Planning a vacation can be almost as much fun as going on vacation. Reading up on your destination and deciding what you want to see and do can transport you there before you even get on the plane. Today, planning a vacation can be as simple as sitting down in front of your computer, entering some search terms, and getting all the details you need to put together the trip of your dreams.
But one reason I like going to faraway places is to leave the trappings of everyday life behind – including the constant presence of the Internet. You can find a myriad of articles (online, ironically) about how to unplug on vacation. But I’m also a big fan of unplugged vacation planning.
For me, that means sitting in the bookstore with a pile of travel books, mapping out an itinerary, and discovering places I never knew existed but now I know I need to see.
The other part of unplugged planning is visiting that country’s tourist office.
That’s right, many foreign countries still have tourist offices in big American cities like New York and Washington, DC. Sometimes they’re affiliated with the consulate, sometimes not. Sometimes they’re easy to find, sometimes not so easy. But they’re all a little bit of an adventure, an amuse-bouche to the country you’re about to visit.
Tourist offices all work a little bit differently. The Argentina Tourist Office in New York City has a regular exhibition of artwork from Argentine artists. The staff there helped me narrow down my travel plans when it was obvious I was trying to fit too much into a two-week trip.
The enthusiastic folks at the Greece Tourist Office outlined an entire driving itinerary on a printed map, which really came in handy when we were trying to figure out how long it was going to take to get from place to place. They also have a wonderful museum open to the public.
Some tourist offices, like the United Kingdom’s, let you peruse a vast display of printed brochures and maps. Maps are the best thing to get there because they’re free and usually big enough to be more detailed then the maps in guidebooks or online.
Other tourist offices, like Turkey’s, sit you down while a staffer disappears into a back room and comes out with an envelope stuffed with brochures for you to take home and read at your leisure.
You’ll also often find reminders that you’re in a place that represents its home country. The Israeli Tourist Office has security worthy of the airport itself.
I’ve found that I’m always the only person at the tourist office – in fact, it seems that sometimes the folks in the office are surprised that someone stopped by. But I like to meet people from the country before I go there – people who correct my pronunciation of a town’s name. Or recommend a place I didn’t know to go to.
Or tell me I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew and I need to cut one or two places off my itinerary! (There just isn’t enough time in a lifetime, let alone a few weeks’ vacation, to see every interesting place in the world.)
And then you go home, curl up on the couch with a pile of brochures full of bright, beautiful pictures of what you’re going to see, and mark up your map for where you’re going to go. And you start to get really excited.