How to Plan Your Trip

I went to a talk today that was supposed to be on backpacking, and travelling without breaking the bank.

It was horrible.

The lecturer talked of hitchhiking, sleeping out in the open, carrying thousands of dollars on you so you don’t waste money using a bank machine in another country, and buying separate plane tickets to get the best deals. He spoke of getting accosted on public transport, and how he carries peppery spray as a deterrent while travelling. He told us not to get caught in tourist traps (good advice, yes) but lectured us that it was never, ever, ever to be done. He gave an example of a couple who paid to go up in a hot-air balloon in Turkey, while he got up early while they were being filled and took photographs, for free.

Never mind that sometimes a person wants to do, or see, a tourist trap – the Eiffel Tower is a tourist trap, but will you not visit it while in Paris? My safari was a tourist trap, but I am forever grateful that I spent that $900.

Never mind that it should be up to traveller to decide – if you are aware that it is a tourist trap, but are willing to pay the money to experience it, if it is on your bucket list, by all means pay the money and go! Do! See!

One thing this man missed in Turkey was the experience of floating, in an open air basket, in the quiet, still morning air as it floated over a foreign country. Taking pictures of the hot-air balloons on the ground is fine, but that I can do at home. Flying over Turkey in a hot-air balloon will look nothing like flying over Ottawa in a hot-air balloon.

Suffice to say, I was not pleased with the lecture. Besides being encouraged to participate in some rather risky behaviour – hitchhiking? Really? – he gave us no information. He talked of his trips, of planning where he was going next, but gave no information on what websites were helpful, what resources he uses to research his trips, how to apply for visas, or anything. It was, in a word, useless. (Also, scary.)

So here’s my list. Here’s what resources I use, what websites I visit, and how to find out if you need a visa.

PLANNING

Once you know you want to go somewhere, you have to decide where. I usually end up walking by travel agencies, to see what places are advertised that week, or by hitting the Air Canada website to look up various destinations.

Travel Cuts
You’ve got your location, now you need a ticket. Travel Cuts has, by far, the best deals I’ve found. I haven’t found them cheaper anywhere else – not Expedia, not Kayak, not Travelocity. That isn’t to say that you can’t find cheap flights on these webistes, and I still recommend you do some price checking, but Travel Cuts is where I always end up buying my ticket. Sometimes the routing leaves a little to be desired – when I went to Costa Rica my itinerary was Ottawa – Newark – Houston – Liberia, Costa Rica, and on the way home it was Liberia –Houston – Chicago – Ottawa, but it was all on one ticket (if I had missed a flight, the carrier was responsible for getting me on another one, rather than me having to pay for a new ticket), and I had enough time between flights that I wasn’t rushed to get on the next one.

Lonely Planet
They don’t always have the best guide books (I’ve been told that Bradt travel guides are the best for Africa, Moon travel guides are the best for Central America) but their traveller forum, The Thorn Tree, is a wonderful resource for planning. Used by other travellers and locals, you can search previous posts matching your inquiry, or post a new one, to find current information, recommendations, and advisors.

Hostels.com, Hostel World, Hotels.com
So you’ve bought the ticket, you’re researching what to do, now you need a place to stay. All these sites provide an easy, hassle-free way to book rooms. The first two are, of course, cheaper than the third. However, cheaper does not necessarily mean cockroach filled! It also does not automatically mean you will be sharing a dorm room with 15 other people. It is possible to book private (some with an ensuite, some with shared bath), double, or triple rooms, at a hostel, at a fraction of the cost of a hotel. Check it out, look at the pictures, and read the reviews.

Trip Advisor
This site is a great resource for double checking the reviews from the links above. Just type in the name of the hotel (or company) and you can read other reviews – you can see how many excellent, good, average, poor or terrible reviews a place has, to help you decide where to stay in an unfamiliar city.

