Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The second best part: planning the trip

Sometime last month, I came home to a very excited Jay. "Let's not talk about the money part yet," he said (a foreboding start to a conversation), "but it turns out my cousin's wedding in Texas is in April. If we went, where else would you want to go?"

I was absolutely livid. (In retrospect, I will admit that I was being a bit ridiculous. Of all people, I should probably never get mad when my partner proposes we go on vacation. But I'm poor and his suggestion that we should discuss a multiple state road trip vacation without touching on the financial implications was borderline rude.)

"Look up the airfare to Houston and then we'll discuss it," I told him, annoyed. After a quick search, we discovered that even with Air Canada and Westjet's respective seat sales, it was going to cost us between $500 and $600 each to fly to Houston on a non-direct flight. Add to that the cost of a car rental to drive to the wedding, which is two hours outside of Houston. And Jay wanted to go someplace else, too? Um. Right.

There was only one solution: I went upstairs to sulk. Jay was going to have an adventure in Texas and I was going to have to stay home with the dog and roll the pennies that I scour off bar floors.

This. Was. The. Absolute. Worst.

It's a good thing I always do my best thinking when I'm feeing sorry for myself, because suddenly a light went off. The wedding isn't in Houston. So where is it?

Turns out it's in Beaumont, which is about a five hour drive from New Orleans. (New Orleans! The city of my girlhood Anne Rice-inspired fantasies! The city of Scarlett and Rhett's honeymoon! Vampires! Civil War! Voodoo! Old South! My swooning was enough to rival Aunt Pittypat's.) And flights to New Orleans with seat sale fares? Only $315 with taxes in. Suddenly the trip was back on the table.

Within 12 hours, we had purchased our flights. And now it's on to my favourite part of vacations (which I enjoy only marginally less than the trip itself): developing the itinerary!

I haven't always loved itineraries. In fact, when I travelled to Europe in 2003, Helka and I didn't have any kind of an agenda. We both flew into Berlin the same day and knew the approximate date that we'd have to return to Seinäjoki, Finland. But the two months in between? Completely by the seat of our pants. (In fact, we didn't even have a guidebook.) Same goes for the nearly month-long extended layover I had in Australia in 2006.

Cape Breton Road Trip: July 2010

Joining the adult work world has quickly changed that, though. My vacations suddenly have definite start and end dates and are only a week to 10 days in length. Travels have to be strategic and well-executed. So here's how I do it:

Research Different Departure Cities
I already spelled this out above and discussed it in my Croatia posts, but flights can be significantly cheaper dependent on where you fly in and out of. For this particular trip, I investigated flying round-trip to Houston, round-trip to New Orleans, and into New Orleans and out of Houston (and vice versa).

The car rental plus round-trip airfare to New Orleans was cheapest, coming in at $415 per person.

Build Your Itinerary from Outwards In
1. Determine your non-negotiables. Non-negotiables are, for example, what city you need to be in to catch a flight on a particular date. In this case, for our week-long trip, we need to spend the final night in New Orleans to fly back to Toronto the next morning. We also need to be in Beaumont Friday and Saturday night for the wedding.

2. Plan in travel times based on non-negotiables. Usually these are semi-negotiable since you'll need to travel on particular dates to meet your non-negotiables.

So, it takes five hours to drive to Beaumont from New Orleans, which means we need to either drive to Beaumont either on Thursday or Friday. But instead, we're going to break it in half, because who wants to spend five hours driving? So we'll spend one night in Baton Rouge. And then we'll need to return to New Orleans by the following Tuesday, so we need to drive back (in one big haul) on the Sunday or Monday.

I also generally avoid planning activities on days that we'll be driving. Driving is an activity all of it's own. After all, you never know when you'll spot a mini-golf course that's begging to played or a gopher hole museum.

3. Finally, determine where you are going to spend your first and last night, then build in everything in between. What activities do you want to do? What are your must-sees? What are you ideals?

