Secrets of the Trade

Someone asked me why I claim to spend so much time travel planning, and I joked, ‘Because I’m OCD.’ The actual answer is that I research a lot before we step foot anywhere. That includes housing, customs, vocabulary, and activities. In case you want to do the same, here are the steps I take.

I Book Housing

I do this in advance because (a) it’s usually cheaper, (b) it gives me peace-of-mind that we won’t have to sleep in a train station somewhere, and (c) it gives us more choices of neighborhood and amenities. For each city we go to, I research:

The neighborhoods:

  1. We need to be on a subway or bus line, so we can get around easily.
  2. I want an area that’s fairly central, so we don’t spend all our time and money on the subway or bus.
  3. I look for a neighborhood that’s safe, so I can walk around by myself without carrying a samurai sword.
  4. Ideally, the area should have grocery stores or cafes, so we don’t have to get on a train to get a meal.

Good resources to use are blogs and forums about neighborhoods, and Google Maps.

The rooms:

  1. I look for a place where we don’t share a bedroom with anyone, and I prefer non-shared apartments – though in certain cities, this is not a realistic option.
  2. I want a place that has a full or a queen bed, rather than bunk beds or two twin beds or mattresses on the ground. Again, this hasn’t been possible everywhere: our ‘push beds together’ skills have improved lately.
  3. I’m pretty firm on having a ‘Western-style’ toilet at our apartment. Holes in the ground are not a long-term solution for me.
  4. I prefer to have at least one desk and chair, for working.
  5. If I see laundry in the unit, I get excited.
  6. Cost matters. Over the course of a year of stays abroad, we spent an average of $46 per night! Cambodia was much cheaper and Japan much more expensive, as expected.

The apartment or hotel sites below usually help determine whether the place meets our needs, but e-mailing the owner is another good way to find out.

The booking:

  1. I check apartment sites like AirBnB, Wimdu, HomeAway, 9Flats, or FlipKey. Over time, I stopped checking everything but the first two, because they never seemed to have anything affordable that I wanted. 67% of our nights ended up being in AirBnB lodging and 5% at Wimdu.
  2. I check hotel and hostel sites like Agoda (in Asia), Priceline, HostelWorld, Venere, or TravelPony. 6% of our nights ended up being in Agoda lodging and 3% in Priceline hotels.
  3. If I’m still not finding anything affordable, I check out more unusual accommodations like, University Rooms, or Monastery Stays. Because we already work, I don’t check house sitting or work away sites, though those can be good resources too. I also avoid hotels that let you work the front desk in exchange for housing for that same reason.
  4. If all else fails, I go direct. I look for recent blog posts describing affordable hotels and look at their websites. In Cinque Terre, I found a place by starting there and then having hotels that were already sold out recommend other places to stay in town. In Koh Phi Phi, we just walked around asking about prices and internet until we found a place. 17% of our nights were spent in housing I booked directly with the hotel or apartment we stayed at.

I Research Customs

To make sure we don’t do something monumentally offensive, we check:

The tipping etiquette. In some places, tipping is considered to be offensive. In others, you tip tour guides, but not cabbies, for example. We write down the tipping guidelines so that we know what to do.

The things that give offense. In both Singapore and Japan, you are supposed to hand people things (like business cards or money) with both hands – or put it directly into the tray they have specifically for this purpose; handing someone money with one hand can be perceived as rude. There are also gestures or acts that are off-limits: for example, in Buddhist and Hindu temples, you not only remove your shoes before entering, but you also don’t want the underside of your feet facing the Buddha statues, as it is disrespectful.

The things that are illegal. We don’t want to accidentally end up in a foreign jail because we didn’t know that chewing gum is not allowed in Singapore, for example.

The ways to use the facilities. I don’t just mean bathrooms, though this is the most common. In some countries, you can’t flush toilet paper, while in others, there are complex bidets with dozens of settings and buttons to press. We also look up whether their tap water is safe to drink.

The currency. How much a local currency is ‘worth’ compared to the dollar changes regularly, so we check the latest numbers and how they’re trending. B also comes up with tricks for figuring out the approximate dollar cost quickly, like dividing by 3 then multiplying by 5.

