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Posts Tagged ‘planning’

Time to travel!

Despite the name of my blog, I haven’t done any serious travel since I got back from South America mid-December 2012. Last year I was busy with the renovations to my house, but no such excuse this year, aside from the Detroit wedding. All the time I kept saying that my next trip would be back to South America, as I still needed to visit the northwest quadrant – Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. I bought the guidebooks, I read the guidebooks, I made a list of when the weather was optimal where, I reread the guidebooks, but somehow I never produced an itinerary.

It had been fourteen years since I took early retirement so I could travel before I got too decrepit, and I had just had another birthday, so I certainly wasn’t getting any younger. In fact I felt that I was slowing down, and I was facing serious eye surgery in the not too distant future. Time to get moving!

So, just back from the Washington-wedding trip, eating breakfast, I asked myself whether the sad lack of an itinerary was actually due to my not really wanting to go to South America. If I had really wanted to go, wouldn’t I have planned it by now? Maybe, I really wanted to go somewhere else. Maybe, Europe? Next thing you know, I had the Thomas Cook rail map of Europe spread all over the breakfast tabel.

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I decided that this would be a “go back to” trip. I would go back to favorite places in Europe, traveling more slowly than usual, so I could enjoy them at leisure. But I would start with somewhere new. South and west Romania. I had visited the north – Maramures and Bucovina – back in 2006, but I hadn’t made it to Transylvania in the south. Friends had visited Romania in the spring, and reported interesting Art Nouveau buildings in the west, near the Hungarian border. (Shades of Subotica, the Art Nouveau gem in Serbia, right on the Hungarian border.)

I started by locking in the flights – into Bucharest and out of London on American – and checking on availability for the lovely apartment I had stayed in the last time I visited Budapest. Then I found that the railway timetables weren’t cooperating with my plans, and I would be better off flying some legs. Nice to Pau and Bayonne to London were so hopeless I abandoned the idea of going back to Basque country and substituted Lisbon as my last stop.

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My planning usually includes hanging out at Barnes and Noble with a cup of coffee and their guidebooks, before I buy the one(s) I’ll take on the road. But guidebooks for Romania were in short supply. Fodors hadn’t updated their Eastern and Central Europe tome in years. Rough Guide had gone all digital. Bradt didn’t cover some of my destinations. Lonely Planet still had an actual paper guide, but now combined Romania and Bulgaria into one book. I bought Lonely Planet, and cut it in half. I’d do the rest of the trip with a few chapters bought from Lonely Planet and downloaded, Streetwise maps from previous trips, and whatever I turned up online or at Tourist Information offices.

Given the lack of up-to-date guidebooks, I relied more heavily than usual on Tripadvisor for hotel recommendations, plus reading the few Romania trip reports on fodors.com, and combing through the many bookmarks saved on my browser. I booked either direct, or through booking.com.

By the time I left, on September 23, I had all my hotels and flights arranged, and the most expensive of the train trips. Yes, I’m posting this from Hungary in the middle of October, but I arrived in Romania the end of September. I put a report up on my website for my 2006 visit to Romania titled “Roaming Romania With the Tour Guide From Hell”. If you search on the tour guide’s name – Ciprian Slemcho – my report still shows up almost at the top of the list, and he spent years trying to get me to take it down. (Starting out with threats wasn’t the smartest move, but he isn’t very smart.) I think he has finally given up, and is now doing business under his wife’s name, but I chose not to advertise that I was back in Romania.

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Ready Or Not

Ever since I got back from Canada at the end of July I’ve been consumed with planning for my upcoming round-the-world trip. My blog post on Quebec City and Montreal didn’t make it past the first paragraph, in which I explained that to someone living in the Turkish-bath heat of North Carolina, 83 Fahrenheit was a pleasant change and in no way a heat wave. To make up for the missing post I’ll put some of my Canada photos into this post, which is otherwise all about getting ready to head out for six months travel.

