Photography by the authors.
Q (for Eric and Nancy Anderson): OK. You’ve given us some general travel ideas in the past and discussed train and cruise travel, and you’ve talked about tour operators but could you be more specific? We’d like to know how you decide on a trip, what processes you go through to arrange it, and what you think makes a vacation a success? Assume we know nothing…
A: Wow! How specific do you want? We don’t think you’ve really given us enough information about your likes and dislikes, and those are certainly very important issues.
We’re not sure we are as methodical as we claim in what now follows, but probably we go through some process when we plan a trip. We can’t call this planning a vacation because as a friend once said: “You guys don’t get vacations; you take trips!”
We think the process should be a variation of what cub reporters learn as the basics of a news event — the Who, What, Where, When, Why of a story, to which might be added Work. How much work do you want to put into your planning? And how much time can you take off from work?
So what do you want to see? A castle on the Danube, the Vietnamese countryside (with a farmer taking two pigs to market on his bicycle),the Trevi fountain in Rome, a whale breaching in Alaska? Different things for different people. You have to ask yourself what it is you want.
Let’s assume you can take off about 10 to 14 days, and you don’t want to spend more than eight hours altogether on planning. If your time off is just a few days it doesn’t makes sense to spend too many hours on planning (a concept not unlike the risks versus benefits of medical treatment).
Let’s get something out of the way up front: the use of a travel agent. We all thought the internet would kill off this group and the weaker ones did disappear. But many made a comeback by specializing in specific areas: a mode of travel, the cruise; a specific country, e.g. Turkey; a form of enjoyment, bicycle or hiking adventures. If you don’t fancy getting personally and painfully involved in what might be tedious details of trip planning, the right travel agent might be better for you. Ask around, sit in a few travel agency offices (appearing to read brochures but listening to how they deal with clients or handle the phone) then be frank and ask them to detail their experience. It’s a bit like having the wisdom to ask a surgeon, how many cases like yours has he seen and operated on? And so on.
How do you decide on a trip?
We get a liking for a place because of what we’ve heard or read about it. Consider, for example, the Czech Republic. Someone mentions Prague. That rings a bell. At this stage it’s easier to go online than to the public library. We read as much as we can about a place. What’s its history? Its charm? Why is it located where it is? (In Europe often because it was at the junction of rivers or highways.) What attractions does it have? Do published images suggest it might be photogenic — and fun? We then haunt the public library and wander local bookshops. We feel a bit guilty about using a bookstore as a library. A travel book may have a lot of our fingerprints on it before we decide finally to buy it.
The grass is not always greener in the next field. A Russian church seen from a Viking River Cruises riverboat on the Volga sounds exotic, but there are fantastic discoveries to be made in rural America, such as finding Napoleon’s chess set on display in Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C.
We think Rick Steves (who this year joined the Society of American Travel Writers to fellow members’ pleasure) does a good job. His books are solidly researched with simple easy-to-read maps and honest comments, sometimes brutally honest as in his current Scandinavia published January 2010 (bottom page 52 in that edition) where Wonderful Copenhagen must have winced at his opinion.
Books weigh heavy. Steves will sometimes borrow a big, beautifully illustrated, glossy guidebook from any member of his tour group who has it to show the detailed, pretty stuff to the others but wonders who has the strength to carry many of those books on vacation. We sometimes slice important pages out of a guide book to avoid the weight of carrying the complete book. We will even photograph a map in a guide book with our smartphone in order to carry a lighter load. (Colin Fletcher, the author of The Complete Walker used to cut the labels off his teabags to reduce the weight he carried when backpacking!)
We go online looking for the official website of a convention and visitors bureau for our destination for more information. We try and do that early so they have time to send us any brochures or maps they offer visitors.
What processes do you go through to arrange your trips?
By this time we almost know if we are going to go to this destination. We go back online to check air schedules and prices. We will sometimes give up on a destination if the air is too complicated or expensive but, before doing that, we clarify if low season offers a climate that is acceptable. Then we see on a general website like Travelocity.com or Orbitz.com if airfares come down enough in low season to balance that some attractions may be closed at that time.
We have some biases: Amsterdam has a much easier airport and seaport than, say, Rome. The established Western European cities are much more expensive than Eastern Europe, but the natives aren’t so fluent in English, and their tourist infrastructures are weak. Some countries are so popular their tourist bureaus seem indifferent to requests; Italy has that reputation. Yet Germany and Norway are busy, too, but genuinely interested in helping visitors.
Foreign adventures can be riveting whether it’s seeing the Eiffel Tower in Paris for the first time or the Cervantes monument in Madrid, where you can get a cheery wave from Don Quixote himself — but you can get more from a visit to your own capital if you involve the Park Rangers and encourage them to discuss what has your attention.
We check if tour operators offer packages that are significantly less than what can be individually arranged. We once asked a tour guide why we should use a tour operator. He replied: “Three reasons. Money, money, money. You can’t do it yourself at our prices. We buy hotels at wholesale rate, the advantage of bulk buying!”
If we are arranging the travel ourselves, as we usually are, we can see from Google maps if the hotel with the best price has a good location for sightseeing. We hear that some people never do that. They end up in an inexpensive hotel miles from the attractions in town where cab fares end up costing more than the outlay of a downtown hotel.
Once we see from a travel site what hotel we’re going to select, we contact the hotel direct to see if that approach gives us a better price. And when we check in with a confirmed price we always ask the front desk person if by chance there is a better rate going on right at that moment. The only hotel we’ve had in that situation that did have a better rate and refused to give it to us was the Fess Parker Resort in Santa Barbara in Southern California.
What makes a vacation a success?
This is the easiest of your three questions. If you come back stimulated, contented and rested your trip was a success. It helps if you still have something left in your wallet — and if you came back with unforgettable memories.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.