Independent Travel

In an attempt to restore some order to my home workspace I was clearing out some of the many travel-related fliers currently balanced precariously on the end of my desk. As I cleared the pile I realised that I was making some big assumptions about the sort of travel I was planning, and the places I was thinking about travelling to.  Some of the rejected leaflets were about places in the "Don't want to go there" category, others were in the "Been there, and have got too many leaflets already" category.  A more interesting distinction was between the places where I thought I needed support and assistance to travel (where I was keeping the leaflets), and the places where I'm happy to plan and book independently, or to just to figure out as I go. 

On reflection, I think there are four different sorts of travel, and although there are still some parts of the world I've not been too, I've done trips in all four categories

Option 1. Wing It

Glacier National Park, Montana - hardly booked at all.
Developed English-speaking countries that I've been to before are the easiest ones for me to put into the easy, independent, no-forward-planning-needed category.  There are very few instances over the last 20 years where I've thought it necessary to 'buy in' expertise for trips in the UK or to North America.  In the case of the USA or Canada, most recent trips have been work-related where itineraries were business driven, but for leisure trips I've tended to make up itineraries on a day-by-day basis.  A few years ago we spent three weeks travelling in the US Rocky Mountain states.  We booked flights to Denver (which got messed around by baggage chaos at Heathrow), a rental car (which expired halfway through the trip), and the first two nights accommodation (one of which evaporated on the back of UK airport chaos).  The rest of the trip was figured out as we went, the main agenda item over dinner each evening was “where do we want go tomorrow?”, and the usual post-dinner activity was to book the next motel.  On a couple of mornings we rethought plans based on the weather, and at one point we even talked about driving South until the rain stopped.  The unplanned style of the trip was one of its many attractions, and the flexibility meant that when we needed to factor in several hours in a car dealership in Whitefish, Montana while they tried unsuccessfully to figure why our car had been reduced to having just one openable door (not the driver’s door either) it wasn't a major problem.  I know some travellers like to go a step further and don't even book their hotels in advance at all, this doesn’t suit me - I prefer having a firm target at the end of the day, so I can linger waiting for the light to be right for a photograph without worrying that I’ll wind up needing to sleep in the car.

Option 2. Book Independently

Bergen, Norway - booked independently
If I'm going to travel around North America in peak travel season, or I need to be in particular places at specific times, I do almost always book hotels in advance.  I also tend to book almost all of my European travel on this basis.  I probably over-research and over-plan at times, but my excuse for this is that I really enjoy travel planning.  I enjoy stitching together a complex itinerary, and figuring what I can see and do, and how I'm going to do it, and in Europe it is generally possible to rely on the timetable and schedules that are published.  A recent example of a trip put together in this way was my Scandinavian trip in February.  I spent two or three days in January deciding where I wanted to go and how long I wanted to spend doing it, then used a collection of different websites to book the entire trip. My booking strategy was to start by booking the 'hardest' bits first.  These were usually the most restricted bits, for example where I wanted to be on a particular boat, train or plane.  For me the most 'restricted' bit was the wish to travel along the Norwegian coast on one of the old Hurtigruten boats.  The next step was the flights and the long distance trains where there is some flexibility.  Step three was to figure out where to stay in places with limited accommodation - for example little towns where there weren't likely to be too many hotel rooms available.  The final stage was booking hotel rooms in big cities - where there was never going to be a shortage of accommodation, and the only real reason for booking ahead was to get a good room rate. I didn't get round to booking these until a couple of days before I travelled. 

If it's practical, this in definitely my preferred way to organise a trip!  Maybe one day I'll figure out how to make some money out of choreographing trips this way for other people.

Option 3. Choose to let someone else sort it

The third category of travel involve the trips where I either (i) enlist a specialist operator to tailor a trip to my specification - and am prepared to let them do the legwork and be paid for it! or (ii) book a pre-arranged trip. I tend to do these where I don't feel that I know the region I’m planning to go to well enough, where I can't figure out how to stitch together the itinerary I want or where I just don’t trust the information I’ve got.  When I think about these sort of approaches I tend to think about trips to the Indian subcontinent or to South America. 

