I love to travel. Duh. I write about it, live it, breathe it, and I spend all of my money on it. However, you may be surprised to hear the number one thing I hate about travel is planning it. SHOCKER OF THE CENTURY, I KNOW. I find it monotonous, am weary of a lot of sites and books and their recommendations, and hate how long it can take (I have been known to research Airbnb homes for hours, to only come out not really knowing where in a city I prefer to stay). If you are ever lucky enough, or crazy enough, to travel with me, you will quickly realize I am a fly by the seat of my pants kind of girl. I rarely pick out restaurants until I get to a destination and get a feel for the city, and have no set itinerary before my flight takes off. I’m truly a gypsy soul at heart.
I have learned, though, that going into a location with zero research can be a waste of time while on location (flopping on a hotel bed and researching what café I want to go to for breakfast is NOT what I should be doing on vacation), and can actually be somewhat dangerous. I have learned to start planning more, and how to do so with trustworthy sources. Let me introduce you to a few of my favorite sources for planning a trip, and why I love them so much.
1. Rick Steves travel guides and www.ricksteves.com: Rick Steves has worked his way into a little corner of my heart. I have always watched his specials on PBS, and enjoy seeing the cool things he finds across Europe. I find his travel writing style to be incredibly laid back, user friendly, and downright honest. His guides offer walking tours, quick rundowns on the historical significance of locations, and best of all, honest feedback on museums and attractions. When I studied abroad in Rome, I carried Rick in my purse everywhere I went. When I was told I had to meet at a particular museum for an art history class, I quickly looked it up in my Rick Steves guide book, and I read to my classmate that the museum was not worth the entrance fee, nor the time suck involved. Since going was a requirement, we still trotted down and checked it out. Man was he right (MORE Etruscan pottery?!?). I love that a man as successful and dependent on great international relations as Rick gives his honest opinions on places like this. He helps you avoid tourist traps, tells you the best time to travel, and gives a complete rundown of every country. The only downside? Rick only covers European destinations, so you must be traveling there to use his guides. Maybe he will one day expand to Africa, South and Central America, and Asia. Maybe he will need an expert on those places to help fill his publishing void. Maybe he will call me up and ask me to trot around the world and film my adventures for future PBS shows. Hint hint, Rick.
2. Rough Guides guide books: Rough Guides are another great publication I use for travel planning. They offer yet another perspective on travel, giving a comprehensive guide to travel dates, accommodations, points of interest, and best of all, food. Where Rick falls short, Rough Guides pick up the slack, and have a guide to just about every country on the planet, though some are only available as reading material online (sorry if you absolutely must hold a book in your hands). So, whether you want to zip line in Costa Rica, or feed elephants in Thailand, my guess is you will find excellent info with Rough Guides. The downside? Rough Guides tend to be more budget travel focused, tailoring their choices for hotels, restaurants, and stuff to do to be on the more budget friendly end. While this is great for people like me who don’t need to be pampered every mile of their trip, or require turn down service every night, it may not be the perfect guide for you if you are looking for a more glamorous vacation. Which, if you are planning a more glam jaunt, call me, I’d love to join.
3. Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com): I really love this site and use it frequently, even when I am playing tourist in my own backyard. You can find real opinions from real travelers on just about any location. All you have to do is navigate to the site and type in the name of a beach, a museum, a hotel, even a statue, and you will return feedback from people who have been there, and done that. I also contribute to this site, and love helping out others who are just as well traveled as me, as well as those who are just getting their wanderlust feet wet. Another great feature of this site is that you can read reviews, and simultaneously somewhat “judge” that person’s authority based on their number of reviews. No, I’m not talking about judging them on their profile picture haircut, I mean that you can see if somebody is a “Top Contributor”. This superlative is only bestowed on those who review with regularity, and have more posts than most. I always find I can trust these sources very well, and they usually have the info I am looking for. What is the negative side of this site? You REALLY have to sift through reviews. You can’t read just one, or even 5 reviews, and make a good decision from this info. I suggest picking one item to research per day, and read everything you can on the site about this one topic. If you don’t, you may find you miss out on a great location because one person had a bad experience. Really dig and analyze why somebody did or didn’t like their experience. It was great because they gave you free refills on your drink? Next. You hated it because they didn’t give you free refills on your drink? That’s a dumb reason to serve up internet haterade.
4. Instagram: Yes, I am a little biased since I have a presence on Instagram as well (feel free to follow me at AChangeofPlace! Okay, Okay. Shameless plug over). However, I really think Instagram can be, if nothing more, a great jumping off point to planning a trip. When planning, I tend to search hashtags of the places I am visiting, and look for travel inspiration (for example, for my trip to Croatia later this year, I have been sifting through #croatia, #plitvicelakes, #split, etc.). There is a reason us bloggers post on Instagram. We want the world to see places the way we see them, and encourage travel in EVERY. DAMN. PERSON. And not only do we love sharing our treks, but we love doing it to help out businesses too. A lot of Instagrammers will post locations and reviews of places they have stayed, ate, and seen. We offer a first-hand view of a place, and love to talk about it. Feel free to reach out to us in our comments sections! I can guarantee you, with great confidence, that we will respond, and chat your ear off about our trips. As I said above, we love to show off our excursions, and may love talking about them even more. The one thing to be wary about though, is that a lot of Instagrammers get paid or comped to write posts about places. You may run into biased opinions on Instagram that are heavily saturated with catchphrases and buzz words served up by marketing departments. In this case, refer to Trip Advisor for more details. Who knows, the buzz words may just be spot on!
While I would love to be 100% gypsy and live out my lifelong fantasy of being a travel version of Stevie Nicks, I understand the importance of planning for a trip. I will never be the girl with an itinerary, or even a general guide for my days spent abroad. I will, however, equip myself with the knowledge to really get the most out of my trip, and see everything I can while in country. There is nothing wrong with this philosophy, as long as you are sprinkling in a little time for spontaneity.