Traveling on the Road

While traveling with this wisp of an itinerary was really appealing, we needed to have some sort of plan to make it work. I could just imagine us showing up in some Central European city and looking at each other with “Now what?” expressions, or spending hours on the internet finding a place to stay or the best way to get from where we were to where we wanted to be.

Since I tend to get carried away with big concept ideas. I wanted to call this our On The Road Protocol. But Linda rolled her eyes and helped me understand this was too technical, but for those of you who are like me, that’s exactly what this is.

While this describes what we will do as we travel, in order to be able to travel this way there were also some things we needed to do before we left. Ironically, being in a position to be spontaneous requires a lot of preparation, not only for choosing where to go, but to be able to move around more or less effortlessly once you get there. Add to that the fact that we would be dealing with life’s minutia without a place to receive physical mail. You can find how we prepared for our trip (credit cards, banking arrangements, visas, …) here.

Before going to a new country

So whenever we decide to go to a new country, we will simply do the following:

Check the place out
  1. Once we decide to go someplace, we will go to a U.S. State Department website for that country. It not only has contact information for the local embassy, but also includes information we will use later to learn about the country. I’ll download that into Evernote so that it will be available offline if I need it. We are not very paranoid people in general, but on our first trip to Prague years ago, the first morning of the first day, Linda’s wallet was stolen, and having local embassy contact information available could have reduced a really really bad situation to merely really bad.
  2. We’ll also look on the State Department’s Alerts and Warnings. A warning here would give us serious pause to consider if we really wanted to go someplace.
  3. We’ll also check out the Center For Disease Control’s Traveler’s Health page for that country as well as the Center For Disease Control’s Malaria Map. Both Linda and I are pretty healthy, and on a shorter trip I wouldn’t do this, but we are going to be in some regions for months at a time and it is worth paying attention to what is going on there. We had gotten vaccinations but we still needed to be aware if we were at risk of malaria because we needed to start taking the antimalarial drug before we arrived someplace with a significant risk of exposure, and we needed to take (extra) measures to avoid mosquito bites.
  4. We could (but didn’t, although we may change our minds as we travel) also register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) — a free service that allows you to enroll your trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. They would then send you important information from the Embassy about safety conditions and would allow the U.S. Embassy to contact you in an emergency (natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency) and help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency.
  5. We’ll also check out the local weather.
Learn about the country

If we are going to a new country, there are some things we need to know (being on your own has certain advantages but does require work) — local customs, currency and currency restrictions, tipping, how to get around, how to stay safe, and especially how to dress and what kind of documentation you have to carry with you at all times. While many of the travel guides and official tourist websites have that, I find it is best to start with Wikitravel and the U.S. State Department website for that country.

We also need to know a few words in the language of the country we are going to, especially “I’m sorry I don’t speak [their language], do you speak English?”, as well as the spoken and written words for “bank” and “cash machine.” We used the Internet to find phrases, but a better solution are apps that can help with language — (Google) Translate is one of them and has the advantage of being free. There are also a few others that I will be testing out as we travel, and I’ll post our experiences using them.

Decide where to start and other places to go

Even after we created our wisp of an itinerary, I’ll still use Facebook, Twitter, and my Feedly RSS feed to learn about places to go to and what is happening, and I’ll add that information to my notes or bookmark it on my laptop. I divided links by topics, both general and destination specific, and I also included some general booking sites because they often had information on where to go and what to see. I also had all of my notes in Evernote notebooks.

We’ll usually start with the official tourist websites for a destination, and move on from there to guidebook and destination specific sites. But more importantly, we’ll just talk to people we meet.

A lot of these websites we used had apps, and I downloaded what was useful and put them all in a series of Travel folders on my iPhone.

This gives us an idea of the places we might like to visit in a country, including where to start, and if I were feeling particularly ambitious, I’d mark them on a custom map.

With a destination in mind

Once we decide where we are going, there are a few things we’ll do.

