Jon Nicholson, Zegrahm’s Director of Operations & Itinerary Planning, was becoming an expert on how to plan a trip before he was even old enough to drive.
The self-professed airplane geek’s passion for travel planning began at the ripe old age of six, when his grandmother gave him his first atlas. He fell in love with the maps, and soon started planning a massive US road trip that would visit the places where all of his relatives lived. After he flew for the first time at age 11, he started collecting airline timetables. It was shortly thereafter that he informed his mother that he was going to work in the travel industry.
By age 13, young Jon was planning trips for his teachers at school, and then sharing those travel itineraries with a local travel agency. His favorite Christmas present that year was a paper version of all the world’s airline schedules from a company called OAG (which is now the leading global provider of digital flight information). And the rest, as they say, was history!
Here, we talk to Jon about how he became a professional travel itinerary planner, the rewards and challenges of that job, and how to plan a trip that you and your family will never forget:
How did you get your first job in the travel industry?
As soon as I turned 16, my local travel agency said, “Why don’t you work here?” I was supposed to file, but after two days I was working the phones. I stayed there for five years until 1979, when they didn’t want to computerize. So I opened the first travel agency in the Napa Valley with a GDF computer. The marketing tagline was, “We can confirm it immediately!”
I’m an airplane geek, and I log every flight I ever take, so I eventually got my dispatch license: Dispatchers control and manage the day-to-day operations of airlines. I was hired by American Airlines, but did not like Dallas. I realized that what I really loved about travel was the adventure.
How did you wind up working for Zegrahm Expeditions?
I decided I wanted to move back to the west coast, and Zegrahm had an ad in the Seattle Times for an Air Departure Manager. I sent my resumé in, and they called me within 10 minutes. I was hired and have been here ever since! I’ve worked my way up through the company; I was actually President for four years, and then went back to itinerary planning, which is my passion.
What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of planning a trip?
With Zegrahm, I can always dream big. We’re open to doing anything, as long as it fits the type of trip that Zegrahm does.
I’m a voracious reader of travel blogs and magazines, so I’m always trying to come up with different ways to do things. Maybe there’s a new air route that allows us to create a better trip, or maybe we can bring a ship into a country to make the itinerary more efficient. Seeing those trips through to development and getting feedback is the most rewarding part.
The most challenging aspects are the rapid changes happening in the world. There are places we can’t go to now that we used to travel to, like Syria, Yemen, and Turkey; on the flip side, places like Oman have opened up, so it’s an ebb and flow. With the immediate access we have to information today, people get more worried about things than they used to.
How do you decide which new destinations you’ll plan a trip to?
I’m looking for places that have enough infrastructure—not necessarily good, but enough. For example, for 2019 we’re adding an expedition to the Congo to see lowland gorillas. We also have a small-ship cruise to New Guinea, a region we haven’t been to in several years. With our Highlands extension add-on, you could explore the whole country in one trip.
Any other destinations you think should be on people’s radar for 2018?
Greenland offers incredible scenery, with fjords and the largest ice sheet in the northern hemisphere. It’s very accessible by ship, and you get the best views that way. Since Iceland has more ships, there are programs where ships will sail over from Iceland to Greenland and back. It’s only an 18-hour cruise across.
Ethiopia is also up-and-coming. It’s got a great number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but also the Omo Valley and some other areas which are not quite as developed. It has natural history up in the Simien Mountains and Bale National Park. It’s not a typical safari experience, but offers a nice blend of natural history and culture. It also has great weather because of the higher altitude, people are very friendly, it’s not super expensive, and it’s not being overly visited right now.
What are your tips for travelers wondering how to plan a trip of a lifetime?
I think balance is the number one thing. People tend to make their itineraries too crowded. Sometimes less is more.
I’m a big believer in having three-night stays, which gives you two full days in a specific destination. I’d rather go to one fewer region, but have time to really absorb each place you visit. People will arrive in Cusco, which is at 11,000 feet, and think they’re going to immediately go sightseeing. You’ve got to think, “How will I feel when I arrive,” consider altitude, flight times, etc.
You can look at other itineraries to get ideas, but you need to know what you, as an individual traveler, like because we are not all the same. Some people want to have free time when they are on vacation, while others like to go flat out. Everyone is different, so you have to find the balance that works best for you.
Any tips for planning a trip that avoids the crowds and chaos of overtourism?
First off, travel in the off-season. Don’t go to Barcelona or Venice in July; go in February or March, when the weather is better and the crowds are smaller. If you’ve already traveled a good bit, choose more off-the-beaten-path destinations, which can sometimes offer a more enriching experience because they aren’t as touristed as other places.
If you haven’t been to Paris, you obviously want to go to the Louvre and Eiffel Tower for the first time. These sites are iconic, and sometimes you just have to deal with crowds. But if you are going someplace that is mainstream, then think about what you can do differently.
In our case, instead of offering a standard four- or seven-night Great Barrier Reef tour, we try to bring more value by knowing the more remote places and chartering a ship that will go there. In the Galápagos Islands, you want to get to the western side of Fernandina and Isabela Islands, which is where you get the best marine iguana sightings. Many people will take a four-night cruise, and there just isn’t enough time to go out there. You’re better off spending more time, and taking a smaller ship.
How do you think travel planning will change in the next few years?
People are increasingly wanting more immersive experiences. They don’t want to say, “I went to Africa and saw awesome animals.” They want to have an authentic experience with the Maasai people.
It used to be enough just to go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower; but now travelers want something that is more hands-on experiential, like a cooking class or something to do with winemaking. People want something that is participatory versus just being an observer.
So we, as travel planners, are looking for more experiences to include within programs. We’ll offer everything from riding bikes in a rice field to cooking classes and various other activities where people can get their hands dirty in these immersive experiences.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.