By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
To travel is to learn. And we're not talking about knowledge you can glean from any book. We're talking about experience--the teacher you curse with all your might yet call up again after graduation to see if there is any more wisdom to be imparted. Our travels, for instance, have taught us a number of things. For one, it is possible to stuff five sweaty adults into the back seat of a Mexican taxicab with no air conditioning and a smell not easily identified. We've also learned that driving around lost in Florida can easily turn into driving around lost in Georgia. And you might not even realize it except for the roadside signs screaming "PEACHES."
Dream vacations? Maybe not. But we're still looking--and learning. And maybe you are, too. It's a new year, after all, and it seems that almost everyone has a vacation they love to fantasize about. In fact, a quick poll we conducted conjured up images of African safaris, Hawaiian beaches and the oft-romanticized European journey. But why can't these dreams be realities? With 2004 still making cooing and gurgling sounds, the timing is perfect to start taking your own baby steps. So with a little help from our friends (i.e., the Internet, a kindly travel agent or two and, well, our friends), we gathered some tips to help you get off the couch and on the road to your dream vacation.
Finding a good travel agent may be the first step to reaching your destination. A friend of ours met his travel agent at a bar, and the relationship has been surprisingly long-lasting. So that's one way. But if you prefer to conduct your business while less inebriated, try other resources such as the phone book, word of mouth or advertising in specialty magazines. Linda Robertson, proprietor of Let's Go Travel (214-528-9144, www.letsgotravelbylinda.com) in Highland Park, specializes in honeymoons, for example, so she advertises in area bridal guides and wedding-planning publications. Regardless of where you find a travel agent, Robertson says, just be sure you find someone reputable. "There's so much information on the Internet, and there are so many places," she says, "that to really get a handle on [planning a vacation], you almost need to talk with a professional travel agent, someone who's been in it for a while." Find out how long they've been in business, how long they've been traveling, where they've been. After all, Robertson says, you could be investing thousands of dollars.
There's a reason gift sets are so popular at holiday time: convenience. And travel is no different. That's why tour companies offer package deals that include everything you need for your trip. Airfare, accommodations and sightseeing tours all wrapped up in a neat little package. Robertson says these deals are the way to go. "If you tried to do it separately, not knowing what you're doing, you'd go crazy," she says. "You really need to go to a professional if you want the best value for your money."
The earlier the better seems to be the key. Let's Go Travel's Robertson, who has been traveling for 30 years, says the first step in planning a trip is to talk with your travel agent about different destinations, what time of year you want to go and generally get some guidance. She says that for a summer trip you should have everything booked by March. And for spring break, start planning in the fall. Tour companies often sell out for popular dates, so booking your travel as early as possible will give you the widest range of options.
Getting the facts
Before you plan a vacation to a place you've never been before, do a little research. World tourism boards are a good place to start, Robertson says, and will give you unbiased information about a country. Often they can help you find travel agents in your area. The Internet is a valuable source (go to www.123world.com/tourism for links to official sites for a variety of cities), but she cautions that planning a dream vacation can be deceptively simple. "On the Internet, everything looks good when you're just looking at a picture. Then you get there and you think, 'This is not what I had in mind.'"
Getting prepared for a trip, especially an international one, takes time, and there are many aspects to consider, but the Web, if used smartly, can help. Need a passport? Go to www.state.gov to get information on obtaining a passport or to apply for one online. It usually takes about six weeks to process an application, so don't wait till the last minute. Don't know what to pack? Check out www.weather.comfor weather updates in your travel destination and for help deciding whether to fill the suitcase with sweaters or tank tops. Here you can look at current temperatures for cities across the globe, get a 10-day forecast and even check out monthly averages for precipitation. Also see www.onebag.com for tips on traveling light. Other helpful sites are www.xe.com, for help converting various currencies, and www.timezoneconverter.com.