Planning a “Big” Trip

In Hacks, Travel by Ariel0 Comments

Most of the trips I’ve gone on have been for a month or longer. I have problems limiting myself and I have to admit I can’t justify spending $1,000+ on a plane ticket for anything less than three weeks. The longer you go, the cheaper that plane fare is per day.

In 2007 I went on a road-trip with my family through the Western USA for a month. In 2009 I went to Europe for 42 days on my Contiki Tour. In 2011 I went on a Eastern USA road-trip with some of my family. And this past fall, 2014, I took 6 1/2 weeks and went to Australia and New Zealand with my mom (plus a stopover in Hong Kong). So I’ve learned how to plan a “big” trip.

General Outline

  1. What do you absolutely have to see?
  2. What is the max amount of vacation you can take?
  3. How do you want to travel? Road-trip, tour, etc.

Europe 2009

To be honest Europe was the easiest… I knew I wanted to go, I had my list of “must sees” and I knew I was going to take a tour.

Must Sees

  • London, England
  • Paris, France
  • Venice, Italy
  • Rome, Italy
  • Athens, Greece
  • Swiss Alps
  • Amsterdam, Netherlands

Timing

Choosing when to go? Also easy. I was a University student at the time so it really dictated when I went. I ended up leaving at the end of May and returning the first week of July.

Means of Travel

I was going solo so I knew I wanted a tour. So I picked up a bunch of travel brochures from the University travel agent (simply based on convenience). I read through all the info, chose my favourite tour company and then picked my tour.

USA Road-Trip 2007 & 2011

I think road-trips could be classified as one of the hardest trips to plan… You just have so many more options to choose from.

2007

Yes, I was only 17 and I was travelling with my family… but they tend to be “fly by the seat of your pants” travellers whereas I like to plan things a bit better. So it ended up that I did a lot of the planning and research (with input from everyone of course).

Must Sees

  • Disneyland, CA
  • Las Vegas, NV
  • Grand Canyon, AZ
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Oregon Coast

Timing

We were all still in school so timing was easy – we went in the summer. Length of time? Well it takes a bit to get all the way down to southern California without losing your mind, especially if you want to see things on the way. Due to us still being in school and my parents’ work situations we were able to take a whole month to go there and back.

Means of Travel

Road-trip = awesome. You’re able to see so much more simply by being in a car and driving. We chose to take our tent (an awesome 10 man) and all our camping gear and camp most of the time. We also had frequent stops at hotels. However, it’s not an easy thing to have 5 people (3 of them teenagers) cooped up either in a mini-van, a tent, or a single hotel room for a month. But we survived and it was awesome.

We planned our route via Google Maps. I highly recommend using Google Maps for road-trips. They are surprisingly accurate on timing, or else they overestimate the timing which leaves you extra time to do everything. Accommodation though we totally left up to chance… we didn’t book anywhere, we had our timing vaguely mapped out but this way if we found somewhere awesome we could stay longer if we chose and make up the time later.

General Outline of our 2007 Road-Trip

2011

In 2011 my parents “banked” their time-share in Fairmont Hot Springs, BC so that we could theoretically use it anywhere in the world. However, the only places that had any availability were in Florida – Orlando to be exact. My first thought? Disney World. Even though I was 21… age has nothing to do with Disney.

So we knew we had a week in Florida. But how to get there? Drive of course! Now we just had to figure out the route.

Must Sees

Timing

Driving to Florida from Edmonton? This is a major undertaking… so you need time. Again, my brother and I were students (my other brother was backpacking South America at the time) so we were definitely going in the summer months. We ended up leaving at the end of June and returning the end of July – so about a month. My dad was on his motorbike and taking a slightly different trip than my mom, my brother and I but we were meeting up with him in Washington, DC. That meant that we had to be in Washington by a certain date but everything else was optional.

Means of Travel

So off we went. We had our hotel in Washington booked because we had to know ahead of time where to meet and we had our week in Orlando booked. Otherwise we found hotels as we went. Hotels are relatively cheap in the States so we’d decided to forego bothering with any camping equipment and simply hotel/motel it the whole trip. This worked out well for us and when we hit Chicago we were able to get a sweet hotel room for a great price simply because it was in the business district and we were there on the weekend.

