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hotel front deskI usually love planning trips — second only to taking them! — but a few years ago, as I tried to hammer out a driving itinerary around the South Island of New Zealand, I found myself feeling unexpectedly stressed out. The problem: figuring out how long to spend in each place.

Would one night in Queenstown be enough, or should I tack on another? After driving three or four hours between stops, should we linger a little longer in each place before tackling the next chunk of our itinerary? Would we have enough time to detour through the Catlins in the far south?

Photos: 13 Best New Zealand Experiences

Around in circles I went, even though a few friends who’d been to New Zealand advised me not to worry about nailing down an itinerary. “You don’t need to book hotels in advance,” one said. “There are plenty of motels. Just do what you want during the day and find a place to stay wherever you happen to be.”

Her advice made perfect sense — but I didn’t take it. Here are three reasons why:

1. I’m a hopeless planner. While the idea of landing in a new place with no itinerary or bookings sounds like heaven to some travelers, it’s terrifying to me. I don’t have to plan out my day hour by hour, but the basics — activities I’m interested in, where I’ll lay my head — are a must.

2. Booking early gives me time to compare prices and read reviews. I’ve been burned in the past by last-second hotel choices that cost more than I wanted to pay or didn’t live up to my normal standards of service and cleanliness.

3. When I arrive in a new place, I want to spend my time exploring and doing things — not driving around searching for hotels that don’t look too sketchy.

33 Ways to Sleep Better at a Hotel

In the end, I compromised. I booked all my hotels before my trip, but made sure I would be able to cancel them without penalty if our itinerary changed. Fortunately, all my exhaustive research paid off. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

How do you feel about booking hotels in advance? Vote in our poll or leave a comment below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

new york times travel showLooking for inspiration for your next trip (or simply an escape from all this winter cold)? If you’re in the New York metro area, don’t miss the New York Times Travel Show this weekend. Held at the Jacob K. Javits Center on Saturday and Sunday, March 1 and 2, the show features exhibition booths, giveaways, book signings and a full line-up of travel seminars.

Besides walking the exhibition floor, you can see IndependentTraveler.com contributor Chris Gray Faust give a talk on Sunday at 3 p.m. on how to “Chronicle Your Adventures Like the Professionals Do: Impress Your Friends and Family.”

If you’re interested in cruising, don’t miss Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic (our sister site), at the Ask the Expert Q and A, scheduled for 3 p.m. on Saturday. Carolyn is also speaking Sunday at 2 p.m. on “The Best Cruise at the Best Price: Everything You Need to Know.”

Other speakers include travel experts Arthur and Pauline Frommer, “10,000 Places to See Before You Die” author Patricia Schultz, CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg and Conde Nast Traveler columnist Wendy Perrin.

9 Tips to Get the Most Out of a Travel Show

The show is open to the public Saturday, March 1, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, March 2, from 11 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets cost $17 for adults, with children 18 and under admitted free. More information is at NYTTravelShow.com.

*Not in the New York area? See our list of 2014 travel shows around the U.S. and Canada.

– written by Chris Gray Faust

couple trip planning map laptopOn a recent work trip to Amsterdam, my first visit to this iconic city, I decided to treat myself to a little vacation time. My goal was to explore as much as I could within the four free days I had allotted myself, but, as is the case in most big cities, there were so many things I wanted to see and do: the Anne Frank House, the Keukenhof’s flowers, the Poezenboot, a canal boat tour, museums galore and, of course, the infamous Red Light District.

I figured my best bet would be to organize attractions of interest geographically to avoid wasting time racing back and forth across the city. The problem, though, was that I had no idea how to get started.
A quick Google search yielded a glorious link to Yahoo! Travel’s Trip Planner, which is still one of the most helpful travel tools I’ve ever used. Sure, it’s a fairly simple program, but that’s the beauty of it.

Sign up for an account (or use an existing one), create a name for your trip and search for things to do in your destination, either by checking them off of a prepopulated list of the most popular or by searching for things you already know you can’t miss. After adding them to your trip file, you can then click to see them arranged on a map of your destination, making it easy to group attractions by neighborhood. You can also share your trip with your travel companions … or with anyone who’s not going and wants to live vicariously through your itinerary.

Plus, as is always important when you’re trying to save precious time, you can click through to each attraction’s website to find hours of operation and purchase tickets in advance.

