I hope you enjoy the read and find my system helpful in planning your own adventure. With snowy days keeping us home-bound here in Sapporo, there is a lot of free time to plan out our future travel. A lot of folks ask about the process and how we are able to save so much money. I thought it might be fun to put it into the blog. These days with the internet, planning our time isn't really too different than you planning out a vacation. Few people use travel agencies and those that do are usually only buying packages such as a cruise or a week long-stay at a resort. Package vacations usually include hotel, activities, transportation, tours and guides. You pretty much write the check and let someone else do the planning...and you pay for that in profit margins, commission, and fees. We bypass all of that (most of the time) and here's how.
Picking the Place: We aren't "destination" people as much as we are journey oriented. For us staying in one place for more than a week is difficult. We run out of things to do and sitting in a lounge chair reading a good book doesn't fit. Currently the long-term stays we currently have planned for Japan are more for budget and climate reasons, than to just sit and veg out. In hindsight, I would have done it differently. Seeing more of the country...moving around a lot more. It won't happen again.
Since getting from A to B usually is the most expensive element, I look at the map to see what is close and interesting. For example since we are in Japan, Hong Kong is a short and inexpensive flight. Then mainland China is just across the bay. For Australia, since we are planning on doing a huge road trip for six to eight weeks, it didn't matter and the airfare was a good deal anyway. When we end in Darwin on the northern coast, then it is island hoping around Indonesia...and so on.
I usually go for a region or a country first...and usually more than one to start. Once I have picked out a few, I do a bit of research on them to see what there is to do in each. I usually with a wide search...something like "what is there to see and do in Indonesia?" Always use the question mark. You will get different search results that are more specific. I make a list. Then I research each location to see if it interests me noting the major nearby city.
Next I research the cities. I once again use a basic search string such as "what to see and do in Jakarta." I take notes once again. This is where all the cool stuff starts to show up. So I may have gone to Jakarta because of the waterfall I want to see...and in the process I found out about the cave, and the forest, and the temple, and the water park, and the botanical garden, etc. I find that if I start out wide, plenty of options will show up that I had not considered. That is how i discovered Zhangjiajie National Park where they filmed "Avatar." I was looking at river cruises and guess where the river flowed. Also, always look at the navigation links on a page. They often take you to other pages where really cool stuff is hiding. I always click on "other areas we cover," "our partner sites," "check out our other locations," "our day tours," etc.
Once I have a list of sites and locations, I do a search for commercial tour companies that offer packages. Tour companies load up their day tours with small stops along the way to create a greater sense of value. I read their itineraries to see where they pick up their passengers, how they get to the site, what they do once there...and most importantly, how they do it. For example in researching a mountain park in China I discovered that the best access was from a totally different city than the one I used for my initial search. And because of their itinerary, I discovered two or three other things to see and do along the way.
Important note: I do not book anything at this point. I am simply putting together a list of places and activities I want to do. Since I am a visual guy the best thing for me is a map marked with all the places I would "like" to see. Transportation cost will decide if it is possible. Here is my intial map for China. There were a lot of places I wanted to visit.
Transportation - The hard part...and most expensive...is getting there. So this is where I start to plan out a route...and it is based primarily on these factors:
1. Cost to get there.
2. Ease of access.
3. What can I see along the way.
5. Options, such as train, private car with driver (taxi or otherwise), air, bus service, group tours, public transportation, and walking.
For China, and since we were already in Hong Kong to visit and also to get our Chinese visa, I looked at how to get to Maoching, Guangzhow, and a really cool national park halfway between Guangzhou and Quanzhou. It runs out that from Hong Kong there is a choice of trains and that Guanzhou is the main hub for southeast China. There are also five major train stations. So stop one has to be there. Also immigration is done on the train while it is moving so that save a lot of time once we get there. After more research the park and Quanzhou came off the list.
Next up was how to get to Maoching and the other two places. These are smaller cities with less frequent service. To visit the national park would require using a local bus and about 12 hours. I took lots of notes. Nanning ended up being another hub city with lots of choices and the location of three things we wanted to see.
The process continued making notes of the choices and prices available at each location. It turns out that Chongquing where the Yantzhee boat cruises begin is a difficult location to get to from the south. Air is the best way, otherwise it would be a 16 hour overnight train ride. Air ended up being less than the train. For trains I look for agencies who book train tickets, do all the footwork and deliver the tickets either by e-ticket or physical ticket to our accommodation. There are dozens and most only charge a moderate fee. In China for example Chinatrains.com does all the work and each ticket service fee if $5.95. Well worth the headache.
