How much to prepare for travel?

Nicaragua - The Things We Carried.  Photo: Mat Honan / Flickr Creative Commons

Nicaragua - The Things We Carried. Photo: Mat Honan / Flickr Creative Commons

Do you have friends and family who write off travel as impractical?  Sometimes good strategies can work in both travel and business, as this blog post by tech company 37 signals illustrates: Getting Real with Travel.

The post cites the experiences of Marcel Uekermann, who’s a fan of 37 Signals’ unconventional approach to business.  He wrote this piece: How we apply 37 signals mechanics to vacation.

In the comments on the company’s blog post, a common travel debate topic arose: how much should you prepare?

On one hand, some people advocate the excitement and adventure of just going with the flow. Others warn against encountering problems that could have been avoided with some advance planning.

A lot depends on the destination.  The more popular and expensive a place is, the more you should research and plan ahead. I saw evidence of this first-hand on a recent vagabonding stint around Japan. Over and over, I saw desperate backpackers asking hostel receptionists to secure a dorm bed. Otherwise, they faced the grim alternative of shelling over US$100 for a hotel room.  Other travelers complained about the high cost of bullet trains, because they didn’t think to buy a Japan Rail Pass (you have to buy the pass outside of Japan before you arrive).

Conversely, the cheaper the country is, the more flexible you can be. At one extreme is Laos, where you actually can’t book the cheapest hotels and guesthouses ahead of time.  They don’t take reservations, so you have to just turn up in the morning and claim any room that’s available.  (Hot tip: try to go between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. noon.  Prime check-out time when most guests leave.  By early afternoon, all the good cheap places are taken. By 4 p.m., all the bad cheap places are taken too!)

As for travel research, I’m a bit of a split-personality. I do a ton of research before arrival to know what all the options are.  But on a day-to-day basis on the trip, I’m more spontaneous about where I’ll go that day or what I’ll see.  Still hard to strike the right balance of preparing enough to avoid major problems, yet still be open to cool possibilities that present themselves.

Want to weigh in on the preparation debate? What are your experiences?  Have you ever discovered any cool tricks abroad that you’ve applied to work at home?  How about the other way around?  Share your stories in the comments.

Posted by | Comments (6)  | April 9, 2010
Category: Backpacking, Notes from the collective travel mind, Vagabonding Advice

6 Responses to “How much to prepare for travel?”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    A little preparation is good, but if you want to “fly by the seat of your pants” then don’t over prepare for your travels. Get your ticket, but don’t book a room. Or, buy your ticket and book a stay at a hostel and go from there. Research is good if you don’t know the history or culture of the country. It could help you avoid any travel faux pas. Remember, the “thumbs up sign” is a good sign in America but has negative connotations in other countries. It’s always a good idea to know before you go.

  2. brian | No Debt World Travel Says:

    I always book some type of accommodations in advance. I never want to be without a place to sleep and some countries don’t take kindly to you loitering or sleeping on park benches or bus terminals. I also like to look for places I should NOT go and possible scams involving tourists.

    Beyond that I love the sense of adventure and not knowing what’s going to happen I start exploring. I’ve also found that the more I plan, the more my plans get blown out the water when some other opportunity comes up.

  3. Nicolaï Says:

    Regarding gear (I can’t resist commenting because of the photo): Bandanas serve many purposes. Sunblock, towel, head-warmer when sleeping in cold conditions, the list is endless.

    For most of my serious traveling, I don’t known where I’ll sleep until arriving. Gives travel some spice and brings you closer to people. Makes you appreciate things, too, when having difficulty finding a place and for a while you’re scared that you’ll end up not finding one.

  4. delia Says:

    what about preparation on the culture and history of the place you’re going to? how much do your prepare for the language, arts or politics of the country you’re visiting?

  5. kathryn Says:

    I definitely think it depends on the location. The thing with places like Japan too is that if you need clothing and are a standard Western size, it’s going to be hard to find anything and, if you do, it’s going to be expensive whereas even in SE Asia, you can find stuff catering to the tourist market.

    I like to have accomodation booked beforehand. I don’t want to waste holiday time looking – I’d rather my adventures be about something other than trawling over town looking for a room. But then I see some travellers on forums etc that have their itinerary planned so rigidly – that would drive me insane.