Outside Quebec City's train station

I’m on my fourth things-to-do list, and I still don’t have the whole trip planned. But I’m mostly OK with that, because the piece I haven’t planned is south-east Asia, and I’m sure I can do that on the fly. I originally thought I could do India on the fly too, but soon realized that things had changed since I was there in 2001. Then, right after 9-11, there were hardly any tourists around, and I had no difficulty getting reservations a few days ahead, even over Christmas. Now both domestic and foreign tourism is flourishing, and I still haven’t found a place for the days right after New Year’s.

I have dealt with the most crucial pre-trip items. Medical – I have a pile of

Very small church on the Ile d'Orleans

Malarone tablets, a selection of vitamins, and, most important, medical evacuation insurance. The outfit – tenweb.com – that got me home after I broke my wrist in Switzerland in 2005 won’t cover me for more than 90 days. After a lot of fairly fruitless research I talked with a helpful guy at Seven Corners, which administers TEN, and he recommended Liaison Traveler, which is covering me, for a very reasonable fee, for six months after my current TEN policy expires.

Finance – now that Wachovia has been fully taken over by Wells Fargo its fees have risen to ridiculous heights ($2 for using a non-Wachovia ATM – for a balance inquiry???), and my Credit Union has reasonable fees but low daily withdrawal limits for several countries, including Japan. So, I now have a third checking account, with Capital One – NO fees of any kind. Maybe when I get back I’ll move my automatic deposits and bill payments to Capital One and abandon Wachovia for good.

French-speaking regiment inside Quebec City's castle

I also have four credit cards, as Capital One won’t issue me a new Visa card until two months before the old one expires – in the middle of my trip! My brand-new American Express Blue justified it’s existence this week when I got a killer deal on a splurge hotel in India.

Electronics – I very nearly bought a new camera for this trip, as my Panasonic Lumix is way out of date, but finally decided it could handle one more trip. I did buy a new, lighter netbook. I considered the iPad, but by the time I added the case, the camera connection kit (NO USB port!) and a wireless keyboard, it weighed as much as a netbook and was harder to use. I’m rather fond of my ASUS 1008HA.

Montreal's squeaky-clean market

Clothes – last year my doctor got concerned about my LDL cholesterol, even though all my other numbers were fine. Since I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life on statins I changed my diet – no sat fats or bad carbs (well, not often). Besides dropping my LDL from 150 to 106, I also dropped some weight, and now my favorite travel pants are too big. And I hate clothes shopping. I’m taking some less favorite pants, but I did go shopping for new sandals, since my Birks proved too slippery last trip. I have some sturdy Eccos that feel great, but take up more room than I like in my pack.

I also bought new boots – I’d forgotten how messed up my old pair got in the Jordanian desert last year. Fortunately (since I only realized I had a problem two days ago), REI had the exact same style in the exact same size. I gave them a spin round the neighborhood yesterday, and everything seemed fine.

A pretty Victorian in Montreal

Planning – it will be a relief to get on the plane! And I do have an actual boarding pass for tomorrow’s flight to new York, although I had to spend nearly an hour on the phone to get it. (Most of it on hold.) Seems that when I changed the last flight on my itinerary back in July, the first flight somehow got dropped from the system, even though it still showed up on my online itinerary. Good thing I had checked!!! I’m giving New York a third chance, after the bad weather last time. Thanks to my lovely One World FF award, I’ll fly to LGA in first class, before taking the bus and the metro (thanks Hopstop) to my budget “cabin” at the Jane.

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Planning in Circles

Once I decided against visiting Central Asia this year  (a decision sadly reinforced by the recent violence in southern Kyrgyzstan), the planning for my upcoming round the world trip seemed to get off to a good start. I put together a reasonable outline, booked my award plane tickets, and reserved hotels in New York (the Jane, again) and Vancouver (the YWCA). I even put together detailed itineraries for Japan and South Korea.

But then I stalled. True, I took care of some business – getting my house painted, for instance. And I planned a long weekend in Washington (June) and a long week in Canada (July). But six and a half months requires a fair amount of planning, at least on my end of the planning-winging it continuum.  Rather than two steps forward and one step back it felt like I was going in circles. Or, worse, that I had embarked on a downward spiral.