Sri Lanka, UK organisation by Wildlife Worldwide, ground agents Baurs
We took this tailored itinerary approach for our Sri Lanka trip last year.  We found a specialist wildlife tour operator in the UK, and asked them to put together an itinerary.  In practise when you go down this route you are relying on the operator knowing more than you (which isn't always the case) and on the operators choice of a good local agent to sort stuff out on the ground and actually make the trip happen.  On our Sri Lanka trip I wasn't always convinced that the UK agent knew much more than we did, but they did choose a very good local agent.

One of the questions that I’m always left with for a trip like this is whether it’s better to use a UK agent as your main point of contact or if you should go directly to a local agent.  I can think of two recent trips where I’ve used UK agents who then used a local agent (Baurs in Sri Lanka and Blue Poppy in Bhutan), and one example where I used a local agent directly (Falkland Islands Holidays).  The upside of using a local agent directly is potentially getting more direct information about places to see and maybe being able to negotiate costs, the downside is that you won’t get things like ATOL protection or probably the ability to pay by instalments or by credit card. And, if the local agent doesn’t have a presence in the UK at all, sending money to them can involve an fascinating exploration of the international banking system.

A simpler (and sometimes cheaper) version of the tailored trip is one where you opt to join a pre-arranged trip with a number of other people.  One of the attractions of this sort of trip is that you are probably going to be looked after from dawn to dusk (and often later) each day.  This allows you, if you wish, to decommission your brain for the duration of the trip.  You get up when you are told, get on the bus when you are told, and eat your meals when you are told. If the trip is an escape from e.g. work pressures at home, this can be good.  On the flip side, I've found that after few days there seems to be a herd culture that develops within the group which appears to make decision making impossible.  I still have vivid memories of an afternoon in Kashgar in western China where our tour leader decided to give us an afternoon “at leisure” with the instruction that we should find our own way back to the hotel (a short walk we’d done with him several times) when we were ready.  This induced a level of panic amongst several of our fellow travellers reminiscent of your average flock of sheep.  Only a few days earlier the same individuals had joined the trip as confident, thinking travellers!

Option 4. Hand-holding required

The final category of trip are to those places where it just isn't possible to travel independently. This can be a consequence of geography (there really isn't any local infrastructure to book) or of politics (local rules designed to prevent independent travel).  I've done trips of both types.  The polar voyages (to the Antarctic, South Georgia or Svalbard) rely on travel groups being self-supporting, and short of chartering and provisioning your own boat and hiring your own guides you have no choice other than to join an organised trip (at least not at the budget levels I live at). 

Bhutan - UK organisation by Cox and Kings, ground agents Blue Poppy
Some countries also put lots of hurdles in place to ensure that they don't have independent travellers wandering around.  I retain a residual suspicion of places where this is the case.  In China (when we visited Xinjiang) I felt this was all about trying to control what visitors got to see and where they went, and it was clear that we were being monitored most of the time.  In Bhutan we also needed to travel with local guides, but I felt that this was for much more constructive reasons.  The government there have been trying to manage the growth of the tourist industry, and attempting to prevent the tourist over-run that happened in Nepalese as the tourist industry developed.  In these places you don't really have the choice of how you put a trip together - the paperwork and bureaucracy involved with trying to travel independently is likely to be so overwhelming that you really have no option but to sign up with an experience operator.

So what’s the best way to travel?

The answer is going to vary from place to place.  I’ve had great trips using all four models.  If I have the choice, I’ll always opt for independent travel that I’ve planned and booked myself.  There are some places, and times, that where this isn’t realistic and in these cases I’ll opt for one of the other approaches.   Any travel gives you the potential to see and explore new places and to meet new people.  In some cases travelling independently gives you options for exploring places in your own unique way.  In other cases you need the support of either tour operators or fellow travellers to get the most out of a new destination.

(This piece nearly took a dramatic turn for the worse, when my spellchecker decided that my title was supposed to be "Indecent Travel".   I'll save that post for the post-watershed blog)

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