I realized the other day that we’ve settled into a travel routine. It used to be we planned far in advance but this year, while we’re traveling around the world, we wanted to embrace a freer spirit of travel. And slowly we have. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do our research. So the question is then, where do you look and how do you approach a new place?
How do you choose where to travel?
Deciding where to go comes naturally to most. You like beaches, or hiking, or mountains, your friends went somewhere and can’t stop talking about it, or maybe you saw a photo in a magazine when you were 17 and have always wanted to visit. Our list is long and keeps growing—there’s almost nowhere we don’t want to visit.
How do you research a new place?
The first thing we typically do is look for accommodation. A few times this year we’ve booked a place on arrival but generally we don’t like walking around with our backpacks looking at different rooms. It can be cheaper yes, but the places we find typically aren’t as nice and the search can be pretty unpleasant.
So we look online and book in advance, sometimes only a day or two before. If we’re not sure how long we want to stay, we book the minimum number of nights and extend after we arrive as needed. Here are our favorite sites (in general order of preference):
- Airbnb.com (can be more expensive but has the best user experience and search functions)
- Agoda.com (good in Asia)
- Booking.com (a great fallback with wide selection and generally good rates)
- Kayak.com (for hotels when we’re using miles and points and want to comparison shop)
- VRBO.com (very rarely)
The most important thing when looking for a place is location. This is why looking for accommodation first can be dangerous. If there’s one rule we’ve adopted with regard to accommodation, it is that it is almost always worth paying more for a good location. Be central. Sure, that place outside town that’s super cheap and looks awesome might in fact be great, but if you have to walk 30 minutes every time you want a coffee, you’re going to miss out on experiencing the actual place, which is why you went in the first place.
If we know a little about the place (i.e. recs from friends or we’re visiting to attend a specific yoga studio, etc) we cross reference the accommodation location with places of interest to make sure it’s close. We also read reviews of the place on the booking site to see if people commented on the location (good or bad).
Who do you trust for food and drink recommendations?
First, we love recommendations. It is so much fun to go to a place someone told us was cool and be biased positively towards it. At least that’s our preference 🙂
So where do we look?
Friends and specific websites:
We do read Lonely Planet (I rent e-copies from the library on my kindle) and look on TripAdvisor.com, but there’s something about going to a restaurant with a Trip Advisor sign out front and a Lonely Planet sticker in the window that is a turn off. The places are often overrun with tourists and have so catered to this clientele they’ve lost all of whatever it was that made it recommendable in the first place.
How do you decide what to do and which tourist sights to visit?
This is often where Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor do come in handy. Sights don’t change and there’s generally a consensus in the books and in talking with other travelers.
Another rule we’ve adopted is that if a place seems really cool and everyone says it is, you should go. Yes it might be touristy and crazy busy, but usually (not always) this is because it’s just an awesome thing to see. So the Trip Advisor Top Things by tourist rating can help. Also if something has made a Lonely Planet highlight list (like Top 20 Places in SE Asia) then it is probably pretty amazing.
The blogs listed above will often have great recommendations too and can sometimes parse a sight if you just aren’t sure. And doing smaller versions of the real thing (i.e. Bai Tu Long Bay instead of Halong Bay) can also be awesome and less touristy, if that’s a goal.
What about coffee and yoga?
Honestly, we just google. If there’s something specific we’re looking for, this is often the best option.
Google “yoga in ___________” or “third wave coffee in ___________”. Sometimes we add “travel blog” to the Google search to get actual opinions instead of reviews-driven lists.
We also use the Google Maps app search feature, which can help us better understand the location in reference to our lodging and the rest of the town.
Olivia occasionally also uses the Yoga Trail Guide app to find yoga instructors and where they’re currently teaching. For yoga schedules, the actual website of the studio is often the most reliable place given how quickly schedules change.
How do you stay organized while you’re visiting a place?
Within the last year they’ve changed the number of ways you can tag your own map and made it much easier to save places for later. This also serves to document our travels. If we ever return to a place, right on the map will be the evidence of where we went, what we liked, and where we have yet to see.
Here’s how I use it. After searching for a place, when you click on it a profile page for that location appears and a Save button (with bookmark logo) is visible.
When you click the Save button a list of options will appear. The defaults are Favorites (red heart), Want to go (green flag), and Starred (yellow star). We have also created several lists that are personalized and one place can be tagged with multiple tags.
My process is to tag our lodging with our ATW Lodging tag. Then I tag every restaurant, cafe, and tourist sight with the Want to go tab.
After we visit a place, I take away the Want to go tag and Star it, so I know we’ve been there before (even if we didn’t like it!). If we did like it, I also heart it. For Graph Cafe (which was awesome), you can see it is starred, hearted, and saved to our ATW Top 5 and ATW Coffee lists. These special tags can then be listed later, if you want to view all the ATW Coffee shops we visited, for instance.
A map for a specific location might then look like the screenshot below (Chiang mai).
The last thing I’ll mention is that GPS works even in Airplane mode! I often see travelers with maps out, frustrated, pacing up and down a street looking for a place. With Google Maps (or maps.me if you prefer), you don’t have to do this anymore. We use our phones and Google Maps for everything, and the blue GPS dot is our guide.
How do you research a new place and stay organized once you’re there?