Zora Neale Hurston, the American writer and anthropologist, once said: ‘Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.’ Yet, when it comes to travel, most of us do very little prep at all, then wonder why we end up with only a vague idea of where we’ve spent the last few days and what it meant to be there.
It’s great to be spontaneous and live in the moment, but a little research goes a long way and means you won’t waste as much of your time off. By all means don’t tie yourself down to specific times, or route march between sights, but do turn up with a fair idea of what you want to get out of your visit. Unless you’ve got deep pockets, you may well only visit a place once in your lifetime, so why take it for granted?
Before You Book
- Check the tourist board’s online events calendar to see what’s going on. Festivals can bump up the prices of flights and hotels, so try to visit when things are quieter if you don’t want to join the crowds. Tourist boards sometimes offer exclusive sightseeing discounts, either to tie in with events (Visit Bath had great reductions on Georgian attractions last year), to encourage foodies (Mechelen Tourism had a whole booklet of food and drink vouchers, called Sense-sational) or to promote a city. City cards are often well worth the money, and tend to include free public transport.
- Find out which districts or areas you want to spend the most time in and make sure you’re not staying too far away from them. That ridiculously cheap city break deal might involve sleeping closer to the airport than the sights, which would make it a false economy.
- Take peer reviews with a pinch of salt. The nature of sites like TripAdvisor and Virtual Tourist mean anyone can give their two cents’ worth, but you don’t know what these people want from a hotel or a museum. There will always be people disappointed or bored by what others will love, so don’t assume you’ll share their opinion.
Before You Travel
- Use physical guidebooks, rather than e-books, to make sure you don’t just skim-read about your destination. If you’re strapped for cash, libraries often have fairly recent copies of well-known guidebooks, and can order in anything more obscure. Alternatively, charity shops are full of cheap second-hand copies.
- Newspapers and magazines have their own individualistic take on travel, so branch out from your favourites to get a different perspective. Ask friends and family to cut out anything they read about your destination and you could pick up some great tips from publications you don’t normally buy. Of course, online papers have brilliant archives – I recommend the New York Times for travel coverage.
- Print off a basic street map (or pick up a paper map from the hotel when you check in) and you’ll always be able to find your way around – even if your phone battery’s dead or you’ve lost the people you’re travelling with. I like to annotate my maps so I can find hotspots easily and add the ones I’ve stumbled upon during the trip.
When You Arrive
- Ask locals for recommendations. Waiters, receptionists and tour guides could give you some useful insider tips on where to get the best coffee or see an underappreciated view. I was given loads of restaurant suggestions from the team behind Scooteroma Tours, after my Vespa tour of Rome.
- Check attraction opening hours – you don’t want to spend 45 minutes walking to a gallery to find it’s closed! Also keep an eye on the weather forecast if you’re planning outdoor activities like boat trips or walking tours, and have some rainy day ideas ready just in case.
- Grab a local English language newspaper if there are any available – check hotel lobbies, shop windows and the entrance to big attractions. You could come across gig listings, low-key art exhibitions or flea markets to visit. If your accommodation has good Wi-Fi, browse online for relevant local apps to help you find your way around. I found Reykjavik Appy Hour to be really useful – it told me all the times of happy hour in local bars.
The No-Pressure Alternative
If you’re still apprehensive about planning your trip, or you just hate doing research, just send me an email (see my contact page for details). Over the last couple of years I’ve spent part of my spare time creating fully flexible itineraries for friends, family and complete strangers, which – weird as it sounds – I find relaxing as well as rewarding.
I’ve developed the ultimate weekend in Porto, a short break in Reykjavik, and a lazy holiday in Sardinia, to name a few. Let me know what your interests are and where you want to go, then I’ll come up with enough suggestions to keep you occupied – promise!