Figure out how to get there and get around

Once we decide where we are going, we will have to decide how we are going to get there. We’ll start with Rome2rio: discover how to get anywhere, and supplement that with Wikitravel. We’ll also sometimes go to websites I have bookmarked. If we are traveling by train, we’ll start with The Man in Seat Sixty-One, and I have found a number of transportation specific sites and search engines we can also use. Since we have Eurail passes for Europe, we will use the Eurail site and also use Google search for information on train travel in that country. There are also a number of general booking sites that will do everything for you, and I’ll check them out as well.

There are a few things we ordered in advance, one being a Eurail pass and the other some of our airline tickets. You’ll find a discussion of those kinds of things in the “Where to go (and how to get there)” section in Before We Left.

We ‘ll use Wikitravel and other websites to understand how to get around once we get there, and also if there are multi-trip payment cards on local transportation, and how to purchase them.

We’ll  also use and download the how to get a SIM card page for that country to know how to get a SIM card for our phone.

Decide where to stay

A few days before we get there, we also need to make a reservation for a place to stay.

Where we want to stay in a city is based on our specific interests. For example, since we had decided we wanted to spend three weeks in Berlin (one of the “I’ve always wanted to go to places”), we are staying in an apartment in the Kreuzberg district since that’s where we’ll find local galleries and street art. There are a lot of sites that have this kind of information (and who want you to book through them). These include the general booking sites and many of the local sites, as well as Google search. This one can be a little tricky, depending on the website and city. We’ll often just find the old town district, and where the art galleries and museums are, and go from there.

We’ll also need to decide the kinds of place we want to stay in. Most of the time, if we’re going to be someplace for at least a week, we want to rent an apartment. Otherwise, or if we are way out of our comfort zone (like in a parts of Southeast Asia or China), we’ll look for small hotels or bed and breakfasts.

Decide what to do

By this time I have bookmarked a lot of destination specific websites along with regional and general travel guides and blogs. I’ll still use Facebook, Twitter, and my Feedly RSS feed to learn about places to go and what is happening, and I’ll add that information to my notes or bookmark it. I also find that the Foursquare app is useful to see what is going on and where to go while we are out and about, as is the Spotted By Locals app.

When we get to our destination we will:

  1. Get a SIM card for our phone.
  2. Look through the local official tourist web site (if there is one).
  3. Search the sites I bookmarked and whatever was new on my RSS feeds, and read the notes I had taken.
  4. Talk to any friends or friends of friends who are there.
  5. See if there are discount tourist passes.
  6. Find local walking tours.
  7. See if there are any Hop On Hop Off tourist busses. The guided tour is often tacky, but it is a great way to get to the sights you might want to see and to get an idea of the overall layout of the city
  8. Check out Spotted By Locals, Foursquare, and other travel apps.
  9. Download information about places we intend to visit to reduce the need for an Internet connection (easily done in Evernote).
  10. Create a custom map of the places we want to see (if I’m  feeling particularly ambitious and there are a lot of places we want to explore).
  11. Explore and discover.

Armed with knowledge and downloaded information on our phones, we’ll go out and explore, but it isn’t unusual for us to simply just wander. This has been a long tradition for us that started during our first trip to Paris many years ago.

I had taken Linda with me on a business trip to Europe, and we had a few days to spend in Paris.

I had dutifully made a list of all the places we needed to see, and after we checked into the hotel, we started walking (okay maybe marching) up the Champs-Élysées to our first destination. It was a beautiful day, and we came across a classic sidewalk café, the kind you imagine when you think about Paris. It was irresistible. So we sat down, had a few glasses of wine, forgot about our itinerary, and spent the next three hours watching people go by. That defined the way we liked to travel from then on — not necessarily in sidewalk cafes drinking wine, but simply being absorbed into wherever we were.

Decide where to go next

Once it’s time to move on, we’ll go through the process again. If there are other places we want to see in that country, we’ll go there; otherwise it is off to the next country. We’ll continue to refine our journey based on what we did and learned, using the links I found while planning the trip and adding to them as I continue to use Facebook, Twitter, and my Feedly RSS feed. I’ll also update my notes as we meet people along the way, or as we find things we really want to explore even more.

While at this point we only have the first 17 months laid out, there are still a lot of places we want to visit. So along the way we’ll occasionally start thinking about the next leg of our journey as well.

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