Planning group travel is an interesting experience in coordinating the schedules and plans for people traveling with you as trip leader. I decided a decade ago to plan all travel on my own without using tour companies and other groups that can definitely simplify the work involved. Some people have openly questioned my sanity related to this particular approach to travel and I have some answers.
One of the most challenging parts of booking international travel are flights to and from a place. Staying up to date with costs of transportation is difficult, especially if you also have a full time job. In my case, the time I spend on watching flights and costs for flights takes up hours as I both budget tickets and plan travel. As I write this piece, I’m preparing to purchase tickets to Japan from New Mexico. On first thought, one might imagine that you could head to any one of a number of online sites and purchase tickets. Using sites like Orbitz or Expedia or Kayak is great to locate flight information because they aggregate all flights into a common interface. However, I cannot say strongly enough how risky it is to purchase flights from those web sites.
When purchasing flights from a site that is not associated with a specific airline opens travelers up to a huge number of risk factors. Flights changes, cancellations, and other unforeseen changes to flight planes becomes a real problem when tickets are purchased through a non-affiliated site. In one case years ago, I purchased tickets through one of these sites and when changes occurred, I was referred back to the site rather than to the airline involved. In effect, I had no leverage when trying to get home from international travel with my group. We were, effectively stuck in an airport until the site found a solution that cost us a small fortune. Simply put, using an airline’s web portal for purchasing flights is almost always the best course of action. Again in my case, I purchased tickets through United to Asia and when one leg of the flight was cancelled, they quickly offered options. While changes can wreck havoc on travel, having a reliable partner in the process does make things so much easier.
Planning housing in international destinations is so easy now, and finding a great location to stay is possible using the web. For travel to Asia, I always use Agoda as my tool to find hotels. Too, because of the widespread use of VRBO for home stays, I use that tool as a means of finding housing that is less like a hotel and more like a homestay. For example, for our Japan trip, we’ll be staying in VRBO affiliated homes in Tokyo and Kyoto. Those stays, we will all stay together in one location, sharing meals in a common eating area and preparing our own meals together.
Approaching international travel as less of a tourist experience and more of a cultural/historical experience is one of my quests in making international student travel unique. That means staying together and assigning people to cook meals is one of the more fun aspects of our trips. Negotiating the challenges of finding food in local and neighborhood grocery stores is both a fun experience and provides cultural interaction as students try to find the things they need to make a meal. Further, those one on one interactions with folks in a grocery store are some of the most common interactions we can have in a community. It’s so cool to see students find food, bring it back to a house, and prepare that food in a setting that is unusual for them. From my perspective it changes the ways in which we interact with the communities we visit.
Once your group is in the country, ensuring a good experience involves a lot of very careful attention to travel details like museum visits, train rides to community, singing karaoke, or riding bikes through city streets. The minutia of identifying where to go and what do to is time consuming. One thing that I do is avoid a lot of the locations that gather huge numbers of tourists. While some places, like Fushimi Inari are must see spots, finding places that are out of the way and offer an interesting perspective and is equally valuable. That work takes time and some actual experience in the country. Using a guide book to help plan out a trip is really helpful AND if you have never visited a country, taking a group there is terrifying. (no, really) Little things like the best way to get to a place can be a huge challenge if you have not visited a place. Just trying to negotiate transportation can be nerve wracking. In one case, I used Google Maps to to find a location in Tokyo that we all read about and wanted to visit. It was not well-marked and the directions had to follow. When we arrived at the address, the location was an Outdoor Store and not the place we were looking for. How could it go so wrong?!
As we finish the planning for the Japan trip this year, we are using every resource we have available and that includes student input. Students have lots of ideas about where to go and what to do. Using that knowledge makes the trip so much more interesting and less like a package tour. Too, we can change things on the fly, making decisions to drop stuff off of the agenda and quickly redirect our plans. Some of those moments, like searching out a “secret” ice cream shop is one of the kinds of small adventures that make trips like this one memorable. It really doesn’t have to be about seeing historical and cultural sites every day; it can be about doing small things that have experiential meaning in our lives. Maybe THAT joy….finding hidden places, is worth every bit of silliness that goes along with it. Could be THAT is the real adventure of travel in the world.