On building a great travel itinerary: there's levels to this.
When I decide to take an international trip to a destination that I haven't been to before, I generally do two things: book a flight, then buy a trusted travel guide. Then I spend the next several months planning an itinerary; seemingly random pages in my travel guide folded over, and text highlighted and underlined for remembering sites I want to check out, and my internet browser full of tabs opened to blogs, travel insiders groups, and tourism bureaus.
I tend to book early AM flights so that I can settle into my accommodations upon arrival, and usually don't plan many activities until the second day. From there, I am sure to start my days early when its cooler and quieter. My experience traveling in Latin America has been that cities are serene early in the morning, and tend to get busier as the sun peaks and heats up the place. By evening, I plan a nice break and meal before engaging in nightlife. My itineraries start off slim, and develop as I talk to friends and other travelers that make recommendations on what I should do. Day trips are also best when I set out early. If I plan to go to a museum or destination-oriented attraction, I usually make it the focus of the day, allowing myself enough time to travel to and fro, and grab some food. I tend to not pack each day to the brim, because my best travel is experienced when I don't have a plan at all.
Much of my research happens on the ground too. I believe in engaging with locals in order to create the greatest travel experience. Think about it: travel guides are sometimes years old. Restaurants and hotels listed in them often change, or shut down by the time you get there. Local folks are usually friendly, and can offer the most up-to-date information on food, lodging, and attractions. They can also help you to get the most unfiltered pulse on local politics, culture, and current events in the area. I also utilize tourist info desks often found in airports, and bus stations. The staff at these desks are employees of the local government tourism office and aren't trying to sell anything (at least not directly). They can be great sources for orienting oneself upon arrival, corroborating information provided by another source, or finding out about seasonal activities that may occur during your stay. Because they are not working for tour companies or agencies, they may be less biased, and more upfront about what to expect as you fulfill the activities in your itinerary. I also usually collect all the free maps, and all the business guides...these come in handy later.
Lastly, I wander. Freely moving around a city without a plan encourages discovery, and the therapeutic effects that great travel can have on you (which I talked about here in my post on #TravelAsSelfCare). Before I set out to wander a new city, I always ask the hotel receptionist, "Where should I NOT go?". The receptionist will usually respond by telling me which are dangerous neighborhoods, and what things to look out for so that my personal safety is not compromised. After that, I get into the streets and explore. I follow the smells of fresh food being made by street vendors, and pay attention to the restaurants that locals swarm to. I also peruse the markets even if I don't intend to buy anything. Markets are the best places to encounter culture: seeing unique local produce, witnessing business transactions, tasting home cooked delicacies, and seeing how locals interact with each other. I can't travel Latin America without taking an extended stroll through the central plaza and adjacent parks. I always find food, friends (folks that are generally curious about me as a traveler), and opportunities for people watching. And many services, like hotels, currency exchanges, restrooms, police, etc., can be found just a few steps away from central plazas. Along the way, I jot down places of interest and make sure that I come back later, or add them to a future itinerary.
After a trip ends and I am heading back home, I measure the greatness of a trip by how many new things I experienced, not how closely I followed an itinerary. I gauge the level of self-care that I experienced by checking in with myself about how authentic I have been during the trip: did I do things that I wanted to do? Was I rushed? What (if any) was I worried about? Did I meet new people? Do I feel empowered and invigorated?
By the time that my pre-departure preparation is put to test, and I come to the end of a 5 day trip for example, I have not only experienced, engaged, and enjoyed a destination, but I have also inadvertently spent nearly 100 hours of researching for my next visit. As you can tell, I view traveling is an investment.
This is what happened when I decided to go to Mexico earlier this year and visited Mexico City and Veracruz. As I plan to return with a group of travelers in February 2018, I am excited that the many hours of research, engaging with local personal contacts, developing business partners, and great travel ju-ju will result in a dynamic travel experience for all join the trip.
Picture it: Climbing ancient pyramids by day, and twerking at one of the lively clubs in the Mexican capital by night. Learn how you can join my trip to Mexico City.
Picture it: Learning about black history in Mexico, and celebrating Carnival, one of the country's most festive holiday seasons alongside Afro-mestizo communities. Learn how you can join my trip to Veracruz.