Once we met up with my dad we started booking hotels a day ahead of time. I used hotels.com to find us places to stay all the way down the east coast. I was able to find some really good deals because of the last minute booking and yet we were guaranteed a place to stay at the end of every night.

We made it down to Orlando and then hopped down the Keys. After our time there we split from my dad and he went the long way home through New Mexico. We hadn’t planned anything further… so to Google Maps I went. We had to be back in Brooks, AB (my mom’s hometown) for a family reunion by a certain date. So I simply googled directions from Tampa, FL to Brooks, AB, calculated the number of hours it would take and divided it by the number of days we had to get there. It ended up being about 5-6 hours of driving per day so I found semi-interesting places to stop about that far from each other on the route and that’s what we did.

General Outline of our 2011 Road-Trip

General Outline of our 2011 Road-Trip

As you can see, not a lot of planning went into our road-trips before we took them. I like the spontaneity of a road-trip and if you overplan or overbook things that gets ruined. I like being able to make the choice to spend an extra long day driving in order to relax and stay somewhere unexpected for another day. Or having the flexibility to pull off into a little town because of some funny signs you saw on the side of the road. You never know what you might discover on a road-trip.

Australia & New Zealand 2014

This was by far the most work to plan. We weren’t taking a tour and we decided we weren’t confident enough to drive on the left-hand side of the road to road-trip it, plus we just didn’t have the time.

My mom and I had planned to go to Australia and New Zealand for years, since I was in high school. The plan had always been to go after I graduated University… and saved some money. I have an aunt and uncle and cousins in Melbourne, a cousin in Cairns and an aunt and cousin in New Zealand, so we knew we were visiting family.

Must Sees

  • Sydney – obvious, plus the easiest place to fly into from Canada
  • Melbourne
  • Cairns
  • Uluru (aka Ayer’s Rock)
  • New Zealand
  • Hobbiton

Timing

Have I mentioned I don’t do heat?? I mean I really, really don’t like hot weather… like really. So my biggest stipulation on this trip was that we could not go in an Australian summer. I’d die. (I also get a little dramatic on this subject). I always say that there’s a reason I live in Canada – anything above about 25°C and I start thinking it’s too hot. So the first thing I do when looking at planning a new trip is the weather in different months. With this trip it was a little difficult because Australia has such a diverse climate. We ended up choosing to go in September. This was spring in Australia and New Zealand and meant that when we were in Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand the temperature ranged from 15-20°C with some rainy days. However, when we went up north to tropical Queensland it was 30°C and humid… and from there we went to the Outback where it was hot and dry at around 35°C. And I got sunburned… and suffered from heatstroke… So for me I know I could not have stood any hotter weather in the North or the Outback so that meant that the rest of the time was slightly cooler weather.

We also had to think of the length of our trip. I knew I was not going to spend 20 some hours on a plane and stay for anything less than a month. However, we also had a tonne of things we wanted to fit in and places we wanted to go plus family we wanted to visit. Luckily my mom has a job where she could take off as much time as she wanted and I was able to save my vacation days so that we got to go for six and a half weeks. We left the end of August and didn’t return until mid October.  We decided we needed four weeks in Australia and would use the remaining two weeks in New Zealand.

Means of Travel

I started looking at flights from Edmonton to Sydney and checking out prices almost a year in advance – as soon as prices were available I was looking. Most of the cheaper flights flew through Hong Kong… which got me thinking… I would like to go to Hong Kong… and it would be nice to break up that long flight… All the flights I could find ended up being around $2,000-2,500. We wanted to fly into Sydney and out of Auckland, NZ so, in my opinion, that makes it harder to book flights online yourself. So we went to our trusty travel agent and had him search flights for us. He ended up finding us a flight to Sydney, returning from Auckland, with a layover in Hong Kong… for around $1,800. This is why I use a travel agent. They’ve always been able to get me a better price than I can find. If you’re an internet wiz like Jaimie – go ahead, do it yourself. But if you’re at all unsure about booking flights on the internet – use a travel agent… because that $1,800? That included their fee.