For air I use all of the major booking engines like Expedia. They own Hotels.com, Hotwire.com, Trivago, Venere.com, Travelocity, Orbitz, and HomeAway. So it is a one stop shop for all of them at once. To that I add Kayak, E-Dreams, Cheapo, and Opodo, etc. The latter has proven to be the best price for airfare. When I am looking for great fares in-country, I will do a search for airfare search engine by region, such as "air fare in China," or "air fare in Indonesia. Here I find smaller booking sites that work with the regional airlines that the big guys don't bother to list. Ctrip.com is a large booking service in China that sells most of the small regional carries that Expedia and the like don't list...and at great prices. Once again, I am still doing research...nothing gets booked yet.
Housing - The next of the big three is housing. This has to be last because until you have a route, you won't know what airport or train station is nearby, how you are going to get to and from the site, and other factors. It is all location, location, location. Price actually has very little to do with the planning. I use Airbnb, Expedia, Hotels.com, Trivago, and Kayak to find choices. I'm primarily looking at price and location. Airbnb and Hotels.com allow you to search for apartments. That means having a kitchen and laundry...and that helps out with cost.
With the airport, train or bus station I believe I will use I begin my hunt. Into the location box I always type in the same of the location, not simply the city. This narrows down my search and gives me choices close by. If I have to go wider, then a general city serach may be my only choice...but I usually find what I want. I start with Airbnb looking for entire apartments. Then I do the same with the other search engines. I have actually found really nice apartment hotels with full kitchens that were the same or better prices than Airbnb and offer a lot more services...most importantly pickup service, laundry and better wifi.
Once I have narrowed my search down to two or three choices, I research...once again...numero uno, how to get there. Metros are always a great choice, taxi and Uber next, sometimes walking if not too far, and last on the list is a local bus because we have big bags and it is a hassle getting them in and out, especially if it is rush hour and crowded. If I've found something close to our arrival location, a taxi is usually the best choice. Reasonable in price, it comes with a driver that usually knows where to go and that saves a lot of time.
Activities - This is last on the list for a few reasons. The most important one being that I've already done the research on how to get reasonably close and I have someplace in mind where I can stay a few days. What I really want to know now is what options do I have for visiting the site, admission fees, how much time is required to do and see everything we want, and will we need a local guide. Sometimes it is a day of walking and riding public transportation around a big city. Other times it is using a local bus service to get out of the city. Sometimes a group day tour will be the most effective way and it usually is a package, so once again someone else is doing all the planning for a small fee. And again...no booking yet. Just lots and lots of notes.
Budget - Now that the big three have been evaluated it is time to see how it all plays out in the budget. Here's is where my spreadship comes into play. I have a pretty simple layout. It looks like this to start.
From my notes I start to plug in numbers. I add notes so that later the numbers will make sense. For expenses I plan a daily budget of $40 for housing - $25 for food, $15 for transportation like metros and taxis, and $5 for sightseeing. So far we are eating REALLY good and this amount has been more than enough to cover our day to day needs. Our overall monthly limit is $3500 - that is the amount of our monthly retirement check. We have been well below that figure continuously. What we don't spend goes into a reserve account.
This is the fun part. I often find I can do a lot more than I thought. If my totals add up to my expected budget I am good to go. If I am too high then it is back to the notes and removing a few choices...or biting the bullet if it is something we really, really want to do. That is where the reserve account comes in and so far we have not depleted the account. If I am under budget then I leave it the way it is or I add in more stuff....like almost always...and that makes the adventure a real adventure. When I'm satisfied I am within my limits it is time to start the booking process.
Booking - First things first. Book the transportation. If a problem arises, then you aren't having to face canceling accommodations or activities already booked. Next book the accommodations. Lastly book the activities. Once again I use my spread sheet and to help me keeps on top of things, I color code my activity. I always use red to indicate stuff still open or pending. I use yellow for the things that are booked. And as a final check I go back after it is all done and use a different color for confirmation. In this case I used lavender. Next time I will use green since all is "a Go."
And lastly, I update my map so my visual is complete. You'll not that from the starting map to the finished project, things changed a bit. The entire Hong Kong/China adventure will be nine weeks and will end up costing us $95 a day for two...fully inclusive. Our budget is $3200 a month so we are golden.