Updated: Dec 16, 2019
November 2011, Hoi An Ancient Town, Vietnam. It was supposed to be a free & easy trip for 4 days. But it rained heavily on my first day in Hoi An Town and continues through the night. Next day, half the town was submerged in muddy water as high as 2 metres. The water took 3 days to subside completely but I was already on the way to the airport.
Before embarking on any journeys, most travellers will usually do some planning or at least read up materials about the destinations. The only exception — to skip planning prior to trip commencement — is when they do not have a travel timeline, no reservations, no return flight and expecting to spend more money when needed. And most possibly, they are not in paid employments.
While on the road, unplanned travellers will need good interpersonal skills (especially when there are language barriers), great patience, adaptability to different living environment, and flexibility in handling situations that may crop up, to ensure a smooth and adventurous journey.
I did my longest unplanned trip 4 years ago — flew to Hainan Island, China, with a one-way ticket. Technically, the trip was not planned prior to its commencement except for one goal — to reach Shangri-la. So, it was just go and dealt with things along the way. Short-term plans for few days were worked out at each stop by interacting with locals, accommodation staff and fellow travellers. The same process was then repeated at the next stop several days later. Yes, planning was actually done on the trip, which added extra rest days to the journey. Most of the unplanned travellers I met were in the same shoes as me — quit their jobs and see the world. The others? They came to see what they planned to see and went back before their annual leaves ended.
In short, plan your trip if you have limited time and not to miss a return flight home. Even if you are going for a free-&-easy getaway in a place that you had been to several times, you will still need to find out when is the best time to go and whether there are any new developments that may interest you on the next visit.
Planning for a trip usually involves finding information on
where to go,
when to go,
what to see there,
how to get around,
when to come back,
how much will the budget be, etc.
If you are travelling with some partners, the planning process gets complicated when each partner throws in their travelling preferences. A travel plan can never satisfy people with diverse travel styles. If you happen to be in such a group, appoint someone to be the master planner (preferably you, since you are reading this post), work out a plan that the majority of the group can agree on. Those who do not agree with the master plan or cannot really fit in, leave them out of the trip if compromise cannot be achieved. This will reduce most, if not all, disagreements on the trip and spoil the fun. This is a major plus point for planning, you know each person's travel style during the planning stage instead of on the trip. So, choose your travel companions wisely.
Most planners tend not to go more in-depth for information that may affect the trip negatively. For example:
Is it during a festive or peak season where it gets overcrowded everywhere?
Is it during an off-peak season when things are cheap yet it rains all day or during a typhoon season?
Have travel alerts been issued for the destination? etc.
Keeping fingers crossed is often the go-lucky attitude — i.e. planners often assume nothing bad can happen on a joyous trip to a decided destination. Few planners make contingency plans in case of undesirable circumstances. And travel disappointments are usually due to inadequate planning, aside from unforeseeable circumstances and natural disasters.
In fact, before putting together a travel plan, there are some pre-planning checks that should be done to decide on a travel destination. If a desired travel destination failed the pre-planning checks, pick another place to avoid possible disappointments.
A successful travel plan depends on many consideration factors, but I will discuss 3 of the more important pre-plan checks that are commonly ignored.
The 3 Pre-Plan Checks
1. Holidays, Festive Seasons & Weekends
Festivals or celebrative holidays in some countries can be unique and attract tourists. Flights and hotels are usually more expensive and fully taken up during these events. If you would like to be there to participate in these events, book early and read up on what these festivals are about (some traditional festivals are actually "celebrated" within the households and not on the streets where travellers can participate).
Do know that the locals may be on holidays too and can result in overcrowding in tourist spots, in transports and on the roads.
Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We often see photos of 10,000 lanterns in the night sky and those are what attracted tourists to Thailand every year. Only when you are there, then you will see the 100,000 people crowding the streets. (figures are for illustration only)
For instance, during the Chinese New Year period in China (the holiday can be up to 15 days even though it is officially 2 days on most calendars), the working class will take their annual leaves just before the festive period to head back to their hometowns for reunions. All modes of transportation get fully booked as early as 2 months prior. If you are travelling in China during this period, you are unlikely to get last-minute tickets to anywhere. Also, most facilities will be undermanned or closed for several days, and your options for food, lodgings or getting around will be limited and yet prices doubled or even tripled!
Weekends are also holidays for the locals. Streets, roads and tourist spots will have more people than usual. Don't plan a day-trip to popular spots in secluded areas with narrow service roads on weekends. You are most likely going to be caught in traffic jams for hours. Try to plan rest days and skip tourist spots on weekends. If you are moving from town to town, do it on weekends too, then you can start visiting attractions on weekdays when the locals are mostly at work.
Take my trip to Hoi An in 2011 for example, it was a 4 days free-&-easy getaway in a small town. Seems pretty straightforward, so I booked my flights, got a hotel, and off I went!
If I had drilled deeper for more information on the climate, I would have learned that the northeast monsoon would be over Vietnam in November and bringing heavy rains and flash floods. This is an annual occurrence, not an one-off climate change. Spending 4 days in the hotel most of the time and not seeing the whole town was not what I had travelled and paid to see. This can happen to you too.
The flooded town of Hoi An, Central Vietnam, November 2011.
Checking climate information of a country is not difficult, most weather websites and travel guides do published them — just don't skip reading it. I learned to look for a clue from all my travels: when air tickets and hotels are all on heavy discounts for a particular period, it would most probably be the low travel season as there are fewer travellers, check if it is due to unfavourable climatic conditions.
3. Travel Warnings
Travel warnings and alerts are advice that are issued by government bodies and is entirely up to individuals to heed or ignore it. If you choose to ignore it, you bear the risks and blame no one else if things do happen to you.
But, I was talking about omission. If a traveller knows that a travel warning has been issued for a particular place and chooses to go ahead, so be it. What is more worrying is that a majority of travellers do not know what are travel warnings and how they can affect their travels.
Some people (whom I know) actually planned trips to a certain city that got bombed less than 2 weeks prior and the suspects were still at large. They did not read the news, so they are unaware of it, and headed to potential dangers without travel insurance. Most people will not protect themselves until they see the dangers, but it will be too late by then. Not that mishaps will definitely happen, but the rationale is to travel safe and with piece of mind before enjoyment.
Do read news regularly to know what is going on around the world or search for travel safety articles related to your travel destination. And, don't go on trips without travel insurance, unless you can afford any unexpected financial losses.
Take the above factors into considerations when planning and minimise disappointments on your next trip. There are only 3 things to research on. Travel smart and travel safe!