How to Create the Perfect Itinerary

If you’re already privy to the wonders of Trip Planner, you’re ahead of the curve. If you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for? Even if you don’t have your next vacation planned just yet, you can still create mockups for trips to every place on your bucket list so you’re ready when it comes time to book.

Which itinerary planning tools have you found most useful?

5 Trip Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

spinning globeImagine this: you’ve planned a fun (or, depending on your circumstances, maybe not so fun) trip, and you’re at the airport, packed and ready to go. Then the vacation fairy comes along and offers to voluntarily throw a wrench in your itinerary. Would you take her up on it?

The idea comes from Heineken’s new ad campaign. It doesn’t involve a fairy, but, rather, four guys who are randomly plunked down in remote locations, and their adventures documented. As part of the promotion, reports AdWeek, Heineken’s marketing agency set up a game of “Departure Roulette” at New York’s JFK airport last week, asking travelers to forgo their scheduled plans on a whim by pushing a big red button to determine a new, more exotic destination (with hotels and spending money provided by Heineken).

I have to admit that I’m a planner, and one of my worst fears is being stuck someplace foreign without knowing precisely when I’ll arrive home (or, in this case, at my original destination). I don’t like disruptions to my itineraries, and, since not all destinations appeal to me, I’m not sure I’d take the risk (lest I end up like one fellow, whose planned trip to Vienna to visit his grandparents rerouted him to Cyprus instead).

Planning vs. Spontaneity: Which Do You Prefer?

Regardless of whether or not you like Heineken, it’s a crazy — but fun — idea. And it brings us to the question of the day: Would you switch (or have you already switched) your plans at the last minute in hopes of more exciting travel? What would be your ideal far-flung destination? Share your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

frommers guidebooksEditor’s Note: Since the publication of this post, Arthur Frommer has purchased his company back from Google, ensuring that Frommer’s guidebooks will continue to be printed. Learn more in 56 Years Later: Europe on 5 Dollars a Day.

I wasn’t yet alive, let alone traveling, when Arthur Frommer wrote his very first travel guide, “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day,” back in 1957. But after years of toting more recent Frommer’s publications around the globe, I found myself mourning just a little bit when I read that the company has ceased publication of print guidebooks.

The death knell was sounded last week by Skift.com, who reported that many of the authors contracted for 29 upcoming Frommer’s titles were told by editors that the books they were working on would not be published. Extensive destination information is still available online at Frommers.com, and a limited number of “Day by Day” guides can be purchased as e-editions on Inkling.com. Frommer’s was bought by Google in August 2012.

The 5 Worst Trip Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

On this very blog, we once asked, “Are guidebooks dying out?” I wrote then that I still used guidebooks — along with online resources — to plan every trip, and dozens of readers commented in agreement. Three years later, my position hasn’t changed: “The combination of maps, recommended itineraries, comprehensive reviews and historical context is something I haven’t found in any other single source, so I’ll continue to use guidebooks as long as they continue to be printed.”

Fortunately for those of us who wouldn’t plan a trip without them, other guidebook series such as Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and Eyewitness Guides can still be found on the shelves. But for how much longer?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

passports map sunglasses keys travelEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our newsletter.

In the run-up to my last vacation, I spent hours hunched over my laptop, a dozen windows pulled up on the screen and a couple of guidebooks open at my side. I was slaving over my trip itinerary, a Word document peppered with hotel names, important Web sites, parenthetical notes to myself (“Must check in by 8 p.m.!!”) and booking confirmation numbers marked in bold.

The document, dubbed “FINAL ITINERARY.doc,” was a step up from leaving my booking information scattered among 15 different messages in my e-mail inbox — but it was still a rather inelegant way to organize all the bits and pieces of my trip schedule. In How to Create the Perfect Itinerary, Caroline Costello and Ed Hewitt offer another strategy:

“Get crafty on the computer by using software to make your own itinerary. Owners of Microsoft Office can download free itinerary templates at Office.Microsoft.com, which are basically blank schedules with spots for you to record your travel information. Outer Level offers Knapsack, an itinerary program for Macs. The program’s features, from interactive maps to printed itineraries that appear professionally designed, make trip planning more fun than an in-flight movie.”

