To Plan or Not to Plan

Sri Lanka Train Time Table

To Plan or Not to Plan is a common question for travellers. There are pros and cons to both travel mindsets, planner or spontaneous. However, I prefer to balance in the middle, with some pre-planning and some impulsive adventure. In the end, it is really up to an individual’s or travel group’s preferences. If a lot of uncertainty causes anxiety, then this might interfere with the enjoyment of the trip. On the other hand, too much planning can also cause stress. It can result in something I refer to as running through sights. By this, I mean that packing too much in may feel more like running past sights than enjoying the experience.

I will share examples from a few trips to highlight which parts I planned and which parts I left up to chance. Keep in mind that these are based on my own and my travel partners’ preferences. You may have different preferences and that’s okay. However, the important message is to think about which aspects to consider as you decide what to plan or not to plan. Also, remember that there are almost always unexpected changes to plans during travel. Therefore, be prepared to be flexible and adaptable to some degree.

A few aspects to consider include:

  • Safety
  • Availability (e.g. of attractions, transportation or accommodation)
  • Cost – planning ahead can often be cheaper
  • Time

Example 1: City break to Andorra

For this type of city break, I generally do less planning except for the essentials of transport and accommodation. In a city, I know there will be sights and restaurants to see. I had also read in advance about the languages spoken and that the city was generally safe.

Planned

  • Transportation from Toulouse to Andorra by bus – these only run every few hours and despite my planning I missed the first bus due to not finding the pick-up point. However, I made sure not to miss the bus back to Toulouse for my flight home!
  • Accommodation booked using hotel points

Unplanned

  • Trying a wonderful, gourmet restaurant called Kokosnot
  • Discovering street art around Andorra la Vella
  • Walking through nature in the surrounding hills, including an irrigation trail
  • Shopping for food and clothes- I didn’t know in advance that it has reduced tax

Example 2: Group tour around Jordan

Due to time constraints, I opted for an organised group tour to see some of the main sights in Jordan. My main reason for the trip was to attend my friends’ wedding in Tel Aviv, Israel. Therefore, the visit to Jordan was a side trip and I only had a few days available. Even with most of the days planned out with sights to visit, there were some opportunities for exploring and connecting with new people.

Planned

  • Itinerary of sightseeing each day with highlights including Petra, Jarash, Mount Nebo and Wadi Rum. Petra requires tickets in advance and these can sell out so this part needs to be planned whether in a group or solo
  • Most of the meals were organised
  • Accommodation was included
  • Transport was part of the package though not always predictable and on time!

Unplanned

  • Interacting with local school kids at Jarash
  • Hiking quickly with a few friends at Petra to reach the Monastery
  • Choosing some of the meals to try during our free time
  • Dancing with local tourists at the Wadi Rum Sand Rose Desert camp
  • Meeting new friends on the trip, some of whom I am still friends with four years later
  • Swimming in the Red Sea near Eilat & Aqaba

Example 3: Visit to Kazakhstan and personal tour of Kyrgyzstan

My main reason for visiting Kazakhstan was to attend the wedding of friends of a friend in the north. In addition to the wedding, I planned to visit Almaty, Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) and Kyrgyzstan. From some travel reading, I felt that the cities of Almaty and Astana would be easy to visit without a guide. I thought they would also be relatively safe, although a few months earlier, a famous Kazakh figure skater had been stabbed to death in Almaty. He had been trying to stop people from stealing his car mirrors.

My friend met me in Almaty and Astana, but I was on my own for Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, I decided to find a guide because of the need for transport and also for safety in Kyrgyzstan. Luckily, I ended up being the only person leaving on that day so the small group tour was me, the guide and the driver. That meant the itinerary could be more flexible as long as we kept moving on the general tour path.

Planned

  • Accommodation in Almaty and Nur-Sultan
  • Flights between Almaty and Nur-Sultan due to timing for the wedding – one can also take a train if there is more time
  • The wedding and celebrations near Kokshetau
  • Overall travel itinerary for Kyrgyzstan including most accommodation and some meals; finding a recommended tour guide and driver in advance. I am glad I went for the private option. A friend on a group tour seemed a lot more rushed and got food poisoning.

Unplanned

  • Most of our meals in Almaty and Nur-Sultan were spontaneous and based on recommendations from our friends
  • Taking the sky tram up to Kok-Tobe Hill
  • Walking around the cities, choosing which sights to visit
  • Booking an extra day trip out of Almaty to hike around Issyk Lake and see the State historical cultural museum-reserve Issyk
  • Staying at a sort of Air BnB in Bishkek to see a bit of the city
  • Picking up a French cyclist with a broken bike to join for part of the Kyrgyzstan tour
  • Interacting with the home stay hosts
  • Doing more or less hiking each day
  • Talking with and learning a lot from my guide and driver throughout the trip

Conclusions

In general, I like to have some parts of my trips planned such as transport and accommodation. This is usually because I have some degree of time constraint. It is also usually more cost-friendly to book in advance. However, I also like to leave some time and options open to decide once I am at the destination. For new places, it is difficult to know what you may feel like seeing, doing, or eating in advance. Of course, you may have some must-see places such as Petra in Jordan which you can ensure to build into your trip. In addition, it is useful to think of attractions that may require booking in advance. In the case of Machu Picchu, this can be many months in advance or the permits may be sold out!

Also, I think even for tours with an itinerary, there are almost always opportunities to discover the unexpected. For example, you don’t know who you will meet on the tour or at the places you visit. It is a chance to speak with and learn about other people. If you want more time for adventure, you might also look for a tour with significant “free time”.

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