You can bring your high-tech travel gear but don’t forget your guidebook (Photo: Marc Volk/Getty Images)
“Who even uses guidebooks anymore?” ”Isn’t there an app for that?” Travel guidebooks might seem low-tech these days. But think of them as really long TripAdvisor reviews with bonus driving directions. They can walk you through destinations and activities when your travels take you beyond technology’s reach, whether on a mountaintop in Colorado or a back road in West Virginia.
I’ve written four travel guidebooks and I’ve found there is no easy way to research them. The mile-measuring blur of it is not glamorous; it’s grueling. Fortunately, the time we guidebook writers spend on the road has made us experts at packing, time management, and finding cool things other travelers might miss. I now apply the lessons I’ve learned writing guidebooks to every trip I take. Now, you can too; here are my top 10 secret travel hacks that can make your trip easier:
1. Go left
People tend to circulate to the right while queuing up at zoos, amusement parks, grocery stores, and parking lots. If left is allowed, going there essentially lets you cut the line. Going left is more than just moving in a different direction physically; it also means traveling in the off-season, walking when everyone else gets on a tour bus, and eating street food instead of a five-star sit-down.
2. Food and gear are more important than clothes
Travel food: more important than travel clothes (Photo: Jens Lennartsson/Maskot/Getty Images)
Gear gets first dibs on precious luggage space. Food comes next. And yes, I take food with me almost everywhere. I’ve taken frozen steaks in my luggage to five countries. And did you know that frozen Taco Bell burritos can be warmed under the windshield of your rental car?
3. Dress the part
This woman is well dressed for her trek in the Peruvian Andes (Photo: Bartosz Hadyniak/Photodisc/Getty Images)
Comfort and utility are critical features of travel clothing. Can an item multitask? Think scarves, layered tops and swim shorts. I used to think specialty outdoor clothing was overhyped. Today, I wouldn’t dream of traveling without clothes designed specifically for the elements I will face.
4. Take flip-flops
Don’t forget your flip-flops (Photo: P.E. Reed/Stockbyte/Getty Images)
Flip-flops are not a fashion statement. They’re about avoiding the “eeew!” factor in showers, at swimming pools, and on hotel carpets. Slip them into your backpack and use them to traverse wet places without getting your real shoes soaked.
5. Stay packed
Big travel tip: don’t unpack (Photo: Vstock LLC/Getty Images)
I hate packing, so I pack for the next trip at the end of the current one. Here’s the drill:
- Every type of travel (camping, boating, plane trip) has a designated bag, box, or suitcase. Associated gear is stored in that travel bag.
- Clothes get washed upon return from a trip, then put back into the appropriate bag. I can do this because the clothes I travel with are not my everyday clothes. I even have multiple swimsuits so that every bag has one.
- One “ditty bag” contains all toiletries. It gets replenished and stored in the bathroom at the end of each trip. I never have to worry about packing a toothbrush or hair clips. As long as I don’t forget to pack the ditty bag, I’m golden.
- A first-aid kit that covers everything from upset tummies to bug bites is stored next to the ditty bag in the bathroom cabinet. It’s always stocked and ready to be dropped into the appropriate suitcase.
6. Plan every turn, then expect to deviate
(Photo: Patrick Strattner/Getty Images)
There will always be roadblocks (literally and figuratively) when you travel. Having a detailed plan that includes alternate routes, transportation, and alternate accommodations makes it easier when something cool catches your attention and you decide to take that “road less traveled.”
7. Map it
(Photo: Mike Powell/Digital Vision/Getty Images)
During the early planning stages, I use online maps, but then switch to paper maps for a more detailed view of back roads. I use a DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer for extended trips to any state. Then I use Google Earth to get a zoomed-in view of everything. I call park rangers and tour companies for general information about an area and specifics about weather or road closures.
8. Research, research, research
(Photo: Robert Nicholas/OJO Images/Getty Images)
I use sites like TripAdvisor and HomeAway to get an overview of a destination but don’t rely heavily on them for the reviews. Management responses (or lack thereof) to negative reviews are actually more helpful than the reviews themselves.
9. And more research
(Photo: Eric Audras/ONOKY/Getty Images)
Look at the “About Us” pages that hotels and tour providers provide on their websites; they can give you clues about the vibe of the company. One time when my husband and I were at a popular diving destination, we encountered an unhappy non-diving couple who had booked a two-week stay at a tiny hotel catering to serious divers. One click deeper on the website might have steered them in a different direction.
10. Take notes and pictures
(Photo: Danielle D. Hughson/Moment/Getty Images)
There are usually no do-overs in guidebook researching. I travel like I will never be in that place again. I use three cameras, two phones, and an old-fashioned pen and paper to record everything. I record names and locations of hotels and restaurants I didn’t try, just in case I make it back. It’s easy to get caught up in the whole bucket list thing and ignore the simple pleasure of returning to the places we enjoyed once already.
Another word of advice: guidebook publishers print revisions of popular guides every few years, so be sure to check the publication date to make sure you have current information. Even seemingly static things like campgrounds and access to hiking trails can change.
So have fun in your travels, and don’t forget about guidebooks. They’re great for helping you hike, bike, camp, climb, shop, or just find your way in a strange place.
Melinda Crow created the entire series of camping guides for Falcon Publishing