Never Underestimate the Power of Researching Your Trip

Ugh. Having to spend hour upon hour and day upon day reading, surfing, and researching your next destination can quickly turn your vacation into work if you’re not careful. But without at least have an idea of where to start, you may lose out on some of the more interesting local hot spots you may never have otherwise found.

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I recently read a travel blog written by a guy who categorically refuses to use guide books. Although his stories are interesting, and he occasionally finds some gems, he also (admittedly) misses out on some of the attractions that make any place worth visiting.

I believe there is a happy medium between “winging it” entirely and following guidebook recommendations to a tee.

Guidebooks are indeed written by humans, and naturally come with a set of opinions and biases that color the work. If your travel personality doesn’t suit the guidebook writer’s, you may not find what you’re looking for. Besides, who wants to be herded towards yet another tourist trap? Because let’s face it, once a hole-in-the-wall restaurant makes it into a major guidebook, it’s no longer a quaint hole-in-the-wall; it’s a zoo.

A Little Travel Research
A Little Travel Research © Hvnly

However on the flip side, if you don’t know where to start, you may never make it out of the gate. Guidebooks can provide you with a much-needed overview of where you should go according to your travel needs, budget and timeline.

Start In One Place …

Start in one place, and you shall find yourself in another if you play your cards right. I recently used a guidebook to find a beach reputedly so beautiful it rivals many world-famous beaches. Once I made it there and enjoyed the views (along with a million other people), I journeyed off to one side to talk with some locals. I started quizzing them about some other places to visit, and before I knew it I had scribbled notes and directions to three other beaches that no guidebook covers. Not to mention the dinner recommendations I received, along with a friendly beer offered over our chat.

On another occasion, I found myself at a local pier (also mentioned in the guidebooks) trying my hand at some fishing. A local (who obviously knew more about fishing than I!) took pity on me and gave me some pointers. Before the end of the conversation, I had another page of scribbles of places to see that were completely off the beaten path. Oh yeah — and another beer in my system too.

My point is, if you don’t start somewhere, you may never leave your room. Some people are happy to sit at a coffee shop, watch the world go by, read a local newspaper (even if they don’t speak the language), and tap away at a laptop. Admittedly, this is another good place to strike up conversations with locals who can show you the “real _________” (insert location name here).

But if the hostel was booked without attention to where in the city would be a good fit for your traveling style (ie: do you like to hike? Fish? Surf?), then the coffee shop might not be there, or might not offer up the right conversations.

If I want to fish for example, I start where the guidebook says to fish, find a place to stay nearby, and talk to the locals about other places to fish. As much as a place might be a tourist trap, there is surely a local in there somewhere (maybe a vendor?) who can steer you in the right direction and isn’t adverse to talking to tourists.

Leaning Bus, India
Leaning Bus, India © mckaysavage

Cultural Idiosyncrasies

Little did I know that unlike North America, tipping is not generally practiced in Australia and Japan, gratuity is included in France, and in China it borders on illegal (it was legalized in the 1980’s, but remains a grey area in many places).

Little did I know that in Africa, a proper handshake is done with a limp hand (a sign of weakness in North America), and is held for many minutes.

Little did I know that in many countries, using your left hand for anything (like eating, handing out something, handling money, or greeting somebody) is terribly rude and considered dirty.

These and a myriad of other cultural idiosyncrasies are illuminated by guidebooks, and can transform your travel experience from one where you feel alienated and don’t know why, to one where you are invited into people’s homes and know when to show up, what to bring, whether or not to wear shoes in the house, and how to be gracious.

So even though you may love to shoot from the hip when you travel, make sure that hip has a guidebook attached to it. Your travel experience will likely be significantly enriched for it, even if it takes you somewhere no guidebook mentions.

  1. Why does research have to be a guidebook? They are expensive and bulky. If you are going to many places, you can spend a small fortune on them.

    There is plenty of information online and available in every city you visit. Usually, this is the same method that guidebook writers use to research a place.

    Most places you visit will have a small industry built around letting tourists know about attractions.

    Moreover, because a guidbook writer happens to do X, Y and Z on their trip doesn’t mean it is the best place to go. Most guidebook writers accumulate data, not experiences.

  2. Very good article, Nora! In Buenos Ayres, I had a good example of what you wrote about: in the guidebook I bought, the author described Cafe Tortoni as a tourist trap. But even for a guy like me, who loves to get different outlooks on travellings, it was an amazing place to visit. I didn’t feel trapped at all!!

  3. @Gary: Absolutely you are right: the internet can be a viable substitute to information you find in a guidebook….assuming you are in a place with easy and inexpensive access.

    I personally like the tactile pleasures of having a paperback in my hands, and I have generally found that I can pick one up inexpensively second-hand or for free by trading with other travelers who have already been there.

    And absolutely: just because it’s in a guidebook doesn’t mean it’s the best place to go….as I indicated by using popular locales simply as a place to start.

    @LeoLaps: Buenos Ares is high on my list of places to visit. Thank you for commenting!

  4. My favorite way of researching a destination is to read some great travel literature or a novel that’s set in that country/city. They often give me much better ideas of what I’d like to see or do. Not great for last minute planning, but if you have the luxury of a long lead time on your trip, it’s perfect. I think it also makes the pleasure of traveling last longer.

  5. i do agree with you. it is better to research for your destination first even before traveling. in that way, you don’t have to waste time looking for the place you want to visit.roaming around will just waste your time and you’ll end up not enjoying and have not seen at least one decent place you wanted to see.

  6. This all depends on how much time (and admittedly – cash) you have on your hands. It takes much less research time to find a good tour operator that can take all the hard work out of it and point you in the right directions. Small boutique operators who send their staff out and do not directionally sell places are the best way of gaining good information. You will get a feel of if they are listening to your requirements pretty much straight away and you will certainly know if they got it right when they send an itinerary and you can base your research on their suggestions.

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