Aside from being something I enjoy doing, having an idea of where I want to go and what I want to see comes in handy when those circles marked money and time magically converge.
I could see that one such glorious occurrence was coming up in March. Among the perks of working at a school are the regular holidays, especially the spring and summer breaks. So, at the same time I was searching for airfare to visit my parents in Austin for Christmas, I checked on airfare for spring break as well.
My criteria were as follows - a place I was interested in going, a country that was new to me (Canada aside, I haven't gotten a stamp in my passport in almost two years), and a place I could get to for $500 or less.
I use Kayak's Explore feature to give me a general sense of airfare. My shortlist began to shape up like this...
Having done at least a bit of research on these places before, I knew that I'd want to spend more than a week in both Colombia and Peru, so that knocked those options out of the running. Now I was left with...
Istanbul - perfect amount of time for a visit, easy to get around via walking and public transport, most expensive ticket, possible trouble on the horizon politically
Mexico City - perfect amount of time for a visit, easy to get around via walking and public transport, true budget destination, possible drug war violence
Iceland - would require either a rental car or tour to do properly, most expensive upon arrival, weather iffy in March, I have a bad track record with winter driving
I ended up nixing Iceland because, despite having enjoyed snowy spring breaks in the past, I imagined I'd be ready for some temperate weather. And despite planning a spring break trip amidst political turmoil before, the refuge situation in Turkey was looking shaky enough for me not to bet a $500 flight on, six months in advance.
Mexico City, however, looked like a good deal. I was already had some vague knowledge that the worst of Mexico's problems were near the border with the US, but when I researched, I was happy to learn that cartel violence generally doesn't affect the capital. Plus, visiting during Holy Week would mean a little less of the frenetic energy and congestion Mexico City is known for, as lots of locals go on holiday during that time.
I used Kayak to search for tickets on my specific dates and found Delta had the best deals. I then clicked over to Delta's website and nabbed a round trip ticket for a smidge over $300. (Having almost been stranded by a Kayak deal that involved two separate airlines in the past, I always book directly with the airline.)
Flight booked, it was time to start figuring out an itinerary. I already had some of the biggest tourist spots - the Zocalo, the Anthropology Museum, Teotihuacan, and Frida Kahlo's home - pinned on my map. I trawled travel blogs and wikitravel for ideas and began sorting them by neighborhood.
As my itinerary started to take shape, it gave me a better idea of what type of lodging I wanted to book, and where. I knew I wanted something in a safe neighborhood close to the city center, with easy access to public transit. Hotels in Mexico range from luxury to surprisingly affordable, but can be isolating when you're traveling alone. Airbnb is a nice alternative, in that it generally means you have a contact in the city who can make recommendations and have some idea of your whereabouts. But I knew that several of the activities on my travel wishlist, like a day tour to Puebla and a trajinera ride on the canals of Xochimilico, would be more fun with a group and easiest to organize through a hostel.
I carefully read reviews of various hostels on several websites (tripadvisor, hostelworld, hostelbookers) to get a feel for them. I wasn't looking for a party hostel - a.k.a. an exhausting nightmare - but I did want to find one with a nice community vibe. One hostel I checked out was praised for their chic design - but reading further, I found it looked cold and flavorless, and more importantly, the "modern" bed design essentially had you sleeping with your neighbor.
Another hostel looked like a decent possibility, until I read a review that mentioned that the mattresses were basically rubber gym mats. I looked at the pictures on the hostel's website and sure enough, they were.
Looks legit... or not.
Having narrowed my list of hostels down to a couple, I checked out the dates. One didn't allow booking so far in advance, so I ended up going with the other. Because of the length of my trip, my low tolerance for noise, light, or smoke, and the possibility of Montezuma's Revenge, I decided to book a private room with an en suite. The cost was still under $30 USD a night. Winning!
While I did want to leave most of my schedule as flexible as possible, there were two things I needed to book in advance - my two splurges of an otherwise budget trip. The first was a reservation at Pujol, one of the World's 50 Best Restaurants. I was lucky to nab one - when I booked on February 15th, the only slot left during my trip was 2:00 PM on a Tuesday. The second thing I booked ahead of time was a sunrise hot air balloon ride at Teotihuacan. I got in touch with the two major balloon outlets that operate in the area. Neither could arrange transportation out of Mexico City as early as I needed it in the morning - one said it was because of the balloon festival happening that weekend. Thanks to a tip on Tripadvisor, I found 'Flying Pictures' and ended up booking with them.
Finally, for once in my life I bought travel insurance, through World Nomads. Hopefully I won't need to use it, but as I get older (and let's be real, make enough money to afford it), health and safety become more of a concern. Bon Voyage!