by Rick Green
I came across a thought-provoking article on My Mélange that discusses six mistakes people make when planning/taking trips. These are common enough – and big enough to ruin your vacation – that they are worth repeating. I examine them here with an Asian context.
Excessive Itinerary: Hit & Run Travel
It's easy to get excited about your next trip and want to see as much as possible in the limited time you are in another country. But if you have only two weeks of vacation, especially when travelling in a large country like China, it would be foolish to cram as much in as possible. You will have no time to actually appreciate things, much less meet people beyond your fellow travellers and those you interact with on a commercial basis – tour guide, hotel & restaurant staff, souvenir sellers, touts, etc. You'll just be running around, taking a quick look at the most popular sights, shooting some snaps, then roaring off to the next stop to do the same thing. I call this hit and run travel. Is this really that much different than watching a television travel program edited with quick cuts? Is it worth the $4,000+ more dollars that you'll spend living a television experience? Realize that you won't have any time for serendipity, to take advantage of random opportunities to connect with locals that may never be available to you again.
The best itinerary is one that focuses on your personal interests and allows you the opportunity to explore things in more depth if you come across people, places, or things that grab your attention. Allow time for the unexpected. Be prepared to choose places to visit that may not be on all the popular tours, perhaps even missing out on some iconic sights that everyone insists on going to. Ask yourself, whose trip are you taking? Whose money are you spending? Who do you want to satisfy?
Taking Group Tours: Marching in Step
If you don't like taking the time to plan trip details, don't mind following someone else's schedule, or you choose a destination based more on what is popular with your family or friends than one that actually excites you, a group tour is for you. After finding your "deal/special", all you need to do is show up with your luggage and camera at the airport, then follow the leader. If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium.
Of course, if none of this appeals to you, then a group tour is probably not advisable. Certainly you may be able to travel for less when booking a package. But if you become annoyed by the quirks of your fellow travellers and being cajoled by the tour leader to keep to the schedule, are the savings worth it? If you are going to Asia with a limited amount of time, both to plan your vacation and for actual travel, it's better to pay more for the services of an exclusive local guide which will allow you to travel a lot more efficiently than on your own.
Ideally, if you want to call your own shots because tour companies will only take you where everyone else goes and feed you mediocre food, then you will either need to pare down your itinerary or take more time. I recommend the latter because if you go to countries with a lower cost of living than your home country, your trip grows in value as the cost of your flight is spread over a longer period of time. It also gives you more opportunity to create your own path, spending more time in places you enjoy, less in spots with little appeal.
Travelling with Friends: Friendly Fire
You might think travelling with friends would be a lot of fun, but how well do you know them? Have you ever gone on a trip with them before? Do you like to get an early start to the day while they prefer to sleep in? Do you want to try the local food while they insist on finding a restaurant that reminds them of home? Prefer going to a museum while they want to go shopping? Unless both of you are willing to compromise, these kinds of differences will, at best, hang a cloud over your trip; at worst, they will completely sink your ship.
A multi-week overseas trip is not the time to find out that you and your friends have significant differences in travel style and interests. Not only can it ruin your adventure, but it can very well be fatal to friendships. This is especially true if you are going to travel with your boyfriend or girlfriend for the first time. Better to test out your compatibility on a short weekend trip than to find out a few days into a six week trans-Asia journey that your interests and comfort level are vastly different.
Only English: Getting Beyond Speech
Yes, English is currently the international lingua franca of business and diplomacy. However, to presume that everywhere you go in Asia people should speak English is rather rude. If you become annoyed at locals because of your inability to communicate with them, you can't blame them if they become less than hospitable. You may have caused them a loss of face, or worse, your behaviour recalled the arrogance of colonial times. We certainly don't find that sort of behaviour by foreigners acceptable in our own country.
Mandarin has the greatest number of native speakers in the world, yet the Chinese don't expect other people to understand it. What they will do when going abroad is travel in a Chinese tour group, eating at Chinese restaurants, shopping at Chinese-owned stores, and maybe even staying at Chinese-operated hotels. Remaining in this Chinese cocoon, they will be insulated from truly experiencing a country's culture and meeting its people. Travelling in an English cocoon is really not much better for the experience. However, you will find more people able to speak English in Asia than non-Chinese Mandarin speakers in America.
