Visual appeal: Plan your trips around what delights you most visually

Japanese Garden Steps

What you see is what you get

When planning where to go on a trip, don’t overlook one of the most important, seemingly obvious and least considered aspects of travel: The visual appeal to you of the places you’ll visit.

Now obviously, travel consists of so much more than what you see. In particular, the people you meet tend to be highlights of your trip. But also the smells, the tastes, the sounds and even the texture of new objects, all that adds to the experience. Moreover, what you feel in response to all this, your reactions to the thoughtful gesture of a stranger, the exoticism of new tastes or the delight in walking in the footprints of some historical figure, those emotions go far beyond anything visual on a trip.

And yet, what you see affects so much of how you feel when you travel. The odd thing is, if you’re like most of us, you may never have factored into planning for your trip the kinds of things you desire to see on that trip. Instead you may show up and experience deep bliss without ever considering why or what triggered that happy feeling or how much the visual stimuli contributed to it.

Machu Picchu

This shot captures what has the greatest visual appeal to me: nature, architecture and people, especially those close to me.

An exercise if determining what appeals to you visually

Fountain in Rome

Just in case you were wondering what that sculpture in front of the Pantheon looked like…

To help you get better in touch with both what you see and also how it affects you, your trip and planning where you’ll go, try this exercise.

Think of any place in the world that you’ve been to (or have seen pictures of) that you adore. Be specific. Don’t think, “Rome, Italy.” Instead, think, “that fountain with the comically-faced sculptures in front of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy.” Got it?

Now imagine you were magically plopped down there for the first time. Look around. What stands out? What specifically appeals to you visually there?

Maybe it’s the natural beauty displayed in the rocks and trees. Maybe it’s the epic expanse of a big sky or open sea. Or, conversely, it might be the intimacy of small cafe or Gothic chapel. Are you outside in the country? Inside in the city? Wandering down a quaint village road? Huddled beneath a jungle canopy? Looking out on a vast mountain range? Hanging out with newly-made friends in a quaint pug? What grabs your attention visually? Bright colors? Ancient surfaces and textures? The unfamiliar angle of the sun? Or perhaps it’s the people who make that scene work for you. What specifically about the people in a particular place attracts your attention?

Consider all the factors

Baihe Courtyard with great visual appeal inside and out

Sometimes architecture doesn’t have to be planted in nature for visual appeal. Sometimes, as in this traditional courtyard home in Baihe, China, they bring nature inside.

When determining what visually appeals, it’s likely a combination of many elements and it could even include the weather, quality of light, season or time of day.

Visual appeal - AmalfiBut think about what you most love to see on a trip.

Try to jot down all the components that have the greatest visual appeal. Then prioritize them. Which one emerges as most important to you? You could expand this beyond the visual, but that quickly gets overwhelming. Restricting this exercise to only what has visual appeal to you reveals insights you may never have considered before.

If you want, try the same exercise again only with a different location. See if the same factors that worked regarding visual appeal for you the first time hold up in a new location.

You may be surprised

Before I did this exercise, my guess would have been that nature would have been the aspect that had the most visual appeal for me. And that’s still at the top of my visual-interest list. But this exercise revealed that neck-in-neck with flora and fauna is architecture or other human-made elements. And most of all, when you combine the two — human design combined with natural beauty, I’m a goner. The images above and below will give you some idea of what I mean by that combination of the human element combined with the natural.

Sailboat in fog

The mountain (Morro Rock in Morro Bay, California) wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without the boat.

But how about you? What’s the visual appeal priority or highlight for you on a trip? Knowing this can dramatically assist you in choosing destinations that delight you. You might be amazed how many people don’t consider what elements have visual appeal to them before they go on vacation so they end up choosing trips that may be enjoyable, but don’t spark that “I can’t believe I’m here!” response.

Visual Appeal - Morocco

Sometimes, the architecture blends in with nature as in this village in Morocco

Understanding what has visual appeal to you also helps you know what to pursue on your trip, particularly if you want to take photos. Finding places, people and scenes that appeal specifically to you rather than just seeing what everyone else is looking at, can dramatically enhance your trip and your photos. To learn some simple yet powerful techniques to taking better travel photos, check out this free guide.

Applying this to planning a trip

Scottish Doorway with great visual appeal

Even elements of architecture increase their visual appeal, to me, when even small bits of nature are added.

