How to Reverse Engineer Your Travel Plans (and Realize Your Dream Vacation)

It’s nice to fantasize about someplace you desperately want to visit, hunt down an airfare or some other way to get there, and plan a dream trip. Problem is, your fantasy trip isn’t always practical, usually for either financial or time reasons. That’s where the reverse engineering theory comes in — you still get to dream up a trip, and you actually get to carry this one out.

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Plan Your Trip Without Starting from A Great Idea

Sure, many great travel plans are made by coming up with a great idea first. Something like “I really want to travel the length of Russia on the Trans-Siberian” or “I want to propose to my girlfriend on top of Mount Kinabalu”. But maybe you don’t have enough time off work to wend your way across Siberia or the airfare from your hometown to Malaysia is double your whole budget for the trip. That’s when you need to start planning from a different angle, like one of these:

Cheap Airfares

Get on the email lists of all the budget airlines that fly out of your nearest airports. Keep an eye on the specials they offer and pounce! Recently this meant I picked up two return flights to Adelaide for less than half of the normal cost of one person’s fare. I don’t have much need to go to Adelaide, but read on and you’ll see how I reverse engineered this trip (with apologies to any engineers, by the way, for this technically-clumsy analogy).

Bunk with Friends

Check your Facebook list (or your address book if you’re slightly old-fashioned) and look up some friends you’d love to catch up with and haven’t seen for a while because they don’t live nearby. Assuming they’re good friends, this could solve the accommodation issue and make the budget balance. Don’t forget to ask them for insider tips on the cheapest way to get to their city or country. Again, you might know nothing about the place where they live, but don’t let that spoil your holiday daydream — I’ll explain below.

Stay Local

Are time restrictions the greater evil for this particular trip plan? Then look local. Get out a detailed map of the towns within a reasonable driving distance from your home and start doing some research. I live in a sparsely populated corner of the world but even so, whenever I pull out the road atlas I find a wealth of places that could make for fantastic trip destinations. All it takes is a little imagination and a little research.

Sunrise Paddling the North Canadian River, Oklahoma
Sunrise Paddling on the North Canadian River, Oklahoma © FreeWine

Why Any Destination Is A Great Destination

Practice helps make your trip planning perfect, but so does research. I’m not talking detailed itineraries of what you’ll do at 10 am on Day 3 of your trip, but research to find out how you can create the most interesting trip possible from the circumstances.

Explore the Possibilities

Remember I said I booked super-cheap airfares to Adelaide? I’ve been to Adelaide before — actually, I lived there for a few months — and while it’s a pleasant enough city, I wouldn’t want to make a week-long trip out of it. So I grabbed a South Australia guidebook and started looking at the different regions within driving distance from Adelaide, and that’s when my trip started getting exciting. There were so many possibilities: an eco-week on Kangaroo Island, a wine and cheese drive through the Barossa Valley, or the one I finally settled on: a week of camping and hiking in the Flinders Ranges. You see, I could fly to Adelaide four or five times and still not exhaust the possibilities of trips based out of that city.

Think Outside the Box

Your trip doesn’t have to consist of a collection of sightseeing activities. It’s your trip and you’re allowed to do whatever you want (no matter what your well-meaning friends say when they suggest some awful guided tour). Maybe you can take an intensive course at your destination (a language, a new skill) or there’s a great festival that you can catch by timing your visit well (comedy, say, or world music, or writing — whatever takes your fancy). It might be a chance to spend a week on a bicycle exploring local paths or you might even find some interesting local volunteer work to do. The beauty of the internet is that all of these possibilities are just a couple of clicks away, so take advantage of the information age and get informed.

Love the Moment, Love the Place

I’m biased, of course, because I’m a certifiably mad travel addict, but I know I’m not the only one. If you’re like me, you’ll be happy with pretty much whatever you end up doing. Remember, you’re on the road! You’re away from home, away from seeing the bills roll in the door and from heading out to your day job through commuter traffic. You’re traveling! So even if you can’t make it to Nepal for a trek this year or the Antarctic eco-tour is out of your price range, enjoy whatever new sights, sounds and smells get thrown at you anyway.

Walking Sand Dune Trail in the Desert, Iran
Desert Leader, Iran © Hamed Saber

My Reverse Engineering Travel Planning in Practice

I can’t tell you how excited I am about my own reverse-engineered vacation, coming up soon. I’m on a pretty limited time and money budget this year, so those cheap flights to Adelaide and the discovery of the Flinders Ranges option were very welcome. I’ve booked what we Aussies call a campervan (and is probably too small to be called an RV) for a dirt cheap rate, saved heaps on the van rental rates by remembering to check what insurance my credit card offers, and I’ve got enough national park maps, hiking trail and camping site info for us to spend a weekend indulging in pre-trip fantasies soon. All because an email alerted me to some super-cheap airfares to a place I wasn’t particularly interested in flying to.

Your turn! I’m keen to hear how you’ve planned a trip without following some dream idea, but circumstance instead. Share your trip successes (or, hopefully not, failures) in the comments below!

  1. Weddings are a great example of this. If you’re already committed to flying across the country to see your best friend get hitched, might as well bookend the trip with some local tourist attractions.

  2. Find a series of interests not necessarily located in one place, or around one theme; say,
    Godchildren in Europe, old friends in New York, a monastery/commune in Syria, volunteer work in the middle of Africa, et cetera. If all of these opportunities involve little fiscal commitment, but allow for long stays, and the serendipity of unplanned events and unanticipated little adventures, then string them together like a garland, find the cheapest means of getting from one gem to the next; and stay with each long enough to surprise yourself… and as you rightfully say “think outside the box” … and “love the moment”…

    Leave often your comfort zone. Staying in a backpacker hostel can be as restricting as a Grand Hyatt. Cool things do not have to cost very much, if at all. But one needs to do one’s diligence, and make realistic plans, if only to abandon them.

  3. I really love this article because i agree with everything you say, it should be gut instinct cheap flights, even just arrive at the airport with bags and choose where to go on the spot.

  4. I’m not sure if name-dropping is allowed, but the Travel Zoo Top 20 is awesome. We booked an Ireland package a year ago with flight/rental car/accommodations for a week. Granted, these may not be the BOTTOM of the barrel prices, but the trip was well suited to our situation. We had an okay budget, but very little time to plan the trip beforehand. Having the car and a B&B guide to the entire country allowed us to land in Dublin and explore to our hearts content. Another thing I’ve found handy is checking out guide books from the library (Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, etc.). This was you don’t have to spend money on the books, and you don’t have to shelve them in your home after the trip. You can practically just get them on your way to the airport. I know the internet has tons more info, but the guide books are really handy when internet is not available (on a flight, in a car/train, etc.). This also allows you to plan your trip on the fly if time beforehand is limited.

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