We are all interested in where to go, where to stay and what to do when we get to a new place, and we do many Internet searches along these lines in the leadup to a trip. But it is when we explore a destination a little more broadly and deeply that we can really enhance our travel experience.
Research that provides historical context, visual information, current events, topography and a sense of local favorites can prepare you for a trip in ways that go well beyond how to get there and where to sleep. Below are some research tactics that can help you deepen your experience of almost any destination.
1. Map your location in depth.
Most of us already check street maps a few times before a trip to make sure our hotel is close to downtown or a planned drive isn’t too long to do in a day — but there are many more riches to be found if you spend a little more time with a mapping app.
For example, the Apple Maps “Flyover” and “3D” features have some really cool imagery for many popular destinations. Bing Maps has a “bird’s eye” view made up of photos taken from a plane a few hundred feet off the ground instead of the usual satellite photos. Google Maps has street views and also points to photos.
To help you get a sense of a place before you actually arrive, you can “fly” over the area with Bing’s bird’s eye, “drive” the streets with Google’s street view and “see the streets roll over the hills” with Maps’ 3D view.
2. Preview the traffic.
Before I fly into an airport, I do a couple of things: First, I map the route from the airport (or the rental car garage) to my lodging, and second, I map some of the routes I expect to be driving at the time I would likely be driving during the trip. This gives me a pretty good sense of what kind of traffic I might encounter, which can make a big difference for planning outings.
3. Read a novel or memoir set at your destination.
This can be one of the most satisfying ways to get a head start on a place. Reading about a location through the eyes of another person — especially a native of that place — can create a personal connection that helps make you feel like less of a stranger.
4. Read a history book.
This tactic can help you gain appreciation and understanding of the various tourist landmarks you might visit so they don’t seem like just another thing to gawk at and move on. Knowing how and why a particular landmark became important, and what it meant to a place before it became “important” in a touristic way, is sometimes best understood by reading some in-depth history. (If you don’t have time for a full-length book, most guidebooks have a chapter offering a historical overview.)
5. Look at photos.
Many sites host photos that are tagged geographically, from photography sites like Flickr and 500px to travel sites like TripAdvisor. Searching Google for geo-specific terms can yield all kinds of interesting material; a search on “Cleveland photos” brings up a lot of Google images, as well as galleries in the local newspaper’s website, fine art photos of the city, nostalgic images from decades gone by and more.
6. Check social media.
Searching for your destination on a social media site like Instagram can yield massive riches, such as the best views, secret spots and food pics from restaurants, offering visual information on what both locals and travelers think is important about that destination.
Twitter can sometimes yield much of the same, as can Pinterest; in general I find Facebook a bit less helpful due to the limited scope of searches. (Check out how social media is the ultimate travel guidebook.)
7. Do some clever keyword searches.
Messing around with search engines is probably the best way to tap into the hive mind about a place. Here are a few suggestions from which you can pick based on your preferences:
– for older travelers
– for families
– hidden (this is a personal favorite)
– forgotten (another favorite)
– best views
– 10 best
– must see
If you have a hobby that you like to indulge while traveling — such as pottery, hiking, stargazing, bird watching or photography — you can do a search for those terms as well, and possibly discover unique and meaningful activities that wouldn’t necessarily make it into anyone else’s top 10 list.
8. Learn a few phrases.
On a trip to Rio last summer, I failed to follow my usual routine of learning a few simple phrases in the local language (Portuguese), so I crossed my fingers that my Spanish would suffice. On the drive from the airport, the driver told me my Portuguese was very good, so I figured I was good to go — but it turned out not even to be close. I was just lucky to have used a few words that are alike in both languages, and soon found out Spanish would not cut it, especially in Rio, where natives speak with a strong accent and local dialect.
Over the next week I paid attention to what I really needed to get by, and it was really simple stuff — the old guidebook standbys like hello, goodbye, thank you, please, how much, what time, “Do you speak…” and numbers from 1 to 10. Had I known this handful of phrases before I arrived, many small interactions would have been easier, less time-consuming and more fun.
9. Ask your hotel.
Sometimes an advance call to your hotel can produce a lot of nuts and bolts info such as nearby restaurants, proximity to attractions and public transit, and ways to save time and money getting into town from the airport. One piece of advice: Try to time your call so it is not right at the typical check-in or check-out times, as those are when staff is most busy.
10. Read the news.
Doing a quick Google News search can give you a quick flavor of what’s going on in your destination as well as alert you to any potential health and safety issues. For example, a Puerto Rico search currently pulls up numerous headlines about the zika outbreak, while last week our editor searched for Italy and discovered that Starbucks would be opening its first cafe there.
Other things you might learn about: major sporting events, political elections (and associated unrest) and weather events — some of which could directly affect your trip, while others might just be interesting to know.
There are many things you can’t learn until you actually arrive in a place, but with a little research, you’ll become a more informed traveler that’s better equipped to understand and appreciate what you find there.
Editor’s Note:is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.