One concern that’s been tugging at me lately is that it must seem that, since most of my reviews of places (restaurants, bars, hotels, activities) are so positive, I just give everyone really high ratings, regardless of my actual experience. This is NOT the case. Researching travel is an extremely important part of a trip. The answer to why most of my experiences are good-to-great is really simple: I do my research.
For anyone who knows me in real life, they know that I’m super Type A about a lot of things. That’s one of the best qualities that a lawyer can have. It’s not great for travelers, if you don’t know how to turn off your Type A tendencies sometimes and just go with the flow. But my anal-retentive inclinations, combined with my need to know everything about everything (some might call it a know-it-all?), leads me to research the CRAP out of where I’m going before I actually plan a trip and go there.
I’m not saying you should overschedule your vacations so that you don’t leave any room to deviate from your plans, or spontaneous experiences. I’m not saying that at all. But, with a little research you can make an “alright” vacation into an unforgettable experience – just put in the time beforehand (or even while you’re there) to figure out what you want to see, where you want to eat, and where you want to lay your head at night, and you can minimize any unfortunate surprises when you’re finally on (what’s supposed to be) your relaxing getaway.
So, now that I’ve shared my not-so-secret secret key ingredient to planning, the next question is:
How and where do I do my research?
So glad you asked. Here we go:
I figure out where I want to go.
The world’s a really big place and I never want to be home. But, I have time and budget constraints so I can’t just take a year off and see where it takes me. So, first I figure out how long I can afford to leave for, and think of destinations that fit into that plan (taking flight times into account – especially for shorter trips). Sometimes I use Kayak’s “Explore Mode” to find the best, cheapest destinations from my city during a certain time, to any part of the world. After some deliberation, I choose my destination (with hubby’s input now, of course).
I tap into my social network for tips from friends.
I ask friends who have been to my target destination for some tips. Lots of my friends have old e-mails where they send tips on certain destinations to people who ask. I don’t know if that’s special to me or if it’s because we’re like-minded people or what. (I have an e-mail for Argentina, Dublin, London, Paris…etc.) I creep on their Facebook photos from their latest trips. I read articles online from Conde Nast Traveler (and Traveller), Travel & Leisure, travel blogs that I follow, etc.
TripAdvisor can make researching travel a lot easier and it’s also a great place to start narrowing down your options once you have a destination in mind. It’s really amazing and since it’s user-generated content, there’s no real skew in any particular direction so the reviews you see are all over the place, but are honest. The reviewers are not compensated for their reviews (if they are, I’m totally missing out as a Top Contributor!), so there’s no incentive to overlook negative details.
I love TripAdvisor and I have done over 80 reviews over time. Why do I do reviews? Because I use it so much, I want to give back to the community and include my 2 cents as well. And, each place’s profile usually contains e-mail contact information for the hotel, for example. This is handy for the next step. And no, I am not sponsored by TripAdvisor or paid to say anything good about them here. I just love it.
I get in touch with the staff at my temporary home.
After I’ve booked a hotel, I e-mail the hotel. I let them know that I’m going to be their guest, I’m excited about my trip and ask them any questions I had while reading reviews or checking out their information. If I’m celebrating something special (like my honeymoon), I let them know. I also ask for some local recommendations on what to see and do while I’m there, and if I can book anything with their concierge ahead of time.
I read, read, read travel blogs.
Once I’ve narrowed down my top choices for activities and restaurants, I google to see if other travel blogs have reviewed them. I love With Husband In Tow and A Lady In London (And Traveling The World), for example – especially because I know the ladies behind them. I read the reviews and compare them with each other, keeping in mind the demographics of the reviewer. Am I going to like the same things as the family man? Or the 20-something hippie girl? Probably not. But, it’s even more telling when everyone can agree that something is awesome.
I book must-do’s, must-eats, and must-sees in advance.
I make contact with folks ahead of time where I can. I make reservations to avoid disappointment, if a restaurant is particularly hard to get into, etc. I buy tickets to shows in advance and book tours in advance if they are popular.
I keep my iPhone with me and get an international data package before I leave.
I use my smartphone and travel apps while I’m on vacation to help maximize last-minute changes of plans and find great options on the go. Finding Winterose Portofino is an example of when that came in handy. I always do a search for destination-specific apps before I go somewhere and download them at home (no data roaming fees). Many major travel media sites offer free city guides – so be sure to check and see what’s out there.
Before I go, I add an international data and text plan to my usual AT&T wireless plan (about US $30 a month) so that I can get on the internet if there’s no good WiFi available. I’ve found that, more often than not, good WiFi is hard to come by in more remote areas and on moving trains, so it’s a great idea to have a backup plan if you’re depending on WiFi to get you information in transit.