Sunday, January 6, 2008

How to plan a backpacking trip #2: Decide on a destination

You've spent the last half hour staring at the map and you're ready to pack your bags and go! Unfortunately a backpacking trip requires a little bit more pre-trip planning than that. Here is some advice to help you along the way to the airport. In this article you will learn how to choice a destination that is right for you.

You're sufficiently pumped about your trip and the money is starting to roll in, slowly but surely. Now it's time to move on to the next phase of planning your trip.

First of all, you have a homework assignment that will help you with this step and following steps in your backpacking planning. Head to your nearest Triple A. Pick up a few regional maps of places you're considering going so you can get a better mental image of how the land lays. These maps will either be free or very cheap depending on your membership. They also make great wall decorations and are handy for crafts!

So where are you planning on going? Probably you have an idea based on what inspired you for your trip, but you'll have to figure out a generally area, and then get more specific from there. Probably you'll be heading to Europe. Why? Because it's what most people do. That is not a reason in and of itself—it just so happens that there are plenty of reasons WHY most people do.

First of all, it's a great place to travel. There are tons of sights, great food, and friendly people. There is a great diversity within a relatively small geographic scale. Most people are familiar enough with Europe that they know automatically what they want to see and where they want to go, so they have a head start on research. It's an easy place to travel. There is a ton of infrastructure for travelers: public transportation, hostels, etc. You will most likely meet other travelers in your same shoes. People are helpful and used to having foreigners poking about their national sites. There is a lot of information readily available for the region. It's a relatively safe place to go.

I'm not saying you should definitely head for Europe. I'm just saying that's what you'll probably end up doing. And, quite frankly, I don't know very much about backpacking in other places so that's what I'm going to focus on. Hopefully that will soon change—and hopefully you'll still find this article useful even if you are heading to Asia or South America.

But there are also drawbacks. It's what most people do—and that means Europe, particularly popular cities like Paris, London, and Venice, can get very crowded in the summer. You can avoid this by going in the off-season or shoulder seasons, but summer might be your only time to travel if you are a student or a teacher. The deluge of tourists means that a lot people have become disenchanted with tourism and can be less then welcoming, particularly to Americans who, thanks to a few buffoons, have gained a less than reputable reputation abroad. (You can help counter this by being charm itself while you are traveling.)

Also, going to Europe is not very original. You probably know tons of people who have been to London and Paris. London and Paris are great but maybe you are aiming for something a little bit more unusual. In addition, Europe is very expensive. At this particular moment in time, the dollar is, how shall we say, at the bottom of a Turkish toilet. It won't get you very far in Provence, so that means you'll have to sacrifice even more trips to the mall to pay for your trip, and you'll have to pinch those euro-cents even tighter while on the road.

That said, London and Paris are not the be-all and end-all of Europe. You can find unspoilt, affordable places to visit, and you can suck in your tummies and your wallets to see the sights of Barcelona. Overall, Europe makes a great destination for beginning travelers because it's not to challenging. The culture shock isn't too great. Most likely you studied a bit of a European language in school, and most Europeans speak some form of English (though it is polite to at least attempt to speak the language of the country you're in).

If you're looking for more adventure and value with fewer tourists, you can head to Eastern Europe. However, with the expansion of the EU, (and euro) and subsequent expansion of tourism, Eastern Europe is quickly losing its east-ness. So my advice is go to Krakow now before it become the next Prague. Countries such as Poland, Serbia, Bosnia, Romania and Bulgaria still offer beautiful sites and a great value for money with friendly citizens not too worn out with tourism to be friendly to visitors. They can be a bit more challenging for travelers but maybe you'll feel up to it after conquering Rome.

However, the real point of this article is to say that you can't "do" all of Europe (or any continent) in one trip, unless that trip is a year or longer. It's simply not possible. You'll need to decide what you really want to see and stick to that region, or go crazy spending every night on an overnight train. (If that's your thing, great, but I'm afraid I've never been able to understand it so I don't have any advice for you. If you're determined to see 10 countries in 3 weeks you don't need to heed my advice about plotting efficiency around one or two regions.)

What holds the biggest draw for you? What do you really want to see? For example, if it's Roman ruins that interest you, but you also like sitting on beaches, you might fly into Rome before training around Italy and taking a ferry to Croatia. If you love art museums, big cities and nightlife, you might try London to Paris to Berlin or Madrid. There is a lot of long distance train travel there but you can balance it out by spending plenty of time in each city in between. Don't make the mistake of trying to do too much of you'll end up doing nothing at all. Pick a few cities that are near to one another so you can plot out the most efficient way of getting around.

Basically, just figure out what you want to see, which cities offer that or interest you the most and where you want to spend your time. Ideas will spring from there, and it's not set in stone, you can always change your mind later. But you need a starting point to approximate how much money you'll need (that's another thing to keep in mind—you'll spend a lot more on a day in Paris then you will sitting on a Bulgarian beach) and where to start doing you research.

If you're really not sure, there are tons of ways to start figuring it out. Open up the front of any Lonely Planet regional guide and there are suggested itineraries based on different interests. You can use one of those as your starting point.

So now that you've decided (vaguely) on your destination, it's time to start your research!

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