Without doubt, planning is a big part of traveling anywhere in the world.
Planning a trip and organizing an itinerary of things to do, what to see and where to go is a fun way to get excited about your upcoming trip and anticipate all of your adventures.
But in reality, how much planning do you actually do? And how much planning do you need to do to have a successful trip?
Visiting Sri Lanka
I'm going to briefly go over the way that I plan my travels, and to do so, I'll begin with an example about when I visited Sri Lanka not long ago.
Living in Thailand the first part of my trip planing was to book a flight, this time a roundtrip flight between Bangkok and Colombo, staying in Sri Lanka for just over 3 weeks (Note: if I wasn't based in Bangkok, I probably would have just booked a one-way flight).
The next thing I did was log in to Couchsurfing, searched for hosts in Colombo and within the next week I had arranged a local place to stay.
The remaining part of my travel planning before departing for Sri Lanka included little online things like reading a little about the history of the country on Wikipedia, checking the weather conditions, browsing a few blogs and sites written by other travelers, checking the exchange rate and contemplating a few of the most famous places in the country to visit. That's about it.
I arrived in Colombo, made my way to my host's home, and explored the city for about a week.
During this time, I met a friend who knew another friend who invited us to his Mother's home in the countryside rolling tea field plantations of central Sri Lanka.
Without having to dart to the next location on my non-existent itinerary, I agreed and we were soon on the train and then in a tuk tuk in an extremely local area of the island.
I took strolls through the gorgeous tea fields, checked out the local town, rode tea plantation buses, learned lots about Sri Lankan culture and most of all I was able to eat home cooked Sri Lankan food each day cooked over a fire by a woman that I could not refer to by anything else other than Grandmother.
She was excited for the company and happy to see us so thrilled at her home style cooking – I even learned to make the best Sri Lankan chicken curry in the world! I ended up staying for nearly a week.
Recommended by my initial Sri Lankan Couchsurfing host, from the unplanned homestay, I made my way north to the war stuck area of Jaffna which was safe to visit.
Though I hadn't planned on visiting prior to arriving in the country, Jaffna proved to be one of the most remarkable places I've ever visited.
Finally my trip was coming to a close so I made my way back to Colombo and on to the airport.
Did I get to see ALL the famous attractions in Sri Lanka? No.
Did I have an exceptional trip where I got to learn about the culture, eat authentic Sri Lankan food and live locally for a few weeks? Yes.
Had I had a long list of places to go to fulfill my 3 weeks stay in Sri Lanka I would have missed staying at a Sri Lankan tea farm country home and dining on ambrosial curry all day.
The thing to remember is that having a open attitude and living with flexibility opens a new world to having some of the most rewarding travel experiences.
This is not to discourage you from making huge travel plans, they do have a purpose and can be very helpful. Just sometimes, over-planning can be a burden and can take away from things that you weren't planning to do but that will inevitably arise on any longterm backpacking trip.
As a long term backpacker, I've traveled on both extremes.
Sometimes I've absolutely winged it with next to zero planning and nowhere to sleep, other times I've been chained to a strict itinerary and rushed from site to site to make sure I didn't miss seeing the most famous monuments of the country.
While it does depend somewhat upon yourself and what you feel comfortable with (as well as what you feel safe with), I've found that planning somewhere in the middle works best.
A flight in, possibly an initial place to stay for the first few days you arrive, some places you really want to visit at the back of your head, but also a highly flexible attitude and willingness to just about anything.
In 2009 I got a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia with very little on my itinerary… and guess what? I'm still in Southeast Asia!
I can honestly say that plenty of my most memorable experiences traveling have come as a result of less planning and more flexibility.