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.
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.