Thursday, May 17, 2012

From the Desk to Vietnam (ITC Week 21)

 For week 21 of the Indie Travel Challenge, we’d like you to tell us what your travel dreaming tools of choice are. Do you still pull pages from magazines? Do you keep a spreadsheet on your computer, organized by country? Do you have a smartphone app or a website you love?
When I talk about trips I’ve taken or places I’ve traveled, one of the common responses I get is, “I wouldn’t even know where to begin to do something like that.”  How do I get from a blank piece of free time to getting hit by a motorcycle in Vietnam? 

To begin with, I love maps; I always have.  When I was a child, we had a dusty red set of encyclopedias, already years out of date.  The last volume was my favorite—an atlas with hundreds of maps of different parts of the world.  Now and then, I would pull it out and flip through, reading the names of distant cities and seas and mountain ranges. 
Maps still fascinate me.  I like to navigate on road trips, and I like to keep a map updated of where I’ve been.  Google maps is one of my most frequent distractions when I have down time at work.   Most of my trips start there; I start with my city, and zoom out: what’s to the north? The south?  What’s along the way between me and another major city? What loop could I go in that would include the most places I’d like to see?  If I go this direction this time, and that direction another time, what will I find? 
Once I have an idea of the general possibilities, my next step is usually lonelyplanet.com.  A bit clichéd, maybe, but useful, especially if I’m not already familiar with a country or region.  Lonely planet gives a list of “top picks”; while some of these are unavoidably touristy, it gives me a good idea of what’s on offer.  Then, it’s back to google: first stop, google images to see the place, then google search to find out about its importance and history and all, and finally back to google maps to plot it on a custom map I’ve created for the trip.  Repeat process, until I’ve plotted everything I would like to see or do on the map.  Then it’s time for lonely planet again, as well as train schedules, flight websites like Kayak and Vayama, bus schedules, etc.  What route is feasible, both time-wise and monetarily?  Once I figure out what would be entailed in getting to each destination, I can choose a route that will include as many as possible without backtracking too much.
Once I’ve got a general route, then I can find out about hostels on hostelworld.com or hostels.com.  I don’t usually plan a strict itinerary; in fact, the longer I travel, the less detailed my plans get.  I make a list of things I’d like to do in a city, but once I arrive I decide the specifics based on the weather, my mood, and what other discoveries I make along the way.  Here are the websites I use the most, if you want to research a trip of your own:
General Travel Information 
Flights
Where to Stay 
(These are hostels websites, but they also show inexpensive hotels, bed and breakfasts, etc.) 
Travel Articles, Podcasts, and Stories
  •  Amateur Traveler  My very favorite travel podcast (also available on iTunes), but there’s a lot of good stuff on the website, too.
  • Rick Steve's Radio Show  (also available under podcasts on iTunes)
  • Rick Steve's Europe  Advice and planning for a beginner traveler to Europe 
  •  Matador Online travel magazine
  •  BootsnAll Travel articles, geared towards long-term independent backpackers 
  • Vagablogging The blog of one of my favorite travel writers, Rolf Potts
Misc. 
  •  Time and Date  Good for figuring out, until you get used to the time zones, if it’s too late at night to call home.
  •  XE Currency Converter  Useful until you get used to a different currency.

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