Think about what appeals to you visually, then go where you’re predisposed to liking what you’ll see once you arrive. If you’re a nature lover, minimize cities or find hidden examples of nature even in urban centers (e.g. The High Line or Central Park in Manhattan). If you love the sea, you may not want to vacation in Nebraska. If you’re a people person, avoid deserts, ghost towns or Times Square at 5:00 a.m. If you love artifacts and sites related to ancient history, stay away from the suburbs. And if you, like me, love that combination of nature and architecture, choose places like national parks, gardens, castles in rustic settings, remote villages or anywhere the design is distinct, unusual or incorporates elements of nature into the buildings themselves or their surroundings.

In short, find what you love and pursue it. That sounds so obvious, but you may never have really isolated the key elements of what you love, at least visually. Do so. Plan your journey around those. Then go have a trip where you come home knowing why you love it. And how to find even more of that on your next trip.

Finally, realize that the visual appeal of a place is but one factor in planning a trip, albeit an important and often overlooked one. But you may find that knowing your Traveler Type can also be invaluable in helping you decide not just where to go on a trip, but how.

 

The best way to find a great local guide

The best way to find a great local guide: Local guides in the desert What’s the best way to find a great local guide?

A great local guide can dramatically enhance your trip. But how do you find a great local guide? This means more than looking up a list of options. The best way to find a great local guide starts with knowing what you’re looking for in a guide, doing some research and then asking the right questions. Let’s explore all of those steps and more.

Realize that your best guides may not be the ones you pay

Often people you meet along the way may turn out to be wonderful informal guides. The man who invites you to his mother’s house for a family supper or the group of children that lead you to a hidden courtyard that takes your breath away, these are all guides. You may informally tip them or not. But guides show up in many guises. Being open to the possibility of encountering them can enrichen your trip. What we’ll focus on here, however, are people who professionally guide you in a variety of ways on a trip.

Research before you go

You have essentially three overall ways of finding guides before your trip: offline printed resources, online resources and personal connections. Let’s look at each.

Offline printed resources

Your primary source will be written guidebooks. Many have some listings of local guides, drivers or tour operators in various locations. Because the printing cycle makes some guidebook listings obsolete by the time they are published, you’ll want to go online to double check if the guide is still around. However, the good news of guidebook recommendations is that usually only well established local guides get recommended there.

Travel magazines and even newspaper articles about destinations may mention positive experiences the writer had with a guide. Follow-up on these since the number one way to find a great local guide is to leverage a trusted recommendation.

Though not a print resource (but not “online” per se) are travel shows. Get the names of the local guides used by the hosts of travel-related shows (e.g. many cooking or sports shows that visit foreign locations in addition to typical Travel Channel fare use guides as part of the program). Get the names and follow up with them. And no matter where the local guide’s name comes from, always research online for reviews about him or her. Being on TV doesn’t necessarily make them a great guide for you, but it could be a good starting point.

The best way to find a great local guide: Telouet guide

Rashid was a great local guide at the kasbah at Telouet. He came recommended by our main guide in Morocco, Abdul. If you find one great guide, ask for recommendations of others.

Online resources

There are literally millions of options online. So what’s the best way to find a great local guide that is right for you?

Start with a strategy

Here are some key points in your search to find a great local guide.

  • Know what kind of guide you’re looking for. A person who can point out the highlights of the Louvre is a very different animal than someone who will bike with you through the Mekong Delta for five days. The greater the time, cost and even risk, the more homework you want to do. Sounds obvious, but many travelers don’t check references and rely only on a few online reviews even for guides taking them way off the grid. Do your homework when necessary but for a two-hour tour, don’t spend two hours researching.
  • Know if you need to reserve a guide in advance. Even on crowded days at Machu Picchu there are guides waiting at the entrance. Some are better than others so again, a bit of pre-trip research can help, but you don’t necessarily need to pre-book. Some friends just got back from Normandy. They booked their guide two months ahead of time to tour the WWII beach sites there and were fortunate to get a guide since all the others were already booked that far ahead of time.
  • Determine your own travel style and needs. Personally, I’m not a fan of big group tours. But if I just show up in some locations, those are the only ones available to me. Do research on alternatives before your trip if you want a private guide since they obviously take fewer people and thus may have fewer slots open. In addition, know specifically what your interests are. For example, I didn’t even think I needed a guide in Fes, Morocco until I saw a listing for one that introduces you to local artists. Researching guides can reveal all kinds of possibilities you may not have considered and that don’t show up in the normal list of activities in a particular place.
  • Know the right terminology. “Guide” can refer to a person, a guidebook, an online planning tool or a brand of dental floss. So to make your searches more accurate, try using the term “local guide” or if you need a specific type of guide (e.g. museum, fishing, hiking, cooking instructor, etc.) add that phrase. You may be brighter than me, but when I first started searching on “guide” I got way too many irrelevant results.

