Guided tours of foreign cities are educational, and beach resorts and cruises are relaxing, but sometimes we find ourselves craving a vacation that’s a little more unique. Unfortunately, making travel plans that are offbeat and truly personalized can be more challenging than pitching your beach umbrella next to a lounge chair. Paving your own way requires tons of research, paying attention to the little details, and of course, taking some safety precautions.
Here are seven tips for organizing a vacation that’s off the beaten path.
1. LEARN ABOUT YOUR DESTINATION.
Whether you’re planning a hiking trip, an underwater adventure, or a tour of a foreign city, it’s important to learn as much as you can about your destination. For outdoor adventures, study the climate, the terrain, and whether there are dangerous plants or predatory animals. Read about the experiences of other hikers, climbers, and explorers to find out what kinds of challenges they faced during their travels.
Focus on the environmental challenges your destination is facing, and educate yourself about tourism's impact in the area. There are some regions where tourism has had a positive environmental impact, allowing locals to fund the maintenance and care of natural resources. But in others, tourism has damaged the ecosystem or destroyed natural wonders. A little bit of research on the location you plan to visit can not only help you prepare for your own trip, but ensure you’re not leaving a negative impact on the environment.
If you’re traveling to a foreign country, it’s also a great idea to learn about the history and culture of the place you plant to visit. Read up on local customs, traditions, and holidays, and if you have time, try to learn some of the local language. Not only will learning about your destination help you show respect for the place you visit, but it will give you a better idea of what to explore when you get there.
“Read ahead of time regarding the cultural norms, current politics, and economic realities of where you are going,” anthropologist Peggi Vail, who studies global tourism, wrote for The New York Times. “Read as much from a local or national writers' perspective and watch films by filmmakers from those countries, if available, to balance information garnered from guidebooks or fellow foreigners’ viewpoints. A little knowledge goes a long way in your encounters with locals and enhances the overall travel experience.”
2. CREATE A BUDGET.
Make sure to create a detailed budget before you step foot on the plane. Don’t just save money for plane tickets and hotel rooms: Travel expenses and lodging are just a tiny part of a vacation’s possible expenses. Remember to calculate how much food, taxis, museum visits, entertainment, and other planned events will cost. Make sure to put aside some money for emergencies or spontaneous activities as well. And, of course, know your exchange rates: A dollar may go a long way in some cities, but be worth much less in others. Break down all of your planned and possible expenses into a list and make sure your travel budget is one you can stick to—you don't want to stress out about going over budget on Day 2.
3. FIND LOCAL CONNECTIONS.
Do you know anyone who lives in the city you’re visiting? Or do your friends and family have any connections there? Knowing a local at your vacation destination opens up a wide range of doors: They might be able to help you find cheap digs to stay in, give you advice, or be willing to give you a tour of their hometown. If you’re planning to travel on a tight budget, a friend of a friend is a great way to find inexpensive restaurants and activities—and maybe even a couch or two to crash on gratis.
4. TAKE SAFETY PRECAUTIONS.
Develop strategies for staying safe before you begin your travels so that once your vacation starts, you’ll be able to rest easy. Start by making sure all of your important documents are duplicated or backed up: Make copies of your passport, ID, itinerary, and plane tickets. If you’re traveling alone, choose a friend or family member back home to check in with periodically via phone or email to ensure someone is looking out for you while you’re abroad.
It's also a good idea to plan out where you’ll keep money and valuables during your travels: Rease of Indecisive Traveler recommends purchasing a second wallet to distract possible thieves. “Carry decoy money in a dummy wallet,” she recommends. “Keeping most of your cash in your bra/money belt/wherever is great, but if someone wants cash from you and you have nothing to hand them, they could get angry or even violent.”
5. MAKE BACK-UP PLANS.
Planning a trip that’s off the beaten path means always expecting the unexpected. In addition to your ideal travel plans, make back-up plans in case something goes wrong. For example, if you’re planning on couch-surfing in a foreign city, research nearby hotels or hostels in the area in case your housing plans fall through. If you’re planning a rock climbing trip, ski vacation, or camp-out, decide in advance what you’ll do if the elements turn against you.
6. PACK LIGHT.
While it’s tempting to pack everything you could possibly want during your travels, it’s a better idea to pack the bare essentials. Sure, it’s possible you’ll wish you had that umbrella on a rainy day or that perfect dress for a night on the town. But it’s much more likely you’ll be glad you're not lugging heavy suitcases everywhere you go. Instead of packing for hypothetical “what if” situations, pack for the plans you actually have. If you’re planning a beach vacation, pack those towels and swimsuits. But if your vacation doesn’t necessarily entail a beach excursion, don’t bother with the extra gear.
7. LIVE LIKE A LOCAL.
Planning a unique vacation doesn’t mean you can’t go sightseeing or tour famous landmarks. You can take in all the iconic sights and still live like a local by making time for everyday activities: If you’re touring Paris, check out the Eiffel Tower, but then wander over to a cafe where you can meet a few Parisians. If you’re visiting the Big Apple, sign up for a gym class or check out a concert after your visit to the Empire State Building. One of the best ways to really get a sense of a new place is to undertake the most mundane, everyday activities: Set aside some time in your schedule to wander through the park and play some pick-up basketball, meet people at a restaurant or bar, cook dinner from ingredients purchased at a local grocery store and invite your new friends to share it with you.