A five year plan…
Thoughts from an obsessive planner
If I’m being honest, I’m pretty obsessed with planning holidays. I enjoy planning a trip nearly as much as I enjoy the trip itself.
And that’s why I have an (almost) five year travel calendar I’m working on. Yes, we are scouring upcoming years for public holidays that allow for long(er) weekends, and planning the hell out of our calendar and available leave days. Must. Maximise.
My itineraries are also very serious. For our epic overlanding trips, we don’t spend long in any one place, so it’s important to make sure you make the most of the time you have.
Last year January (2019) I began planning a two month camping road trip I have in mind for the good ole US of A. It’s set for July 2023. Why?? Because we need four years to save enough money to make it a reality. And that’s if the Rand stays around about the R15/$ level. We not only have to save enough for the actual trip costs, but I have to create a two month salary as it’s almost a guaranteed certainty that a boss won’t let me go without doing it as unpaid leave.
Now, I know there are people who just save money and up and go, and it all works out great, except for a few wrong turns and overspending, maybe. But I have to attempt to work out the budget on this trip down to at least a couple of hundred Rand. That’s how tight the budget will be, and that’s how strict we need to be to make it happen. And you know there’ll be drama and things that go wrong, especially over the course of two months.
The itinerary is mostly set already, and now it’s a case of finding out whether we can make it happen, what the costs will be to drive around, pay for camping, enter national parks (it’s very much an outdoorsy trip), and eat. There is a lot of planning required to make this run as smoothly and on-budget as possible. Unless you win the lotto, you simply cannot “wing it”. Many of the parks’ campsites also book out 6 months in advance, as soon as the window to book opens. We have to be ready to click the confirm button as soon as those bookings open. At the same time, you can’t apply for a US visa more than 6 months in advance, so it’ll be a fine line with little room for maneuvering. Add a little prayer that we don’t get denied for some reason.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of room for change. What we have in mind for December 2024 may never materialise. And who knows where we’ll be then anyway. And when it comes to the US trip, who can predict what the Rand to Dollar exchange rate will be when we set upon visa applications in January 2023? We may have to shelf years of planning and upend it all and travel Africa instead (Hmmm, that makes me think I should actually plan a back-up trip plan for three months through Africa too. JIC!).
We spent almost four years trying to figure out a way to get our hands on a proper off-roading vehicle we could afford, that could literally go ANYWHERE. Because the plan is to eventually go EVERYWHERE. We had to push a little on the “could afford” bit but we made it happen. The Wild Dog, an old ballie, is becoming a maintenance black hole but we’re soldiering on. The car is unstoppable though, and one day we hope to traverse all of Africa with it. Save save save, I guess.
So what meaning does this hold for you? Hardly anyone I’ve come across is quite as “extra” as I am when it comes to planning trips. And I use “extra”, but it should be “XXL-extra”. Even if you’re not an über planner like I am, there are a lot of benefits to planning trips and leave days into the future. It can be great to leave room for flexibility and not plan down to the minute, but the benefits of planning far outweigh the carefree lastminute-dot-com strategy (IMHO).
Here’s what I recommend.
Public Holidays & Leave Days
Late in the year (any year), start taking a look at the calendar and public holidays for the following year. Your colleagues will have similar ideas and everyone won’t necessarily be allowed to take leave at the same time. Therefore, it’s usually the early bird that gets the long weekend. Get your leave requests in early. Also keep in mind the season, and plan your destination(s) based on that, especially if you’re a camper. Or just put in the leave requests, and plan the ‘what’ and ‘where’ closer to the time.
I’ve seen it said often, and I will add my voice to it: don’t waste leave on chilling-at-home days. Hoard your leave days for trips & travel! Unless you really need a mental wellness day. I totally get that.
Decide which trips will need flights and which will be road trips. My personal preference is to always road trip, except during the carnage that is the Easter weekend. You will *never* find me on the road for long hauls during Easter. Catch flights during Easter, not bumper bashes. Anyway, flights. Don’t just go headlong into buying tickets. Wait for a special to come up for your destination. This happens often. But you have to start looking early! So from about one year before your intended trip, take a minute once a week to check flight prices for your dates. Also, follow the airlines on Twitter and subscribe to their newsletters to stay on top of specials that pop up. And if a crazy deal does happen to come along, consider buying the tickets, and then working out the trip plan later. Some specials are almost too good to miss. You can also use SkyScanner, which is very popular, but I find that I only notice the emails from them when it’s too late. Or the email updates they send me are for pricing changes of R10. And I get a 20 emails of that sort. Nah. Your choice.
Make sure you have an itinerary for your trip, or at least a set of locations or attractions to visit, and activities to enjoy. You’ll lose precious hours if you haven’t researched this ahead of time, and last minute planning on the spot can also be costly in terms of fees. Also keep in mind that, due to over-tourism, many famous landmarks and must-see destinations are now limiting visitors. Pre-booking entrance or a ticket will ensure you don’t arrive on the only day you have there, and discover you can’t even see what you came for, and the waiting period to gain entry is 3 months. This happens! Imagine that the most important reason you ever wanted to go to Paris is to go up the Eiffel Tower, and you’ve set aside only two days in the city within a bigger itinerary, and spent a tonne of money on your Schengen Visa and the flight, and you can’t actually enter. Even our own Kruger National Park limits day visitor entries. Pre-booking entrance is vital during their peak periods. I missed out on visiting Robben Island for this same reason.
Oh, how important budgeting is. Nothing comes close to this in terms of planning Must Do’s. There are people fortunate enough not to worry too much about budgeting, but for many South Africans especially, budget plays an extremely important role in any holiday. Even neighbouring Botswana can be quite pricey to visit, when it comes to accommodation.
We’ve discovered a variety of examples of this right now, while working out budgeting for America. Planning for the US, we’ve discovered that toll roads will push up the cost of road travel a fair amount. So we’ve got to avoid toll roads whenever possible. This increases travel time. That has to go into the planning. Fuel costs vary quite a bit there, from fuel station to fuel station, state to state. The planning includes being aware that there is an app that helps you find the “cheapest” fuel around you, which can help you save a lot. Camping in the US isn’t like camping in Southern Africa. There are some critical differences. Showers are a luxury (and not standard, quite often) and cost extra. This is a helluva big lesson to learn. All the pricing you see online excludes sales tax. Another massive impact on your budget, when suddenly everything has their equivalent of VAT still to be added. Without planning and researching the above, you could look at a 25% increase from budget to actual spend!
Jump into the community pool, and search for info from people who have done it before. Or pose questions on social media or community boards or destination Facebook pages, and see who can give you advice and tips, or even direct you to a great source of information. We can learn so much just from picking the brains of people who have gone before. Someone somewhere has made the mistakes you can now wonderfully avoid. Learn from them. Save Randelas, time, drama, and heartache just from spending a few hours reading and researching online.
So, the long and short of it is that you don’t have to be an obsessive planner to have a great journey. You don’t have to spend months and years like *cough* some of us, planning trips in every detail. Just a few hours of effort can be exceptionally rewarding. In no time at all, you can make great inroads toward ensuring your trip runs much smoother, with far fewer wasted hours and lost cash money. Also, very likely, it could result in that extra bit of travel awesomeness, and memories to last a lifetime.