I decided to give it a whirl. I chose a template from the Microsoft site called “Family Travel Itinerary,” which offered a comprehensive Excel spreadsheet into which I could enter items like lodging details (arrival date, destination, number of nights, name of hotel, reservation number and notes), transportation schedules and even a packing list. It included a few additional fields I wouldn’t have thought to put on my own itinerary, such as emergency contacts and the blood type of each traveler. And it was aesthetically pleasing too, with color-coded charts and an orderly layout.

How do you keep your travel itinerary organized?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

stress travel stressed out traveler businessman suitcaseCountdown to departure: three days. Before I board a flight to Vancouver on Thursday, I have to finish packing, call my credit card company, do laundry, print boarding passes, clean out the fridge, confirm my reservations … so many details, so little time!

Am I curled up, knees to chest, in a stress-induced stupor? Not exactly. I’ve adopted a few strategies for handling the pre-trip panic phase:

1. Make a list — or several.
This weekend, I jotted down a clothing inventory for each day of my trip, a more general packing list (medications, umbrella, etc.) and a list of everything I had to do before I left. Having everything laid out in writing helped me get organized … and gave me the satisfaction of whittling down my mountain of tasks one by one. (Our handy interactive packing list can help with this step.)

2. Start early.
Dumping drawers on the floor in search of your passport hours before your departure is, to put it mildly, poor planning. I headed off last-minute panic attacks by starting the packing process several days before my flight. As it happened, I discovered that my passport was indeed where I left it — score! — but that I was missing a few other odds and ends. Luckily, I still have a couple of days to run to the store. Crisis averted.

3. Have a plan.
As Ed Hewitt points out in 10 Things to Do Before You Travel, the first day of a trip is often the most nerve-wracking as you figure out how to get around an unfamiliar new place. He suggests making a plan before you leave: “Sketch out a walk near your digs, which can help you get oriented as well as shake off travel fatigue and jet lag. Also, check out any nearby amenities — like a rooftop lounge nearby, a balcony with a choice view or a heated pool for maximum chill-out at the end of a harried travel day.”

As for me, I looked up public transportation options from the airport to where I’m staying, so I know exactly where to go once my plane touches down. And I’ve scribbed down a few yummy-sounding neighborhood restaurants for that first night’s dinner.

4. Let go.
Once you’ve taken care of all the important stuff (the passport is packed now, right? RIGHT?), try not to waste too much energy on the rest. Slow down, take a deep breath and focus your fevered brain on how much fun you’ll have on your trip, rather than all the tiny little details you might have forgotten.

If you’re looking for me on Thursday, I’ll be in one of those airport massage chairs — having my last few twinges of travel tension gently rubbed away.

What do you do to reduce pre-trip stress?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

At the Airport By most accounts, the skies are expected to be a lot more crowded this summer. While domestic travel has yet to reach pre-recession levels, a recent story in the Los Angeles Times indicates that U.S. airlines will be carrying a record number of passengers overseas in the coming months. For this reason, I offer a cautionary tale.

This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done on a trip overseas:

After firming up plans to fly to Venice last month on a business trip, I discovered that my wife Janet could accompany me at the last minute. (Woo hoo! No lonely dinners during which I pretend to read in dim light!) Problem was, if she was to accompany me on my Lufthansa flights, the fare would be a whopping $3,000 round trip. We’d save $2,000 if she flew US Airways to Frankfurt, where we’d meet and fly together to Venice.

So far, so good. I departed Philadelphia and stopped for a four-hour layover in Germany, where I chilled and I waited for her to meet me. With 15 minutes to go before the flight to Venice, she was nowhere to be found. The Lufthansa gate agent told me that her Philly flight had been delayed and that the passengers bound for Venice had already been rebooked on a later flight. “You can meet her at your hotel,” the agent informed me.

Here comes the stupid part: I had Janet’s itinerary in my carry-on. I’d forgotten to give it to her in the rush at the airport, and she had no idea where we were staying in Venice. I arrived in Venice in full panic mode, wondering whether I should wait six hours for her to show up or head to the hotel and try to reach out via e-mail (her phone didn’t work overseas). Jet lag won out: I headed to the hotel, a $50 cab ride away.

Turns out Janet was panicking a couple of time zones away and had borrowed a phone. I never thought to turn mine on. I sent her a half-dozen e-mails (when, really, one would have done the trick), but she never thought to log on to the Internet at the Frankfurt airport. Frazzled and exhausted, I grabbed a cab three hours before her expected arrival and headed back to the airport. I’d rather be waiting for her than the other way around.

