It’s important to listen to your readers as a blogger. I was asked a direct question over Facebook and felt it was worth explaining and would make a good blog. Here’s the question…
I was wondering if you could do a post where you share tips on how you prepare before you travel to a location. For example, I’ll be travelling to Toronto in a few weeks. Do you have a method you use before each trip to find out the “must see” locations and events going on at each location? Any details you could share in a post would be awesome. I really like your “immersion” approach to travelling.
1. Minimalist packing – I think think this is a key strategy. Some people spend weeks to planning what’s in their bags, and end up worrying about all the junk they brought with them. I literally don’t bring anything that I couldn’t spare to lose. My phone is the likely exception to that, cause the cheap netbook I often carry with me for presentations is cheaper than my phone… by a long shot. It’s also very light. My goal is to fit everything in a Ogio backpack with a laptop slot. I’ve done 2 weeks in a backpack. I often bring another bag on the way home with stuff I bring home, but even that has gotten smaller and smaller. I collect masks, and often bring so unless it’s a really good mask. One of the tricks that not everyone could use… I’ve used that works for nearly all airlines is to bring a bag that looks like a bag that was stuff you purchased at the airport. So every checkpoint it doesn’t really count as a bag. Worst case I attach it to my backpack by tying it on, or rolling it up and stuffing it in. There’s always more room.
2. Twitter & Facebook – Research comes from friends on social networks, not just people I’ve met. I do enjoy posting where I’m planning on going on twitter. It’s amazing the responses I’ll get from people who are passionate about the area. My trip to Cappadocia Turkey to the underground city of Derinkuyu would have been very different had I not had a few conversations on twitter that encouraged me to go it alone. I felt very comfortable understanding what I was getting into. Knowing a local also made me feel comfortable bouncing ideas that I was planning. Thanks @captcappadocia
3. Lonely Planet – Some of the best destinations on the planet are featured and covered in the Lonely Planet guides. I’ve personally bought a couple of them when I’m crazy committed to a place. When I visited India, I really wanted to research the culture, the cities, the palaces, and I really didn’t want to miss anything! One of the worst things ever is knowing I went to a place and I missed the most important thing. There are iphone/ipad apps for lonely planet that you can download and take offline. You can also buy books for your kindle and read them along the way. Research on the culture. the festivals, and local research about a place is helpful, but you don’t need a book for every place you’re going. I didn’t tell you this, but copying the pages of the city or region you’re going to is a lot more light weight. Those books have a lot of research for places you won’t see. I learned this from a traveller who was carrying the lonely planet guide pages for Cappadocia region of turkey. Nice! The online site has great research, communities and helpful forums. I personally will copy paste things I like, and put them on a word or notepad page, I include pictures as I mention in more detail in #7 below.
4. VirtualTourist.com – Speaking of most important – I use the virtual tourist top “Things to Do” as a checklist. I read through the descriptions on 10-20 of them and find what people are saying about a place and then decide what are the things I would like most. Often I’ll add 5 or so of the top 10. Many of them are the things you MUST do at a place, but I’ll also include the day trip type content, and often use the map to see what cities or towns are nearby and plug those into Virtualtourist.com. What it does not do well is tell you what is nearby. Those day trips some times reveal what’s good nearby, but often it will only tell you boring things if you pick a boring town. Research does not conclude from virtual tourist, it is early research to help me know where to start. Virtual Tourist in Albania taught me that Tirana is an under the radar tourist destination, and a lot of people didn’t like it, but I also found Durres, an ancient roman port town was only 45 minutes away. Looking up that town, I found all sorts of things I wanted to see, but I also found key historical things I shouldn’t miss in Tirana.
5. Travel Advisor Forums and other Travel Forums via Search – When I’m trying to figure out how to get across borders such as when I was trying to navigate between Cancun to Tikal, I found that there wasn’t much written officially. I had to dive into search and look at what people who were trying to do that route had figured out. There were those tracking down bus routes and shared times, and then those who had gone one way vs. another. Even those who had trekked overland… Wild routes. There are 2,754 forum posts for Tikal on Travel Advisor, and nearly that many reviews.
6. CIA World Factbook – When travelling in various countries in Africa, I have found the CIA factbook to give some basics on the economy, culture, crime rates, and include travel warnings. There are more warnings than there need to be, but it’s important to understand the politics around it. Travel in Nicaragua is safer than traveling in Oregon. That’s what I found out on a forum. The Oregonian guy living in Nicaragua swears he leaves his 4 runner unlocked and the crime rate is lower in his town in Nicaragua than in Salem, Oregon or something. I was a little worried having read all sorts of warnings from the US, then while in Nicaragua, I found it an amazing place. So glad I went there, despite warnings. So while it’s important to do your fact checking, be sure to do your homework and connect with locals. Politics are involved. I’ve crossed 6 out of 10 of the most dangerous borders… apparently. There’s a lot of hype out there. Really. Virtual tourist also has travel warnings and tourist traps. I’ve learned a few good tips about what to expect. The more you travel, the more you know what is a real and what is drama.
