It’s been a little while since Henk and I have planned a ‘Grownup Trip’, as we like to call them – you know, the kind that takes you somewhere super-special, and will probably cost you that bit extra since you figure you’ll ‘only do it once’ (think safari in Africa, or hiking to Machu Picchu, or Costa Rica top-to-bottom). What some people call a ‘Bucket List’ trip.
But where do you start, once the wanderlust hits? Here’s a few tips on our process for how to plan a Grownup Trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma):
1. Start with Inspiration
Something triggers that wanderlust in you – an article, a photograph, someone’s recommendation. In this case, it was a bit of all 3. Myanmar was first mentioned to me by a traveller who recommended it above all other SE Asia destinations when I said we were considering going to that part of the world.
A few weeks later, Travel and Leisure featured it on their December cover as a top destination for 2015. And then, there was this photo of a giant stone precariously punched on a ‘hair of the Buddha’ and with so much gold leaf on it that it actually has lumps of the stuff texturing the surface!
And the icing on the cake? Everything pointed to Myanmar as unspoiled by tourism, which is pretty appealing to us when it comes to an exotic destination. (If I wanted McDonald’s, I’d go to Maui.)
2. Research, Research, Research
Oh boy. You can get sucked into a wormhole of online and offline research where you can spend days or weeks reading about a destination! Of course, because I’m just that kind of nutcase, I do exactly that. But being a little ‘old school’ (read ‘grownup’), I usually start with a guidebook – you know, the printed kind that has pages made from real paper. I would recommend you start there for a couple of reasons:
a) While it’s all well and good to have a smart phone with you, you don’t want to be a slave to finding WiFi every time you need to learn something about what you are looking at, or where you want to go next in a country. And figuring out a data plan when you’re in other countries can be a real pain in the ass. (In this case, since I’ve heard WiFi might be very limited in Myanmar, it’s even more reason to get a guide book).
b) Having a beautiful guidebook that delivers more than just practical information makes it both a source of information AND a keepsake from your trip. Not everyone is a photographer, and having a book that inspires with pictures, words AND tips makes it a great memento to add to your library even after the trip is over. Personally, I like Insight Guides and the DK Eyewitness ones.
I consider guide books just that, a guide, not the bible, especially since they can never keep up with more recent online reviews for things like dining and accommodation, which can be very personal choices. For that kind of detailed information, I stick to online reviews via Trip Advisor, Yelp, etc., and search for what is especially important to me, whether that means finding the perfect steak, or finding a hotel with a pool.
3. Going it Alone vs Go with a Guide
When I’m going some place really unfamiliar to me, I like to have more than just a guidebook, and that means a person or people – whether that is for a small part of the trip, or the whole thing. Going with a group packaged tour is one way to do this, but that has its pros and cons:
Pros: usually cheaper, you have someone holding your hand every step of the way, less research required because they’ve done it all for you.
Cons: you typically have anywhere from 10 – 30 other people travelling with you, you can’t change the itinerary, the length of the trip is fixed.
Since Henk and I like to have a little more flexibility, and a lot more say in our itinerary, there IS a great alternative…a private tour. Whoa, you’re probably saying, what would THAT cost?
The answer is, probably less than you think in many cases! Sure, it will cost you more than a packaged group tour and how much more depends on the destination you choose – in our case with Myanmar, it will cost us about 20% more – but that additional amount gives us ultimate flexibility! And this type of travel is more common and available than you think. In fact, many companies that organize trips for large pre-packaged groups also do tailor-made itineraries for individuals, families, or smaller groups. Just go through the company’s brochure or website to see if they offer that service.
In the case of Myanmar, this is proving to be not only preferable, but necessary, since many parts of the country are only accessible to foreigners through a tour operator, and are not open for independent travellers – at least not yet.
4. Local or International Tour Operator?
Henk and I prefer to look for a truly local operator on the ground in the country we are planning to visit, and finding one isn’t that difficult. We’ve done this for our trips to Peru, Tanzania, Costa Rica and now Myanmar. A simple search online specifying ‘local tour operator [the country]’ usually turns up several results, and you can learn about the company and where it is based from its website. If you’re still not sure, it’s easy to send an email to ask if they do private tours, and if they are in fact, locally-owned.
Why we love local: for starters, they REALLY know their country; they likely have access to less travelled sites and local properties that may be off the mainstream radar; and we feel that our money is going directly into the local economy, not to international offices acting as the middleman. Win, Win, Win, we say!
Concerned about their reputation? Start by looking at the company website for its degree of professionalism, testimonials, how they arrange payment, etc. Also, I always do an online search for “[company name] reviews” and by going to tripadvisor.com. Nothing of course, is a guarantee, but you can always prepare for the worst-case scenario by taking out trip cancellation/interruption insurance which will cover you if the company defaults in any significant way, like going bankrupt. (more on this later…)
5. Next, Email Your Wish List
Once you’ve found a few companies, send each an email, outlining your interests, how long you want to stay, and your budget. You can specify anything – from particular properties you like, to how much time you want to spend at particular sites. Then sit back, wait for the responses, and compare the itineraries and prices.
With a little back and forth, you’ll get a sense of the kind of service they offer, and you can finalize details and make your final choice. (And as a courtesy, remember to let the other companies know when you have decided NOT to use them.)
6. Don’t Book Yet – First, Find your FlightsSo you’ve sorted out the rough itinerary and almost pulled the trigger on the local tour company. But first, you need to find your flights. There are a couple of great sites that I use to compare flights across multiple airlines and booking companies. But once you’ve done that, don’t forget to go to the airline directly, too. We found a flight offered by Cathay Pacific through momondo.com, that turned out to be the same price on the airline’s own site.
TIP: When browsing for flights, or anything price-sensitive, it’s sometimes a good idea to turn your cookies off on your computer, so that the company doesn’t track that you are searching for those items …sometimes the price has been known to go up, when you go back to find that stellar price you saw earlier in the day! Read more here.
7. Travel Insurance
Being a grownup means we’ve learned not to leave everything to chance! Which is why it’s a good idea to make sure you’re covered for both Medical and Trip Cancellation/Interruption insurance. Because hey, stuff happens.
Medical: Check your Credit Card benefits first – if you have a premium card which you pay a high-ish annual fee, chances are you will be covered for most ‘normal’ medical insurance coverage. We did a line-by-line comparison with our Capital One Aspire card coverage vs a CAA Medical Travel annual coverage plan, and they were virtually identical.
Trip Interruption/Cancellation: That same credit card may cover you for a problem happening with your trip, but be careful: usually the benefit only applies if the entire cost of the trip was charged to the card itself. Read the policy carefully, and if there are any worries, look at taking out a separate policy to cover cancellation or interruption of your trip, for whatever reason – and that includes if your local tour operator disappears or goes bankrupt. (Remember that concern you had about a local tour operator – trip insurance will help put that to rest.)
A great site I found for travel insurance of all kinds is www.kanetix.ca, which does a comparison for you of many different insurance companies. It costs nothing to use the site, and you can see immediately who has the cheapest premium. You can also get options for including both Medical and Trip Cancellation together, if you aren’t covered elsewhere.
TIP: Just be sure to take out any insurance close to the time you book your flights/package, since some companies won’t allow coverage if you purchased the trip a while back!
Start Counting the Days!
Now that the bulk of the planning is taken care of, relax or do some more ‘fun’ preparation in anticipation of the trip to come – which is often one of the best parts! Because if you’re like me, you’ll use that time to learn how to say ‘Hello” in Burmese (“Mingalaba”), or the most useful international word recognized almost everywhere: “toilet”!
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