10 surprising ways to get to know a place before you arrive

Morocco BooksHow can you get to know a place before you arrive? The answer is you can’t. That’s why you travel there because reading about it and experiencing it firsthand aren’t the same. But you can get a taste of it which significantly helps you prepare for your trip.

I’m putting together a comprehensive guide to planning your trip due out later this year. But for now, here’s a quick overview of ten surprising ways to get to know a place before you arrive. These will help you determine what aspects of that place matter most to you. You’ll also have an orientation so you can hit the ground running when you get there. That way, you can avoid that attractive “what have I done and what do I do now?” look common to first-time tourists.

  1. YouTube videos – How could I not have discovered this sooner? I’ve been checking out videos from the library for years about the places I’m visiting but the number of locations is often quite limited, especially for less-touristy places. Recently I found that YouTube has videos on just about any place you’re going. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the princes there, but seeing videos gives you a much better perspective on how everything relates than simply looking at photos or maps. For example, I can see pictures of the labyrinthine alleyways of Fez, Morocco’s old market area, but it is a very different sense you get from seeing a video as someone winds their way through the narrow passageways in search of interesting food.
  2. Personal advice – Of course we all know to ask friends about their experience in a place we’re about to visit.  It’s the sources of the personal advice that have surprised me. In the last few years, increasingly I’ve started communicating with the locals, in particular owners of guesthouses and small hotels who are geared toward tourists but can provide tips and resources you’d never get on your own.
  3. Travel forums – You have to work your way through these, but almost any question you have about a trip has likely been asked before. Sometimes you can just Google the question and see various forums. Other times, going to the forum areas on sites like Rick Steves (for European trips), Lonely Planet or Fodors and glancing through the threads can help give you a sense of the place that the travel descriptions don’t. Tip: Don’t settle for one person’s opinion or even that of a single forum. I’ve found some that offer advice that later is contradicted by more informed travelers on another forum. But when you find the gem, the hunt is worth it.
  4. Learning the language – You gain insights into a country from learning even a few words of its language. You understand what the culture values (e.g. a male-dominated vs. female-oriented society) and how the origins of language affect how people think and act today. But here’s the more surprising part. Learning the language gives you an excuse to meet with others from that country or region. For example, I recently overheard a guy in a local Starbucks talk about some words in Arabic (which I’m trying to learn for an upcoming trip) so I went up, asked how to pronounce a certain word and was so enthusiastically greeted (because I was even bothering to try to learn his language) that he immediately introduced me to another friend from Morocco who provided great insights. Leverage the language to learn about the place.
  5. Photo books and sites – I learned more about Machu Picchu from some coffee table books than I did from the guidebooks. Go online to flickr, Instagram, Pinterest and other sites searching on the place you’re visiting and you’ll get a visual sense of the place. But here’s the surprising piece: Don’t just stop with the first image. Click on to the person’s site (if you like the image) and often you’ll get many more details and stories you wouldn’t have found using a general search on the destination. Or try my new favorite for getting a more complete picture of certain places: Google Street View. This feature of Google Maps allows you to get a 360-degree view of the most popular places. What’s really helpful is when the places you’re staying have the same thing so you’re able to see the streets around your hotel, guesthouse or apartment. The odd thing is I haven’t yet figured out how to get those same views on my computer. I can see them on my phone when using Google Maps. If you know how to find them on the computer, let me know.
  6. Literature – Increasingly I find that both fiction and nonfiction books or articles about a place provide me with the details of the experience there which, in turn, helps me to visualize and understand the place in ways travel sites don’t. For example, I’ve learned many cultural nuances about Fez, Morocco from reading A House in Fez (the Moroccan equivalent of Francis Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, in this case about an Australian couple that buys an ancient riad (home) in Fez and the trials of renovating it).  A great starting point are guidebooks which usually have recommendations about books, art, movies and music of your destination country.
  7. Booking sites – Normally, Airbnb, Hotels.com, Homeaway.com or one of my favorites, Booking.com, are useful for reservations. But if you read the reviews and look at the photos (same as on TripAdvisor), you start to get a sense of the place as well. Also, Booking.com (as well as Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor) has started city guides in the places where you book (or at least the major cities). Most of the information covers the main tourist sites but a really nice feature on Booking.com is that they organize this information in respect to your hotel or apartment. You get to see on a map and in the site descriptions where everything is shown in terms of how far the sites are from where you’re staying. This provides a sense of context that is missing on less personalized travel info sites. Tip: Another reason I like Booking.com is that for a fraction more money, you get to reserve with free cancellation. I try not to abuse this, but I have at times booked a few different places to make sure I don’t miss out on popular ones, then go back a few days later and cancel the ones I don’t want. It makes hotel reservations far less stressful and allows you the freedom to change, usually up to 24 hours before you arrive with no fees.
  8. Social media – Here’s just one example of leveraging social media in surprising ways. I posted an image on Instagram and I then checked out the profile of one of the people who liked the image. I saw that he had images of the very places in Morocco I planned to visit soon. I then linked over to his blog and read detailed description of his trip, complete with costs and transportation information. I ended up emailing him asking for more details and he was wonderful in helping. Here’s Kane’s site: www.roamandrecon.com. It’s just one of many examples of using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sites to not only see what others have done in the country you’re visiting, but to form connections that help you get insights you’d otherwise miss.
  9. Apps – Travel apps are springing up like wildflowers in June. They all have their different function, but here’s the surprising part: Don’t necessarily use them as designed. For example, a great app for finding interesting tours in cities is Vayable.com. Check it out not just to hire a local guide, but to get an idea of the kinds of interesting possibilities that city offers. Other tips: Use TripIt not only to store your reservations, but to load in notes and photos you’ve found elsewhere. Use Evernote to record your passport and other info (which works best if you have the Pro version that allows you to secure your Evernote account with a PIN number). In fact, I use Evernote to capture photos of guidebook pages, menus, street signs and directions, voice recordings of overheard conversations or phrases in another language for the taxi drivers, etc.
  10. Guidebooks – These may not seem very surprising. But how you use them may be. Don’t settle for just one. I usually skim through several: Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Moon, Rick Steves, Fodors, Frommers and often country or regional-specific ones. You’ll get a more complete view and find some hidden gems that way. Photocopy or take photos on your phone of the pages that matter to you (being sensitive to copyright laws). Also, don’t just read about the places. Many of these guidebooks have great overviews on the history and culture of your destination. Reading these are some of the fastest ways to get a sense of the place without reading long histories.

These are just a few of the ways I’ve found useful in getting to know more about a place before I arrive and even once I’m there. What have you found helpful in planning your trips?