Google Maps and Google Images
You can check out how far (or how close!) to an attraction hotels are by using Google Maps. It also allows you to check out the neighbourhood of the hotel. Google Images allows you to see photos of not only different hotels (just type in the name and off you go) but also of sites – how easy is it to get around? Is there anything there actually worth seeing?

Hotwire
If it doesn’t matter where, exactly, you end up staying, this site is great at offering great deals on hotels. The only catch is, you don’t know where your staying until you book. The site will give you a general location (say….within 2 or 3 miles of the location you picked), the number of stars the hotel has, and what big-name chains fall in that category, but it won’t tell you the address or name of the hotel until after you’ve booked. If your location is very important (i.e. you’re attending a conference, and need to be close to the conference centre) this might not be the best site.

Currency Exhange
Once you’ve started looking at what to do at your destination, you may find prices quoted in the local price. This is a fantastic currency converting website, and really easy to use.

I usually bring enough money to get me through the first few days. I put all my hotels/hostels on my visa, and use atms to withdraw more money in the local currency. The exception to this is when I went to East Africa. Occasionally, I was in places where there were no atms, and so I had to carry more currency with me than normal. But for most destinations, I carry about $500 with me. (This number could go up if you’re travelling as a family.)

TRAVEL DOCUMENTS

Passports
If you’re Canadian, and need a passport, Passport Canada is where you need to go. Their website covers everything from how to renew a passport, how to apply, what to do it your passport is lost or stolen.

One thing to keep in mind, is that some countries require that your passport be valid 3 to 6 months after your departure. The link for travel advisories below also includes that information.

Visas
How do you know if you need a visa? If you’re Canadian, I can help you with that. Or rather, the government can.
Travel.gc.ca is a government website full of information, on which countries require a visa, what travel advisors are in place (both topics available here http://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories) to health precautions in different areas. I (personally) take the warnings with a grain of salt – I take note of where, exactly, the warning is for, and how close it is to my chosen destination, and decide how comfortable I feel.

Google
By now we all probably know that google is the go-to when you need information. Sometimes you need to apply for a visa in person, sometimes you can apply online. Type in “Canadian Visa application for ….” with your destination, and you’ll find lots of info on what to do next.

HEALTH

For information on what vaccines you may need before you leave, check out the Public Health Agency They’ll tell you what you definitely need, and what is only recommended. Occasionally, if you are only going to built-up urban centres, you don’t need a lot of vaccines beyond a regular booster. However, if you intend to travel outside these areas (into jungles, deserts, forests, etc.) you may need a vaccine. For some, such as yellow fever, some countries require proof that you’ve been vaccinated, a small yellow certificate.

Ultimately, you definitely want to talk with a doctor to find out what vaccines are the best for you. These websites are merely guides and should not replace a doctor’s supervision.

Tips on Travel:

1. You should get your vaccines early – 6 weeks prior to your trip is the typical timeframe for vaccination, at a minimum.

2. Know yourself. If you like to be prepared, book things before you leave. If you like to wing it, leave it open. No one way is best. I like to have at least the first night booked when I’m going to a foreign country. It gives me time to get my legs under me (to borrow some hockey lingo) and allows me time to adapt and find my way around.

3. Take all reviews with a grain of salt. Do some other research – did this person book into a hostel, expecting a five-star resort? Read some of their other reviews to get an idea of who they are, and how they travel. And again, something that bothers them may not bother you.

4. Don’t pack your money in your checked luggage. Keep it with you at all times, but not all in the same place. I usually put my passport and a large portion of my money in a money belt, and put enough money for that day in my wallet. That way, if I get pickpocketed, they only get what I would have spent that day, not everything.

I hope this helps you plan your trips, and makes for some smooth(er) travelling.

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Lions and Leopards and Elephants, Oh My!

I went on a five-day safari, through Tarangire National Park, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater immediately after I climbed Kili.  Overall, the safari was a wonderful experience.  The people I was with, on the other hand, were a different matter all together.