7. Google Image Search/Bing/Flickr – a good search engine, especially IMAGE Search on your favorite search engine is your key to unlock the best destinations and adventures. If you simply do an image search, the top places buildings, architectures, and cool stuff you like will pop out. I’ve been amazed after researching a place to find the ultimate #1 destination by doing an image search. The big things will pop. Often with image search people will tag the near by cool stuff with the same name as the city, so you’ll say… hey what’s that! and it’s some cathedral or castle and now you’ve got your destination. In Prague it was the bone church that I wanted to see most badly, Kutna Hora, but since I was driving it became a challenge because I knew it by a different name and once I arrived in the town it took some explaining before finally arriving at the most amazing church decorated by human bones. Having those images… they speak 1000 words. When going across language it can be very helpful to have those images handy for directions. There were day trips out of Prague, but we had a car, so we figured it would be better for us to go track it down. It was an adventure and we remembered it was the journey, not the destination… Incredible drive, incredible bone church. By the way, printing directions between cities can be helpful if you know you’ll be driving it. When google or bing directions give you a hard time, try alternatives in Europe like Michelin man maps and try directions within the country if it fails. Sometimes Bing and Google will drop you at the border and not let you cross even though you can. Do your research. Don’t just show up at the border of Eritrea and ask to get in. Also don’t walk from Alaska to Siberia and ask to get in. You need visas and plans on getting stamps. Many borders do have plans for how to deal with you if you try to get a visa at the border. If you’re an American, do NOT just fly to Tehran, and hope you’ll get an Iranian visa because you couldn’t get it online easy enough. EU you’re better off here. U.S.A guy you’ll get deported. You heard it first hand.
Pictured above: Square in Frankfurt. I had a 6 hour layover, but had done an image search of Frankfurt and honed in on this square. This is what I wanted to see.
8. Prepare top destinations & adventures but don’t over commit, over plan your time – I personally like to prepare about every other day. That sounds strange, but if you prepare every day, you won’t be able to do the stuff that happens on the whim. It’s possible to not prepare at all and see where the adventure takes you, and I definitely do that A LOT, but when I know I want to get from place to place, I need to pick a few destinations, but not over prepare them. When we were going from Tallin, Estonia to Riga Latvia to Lithuania. We had 1 day of travel/adventure, 1 day of touring the city on our journey. This kept us on a schedule to work our way across, but also made it feel like we weren’t only travelling. Booking the time into the trip to see things was really important. I wanted to have a cathedral, historical castle, or UNESCO heritage site in each of those cities that I had researched ahead of time so I could tell my friends the history. Some research will tell you that the catacombs of Paris are closed on Sunday and Monday as is the Louvre. As are many museums in Paris closed on Mondays, so make sure you do your travel on Monday or go to the countryside on Monday. That kind of knowledge is really important so you don’t look at the door every time you go to France and not get in. Yes, I have seen that door 3 times. Many places close early… something else to plan for. Backup plans and too much to do is a good problem to have… it’s easy to swap out a disappointment with the next best thing, that may end up being better in the long run.
9. Wikipedia and Wikitravel – the best knowledge invention of the decade. When researching a place, I do love to read up on the history of a place. Wikipedia has lots of great community contributed content. You’ll find out about what airlines are in a country as well. This can help with planning. There is another wiki you shouldn’t pass up… Wikitravel.com The wikitravel site can suggest other tours, adventures, hotels, and travels such as air, bus, and cabs. There’s some really good content there. If you have a data plan while you travel, you can use wikipedia or wikitravel to read more about a place you’re in. The articles are usually pretty short and easy to read. Reading about the Acropolis at night when there’s no guide at a nearby coffee shop with Wifi, can help you feel better about the fact you won’t be getting in because you’re on an 8 hour layover at night. You can type wikitravel and then the city name in google or bing to get pages that are around it as well.
10. Weather – yes and no. I do look at weather a little bit. Weather is something that controls the lives of way too many people. If I can pack short instead of pants, that is important to know. I don’t use weather to say, it’s going to be rainy and start cancelling plans… No such thing. Rain or shine, I’m going to see Ireland or Scotland, England, whatever. The sun doesn’t have to shine to enjoy a place. Had some incredible excursions in the rain in Africa, and may not have ended up at a native’s place if it wasn’t rainy and wet and needing to dry out. Those memories of eating grubs on his couch with cement floors in a one room place still stands out as incredible. Great times. Running through the rain in Wales and ending up in a castle at an exclusive party inside a castle for some special golf cup, and blending in because of the rain, was another amazing opportunity that presented itself only via rain. Weather doesn’t spoil things, it just changes the variables and dynamics. Don’t go up in a hot air balloon if it’s raining or snowing though, I heard a horror story about that. The word on hot air balloons is to go early in your time, don’t wait for the last day to do the balloon. That tip alone saved me the ability for my balloon ride in Cappadocia. The day I personally had planned to go… it snowed! Instead we did the Goreme open air museum that day. As a result of the snow our tour group went down from the 20 it could have been to 3. It became a very intimate tour that was the same cost, but waaaay better. Our guide was way more flexible about what we wanted to see and do with no extra cost. He wanted us to be happy on this snowy day. Knowing recent political news can be relevant. Avoid PARIS at all costs during a traffic strike. As well you don’t want to be in the exact neighborhood where they are lighting cars on fire in Athens, but other neighborhoods are extremely safe… really. A little research will tell you a lot. I’ve spend a weekend in Paris during a traffic strike, worst trip to Paris, but we still had a decent time. Our stopover in Athens a few months ago was during a traffic strike, but we just rented a car. Best thing we ever did. Wish we had done that in Paris. (Not for the faint of heart. Driving in the major cities does take serious navigation skills and the GPS is not always created equally. Make sure someone in the car has a good data plan.) I navigated from Barcelona to Naples, and it was with God’s help that we made it a week in Rome with a very weak map, and up to Venice. I enjoyed the journey. It was the journey not the destination on that trip in many instances especially when the motorway closed down in southern France, and I had to go off of intuition.
I hope this was helpful. What do you use to prepare for a trip???
I know I referred to a few trips I haven’t blogged about… more coming. I loved to hear what you want to hear about. Trips, advice, etc… I am listening!