THE JOY OF PRE-TRAVEL
by Ron Furth, March 2004
It was my father’s belief that his eldest son’s graduation from high school in 1965 meant the end of the family. Sid Furth was always a man whose family was the center of his universe, his raison d’etre. Will’s graduation meant the breakup of the Furth family since Will would be moving out west to Denver to attend university. We would never live again as a family of six under one roof. Consequently, my dad decided to put together The Final Furth Family Excursion. Every summer we spent a few weeks traveling in the US: one week in Wisconsin, two weeks in New York, ten weeks visiting national parks in the west. The Final Furth Family Excursion would last ten weeks and cover a serious portion of western Europe. This was no small undertaking in 1965; there was no online booking (no internet, for that matter), few travel guides (Europe on $5 A Day), and although my father had some friends and business associates who had traveled to Europe, none had gone for ten weeks with four children, ages 10-18.
My father spent six months creating The Grand Tour. He set up a map in the basement and placed pins (pink for hotels, blue for restaurants) every time he received confirmation of a reservation. He interviewed anybody who had been to Europe, read articles and the few guide books that existed, studied maps like he was preparing for D-Day. When he decided that we would purchase a new Volkswagen van in Paris (to be sent back to Chicago after the trip), my father went to the Volkswagen dealership in Evanston, measured the storage space, then bought six suitcases that would fit perfectly when stuffed with clothes. We bought quick-dry underwear (I never got used to the slippery feeling of wearing silky synthetics) and matching clothes for the three boys: madras sports coats, though a different color for each. Months prior to our June departure, we knew there would be a morning in July when we would have to wake at 6:00 am in order to catch a ferry so that we would make our noon lunch reservations. We knew where we would dine for Bastille Day, where we would sleep in Paris, Zermatt, Rome, London.
I know that some of you are cringing at the rigidity of such planning, the loss of spontaneity. Indeed, there were days that we dreaded long before they arrived and other days that felt like we were on a mission rather than a vacation. There were many a hotel, meal, castle or drive that was far better on paper in Chicago than in reality in Barcelona or Copenhagen, yet I’ll always fondly remember those six months of pre-planning. In fact, I’ve come to love pre-travel as a separate and enjoyable journey in its own right.
I should stop for a moment and address those who are opposed to any preparation other than renewing your passport and buying a plane ticket. Undoubtedly, there is an incredible thrill to hitting the road with little more than credit cards in your wallet and a destination in mind. When I left my first teaching job in Australia in January, 1976, all I knew was that I wanted to reach my parents in Chicago by Thanksgiving, if possible. Yet even that trip had an element of pre-planning. My brother Will, who had stayed with me in Melbourne after traveling across Asia for six months, entertained me with stories of his journey. It was the first time I heard about Kuta Beach in Bali, Lake Toba in Sumatra and the wonders of the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges. Will’s stories entertained, enticed, and excited. I also bought one of the first editions of Tony Wheeler’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, the book that became the foundation of the Lonely Planet empire. Reading Southeast Asia on Shoestring whetted my appetite, filled my dreams with visions of beaches and Balinese temples, of buses through the Sumatran jungle. Although Tony Wheeler’s recommendations weren’t always brilliant and I occasionally cursed the book, reading Southeast Asia on a Shoestring took some of the trepidation out of arriving in a city or country for the first time at midnight. At least I had a rough idea of what to expect and an address to give the taxi driver (or tuk tuk or pedal cab or trishaw).
Although pre-planning can seem rigid and likely to drain the fun out of travel, it is often vital. When my wife and I traveled with our children (we moved to Japan when our daughter was six and our son three), we found it helpful to explore weather and activities. A lack of planning meant that we spent one Christmas holiday on Ko Samui during the monsoons. Since it rained torrents all day, every day, we were stuck in the hotel with little to do. Traveling with a family of four makes it more dicey to show up in a city at midnight without reservations. I’ve done that when traveling solo and always found some place to crash for the evening; it’s not advisable – or pleasant – to do the same with two young children. For anybody who has ever arrived at a place where a convention has filled all the hotel rooms or landed in a country during a national holiday when everybody is on vacation and all shops and restaurants are closed (Japan during Golden Week or Kuala Lumpur during Chinese New Year), you know how vital pre-travel research can be. I am in the process of planning a trip to the southern Indian state of Kerala. The average monthly rainfall in January is 9 mm, in June it is 756 mm. Unless I intend to write an article about the monsoons, I will avoid arriving in June.
Of course, you can do as much or as little pre-travel planning as you desire. When I travel alone I may book a hotel for my first night or two, then wing it from there. I always book flights well in advance because I’ve found in recent years that cheap seats disappear months in advance. I had to change the month of my trip to Hawaii last year because frequent flier seats (of which there are only a handful per flight) were fully booked for the month I had originally planned on visiting. When I travel with my family I book flights, hotels and occasionally special excursions. Usually, you only have to pay a deposit for the first night or two, so if a hotel is crummy (dirty, loud, poorly located), you can move after checking out other hotels. I do enough research (online, guide books, suggestions from friends) that I rarely run into major problems. Besides, it is better to book in advance and cancel or change, rather than to show up cold and sleep on a bench or in a staggeringly expensive five-star hotel.
Finally, I want to address those who fear (and rightly so in many cases) that pre-travel planning and research will lead to disappointment: The hotel in Bangkok that looked so good online has cramped rooms and sits next to a loud bus terminal; that restaurant in Costa Rica that received rave reviews is a tourist trap that serves canned Campbell’s soup; you spend two days in a nature park in India that is famous for tigers and elephants, yet all you see is mosquitoes and rats. Yes, the higher your expectations, the greater chance for disappointment. My response to those concerns is that pre-travel preparations should always be tempered with healthy skepticism and realism. Even an outstanding restaurant can have a bad night; that Paris museum you’ve studied for six months may be closed by a strike (likely), the monsoons may arrive a month early.
I may be using the wrong term altogether. Rather than plan every minute and secure bookings for each hotel, meal and journey, my goal is to research and prepare mentally. I’ll never get fluent in a language in six months (I’m not fluent after studying French for thirty years), but I can learn how to say ‘good morning’, ‘thank you’, and ‘do you speak English’ in the local dialect. I can learn enough of a language to order food or read the sign to the toilet. I love to study history and culture, politics and religion, to learn about holidays and hazards. The more I know about a country prior to arriving, the more I get out of a my visit to that country. Next week my wife, son and I are going to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to see an exhibit on Machu Picchu, which we are visiting next month. Before moving to Japan in 1990, we bought Big Bird In Japan and watched it repeatedly with our children.
I’ll never plan a trip with the detail and rigidity that my father planned The Final Furth Family Excursion of Europe in 1965, but I hope I’ll always enjoy the thrill of the pre-travel experience. When I board a plane or train my heart beats with the exhilaration of what lays in store. Although the actual experience may not be as wonderful as anticipated (it may be better), it will not detract from the pleasure I get in preparing for a trip.