Once you've decided to take a long term trip, then your next step is to decide where you want to go. Some travelers like to have detailed itineraries that break down their travel plans by the day. Others are more flexible with their plans and put little thought into their next destination until it is time to move on. Regardless of your travel style, choosing an itinerary can be both extremely fun and quite frustrating, all at the same time. With the whole world ahead of you, how do you choose where to go? Many people have dreamed about certain destinations for their entire lives: an African safari, the Pyramids of Egypt, romantic Paris, the Incan ruins of Machu Pichu in Peru, the stunning beaches of Thailand, the Australian Outback, New York City... the list goes on and on. Where do you start? Consider the following when planning your destinations and route. While the task may seem daunting, itinerary planning can actually be surprisingly fun!
When narrowing down your list of options, consider what you enjoy doing at home or think about your travel bucket list. Think about your past trips and which parts you liked the most. If you don't like museums, then this likely won't change during your next trip. Enjoy hiking? Look for countries with great trails or national parks. While a trip around the world will definitely change you and your perspective on things, don't assume that you'll enjoy activities that never interested you in the past. While this may sound like obvious advice, it's easy to lose yourself when you're picking from a world of locations. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to try something new. Cooking classes, wildlife safaris, or even scuba diving are common activities available abroad that many people have not tried while at home.
Consider your budget. Perhaps the biggest influence on how much money you spend is not only where you go, but how many places you visit. If you plan to visit a large number of countries and cities, then you will have more transportation connections. Regardless of how you travel, by bus, plane or train, these connections can become expensive. If you're on a tight budget, then you may enjoy your trip more by choosing less destinations and spending more time getting to know only a few places. By traveling slowly, you'll truly get a feel for the countries you visit. Once you decide how fast you want to travel, then you can think about exactly where you want to go. Furthermore, travelers who have taken “the slow route” often claim that it is more enjoyable than jetting to a new city every other day. So it’s not only cheaper, but you’ll spend more quality time in a location instead of in an airplane.
Do some research. There are great resources available for travelers on the internet, in the bookstores, and even on television. A guide book will help you enormously with itinerary planning (more info on choosing a good guide book will come later). By doing some research, you can find out not only what the interesting things are to see in a city, but also the transportation connections, hotel costs, border crossings, and other need-to-know information. LonelyPlanet.com is the first go to resource many independent travelers think of when they start planning their trip, but don't overlook others. Consider searching for fellow traveler's blogs. Their writing can often provide insight into specific locations. Blogs are particularly helpful if you're traveling off the beaten path to a destination that is not as popular for travel.
But don't research too much. We don't want to sound inconsistent, but over planning can lock you into a route or schedule that you may want to change. This leads us directly into the most important piece of advice in long term travel...
Stay flexible. The following statements may scare you a little, but it is imperative that you understand the key points and reasons behind this very important rule. You should not book any hotels, flights, or tours too far ahead. How on earth could anyone make reservations for hotels, flights, trains, and everything else for an entire year? It's just not possible (nor cost effective). In fact, most "backpackers" never make reservations. Outside of the U.S., Europe, Australia, and other developed nations, it will actually cost more to make a reservation than if you just show up at a hotel. On top of that, your schedule will change. You will end up staying in some places longer than you planned, and leaving other places early. Don't worry, this is the beauty of traveling. You're not working. You're on your own. Why do you need to stick to an appointment book? Most reservations you make will just end up getting cancelled anyway. Stay flexible, plan a general route through the countries and cities you want to see. Take advantage of good things when they come along, and you'll enjoy yourself even more. And if needed, you can always make reservations when you know that your next destination is crowded, or a specific hotel might be booked up when you arrive. Flexibility means doing what you want or what you need to do, but without having too much structure. This will get easier with experience, and you will “plan to not have a plan." Don't be scared!