Check out travel forums

On travel forums, you can ask about other people’s experiences and get specific recommendations. Here are ten of the most popular travel forum sites listed alphabetically. They are useful for all sorts of destination and other travel-related questions, not just guides, so consider bookmarking some of these for your next trip.

  1. BootsNAll. This site for independent travelers has a forum organized by destinations, travel resources, ways to go, etc. Some topics get more recent posts than others.
  2. Cruise Critic. This forum is geared toward people taking cruises, so if you want to find a local guide to avoid paying the high price of cruise excursions, this site has some great advice. But you can also use it even if you’re not cruising to find guides in major cities frequented by cruises.
  3. Fodors. The community here is very helpful and can often recommend other sources of guides such as a recent response noting how, for example, the Japanese National Tourism Organization has a listing called Goodwill guides of free volunteer guides in Japan. Who knew?!
  4. Lonely Planet. From destinations to general travel question, this active community has over 1 million members.
  5. Rick Steves. If you’re going to Europe, this is the forum to check out. Lots of insights and tips offered by an engaged community.
  6. Travbuddy. The most popular topic here is around travel buddies but they have a large number of discussions on both destinations and other info like gear or travel alerts.
  7. Travelfish.  Going to Asia? Check out this forum of questions and answers pertaining to that part of the world.
  8. Travellerspoint. This site offers a large community plus many other resources like an interactive travel planner.
  9. Trip Advisor. The most popular site of those listed in terms of traffic, here you can get people’s recommendations in addition to finding guide listings on the main part of the site.
  10. Virtual Tourist. This forum isn’t structured as some of the others where you can search based on category of topic. But for general travel questions and answers, it has a dynamic community that regularly contributes.

Review local guide websites

If you’re not getting any decent recommendations on how to find a great local guide on the forums, try going direct. Here are ten sites (listed alphabetically) where you can find, review and hire a great local guide. I tested each out by searching for guides in Seattle, Washington and Granada, Spain. My results varied greatly as noted below. Thus, what may be a great resource for one destination may have few if any options for another. It gives you a chance to explore them all!

  1. google.com/local/guides – This site isn’t necessarily the first place to go to find a great local guide, but it’s useful if you want to BE a local guide and help improve Google Maps by adding your own photos and comments about places. The community aspect is fun: You get the chance to meet others through periodic hangouts in different locations.
  2. likealocalguide.com – This is supposed to provide tips and tours by locals. Nice idea, but looking through the site, it seems to need more contributors at this point to make it more robust. As noted above, however, you may still find what you need depending on where you’re going.
  3. rent-a-guide.com – This site offers guides in over 110 countries and though the English site works well, the options for Europe are better than tours in the US which makes sense given this is a Germany-based site.
  4. shiroube.com – Advertised as “the world’s largest marketplace for travelers and guides,” the interface isn’t quite as seamless as some of the others but it does provide many choices, depending on the destination. It isn’t clear how they vet the local guides.
  5. showaround.com – Like many of these guide sites, they offer a way to pick and choose which local guide you want in a particular city (assuming that city is on their list). Their selection process makes it easy to find a great local guide that matches your interests and needs.
  6. tournative.com – As the site states, “Request a tour, let the locals bid for your tour and enjoy authentic experiences.” The emphasis here is on cultural and experiential tourism.
  7. toursbylocals.com – Another site where you can choose your own guide. These guides are selected and approved by the site. Tours here are priced by the tour, not the person. So it pays to have a bigger group.
  8. vayable.com – This site has (to me) some of the most interesting local tours listed. A search for Seattle offerings presents tours ranging from local islands to thrift store tours to art and food tours. The focus here is on the experience more than the guide (though you do get a full profile and reviews of each guide).
  9. tourguides.viator.com – Listed as “the largest online network of qualified local guides,” like many of the others, you get to select your guide, contact them for details then book through the site where they offer a 100% guarantee.
  10. whosmyguide.com – The site provides guides of all sorts from cooking to outdoors, freelance tour guides to tour companies. But my test of “Seattle, WA” produced results for Washington, D.C. so it’s hard to say how many options they have.
The best way to find a great local guide - local guide on steps

