Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Travel Planning: Guidebooks and More

three guidebooks for Brussels

I love to travel, and I travel independently - not on a tour. And I book my own reservations; I tend to stay at less-expensive places not handled by travel agents. So how do those of us who travel this way decide where to go?

I'm pretty organized about this - big surprise, huh? I do a lot of research, and plan out my days at a high level - how many days in each city, things I want to see there. (And then I sometimes throw this all away, as I did when people I met on a trip invited me to visit them in their home.)

Where do I look for information?

1. Guidebooks

Rick Steves wrote: "Guidebooks are $15 tools for $3,000 experiences. Many otherwise smart people base the trip of a lifetime on a borrowed copy of a three-year-old guidebook." Sure, he sells guidebooks and he's a bit biased - but the point is still well-taken. I always get the most recent copy of whatever guidebooks I'm using.

And for future trips, I'm looking at electronic versions of those guidebooks, when available, which I can put on my iPad. Lonely Planet has taken the smart step of selling individual chapters of its books - so if I'm going to the northwestern part of England, for example, I can buy just that part. The site also kindly tells you when the next edition of the guidebook is due.

But, by themselves, guidebooks are far from a perfect answer. Read Dawn MacKeen's article, The Truth about Guidebooks, and you'll know you want other sources of information. Here's how the article begins:
Seven days after graduating from college, I boarded a plane and landed in the middle of Greece, with little knowledge of the language, the culture or the geography. I had two months from that moment to become an expert on the country for the now-defunct Berkeley Guides; to travel to, research and write about 15 islands and nine cities and towns. ... I had to find the best hotels, campgrounds, restaurants, museums, archaeological sites, beaches and bars, as well as the prices and schedules of the ferries, trains and buses.
So where else do I look?

2. Online Sources

When I traveled to India, before we had all the web resources we have today, I got some of my best tips by posting my planned itinerary to the Usenet group (now Google Group) soc.culture.indian. Those groups are still available - but now I might also pose a question on Ask MetaFilter or Twitter or Quora. Benji Lanyado, writing for The Guardian, has taken "TwiTrips" - most recently to Liverpool - where he arrives with no plans and relies on the people of Twitter to guide him, step by step, to places to eat and things to see. That's not how I would use Twitter - but he does get some great advice!

And then of course there are all the online review sites, such as TripAdvisor.

Many guidebook sites have discussion forums: Rick Steves, Fodor's, Frommer's, etc.

There are all sort of travel blogs out there, too. If I have an idea where I might want to go next, I might start reading a few blogs related to that place. Or I might follow selected travel writers on Twitter.

I get inspired by photos, so I'll search the web - or Flickr - for pictures of places I'm considering going. I know another trip to Paris is in my future, so I always look at Paris Daily Photo - one of a series of such City Daily Photo sites from around the world.

And just plain searches, using Google or whatever your preferred search engine might be, can turn up some great things, too.

When I stumble upon a web site talking about a place I might want to visit, I add it to my bookmarks. For example, I would never have visited the small Statue of Liberty in Paris if Anthony's site hadn't directed me there; I bookmarked it years before I went there. And here's a place I may well want to visit the next time I'm in Paris.

One final thing: If I want to visit a museum or some such place, I'll check the web site of that specific place to ensure I have the latest information on its hours and any special exhibits - or notice of any closures. (Sometimes museums send their art out on loan or remove it for renovation.)

3. Personal Recommendations

And then, of course, there's the advice from people I know: people who have visited the place, or people who live there. Those people often provide the best tips of all!

Do I check all these resources for every trip? No - but it's sure nice to have so many good options available.

Do you have any favorite travel planning resources? If so, please share!

Related Post
Organizing for Travel: The Packing List


Jeri Dansky said...

Another idea: I got a comment by e-mail suggesting WikiTravel.

Anonymous said...

Ha - I was just about to suggest WikiTravel as well.

If you're going somewhere off the beaten path, I'd also recommend - up to date information from the State Dept.

And for great deals, sometimes you only need to go as far as Yahoo Travel! My hubby and I got a fantastic trip to Japan, and my sister & I to London & Paris for dirt cheap.

Jeri Dansky said...

Good point about the State Department, Penguinlady! You could also check the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its travel advice by country.

Anonymous said...

I borrow travel books from the library - that way when when I'm done, the books don't take up room in my house. I use a pile of books for planning and take 1-2 along. However, I tend to search and book hotels online as that is really the most updated info, rather than rely the hotels and restaurants in the books.

My library is good at getting the newest guides. It may not work for you if your library doesn't do that. But even older books can give you inspiration and a starting point

Jeri Dansky said...

Anonymous, I agree that old travel books are still useful for early-stage planning and inspiration. I've got some around the house for exactly that reason. If I get serious about going to one of those places, I'll get up-to-date versions at that time.

And I too use many more books for planning than I would ever take along!

RoseAG said...

I always check the New York Times. Their "36 Hours in...." series has directed me to several interesting hotels, resturants and attractions.