Pre-trip planning, post #1: research

This post is the first in a series on pre-trip planning (see the Intro, post #2: travel insurance, post #3: gear, and post #4: technology).

I don’t start any trip with a completely blank slate. There is usually something that attracts me to a country—maybe it’s something that I’ve read, or an anecdote I’ve heard from a fellow traveler. From that initial draw, I’ll start reading more about the country.

I find that Lonely Planet remains a great place to start, even though it has changed considerably over the last few years (largely for the worse, in my opinion). On the upside, you can now buy the .pdf files of individual chapters for just a few dollars. If I’m considering taking a trip but not ready to commit, I often buy the introductory chapter, which summarizes the country’s highlights and popular itineraries.

To book my flight I usually use kayak.com or skyscanner.net. It’s important to pay attention to nearby travel hubs—for example, if I’m flying to Kathmandu, it’s often cheaper to book a flight to Delhi or Bangkok and arrange the Kathmandu portion separately. Note that some of the smaller airlines are not included on Kayak or Skyscanner, so I make sure to figure out who flies the route that I need. Lately I’ve gotten into collecting airlines miles and points (if all you travel-lovers are not already following thepointsguy.com, add it to your list!). On this trip, I managed to fly roundtrip from Israel to India for free, using 35,000 American Airlines miles that I earned from a credit card sign-up bonus.

After I’ve booked the flight, I’ll make sure to sort out visas. Always check online for the latest information! I recently ran into major trouble when several days before my flight I learned that India has a new visa rule whereby tourists cannot re-enter the country for 60 days, even if they hold a multiple-entry visa. Since I will be making a side-trip to Nepal from India, and catching a return flight to Israel from Mumbai, I spent the days before my departure in a pre-flight panic. Not fun.

When the nuts and bolts—flights and visas—are sorted, I try to immerse myself in the country’s culture. This is a great way of beginning my travels before my flight! Lonely Planet usually has a brief listing of art, literature, and movies, and this of course can be supplemented by Wikipedia and Google.

For planning the nitty-gritty logistics in advance, I’ll often turn to the Lonely Planet’s ThornTree message board, which is chock full of travelers and locals providing the latest traveler information. Seat61.com is an excellent website for train travel. Sometimes I also check out tour providers, like Intrepid Travel or National Geographic Expeditions, which often post detailed tour itineraries online—a great way to get an additional feel for suggested itineraries and highlights.

If I’m traveling outside of Western Europe or the US, I often arrange airport pickup and the first night at a hotel. This saves the hassle of getting my bearings and navigating a transportation system in a foreign language, which can be exhausting and frustrating after a long flight. If the hotel is a dump, I can always leave in the morning. Depending on where I’m going, I will use hostels.com, hostelbookers.com, hotels.com, hotwire.com, and Tripadvisor for hotel reviews. Couchsurfing.org is a great way to meet locals (and find couches to crash on), and my friends have raved about airbnb.com for cheap rooms.

I also check Google for the latest currency conversion rates. If I’m looking for the Indian Rupee conversion rate, for example, I type “convert 1 USD to INR” and Google instantly provides the rate, though it’s worth mentioning that in reality I usually get a few rupees less than the Google amount.

All this pre-trip research gives me a knowledge base from which to explore, and a soft landing to a new country. I surely don’t need to stick the guidebook after that, but it’s great to be prepared!

Posted by | Comments (5)  | February 24, 2012
Category: General


5 Responses to “Pre-trip planning, post #1: research”

  1. Marcus Says:

    Really appreciate the extensive post and good resources you shared. Here are a couple more:

    http://www.flyertalk.com/ — Discussion forums for talking about frequent-flyer credit cards and airline rewards programs.

    http://www.projectvisa.com/– Excellent site to quickly look up visa rules for countries around the world. Saves you the hassle of trying to navigate some foreign government’s website.

  2. Chris Carruth Says:

    Call me a sickie, but I love researching travel. Funny though how, through the research, I tend to romanticize about a place and that invariably the reality is different than what’s been created in my mind’s eye…worth noting that different is not always bad 😉

    Great post and very useful resources. Thanks Anna!

  3. Matt Says:

    Nice list, I’d also recommend to not underestimate catching on some of the history, books and people from the place.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t know how many times I’ve learned an interesting perspective, only after I’d already been through, and thinking if only I had known beforehand. The problem comes up as reading a whole book just takes time, let alone 3, 4, 5 or more to get just a little more comprehensive. But, considering the time you’ll spend on trip, it’s really not that big of a deal.

    So now I’ll try to do that as well as keeping up with anything in the local news with a news search in a news reader. For books, can go with a local used book store if you can, just load up on a bunch and at only ~$5 each, usually can do so relatively cheaply.

  4. Ted Beatie Says:

    Great list! Another place I go to is http://afar.com, the web extension of the magazine, which has designed a great social networking travel site that connects travelers together and fields and answers travel-related questions.

  5. Pre-trip planning: an upcoming series of posts | Vagablogging :: Rolf Potts Vagabonding Blog Says:

    […] I hope that in the comments after each of these posts, you’ll weigh in with your own tips. In my first post, I’m going to cover flights and pre-trip research. In the second I’ll cover insurance, in the […]