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Posted by Jessica on Jun 23, 2009
A Little Research Goes a Long Way

I've been writing a bit lately about the value of going with the flow and not over-planning a trip. But I want to be careful not to give the impression that researching travel is a bad thing. (Hell, if I did that, then some of you might not even be reading this travel blog while doing your own research.)

So, to be clear: Researching travel doesn't kill the romance that so many of us find on the road. Researching travel and the art of traveling is a great thing. It's what gets us excited about how to travel, where to go, how to get there, and what we'll find when we arrive. It's what gives insight into tips and tricks, pitfalls and highlights, and must sees and forget its.

For most of us, researching before traveling is a lot of fun. It lets us daydream without even leaving our house. And while it's not absolutely necessary – there's nothing that says you can't step on a plane bound for Botswana with just your passport, some cash, and a sense of adventure – at least a little research before you travel (or while you're on the road) might save you a few headaches along the way.

Researching a bit has definitely saved us more than a few headaches, many more than I could list in one post. And while there's never any guarantee that the road you travel on won't have a few potholes, there's no need to drive down the road blindly either. So here's a sampling of some of the ways a bit of reading helped us out before our feet hit the road. Perhaps some of the lessons we learned will be useful to you too.

A coup in Bolivia
Tim and I were nearing the end of our 90 day visa in Argentina. Soon enough it'd be time to leave the land of Flintstone-sized steaks and the tango, and head to its neighbor in the north, Bolivia. On our walk to the bus station where we'd buy tickets for the 6 hour bus ride to the Bolivian border the next day, we decided on a whim to pop into the internet cafe to check our email.

While sitting at the computer, we received an email from our Irish friends Aoife and Colin. Writing to their friends and family back home, as well as to the traveler friends they'd met along the way, they talked about how they had just barely been able to leave Bolivia. Everything in the capital had been shut down, they hadn't had access to much food in several days, roadblocks and tear gas were the norm, and the only reason they were able to leave at all was because they had booked their departing flight weeks earlier.

Surprised by their email, we quickly scanned the headlines online. It didn't take long to confirm the severity of the situation: Bolivia, it seemed, was facing a potential coup. We always knew Bolivia had a tendency to get a little feisty now and again, but we hadn't expected that to interfere with our travel plans. Turns out we were wrong.

Our hearts sinking at the news, we realized we had only been minutes away from booking a bus ride into a country that we very well may have gotten stuck in. Sure in the end, everything would have probably worked out fine. But at the time, 60% of the roads in Bolivia were inaccessible and 6 cities were isolated due to the blockades.

It was a whim to check our email that saved us quite a bit of hassle, to say the least. And it was at that moment that we agreed we'd make a point of always reading the news for the country we were currently traveling in, as well as the country we were headed to next.

A chilly forecast in Colombia
Cape Cod has been experiencing a cold snap for the past month. While the Cape is never particularly hot – 80s and 90s are about as warm as we get – warm breezes and sunshine usually fill our days during the spring and summer months. But the past few weeks have been filled with cold wind and copious amounts of rain.

Greeting dreary day after dreary day has been made a bit easier when I think about our upcoming trip to Colombia. I've imagined being able to wear my sandals and a skirt without shivering. I've imagined feeling the sun warm my shoulders. I've imagined getting a hint of a sunburn as a small reminder that we were in a warmer climate for holiday.

Of course, all that went out the window when we finally purchased the Lonely Planet chapter to Bogota this past week. Flipping through the pages, my eyes fell on a sentence that mentioned 14 degrees Celsius was the average temperature during the day and that 9 degrees Celsius was what we could expect at night. Doing the math quickly (okay, okay, I actually asked Tim to do the math quickly), we soon realized warm breezes are not in our future in Colombia either. After talking about the clothes we planned on wearing down there, we came to the conclusion that t-shirts, tank tops, and flip flops are not the way to go after all.

(You'd think we'd have learned this lesson a few years ago when we flew for a day trip from Washington DC to Boston. When we left DC it was 85 degrees and we were wearing summer clothes. When we landed in Boston it was 55 degrees and we had to buy sweatshirts. Perhaps this time the lesson to always check the weather of where we're going will stick.)

An election in Iran
Tim and I are absolutely desperate to go to Iran. (Much, I'm sure, to the dismay of our families.) However, given the state of affairs between the US and Iran, Americans (unlike other nationalities) are not permitted to travel independently throughout Iran. Instead Americans have to sign up with a tour company or a government guide, plan their route ahead of time, and make their peace with not going off the beaten path.

Unfortunately we didn't know this until after we spent several hours daydreaming about a visit. (Truth be told, we were debating honeymooning there.) Over several glasses of wine, we read glowing travel reports written by recent visitors (all Brits, as it turned out) and looked up prices of airline tickets online. It wasn't until the next day, when I looked up the visa process, that we encountered disappointment. Our hours of daydreaming seemed to trickle away. Tour companies and planned itineraries – not to mention on our honeymoon – just aren't our style.* And we made a note to ourselves to always check out the visa requirements before getting too carried away in future plans.

(*That's not to say we won't ever go, but our fingers and toes are firmly crossed that the tour guide requirement for Americans is dropped within the next few years. If it's not, we might have to reconsider our thoughts on having an escort during our trip. Iran and its people seems too amazing to miss out on just because of some silly red tape.)

Given our interest in Iran, and our overall interest in international politics, we've been intently watching the latest news out of Iran in the past week. The recent presidential election – which polls showed favoring the challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi over incumbent Mahmoud Ahmedinejad – went rather heavily to President Ahmedinejad, sparking cries of election fraud and massive protests in Tehran.

While reading firsthand accounts online and watching the thousands of people silently protesting in the streets, we realized another important thing we should look into before future travel plans. Although elections in many countries go off without a hitch, there are quite a handful of places where that's not as likely. Researching when elections are scheduled might save us from running into potential trouble during our travels. And at the very least, staying away from some countries during their elections will have our parents sleeping sounder.

The little details

Some of the above suggestions, like checking the news or election cycles, might seem obvious. But you'd be surprised (especially on longer trips) at how simple it can be to forget these basic things. When we travel, it can become very easy to forget the rest of the world. And when we're preparing to travel, it is entirely too easy to spend more time daydreaming than planning. Checking out the latest currency conversion rates, the preferred border crossings, or how to get from the airport into the city...all of these things are smaller details, but they can make a world of difference when you're traveling.

So consider the above examples as gentle nudges for those little details that can be overlooked or forgotten. And a little research into the little things can save you headaches, time, and cold toes down the road. Just remember no trip is full-proof and few trips proceed how we expect them to. But then again, traveling wouldn't be traveling without a few surprises now and again.

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June 24, 2009 at 3:18pm
oops… glad I read this, I will pack my umbrella :)

Agree with you hedgehogs, it is standard procedure to check out cnn.com/weather and xe.com before travelling.

Other cool websites are comebackalive.com (to read discussions about danger zones), inymedia.com (to see how the locals are getting killed even if it doesnt affect tourists), allafrica.com (summary of local news for Africa), prensaescrita.com (links to local newspapers in latin america)

Jessica the hedgehog
June 29, 2009 at 1:53pm
LOL! It's a good thing you packed it too – your umbrella came in handy on Saturday morning! :)

We already miss you and Secret Agent X so much! If your path crosses with her again in Colombia, please give her another hug from us. Our fingers are crossed we get to see you guys again soon! :)


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