In May, with a heavy heart, I bid farewell to my amazing colleagues at HuffPost and set off for some extended travel with my wife. If all goes as planned, we'll visit 26 countries in 200 days, and we won't carry a single guidebook. Here's a (nerdy) post about how we prepared.
Guidebooks are useful: They're well-organized and portable and the information is available without an internet connection.
But they're also heavy (especially when you're visiting multiple countries), they contain a bunch of content that you don't need (since you're not visiting every corner of each country) and, most importantly, they don't include the massive wealth of crowd-sourced travel insights available online.
We wanted to get the best of both worlds: a ton of relevant information and insights from all over the web plus good organization while keeping things lightweight, portable and accessible without an internet connection.
Thanks to Evernote, and a nifty system for researching travel information, we've come pretty darn close.
How we used Evernote.
Evernote is a great tool that lets you quickly save information from documents or websites to the cloud, which you then can access anytime from your computer or smartphones, etc., with or without an internet connection.
As we prepared for our trip, scouring the web (and reading books and talking to family and friends) about the places we were visiting, we'd add notes to Evernote. We kept the notes organized by location and function: each note was tagged by the country and city it pertained to as well as some general descriptor (some common ones were: "Tips," "Things to do," "Food," and "Day Trips.")
The notes didn't have to be full articles -- sometimes a note was a single line in someone's 4,000-word trip report about the amazing noodle shop they found in Kyoto (tagged as "Japan" and "Kyoto Food"). We'd just highlight the specific text we want to save, clicked on the Evernote browser plug-in for Chrome, and it was stored. The notes don't even have to be text; maps, photos, etc., can all be highlighted and kept. And all of those notes are now downloaded on both of our phones and instantly accessible even if we're not online. (I should mention that for offline city and country maps, we've mostly used (and been happy with) an iPhone app called CityMaps2Go.)
So, using Evernote, we accomplished three of our four goals: we've got a well-organized information system that's convenient to carry (in our phones) and available anytime. (I should mention here that we've planned for extra battery storage in case we're without power for several days in a row. Of course, we could also drop our phone in a river, but guidebooks don't work well soaking wet either.)
How to collect great crowd-sourced travel insights.
Onto the last challenge: what's the most efficient way to vacuum up all of the great travel information available on the web that specifically pertains to your trip? Google (and a few of its products) came to the rescue.
Google Reader and travel sites/blogs: The most useful system we discovered worked like this: first, we created a Travel folder in our Google Reader account and added a bunch of travel sites. And by a bunch, I mean hundreds. It's easier than it sounds: search "best travel blogs," click on a link, and you'll land on your first travel blog, which you add to your reader. That site (like 99 percent of travel blogs) will have a blogroll linking to many other travel blogs. Subscribe to those, and on each of them, yet another blogroll will introduce you to yet more travel blogs. Spend a couple hours repeating this and subscribing to sites -- you'll fill up your RSS reader and also be introduced to dozens of fun writers. (Tip: adding a one-click RSS feed adder as a plug-in to your browser speeds this process up a lot.)
Step two: with all the feeds loaded, you can do a search of just those travel sites (and their archives) for any destination you're interested in. When you open Google Reader, there's a search bar at the top with a down-arrow; click the down-arrow, then click on your 'Travel' folder, and the results of your search (for example, "Buenos Aires") will be limited to those posted by the travel blogs that you've subscribed to. When you search the feeds through Google Reader, you're able to access every article that's stored in the feed, which in most cases means archives going back years.
The bottom line: after the initial work of collecting your feeds, you have the ability to do very focused searches about specific locations and activities that are relevant to your trip, and all the results you get back are written by travelers and for travelers. And whenever you come across new information you'd like to store, you can highlight it right within Google Reader and save it to Evernote and tag it in a matter of seconds.
Forums and trip reports: The other great places to look for travel information are in travel forums and trip reports (not exactly a keen insight, I know). There are the big general forums (on sites like Lonely Planet, Frommer's and TripAdvisor), as well country-specific forums (IndiaMike.com has an incredible amount of detailed information for India travelers, for example) and experience-specific forums (I used GT-Rider.com for researching a motorcycle trip in Laos).
The problem with these forums and trip reports is that none of them are particularly RSS friendly, and the tools for searching the forums on these sites are usually poor quality.
Instead, we'd use Google. If we were researching Istanbul, we'd Google "Istanbul 'trip report'" -- including the quotes -- and find a bunch of useful reports with people's thoughts and tips. We'd dig through the reports and save anything useful using Evernote. We did this for every place we intend to visit. You can also do a site-specific searches. Instead of relying on Lonely Planet's built-in search engine for information about Cartagena, Colombia, we'd Google "site:www.lonelyplanet.com cartagena." We found the results to be much better quality.
How we stay connected pretty much everyplace using XCom Global.
We tried to create a system that kept us prepared during our travels even when we're offline. Still, we wanted to have an internet connection whenever possible -- for emergencies, to stay connected to friends and to make cheap VoIP calls.
Most hotels and hostels offer Wi-Fi (although typically they're slow, and sometimes they cost extra) but you're usually out of luck once you leave the room and definitely if you're off trekking or camping in more remote areas.
We looked into a company called OneSimCard, which offers a SIM card for your mobile phone that provides cell service in over 200 countries. The problem is that data service is only available in a portion of those countries, and then the cost is quite high.
Instead, we went with a product I read about on Engadget called XCom Global. XCom ships you out a little device that can fit in your daypack -- it's about the size of a business card and the thickness of an iPhone -- that provides unlimited wireless internet access in 195 countries, usually through the local 3G network. You pay a flat fee each day you have it (the longer you use it, the cheaper it is) and then you ship it back to them when you're done with your trip. There are no limits on the data you can upload or download -- theoretically we could keep it on all day and be fine -- and up to five devices can be connected simultaneously.
We've been on our trip for about three weeks now and it's worked great for us. In addition to making calls and checking email, it proved most valuable at random unexpected moments: when we were about to take off for Lima and had forgotten to arrange the airport pick-up with our hotel, we signed on from the gate and set it up (and saved $20 bucks on cab fees); when we ended up on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and weren't sure what bus to take to get us back to the city, we signed on and grabbed the bus map.
We'd love to know any other tips you've found useful -- add them to the comments section or email us at NicoandKarina [at] gmail.com. You can follow our travels at InstagramTheWorld.com.
Follow Nico Pitney on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nicopitney