I understand that a lot of travelers don’t plan much or spend much time organizing their travels. This post is for the rest of us who do at least want to make an effort. I will tell you the ad-hoc system I have cobbled together, admitting up front that I don’t consider it anywhere near perfect and hoping others will chime in with good/better suggestions.
Since I travel with a netbook, I do most of my organizing activities digitally. I even use Lonely Planet’s guidebook in PDF format (yes, they offer PDF versions). More on that in a moment. For most of my planning and organizing, I use a VERY simple and free program called The Guide (“a two-pane extrinsic outliner”). I’m sure there are better programs out there, but this one is lightweight and portable (can be run off a USB drive). Alternatives might include mindmapping software, Evernote (a hugely popular program I am starting to explore), a basic text file, a Google doc, etc. I am open to other suggestions. What I especially like about using The Guide is the simple way it is organized with parent and child tree like outlining structures.
Keeping Track of People I Meet
So, how do I use The Guide? Well, under my parent or top level page of Travel, I have a child listing for “People I Met.” For this section I further create child items for each country I plan to visit. Then, for each country I make bullet point lists for each place I stay, writing down the names of people I meet there with small notes about each of them (email address, where they are from, where they have been or are going, interests, something memorable about them, things in common, etc.). You’d be surprised how often I have referred back to these notes.
Planning My Itineraries
I also have a section of The Guide titled “Itineraries/Planning,” where I again create child pages for each country. At the top I add a bullet point list of all the suggestions I receive from other travelers (with a reference to which traveler gave me the suggestion). I also add useful online links to relevant sites (more and more common now that I have started following a lot of travel bloggers). Since I am organized in this way I know that when I finally get to a place, even if months away, I will not have to rely on my terrible memory or search for some small scrap of paper to find the suggestions I know I received earlier.
After the listing of fellow travelers’ suggestions I have a small text template that I use (just copy and paste) for each location in the country I want to visit. And I mean simple. I basically have a listing for “Sleeping” where I write suggested places from other travelers, my Lonely Planet or online research, with prices, location, contact info, etc. Then I have a “To Do” section with ideas for things to see and do in that area. (Note: when I get site-specific suggestions from other travelers, I will often add them directly to the relevant location section for the country rather than at the top). As for the locations, they are often in no particular order at first, but as I do more country research I try to organize them in the order I plan to visit. In the end, when I finally get to a location, I refer to my notes on it to make sure I know where I might like to stay and what I want to see before heading out for the next destination.
Tracking Other Thoughts and Suggestions
Other top pages I have created in The Guide are for “Books to Read,” “Movies to See,” “Music to Download,” and “Miscellaneous.” The former are mostly suggestions I get from other travelers though sometimes they are things I come across on my own.
Maps of Locations I Will Visit
Since I am using the PDF version of Lonely Planet, I usually print out just the maps pages before I head to a country. I do this quite simply by printing to a PDFCreator print driver, selecting the individual page numbers to include. Obviously I could get my maps using online resources instead.
Backing Up Photos
Like most travelers, I take a lot of photos. Since I travel with my computer, I am careful to regularly transfer my photos from my camera memory stick to my PC. To keep everything organized, I create folders for each country and then sub-folders for each location within that country (and, occasionally, further sub-folders for a location if merited). I also use ADrive, which offers free accounts with 50GB of online storage, occasionally backing up my photos to that account when I am in a place with a good Internet connection.
Tracking My Expenses
My final planning tool is undoubtedly WAY more effort than anyone else will want to bother with, but I actually keep a spreadsheet of all my daily expenses. Basic categories include “location” (so I can recall where I was on which day and what I spent there), “lodging,” “transportation,” “drinking” (not something I do much but I like to separate it out as an expense), “tourism,” “laundry,” “web/phone,” and “miscellaneous.” I also have two Total columns (one local currency, one in US$) and a column for notes. I keep a separate sheet listing my ATM withdrawals and the relevant exchange rate so in the end I can calculate an average exchange rate for each country (which I use for the US$ Total column). By the way, I will be making this spreadsheet template available in the future and highlighting the results for various countries I have visited to give any interested an idea of what a budget might look like.
What System Do YOU Use?
So, that’s more or less my travel planning and tracking system. I would love to hear what system(s) you might be using.