Be Realistic
Sure, it's possible to drive around Cape Breton in two days (one day to drive from the airport to Inverness, day two to drive the entire Cabot Trail from Inverness to Baddeck), but when your partner reveals that he'd really like to go whale watching and you have to say no because there just isn't enough time because you have to get back to Halifax for a wedding rehearsal, that's a bummer. (Lesson learned: if you ever want to do the Cabot Trail and Halifax, plan for at least a week.)

So yes, while it may be possible to go to Houston a day-trip from Beaumont, it may not be realistic or economical to drive more than four hours in one day just to go to the NASA space station. (Right now, our day-trip to Houston is a tentative plan.) And Austin? That's just completely unrealistic.

The Cabot Trail: I'm typically the primary driver, so I also factor this consideration into our travel plans. How far can I realistically drive by myself in a day? (Answer: about nine hours. I'm trooper. And Albertan.)

Plan in Free Days
I know it sounds counter-intuitive to plan in "free time" because vacations should be all about free time, but they're also like summer camp. Sometimes you get so caught up in activities that you forget to sleep in, hold hands and go for brunch. Setting aside a "free" day or two also allows you to check out that great "secret" spot that was recommended by your waitress, or to account for things that may go wrong (car break-downs, tour cancellations, sudden desires to go whale watching, the development of an allergy to cheese in Mexico, etc.)

Jay enjoys "free time" in Halifax.

Book Your Accommodation
I usually book accommodation well in advance using a careful combination of Trip Advisor, Hostel World, Google Maps and B&B Canada. Cheapest is best, but Jay and I like to have one "splurge" night, too. I'm hoping our splurge this time around will be at a plantation bed and breakfast near Baton Rouge.

Ask For Recommendations
While I compile a list of must-sees from friends and print it off before I leave, I tend not to factor these into my itineraries. I like to make my own uncharted discoveries. But recommendations are always worth keeping track of, particularly in the unlikely possibility that you're bored during your "free" time. (Leave your New Orleans recommendations in the comments!)

Cash in Your Points
At least six weeks before my intended departure date, I'll review all my points cards to see what is worth cashing in. (A six week window is necessary because it can take a while for companies to mail the rewards to you.) Your points can affect the activities you participate in, the vendors (like car rental companies) that you use, or even the hotels you stay at.

For this particular trip, I have enough Best Western points to cash in for a $25 off Best Western gift card. Our hotel on our first night will only be $75.

Plan for the unexpected: like BC forest fires completing obliterating your view of the mountains while on a Jasper road trip.

This is what our Louisiana/Texas road trip currently looks like:

Wednesday: New Orleans
-Arrive in New Orleans around noon
-Pick up car and find hotel
-Go on evening vampire tour
-Accommodation booked: Best Western

Thursday: New Orleans-->Baton Rouge
-Day tour of plantations and swamp
-Drive to Baton Rouge (1.5 hours)

Friday: Baton Rouge-->Beaumont
-Drive to Beaumont (3.5 hours)
-Stop in Lafayette for lunch

Saturday: Beaumont
-Wedding in Beaumont

Sunday: Beaumont-->Houston-->Beaumont
-Day trip to NASA (2 hours both way)

Monday: Beaumont-->New Orleans
-Drive to New Orleans (5 hours)

Tuesday: New Orleans
-Free time in New Orleans

Wednesday: New Orleans-->Toronto
-Return to Toronto


  1. You mention checking different city pairs for your arrival but did you check departure cities? Buffalo is fairly close and with JetBlue and Southwest Airlines flying out of there, quite often they have very inexpensive flights. Also because they fly there many of the major airlines discount their fares too. Add that to no Nav Canada surcharge, airport improvement fees, HST, the savings really rack up quickly

    With the Canadian dollar almost at par it gets even more cost effective. Things like one way car rentals or staying at a local hotel can give you free parking for longer term stays... even if you use points.

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  3. I actually didn't check different departure cities!

    The truth is that although I'm not totally opposed to the idea and although I consider myself to be a relatively frugal traveller, I HATE connecting flights. They are a deal breaker for me. Same goes for layovers and extended travel times. (For example, I prefer Porter because it takes significantly less time to get from point A to point B. I guess it comes back to the whole adage that time is money.)

    But it's definitely worth looking into in the future!

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