How to Plan a Trip to a Place You Know Nothing About

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This week I am going to Sri Lanka and, outside a few facts I’d picked up by reading the news and talking to friends over the years, I recently realized I knew shockingly little about the country. I knew it was once ruled by the British, there was a long conflict between the Tamils and Sinhalese, the country produces a lot of tea, it has beyond-delicious food, its capital is Colombo, and there are some amazing jungles and beaches to explore.

But, beyond that superficial understanding, I knew nothing.

I couldn’t tell you if the country was cheap or inexpensive, what to see, one famous ruin, safety issues, where is popular, how to get around, what their currency or culture is, or anything in between.

Sri Lanka was a blank slate to me.

That made me nervous.

While I have no intention of ever planning trips day-by-day or moment-by-moment, I never like to go somewhere blind — it’s a sure-fire way to get ripped off, eat the wrong thing, get sick, make a cultural faux pas, and generally have something go badly. Knowledge is power, and given that so much information about is available online, I feel like going somewhere without any understanding of that place shows a laziness in planning and a sign of an unskilled traveler.

(Read more: 12 Things Not to Do When You Travel and 27 Rules for Not Ruining Your Trip)

So, before I flew to Dubai two weeks ago, I sat down to plan my trip to this brand-new destination. Normally, if I have enough of a basic understanding of a place, I just wing it — I’ve been to neighboring countries, know people, or have read enough to have an idea. Sri Lanka required some work.

How I planned my trip to Sri Lanka
Sigiriya rock fortress in Sri Lanka

Faced with a knowledge gap, here’s what I did to fill it:

First, I bought the Rough Guide to Sri Lanka. I think guidebooks are still important for travelers. Even though their practical information is often out of date, I love looking over them to get an overview of how to get around, form ideas on what to see and do, suggest itineraries, and look at the maps and featured places. It helps me put together the foundation of my planning. Besides, there’s just something enjoyable about holding a book and highlighting places that reading a blog on Iceland doesn’t offer!

Second, speaking of blogs, I went searching for them, too. Guidebooks are a good foundation, but blogs can fill in a lot of gaps. You can find more up-to-date information and off-the-beaten-path destinations, and ask questions of the bloggers. I searched, read, and searched some more for content and stories that gave me a sense of the destination. For reference, these are the blog posts I read:

Third, I asked friends and family for their advice (or if they knew anyone who could give me advice). It turned out I had a few friends who had been there recently and a few with family there. They gave me advice, tips, and suggestions on hotels and restaurants, and they connected me to family members. Now when I land, I have some people to stay with, show me around, and help me get situated. Nothing beats a local host!

Fourth, I asked this community. With so many people reading this blog, I figured some would have been there. Tweeting, Facebooking, and my blog posts produced a flurry of messages with tips and advice, and some from locals looking to meet up. It was incredibly helpful, and now I have some people to hang out with when I go!

Since not everyone is a blogger, I would suggest Couchsurfing as an alternative. This website exists to connect travelers and locals, and there is a very active community in Sri Lanka.

Finally, I bought books. As I’ve said in the past, you can’t know a place if you don’t know its history. So with a long flight ahead, I bought two books about Sri Lanka’s history so I can get a better understanding of the country’s rich history:

(Note: I just started reading these books so I can’t tell you how they are yet! But, besides buying books, I also read the Wikipedia of a country and the history sections in a guidebook. They aren’t comprehensive but, for a general overview, they do the trick!)

Talking to friends, family, readers, and bloggers has now given me a sense of the destination: an affordable, safe place with friendly locals, delicious food, and slow transportation. “Everyone is incredibly nice and helpful, but don’t expect to get anywhere fast unless you rent a driver” was the common refrain.

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Beautiful view overlooking Sri Lanka
For the first time in a long time, I am going to a place I know nothing about. I am going to be a fish out of water… and I’m thrilled! I can’t wait to try to backpack and figure things out on the way again! Sri Lanka sees a lot of tourists and it’s not completely “off the beaten track” but it’s different to me.

I’m sure my plans, route, and ideas will change when I hit the ground. But as of now, I feel I have a better idea as to what I am getting myself into. I have a sense of what to expect and that makes me more slightly comfortable about visiting. You never know what a place is really like until you go, but now the picture of Sri Lanka is not a complete blur – it’s come into a lot more focus.

Visiting a place you’ve know little about in a region you’ve been can be somewhat intimidating. To go some place completely different pushes you out of your comfort zone and that can be a tricky thing. Even after ten years of travel, I still have a small amount of trepidation before I go. Sure, it disappears right when I land and I think “What was I so worried about?” but there is that voice in the back of my mind that sometimes goes “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Doing a little research to get an understanding of a place mutes that voice.

This is not about scheduling all your days and all your activities. That stuff should be done after you touch down based on how you feel each day. This simply is about being a more informed about the destination you are visiting.

Because a smart and informed traveler is a better traveler.

There’s still much to learn about Sri Lanka but now I don’t feel as if I’m completely at a loss or ignorant about the place.

P.S. – If you’re in Sri Lanka and you’d like to meet up with me while I’m there, e-mail me at [email protected]!

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