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How to Plan Your Next Vacation Abroad

Six months ago my friend Phil Malone set himself free. He announced he was breaking his long-time routine of annual trips to Europe and the Caribbean to explore the real world, to get off the beaten track. But last week Phil returned from 10 days in Thailand disappointed. Oh, he’d enjoyed himself, but it just wasn’t what he’d had in mind—certainly not a life-changing experience.

I asked why he’d chosen Thailand. He said it had been between Thailand, recommended by his cousin, and Turkey, recommended by his neighbor. No wonder he was disappointed. He’d skipped the most important step in planning a trip off the beaten track. He had selected his destination without first looking inside himself.

When we plan for a trip, it’s easiest to think at the micro-level. What kind of shoes, luggage, medicines? Important considerations but far less important than making good macro decisions. And the most important decision of all is where to go. Seems obvious but it’s common to make that choice too quickly, often based on a suggestion from someone else.

My advice is to make your choice of destination a very personal one. Close your eyes and think of the names of places that make your heart beat faster. Think of cultures that appeal to you, lands whose history fascinates you, exotic place names that have beckoned since childhood. What places offer the adventures, weather, or scenery you most enjoy? What country’s art and crafts do you admire? What country’s music interests you? List all those places without worrying about practicality. Next, prompt your memory with a world map. Continent by continent, country by country, add new places to your list.

Now you’re ready to look outside yourself. Read travel books. Skim back copies of National Geographic, Outside, International Travel News, and Transitions Abroad. Watch the Travel Channel, Discovery, and National Geographic Explorer. Seek out travel tales from friends and travel agents.

Make a list of destinations, then group your choices by continent or geographic region. Post this list on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror, anywhere that will keep it in your consciousness. After you’ve lived with your list for a while, cut it to a dozen or so magic places. With your original objectives clearly in mind, rank them.

Practical Considerations

Now, finally, think about practical considerations: Are there serious security concerns at any of the destinations?

Would a certain destination present more mental or physical fitness challenges than you want? Does a local language seem to be a deterrent? Would you prefer to visit many countries or to focus on a single country or region? How much time will you award yourself? If you feel locked into a time slot, does that influence your choice? Consider weather, tourist seasons, local festivals, and special events.

How Much Do You Want to Spend?

Next decision: how much to spend. I suggest two approaches.

1. Review how much money you have and think about competing priorities. Choose an amount you’re comfortable spending on a trip and select destinations that fit. Add in everything and don’t kid yourself. But also consider all the money you won’t be spending at home for food, entertainment, utilities, and so on. And remember that travel is an investment that pays rich dividends. After you subtract the cost of round-trip travel from your maximum figure, divide what’s left by the cost per day you’ve calculated (hotels, food, fees, local travel, etc.) and you’ll know the length of your trip.

2. The second approach is to choose your favorite destination and figure out how many days it will take to experience everything. Next, calculate how much that many days will cost and persuade yourself to spend that amount. If you absolutely can’t make the case, or the cupboard is too bare for the grand scheme, cut back on the level of accommodations, class of tickets, or even time, until you have a match. My point is this: persuade yourself that you can afford to go where your heart wants to go.

Cost of living at various destinations greatly affects the cost of the trip. Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen, Geneva, Frankfurt, and Brussels are among the most expensive cities on the planet. Most are European and all are in the northern hemisphere. The least expensive destinations are found throughout the southern hemisphere, great places like Peru and Kenya. However, traveling anywhere can be moderately expensive if you stay in international hotel chains, eat at tourist restaurants, and hire private transportation.

One last thought about budget. Strength or weakness of the U.S. dollar is the gorilla in the planning process. Right now, for example, costs have risen 50 percent in Botswana and South Africa because Bush economic policies have caused international loss of confidence in the dollar. So when researching a destination be sure to convert listed prices using the current exchange rate. And always book using prices cited in local currency when you can.

The existence of a black market and the extent to which you participate in it also affect the cost of your trip. For example, using the official exchange rate in Myanmar you get 6 kyat for one dollar. In the parallel market a dollar buys 900 kyat. Hmmm.

Other decisions include whether to travel solo or with a partner (and if the latter, how to choose). Travel off the beaten track requires more research than does a sedate trip.

Fortunately, the Internet has made research easy. Basically, you want current, reliable, detailed information about potential destinations (sights to see, transportation, lodging, weather, etc.) and you want to shop for the best prices. Once you needed a list of hot websites to do these things. Now search engines have become so clever that all you have to do is whisper a few words in the ear of Google, Yahoo, AltaVista, and friends and you’ll be overwhelmed with information.

It would take a book to discuss how to deal well with all the issues that arise when planning the trip of a lifetime (actually, it took the first 262 pages of my 516-page book, to do that). We’ll take a further look at travel to remote places in the future. In the meantime, may the wind be ever at your back.

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