But hold on … having hopped on an earlier flight, Janet was hunched over the luggage carousel when I arrived. She looked frazzled and exhausted as well. We grabbed each other’s hands and jumped into the same cab I’d caught at the hotel.

The lessons here: Don’t be careless when you’re traveling overseas on different flights. Share all the relevant information about accommodations and transfers before you part ways with your travel companion. Have two phones that can dial internationally, or set up a plan of action in case you get separated (i.e., check the Internet). Don’t rely on a gate agent who has only a passing interest in whatever predicament you’re in. And learn from someone else’s stupid mistake.

– written by John Deiner

overweight woman stretch stretching water bridge deckShould obese people have to pay for extra seats on a plane? In recent weeks, there’s been a revival of one of the travel industry’s perennial controversies; this time the debate was sparked by Southwest’s attempt to bar two overweight women from a flight, even though they’d flown without incident on previous legs of the same trip. (They were eventually allowed to board.)

It’s an issue we’ve covered several times over the years — see Airline Obesity Policies and Is Kevin Smith Too Fat to Fly? — but as a reader recently reminded us, there are other concerns facing obese travelers that don’t get anywhere near as much press.

“I’m a big girl. I’m 5’9″ and 265 pounds. Sometimes I worry about booking things because they won’t accommodate my size,” wrote member acurves on our message boards. “I’m going to be in Hawaii for two weeks this June, and there are so many things I want to do! Parasailing, dolphin encounters, catamaran sailing, snorkeling, etc. I’m just afraid that I’m too big to do those things.

“Trust me — I want to do these things. I may not move much at home, but I’m an active girl on vacation. I love hikes, walks around the city, being active. I’m definitely not lazy when I’m on vacation. I just want to know if any other bigger people have done the things I listed above. It would be embarrassing to go and have them say I’m too big!”

It’s true that some activities do have weight restrictions, usually for safety reasons. For example, UFO Parasailing, a company that runs excursions on Lahaina, Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii, lists a weight limit of 450 pounds for two or three people flying together. (The svelte travelers among us aren’t necessarily off the hook: to fly alone, you have to weigh at least 130 pounds.) The Sky Trek Canopy Tour in Costa Rica, a zip line operator, does not permit guests weighing more than 217 pounds; in addition, your waist may be no larger than 58 inches, and your thighs no bigger around than 30 inches. (This is to make sure you can fit into the safety harness.)

Other activities, such as snorkeling or dolphin excursions, are much less likely to have weight restrictions. But keep in mind that a certain amount of agility may be required; paddling through the sea with your snorkel and flippers may be easy enough at any weight, but clambering up a narrow ladder onto a dive boat could be difficult for larger travelers who are less active.

Your best bet for any type of activity is to contact the operator directly before you book. Ask not only about weight limitations but also about the level of fitness required to participate safely in the activity. Many tour operators will do their best to accommodate people of all sizes and physical abilities.

Has your weight ever restricted you from doing things you wanted to do in your travels?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

travel plan map itinerary trip planningAre you the type of traveler that plans a detailed itinerary for each trip, or do you prefer to fly — or drive — by the seat of your pants? We recently posed this question on our Facebook page and discovered that when it comes to our readers, there’s no one travel style that fits all.

Writes Crystal-Grace S., “Spontaneity is key for me. Pick a place, do loads of research (travel articles, history, talk with folks who have been there), buy a travel ticket and then — take each day as it comes!”

Lori N.B. prefers a little more structure, but finds herself intrigued by the lure of the other side: “I’m a planner but one day I’d like to do a spontaneous trip just to break out of my box.”

Ken T.M. keeps it simple: “Either one as long as I’m traveling somewhere.” Amen to that!

There are pitfalls to either approach. Over-plan your trip and you could miss out on opportunities that come up at the last minute … or spend so much time dashing from one activity to another that you don’t get to fully appreciate any of them. (In fact, trying to cram too much into a single vacation is one of our Five Worst Trip Planning Mistakes.) But if you show up in a new place without doing your homework, you could find yourself standing in disappointment outside a museum you didn’t realize was closed on Mondays, or overlooking a fantastic restaurant you would have loved if only you’d read about it in your guidebook.

Discover useful tips for both planners and improvisers in Five Simple Ways to Make the Most of Your Vacation.

Are you a planner or a more spontaneous traveler?

– written by Sarah Schlichter