How to Choose Where to go and What to Drop?
We’ve never really had a Dream Trip before. In the past, our trips have been smaller and built around specific interests or activities. For example, our love of scuba diving – ahem, the bipeds’ love of scuba diving; I hate the water – would take us to the best reefs. Our love of architecture, art and history landed us in Florence. Other times, a movie showing an amazing vista would provoke a desire to visit that place.
More practically, some decisions have been based on the state of our finances: we went where we could afford to go. We also have a number of travelling and international friends, so often, we are invited to specific destinations in order to visit.
As strange as this may seem, once we’ve generally decided where to go, we use Google Images as a primary tool for choosing what to see once we arrive at our destination. Since we love photography, we are drawn to places we would like to photograph. Google Images really helps with that. For example, when we knew we would be near Austin Texas, we turned to Google Images and did a search under “Must See Austin Texas” and discovered these:
We knew we had to go to these two places and did.
Our hosts had not been to the Hamilton Pool Preserves nor did they know of the new Capitol Extension (below ground), so that shows you just how useful this method is. Try it for your own home town and see what you find!
We have no regrets about visiting either sight. Both spots delivered even if our photography skills could not capture the view as brilliantly as the images we found online. We are glad we got to see these gems with our own eyes.
Whenever we travel, we, unfortunately, have a limited amount of time and money to discover the area. As a result, there are always sacrifices to make. For example, with only a single day in Rome (Italy), we decided to do the hop-on-hop-off city bus tour and see mostly the exteriors of major landmarks. This is a form of tourism we usually abhor and rarely do, but this time, it was worth the sacrifice in order to see as much of Rome as possible. In the end, we enjoyed our day, even if we left Rome knowing we had missed out on so very very much.
It is that same feeling of unease, that fear of missing out, that we face now as we plan the first six month leg of our Big Trip. Six months may sound like a lot of time but, to illustrate our point, if we were to see all that we wanted along the coast of Italy, we would need a full year just to sail around “the boot.” We just don’t have that luxury. So, with 11 countries to see on our first leg of six months, we have to make choices. We have to cull the herd.
We’ve learned that the major attractions are not always the places we enjoy the most, so making a short list of the major attractions in each destination is not going to help us. So we need a different method for deciding where to go and what to leave for another day, if ever.
We (and by “we,” I mean Mom) seem to have come up with an interesting approach that I think is worth sharing. Our approach does not guarantee that we won’t regret missing out on a location but it does help us come up with a reasonable list of places to visit and sights to see.
1. Top “20” Lists
If you open your favourite search engine and type in “top 20 things to see in [insert country],” you’ll get a pretty good idea of what is on offer. Jot down the search results.
- To help illustrate, our top 20 research for France turned up a great list of The 20 Best Coastal Towns of France. The list helped us discover Cassis, Belle-Ile-en-Mer, Bonifacio, Collioure, Hyeres, Piana, Bormes-Les-Mimosas, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Saint-Malo, Arcachon, St-Raphael, Eze, Camaret-sur-Mer, Calvi, La Rochelle, Etretat, Perros-Guirec, Menton, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and Honfleur.
2. Where are the sights located and are they accessible?
With a list of top 20, we then determine which places on the list are going to be accessible. In our case, the destination will have to be accessible by sail boat or as a quick day trip from a port. Most landlocked places will have to wait for another time. Accessibility by public transport is also a must for us since we will not have a car and don’t want to rent one. (Although Mom loves the idea of folding bicycles or renting a scooter. I love the idea of an ocean breeze blowing past my nose while Mom peddles me around in a basket!) Any non-accessible place gets dropped off of the list.
- To continue with our example, if we take the Top 20 Best Coastal Towns of France list mentioned above and apply accessibility to it, we have to remove Belle-Ile-en-Mer, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Saint-Malo, Arcachon, Camaret-sur-Mer, La Rochelle, Etretat, Perros-Guirec, Menton and Honfleur. Why? Because those places aren’t on the Mediterranean coast! That leaves us with half of our original list. That’s much more manageable!
3. Google Images
Once we know that a place will be accessible to us, we then use Google Images – as described earlier – to see if a location inspires us. This is a way of looking at the “cover of the book,” as it were, and see if we are compelled to “read” further.
