Last week I talked about how making the decision to go is one of the most important steps in planning travel. Step two is just as important: asking yourself why you want to go. Knowing why you want to go will ultimately help shape your trip in a number of ways, so it’s important to figure out in the initial stages of planning so you can use it as your template down the road.
Different people have different reasons for wanting to go to different places. Some might go for the food; others might go for the adventure; still others go to experience something completely different from what they’re used to at home. As an aspiring author, my main motivation for travel is to collect experiences that I can use as fodder somewhere down the road to lend more substance to the stories I write. Unfortunately, while that’s a solid enough general outlook to have about travel as a lifestyle, it’s too vague to be of any use when I’m sitting down trying to organize an actual trip.
I very rarely start off with a concrete reason for why I want to go to a certain place. I normally start off with the kind of logistics I mentioned last week: how close this destination is to where I currently am, how easy it is to access, how much time I have, and things like that. Surface-level stuff, nothing to inspire the imagination.
You’ll probably need to dig deeper than that if you’re really gonna make the most out of your trip. I say probably because lots of people are just fine throwing a dart at the map, leaving the next day, and playing things by ear once they arrive. I am not one of those people, but nor am I a person who has to have every detail scheduled down to the minute. I like to know what my options are so I can make educated choices upon arrival, and especially if there are tour groups or excursions that need to be organised well in advance. It also helps me determine the most appropriate place to book accommodation if there are a lot of options spread out over a wide area.
There’s a ton to do/see/visit/eat no matter where you’re going, and you will need your core reason to help you focus so you don’t get overwhelmed or try to cram too much into one visit. It’s like when I was a kid and used to get told that my eyes were bigger than my stomach for taking more food than I could possibly eat because it all looked so good.
Answering the “why” question specifically enough to avoid the big-eyes-small-stomach conundrum can be deceptively difficult, but it’s also fun to whittle down what it is about a destination that attracts you.
Step Two–The Reason
I like to take a minute to first think about everything I know (or have read or heard) about where I’ve decided to go. Sometimes it’s a ton, like with Japan. Sometimes it’s zilch: I didn’t know much about South Korea before we went last September, and I knew even less about Taiwan upon our initial decision to go there for Golden Week this year.
Luckily we live in the middle of the explosion that is the information revolution, and a few savvy Google searches can help you become an expert* on anything in just a few hours. I’ll get lost in learning about a new place and so tend to spend hours at a time looking up as much as I can for days on end, but all you really need is five or ten minutes here and there to start getting an idea of what it is about your destination that really piques your interest.
Here are the resources I fall back on when trying to find out more about somewhere I’ve decided to go:
- WikiTravel: great to get an overall idea of the place you’ll be visiting. I use this as a springboard for ideas of what to further research.
- BootsnAll: good for anecdotes and first-hand stories from travelers. BootsnAll even has “indie travel guides,” but some of them aren’t as fleshed out as one would hope. Like WikiTravel, this is a great starting point.
- Lonely Planet
- TripAdvisor: good for when you have a certain attraction or spot in mind since you can look up reviews for it
- official tourism websites (like this one for Taiwan)
- asking any friends/acquaintances who have been: I ask them to send me their itineraries and impressions of where they went, how they got there, what they ate, etc.
- Couchsurfing hosts/hostel employees: if/when you know where you’ll be staying but not what to do there, e-mail and ask for your host’s suggestions. This is a great way to get local tips that you might miss on the bigger tourist websites.
- Googling the name of my destination followed by “travel tips”
(Note: local libraries and bookstores are wealths of information too; check out the travel sections or ask a store employee for some suggestions.)
Aim for the Core
You’ll end up with a huge amount of information–hopefully–and a lot of it will just be nifty tidbits that won’t really come into play during your trip. But the more you know about your destination, the more you’ll be able to narrow in on your core reason for going, which will most likely become the foundation of your itinerary when you start to rough it out later on.
Remember to keep track of the things you’ve learned! I always create a document on Google Drive (or a Word document or a handwritten page of notes or something) to keep track of all the things that caught my interest during my virtual exploration, making sure to include links so I can go back later if I need more details or a refresher or want to show Jeff.
When I started looking into Taiwan, I knew that it was the birthplace of a favorite drink of mine–boba tea, or tapioca bubble tea–and that was about it. After sifting through the resources I mentioned above, I learned that Taichung is where the tea was invented, that the inspiration for Miyazaki’s Spirited Away came from just outside of Taipei, and that Kenting National Park is a great place to go scuba diving. I learned a lot more than those three things, of course, but these are the things that stood out and are helping us structure our itinerary even now.
One thing to keep in mind during this process is that nothing is set in stone and everything is liable to change until the moment you arrive–and that’s fine. Your core reason might change as you learn more about your destination. You might also not end up at anything more specific than “I want to eat real _____ food,” with or without a list of restaurants to try and find. Great! You might even decide to skip this step if you are comfortable not having a core reason to build your trip around other than “I just want to go.” Perfect. The best part of travel is that it’s so easily tailored to your specific style, that you have the flexibility to be spontaneous and do whatever you want.
I just personally find it harder to be spontaneous when I have no idea about what there is to be spontaneous about!
*not really, but you’ll know more than you did before
Fill in the blanks: “I want to go to ________ because _______________.”Ready for the next step? Click here to continue to Step Three–The Itinerary.