Finding a research approach that allows you to deliver fresh, unique, and thoughtful content is one of the greatest hurdles for travel writers.
Whether you only have a few days in one location or are embarking on an extended RTW trip, conducting some preliminary research on your destination will enhance your travel experience and your travel writing.
While writing the content that would eventually become Approach Guides, we spent 75% of our time “on location” and 25% researching our upcoming destinations at our home base in Milan, Italy. To accommodate this extreme travel schedule, we developed a streamlined research process that allowed us to create unique content.
Step One: Plan Your Itinerary
To help us form a preliminary itinerary, we consult a few sources that highlight the key cultural sites (our niche) in a given destination:
- A traditional travel guidebook, such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guides
- An online travel guidebook, although there are many choices, wikitravel.org is a good place to start.
- Tour company itineraries. For our purposes, we look to tour companies that target our niche, such as Archaeological Tours;
Step Two: Focus Your Research
Once we outline our itinerary, we begin a deep dive into the cultural, architectural and religious history of each place. Often, this helps shape our final itinerary as it highlights off-the-beaten path sites that are must-sees from a cultural perspective.
Given our focus on cultural travel, here are a few searches that form the foundation of our research:
- UNESCO – In addition to learning what UNESCO sites are in a given location, we look for names of researchers or archaeologists working at a site and for articles that those experts may have published.
- Amazon.com – We always buy a history book that gives a good overview of ancient and modern history and books targeted to our specific interests.
- Site:.edu and .pdf searches – When looking for expert resources we enter in our search terms followed by either ‘site:.edu’, which limits results to universities and ‘.pdf’, which limits results to PDF documents. These often provide highly reliable sources and information.
Step Three: Hotels/Food/Shopping
With an itinerary finalized, our next step was to research logistics, hotels, restaurants and stores to visit. When we travel, we try to stay in small hotels that offer a unique experience or have a distinctive local feel, eat at restaurants that serve local foods and purchase locally made handicrafts.
To build this list, we conduct several searches:
- Search ‘“boutique hotel” (name of destination)’;
- Consult aggregators of niche hotels such as Alastair Sawday’s Special Places to Stay;
- Search ‘“best restaurant” (name of destination)’ or ‘best place to try (name of local delicacy)’;
- Ask Twitter and Facebook friends and fans where they like to stay, eat and shop;
- Search for stores that sell local handicrafts or support local craftspeople (such as artisans, the disabled or women);
While On Location
- Take tons of pictures. It is very difficult to absorb all of the information while you are on location, so we advise taking a large number of photos to refer to later.
- Keep it all organized, accessible, and safe. Learning how to maintain a considerable database of travel information involved a lot of trial and error; however, in the end, we decided to keep all of our content on a password-protected personal domain. I can’t recommend this strategy highly enough. We are able to print out any information we need, pull up the information on our phone or computer, easily update the information while traveling, and, best of all, our research remains secure should we ever lose our computer, phone or paper notes.
Although your writing goals will naturally lead you to research different topics than what we have outlined above, we hope that this list provides you with some helpful tips or sparks an idea of something we may not have thought of.
We would love to hear from you — how do you research your trip?
This is such a wonderful article! I’ve bookmarked some of your recommendations & I will use your article as a guide to help me get more organized & focused in my research – it’s something I struggle with daily!
I agree with “Take tons of pictures.” I’m not sure it’s possible to take too many, as you can use them later to fill in the blanks of your memory for details & descriptions. My tip? Take pictures of signs – much better for remembering where you were than taking notes! (Wish I’d figured this out before we went to Kenya in 2000!)
Anyway, great article!
.-= Suzi´s last blog post: Jan 27, January Event: San Francisco =-.
Thanks, Suzi. Remaining organized and focused can be really difficult, but having a strategy that you can refer to can be a great help. I love your idea of taking pictures of signs – I will definitely incorporate this tip into our strategy.
What a detailed strategy for researching and planning trips. With information overload, it’s easy to become distracted. I’ll be following this outline to make better use of my time. And, I agree, taking photos is just as valuable as taking notes. They become a memory sparker for me. Another tip, record the sounds of a place, either with a recorder or taking note of it in your journal. Terrific post, Jennifer.
.-= Donna Hull´s last blog post: Flying in a Hot Air Balloon Over Bluff, Utah =-.
Hi Donna, I had never thought of recording the sounds of a place — that is a great idea. I imagine that listening to a recording, especially when back in a familiar setting (like home), conjures up unique thoughts and memories. Thanks!
The other thing I do is check out the information available through the CVB or tourism board. I pick up lots of brochures, which often have great pictures to help recreate a scene once arriving home. Some of these brochures and magazines also have coupons, which makes traveling and participating in activities cheaper.
.-= JoAnna´s last blog post: Birds of Huatulco, Mexico =-.
Hi JoAnna! I agree that tourism boards can be very helpful and offer materials that highlight unique elements about a destination. I had never thought about the coupons though…I will have to pay more attention next time!
Solid suggestions. I also use the good old fashioned library and its extensive archives (which are pretty impressive here in NYC), both in person and online, to read up on the history of the place I’m visiting.
I also like to look at local newspapers to find out about current events happening in a place that are overlooked in my own country’s/area’s media.
.-= Julie´s last blog post: The long-tail of the writer’s pitch =-.
Hi Julie, The library in NYC is a wonderful resource and they have great lectures too (travel and non-travel alike). Local newspapers are a great resource, but for me, they sometimes far exceed my language capabilities! :-) They are, however, true primary research.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by “personal domain”? Also, how are you keeping your “database”? An actual FileMaker style database or just a nice tidy list in a Word doc?
Hi Robbin! Your question is a good one. By personal domain I mean that we bought a URL that is “personal” or different from our http://www.approachguides.com website. this site was password protected. The database we used was one simply organized by webpage – for example in Italy we had one page for Rome, Torino, etc and then pulled thematic subjects out of that and into a seperate page (for example baroque architecture). This strategy allowed us to view the info easily while traveling. We also loaded all of our pre-travel research notes and travel itinerary info (calendar, hotels, flights, passport copies) onto these pages.
I think I’ve been using Evernote in a similar fashion. I have different notebooks for each region of Italy and then tag the note with “hotel” “restaurant” etc.
Thanks again for the article (duly uploaded to Evernote!)
.-= Robbin´s last blog post: New York. Fabio Volo incontra i-Italy =-.
Excellent article. Some great tips Jennifer. As an occasional travel writer myself it’s always good to go back to basics and see how others approach travel writing. Keep up the good work.
Thanks for your comment. I am glad that you found the article useful. Travel Writers Exchange provides so many helpful articles — I use the site all the time to get new tips and ideas from many of the top travel writers on the web.