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How To Research Your Travel Destinations (For Free!)

I’ve already talked at length on this blog about how to find a cheap flight and how to find the right accommodation. However that’s (usually) only the first step; you still have to decide what to do once you land!

Researching your destination will probably end up taking up most of your time (unless of course, you’re booked on a tour), so it helps to know exactly where to look and how to find what you’re looking for.

I still meet many travellers who do the Lonely Planet guidebook thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re willing to pay for it. However, when running a tight budget it’s important you can also research your travel destinations for free.

There’s no ‘right’ way to all this of course, but if you’re after free destination research this is generally how my process goes:

Check the weather

First thing I do is head to the Wikipedia page of whichever city I’m going to and check the climate figures. I don’t like places that are intensely hot or cold, and I don’t like rain, therefore I try to avoid those seasons if I can. As an example, below is a print screen of Wikipedia’s climate info for Manila:

manilaweather

As you can see, the hottest months of the year are March to June, and the rain is heaviest from June to October. That means if it were me, I’d be looking to visit Manila between November and February, when it’s not too hot and the rain hasn’t arrived yet. Catching the right weather can make all the difference to your trip!

Read the Wikitravel page

Next thing I do is read the Wikitravel page. Wikitravel has crowd sourced information on pretty much every city in the world, and while not as clean or up to date as Wikipedia, it is usually pretty accurate in my experience (as a fun exercise, try reading the page for your hometown and see if it’s on point).

The sections I find most helpful are the “Get in” section, which details all the different ways you can get into the city (bus, train, plane are all covered usually) and also some helpful tips on how to get from the airport to your hotel. For example, check out the “Get in” section for Manila. Helpful, right?

Also, don’t pay too much attention to the accommodations section; it’s usually written by the owners themselves and therefore not the most reliable (anyone can contribute to Wikitravel). My accommodations guide has some great resources you can use instead.

Check TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor is a great resource for finding different activities and what other people thought of them. It has everything from restaurants to tours to hotels, so you’ll find most places of interest on here. As an example, here’s a list of attractions to visit in Manila.

One thing to remember here is to take the ratings with a grain of salt; anyone can post a review on TripAdvisor, and this inevitably leads to small guesthouses and tour companies asking all their friends and family to write a 5 star review for them. When I started freelancing I even came across jobs where people were paying writers to post a bunch of fake TripAdvisor reviews, so keep this in mind. Generally the rule is this: if it ranks badly on TripAdvisor, it probably is bad, but if it ranks highly, it’s not necessarily good.

Google!

Next thing I do is Google “Things to do in City X” and “Things to eat in City X”. This will usually bring up a collection of stuff on TripAdvisor, posts by travel bloggers, articles by big media such as CNN Travel and National Geo, and perhaps a few Youtube videos as well. Read through the more recent pages and bookmark the ones that you find informative. Don’t forget this – I always punch myself when I forget to bookmark it and then can’t find it again 2 weeks later.

Travel bloggers

Travel bloggers are one of the most overlooked resources in travel today. It doesn’t matter which country on the planet you want to go to; even if it’s North Korea, Somalia or Iraq, there’s a blogger who’s been there. What makes them so valuable though is that they’re very accessible – 99% of bloggers will have a contact page and a Twitter and/or Facebook page you can reach them on, and most will be happy to receive and answer your questions.

The first step is finding the right blogger. For example, if you’re heading to India you definitely don’t want to be emailing me, but you might get in touch with Wandering Earl, who seems to be in love with the place. I, on the other hand can probably help you with questions about New Zealand, Shanghai or Manila.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m planning to head to Guatemala this year. I know that Shannon from A Little Adrift used to live there, so she would be a good person to get in touch with. It can be as simple as this:

Or as another example, when my camera broke in Bangkok recently and I needed to get it cleaned up, I sought some friendly advice from the Bangkok based Mark Wiens of Migrationology

And on my recent trip to Cambodia, I got some great ideas from Stuart from South East Asia blog Travelfish:

As you can see, bloggers can be a great source of fast, expert advice. Their responses will probably be brief, as they obviously don’t have time to sit around answering tweets all day, but they’re definitely a very accessible option when you can’t find what you’re looking for or need advice on something specific. And of course, don’t forget to look through the actual blogs themselves!

