How I research travel online

For years my best travel advice came from a retired doctor named Howard who I “met” on the now-defunct website VirtualTourist.  Howard—in his mid 80’s at the time–was exceptionally cranky, no doubt because he was no longer able to travel (for the record, this would make me cranky too.)  Howard put his pent-up traveling energy into posting thousand of blurry black and white photos, mostly of medieval churches, in posts titled Enter the Narthex and Observe the Carvings on the Baptismal Font. Once in a while Howard would get frisky and write a post like If It is Not Raining You Can Eat an Excellent Salad in the Outdoor Café Downhill from the Cathedral but mainly it was the old photos of church art which I devoured because I couldn’t find this information anywhere else online.

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Howard answered my many questions with precision (though only after decrying my depraved ignorance) and I followed his advice like gospel.  Here I am in Saint Sernin Basilica’s ambulatory, which we visited mid-morning, as Howard had advised Circulate through the Ambulatory and Study the Mandorla of Christ in Strong Mid-Morning Light.

When researching travel online you will sometimes need to find your own Howard, but often enough you just need a helpful person to send you a bus schedule.  A good place to start for most basic information is through the website run by your destination’s tourist information center.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for you can email them for a quick response (unless you are emailing a TI in Sicily in which case no one will ever write you back.)

If you are looking for opinions, feedback or have more obscure questions, websites with travel forums, such as Tripadvisor or Lonely Planet, can come in handy.  If you are going to ask a question, try to be as specific as possible and if you are looking for an opinion, explain what kinds of things interest you.  People have been extraordinarily generous with information and I’ve planned many a successful trip based on the advice of strangers.  However, be wary of some advice, particularly in less affluent countries where travel forums are full of hustlers trying to send you to their brother’s hotel and their best friend’s private tour company.  Also, if you’re going to ask a budget-related question, cite local currency, like if you’re going Riga write “I’m looking for room for under €70 a night for a double.”

Of course, even when I’ve followed all of the above advice, I’ve often run into those nefarious trolls who lurk on travel boards, trailing their sulfurous smell and bad karma through many an otherwise innocuous thread.  Who are these people and why do they have so much free time to insult people asking about street food and train schedules?  Howard may have been cranky, but never was a troll, since in the end he always made helpful suggestions.  The only way to deal with trolls is either to ignore them or report them to moderators.

I have a few go-to websites (heart emoji Seat Sixty-One) but my best online advice comes from travel blogs.  (Yeah, I see you smacking your heads in total shock.)  I like to search keywords on WordPress for information about my destination, and then I also have my favorite bloggers to check with.  If I find something intriguing, I save it on a Word doc on my desktop to refer back to later.  By the time I’m actually planning a trip I often have a mini-guide book ready to go made from all the information I collected from blogs.  Can I get a round of applause for all the righteous travel bloggers out there?

I want to thank Howard for all his advice but he died in 2017.  I’m not sure if he was a religious man, though like me he adored religious art and architecture and perhaps in his afterlife he is still able to enjoy medieval churches and take unlimited blurry photos.  Howard If You are there I Hope You are Walking Slowly Around the Ambulatory Toward the Fine Wooden Madonna and Child and the Late Afternoon Light is Strong and the Stained Glass Windows are Glowing and You Brought Your Best Binoculars.

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30 comments

  1. I like your idea of making your favorite posts on your upcoming trip as a mini guidebook 🙂

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    1. Thanks! How do you research travel?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Eric Williams · ·

        My travel research method may be unorthodox. I search forums like reddit and groups like Facebook groups. Local input can be special during research .

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Agreed about the local input. I never knew reddit was a source for travel advice so thanks for the tip.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Eric Williams · ·

        Reddit is an odd resource for traveling, but every city has their own subreddit. Depending on the destination, sometimes I openly ask what is going on during the week I am visiting and what are the new local places to go. Honestly, they would know better then lonely planet sometimes.

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  2. Every serious traveler needs a Howard…perhaos one less grumpy, though when I take my time to advise visitors where to go in my area of France, Spain and Costa Rica and they insist in going to the tourist traps I feel an inner Howard rise to the surface…
    When I traveled, I used to start with the history of the place, but Leo always added something else…crawling through a ditch to get into Karnak before dawn with the help of the man who ran the tea stall…going to the Valley of the Kings by hiorse and trap, meeting the driver’s family, drinking his uncle’s wine in his vineyard…picking Seville oranges in the hotel garden in Tunisia on condition of showing the chef how to make marmalade…
    Every traveller needs a Leo too…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The more I know about Leo the more I like him—it really is the extra something that makes the trip. You’re a lucky lady!