Another local guide, this one at Ait Benhaddou in Morocco

Personal Connections

The best way to find out just about anything is through people you know. They are (hopefully!) a trusted resource and you can usually determine what they like and decide if it matches up with what you like. But “people you know” is a broader category than you might think. Here are some of your most common options:

  • Friends or acquaintances – Ask everyone you know who has been to the place you’re going and see if they used a guide. But don’t stop there. Ask them if they know anyone else who has been there, then reach out to them asking about any guides they used and their recommendations.
  • Social media friends – You may clump these in with your other friends, but I’ve found followers online that I don’t really know well but who can be great resources. For example, I found Abdul through Kane at Roam and Recon simply because Kane had liked one of my Instagram images and in checking out his profile, I saw he happened to be in Morocco right then. A quick review of his site and then a follow-up email produced a great recommendation.
  • Tourism professionals – You need to be careful you’re getting an objective recommendation but tourist boards and visitor centers often have lists of guides and talking to people there can result in more specific recommendations. But don’t overlook one of my favorite approaches: ask local hotel, apartment, guesthouse or B&B owners for recommendations. Start by asking about general things to see how responsive they are and if you get a good reply, ask about guides. One of our favorite guides, Andy in Granada, Nicaragua came from Chris who runs Miss Margrit’s there. These guesthouse owners know their reputation is tied to your overall experience, so they tend to be quite careful as to who they recommend.
  • Fellow travelers — People you meet while traveling can be another great source because their experience will be fresh. Ask not only about the city where you are, but also about places you’re going. And if you hear of a spectacular guide in a place not on your itinerary, jot it down for later. You never know. A stellar recommendation might cause you to change your itinerary.

Finally, whether you get the name of a guide online or from a friend, don’t stop there. Search online for reviews or ratings for that guide. See what others have said. If you find a particular reviewer that seems to like the same things that you do, email them or contact them through the site with follow-up questions. Again, if it is a 90 minute city overview, you may not need to take so much time. But if you’re investing in a guide for days or weeks, do your homework well.

Key things to look for in a great local guide

So once you get a name, how do you evaluate if they are right for you? Consider these questions either about them or for them.

  • Are they licensed? This isn’t always a requirement, but given a choice, I’ll always go with someone who has some professional credentials. This may show up as a government-approved registration, an actual license or some form of accreditation. If in doubt, ask to see it.
  • Do you feel safe? This isn’t just personal safety, though that’s a very big factor. Does the whole payment process seem secure? Are there any guarantees? What currency do you pay in? Can you pay by credit card (which adds a layer of protection)? Do you have to pay anything ahead of time and if so, can you get your deposit back?
  • Is this a good fit? Do they cater to single women, families, elderly travelers or whatever your category is? Do they know their stuff (and how do you know that, e.g. beyond guide credentials, do they have degrees in the subject, have lived there their whole lives there, have other recommendations or reviews, etc.)?
  • Similarly, do they share your same interests? For example, a guide who is well acquainted with local sports teams won’t be useful to you if you don’t care about sports. But a great local guide will be flexible enough to adjust to your needs. Moreover, a great guide loves what they do. Their enthusiasm will likely be contagious and you’ll walk away with much more insight and excitement about a place as a result.
  • How well do they speak your language? Ask beforehand as to the level of fluency and, if possible, speak to your actual guide to see. I’ve had great guides with minimal English who are more driver/facilitators. But for deeper insights, it helps to have someone who can explain things in detail in your language.
  • What are the logistics involved? Where will they meet you? Do you have to figure out local transportation on your own to the starting point or will they come to you? Are meals or admission fees included in the tour price?

If you can, ask all of these questions ahead of time or at least start off the tour with them. If at the tour’s start, you may be committed to pay already, but at least you can get some norms clarified with your guide so they know what you expect.

Some concluding thoughts on how to find a great local guide

Finally, realize that you can never 100% guarantee finding a great local guide ahead of time because it all comes down to chemistry and compatibility and a host of other factors you can’t control. But if you do some research beforehand and know what you’re looking for, ask the right questions and take steps to find a great local guide who is enthusiastic, knowledgeable and trustworthy, he or she can literally make the difference between a good experience and a life-changing one.

