When I was just starting to travel, 20 years ago, planning a trip looked nothing like it does now. There was no world wide web, no high speed internet, no digital cameras, and no cell phones. Computers were for office work and usually only had access to the company intranet. There was no Windows, no Google, and no Paypal.

We had books, libraries, telephones, and, for those who worked in an office, access to a fax machine (still pretty state of the art at the time).

Trip ideas usually came from magazines and newspapers, or from chatting with people. Further research was done at the library. I remember spending hours at the Toronto Reference Library on week-ends flipping through guidebooks and making photocopies, trying to decide on a destination and on which guidebooks to buy.

I also used the Reference Library on occasion to learn the basics of a new language by listening to audio-tapes and making notes!

I usually ended up buying one guidebook (it was Frommers before I discovered Lonely Planet), two on rare occasions, and then started reading about my destination in earnest.

I booked my flights through a travel agent, over the phone or sometimes in person. When I found a hotel in the guidebook that I liked, I would fax them a letter. If they couldn’t receive faxes, I had to make expensive long distance calls. Sometimes I would be asked to pay a deposit by mailing them a money order along with a SASE (self-addressed stamped enveloped) if they needed to send me something back.

It could be a long and costly process, even for a short two-week trip. And you had to start planning way in advance. It feels strange to think about this now.

Planning a trip in 2013

Nowadays, most people have a computer at home and access to the internet. All the information you need is at your fingertips. You can book flights, most accommodation, even some trains and buses, online. You can spend hours reading hotel reviews on TripAdvisor. You can ask your questions on travellers’ forums and receive responses in less than 24 hours. Sometimes it almost feels like there is too much information.

You don’t even need to buy physical books anymore. You can download an electronic copy of most guidebooks.

Once on the road, a smart phone, or portable computer allows you to research and make bookings as you go. You can even use GPS and Google Maps to find your way around. You can plan an entire trip without talking to a single person.

Planning and organizing a trip has become easier and more convenient, but could it also have become more tedious and stressful, not to mention lonely?

Attempting to find the best airfare deal on site aggregators like kayak.com can be nerve wracking, with the prices changing every hour. You fear that once you commit and book, you’ll discover a lower fare somewhere else. But if you don’t book now, the price of the flight you’re considering risks going up.

Trying to find the perfect hotel by reading reviews on TripAdvisor and booking sites can take hours out of your days and leave you agonizing over individual guests’ complaints. Some hotel booking sites’ tactics of letting you know that they have “only one room left at this price” may cause you to book before you’re ready or have done due diligence.

So, what’s my point?

Am I saying that I’d rather go back to the old ways? No at all. I prefer doing my research from the comfort of my apartment, especially when the weather turns cold and yuck (like it did this week-end in Toronto). But when I think about it this way, I can understand why some people just want to book a tour or a package and not have to worry about the details.

If your trip is longer than a few weeks though, having access to the internet and booking things as you go is a huge advantage over the old days. You can book your next hotel from your previous one simply by using your portable device to go to their web site, or emailing them. Previously, you either just showed up and hoped they had a room, or you had to find a telephone centre at your destination and pay to make a phone call. Sometimes, the simplest solution was to walk into a travel agency and ask them to book things for you.

In 1993, I spent 3 weeks in Greece. I knew that I wanted to spend a good chunk of my time in the Greek Islands, but I arrived with nothing booked except for a room in a YWCA in Athens. A visit to a travel agency solved the problem. They organized a 10-day customized package for me, booking me a room in small guesthouses on three different islands (Santorini, Naxos and Paros), and ferry tickets between them. Perfect!

As an independent traveller planning your own trip, I believe you need to reach a balance. Use the internet to do your research, but don’t get too hung up on finding the very best airfare or perfect hotel with zero negative reviews. Decide what’s most important to you in terms of flights and accommodation, and focus on that. Once you’ve booked something you’re satisfied with, do not keep looking. This will only drive you crazy. And leave a little room for serendipity. 🙂

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