“I learned that we can do anything, but we can’t do everything… at least not at the same time. So think of your priorities not in terms of what activities you do, but when you do them. Timing is everything.”
As Doug Lansky writes in his book, First-Time Around the World: A Trip Planner for the Ultimate Journey, “on a long trip you can’t be everywhere at just the ideal time. And it’s not worth trying.” I think that’s sage advice and notable for what it demands from the traveller—flexibility. While you can’t be everywhere at the ideal time, you can take steps to ensure that you are at least somewhere during some of those ideal times. Lansky’s advice is even more relevant when considered in the context of Dan Millman’s above quote—”we can do anything, but we can’t do everything”. That’s important advice for a backpacker.
When planning your itinerary, it’s likely that weather will be among your primary considerations. In an effort to make such planning easier, Babakoto.eu has developed an Excel travel planner. Their travel planner encompasses weather data from a number of countries and includes information about the best periods to travel in respect to average temperature and rainfall. Hence, the travel planner allows you to plan your trip through one or more destinations and can provide you with a starting point from which to consider your itinerary—from the perspective of weather at the very least. As an added bonus, Babakoto.eu’s planner allows you to estimate and track your expected costs per destination—and for your entire trip.
Owing to Kathryn’s distaste for cold and dreary weather, we’re going to do our best at chasing the summer around the globe. So our itinerary, while not dictated by weather, will be at least somewhat motivated by it!
Another of Doug Lansky’s best tips is that you need not consider the ideal time to visit a certain location, but rather if there are any dates that you should absolutely avoid. Often you need to plan around local holidays and events. In 2002, I discovered that the start of my trip through China coincided with Golden Week. I had suddenly found myself in the midst of no fewer than 120 million Chinese on the move, filling seats in every plane, boat, train, bus and car available. I hunkered down in Beijing to wait it out.
Of course, I made the most of my time in Beijing (and area), but missed seeing other parts of China I might have otherwise accomodated. Of course, you might want to schedule your holiday around a festival. Basing your travels on not just a place, but a place blazing with all of the sights sound and smells of a festival can certainly enhance your experience. Often, planning to attend festivals take some advanced effort, as cities and towns often fill up with reservations long before the festival, think the Carneval in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, or the Great Migration in Tanazania, or even World Cup in South Africa next year.
Keep abreast of world events and celebrations with Rough Guide’s exhaustive list of holidays and festivals for the year 2009—check out their site here. Or check out the book itself here—World Party: The Rough Guide to the World’s Best Festivals. Rough Guides’ book doesn’t include everything, but you will you will find the classics—Rio Carnival, Glastonbury and Mardi Gras—as well as smaller events such as Scotland’s Common Ridings and Australia’s Birdsville Races. Highly recommended.
Cost of travel
Remember that domestic air travel costs remain reasonably constant the year round, apart from the occasional rounds of special fares that arise depending on popular travel times betweend destinations. Some holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year include a semi-hidden surcharge. Because there are fewer discounted seats available, they sell out early; hence, if you’re considering traveling at these popular times, you will likely end up paying more than if you travel just a week prior.
While the days when students could hang out at the airport and fly ‘standby’ for dirt cheap prices are long gone, when you book your travel is now often more important than when you actually travel. Guesthouses, hostels, airlines and cruise ships offer generous discounts if you book your accomodations or tickets very early—or at the last minute. Traveling this way allows you the option of travelling at a discount rate. However, there are risks.
High season, low season, shoulder season
Many people who complain about crowds in high season are those that seek out the the most crowded sites of the most crowded cities in the most crowded months—only to complain about the crowds. You could be in Paris in July and walk ten blocks behind the Louvre, step into a café, and be greeted by Parisians who act as though they’ve never seen a tourist. A lot of tourists stick to the small section of the city covered by their Let’s Go, Lonely Planet or one of the many available tourist maps. Wander out into the areas outside of the margins of the guidebook and you’ll find yourself among the locals!
The alternative, of course, is to consider travelling during low season. While low-season travel is very easy on the wallet, it’s important to remember that tourist destinations have off-season slow periods for a reason—the weather may turn out to be unfavorable during certain seasons and attractions or activities may be curtailed. Unending rain during the monsoon season in Inida or 110-degree summer temperatures in Arizona might not be worth the aggravation. And some places—especially those at elevation—may be completely inaccessible in the winter.
There is a sweet spot in that liminal space that haunts both high and low season—and it’s termed ‘shoulder season’. This period between high and low season sees prices drop, but offers similar advantages to high season. Here you need not worry that prices are being inflated by demand; rather, they come closer to being based on value. For North America and Western Europe, the months of April, May, September and October are considered prime travel time for those of us (ie backpackers, vagabonds and long term-travellers) who don’t have to worry about schedules and holidays.
Ann Shields at Travel and Leisure writes: “No significant shoulder seasons fall within January, February, July, and August, but prices drop immediately after the holidays in January”. She chronicles a few “Shoulder Season Travel Secrets” in her article—among them Japan in May. She writes, “peak hotel rates have come down after last month’s cherry blossom celebrations, and the humidity has yet to kick in.”
Ultimately, I would caution against overplanning. Of course, it pays to do your research—have a number of cities chosen, keep in mind some seasons to avoid, but avoid the temptation of overplanning. Like Per Andersson, editor of Vagabond Magazine, I suggest that it best to read novels and classics set in the place in which you’ve decided to travel, but don’t start planning beyond that. Per writes, “If you make a detailed itinerary, then you take away the excitement. And then it’s easy to get disappointed because you often have to break with your plans”.
For Kathryn and I, the most important question that we face is not: “Where are we going to go?”, but rather “Where do we begin?”. The only thing that we’re committed to thus far is a departure date—the first week of July 2011. Aside from that, we’re keeping in mind Dan Millman’s advice—”we can do anything, but we can’t do everything”. That’s important advice for a backpacker.