Every year he hates when winter comes, so we try to book a long getaway without Omar- kind of a learning experience. It's always exhausting. I can't really call them vacations. We learn a lot, see a lot and sleep once in awhile. We've already been to Peru, the Galapagos islands, safaris in Uganda and South Africa, and did some touring in Egypt. This year he combined all of his frequent flyer plans and had enough points for a ticket to Australia. We'll be gone most of the month of January.
When we pick a destination, we usually use a tour operator for the bulk of the foreign travel where neither of us speak the language, but do it on a more personal basis. We research what we'd like to see in the area and talk to them about other attractions that might be of interest. In some cases they allow us everything on our list, which is what happened in Egypt. We had the trip of a lifetime, but we slept about 4 hours a night most nights! Since we do speak English, we're using a tour operator for a cruise around New Zealand, and some land arrangements in Australia, but I've spent the past couple of days doing some other research. Sometimes you can do it cheaper too if you connect with tours on your own instead of using a middle agency. So where do I start?
It used to be common to go to the bookstore and pick up a frommer's or lonely planet book for your travel destination, read it all, earmark the pages with interesting stuff and head out. The internet has changed all that. I still use tour books if I won't have internet access once we're there, but usually I check a few websites first. My favorite is tripadvisor. You can put in any city or specific attraction and read the latest comments about it. Sometimes there are photos and advice about what to do to make it a better trip. You have to register to add comments or do reviews, which helps you in case you want to contact a reviewer directly and ask more questions. It's like having a best friend who has already been where you are going. They have humans who look over your reviews before they are posted to make sure they seem to be accurate and not profane, or biased.
Arrival Guides is the equivalent of a walking tour book. You can go to their website and download a large number of cities in pdf format, or download an app for your smart phone and then pay for each city. I haven't tested the smartphone version, but the pdf files have been helpful to print out and bring along. If you want to see pictures and easy lists, there's none better than DK eyewitness travel guides. You can even make your own guide book and download it to a pdf file before you travel, or download other people's guides. Check out some of these websites before you book your next travel. They are also useful for dreaming up a few places to put on your travel list.
There's a website and smart phone application called Yelp that we use when we're on the road. It started out as a place to recommend restaurants and businesses in the US but is now useful in a number of foreign countries. The downside is that you have to have an internet connection to do a search, which isn't always practical. If you have internet at the hotel, you can select the map with directions and still have access once you're actually moving. These reviews seem to go through a computerized filter, rather than a human, so sometimes Yelp has received criticism for reviews being biased. Nonetheless, I love it and use it all the time. You can also make your own search- like when you need cupcakes or a playground. We've found some nice neighborhood parks this way in places where the locals work and play. And with both Yelp and Tripadvisor, there's a search that will show what's near you by using the phone's GPS.
I have an iphone, so I often check the itunes store and find guides or apps that are specific to a destination. Many of them are fully downloadable so you have access to the information even without an internet connection. We used this to download a Galapagos guide that showed all the wildlife we might encounter during that trip. It was also helpful when we went to Montreal- there was a city guide listing most of the main attractions. Foreign translators and currency converters are also useful.
We're still members of AAA and this has been helpful when we need a map or tour book. Even if they don't have an office near you, they have online guides and even ebooks which are downloadable to your kindle, or other computerized device that stores books. And of course there is still the triptik option. You can do it online or request one in your local office.
Now when we are ready to book a tour, there's a website and app called Viator. You can read about what they say is popular in a city and make your booking right on line using a credit card in the currency you choose. Sometimes they tend to be a bit cheaper than other agencies, but you can usually find a tour company and google it to find a direct link and compare.
Lastly, don't forget Facebook. You can like certain travel pages or businesses and receive information about discounts or special deals. Now you can subscribe to their pages and put them into a list to ensure you don't miss the updates. Most of the travel sites I listed above have FB equivalents.
I look forward to the planning as much as the actual travel. It creates anticipation and lands you on your feet, ready to hit the streets running, as soon as you arrive at your destination. Try it and see!