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City, by Bernard Gagnon, Creative Commons license

Trying to arrange hotels in Japan, I got especially frustrated. Too many web sites with no English. A chain with an English-language web site that wouldn’t let me book more than three months ahead, and then confirmed my reservation with the right name and phone number, but an address in a different town altogether. A consolidator web site that persistently rejected my credit cards. And prices that had noticeably risen over the last few years.

One shining exception involved the only visa I needed ahead of time. I Fed Ex’ed the lengthy (and expensive) application for my 10 year Indian visa to Travisa in Washington on a Monday, and come Friday my passport was back with me, complete with visa. And then I started making progress with Japan, even arranging a stay at one of the temples on Mt. Koya.

Dodam Sambong, Danyang by Steve46814, Creative Commons license

Time to move on to Korea. I already had that itinerary down, right? Well, no. Between the brochures the well-organized Korean Tourist Office mailed to me, a new, updated Lonely Planet, and some time at the bookstore with Moon and Rough Guide, I wound up with a new plan:

Oct 10 – 11: Seoul.

Oct 12 – 13: Bus to Danyang, afternoon visit to Guinsa temple, next day in Sobaeksan National Park.

Oct 14 – 16: Bus(es) to Gyeongju. Possible visits to Hahoe Folk Village in Andong and/or the Herbal Medicine Market in Daegu on the way. Gyeongju seems to be the rare Korean town to have escaped major desctruction of its historic sites.

Oct 17-18: Bus to Jeonju. I have hopes of staying in a hanok, a traditional Korean house. No English language web sites, though, I’ll have to try by phone.

Oct 19 – 20: Back to Seoul, with a possible stop at Suwon (historic fortress) or Icheon (pottery).

Now I’m trying to sort out transport in Taiwan, and am missing the excellent English-language transport web sites I used for Japan and Korea.

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Tweaking the Plan

The Monastery (not the Treasury) at Petra

Back in August, in “Evolution of a Trip”, I wrote that I hoped that I wouldn’t need a Plan D. Since Plan C just said “Roughly four weeks going overland through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan”, I suppose that technically I did follow Plan C, but not quite the way I originally intended.

I like to travel independently. Sure, I’ve taken tours. I’ve even enjoyed them, and enjoyed the people I’ve met on them. In fact, on a long trip, mixing things up with a tour in the middle can be a welcome break from solo travel. But in general I prefer to go it alone: no-one but me to blame when things go wrong, no reason to stay in a boring museum, no-one to distract me from the view out the train window, and no hanging around waiting for the shoppers. So, I saw no reason to take a tour for Jordan.

Until I ran into even more difficulty with hotel resrvations than I had in Syria. I wanted to spend a couple of nights in northern Jordan, visiting Jerash, Ajloun, and Umm Qais (aka Gadara). Then I’d bypass Amman for Madaba and its mosaics, with either a day trip to the Dead Sea, or maybe an overnight in one of the expensive spa hotels, before two full days visiting the rose city at Petra, a night in the desert at Wadi Rum, and a quick look at Aqaba before finishing in Amman. But nothing I tried got me a hotel reservation in the north, and a night in the desert for one person proved exceedingly expensive.

The surprisingly beautiful Dead Sea

Realizing that I was running out of time, I started checking into tours. Since my dates were pretty well fixed by my flight from Amman to Istanbul, and the itinerary by my desire to spend three nights at Petra and one in the desert, perhaps it’s surprising that I found even one that worked. But Explore! had an itinerary and dates that seemed almost perfect. (See http://tinyurl.com/y9qark9 for the 2010 version.) I hadn’t traveled with Explore!, a UK company, before, but it seemed similar to Intrepid, the Australian outfit I had used five times. I expected a small group of moderately adventurous travelers, budget-level but acceptable hotels, and local transport.

After I signed up for the tour, I took the two days I had intended to spend in north Jordan and added one to Beirut and one to Damascus. I kept two of the three nights I had booked in Madaba – I would travel direct to Madaba from Damasucs, and then meet up with the group in Amman, and I would have three days in Amman after the tour ended. Although Jordan’s capital did not sound like a particularly enticing destination, my ex-stepdaughter’s not-quite-ex in-laws lived in Amman, maybe I would see them.

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