In my experience, if you take the time to learn some key words and phrases in the local language, people are very pleased by your effort and can be extraordinarily hospitable. If that is the extent of your language ability and you are not amongst English speakers, it won't present you with insurmountable problems. You can communicate a surprising amount through non-verbal communication. The experience of taking the trouble to do this will make the situation that much more memorable. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is a principle that is universal. If you are curious, open, patient, and humorous, your encounters with people will be consistently better, regardless of whether or not you can actually carry a conversation with them. Don't let that be a reason for you not to visit a country.
Overpacking: Less is More
You may have noticed that airlines are getting more strict on the amount of luggage you can carry without incurring a charge. I expect as fuel costs go up, this will only become even more so the case. So one immediate advantage of travelling light is the additional cost you will avoid by doing the opposite. The primary advantage, however, is saving yourself the physical frustrations of lugging around bulky baggage. Wheels are completely useless if there is no sidewalk or pavement.
Like writing succinctly, minimizing what you pack is an art. As you become more adept at this, you will not only appreciate the reduced strain on your body but enjoy the increased mobility. For example, consider that you won't have any problem finding toiletries in Asia. So, why bring them? When I travelled in Guizhou Province in China, even local guesthouses had soap and shampoo. Use either to wash your laundry. If you bring quick-drying garments, you can manage with less by washing more frequently. And do you really need a hair dryer? If you cut your hair short, a warm climate will dry it in no time, even though your clothes may be damp from perspiration.
Under/Over Planning: The Golden Mean
If you put an excessive amount of planning into your trip, you can run into some of the pitfalls I discussed above in terms of trying to be too ambitious with your itinerary or not being open to serendipity. Unless you are limiting yourself to visiting only advanced societies in Asia – like Japan, Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan – expect something to go wrong. If you haven't accounted for that in your trip plan, it can throw off the timing of the rest of your vacation. Most North Americans, having been conditioned into expecting nothing less than flawless execution (or your money back), often do not react well to the realities of the rest of the world. Needless to say, becoming angry at something locals must endure on a regular basis is not going to endear you to the people who may be able to help you. In fact, some of the most memorable travel experiences happen when you take problems in stride and sympathetic locals go out of their way to put things right. After all, they don't want you leaving with a bad impression of them or their country and telling others not to visit.
Planning too little means you may not know what to do when you arrive at your destination or how to get around. Wasted time can mean wasted money and squandered opportunities. Worse, I think, is not being able to appreciate what is around you. If you can only comprehend the superficial aspects of what you see instead of finding meaning and purpose, you are wasting time and money. Better to just go somewhere closer to home and lie on a beach.
That said, I am finding travel without a guidebook to be a pleasant, liberating experience. That doesn't mean I don't plan ahead. I read about the culture and history of a place, find out about their food specialties, study maps, and get a sense of how to get around. However, when I go on the actual journey, I leave the guidebook behind to create my own path. Why? Because a guidebook represents a trodden path begun with one person and followed by numerous readers afterwards.
The main problems a guidebook listing can present travellers with are decreasing value and getting ripped off. Say a restaurant gets a glowing recommendation from a guidebook author. All of a sudden, that eatery may find itself inundated with tourists. Prices will likely go up; quality often goes down. Chances are, there's an unlisted restaurant nearby just waiting for you, offering what the guidebook author originally experienced because they still need to offer value to attract customers. Also consider what happens when a guidebook brand has some cachet. Would you be surprised if a fleabag hotel posted a "Recommended by X Guide" sign in its front window without a writer even having visited it? "It was in a previous edition." If you blindly follow the brand and check in, good luck in getting your money back if you paid upfront.
Leaving the guidebook behind (but bringing a map and phrasebook) will allow you to become a more savvy traveller by honing your skills through experience. Yes, you will make mistakes, but that shouldn't be a reason to limit your horizons. It is how we learn.
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