A guide for those of us you can’t (yet) be nomads.
Being a digital nomad is a dream for most of us. Who wouldn’t want to travel the world savouring it slowly? While this is our future retirement plan, Jon and I are constrained by time and money, as are most people. BUT we don’t let this get us down and pack our travel high into a preciously short vacation time.
In the last 5 years we have traveled to 8 countries over 6 trips, all in 2-3 week increments. Planning these vacations can be overwhelming and lengthy. I confess that Jon does most of the research, but together we are able to hone it in to a fabulous adventure. Here are some tips on how we make it happen.
1. Reality Check
You only have (insert insanely short time to suck on the marrow of life and travel) for vacation! Ok, DON’T PANIC! First of all, come to the realisation that you will not see it all. You will not visit all the sites in China or even in one province of China in your short time. You will still love your vacation. You will still be able to go back to China (or other said location) in the future.
- Step 1: Breathe. What is your dream location? It is ok to dream big! How many days will it take to get to and from your dream spot? Now subtract that from your vacation time, those days are no longer in the equation. Harsh I know but it’s a reality. Think of them as days to wind down from your stressful job and constraints of life, because you are going somewhere fabulous.
- Step 2: What is your budget? Realise you are likely going to spend a little bit more than this. Some amazing opportunity will pop up that you can’t pass up. Hot air ballooning over the Nile River? Why of course! But also be prepared for hiccups along the way.Such as when one of our flights in India was cancelled without any notification. Finding out on the way to airport was extra exciting. Another hard truth is your budget (both monetarily and time) will affect your travel plans. Fear not, you can do many places on tight budget (of both).
- Step 3: Aside from actually getting there, which we’ll talk about soon, how do you want to plan this trip? Are you unapologetic free spirits like us and want to figure it out all on your own? Or do you feel safer going through a travel company? How about a little bit of both?Before you even look at the numbers, this is an important question to ask yourself. Tours are more expensive in general, but in some destinations it is the best way to get the most out of your trip.For example, in Egypt we used a tour company for everything because nothing was in English, most locals spoke very little English, and travel could be a little dodgy. It was the safest and best way to get around, and with the local reputable tour company it was very affordable, whereas more international companies had the same experiences (often less personal) but for way more money.
Ok, I can see the panic setting in. It’s going to be ok. We are going to make your vacation a reality. You will have a fabulous time. Reality check is the hardest part I promise. This will be something you have to go back to several times during your planning, so know your limitations so you don’t get yourself in trouble or feel let down when you can’t do that two month meditation stint in an Indian Ashram.
2. Resources, The “Big Picture”, And Getting What You Want
Another important thing to ask yourself and your travel companion(s) is what do you want out of this vacation? Are you a foodie? Do you crave adventure travel? Are you looking for a greatest hits tour? Are you going to need a few days of “beaching it”? Or do you abhor the beaten path and want to experience as much local culture as possible?
Don’t forget just because you want to do a homestay in an Indian slum for 2 weeks and eat questionable street food, doesn’t mean your travel companion will want to. Defining what kind of experience(s) you want will make pairing things down to your dream trip easier. We find a mix of these is key to a great trip.
Use tour websites as an easy first resource to find the big ticket items that people go to see and look at their time line. While most tours are rushed through these incredible attractions it will at least give you an idea of minimums of time at the location and travel between them.
Be sure to check out multiple day itineraries because you may opt to skip one thing to do something else that only the extended trips will include. Don’t be put off by the price if you are planning your trip yourself, because you can do it for far less.
Find a great travel guide. Yes we still take one on each trip with us, although opt for the lighter versions or photocopy pages if the book is too bulky. Our favourite book series is the Eyewitness guides because they have great pictures and little blurbs that you can read while you’re at the more prominent spots. Often we do this in lieu of getting a local guide except for more unique or harder to get to places that are best seen with a local guide.
TripAdvisor, our go to, our saviour, our (almost) everything for planning. Ok so not everything but 70% of our planning revolves around reviews, suggestions, and posts from the site. Go on bulk review experience instead of the 2 of out 400 reviews that are dissatisfied.
The site breaks countries down into overviews of areas, restaurants, things to do, hotels, local tour guides, you name it. Did I mention that planning a great vacation takes a lot of work? Plan early. If you are like Jon and want to know all the backstory buy interesting books on the history/culture that are used off of Amazon before you go.