I left Moshi at 4:30 in the morning.  The safari had actually started the day before, but of course I was just coming down off the mountain.  Daniel, from Tro-Peaks (the company I did the Kili climb with) picked me up and drove me to the campsite, Zion Campsite, just outside Tarangire National Park.  We arrived just in time for breakfast, and I got to meet my travelling companions for the next five days.

I was with 5 Italians.  If they had been dwarves they would have been: Complainer, Princess, Clubber, Insufferable and Nice.  (Yes, one of them was actually a nice person, the others not so much.)  Of course, the first day I didn’t know this.  But over the next five days, their personalities became very clear.

We set off for Tarangire right after breakfast.  After registering at the gate, the top of land cruiser was popped open, and we began our game drive.  We saw hundreds of elephants within the first half hour.  (We were also charged by an angry elephant within the first half hour.)  Most of the day was filled with different animals sightings – giraffes, zebras, gazelles, impalas, elephants, baboons, even a lion.

Around 5 we headed back to the camp, and the complaining began.  About the food, about the driver, about the campsite, about the stretch of time in the afternoon that we didn’t see any animals.  (As if they can be ordered to appear on demand)

The next day it was off to the Serengeti – a long drive that took us through a few small towns (including a stop for groceries, and to get a fuse fixed so the Italians could charge their phones using a plug in the land cruiser.), and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. 

The Serengti was indescribable. I’ll still try, but it was….one of the spots that you could easily see yourself spending the rest of your life. The light in the morning, when the sun rose was an incredible rosy colour, and at dusk when it was setting, the light seemed to hang in the air. We saw evrything – leopards in trees, more elephants, more lions, cheetahs, zebras, antelopes, a hippo pool. At times the animals were close enough that we didn’t need a zoom – we saw a coalition of cheetahs lazing under a tree on the side of the road; at another time we saw a pride of lions (including an adorable baby) resting under a tree, you guessed, on the side of the road.
At night, you could hear the hyenas as they prowled near the kitchens. Thankfully, they were the only visitors (that I know of) to our camp.

Our final morning in Serengeti we woke early to take an early morning game drive through the park. Then it was back to pack up the landcruiser, and head to the Ngorongoro Crater, after a stop at a Maasai village straddling the Serengeti the Ngorongoro conservation area.

At the NCA, we set up camp at Simba camp, the most popular camp at the top of the crater. It wasn’t hard to see why – with an elephant grazing on trees and bushes behind the mess hall, and a herd of zebras chilling on the grassy plain of the camp site, we had our fair share of wild visitors.

As in our camp in the Serengeti, we had electrical outlets in the mess halls to charge any electronics – phones, camera batteries, or tablets. Very useful for those of us who had spent more time camping with no electricity than in hotels! If only I had brought my chargers with me…

Our final moring we started the drive into the crater. One word of warning to anyone hoping to do a game drive in the crater, it’s cold. Pack several layers of fleece because you will definitely need it. One of the Italians on my trip pulled out her sleeping bag – another solution, but one that leaves you with fewer photo taking options. The Ngorongoro crater was…flat. There were a few trees, but for the most part you could see it stretching out in all directions until it was lost in the early morning haze.

I have to admit that by this point I was a little safaried out. I had seen pretty much every animal there was to see, with two notable exceptions. Servals, a small(ish) wild African cat, and a rhino. There aren’t many rhinos in Ngorongoro – there were 18 in 2001 (statistic found here), and the crater itself is 260 km sq, or 100 sq mi. However, withing a very short time of arriving, our driver suddenly changed directions, and began driving off down the road into a great expanse of green. We all wondered what was going – we had just been watching a mating dance between ostriches, and couldn’t figure out why we had so suddenly taken off. Turns out our driver had either heard news of, or had seen himself, a rhino off in the distance. And there he (she?) was – lumbering away in the distance. The closest we got was maybe 100 metres (maybe 150 – it was hard to judge the distance) but it wasn’t particularly close. With my zoom lens (35x zoom) I got a fairly decent photo.

I never did get to see a serval.