So that was our main travel sorted. But we also had to get from place to place within the country. More travel agent time! I, being super anal and organized had devised a chart of our trip and brought it with for Kent. He found us all our internal flights between cities. And there were a lot. We were on 11 different planes during this trip… insane!

I had been googling different things for about a year and had found a really sweet vacation rental on vrbo.com in Port Douglas, QL. This was about an hour north of Cairns and right on the Great Barrier Reef. It was a cute little studio apartment at a resort for about $85/night. It was only available the second week in September so this actually dictated when we went where. We spent a week in Sydney, flew to Cairns and spent the weekend with my cousin after which she drove us to Port Douglas (though there’s a handy shuttle between the Cairns airport and Port Douglas). We had our fabulous week up there and then headed to the Outback. Knowing we didn’t have clue how to get around in the Outback we booked a four day tour for this portion of our trip through our handy travel agent, Kent. After this we flew to Melbourne (via Sydney) and had about a week with my family there after which we flew to Auckland. We spent the weekend in Auckland and then headed to Te Awamutu where my aunt lives. We stayed our remaining two weeks with her and did day trips and a weekend trip around the area. We had decided to stick to the north island as heading to the south island would be too busy this trip.

So, we had just over three weeks accommodation sorted with family. But unlike our road-trips we weren’t comfortable leaving anything up to chance on this trip. So we had Kent try finding us some hotels. I quickly realized (once again) I’m a control freak. I ended up doing almost all the research myself again every time he sent suggestions… so after he booked our Hong Kong hotel, I decided to do the rest myself. We needed a hotel in Sydney, we’d already booked our place in Port Douglas (through sketchy wire payments but it all worked out!), we needed an extra night in Cairns on our way back, our hotels in the Outback were booked as a part of the tour, we needed to find a place in Auckland and book an airport hotel in Vancouver on our way home because of the timing of our flights. So it really wasn’t that much to book ourselves.

I used Expedia. It seemed to have some of the best prices plus the option to cancel your booking a lot of the time. That’s how I found the hotels… then I went on Trip Advisor for every single hotel and checked it out. I absolutely love Trip Advisor. You have to take some people’s comments with a grain of salt and decide if what made their experience horrible really matters to you. You’re always able to find at least one person who’s opinion on things matches your own and you can get a realistic feel for the place. Plus, the pictures – the best part is checking the visitor photos and seeing what a hotel actually looks like. Nothing is a bigger lie than professional photos on a hotel website… not that I don’t look at those too… because I do, but I like to get a sense of the wear and tear.

So everything was booked and we were ready to go. But we didn’t really know what we were doing anywhere. We left New Zealand and Melbourne mostly unplanned as we expected that family would know what to do and where to take us. For each place though I’d search the top things to do… so we’d at least have a vague notion of what we wanted to see. Things like the Sydney Opera House, the Great Ocean Road, and Hobbiton were a given but we needed to know what else to do. We had a vague inkling of what we wanted to see before we left. But the best thing to do, especially if you have a couple of days somewhere? Pick up all the brochures you can in the airport. You’re often tired after flying and end up vegging for at least a bit in your hotel room – that’s the best time to read brochures and figure out what you want to do… and how to time everything. Your hotel will often have a selection of brochures as well – and don’t be shy. You want to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef? Take all the different brochures and choose what’s right for you. The other thing I like to do? Take a wander the first day and just take in the city. You usually get a sense of what you want to see and there’s always opportunities to pick up more info.

Calendar for our trip

Calendar for our trip

So you can see that I try not to over-plan anything. I like to wing it… but that’s also a lot easier on a “big” trip. Time gives you a lot of luxuries that a short trip doesn’t. And we could have seen more, squeezed more in… but sometimes just taking the time to enjoy being where you are is worth a lot more than cramming in a bunch of “must sees”.