When it comes to travel planning, we all know that there’s a lot of information out there. And when it comes to spending your travel pounds, dollars, euros or any other currency, you want to be sure you’re making the right choices. So how do you investigate your destination to find out if it’s the right place for you?
Firstly, remind yourself what makes you happy
I’m a firm believer that travel isn’t about what you ought to see. That’s not to say that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone isn’t a very good thing at times. And it can help you find experiences that you wouldn’t have contemplated enjoying. But when you have limited time and funds, tailoring your destination choices to suit your preferences makes a great deal of sense.
So get your list together, and get real. If it’s music you’re after, are you a lover of the best buzzing festival experience or new clubs to try each night? Or are you a fan of smaller, more intimate gigs, and a place where you can find many sets to enjoy all day? Is gourmet eating your thing, or are you happy to snack on street food on the go? Do cities make you feel alive, or do you need greenery and tranquility? That’s your starting point.
The Basics: Searching, but like a boss
I’ve just googled the lovely Ghent, Belgium. I’ve got a modest 19 million search results to consider. We can think ourselves lucky at this point, as New York would offer us somewhere in excess of 2 billion results.
If I type in Ghent and a space into the search box, I can see what others are searching for most in Google. For Ghent, it gives me
- points of interest
- or Bruges
I don’t think I’ve ever typed points of interest into Google, so that’s a useful start. Click on this search, and you’ll get a summary of the major landmarks right at the top of the page. And it’s everything you would expect if you know the city, from the brooding Gravensteen castle to the Belfort and St Bavo’s Cathedral. Click through More Ghent Sights and you’ll get a bigger list of everything on offer. Don’t dismiss this option if you think you know a place well, or have seen it written about many times before. I’ve just found a fascinating museum of psychiatry in Ghent I had no idea existed there. And we’ve visited twice a year for close on 15 years now.
Refining Your Choices: Ghent or Bruges?
I found this comparison search fascinating. It gave me links to well known publications such as Lonely Planet, and also message boards and blogs. If you want to know how well a destination meshes with your personal preferences, this can be a great way to find out if you’re making the right choice. The search also tapped into my love of rebellious Ghent over pretty Bruges.
So try a compare and contrast search like this. It’ll give you some great pointers on the things people love about the place you’re planning to visit. The question then is whether these are things you love too.
Searching in other places
Instead of relying on Google, it’s useful to consider searching in other places too. Don’t underestimate, for example, the power of Pinterest to generate all kinds of interesting content about your planned destination. A quick search for Nashville, for example, has turned up all kinds of things from Top 10s of things to do, to finding street art, getting a seat at the Bluebird cafe, the best places to eat, and some great drives to take in Tennessee. So this can certainly expand your destination mojo.
Both Pinterest and Google will also take you to travel blogs, good for picking up either itinerary tips, must sees or detailed how to guides. Blog posts can also lead to some interesting side trips or suggestions for activities and locations you wouldn’t otherwise have considered. If my own post about Lancashire manages to send a single person to the beautiful, tranquil and lesser-traveled Forest of Bowland, I’ll consider my writing time well spent.
Forums and Message Boards
Major forums can turn up some interesting gems. Whether it’s Lonely Planet, Fodors, or places like Flyer Talk and Cruise Critic, forums are great for an unbridled view of places as experienced by other travelers. It’s also a great place to ask your own questions and have them answered.
If you have particular passions or interests, searching relevant groups can also help focus your destination and activity choices. I have food allergies, and I’ve been greatly indebted to people who have previously reported back on destinations I plan to visit, giving a heads up on what’s available there. Craft and art groups have sent me to exhibitions and shops, and beer groups have highlighted favourite brews and bars. So ask around, and maybe even join local Facebook groups where you’ll find lots of useful recommendations.
When you arrive at your destination
So you’re new in town, with a few ideas about what you want to see and do. Don’t forget to spend a bit of time adjusting that. There are a few things to check out first.
Don’t Be Bashful About Being A Stranger In Town
Most tourist information centres are absolutely packed with information (travel journal alert for those of you who want some lovely material to add). Importantly, they are also packed with people who know the destination well, and are happy to give you some informal guidance. The warm welcome we had from the team at the visitor centre in Tunica, Mississippi is something I won’t forget in a hurry. Coffee, chat and tales of the open road made for a memorable stopping point there.
Sometimes that guidance runs to making you howl with laughter too On asking about what requirements there were to arrange a wedding in the city, my now-husband received the side-eyed smirk from the man in Ghent’s tourist board and the response: “First, sir, you need to find a woman”.
We’ve found so many great things to do from talking to people in cafes, bars and on trains. Chance conversations sent us to the wonderful Robert’s Western World Honky Tonk in Nashville, on the day boat trip to Sint Maartens from Ghent and to a street market full of olives and soap in Soulac-sur-Mer. If you’re somewhere that you’re enjoying, chances are that the people around you might know other things that you’d enjoy too. And never, ever, be scared of a lack of language ability. Mime is a potent tool when other methods of communication fail.
Be Happy To Move To Plan B, C, D…
I spent many years feeling that I should be seeing specific places in each destination. Then I started asking myself whether that really matters. In Nashville, we’d talked about the Grand Ole Opry and the Johnny Cash Museum. Instead, we spent most of that time listening to great music in and around Broadway. And I don’t regret it one bit. Besides, we’ve got great excuses to go back…
Pictures: Top taken at Hartland Quay, North Devon, England. Bottom taken from our hotel room, Chicago, USA