Back in the day when airlines permitted smoking at the rear of the plane, turning every journey into a red-eye flight for those unfortunate enough to be seated in proximate rows, independent tourists got information about places they visited mainly through guidebooks like Lonely Planet. They found hotels, trains, and historical sites using listings and maps in thick tomes that weighed down their backpacks. Recognising how indispensable Lonely Planet was to independent travel, the BBC’s commercial arm bought a majority stake in the publisher in 2007, and took over the company entirely soon after.
By 2007, though, the planet was no longer lonely. The old method of sending a few researchers out into the field couldn’t compete with the density of material offered by crowd-sourced sites like TripAdvisor and Wikitravel, or the precise plans and directions provided by powerful tech companies (Google has more than 7,000 people working on its maps division).
Smartphones put all that information in a device less than a tenth the weight of Lonely Planet’s India guide. BBC Worldwide got rid of Lonely Planet a few years ago, repenting the costly mistake of buying an indispensable resource at the moment it became dispensable.
Back in the day, I’d land up in a new city and call hotels listed in the guidebook from a public phone. The person on the other end of the line often didn’t speak any language I did. Despite their best efforts, guidebooks often proved inadequate. The Rough Guide to Barcelona sent a friend 15 kilometres off course by marking a campsite in the wrong place. On my first visit to Paris, we booked a hotel that turned out to be an unlicensed brothel. We moved out quickly, though it was interesting staying in a room with a mirror on the ceiling.
I haven’t looked at a guidebook in five years. On my current trip, I made purchases through the sites or apps of Cleartrip, MakeMyTrip, Expedia, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Airbnb, among others. Happily, my Indian credit card works with Uber in North America.
While independent travel has become much easier, there are hitches and glitches in each vacation, and there’s always room for making a journey more comfortable with the right advice. With that in mind, here are a few tips for independent travellers within India and abroad.
1. Insurance: Pay more when you don’t need to spend a rupee
Some countries require you to have travel insurance before granting you a visa. These are typically, though not invariably, nations which have excellent universal healthcare. In places like Germany, you can be assured of getting treatment if you fall seriously ill. In the United States, on the other hand, you could easily go bankrupt in the same circumstances. So instead of rejoicing about getting a visa without paying for travel insurance, shell out more to be certain you’re covered up to a very high limit. It’s okay to get the minimum 30,000 euros worth of coverage for a Schengen visa, but get ten times that much for most other places in the world.
2. Tickets: Use Google Flights
Google Flights, and the related ITA Matrix, allow you to search for the cheapest flights across the entire world and over any period of time. You can click on a world map showing the best available prices for every destination on a given date, which is great for impulse travel. If you know where you’re going, Google Flights offers a graph of prices across time so you can plot the most cost-effective itinerary. A few airlines like Southwest don’t share information with Google, so check individual budget carriers as well. While looking for flights or hotels online, browse on incognito mode, because many sites track repeat searches and change prices accordingly. Using a Virtual Private Networks like TunnelBear will let you log in from different countries, which helps, since prices sometimes vary by location.
3. Checking in: Extra room
Airlines are squeezing passengers by putting a premium on ever more seats, so it’s imperative to check in as soon as possible. In case you’re travelling on economy as a couple, or even with a work colleague, there’s an excellent way of maximising the probability of getting extra elbow room. Where seating is three abreast, couples tend to reserve contiguous seats, either window and middle seat, or aisle and middle seat. Big mistake. Always select an aisle and a window. If the flight isn’t full, there’s a good chance that the middle seat will stay empty. I don’t need to underline how much more comfortable that makes the journey. If the seat does get filled, just offer that passenger a window or aisle, depending on which you prefer, and they will be thrilled to shift out of the cramped centre.
4. Rooms: Double or twin?
I used to select the double bed option automatically, but I now favour the twin. More than once, when we’ve arrived at hotels, receptionists have apologetically told me that a mistake has been made. I assure them we’ve chosen separate beds, at which point they give me a curious look. Having discrete, relatively narrow berths rather than one king size bed erodes intimacy, no doubt. On the other hand, if you’re a light sleeper like me, sharing a single blanket or duvet is a deal breaker. Even if the hotel provides an extra sheet on request, every toss and turn of one’s partner rippling through an unfamiliar bed is disturbing. If adequate sleep is a priority, and your itinerary involves a series of locations, consider switching to twin beds.
5. Food: Restaurants need reserving too
Exploring the cuisine of a country can be as important as exploring its history. For the most part, this means heading to reasonably priced places frequented by locals, but it’s worth splurging on that one ultra-refined meal at an establishment ranked among the world’s best. With the explosion of food programmes on television, top chefs have become celebrities, their restaurants are packed to the gills every night, and Open Table reservations start filling weeks in advance. Don’t call a three Michelin star dining room after you’ve landed and expect to be accommodated while you’re in town. On two of the last three vacations I’ve taken, I’ve booked that special dinner over a month in advance and just about managed to get a table.
6. Accessories: Cut out the noise
They cost a bomb, but Bose’s noise-cancelling earphones are my pick for the frequent flyer’s must-have travel companion. Everybody knows security checks are a drag, lounges boring, and cattle class seats incommodious, but it was only after I bought the QC20s that I comprehended how much flight-related tiredness comes from airplane noise. I had paid 50 Euros for a pair of noise cancelling earphones a few years ago, and it was 50 Euros completely wasted, for I got the indifferent sound quality associated with noise cancellation with very little benefit. With Bose’s earphones, flying becomes almost enjoyable again. Flight, after all, is a modern miracle, affording us gorgeous views of landscape and sky that our ancestors could scarcely have imagined. But noise kills the poetry of flight. Looking out of a plane’s window with the world’s best noise-cancelling earphones plugged in, one recovers the sense of wonder associated with aeroplanes. It helps that I live in the most cacophonous city in the world, which means the earphones come in handy daily on the ground.