Around the world without a guidebook: how we planned our trip.

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 offer relevant travel information, are 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 boatload of relevant information and insights from all over the web + good organization + lightweight and portable + accessible without an internet connection. 

Thanks to Evernote, and a nifty system for researching travel information, we’ve come pretty darn close.

How we use 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. (Big hat-tip to Brad Shannon for turning me onto it several months ago.)

As we scoured the web (and read books and talked 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’). You just highlight the specific text you want to save, click on the Evernote browser plug-in, and it’s 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. 

So, using Evernote, we accomplished 3 of our 4 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 here 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 + 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’ll 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 and you’ll fill up your RSS reader and also be introduced to dozens of enjoyable writers. (Tip: adding a one-click RSS feed adder as a plug-in to your browser speeds this process up a lot.) We also added RSS feeds for the travel sections of every major English-language newspaper, as well as traditional travel sites like Lonely Planet, Frommers, CNNGo, and TravelFish. (FYI: I’ll add the XML file for my travel RSS feed soon so anyone can just download my list of sites.)

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 with travelers in mind. 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 everyplace 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.

We’d love to know any other tips you’ve found useful — you can email us at NicoandKarina [at] gmail.com.