Planning Egypt with just paper and pen


package holidays

an argument against buying all-in-one


Buying a package holiday is like admitting 'I have no preference' or 'I don't care what I see or where I go' or ‘I can’t be bothered’, ‘I have no interest in anything’, ‘I know nothing about where I’m going’. I see package holidays as the blonde bimbo of the travel world; empty-headed and directionless. It's the travel version of the nutritionless ready meal - all-in-one slop in a tray which is convenient at the point of purchase, but a complete let down or even horrible afterwards. Like ready meals, packages can also leave you with a nasty aftertaste, too. Any traveller worthy of the word should cook from scratch and avoid pre-packaged or processed ingredients. The fact is, there never is a one size fits all in travel. Decide what you want to see, when you want to see it, where you want to stay and for how long and book from there. Flights, then accommodation then excursions. In that order.


the package holiday experience

I can honestly say I only ever came a little bit close to experiencing a package holiday – and I didn’t like it. It was in Portugal where we booked flights and a hotel together. Sure enough, the hotel was poor, there were communication problems between the hotel and the online agent (Opodo) and there was a devolving of which was the responsible party when something went wrong. It was hideous. I only succumbed because this is how my friend wanted to roll – I initially resisted but gave in. It was my friend’s choice. Not mine. And I was right.

I'm coming at this from the 'build your own itinerary from scratch' angle and, therefore, really struggle with the idea of relinquishing almost all control and passing over the decision-making about my trip to a website, a travel agent or, even, a computer. Why would anyone want to do this? Is it laziness? Is it the result of a complete lack of interest? Whatever it is, I end up feeling that, perhaps, if that's the best you can do, then perhaps you don't really deserve a holiday? A bit harsh? I don't think so. I also have little patience with those booking packages who then discover that the hotel, flights or other experiences aren't up to scratch and then come home winging about having just had the 'Holiday from Hell'. You get what you pay for. The more time you give to planning your trip, the more rewarding it will be. There's the added bonus of feeling a little chuffed when your grand master plan works out perfectly - and is also a damn sight cheaper than if you relinquished control to a travel agent.


bespoke travel: the western balkans adventure

My Western Balkans adventure was one such case. It goes without saying that a trip like this with so many countries involved is complicated. I am glad to say that the itinerary I put together (hardly backpacker style I know, but a degree of planning was needed if we were to manage all seven countries) barely changed and ran like clockwork - with just a couple of tweaks needed along the way: what we'd planned, where and when is what generally happened. All in all the journey computes like this: 7 countries, 11 border crossings, 9 passport stamps, 3 tour guides, a massive 27 hours spent on buses transiting between countries, 2 time zones, 2 different alphabets (Latin and Cyrillic), 1 rafting adventure and over 1500 photographs taken. The number of miles we walked are inestimable. The point is - with my own itinerary I got to see exactly what I wanted to - and some of it was way-off the beaten track and accessible only with a private driver and hundreds of miles. 

I arranged, through an international tour guide website, for a Bulgarian guide called Petar to drive us out to Buzludzha. Buzludzha is some 250km south east of Sofia, Bulgaria. Public transport does not lend itself to travelling to this place as so few people actually want to go here. It features only nominally in the Rough Guide to Bulgaria - one paragraph, in fact. You could be forgiven for missing this destination out entirely because you didn't even know it existed. You won't find this building on any Bulgarian postcard or in any Bulgarian brochure. It is home to one of the most bizarre and curious sights ever built. Many Bulgarians despise it. The Prime Minister wants it demolished - if only they had the money to do so. It stands forlorn and abandoned high up on a hilltop, a cosmic, concrete externalisation of a failed socialist system which Bulgaria is keen to shuffle off into the vaults of time labelled 'forget'. It is the Mount Buzludzha UFO building, a once grand concrete meeting place for communists. Politics aside, it is one of the most marvellous examples of cosmic communist architecture there is. I doubt Buzludzha features in any off-the-shelf package holiday out there...


Often my starting point: a Lonely Planet guide for the countries I'm going to. They often help me to get my bearings quickly but are not the only source used to tailor-make my journeys and, right, the nerve centre of an independent itinerary - a pencil and scrap of paper and the starting point for my adventure around Burma and Egypt.



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