- When we used Google Images to research our shortened list, we came across these two photos, which made us want to investigate those locations further.
4. Specific Research
The next step is to do focused research on those places that have made it through our process of elimination. (This kind of research is a great way to whittle away long, cold winter days!)
We research each town or attraction we’re considering worth a visit. We assess dog friendliness, safety, cost of going, and ratings from those who have already been. The Internet and libraries are full of travel books, magazines and articles, which are great resources for this kind of in-depth research. We love travel blogs for this step, especially when we’re checking up on a destination that seems to have a “Love or Hate” rating. Those always intrigue us!
- For example, even with intriguing images in our Google Image search, we weren’t certain that Cassis might be worth a layover. But our detailed research led us to this commentary:
A magical effect? I think yes: vineyards and pine forest abound, narrow streets and squares bordered by the colorful houses, local fishermen and the port, hot spot for tourism (with its boats and inviting terraces). A classified site, 20km of sign posted paths, the Calanques are limestone cliffs which plunge into the Mediterranean Sea, can be visited either on foot or by boats that set sail from Cassis. (I recommend both, as you don’t have the same view.) The Calanques are a paradise for the diver, the climber and for those who wish to discover the local fauna and flora.
Yep, that is a hike we want to take. We will also likely dive, and we found that we can picnic and BBQ in the hills. Sounds like a nice place to take a break from being on the sailboat and really stretch our legs!
5. Interest Driven Choice
Certain things attract us more than others. Everyone is different, of course, but for example, sports are of little interest to us when we travel. Going to see a specific soccer team play at a specific stadium would not be enough of a draw. We would never travel to go to watch the Olympics either. It’s not that we don’t like it, it’s just not a driver for us. We aren’t big lovers of all things WWI or WWII either. Architecture, art and history play a much more important role in our decision making. In that order. Food does as well. I assure you, we will go out of our way to try a unique food.
- To help illustrate, although Marseilles is not on our shortened list from the Top 20 list above, it is a port we are itching to see. We have a story there! Dad is a descendant of Alexandre Dumas, who, as you know, wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Montecristo. (Yup, that’s how I came to have my name!) Anyway, early in The Count of Montecristo, the Count is a prisoner at Château d’If. Well, the Château is a real place! The fortress is on a small island just off Marseille. Heck, there is even a cell named after the Count (before he becomes the count): the “Edmond Dantès” cell. We really want to go! We. Must. See. It! So, with the fortress and the world’s best Bouillabaisse to be had in restaurants, Marseille is now on the list.
6. “Must See” versus “Gravy” Lists
Once we have narrowed our list down to places we know we do want to see, we split the destinations between two lists: our “Must See” and our “Gravy” lists. The Must See list is made up of destinations that have all three of us excited, those places and things that make the bipeds go “OH, yes!!”
Locations that just make us smile go on the Gravy list. We use the Gravy list when we end up with more time than expected. So, for example, if something we thought would take all day ends up only taking 2-3 hours, we will turn to the Gravy list and see where it leads us.
7. Schedule and Funds
Lastly, we check to see if everything on our Must See list fits within the allocated time. We also assess whether we can afford to do it. Sadly, there are some things that you just have to cross off the list, based purely on its high cost. (As an example, we always wanted to take a hot air balloon ride over some part of France, but for now, it is just too expensive.)
So, with our two lists, we are then ready with clear guideline to follow. Still, the lists are flexible and up for negotiation once on site. We like that. It’s a nice compromise between being free as the wind and having a plan. Plus, psychologically, we have already given ourselves permission to miss a few things. It’s sounds strange, but with a burning desire to “see it all,” it really helps to know from the start that you will – and can – miss a few things.
No matter how much we research a place, we still have to be prepared to face challenges. That is why, as much as possible, we take away the stress, expect nothing, and let our eyes decide where to take our bodies. We build in a lot of time for just meandering, getting lost and discovering something on location. Without staying open, we might miss those little secrets the locals will share, such as the most amazing sunset picnic spot with the best view of a fortressed town. Those little somethings that aren’t in the guide books and those that often leave us with the most precious memories.
How do you decide where to travel next? Once there, how do you decide what to see?