Rick Steves' Top Research Tips For Planning Your Next Vacation

Renowned Travel Expert Rick Steves initially embarked on his global explorations without having much of an itinerary, but he doesn't advise fellow travelers to wing it all the time. While it's always nice to infuse an element of surprise into your trips for the thrill of it, it always pays to research and plan, especially if you want a meaningful travel experience. "Remember that the more understanding and context you bring to a place, the more you'll enjoy it," he told The Seattle Times. "I can't get you into the Prado Museum cheaper than anybody else, but if you know a little bit about art history when you go to the Prado, it's going to be much more rewarding."

Given the flurry of readily available resources, vacation planning is a million times easier now than years ago. But Steves says nothing beats a good old guidebook, not just because he's written several of them. Guidebooks are a great starting point for virtually any trip, as they recommend the best spots to visit and underrated gems alike. "I am amazed by the many otherwise smart people who base the trip of a lifetime on a borrowed copy of a three-year-old guidebook," Steves shared with Business Insider, emphasizing the importance of using an up-to-date version. "The money they save in the bookstore is wasted the first day of their trip, searching for buses that no longer run and restaurants that have long since closed. Guidebooks are $25 tools for $4,000 experiences."

Don't underestimate the power of a map

Speaking of old-school resources, Rick Steves emphasizes the usefulness and practicality of relying on physical maps to help you figure out the most efficient ways to go from point A to point B. While you can always refer to digital maps to determine distances between your preferred destinations, their traditional counterparts provide a more macro vantage point. They show you the actual scale of the area in one fell swoop, as opposed to GPS-based tools that you'd have to keep zooming in and out. A bird's eye view offers a clearer sense of how far apart places are from each other, along with how long it would take you to get to them.

Steves suggests marking your specific points of interest and then gauging if it makes sense to visit them all based on their proximity to one another to optimize your itinerary. This helps you evaluate whether visiting them aligns with other crucial considerations like travel time. If laying out an entire map overwhelms you, the travel guru says that a fail-safe travel itinerary involves a combination of big cities and small towns. For instance, if you're exploring Europe, he says to look into pairing London and Cotswolds and Paris and Loire Valley.

Use a combination of both big sites and local sites

While Rick Steves is a big fan of traditional research tools, he recognizes how invaluable apps and online resources are, especially travel-focused sites. He has an entire page on his website dedicated to his go-to platforms, which include Time Out for checking out events in big cities, Oanda for currency conversion, and Urban Rail for public transportation options.

When it comes to the nitty-gritty, however, he recommends taking time to pore through content on local websites. Apart from the official tourism websites of cities, make it a point to visit blogs run by locals to gather insider info and hidden gems. These sites provide a unique native perspective, a sort of digital preview of what it's like to live in a specific locale. For example, Paris By Mouth is his go-to for Parisian restaurants and retail stores, while Athens Survival Guide is his preferred resource for all things Greece.

When doing research online, Steves advises travelers to exercise caution. Use your judgment to discern whether a piece of content offers authentic insights, is purely ad-driven, or if a user review stems from a disgruntled customer with a vendetta. As with all things related to the internet, think before you click.