Travel Forums

If you still have questions you can’t find answers to, try leaving them on a travel forum. That’ll put your queries in front of hundreds of other travellers, and will hopefully get a response from someone with first hand experience of the destination you’re researching.

Some popular travel forums are Thorn Tree, TravelfishTripAdvisor and BootsnAll.

Ask a local

Once I’ve arrived at my destination, the first thing I do is ask a staff member at my hotel/guesthouse the following questions:

Which areas of the city are not safe to go to?
Is it safe to walk around this area after dark?
How much should I be paying for a taxi/tuktuk/bike ride?
When is the last bus/train back here at night?

And then I usually ask about sim cards, weather, and good local places to eat (food tip: instead of asking for food recommendations, ask them what they ate for lunch/dinner and where you can get it).

Don’t over-research

Remember, sometimes your trip will be a lot more interesting if you leave a few things unknown so you can discover them for yourself. You don’t need to know about every restaurant and tourist attraction in town before you land. Leave a few days in your itinerary unplanned and use them to just wander around and eat/shop/explore at whatever places you stumble across. You might find that some of the most memorable and interesting places of your trip will be found this way.

Have fun!

Once you’ve read the Wikitravel page, checked the attractions on TripAdvisor, Googled some things to do, got recommendations from travel bloggers, browsed through the travel forums and asked the local staff at your accommodation, you really should have all the info you need to keep you busy for a few weeks at least. All that’s left for you to do is travel, and enjoy.

Good luck!

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12 thoughts on “How To Research Your Travel Destinations (For Free!)

  1. great help there! I usually start by googling and find the wiki page & then check bloggers 🙂 You’re right, bloggers can be a great help! I found so much research about Singapore for Expat Edna before I went and it helped me navigate and plan better. I love when other bloggers and any one actually emails asking about India!

  2. Hi Brendan,

    Awesome post. Travel bloggers are such a tremendous resource.

    I run a blogging tips blog, but it’s geared toward folks who want to retire to a life of island hopping through smart blogging. I’m Blogging from Paradise, but it’s because I’ve learned about travel and blogging from bloggers, from each respective niche.

    Locals are awesome resources. Like you, I either ask locals, or simply do the online research bit. Being from New Jersey in the USA, I have an inner city Spidey Sense that can gauge when we’re in hood areas, or unsafe areas.

    In my 40 months traveling all over SE Asia, and Fiji, and through India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica and Peru, I was in one situation where I felt things could get dicey at night, later on that is, and that was Sihanoukville, in Cambodia. The people were really nice, but it’s been the only place where, even with me next to my fiancee, guys were screaming and hollering at her, cat calling….it was a bit beyond silly stuff, and I’m a pretty muscular dude….made me head in early at night….plus, I’d heard more than a few bad stories about that town too.

    Again, awesome country, and nice folks here…..but it was a spot where you can tell, some angry, rowdy energy, combined with some serious poverty, created a situation where you wouldn’t venture out too late at night in certain parts of town.

    Thanks so much Brendan, awesome post. Tweeting in a bit.

    Signing off from Savusavu, Fiji.

    Ryan

    1. Hey Ryan,

      I didn’t actually manage to get out to Snooksville, but I did hear the beach can get shady at night. Alot of the time travel safety is just about having eyes and ears open and being prudent, as you say. Good stuff.

      Enjoy Fiji and thanks for reading.

  3. You can try to find a local tourist website with reccommendations and contact someone of locals before your trip about all the things that you should do or what to eat. I guess that it is the way where you`ll get the best informations about your accommodation, sightseeing and what to eat, etc. Better than on some world popular travel web sites. The best infos are from locals.

    1. Definitely, locals know about all the hidden gems in town, but you’d be surprised how many of them don’t know about the tourist spots. I’ve lived in Auckland my whole life, but if you asked me about museums or walking tours in Auckland I wouldn’t have a clue about it!

  4. Not forgetting local libraries stock a lot of travel books. For example, Auckland Libraries stock a healthy dose of Lonely Planets, Rough Guides, and so on. It can make pre-trip planning easier, but I wouldn’t weigh down my bags bringing it on the trip.

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