I have always loved to travel. At the time of this writing, I have been to nearly 40 countries and still counting.
I don’t always travel alone, but when I do, I have to be extra prepared. I have always been a planner, getting things ready up to the last detail. Most of the research I do are online; after all, it wasn’t called the World Wide Web for nothing.
These are some of the things that constitute my research:
1. History. I like to educate myself about the place before a trip, especially if it’s one I haven’t been to yet. There are many sources of information on the web, but to keep it simple, Wikipedia is usually one I start with. A quick read-up about its history, places of interests and prominent figures are really all that I need to get an idea of what characterizes the place. With a little knowledge of its background, it makes it easier to find the heart of the city and capture that through the lens.
2. Photos. There is Flickr, there are Stock Photography sites, there are Yahoo and Google images, PBase and many other photography-based websites. The idea here is not to copy other photographers’ composition, but to get an idea on where to go, and what landmarks define that particular area of interest. I sell some images on a few Stock sites too, so it’s beneficial for me to know what sells.
I also look up recent photos on Flickr where you can search for photos that were taken within the last few days. The idea is to check if certain landmarks are currently under construction, so I particularly look for tourist snapshots. Snapshooters don’t usually care about scaffolding or cranes, if it’s the Parthenon or the Tower Bridge – they will still take their picture. Photographers who care will either avoid these sites or at least find a more strategic angle.
I also look for higher viewpoints. It’s boring to always take photos from the ground, especially if it’s a cityscape. If I can’t find them in photos, I’ll do a search on hotels or restaurants with rooftop views or skyscraper observation towers.
3. Weather. You can not do anything about the weather, especially if you’ve already booked your trip, but I still want to come prepared. I need a second and third opinion on this. I usually go to Weather Underground, Yahoo Travel, and the dashboard on my Macbook. I don’t only come here to view the weather conditions, but also to check the time of sunrise/sunset and civil twilight so that I know what time to set my alarm in the morning. I would also check wind conditions and cloud coverage per day, that way I can modify my itinerary according to the texture of the sky and water.
4. Google Maps. This, to me, is the most important of all. It quells a lot of my fear of the unkown especially in a strange place. Especially now that they’ve incorporated Google Earth in the application, you can now see your place of destination in 3-D. It’s like being there already without ever leaving your house.
5. Maps. It’s always easy to get city or train maps once you get to your destination; there are tourist information centers abound. But I like to get mine before I leave. If I don’t find a printable city map online, I always revert back to Google Maps, but I at least try to find a Metro map, and I always do. That just makes my life easier, so I can save time figuring out what train on what line goes to what direction. To me, when traveling, every single minute is golden.
6. Special Events. Know what’s going on during that particular time you’re going. It’s always disconcerting to come to a place and find the area blocked or cordoned off due to a concert, a marathon, a procession or some kind of event that you’re not interested on covering. This happened to me on my first trip to Berlin when I did not get one shot of the Brandenburg Gate due to the Special Games.
On the other hand, if it’s an event you want to photograph, it would be beneficial to know the schedule and venue. I had e-mailed the tourist information in Madrid beforehand to ask information on their Holy Week’s procession schedule, and they were more than happy to help. I also like to find out about establishment and building closures during holidays, and hours of operation in the summer and winter time. Imagine how frustrating it would be to arrive at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris to plan for sunset or twilight shots only to find that the towers close before that.
7. Virtual Tours and 360-degree Panorama. This is a really neat thing I recently discovered. Same principle as Google Earth, but with this, you can actually get more of the feel of the place because you get real photos or videos, some in 360-degree view of a more intimate location like the town square or city center, even interior shots of churches and museums. After looking at these, I expect no surprises on my place of destination. I usually go to 360cities.net and panorama-cities.net.
8. Travelers’ Forum and Reviews. I want to know what other people think – real travelers who have been there. Usually, I take traveler’s advice with a grain of salt, but there are also a lot of helpful hints and recommended places that you wouldn’t normally find in a guide book. I find it also helpful to read up on hotel reviews and restaurant recommendations.
I’m sure there are more ideas out there, but I find the above to be my routine guide in preparation for a trip.