Travel Narrative

Pre-Trip Research: A Four Step Approach

This is how I plan a long road trip. Seriously. That is sitting to my right as I write this.

The word research makes many people cringe.  It calls to mind the monotony of one’s college and grad school years, the hours, days, and weeks spent pouring over scholarly articles, making notes, and trying to piece everything together in a way that is somehow new and different.  Trust me–I’ve been there.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still love research.  In fact, pre-trip research may be my second favorite pastime–second, only, to travel itself.  And it is one of the most important aspects to the planning of any trip.

I was recently looking into a variety of apartment rentals in Barcelona, and I came upon an interesting review of one particular rental company.  The titles of the reviews ranged from ‘AVOID AVOID AVOID‘ to ‘Would rather sleep on the street‘ to, finally, my personal favorite, ‘Like having pins stuck in my eyes‘.  After I finished laughing–and subsequently crossed that option off my list–I wondered:  why hadn’t these people checked the online reviews before booking?  The answer–because those people didn’t do any pre-trip research.

Yes, I realize I’m a bit of an over planner.  I’ve gotten better at it, I swear–I no longer fill my travel days with fifteen different activities I just need to accomplish.  But I still do a fair amount of pre-trip research.  You know, so I can avoid things like pins-in-eyes apartment stays.

Over the years, I’ve perfected my pre-trip research strategy; I feel it is both effective and efficient if done in the proper order.  The work flow of my travel planning looks something like this:

Google–Search, Images, and Maps

The first step in my trip-planning process is always a general Google search; I’ll search ‘name-of-place tourism’ and see what pops up.  One of my first stops is always the local tourism board’s website.  But I don’t just use the general Google search function; I also search Google Images to see if it looks like somewhere I want to visit.  This is in keeping with my ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ mindset, and it is a very useful–and often time-saving–strategy.  For example, while researching my next-summer road trip, I Google Image searched both Durango, Colorado and Rapid City, South Dakota.  Take a moment, open another tab, and do the same.  Then tell me where I’ll be stopping (for quite a while) and where I won’t be stopping at all.  Entire trip ideas have been born and then immediately died at this stage of the process.

Google Maps is, of  course, a crucial part of any trip plan.  I use it to figure out my best lodging option, to located points of interest and restaurants I’d like to visit, as well as to determine my best mode of transportation–walking or public transit.  But I also use the street view function quite a bit.  Want to know if you’d feel comfortable staying in a certain neighborhood?  Map the address, choose ‘street view’, and virtually walk around the area.  With technology, all things are possible.

Guidebooks

That’s not to say that there’s no place in travel planning for the good old fashioned guide book.  I have an entire shelf in my office devoted to guidebooks, and I’m certain that before I’m done, I’ll need an entire room to house them all.  A good travel book will offer more than you can easily find online; walking tours, itinerary ideas, and detailed maps are all good things to have both during the planning process and while on the road.  I have been known to use the local Barnes and Nobel as a sort of library, flipping through guide books, taking notes, and then returning them to the shelves, but I’ll always purchase at least one quality guide book for each destination I’m visiting.  I take notes in the books, plot locations on the maps inside, and use the suggestions to further my research.

Online Forums

This is my travel-planning public service announcement:  do not, I repeat, do not begin your pre-trip research by posting a vague question on an online forum.  Here’s why:

Ok.  So I’ve done some online research and I’ve read (or skimmed) a guidebook (or three).  By this point in the planning process, I’ve reached an important milestone–I know what I know, and I know what I need to know.

That last part is really important.  As a teacher, I’ve come across so many students who will just throw their hands up in the air and say ‘I don’t get it’.  But what don’t you get, I ask.  All of it, they respond.  I don’t get all of it.  I can’t really help those kids.

I can, however, help the kids that have specific questions.  This is where you should be in the planning stage when you begin posting in online forums.  You must come to them with questions–not just vague ‘tell me about Prague’ statements.

Personally, I like Tripadvisor.  I’ve not taken one single trip, booked one single hotel room or made one single dining reservation without first consulting the Tripadvisor reviews and then, more often than not, consulting the Tripadvisor destination-specific forums.  And never, not once, have I been steered wrong.

Of course, there’s more out there than just Tripadvisor, and depending upon my destination, I will consult other boards as well.  I’m a frequent questioner and contributor on the Passporter Forums (a Disney-specific site), Cruise Critic, and spent quite a bit of time on the Rick Steves boards when planning The Great Europe Trip of 2010.

Blogs

By now you should be good to go; you know where you are going, how to get there, and what you want to do, see, and eat when you arrive.  You could feel free to consider yourself done planning and just sit back and await your trip.  But really–what would be the fun in that?

In my world, travel planning is half the fun.  And, also in my world, travel planning does not end until you pull out of your driveway or take off down the runway.  Thus, the final stage in my pre-trip research is the reading-of-the-blogs stage.

I love reading blogs, but I don’t follow many travel blogs religiously.  Instead, I read select travel blog posts during the final stages of my pre-trip research.  If I’m headed off to Vegas for a long weekend, I’ll start reading blog posts devoted to Las Vegas.  If I’m joining my mother in Disney World, my Disney blog reading increases in the days and weeks leading up to that trip.  The planning of my summer road trip has led me to discover all kinds of travel blogs featuring either stories of road trips or featuring destinations I’ll be visiting, from major cities to national parks.  And when I have a question, I’ll post a question in the comments section, which not only results in a more informed me, but a personal connection made with another traveler.

Speaking of which–why don’t you share your thoughts in the comments section below?  How do you conduct pre-trip research?  What changes or additions would you make to my method?  Do you have any time-saving travel research books or websites to recommend?  Please share them!

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