I’ve already talked at length on this blog about how to find a cheap flight and how to find the right accommodation. However that’s (usually) only the first step; you still have to decide what to do once you land!
Researching your destination will probably end up taking up most of your time (unless of course, you’re booked on a tour), so it helps to know exactly where to look and how to find what you’re looking for.
I still meet many travellers who do the Lonely Planet guidebook thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re willing to pay for it. However, when running a tight budget it’s important you can also research your travel destinations for free.
There’s no ‘right’ way to all this of course, but if you’re after free destination research this is generally how my process goes:
Check the weather
First thing I do is head to the Wikipedia page of whichever city I’m going to and check the climate figures. I don’t like places that are intensely hot or cold, and I don’t like rain, therefore I try to avoid those seasons if I can. As an example, below is a print screen of Wikipedia’s climate info for Manila:
Why check the weather first? Because the weather is going to affect every part of your trip – what to pack, what kind of shoes to take, what kind of activities to plan. Just ask a New Yorker how much life changes between summer and winter. It changes everything. Be prepared!
In our Manila example above, we can see the hottest months of the year are March to June, and the rain is heaviest from June to October. If it were me, I’d be looking to visit Manila between November and February, when it’s not too hot and the rain hasn’t arrived yet.
Read the Wikitravel page
Next thing I do is read the Wikitravel page. Wikitravel has crowd sourced information on pretty much every city in the world, and while not as clean or up to date as Wikipedia, it is usually pretty accurate in my experience (as a fun exercise, try reading the page for your hometown and see if it’s on point). Here are the topics that a typical Wikitravel page will cover:
The section I find most helpful is the “Get in” section, which details all the different ways you can get into the city (bus, train, plane are all covered usually) and also some helpful tips on how to get from the airport to your hotel. For example, check out the “Get in” section for Manila. Helpful, right?
Also, exercise some caution with the “Eat” and “Sleep” sections. Sometimes the recommendations here are written by the owners themselves (anyone can contribute to Wikitravel). If you’re looking for a bed, my accommodations guide has some more reliable resources you can use.
TripAdvisor is a great resource for finding different activities and what other people thought of them. It has everything from restaurants to tours to hotels, so you’ll find most places of interest on here. As an example, here’s a list of attractions to visit in Manila.
One thing to remember here is that, like Wikitravel, the ratings are not 100% reliable. Anyone can post a review on TripAdvisor, and this inevitably leads to small guesthouses and tour companies asking all their friends and family to write a 5 star review for them. When I started freelancing I even came across jobs where people were paying writers to post fake reviews to sites like TripAdvisor. Generally the rule is this: if it ranks badly on TripAdvisor, it probably is bad, but if it ranks highly, it’s not necessarily good.
Next thing I do is Google “Things to do in City X” and “Things to eat in City X”. This will usually bring up a collection of stuff on TripAdvisor, posts by travel bloggers, articles by big media such as CNN Travel and National Geo, and perhaps a few Youtube videos as well. Read through the more recent pages and bookmark the ones that you find informative. Don’t forget this – I always punch myself when I forget to bookmark it and then can’t find it again 2 weeks later.
Travel bloggers are one of the most overlooked resources in travel today. It doesn’t matter which country on the planet you want to go to; even if it’s North Korea, Somalia or Iraq, there’s a blogger who’s been there. What makes them so valuable though is that they’re very accessible – 99% of bloggers will have a contact page and a Twitter and/or Facebook page you can reach them on, and most will be happy to receive and answer your questions.
The first step is finding the right blogger. For example, if you’re heading to India you definitely don’t want to be emailing me, but you might get in touch with Wandering Earl, who seems to be in love with the place. I, on the other hand can probably help you with questions about New Zealand, Philippines, Tanzania, Bangkok, Singapore etc. Just flick through their blogs and see where they’ve been.
Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m planning to head to Guatemala this year. I know that Shannon from A Little Adrift used to live there, so she would be a good person to get in touch with. It can be as simple as this:
@brenontheroad The macadamia farm nearby the city has tasty food and makes for an interesting afternoon, otherwise go further outside the..
— Shannon O’Donnell (@ShannonRTW) July 23, 2014
@brenontheroad city perhaps to a smaller towns — they are lovely. Some of the trekking between Xela and the Lake are esp great!
— Shannon O’Donnell (@ShannonRTW) July 23, 2014
Or as another example, when my camera broke in Bangkok recently and I needed to get it cleaned up, I sought some friendly advice from the Bangkok based Mark Wiens of Migrationology…
@brenontheroad I’m not Sihanoukville’s biggest fan – I prefer Kep or Kampot, but it’s popular – Otres in particular. Weather be iffy tho
— Stuart McDonald (@travelfish) June 7, 2014
As you can see, bloggers can be a great source of fast, expert advice. Their responses will probably be brief, as they obviously don’t have time to sit around answering tweets all day, but they’re definitely a very accessible option when you can’t find what you’re looking for or need advice on something specific. And of course, don’t forget to look through the actual blogs themselves!
If you still have questions you can’t find answers to, try leaving them on a travel forum. That’ll put your queries in front of hundreds of other travellers, and will hopefully get a response from someone with first hand experience of the destination you’re researching.
Ask a local
Once I’ve arrived at my destination, the first thing I do is ask a staff member at my hotel/guesthouse the following questions:
Which areas of the city are not safe to go to?
Is it safe to walk around this area after dark?
How much should I be paying for a taxi/tuktuk/bike ride?
When is the last bus/train back here at night?
And then I usually ask about sim cards, weather, and good local places to eat (food tip: instead of asking for food recommendations, ask them what they ate for lunch/dinner and where you can get it).
Ask other travellers
Airports, hostels, bus stations, hotel lobbies, cafes and coffee shops. They’re all perfect places to strike up a conversation with another traveller (we’re not exactly hard to spot, are we?) and ask questions. Thinking about it now, so many cool things I’ve seen on the road have been the result of someone telling me about them in passing conversation. Sometimes it’s just a simple, “Hey where did you get that hat?” or “What did you do today?” that will lead you onto some pretty crazy stuff.
In Your Pocket
In Your Pocket is a site I’ve been using a lot because it’s very straightforward, to the point, and it’s recommendations always check out. It doesn’t have every city in the world covered, but the ones it does cover are covered well. Here’s an snapshot of the Berlin guide:
Remember, sometimes your trip will be a lot more interesting if you leave a few things unknown so you can discover them for yourself. You don’t need to know about every restaurant and tourist attraction in town before you land. Leave a few days in your itinerary unplanned and use them to just wander around and eat/shop/explore at whatever places you stumble across. You might find that some of the most memorable and interesting places of your trip will be found this way.
Once you’ve read the Wikitravel page, checked the attractions on TripAdvisor, Googled some things to do, got recommendations from travel bloggers, browsed through the travel forums, asked the local staff at your accommodation and flicked through an In Your Pocket guide, you really should have all the info you need to keep you busy for a few weeks. In fact you’ll probably be over-researched, if anything.