uluru, nor drove along the Great Ocean Road. Unlike in Southeast Asia, there was no chance to catch up later.

I moved on to New Zealand and got stuck in Auckland, puzzling over where to go next. I had not even come with any scribbled down ideas, this time. When I had eventually mapped out a route, I had no time to spare and could leave nothing to chance and had to book all my buses and hostels upfront.

I have never quite managed to get back to the carefree, spontaneous travel of those months in Southeast Asia. Either I have been too short of time, or the hotels and hostels have been too far apart and booked up too quickly for walk-ins to be at all practical. But I still only book as far ahead as I have to, and try to leave room to plan as I go along.

And I have never had to sleep on the beach, as my friend did in Byron Bay.

© Richard Senior 2015

13 thoughts on “On Planning Trips … and Not Bothering to Plan Trips

  1. When I have sufficient time, I much prefer the spontaneity of going a day at a time… with the flexibility you can stay longer when you want and move on if it is not so great.

    • I agree. It’s always hard to gauge how long you need. I have been bored after a day of places for I imagined I would need three days and fascinated by and reluctant to leave places where I only planned on stopping for one night to break up a long journey

      • Exactly. Some places that “tick” for us are places other travellers would not be interested in and vice versa. You can only plan so much ahead of time and leave the rest to be determined later.

  2. Hi! I’m currently trying to decide how much more planning I want to do for my next trip, trying to balance the needs for visas and my lack of time to do thorough planning– As you have experience in the area, could you give me a quick run-down of where I need approximate itineraries to get a visa? You mentioned Thailand- how about Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia?
    Thank you!! 🙂

    • Hi Lisa

      Thanks for your message.

      As I hope will be clear from my post, you can get away without much/any planning in Southeast Asia.

      Most nationalities can stay in Thailand for 30-days without a visa (http://www.thaiembassyuk.org.uk/?q=node/55). In theory you need a visa to stay longer, but most travellers just cross and recross the border to start another 30 days running. Agents arrange ‘visa runs’ from BKK.

      Cambodia and Laos give 30 day visas on arrival to most: (http://www.thaiembassyuk.org.uk/?q=node/188; http://www.laos-guide-999.com/visa-on-arrival.html; http://www.embassyofcambodia.org/faq.html). You can, I believe, extend once in Cambodia and twice in Laos but to stay longer will need to cross the border.

      Vietnam alone requires you to get a visa in advance (http://vietnamembassy.org.uk/index.php?action=p&ct=Consular%20Services%20for%20UK%20residents). You can arrange it in Bangkok (as I did) either directly with the embassy or with just about any tour agent in Bangkok. You can extend for up to three months (http://www.vietnamvisa-easy.com/vietnam-visa-extension).

      As to itineraries, much depends on how long you are there and what you want to see and do. But here are a few suggestions, which are far from exhaustive:

      Thailand:

      A few days in BKK – side trips to Ayutthaya and Kanchanaburi if time.

      A few days in Chiang Mai – side trip to Chiang Rai.

      At least one or two of the islands. My favourites were Phi Phi and Ko Tao; but many like the beautiful but touristy Samui which is geared more towards the luxury market but has backpacker accommodation too, and the much quieter Lanta

      Cambodia:

      Siem Reap (for Angkor). Much nonsense is written about how much time you need to see the temples. Tours tend to be spread over two days and that is certainly long enough to see the key sights, but if you wanted to see absolutely everything then I dare say you could stretch it to a fortnight or more.

      Phnom Penh is worth two or three days.

      Vietnam:

      Saigon, Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi (with possible side trips to Halong Bay and Sapa) all merit several days each.

      Laos:

      Luang Prabang (at least two days) is the stand-out city. Vang Vieng is the place for adrenalin sports and beautiful countryside, but there is not much authentic Laos left. Vientiane is a quiet capital and is probably not worth going too far out of your way for.

      Hope that helps.

    • I can add that for Vietnam you can also get a visa in Cambodia (slightly cheaper than in Thailand, too).

      I’ve spent a long day seeing Angkor Wat and found it more than enough, but that’s me. A boat trip on the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia was a great tour.

      I found Hue rather disappointing and Hoi An one of the best places I’ve been to (best food for sure).

      In the north of Laos, Luang Nam Tha is a good destination.

      So you don’t need a visa anywhere, and no need to plan much in advance, just mind the weather as it gets quite hot and wet in the spring.

  3. It is totally different for me – I am not a full time traveler, restricted by my holidays, so planning plays an important role. I must plan not only because I want to see certain places, I must plan because I am short of time. So generally I plan where I go, where I sleep and what I want to see – and as I am not able to change the first two, I am at least able to change the third one. I wonder if no-planning would work for me and I am tempted to do that for our 2 weeks trip in October to Spain – not plan any accommodation (apart for two first nights) and decide on the spot, where we want to go. Then I could compare what works for me 🙂

    • Yes that’s a good point. I think the less time you have the more you need to plan/book in advance, particularly if you want to fit quite a few places into a short trip. You can do it as you go but it can be time consuming. I spent a couple of afternoons on my last trip booking hostels. Not such a big deal on a 6 week trip but it would have been on, say, a 10 day trip.

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