If you want to maximize fun and minimize panic on your next golf vacation, then prepare up front. That is, think about where you're heading and what's unique about that place. Then imagine everything you might encounter on your journey, and address your concerns before you walk out your front door. Work the trip chronologically through your mind, and use the Internet as much as possible. As the time of your trip approaches, start a running checklist of everything you need to pack, keeping it on your nightstand so it's conveniently located.
The first thing you'll probably want to do is buy plane tickets, if needed, and then rent a hotel room. The rule of thumb on plane fares: The earlier you buy your tickets, the lower the price. If you're a risk-taker, you might wait for last-minute specials. But the downside is that your route might not come down in price, forcing you to shell out top dollar to an airline. Sign up for price-saver e-mails from all of the airlines, as well as e-mails from discounters like travelzoo.com. Monitor them regularly for deals to your destination, or try an all-encompassing travel search engine, such as kayak.com or airfarewatchdog.com, which finds nearly every airline's current fares, then sorts them into one list. Booking your plane flights online usually saves you money and time over buying them on the phone. Many airlines now charge roughly $15 per ticket to book tickets through their phone operators. You can also select your seat, print out the plane tickets and not have to worry if the phone operator got it right. One other tip to save you airport time: You can check in on your home computer within 24 hours of your flight and forego long airport lines. And on the way home, assuming you didn't lug your laptop and a printer with you on vacation, use the airport check-in kiosks. The lines for those are usually shorter than other check-in lines, and in many cases, you still can change seats, check your luggage and speak face-to-face with an airline representative.
Your computer may also be your best travel agent for hotels, too. Consider using a professional tour operator for international golf trips (haversham.com and perrygolf.com are excellent). They not only have contacts and employees in popular golf destinations, but also the connections and know-how to make your trip a relaxing pleasure—and without being a lot more expensive than if you tried arranging everything yourself. If you already know where you want to stay, visit the hotel or resort Website and see if it's offering golf stay-and-play specials. Even if it isn't, the online room rates often undercut prices that the hotel quotes over the phone. Some golf resorts will book your tee times over the Web, especially if you signed up for a stay-and-play package.
In fact, check the Internet for golf courses wherever you're headed in the United States. Assemble a list of all courses at your destination using golflink.com, which has organized links to nearly every U.S. course. Then visit the Website of any course you're planning to play. Write down the address and phone number on a list that you'll take with you on your trip. When calling courses to schedule times, asking how long rounds typically take that time of year and that day of the week is a great idea. You may discover that you're scheduling your round on a league day. This is important because if you're planning to play another course later that day, you'll need the tee times spaced adequately apart to allow you driving time between courses. If you're on a budget, arrange to play a less-expensive course in the morning during prime hours, then a pricier resort layout later for twilight rates. Also, ask if the greens are being aerated that day. Why waste your time playing a great course that has temporary greens?
You can also save time by foregoing phone calls to each individual course and instead calling a tee-time booking agent for that area, which may also have prereserved times or the clout to squeeze you in exactly when you want to play. Google an agent by searching your destination plus the words "tee-time booking agents." Be aware that some work only with specific courses, and all charge nominal service fees.
Once you've booked your plane, hotel and golf, start preparing for all the other potential headaches you're likely to encounter on your trip. Again, think chronologically. If you're renting a car, which you should do online (and print out your reservation confirmation to take with you on your trip), find out whether there are toll roads leaving the airport. If so, remember to keep change in your pocket—"exact change" lanes can save you time on toll roads.
Wherever you're heading, get an idea for how the weather will be when you're there (use weather.com). Find out the daytime high forecasts for your golf rounds, and check the low temperatures at night. See what the usual weather for that time of year is, too. That way, you'll know which clothes to pack, whether you can just layer your clothing (which saves suitcase space) and if you need to bring along rainwear, an umbrella, extra golf shoes or a few golf gloves. By ditching the extra golf gear, you may save weight in your golf bag so that it won't surpass the airline's free weight limit. Speaking of which, you can skip lugging altogether. If you're only playing one or two rounds, call ahead to inquire about the course's club rental charge. It may be worthwhile. Or, if you want your clubs, but don't want to haul them yourself, call a golf bag delivery service (sportsexpress.com or luggageconcierge.com) that will ship your bag in advance, making sure its arrival coincides with yours. That will surely save you time and a lot of potential hassles at the airport.
If you're staying at a resort, call and find out the dress code both around the resort and at its restaurants. This can save you from having to buy clothes once you're there. Also, find out if the resort has Web access for guests and whether the access is provided in your room or elsewhere. Many hotels now feature free use of computers in the lobby or office, so that guests don't need to lug laptops with them on their trips. Also, find out in advance about local restaurants, determining which are worthwhile and which to avoid. Make reservations, if necessary, and get directions up front.
If you're heading out of the country, find out what currency you'll need and what the exchange rate is. Credit cards are convenient, but not accepted at every small restaurant and shop. Many foreign establishments accept U.S. currency, but then overcharge you for the exchange rate. Visit x-rates.com where you can get up-to-the-minute exchange rates and see photos of what your destination's currency looks like, so that you don't get taken by shifty cabbies. Also, remember to see what power plugs are used in your hotel—they likely differ from the wall sockets in your house. Either purchase a universal power plug adapter (pcuniverse.com) before you go, or simply don't take anything that needs to be plugged in. You can also check with your hotel to see if it loans free adapters. In addition, make sure that your passport is current; passport rules have recently changed. In fact, children now need passports to travel even to Canada, starting in 2007. Will you need a phone card on the road, to call back home? If so, remember to buy one, making sure that you know how it works before you leave for your trip. In fact, some need to be activated in the United States. If yours falls into this category, remember to activate it before heading to the airport. Your cell phone may or may not work overseas, depending on its technology. To be sure, call your cell phone carrier and ask. Verizon customers leaving the country can call customer service before going. Tell them your trip dates, and they'll temporarily activate a special discount fare for you to use out of the country, at no additional cost. If you're renting a car overseas, make sure your insurance policy covers that. Otherwise, know your transportation options. And if English is not the primary language there, write down the practical terms you'll need to get around.
After you've made your reservations and tee times, print directions to all of the courses you plan on playing. Use mapquest.com for driving directions from the hotel to a course, from one course to another and from a course back to the hotel. Then staple the directions together, in order of where you're going, along with your plane e-tickets and hotel information. This will save you time and hassle, once you've hit the road.
One final word of caution: Odds are you'll run into some kind of obstacle during your trip. Just take it in stride, relax and have fun!