We often receive messages from readers on Backpack ME and those following us on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.
Apart from the usual question “How can I get money to travel?”, the second most common thing people tend to ask us is how we prepare for our travels. That is, from a practical point of view, how do we decide where we want to go and, particularly, research all the things we’d like to see and do while we’re there. “I want to travel the world but… where do I get started?”
Do you use travel guides such as Lonely Planet?
No! [the exception was the guide we got in Cuba because we didn't have any internet access]
We’re not fans of such guides because, although they might offer a quick round-up on a given destination, we find that the info is often limited, biased (usually by Westerners and for Westerners) and many times the listings are outdated and misleading. On top of that, hostels, hotels and restaurants included in the guides will always end up being more expensive than the average, due to the newly gained fame.
Some travelers follow guides by the letter, doing everything Mr. Lonely Planet says you should do: this over-crowds certain places, hypes others that do not deserve particular praise and, let’s face it, takes away the beauty of exploring the unknown (or less known). Not to mention that you go abroad to meet local people and end up in places where other travelers congregate, limiting yourself to this comfortable micro-cosmos where the local beer might be the only authentic thing around.
Such guidebooks are not even for free, so… why bother?!
Here are some FREE alternatives to travel guidebooks that we use to research our travels:
After we choose a certain place to travel to, I tend to read its Wikitravel page. Although not always updated with the latest details (particularly when it comes to prices of local transportation) the articles do tend to give you a pretty decent overview and quick facts to get you acquainted with the place. Useful tips often include how to get from the airport or bus/train station into town, possible day trips from a certain place, quick intro to the local cuisine – amongst other things that might come in handy (local customs and social protocol, DOs/DON’Ts, etc).
We use Wikitravel as an intro, never as our only source of info, as that would be limiting. If like us you use this collaborative source of info, you should also edit any details that you might encounter to be wrong or outdated after traveling to the place you read about. That’s the beauty of Wikitravel: is done by ALL of us and EVERYONE can participate!
Not as cool as Wikitravel, this is the most touristic of all travel sites we normally use. But if you have only a few days in a given place and wish to explore mostly the known landmarks, Tripadvisor would be the place to look!
With straight forward rankings of “things to do”, “activities”, “restaurants” and “accommodation”, you’ll find what you need pretty easily. In the case of some cities, you can even have a look at mini guides such as “3 days in XYZ city” that might be good to give you some ideas of what to do with your time. Once again, I don’t recommend following everything exactly, but it might be good to get you started and give you ideas to explore further on your own.
Do keep in mind that these are mostly touristic and “obvious” attractions, but if a certain thing became a landmark once upon a time, that’s probably because there is something special abut it. Nope, there is nothing wrong with doing “touristic stuff”, even if you claim to be a cool off-the-beaten path backpacker. You’re still probably going to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Times Square in New York or Khao San Road in Bangkok.
Tripadvisor is also pretty decent to read reviews of accommodation. Tip: do not trust reviews of people with very few previous submissions on their profile. As anyone can post on Tripadvisor, businesses do a lot of tweaking, submitting positive reviews of their own establishment or negative ones of their competitors. Top Tripadvisor contributors, with a lot of reviews, are generally more trust worthy. In any case, compare the reviews on Tripadvisor with those on the website where you’re booking your accommodation (when you’re not doing it directly with the hotel/hostel) – between many reviewers you’ll be able to come to a consensus, an approximation of what you can really expect from the place.
Once again, don’t forget to give back to the community! Leave your reviews after experiencing a certain place – this applies to good and bad experiences. Sometimes I read people’s reviews and they say things like “I never leave reviews but this place was so bad that I just couldn’t help it this time” – this is not fair. Reviews are meant to be given when a place sucks, it’s outstanding or even if it is just “blah”.
3. Google searches
Once you get a general overview of your destination from things read on Wikitravel and/or Tripadvisor, it’s time to go in deep! Google searches allow you to find specific things you might be looking for, and you can make it as detailed as you want!
• events in Delhi September 2013
• Delhi in 3 days
• Delhi on a budget
• Best street food in Delhi
• Off the beaten path things to do in Delhi…
Really, there is virtually nothing you won’t find on the internet, and that is the beauty of it: it’s free and definitely more complete than printed/finished guide books. It’s a never-ending project, with infinite goodness of info, people you can connect with and, what’s best: as one thing always leads to the next when it comes to the web, you are very likely to come across things you never even thought of and that you’ll end up doing and having the time of your life while at it!
4. Reddit: ask the community!
No one knows better about a destination than a local! And today you can connect with people all over the world no matter where you are! If you want to ask locals about recommendations of their city or country, or even clear any doubts you might have about their place, feel free to ask.
Instead of only getting into travel forums (like those found on Lonely Planet, Fodor’s or Tripavisor’s websites) I’d suggest Reddit, because you can get in touch with “real people” of a given place, instead of only travelers. Travelers would know a thing or two about the places they have been to, true, but chances are locals know best! Get into Reddit.com and search the sub-reddit of the place you are going to: city or country. Get in touch with people, let them inform you and, above all, inspire you for new things coming your way.
There are local forums specific for different countries and cities around the world, yes, but not knowing specifically about those, Reddit still stands as the best “over all” place no matter where in this world you are heading to or are curious about!
5. Travel Blogs
I saved the best for last!
Not because we created Backpack ME, but travel blogs are by far my favorite way to explore a new travel destination, even if virtually! Perhaps not necessarily to gather specific info about a place (although some blogs do a kick-ass job at that too), but mostly to get inspired and spike my curiosity regarding new destinations I might have not necessarily thought of traveling to before. Bloggers are great at demystifying certain places too.