      The thing about France is that everyone insists on going to Paris and only Paris no matter what you advise. I haven’t visited all the regions yet but so far my favorite for architecture, landscape and food in the Auvergne. The next time visit France, where do you think we should go?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So much choice! Languedoc would be good…get off the beaten track and explore the Orb valley area…we lived just south of the Loire and that area is a lot more than chateaux…and if one must go to Paris – though it has never appealed to me – look at the old towns of the Ile de France, like Senlis and Provins.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Okay thanks to you I’ve gone down a deep rabbit hole looking at the Orb Valley. Roquebrun! Avène! I have visited the Loire but need to spend more time of course and when I do I will seek your advice.

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      3. The Orb valley area is just super…we used to stay at St. Martin de l’Arcon but that was before it went upmarket….
        South of the Loire you have dolmens, a prehistoric stone bridge south of Saumur, troglodyte villages, superb churches, old walled towns like Thouars and Parthenay which have not completely lost their charm, .the modern art at the chateau of Oiron….just so much. Do get in touch if you decide on a trip.

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  3. Always interesting to see how others plan their independent travel. We had a less grumpy Howard, a friend who was terrific for advice as we embarked upon our own independent travel.
    I find travel blogs, like yours, a great source of information and we have already given the thumbs up to the Man in Seat 61. That said, I suspect Sicilian travel would even challenge him!
    As well as your suggestions, we also find the Amateur Traveller very useful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The most hilarious thing about TI’s in Sicily is that none of them would respond to emails. Then we’d arrive at our destination and the site we wanted to see would be closed (because we couldn’t plan properly because the TI hadn’t answered our emails). Then we’d go that same TI in person and the staff there would be the loveliest, friendliest people ever but they still couldn’t help you.

      Thanks for the tip on the Amateur Traveler—this one is new to me. My favorite post so far: https://amateurtraveler.com/chinglish-menus-items-in-shanghai/

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nemorino · · Reply

    Yes, I remember Howard from VirtualTourist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember YOU from VirtualTourist. You kindly invited us to join you in Frankfurt for an opera but there wasn’t one playing the days we were there.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting post. I like to collect intel from Tripadvisor and travel blogs with minimum endorsements. It also helps to talk to people for their suggestions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks sidran! Personally, I wish I had a travel blog with endorsements. Hey, anyone, want to pay me to travel to your country? Also, accepting gifts of hiking shoes and travel snacks.

      I like to talk to people for suggestions too but only if we are interested in similar things.

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  6. I always find it hard to take in info before I’ve seen something. So I do that annoying thing and read about it after, saying ‘ahh, that is what that was I was looking at’. In an ideal world I go twice, once to look around then again after I’ve read about what I’m looking at.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve also frequently had that “need to do the same trip twice” thought. I can read a lot about art and architecture ahead of time, but I’m lousy with history and things having to do with wars in general.

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  7. I can share my dark secret: my disk is full of doc files with names like “Lansing” or “Bayanbulag”. And each file has information which I’ve taken down from a travel blog. I doubt that I’ll ever travel to Lansing or Bayanbulag, but if I do, I will be equipped with a travel guide. Who cares if the information is eight years out of date.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As far as secrets go, that’s not a particularly dark one. The research makes you a more well rounded person anyway. Never been to Bayanbulag, by the way, but I was born in Lansing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I always did have foot-in-mouth disease

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Not at all. I can’t see any reason I would return to Lansing now that my grandparents are gone. We did often eat at a place called Bell’s pizza but I have no idea if it was good or if I just enjoyed the experience of being there with my grandparents. You could add it to your secret disc just for nostalgia.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Opened file. Jotted. Closed file. Done.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. That’s such a good idea! I found some great blog posts about Senegal while I was studying abroad and wish I had read them before!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lucky you going to Senegal! Not sure if the Peace Corp is in Senegal but I’ve found that Peace Corp volunteers often have super helpful blogs.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have found that they are super helpful! They do have Peace Corps in Senegal!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Your article makes me ponder. I start to feel that maybe I’ve to write something about a trip before I take it and then complete it once the trip is over. It’s great when you’re trying out something for the first time. Do read my experience on traveling abroad the first time. https://thoughtsoftharun.wordpress.com/2019/08/16/my-journey-from-india-to-vietnam-in-august-2019/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right: it would be interesting to compare my notes of what I thought a destination would be like versus my actual experience, Wishing you many more travels!

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  10. Great ideas here. I find it helpful to get first hand experiences before venturing to new places.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, thanks. Especially if the person I’m getting advice from enjoys the same sorts of things as me.

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