If you have other ideas or have other tips on how to find a great local guide, please share them here.

 

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?

 

Look for the who behind the where

The who behind the where: El Albergue

Here’s a small hotel in Ollantaytanbo, Peru where the people were as nice as the rooms

Want to make planning a trip easier?

Sometimes I am most lost on a trip before I ever leave.

Whenever I start planning to visit a new place, particularly a new country, I go through a three-step progression.

  • First, I get excited by the possibilities of what I think might await me there.
  • Second, I get informed through guidebooks, friends and websites about what actually awaits me there.
  • Third, I get overwhelmed by the first two.

The result? I end up playing possum with the details. Sure, I’ll book my flight and make any other reservations that require advance notice. But after that, I sometimes do nothing until the looming departure date requires action.

But lately, I’ve rediscovered a new approach or rather, a more intentional utilization of an old approach: Let someone else take care of things for you.

No, I’m not talking about a travel agent, though good ones can be invaluable (which may explain why there’s a surprising growth in that field). Nor am I suggesting you pass on the planning responsibilities to another member of your traveling party, though sharing the task can be rewarding on a number of levels.

Instead, I’m recommending you find a local resource. Someone in-country who knows what’s hot, what’s not and what’s just off the beaten path but not so far off that you’ll never find your way back.

Sounds great, right? But how do you find such a person?

Find the who behind the where

Ironically, they out there just waiting for you. I’m referring to the friendly owner, manager or employee of a hotel, B&B or apartment where you plan to stay. Unlike tour companies or guides who may have vested interests in you booking other travel services, most small hotels or B&B’s are busy enough with managing their own properties. Their entire focus is on making their guests happy.

As a result, if you find the right who behind the where, the person behind the place, they can be a wealth of valuable information.

I uncover the helpful ones by emailing various places where I’m considering staying. I ask a few questions about their place. See how they respond, how friendly they are and how good their English is. I also look for how responsive they are: Do my questions seem like a hassle to them or do their responses indicate an enthusiasm and genuine desire to help?

The who behind the where can make all the difference

It’s been a revelation for us to find truly helpful owners of small hotels from Scotland to Peru to Belgium who go out of their way to answer questions not just about their hotel or B&B but to ensure we have a great overall experience in their country. Many have connections with other hotel owners across the country (like the secret concierge society in The Grand Budapest Hotel). Thus, they can recommend from firsthand experience other places to stay, which routes to take, the best time to visit certain places, as well as hidden sights to see and local restaurants to consider.

Sure, you risk not knowing if their place is any good since you haven’t yet been there, but usually you can determine enough from online reviews to figure that out. And even if it isn’t (which has never been our experience — the most helpful hosts tend to run the best properties) you still win by gaining all their insights before you even arrive.

So try it. Next time you’re planning a trip, pursue the who behind the where. Start with a search for a more personal accommodation in one city or area on your itinerary. Large chain hotels won’t work for this nor will locations where language is too much of a barrier (though never underestimate the power of using Google Translate in your emails!). But hunt around. Focus on finding not only a great place to stay but a great host. And then listen to what they have to tell you.

You may end up making a new friend and having not only one of the best vacations, but one of the easiest to plan.

 

Get the most out of a guidebook

How to get the most out of a guidebook: Rosserrilly Friary

Only one guidebook out of a half dozen or so for Ireland mentioned this hidden gem we had all to ourselves (and the sheep and the cows)

How do you get the most out of a guidebook?

In today’s interconnected world, you wonder if the guidebook itself is becoming an anachronism, a throwback to a time when people read actual newspapers and a social network usually involved a potluck. So I’m less concerned with the medium in which the information is presented – books, printouts of PDFs, downloadable e-books, podcasts, phone apps or live access to Web sites while traveling. The question to me is this: Is the content of value to the traveler?

I know of some travelers who say no.

The case against guidebooks

Those who oppose guidebooks say that such aids:

  • Prevent or at least hinder personal discovery
  • Lead you to the same places everyone else goes and reinforce stereotypes
  • Err on the side of the safe, tried and true international hotels and restaurants rather than local ones, or, when they do come across an indigenous find, they ruin it by telling everyone. That hidden gem then becomes as private as a Royal Wedding.

