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I find travel to be pretty stressful. I've done a lot of it but it still feels hard, I think because I so badly want to have moments of, like, real cultural interaction. I, like a lot of people, read a lot of travel writing from the New York Times and Conde Nast Traveler and other similar sources. I am consistently frustrated by the way that these writers describe trips as endless streams of profundity. The reality is that a lot of traveling, especially when you're doing it on a long term basis, is pretty mundane. Even in Paris you still gotta brush your teeth.
I'm currently based in Hong Kong, and while I'm here my goal is to take three main trips: Japan, Myanmar and Vietnam. I went to Japan a few weeks ago, which I wrote about here. I'm going to Myanmar in two weeks and probably will head to Vietnam at the end of April. This is a lot more trip planning than I normally do all at once, so I've been thinking about how to do it well and I wanted to share my thoughts. All three of these are places I've wanted to visit because of their culture and food, not because of tourist attractions and clear sightseeing spots. These are my favorite types of trips, but I find they actually require more planning because I have a lot of trouble with decision fatigue. If I have to make tons of game-time decisions in foreign places, I get really exhausted and don't enjoy the trip nearly as much. These are the steps I try to take to reduce decisions fatigue while also leaving space for spontaneity.
How do you organize a trip in your mind? What are the steps you take when you're planning? (Seriously please tell me!!)
Where to Eat
For food recommendations, I look for local experts. People like Katie Parla, who writes about food in Rome, have connections to local chefs. I like to look for blogs and other people who have actual expertise. I really don't like to use TripAdvisor for restaurants because I'm kind of a snob and I don't trust their opinions.
Where Chefs Eat is an awesome resource that can help you separate quality from tourist traps.
The Michelin Guide is useful even if you're not trying to have a hundred-dollar meal because they have so many levels of recommendations. Even street food is starting to be recognized by the Michelin Guide. (Though that is potentially problematic.)
Eater publishes their top 38 restaurants in many large cities in the US, plus they have expanding coverage for international travelers, plus they have a good range of price points on their maps.
If there's a specific food I'm excited to eat, I'll google search "best ___ in (whatever city)" and then compare lists. (I just realized how obsessive that might sound but whatever I really like to eat good food).
The amount of research I do on restaurants depends HUGELY on where I'm going. I didn't do as much for Japan because I knew that the majority of restaurants were pretty good, and that my taste in Japanese food would be less discerning because I don't cook or eat it at home very much. In Italy, I pretty much only eat at restaurants that I've vetted because that country is like 55% shitty restaurants that cater only to tourists. I hate to waste a meal. Here are a few other ideas:
Traveling Spoon - Basically eat with locals instead of at a restaurant. Sometimes you help cook, sometimes you don't. A very cool website but limited cities.
Will Fly For Food - travel + food website with recommendations for many cities in Asia.
Activities first, accommodation second.
I often start planning a trip by trying to figure out where to stay, but I've recently realized it makes way more sense to go the other direction. This might be super obvious...but it has been a huge realization for me. It is often difficult to know where to stay when you're traveling to a new city, so my strategy is to do figure out some of the main things I want to do while I'm there and save them on Google maps, then compare my accommodation options to that map. That way you can look at distances from your activity wishlist to your proposed accommodation, and have a good sense of where you'll be most centrally located for YOU, not just centrally located for some random person.
There are a ton of apps and different technology you can use to keep track of all the stuff you want to do, but honestly, I prefer to just use Google maps. Whenever I come across something I want to do, I'll look it up on Google and then hit save, which makes it appear as a star on the map. Even if you're on airplane mode, your phone can tell where you are if you load Google maps once, the city will stay loaded on your phone and you can just pop over to Google maps to see what you're near.
An extreme version of this is that my friend Amanda decided to just stay across the street from a restaurant she was excited to go to...which I actually really admire. Maybe we should just all do that.
What to do between meals??
My favorite thing to do when traveling is to go to a food market. I also like flea markets, weird museums, gardens, parks and walking around in interesting areas and people watching. A good history museum can be awesome as a way to understand a place more fully.
I also really like a good walking tour. I regret not doing a tour in Japan, because the culture was so different and so few people spoke English, so a tour would have been a good way to understand what was going on a little better. Some places are easier to crack than others, but in places where you don't speak any of the language, getting someone to answer your questions can be super useful.
When in doubt, I typically google search "what to do in (fill in the blank) blog" because otherwise you end up looking at Trip Advisor and other huge websites. Blogs are uneven (this particular blog is probably proof of that) but they often offer a more full picture of a city because they reflect people's actual experiences. These blogs often also give insight into good areas to wander around - for example, Ginza in Tokyo was a fun district to walk around in, but there wasn't a specific activity I wanted to do there.
WithLocals is a website I've never used this but I'm hoping to try it out in Vietnam. Locals design experiences (cooking classes, tours, etc) that you pay them for directly. I've heard really good things. and it can be really affordable!
THIS IS AN UNTOUCHED GOLDMINE! If you're in a developed country, this is probably the best way to connect with locals, hands down. You're probably thinking "yo, this is medium prostitution" but you're wrong. I am not a prostitute. Glad we cleared that up.
I don't use this anymore because I'm in a relationship, so you know, loyalty, but when I was in Rome for the summer two years ago, I used Tinder as a travel aid in two ways. When I was based in Rome, I went on several dates with groups of Roman guys who offered to show me their favorite parts of the city, which was really fun and FOR THE RECORD never ended in anything more than a friendly hug.
The other thing I did was just ask people on Tinder for their favorite places in the city. I spent 4 days in Naples later that same summer and my entire trip was basically planned by this super friendly random dude on Tinder (almost certainly named Luigi). He recommended several restaurants and activities that we did and never even showed up with a chainsaw to murder us. Travel success! Seriously, with a little common sense, Tinder can be an excellent travel resource for ~young + hot + modern~ woman.
1 meal + 1 activity + 1 place to sit.
There's an ideal balance to be found in traveling when it comes to how much to plan. I struggle with this, but typically my best days are when I plan one activity, one meal, and one place it will be fun to sit and relax. For example, our first day in Tokyo, I planned for us to spend the morning at Nishiki market, eat sushi there, and then to have a drink at the Prince Hotel in the afternoon/evening. That left us a lot of flexibility about what to do in the afternoon, but when we ran out of steam and wanted to sit down and chill for an hour, we had a place to do where we were having an experience, rather than just hiding in the closest coffee shop and then potentially feeling like we wasted time.
The 3 Night Rule.
I really don't like to spend any less than 3 nights in a place. Two full days is not enough time to really get to know a place, but it's enough time to scratch the surface. I find that if I am moving every night or every other night, it feels like I'm spending more time packing and in transit than I am spending actually exploring.
Here are some of my other recommendations for travel planning:
Sassy Hong Kong - Technically for expats but has a lot of good tips for trip planning in Asia as well.
Alex in Wanderland - travel blogger I love and have followed for a while. She has tips for all over the world, especially in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
36 Hours in... by the New York Times is a great resource though I would never, ever, try to recreate one of these weekends because they're absurd. But they do have good ideas.
Context Travel does tours in cities all over the world. My mom and I did a (food related) one in Istanbul and it was probably one of my favorite experiences of all time. It felt like being toured around by a super knowledgeable local friend, which is the dream. They're definitely not cheap but these people really know their stuff.
Fodor's itineraries are useful for getting a feel for what a lot of people do in different cities, and how much time to spend in a place. I do not trust most travel guides restaurant recommendations, so keep that in mind.