How do you choose a travel destination?
Let’s say you have only two weeks’ vacation, and you want to get the most out of it that you can.
At the same time, if you’re like me, you want to see pretty much the whole world. You know that in just one lifetime, and in just a few weeks’ vacation a year, that’s simply not possible.
So how do you choose?
I wrote recently about choosing a destination in a time of terrorism. In this post I’d like to address some of the other factors to consider when choosing a destination, I’m working, by the way, on the assumption that you want to plan an independent trip, not a package holiday.
Here are some things to consider in choosing the destination for your next vacation, along with some general recommendations from my own limited experience:
1. Choosing a destination: Type of travel
People vacation for a variety of reasons. Do you want to just relax at a spa, by a pool or on a beach? Or do you want an active outdoor vacation with hiking or skiing or diving or whatever? Perhaps you prefer exploring a country’s historical sites, cities, museums and cuisine?
Once you’ve decided what style of vacation you want, you can already start narrowing down possible destinations. For example, if you love to take long scenic hikes, enjoying natural beauty, you might like the Scottish Highlands better than London and the Appalachian Trail better than Washington, DC.
Of course, you might want to combine more than one activity, visiting a historical site one day and scuba diving the next. A place like Malta or perhaps Egypt would suit you well.
First, a disclaimer: I can’t cover every possibility because a) I haven’t been everywhere and b) I don’t do every activity: skiing, for example, is unwise for a klutz like me. However, I can make some very general recommendations.
Museums: New York City, San Francisco, Washington (where most are free!), Amsterdam, Berlin and pretty much any major city in the world.
Historical sites: Egypt, Israel, China, Japan, Spain, France, Greece and Italy.
Natural beauty: the US, especially the Southwest, the Rockies and the coast of New England; Canada, especially the Rockies and the west coast; the Alps in Switzerland, France or Italy; the Pyrenees; Sweden; game parks in Tanzania, Kenya or Malawi.
Scuba diving: the Red Sea in Jordan, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and Bonaire have been my favorites.
2. Choosing a destination: Accommodations
Of course, you have to consider cost in making this decision, and part of that is considering what is important to you. For example, is luxury right on a beach important to you or can you cut costs by staying in a simpler hotel a few blocks from the shore? Is fine dining important or could you save money by renting an apartment and cooking for yourself? Are you comfortable with less traditional forms of accommodation: couch surfing, hostels or Airbnb?
Choosing accommodations will also depend on your travel group. If you’re going solo, a hostel or Airbnb could be an excellent choice. I don’t sleep well in hostels but have had great luck renting rooms in private homes through Airbnb.
If you’re traveling with children, you might need a bigger room, or adjoining rooms, or a crib. Some beach resorts offer kids’ clubs, so you might want to choose based on that.
Airbnb: (Disclosure: If you click on the link, I will get a small cut of what you spend, and you will get a discount if it’s your first time booking through them.) Airbnb is good for renting a whole house or flat for the family so you can cook instead of using restaurants. Also good for solo travelers because you can rent a room in someone’s house and get a glimpse into a local’s life.
Hotwire: (Disclosure: Using the Hotwire site from this link will give me a cut from what you spend without affecting your cost.) Use Hotwire to find hotels. Make sure to set your browser to incognito mode before you search (control-shift-n). Hotwire means taking a bit of a gamble in terms of location, but you’ll end up with a good deal. (Read my Hotwire tips here.)
3. Choosing a destination: Transportation
Flying: If you are traveling somewhere that would require flying, choose some possible dates and look up how much it would cost to fly there. This might help you decide between possible destinations by choosing the cheaper one.
When you do book, make sure to use incognito mode or you might see higher prices than when you first checked. Cookies allow the sites to see that you’re particularly interested in those flights and raise the rates in response.
Driving: Do you feel comfortable driving in the destination you’re considering? In some places, you really have to drive if you want to do any sightseeing. My trip to Guadeloupe is an example. I stayed in an Airbnb accommodation away from beaches, I wanted to do a lot of sightseeing, and the public bus system is very limited. So I drove.
Or my quick trip up into the Sierra from San Francisco. It would have been possible by bus, I think, but would have taken much longer.
In other places, driving would, to me, be very stressful: Dubai, for example, where I could take the metro or a taxi easily and fairly cheaply. Or any big city like Paris or London or New York, where public transportation is excellent and parking is expensive.
Skyscanner: I use Skyscanner in incognito mode. If you can’t decide on a destination, you can choose “anywhere” and see where it suggests.
Hopper: Enter your dates of travel into the Hopper app. It’ll not only tell you the current prices for the trip, it’ll tell you whether the prices are likely to go up or down. Then you can set it to send you a warning when the prices are unlikely to drop any further.
Car rentals: Again, Hotwire can get you cheap car rentals. Make sure, if you are going to rent a car, that your hotel or other accommodation also includes parking. Get collision insurance if it’s not already included on your credit card. Check the car very carefully before you leave the parking lot to make sure you don’t get blamed for any dents that are already there (This has happened to me!).
Public transportation: In many countries, public transportation is the best, cheapest, and least stressful way to get around. Don’t assume that whatever tourist transport pass a city offers is necessarily the cheapest. Think about how much you’re likely to use it and do the research to find out what the best deal for you might be. A ticket like the locals use could end up cheaper. Avoid the local rush hour by sleeping in, or choosing nearby walkable sights for your first sightseeing of the day.
