When planning for a trip, there are three ways of thinking:
I used to be this type of person. No matter how long or short a trip was, I planned every day. Scheduled it out. Made reservations. It was exciting – until the trip started.
I’m this type of person. I love to know everything I can about where I’m going, yet I’ve traveled enough to know it’s likely that all the research I’ve done is wrong. Or at least wrong enough I’ll end up changing my plans.
You know who you are. Traveling involves one step: Going. If you’re this type of person, this article won’t be of much help to you.
None of these travel planning types are better than the other. It completely depends on you. Your comfort level, your style of travel and even your purpose for traveling. The majority of this article is written to help people of the second type (like me).
You know where you’re going, roughly, and you have five guide books at home, 15 Google search terms, three travel buddies who’ve been there before, and an outdated map on your wall.
Everyone different information and more importantly, different opinions. How are you going to sort through all that knowledge and record what is useful so that it’s easy to reference while you travel?
Some I use, some I don’t. You’ll have to experiment to find what is best for you.
Keep great notes. The best program for this is Evernote. It’s free, easy to use, and compiles snippets of information in an organized fashion.
Consolidate. Decide what you’re taking on the road to record notes, and work with that. Before I carried a laptop, I printed everything in half size pages and taped it into my journal. It was a pain in the butt to do, but easy to reference and didn’t require access to an internet cafe.
Read with a highlighter. Don’t be shy. Write in the margins. Cross things out. Chances are that if underwater basket weaving sounds cool now, it’s going to sound cool on your trip too. If the phrase “popular with the retired generation” makes you want to avoid a place like the plague, you might want to cross it out.
Reduce the paper you bring with. Copy the pages you want, or rip out the ones you don’t. Consider it a sacrifice to the Lonely Planet gods. Don’t take a thousand page book if you only need a quarter of it.
Bookmark! Bookmark in folders! Bookmark with tags in folders! Ok, maybe that’s a little over the top. But the site that listed train times from Rome to Genoa in English might seem easy to find now, but it won’t always be. Delicious is a great tool for this.
Get Evernote (see above). It’s an easy way to highlight part of a web page and save it as a note. Then if you ever need to see the source, Evernote saves the original URL.
Take notes! Preferably on a computer. Write who said it and in what context. If my mom says a place is a dump, I’ll probably still go there. But if my brother said it’s a dump, I’ll steer clear.
Ask specific questions (via email). It’s much easier to get useful information if you ask specific questions. When asked about a general location, most people will rant or rave about one personal experience... that one time, in that one hostel, with that crazy guy... While entertaining, this is not at all helpful to your planning. Be specific and put it in writing. It’s a lot easier to reference later.
Use Post-its. Highlight good places, bad places, flooded places, etc. It’s easier to visualize a possible route, when you can see where the good and bad stuff is, and the distance in between.
Go digital. Google Maps and Google Earth have very powerful routing and land marking tools (for most countries). You can download map add-ons that highlight UNESCO sites, travel photos, national parks, or pretty much whatever you fancy. Other travelers also occasionally post their routes.
It doesn’t matter how much research you decide to do, it’s all futile if you can’t remember it or access it on the road. My philosophy is simple, do more work in advance to make decisions on the road easier.