3. Focusing It Down
You’ve picked your country, your preferred kinds of experiences, your must haves, and now you have to make it all fit.
This is where Jon starts to panic and we have to revisit our reality check, because we can’t do it all even though we want to. You have your focused areas for your trip and and idea of how many days/hours you need for each and you feel like it’s all feasible.
What will affect this if you want to visit multiple places, is how to get from point A to point B and around in that area. Is there a train from Jaipur to Jaislameer? Yes, but it takes 12-14 hours. Travel inter-country will affect your budget as well.
Planes are faster and generally much more expensive while trains and buses are slower but cheaper. Sometimes there is only one option to get to and from a certain area.
Travel between destinations can make or break your trip if you let it. To make this a more efficient and pleasurable experience take a few things into consideration.
Overnight trains and buses can save on a hotel and then most of your travel is spent (hopefully) sleeping. They have their draw backs though, sometimes it can be difficult to sleep and when you arrive you may have to wait until you can check in to your next hotel.
In some countries taking a private car can be surprisingly affordable if destinations are within a reasonable drive. You can stop at other attractions along the way and make a full day out of it.
Don’t completely rule out local buses as an option either. In many countries this is safe and inexpensive, with the added bonus of seeing more of the local people and areas you would miss otherwise. Do your research to make sure it is safe and ask your local hotel to write locations in their language to help along the way.
If you have scheduled a marathon-like vacation to squeeze in as much as possible, travel days can be down days for you to rest and work on your travel journal.
Keep in mind that if you schedule too much travel in a short time this can also be draining. If you are like me and need a break at points during the trip, make sure you budget for this.
One of our down day strategies is to rent a scooter and explore the surrounding areas. We’ve had some of our best experiences doing this and found some incredible things we’d never have seen otherwise.
4. All The Details
Your trip is finally coming together! The details can be some of the best parts of planning.
Save hotels for last because for most people this is the most flexible option. Generally we spend a little more on one or two hotels for their special experience and then go budget on everything else.
Budget hotels and hostels do not have to be scary, there are many options that make up for their lack of amenities with the quality of their staff.
My three requirements are:
- Western toilet
- In a safe area
When picking a hotel, location is key. We often stay within walking distance to either major attractions or public transportation where there is a unique local feel or backpacker hot spot.
Being able to walk to local markets at night and find incredible food heightens our travel experience. TripAdvisor is a great resource for this but we also check other online booking sites once we’ve picked our focus area. Our one or two splurge hotels typically have either a great view or is very unique in its own right.
Local guides can enhance your experience but you don’t need them for everything. Food tours are a great way to explore the local cuisine. This is best done at the beginning of your trip if possible because it helps identify things you may love and can enjoy on the rest of the trip.
Our food tours in Ho Chi Minh City and Old Delhi were true highlights for us. We more often get local guides for side trips that are not easily accessible such as rice terraces in Guilin, China and to explore the floating markets in the Delta of Vietnam.
Most local guides are very open to customising your experience and be done privately or with a group if you so choose. It can be fun to bump into other tourists and exchange experiences while on the trail. These can be a great way to get the local feel while traveling safely.
Also don’t forget to leave time that isn’t planned! Scheduling every experience is great for some people, but leave yourself open to having a half a day or more to explore unique areas like the hutongs of Beijing. You’d be surprised what adventures you can bump into. This is also included with our scooter days.
5. Food For Thought
Travel light. Especially in Asia and other less developed countries there are countless places where you can have your laundry done cheaply and fast, so an outfit for every day is not necessary.
We have clothing that is quick dry and often wash them in the sink, which is not for everyone but serves us well. We travel with one backpack each (about 40 litres) and a small daypack, and that’s it.
The more we travel the less we take. You also want to have room for bringing home a few things. Pick clothing that has multiple uses.
Also travel with one or two pairs of shoes, and consider wearing your heavier clothing on your long haul flights where it’s cold anyways.
Disconnect, or not. I leave my phone at home and travel with an iPod touch that I can surf the web if I want, but otherwise find pleasure in leaving my normal reality behind. Jon does take his phone but turns off the service.
Now you can download maps from Google and use the GPS on your phone so getting lost can be a thing of the past. It’s also very helpful if you rent a scooter. It’s totally up to you, but I recommend you at least try disconnecting for one trip and you might be surprised at how freeing it is.
You’ve got this! Adventure awaits.