How to get the most out of a guidebook

I agree with those points to some degree. But to me, it all comes down to how you use a guidebook. Here are some thoughts on how to get the most out of a guidebook (the written kind of guides; we’ll save the subject of live tour guides for another time).

  • Realize that all discovery is personal. Just because a million people have been to the same place before doesn’t make it any less meaningful for you the first time you go there.
  • Use the guidebook as a starting point. Use it to identify places and events that sound interesting to you and to avoid those that don’t. The primary value to me of a guidebook is that it saves me time. Think of it as a filter, not the final word on what to see.
  • Don’t settle for just one perspective. I always go to the library and check out as many guidebooks as I can. I’ll usually end up buying one or two to take or photocopy (or more recently, download onto a Kindle or my smart phone), but I only purchase the one that most aligns with my style, needs for this particular trip and travel sensibilities. Look over several and find what works for you.
  • Focus on both the similarities and differences. Most guidebooks will overlap 80-90% in what they cover, at least in terms of the sights to see. That 90% will include the popular, touristy places. But read carefully for the other 10%. In the details listed in only one book, you often encounter some of the most interesting finds, places you’d never discover on your own.
  • Cast your guidebook aside once you get your bearings. Guidebooks serve well to provide you with background, an initial orientation and some possible places to consider you might never find on your own. But once you get there, you’ll experience more meaningful encounters through talking with locals and other travelers and making your own discoveries.

All of the above points matter, but here’s how I get the most out of a guidebook and why I use them: They prime me for openness.

That may seem counter-intuitive because if anything, you may think that guidebooks close you by pointing you toward the same old sights and foisting someone else’s perceptions on you. But to me, by having a greater background and familiarity with the popular sights and even other people’s opinions courtesy of the guidebook, I’m actually free to look around more on my own without worrying about what I might miss.

What about you? How do you use guidebooks? Or do you? Do you just show up and wing it? Has your use changed over time? Do you have a favorite? Share your thoughts on what works for you.

Best travel advice ever

The best travel advice: stack of books on Peru

Read through these, learn what you can then forget it all…

Okay, maybe this isn’t the BEST travel advice I ever received, but it ranks up there with don’t drink the water, pack light and never accept marriage proposals from strange men in Nigeria.

I could throw in, “Don’t dine near cats in Greece” but only my friend Ed would fully appreciate the value of that insight.

The so-called “best” advice came to me from another friend, Ty, when I was in grad school preparing for my first trip to Asia. He had spent some time in Hong Kong and similar places, so in my eyes, that made him an expert on the region. But his advice applies no matter where you go. And that advice is this:

When you’re planning a trip, talk to as many people as you can who have been to that place, read as much as you can, learn as much as you can.

And then forget everything.

What makes this the best travel advice?

His point was that it is easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of information you can take in before a trip, especially today when just about every place you will visit has been documented by travel advice Web sites and bloggers. So visit these Web sites, read the books, look at the photos, watch the videos and talk to everyone you know who has been there.

When you do, you’ll start to discern patterns and uncover topics and places of interest to you. But before you reach that point of over-saturation, stop. Just stop. Put the whole trip, as much as is possible, out of your mind. And then you’ll discover an interesting aspect about our brains.

Your subconscious brain processes far more than you realize. So when I say, “Forget everything,” in reality, you can’t. The important points will stick and when it comes time for your trip, the things that stood out as you were absorbing all the advice earlier will come back to you.

Don’t throw out the guidebooks just yet

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer, where appropriate, in taking guidebooks, printouts/notes or downloads with you on your trip. You’ll want to refer to those for the details once you’re onsite. But for now, read, learn and absorb and then as they say – at least in the movies about New York gangsters – “fuggedaboudit.”

I followed this advice a while back for a trip to Peru. I went to the library, got all the books I could, skimmed through them to make sure I wasn’t missing anything and then put them aside. I did review them again shortly before the trip and took some of the best ones with us, mostly on my Kindle. Just knowing they were there was enough to let me not obsess about having to remember it all. It made for a far more enjoyable experience.

Try it. It may not be the best travel advice ever, but you’ll find it not only helps you in the anticipation phase, but also adds value on the trip when the sights trigger nuggets of insight you read or heard about earlier.

And it sure beats the heck out of dining with cats in Greece…