The dangers. If there are radical groups or coups or threats going on, we check on those. The State Department also sends us somewhat alarmist e-mails when something changes in a country we have indicated we will be visiting. I register with them, to ensure they know to look for us in case of an emergency, God forbid.

The big cost savings. If there are easy ways to save a lot of time or money – like a transit card or a discount code off an expensive attraction we want to visit – I look for those. I don’t go crazy with that though.

I Look Up Some Vocabulary

While many more people than we expected in the places we visit speak English (or Russian or French), many do not. Moreover, I think it’s rude to show up in a foreign country and demand that they speak your language to you. Can you imagine someone from Brazil showing up in Iowa and getting mad that Iowans don’t speak Portuguese? That said, we’ve traveled to a dozen countries, so learning each language is not possible. Instead, we aim to learn key words that help us get food, ride public transit, and buy things. (I list the words we’ve found it useful to learn here. <link coming>) I compile these words in advance, so we don’t have to try to frantically use Google Translate in a place with a weak internet signal.

I Find Activities

Getting to a city without a clue of what it has often leads to regret and indecision, so I try to think ahead. However, I keep it flexible: my planning isn’t as rigid as people seem to imagine. (Why being organized is associated with being rigid is a mystery to me.) I don’t make itineraries, nor do I get attached to the places I research. Instead, I look up:

The things to see. I make a list of the different activities that are available, with relevant information: what it is, where it is, and what its hours are. (These lists turn into my ‘What We Saw‘ posts.) Then, on any given day, we see what we’re in the mood for – and often, we just wander through neighborhoods without checking our list. For each city we visit, I find 15 to 40 activities, and we usually get a few more recommendations from others at the places we stay. Blogs and Wikitravel are my favorite resources, though tourism sites for each city have also been helpful.

The events. I look up events happening in the city specifically while we’re there. Examples include the Bangkok market and the Salerno lights festival.

I Look Up Food

I love to eat. I can eat anything, but to say I enjoy it all would be lying. So, if I have a chance, I get some recommendations for delicious foods in the area we’re visiting. I research:

The restaurants. My favorite sources are the blogs of foodies and the Chowhound message boards – though that latter one tends to skew to fancy/expensive restaurants, so I check prices first. I also like getting recommendations from friends: in Singapore, the crab in sauce we ate at the Long Beach Seafood Restaurant was as good as my friend (another B) described. I leave room for us to discover unique places ourselves, but it’s nice to have a meal that I’m already looking forward to.

The foods. It’s nice to know the regional or local specialties we should try – regardless of restaurant. This can be a unique liquor or a type of local BBQ. Here are the results of my efforts in Korea, Cambodia, and Singapore, for example.

What I DON’T Look Up

Based on the above list, you might wonder if there is anything left that I don’t research. Don’t worry! There is:

Transit systems. If we’re getting in to a new country or city very late or very early, I look up whether the subway is still running, or how much a cab costs. Otherwise, I don’t do too much research in advance. All subway or train stations have maps of their lines, and many will even give you a copy to take with you. And because we have internet and Google Maps, there’s a lot we can figure out on-the-spot as we go.

The city history. should look up information about how a history came to be, or its role in various wars, but I am all researched out by this point. So, we rely on the city museums to tell us about these things. It’s an imperfect system, but we’re usually more interested in the culture, the food, and the people of a city, so we focus there.

The products. Sometimes, just finding a grocery store is hard, because Google Maps doesn’t work well, and we don’t know the names of the local chains. Moreover, once you get there, if the products have non-Latin characters (like Japanese), you’re pretty much guessing which one is yogurt versus jello or pudding or sour cream. I’m not sure how I would even research that in any reasonable amount of time.


So, there you have it: why travel planning is so time-consuming. In each city we visit, I’m researching the next city while also seeing the city we’re in and working part time and doing chores. Perhaps that makes it clearer why I don’t consider our trip to be a vacation. I think living in one place would be much more restful.

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