Another photography trip is being planned. Yet again I am browsing guidebooks. The shiny pages drawing me in. Can I resist, do I really need a book when so much information is available online? I do have a weakness for books and nothing gives me more pleasure than that first opening. However do you need a guidebook to survive a trip to somewhere new?
Have you been panning a trip and everywhere you look there is THE place to go. Is it really that special? All the chatter on trip advisor and blogs say you must go to this spot to see the REAL country. However I start to get twitchy at this point! If it is THE tourist attraction, then everyone will be there. It will be busy, commercialised and not the authentic experience many travellers want to be immersed within. Add to this the photography factor - do I want to be somewhere with hundreds of others trying to get the same 'shot'. Would I rather be somewhere quiet and obscure, just me and my camera getting the alternative atmosphere of somewhere famous. But if it is THE place to visit will I be missing out on something special if I don't go.
Will there be what if's? Think of a guidebook as giving you "all see's", not all "must see's. I had guidebook guilt big time in China. I had to see the Great Wall. Who doesn't? However we were tied to times and getting to Huangyuan, the most popular area was not going to happen. Instead we ended up in Jinshanling. I was a spoilt brat, sulking that I wasn't at the bit I had planned.
And then halfway through our trek to Simatai there was a realisation. This was what I really wanted to be doing. The guidebook had given me the context and the idea and our local guide had given us the slightly more authentic experience. We walked for a day and saw no other tourists.
The swim in the lake at the end was the perfect end even if the water snakes had me running pretty rapidly from the water. This is what I had wanted on the Great Wall, not the tourist zone with thousands of other people. This side step of the guidebook guilt made me realise that planning is an outline not the plan.
When to plan!
Nothing beats a winter evening in England. Rain battering the window and the fire roaring in the hearth. Curled up surrounded by books and maps. Bright sunny days and adventures punctuating the howling wind.
I used to be a full planner; every hotel, every stop and every location planned before I went. The history read in detail, local customs explored and the must 'eats' identified ready for targeting on arrival.
Photography locations were scouted in detail. Exact points found on Google Earth with the help of the Photographers Ephemeris to gauge the light, routes planned on O.S Maps and the drive times and alarm clock settings all documented and ready for my "holiday"
However as time has progressed I am becoming more lax. Reading the guidebook on the plane (well, at least then the best time to visit and how to get there sections are obsolete), skipping over the history just this once was the slippery slope.
Then it became 'see what was on offer at the hotel or local tourist office on the first morning'. However, after two holidays using this principle I was stressed. I needed to have an outline. I needed to know what I really wanted to do with other unexpected options filling the gaps when we got there.
It was back to proper planning and proper understanding of where I was going. I like my 'must do' list. It may not match the recognised list of things to do in each place but it is 'my' must do list.
Sources of Information
As I have already said I am a geeky travel guidebook hoarder. I am also a lover of maps. Many years ago dive trip planning consisted of finding the local map, finding an interesting pinnacle offshore, working out the tides and going to explore. My travels are very similar. A guidebook gives me the context. The details that bloggers miss on their one week stop somewhere, the details that locals overlook as they are 'boring and normal' and all the other little bits that a detailed book on one location can provide. I do google locations but this isn't my first line of planning
Geocaching gives us some great locations for exploring. It is a little known adventure activity but it is free and the hunt for 'treasure' keeps children occupied while you take photographs at some stunning locations. Caches are usually set by locals and take you to spots that are off the beaten track. They are really good for teaching you the history or geography of a location and some even have quizzes. Even one cache in a new location can be the start of a great adventure or day exploring.
Trover is a lovely little travel community. Lots of amazing images from every location imaginable. Post a picture with a description and share finds. There isn't the mad mentality to follow others, but you can say thank you for sharing a location. Descriptions are usually detailed and helpful and the locations are not always the tourist or well known spots.
To this information I add a little visit to trip advisor. This however takes skill to read between the lines. What is a genuine problem and what is a personal problem. Usually I can work it out, but it has taken some practice. I can also confirm that as a holiday cottage owner the accommodation reviews are genuine, but you never know what people will say! My classic is the review of my cottage on Orkney (known for its remote location) that picked up that that the best thing was the large Tesco and other than this there was nothing to do....
What an amazing little find is Atlas Obscura. Weird and wonderful locations, little titbits of history and the obscure locations well beyond the guidebook. This website gives the padding for the less well known locations.
Flickr and 500px
Both Flickr and 500px are full of stunning images. I find them a great place to start planning trips and photography locations. You can search under location or theme, whatever takes your fancy.
No, this isn't a site just for baking and kids crafts. There is a whole lot more to Pinterest. I love it for planning adventures. Somewhere to collect ideas, photography locations and random activities in certain places. Collecting things together helps when it is time to put the plan together. I used it before my trip to Bariloche in Argentina. Have a look at my board HERE
Google Maps (Or Ordnance Survey in the UK)
Maps are essential to my holiday survival. Maps and holiday planning go hand in hand. Hours can be wasted planning routes from one location to another. Taking in as many locations on the way. I always make sure I have a map that is not reliant on being online. There is nothing worse that being in a strange city and lost with no means to figure out where you are. It is always at this time that there are no taxi's wanting to charge you the earth. While the maps found in hotel receptions are useful I always try to find a decent to scale map for getting around. The pretty maps are great for souvenirs but aren't so great for finding your way. I always look for locations on a map and then try to find information about them online and in guidebooks.
Yes I know, Instagram, but it is useful! I love to search hashtags on where I am headed. Use the geolocation or attraction as a hashtag and see what you get. You will always be surprised what little corners people have discovered and photographed and are worth looking out. Why not pop over to instagram and explore Suzanne Easton Photography for my wildlife images and Meandering Wild for my travel adventures.
Novels and Travel Writing
Okay, so this is a bit obscure, but bear with me! Enjoying a good novel can teach you a lot about a location. An insight into the location, the sights and sounds to expect and the local traditions all emerge between the lines. Many novels are researched in more depth than a guidebook. They explore things that a guidebook would never consider.
Before my first trip to China I absorbed every snippet of information that was contained in Wild Swans by Yung Chang. I had some understanding of family structures, village arrangements and the traditions within the family. Maybe not a great understanding, but it was a start.
So is it Time to Ditch the Guidebook?
I'm not sure what you think, but I don't think so. Guidebooks give you the context and the basis to build your own plans upon. Whilst they give you the key details many also provide the details that are missed by blogs (unless they are focussed on just one place). A good guidebook can give you the confidence to immerse yourself in a country knowing what you really want to see, but also giving the background to visit other places.
Guidebooks can save you time if you are on a tight schedule. All the planning is done for you, sometimes including itineraries, bus times and stops. They can save money. Concessions aren't always publicised but a good guidebook will show you the location for a shorter queue or the times when prices drop at the end of the day or out of season. All these small amounts add up.
I will not be giving up my guidebooks with my pencil scrawled notes throughout. They are almost another journal of my adventures. The pre-adventure journal. My thoughts and ideas for the trip.
What are your thoughts? Are you a guidebook junkie or an online browser?
Updated August 2018