Arranging your own vacation can be a little daunting if you’ve always placed your annual trip in the hands of a competent travel agent. Before, all you had to do was to select the country and resort, get yourself to the airport on the right date and at the right time, and the rest was taken care of for you. You were probably met at your destination airport by the tour operator’s representative who then escorted you to your resort, and, at the end of your vacation, you just needed to be ready and waiting for the return coach journey to the airport. The sense of reassurance this can give has always gone some way to help vacationers enjoy their trip: there’s never been any worry about how to get from the airport to the hotel, how to cope with a broken toilet once there, or how to buy tickets for a boat excursion.
However, over the years, it seems that technology has helped the average vacationer to develop a somewhat more adventurous spirit. They’ve found that not only are they capable of arranging their own travel — and making substantial savings in the process — but that the flexibility and choice independent travel offers provide a greater chance of experiencing much more than they would otherwise do with a vacation package.
While all of this is true for the majority of travelers, there are however a few who will tell you that they wish they’d carried out a little more research before heading off with only a guidebook and their return flight ticket. While independent travel offers an abundance of opportunities, it needs a little preparation and organization. This way you can enjoy your vacation, as well as get back home at your scheduled return time!
One of the biggest issues the independent traveler has to contend with is how to get from the airport to the hotel (or apartment, or hostel). While many will just jump in the first taxi that comes along, others prefer to do it a little differently. There are those travelers who want to keep costs down and therefore look for a cheaper alternative; others who believe that local transport is perfectly adequate for their needs; and those who want to experience the local transport system as part of the whole “vacation experience.” If you prefer to take public transport, then you’ll need to research not only the schedules, but whether it will actually be operating when you arrive. Many an independent traveler, arriving at his or her destination when the locals have been enjoying a day off, has been forced to take a taxi instead of public transport as originally intended. While this shouldn’t cause too many problems — apart from depriving those who want the experience of traveling on local transport — if you’re on a tight budget, it could very well mean the difference between dinner and just a beer!
On a similar note, always pay particular attention to the arrival time of your flight at your destination airport. Remember that you won’t be whisked away in a tour operator’s nice big comfortable air-conditioned coach. Ensure that you can get to your hotel and that you won’t be left hanging around for hours. This also applies to your return journey, especially if it’s imperative that you don’t miss your return flight home. It’s always prudent to avoid scheduling important commitments the day immediately following your return from vacation, especially if you’re traveling independently for the first time!
In order to get the best possible deal on your accommodation, ask if there are any membership discounts available when booking (e.g. AAA, seniors, family, or hotel membership). Most hotels have some or other promotion running so it’s worth trying to negotiate a cheaper rate than that advertised. Most accommodation bookings can be made online; however, if you want to negotiate on price, it’s probably easier done over the telephone. If you can be flexible with your dates, you stand more chance of negotiating a discount on the cost (this also applies to buying your airline tickets).
When choosing your hotel, don’t be content only with the information provided on the hotel’s website. This will show the hotel in the best possible light and some of the details (e.g. its location in relation to the local attractions) may be a little vague: “a short walk to the beach” is always worth further investigation! Check the hotel’s location in respect of amenities and attractions depending on what’s important to you: Is it close to the beach? Is it close to the bus station so you can take trips out of the city/resort? Is it close to the local sights?
If you’re on a tight budget, transfer fees from the airport to your hotel may dictate where you eventually decide to stay. While public transport costs will undoubtedly be cheaper than taxi fares, you could still end up paying more than you bargained for. Again, try to find out how much you’ll need to pay in public transport costs.
If you’ve been advised that the hotel or apartment is particularly difficult to find — this sort of information can be obtained from reading previous guests’ reviews online — then make sure you have a good map of the local area. While most local taxi drivers should be able to find your hotel, there’s no guarantee that they will. Always carry a contact number for your hotel just in case you run into any problems en route. Most times, if you get into difficulty, there will be someone you can call who can help you with directions.
It always pays to learn a few words of the local lingo, regardless of whether or not you travel independently. However, without access to a tour guide, and the comfort of an “all-inclusive” resort, you may find that a few words of the local language come in very handy. Attempting to communicate with the locals can sometimes be the difference between receiving acceptable and very good service in a restaurant or café. Invest in a small phrase book. If you’re going to be eating out often then make sure it includes translations for food and beverages, especially if you have special dietary requirements (e.g. vegetarian, food allergy).
Find out whether you’ll be able to access your money while on vacation or whether you need to take cash or travelers’ checks with you.
As you won’t have a travel agent to remind you about necessities such as vaccines, and visas, research what’s needed in this respect for the country you’ll be visiting.
The same applies to travel insurance. Carry out the necessary research to see which package best suits your travel needs.
Research the resort or city where you’ll be staying to know which spots you should visit — and which you should avoid. Again, there may not be anyone on hand to advise you about this aspect of your vacation so find out what you can before leaving home.
And finally, regardless of how independently you travel, remember that we all need to consider our impact on the places we’re visiting and how we can be responsible travelers: take only photographs and leave nothing but footprints.