Pre-planning a trip vs. planning as you travel
On my recent trip to Central Asia, I had pre-planned very little. This was slightly unusual for me as I generally plan the majority of my travel in order to make the most of it. However for several reasons, this wasn’t the case this time; I was still hoping to get a visa approved to Turkmenistan and when this did not happen, I had to reshuffle. Also, it was a region of the world that I knew relatively little about and even with the guide book it was difficult for me to determine an exact route. Instead I was hoping to learn from several travelers on where to go (or not to go).
The are definitely some downsides to planning as you. I found myself spending way more way on the road going through the guide book, reading reviews online and just trying to figure out how to get to places.
You also run the risk for accommodation or transportation being sold out. I ran into that issue upon landing in Tashkent when I wanted to connect to a domestic flight to Urgench (or Bukhara as a back-up). I ended up being lucky and got a seat stand-by to Nukus which in hindsight wasn’t too bad because this way I got to visit the Savitsky Museum. But this can be a real issue in some places during high season, both off- and on the beaten path depending on the available tourist infrastructure.
I think it is also a bit harder to budget a trip if you just take it day by day. Setting out the journey and booking accommodation as well as transportation will cover the bulk of your expenses and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how much you’ll spend.
The upsides of not planning from home
Besides the disadvantages of not planning from home, I see several benefits of just taking the planning day by day. In Central Asia, there were several days where I only really decided the night before (or even on the morning) where I’d go that day and a lot of days I walked into a hotel or guest house without a reservation.
If you like it, this gives you sense of freedom. You can easily change your plans as you go along and meet other travelers or particularly like a place. On the backpacker path you’re bound to meet travelers who’ve been on the road for months. Especially if you’re traveling by yourself this can be great as you’ll join others for side-trips, excursions or just to hang out.
It can also be cheaper if you don’t plan ahead much. In most cases, booking locally is bound to give you a cheaper deal as you’re more likely to cut out a middleman. I find this to be the case most often with transportation. With accommodation I’ve made the experience that hotels (including small guest houses in the middle of nowhere) publish the best rates on online portals. As a walk-in guest I often paid more than others who had booked online – despite the hotel having the pay a hefty commission to the online travel agencies.
Planning on the road also allows you to better judge on where you want to go next and which place you might want to skip. While guide books are always useful, I find talking to others to give much more insight. Sure, it can be subjective but if you speak with multiple people, you’ll get a good grasp of what a place or a hotel is like.
What will this mean for my future trips
Even on my Central Asia trip I had a rough idea on which places I wanted to see but just not where I’d spend my “buffer” or spare days as well as no plan on how to travel between cities and where to sleep. I didn’t like so much that I was spending more time than I wanted to prepare the next day(s) of travel and also faced a few situations where things might have worked out better if I had planned from home.
If traveling as a couple or in a group, I’d definitely pre-plan most of the trip. It avoids complications on the road such as sold out hotels or arguments over where to head next. Also if traveling on my own on shorter trips, I’ll keep arranging most from home in order to make the most of the short time.
On longer trips (i.e. > one week), maybe I’ll do it similarly again to retain the flexibility to change plans ad-hoc.