4. Choosing a destination: Activities
Make sure to factor the cost of activities into your plans. Some activities are more expensive than others. Museum admissions can add up fast, as can renting equipment for scuba diving or skiing.
Hiking is usually free, but many other outdoor activities like skiing, snowboarding, sailing, bungee-jumping, or whatever activity you have in mind, cost money. Even on many beaches you have to pay for a lounge chair or an umbrella. Check these things out ahead of time and budget them in. You don’t want to end up regretting that you couldn’t do a particular activity because you couldn’t afford it.
City cards: Many cities offer tourism city cards for a price that makes them worthwhile if you are planning to visit many sites in one city. Amsterdam has one, for example, called the Amsterdam City Card. You can look up these deals ahead of time on-line to see if they’re worth it.
Package deals: Similarly, scuba clubs often offer packages of a number of dives over several days that end up cheaper than renting equipment for one dive. The same goes for many other activities like skiing or visiting Disney parks: multi-day packages can save you money.
Pre-booking: Many of the most popular sights now allow pre-booking, which is often slightly discounted and, more importantly, allows you to skip waiting in a long line. Disney parks, for example, fall into this category. In Amsterdam, the van Gogh museum and the Anne Frank House come to mind. I didn’t book ahead for the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain, and wished I had!
Favorite activities I’d recommend:
- scuba-diving and/or snorkeling in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Australia or Bonaire;
- taking a walking tour in pretty much any city; I loved the ones I did in Athens, Barcelona and Berlin;
- climbing a volcano in Guadeloupe;
- walking on the Great Wall of China;
- exploring outside the city in Hong Kong or Singapore;
- enjoying a short cruise on the Nile;
- whale and dolphin-watching in Martinique;
- visiting World War II-related and Cold War historical sites in Berlin;
- touring chateaux in the Loire Valley in France;
- island-hopping by ferry in Greece;
- going on safari in Tanzania or Malawi.
5. Choosing a destination: Eating and drinking
How important is food to you? Your answer to this question will also affect what destination you choose. If it’s important, make sure your budget accommodates high-end restaurants. On the other hand, if you enjoy exploring food that the locals eat, choose a place with a rich tradition of street food.
If food is just a matter of sustenance for you, you can choose a destination that is not particularly highly regarded for its food. Or you could rent an apartment and cook your own quick meals to save money. Or choose a hotel with an all-inclusive or half-board deal and eat from the buffet.
In some countries — France, for instance — lunch in a restaurant is very similar to dinner, but the prices are often lower. Make lunch your main meal and pick up sandwich ingredients to make your own dinner in your hotel room.
My food and drink recommendations:
Where to travel for good food: France, just because, well, it’s French. And Italy because it’s Italian. Hong Kong has amazing food from lots of Asian countries; make sure to try dim sum. Street food in Tokyo (delicious filling soups) or Singapore (Chinese, Indian and Malaysian food) or China. And cities like San Francisco, New York, London and Berlin have food from all over the world in astounding quality.
Street food: Don’t just assume that street food is either unsafe or of poor quality; it depends on the country. I was amazed at how delicious the street food I tried in Tokyo was. And street food markets in Singapore and China are remarkably good, cheap and safe, since all the food is either boiled or cooked over very high heat in a wok. Check the internet ahead of time for safety advice on the particular country or city you’ve decided to visit.
Haute cuisine: On the other hand, if you want to enjoy haute cuisine every night, you might want to choose a destination accordingly. France is an obvious choice. So is Italy, especially Bologna. Any sophisticated big city will have a wide range of different national foods; Berlin, New York, San Francisco, Vancouver, Los Angeles, London or Melbourne are all good examples.
Alcohol: Don’t go to Scandinavia if you want to drink a lot. Alcoholic drinks are particularly expensive there.
Wine: If you’re a wine connoisseur, you’ll love the wine regions of California, France, Italy, or pretty much anywhere else where wine is produced. Vineyard landscapes are beautiful and you can take wine-tasting tours as well. For obvious reasons, I suggest taking a tour rather than driving yourself.
Markets: Wherever you go, check out both the local market and the local supermarket. Both will offer insights into the food culture in the country you’re visiting.
Cooking: If you can, take a cooking class. We did this in Yangshuo, China, and it was worth every penny.
Choosing a destination for newbies
I already discussed concerns about terrorist attacks in my earlier post, but sometimes other worries come up. If you are an inexperienced traveler, you can look at independent travel with some trepidation. If that describes how you are feeling, I would suggest starting with an “easier” destination. In my mind, that means it should have:
- a stable, well-functioning society;
- good quality, comprehensive public transportation and/or a well-maintained, well-signposted road network;
- an English-speaking population, whether as a first or second language;
- safe drinking water, so that you can eat whatever you want, even if it’s uncooked vegetables.
My recommendations for people who are just dipping their toes into independent travel:
- The US
- The Netherlands (and make sure to venture out of Amsterdam as well!)
- The UK, including Scotland and Northern Ireland
- Sweden (and Norway sounds equally wonderful, though I haven’t been there yet)
- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
- Hong Kong
Please don’t get offended if your country is not listed; I haven’t been everywhere and I don’t feel comfortable recommending a place where I haven’t been. I’ve also left out lots of places I loved to visit (France, Malawi, Egypt, Israel, China, Japan, Guatemala) but that don’t seem to me to be quite as good places for a first-time independent traveler.
Do you have any advice to add about choosing a destination? How do you choose? And do you have any places to add to my list of “easy” countries to visit? Please add a comment below!
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