Travel blogs are written by people just like you and I and, to the contrary of some travel magazines, the bloggers DO tend to travel to the destinations they write about. In some travel magazines (big names even), travel writers do not go to the places they rave about, making it all very appealing, but somehow fake.
Travel blogs are the poorer but more realistic side of travel, and you can generally expect an honest appreciation and account of the bloggers’ experiences. Another advantage is that you can get in touch with the travel blogger (by leaving comments on a specific article or messaging on Facebook/Twitter), a luxury you wouldn’t have with bigger publications.
Once you find your favorite travel blogs, be sure to subscribe to their newsletter (subscribe to ours here – and get a real postcard from us from somewhere in the world!) to receive updates, travel highlights, tips on smart and budget travel and, sometimes even goodies and freebies!
A lot of travel blogs have a Youtube Channel too (click here to watch Backpack ME TV), which makes it fun to explore new destinations even on those days when you’re not in a mood to read!
Same as with every other suggested option above, giving back is truly important and, ultimately, is what makes the internet the most democratic media out there. When it comes to travel blogs, leave comments, interact with the writers, click the LIKE buttons, tweet out new articles, click the ads, use the affiliate links to buy/book things you’d end up purchasing elsewhere anyway, buy their ebooks and merchandise if you’re really a fan. All of this will influence the longevity of the blogs you like.
What else can a traveler ask for on the free side of things, isn’t it?!
There is no reason to spend money on travel books that will only help you see certain things about a place and could sometimes lead you on with obsolete info (particularly regarding prices of places to sleep and eat at).
If you have a gadget you can bring along during your travels, there is no excuse not to get online and get all the inspiration and practical info you’ll ever need. You can save articles to read on the go if you won’t be connected for a while. And don’t be shy: ask other travelers and locals for info.. you might even make friends in the place you’re going to before you get there!
That being said, I’d recommend not to over-research a place either: let yourself go once you are there. That’s what traveling is ultimately all about.
As for us, on Backpack ME, we’re always happy to help out with tips about the places we’ve been to or lived in (Portugal / India / United Arab Emirates).
Feel free to leave us comments and
get in touch if you’re planning a trip!
“That being said, I’d recommend not to over-research a place either: let yourself go once you are there. That’s what traveling is ultimately all about.———-> totes agree.
Except for Reddit, I also relied heavily on Wikitravel, TripAdvisor, travel blogs and Google searches. I hate reading books and therefore Lonely Planet would not be my choice except for my latest trip to Laos, it was kind rush and I have to buy it. But turns out like what you mentioned, “usually by Westerners and for Westerners” (when I read this, I thought you guys are Asian. Silly me!) which is really true. Mostly what Lonely Planet recommended was bar and pub – which I not really into at all. Anyway, I love this post! =)
Well, one of us (Ashray) is indeed Asian.. Indian to be more exact! I am Portuguese, but that doesn’t mean I appreciate info written in a biased way for white people either – it’s all about the drinks! I don’t care for bars and pubs either, so a great part of the info on Lonely Planet becomes useless for me just in that respect!
Glad you enjoyed the post! :)
I love travel guides. I don’t buy them (my library has tons of them) or bring them with me when I go. But when I am first doing research on a new place, I love to curl up on the couch going through the guide book. DK Eyewitness are the best because they are full color glossy and they get me so happy.
I take notes from them on things that interest me. Then I go to the internet and do searches of pretty much every website you have listed above.
Well.. I understand the appeal of sitting in the couch reading the guidebook, but as you say.. no need to bring the books along on the travels! As long as you have internet connection.. :)
Excellent sources. We always say that guidebooks may help you as a start point but you can wave them away and use the internet instead.
Guidebooks might have an appeal as an intro, as a wanderlust inspiring starting point… but there’s no doubt that the internet is WAY BETTER when it comes to info and practical resources!
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You two and this sight are kinda terrific. I m planning a 7 month trip through the US, UK, Europe, the Balkans Turkey and possibly Jordan. Any further travel tips would be great. Thanks and be safe. cheers.
Well.. that’s a lot of areas to cover to give you specific tips! ;)
We haven’t been to the Balkans nor Jordan, so can’t speak about those destinations. As for the rest. please check the US and Europe sections of our blog on the top menu, under “EXPLORE”. You’ll find a lot of info!
Have a great trip!
I just discovered your site and love it! You have a huge range of travel experiences and food tastes. Thank you for sharing so generously. I’m also a keen traveller and food lover living in South Africa, one of the very few countries you have not visited. We have beautiful beaches, amazing wildlife, delicious cuisine and wide open spaces perfect for road trips.
Thanks Lekha! Our taste for food has increased as we traveled to be honest.
We should look into traveling to South Africa sometime! :)
I completely agree with you. Guide books are often outdated and hype a place. Plus the lodging options they publish are most often costly. The best option is to do some Google, use WikiTravel, TripAdvisor and travel blogs. This is exactly how i plan my trips. Read as much as possible on the internet and find specific details. Internet today is so good that one can plan each and every thing related to travel.
Very informative blog. Thank you.
The lodging options on guide books are THE WORST! Not only they are outdated, but also the prices change immediately after a place gets highlighted on a Lonely Planet or similar type of guide. Sometimes, travelers can be like sheep… just follow something without even questioning. And, of course, businesses take advantage of that!
Thanks for reading us, Suyash! :)
I’m on a tour with my spouse and we relied on the Internet and an offline map apps on our mobile and we will be good to go. Imagine if we need buy a guide book for every country that we are going to visit!
Exactly! Pretty much everything you need these days is online, and for free!!