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last-second planning

A few years ago, the NY Times ran an op-ed encouraging travelers to plan less, ostensibly to reduce stress. It stuck with us, not because we found the advice helpful but rather because we thought the piece thoroughly infuriating and completely out of touch, a flippant acknowledgment that “for most travelers, particularly those with families, such an extreme lack of planning seems impossible, even inadvisable” notwithstanding. We traveled like this during our backpacking days, but that was before grad school, marriage, kids, and careers. Once adult responsibilities entered the picture, such travel became out of reach. During his recent visit to Nepal, D found an opportunity to practice what the article preached. Whether arriving in country with only half of his work itinerary booked led to less stress is debatable, but D did manage to turn a potential bureaucratic nightmare into an enjoyable adventure.

The contrast between this visit and our earlier travels is stark. One of the first trips we took together was a vacation to Turkey with S’s family nearly a decade ago. We had purchased tickets and finalized hotel reservations half a year before traveling. In fact, we had made the bookings so far in advance that in the intervening months D received an offer to join the Foreign Service, we got married, and S changed her last name – events that nearly derailed the trip and which, while not entirely unpredictable, were far were from certain at the time that we had finalized the trip arrangements.

By a stroke of pure luck, our return flight from Turkey arrived back in Chicago the evening before D was to begin training in Washington. It proved too expensive to amend the itinerary, so D packed two sets of bags. He spent only long enough in Chicago to catch a cab from the airport to our apartment, leave his dirty laundry, pick up the pre-packed bags with his work clothes, and return to the airport for the red-eye to the East Coast. Had D’s training started a couple days earlier – or had the trip we meticulously planned months in advance been scheduled to last a little longer – our vacation likely would have become a source of considerable stress and frustration.

A decade of travel, coupled with the flexibility required by our careers, has stretched our comfort level when it comes to last-minute reservations and trip adjustments. Although we are now employed by the same organization, we work in different bureaus and must coordinate leave plans with our respective teams. Sometimes leave is approved quickly, but there have also been times when one of us would secure time off, but weeks or even months would elapse before the other one would receive permission to take leave the same dates. This happened with our trip to the Southwest, for example, which we planned on about two weeks’ notice because D’s office had delayed approval of all leave requests.

That two-week window seems like a luxury compared to D’s recent trip to Nepal, the arrangements for which were finalized long after D had landed in Kathmandu. The initial plan had been to visit both Nepal and India, but a bureaucratic snafu forced D to drop the latter from the itinerary days before traveling. D stayed up most of the night before Thanksgiving to secure approval for an amended itinerary and lock in his flights before the holiday. In lieu of the India leg, D added a field visit to a site outside Kathmandu to the schedule. He landed in Nepal on Sunday evening, with three days of confirmed meetings, a return ticket for the following weekend, and a vague hope that his proposed site visit would also be approved.

That approval came through on Wednesday afternoon, D.C. time. For D in Kathmandu this meant waiting until Thursday morning – the day he was to travel – to purchase his tickets. The outbound flight departed several hours late, which was par for the course. D had expected much the same for the return leg, given that internal flights in Nepal are more likely to get cancelled than arrive on time. When his return flight deposited D in Kathmandu around noon on Saturday, as scheduled, his Nepali colleague remarked that this was a first in his decade of work travel. This minor miracle freed D up to take a day trip to hike beneath the Himalayas, which he had yearned for years to see.

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