When I plan a personal trip, like the recent one to Madrid, I find that I use a variety of sources depending on the task at hand. I didn’t realize how diverse it was until I got into a discussion of who I trust for restaurant reviews; I’ve devleoped a ‘go-to’ source for almost every facet of the journey, but seldom the same references for any two items.
Destinations: I usually have a general idea of the type of place I’d like to go, and last week it had to be a warm, sunny, novel city break. I talk with friends about their travels, and short-listed Tenerife, Morocco, Sardinia, and Greece.
The online Frommers guide gives me a quick overview. In this case it warned that Sardinia was largely closed down this time of year, and that Morocco was clearly too ambitious for a long weekend. Conversely, Medeira emerged as an attractive alternative to Tenerife.
Travel: SkyScanner gives me a general idea of costs, airlines, and dates, and I check the route maps for Ryanair and Easyjet to get an overall feel for the alternatives of leaving from Eindhoven, Brussels, Dusseldorf, or Frankfurt. Sometimes the best combination involves two different destination cities, one for flying in and another one for flying out.
Medeira was hideously expensive because only one airline, connecting through Lisbon, serves the island. Sardinia was cheap, Greece was expensive. Venice and Sardinia were good bargains. The Sardinia flights route through Girona, which started me looking at Barcelona and led to Madrid.
It’s important to plan the trip from the airport to the hotel; in Madrid the taxi costs 30 euro, while the Metro costs 2.
Hotels: I’ll start with the guidebooks to identify good areas, central within walking distance to attractions, and well placed away from the noise of bus- and train-stations. I always look at TripAdvisor to see what their third or fifth choice is; their search engine also gives a good estimate of room price and availability. The hotel web sites are the final arbiter based on look and feel.
Restaurants and Clubs: I prefer to get local advice from friends or colleagues, people who have lived in the area or are really familiar with it. These establishments tend to be ephemeral and quality can wax and wane, and guidebooks can’t keep up to date. I’ve had mixed success with concierge desks; they are great for securing reservations, but run hot and cold on making good recommendations.
Distressingly, I like to find a good neighborhood and then just wander around looking at menus and seeing how full the restaurant is. In Madrid, a tapas crawl after a rioja bar is a fun casual evening. For a nice evening, the Lonely Planet guide did lead to making a reservation at an outstanding Basque restaurant.
Faced with a long, neon-lit street of clubs, it’s hard to know where to look for a good flamenco dancer. Everyone is hawking something, al offering paradise inside. The guidebook recommended one that should have been free, but the doorman asked 10 euro, then more for inside seating. The show was very good, but I ended up watching on tiptoe from the crowd beside the stage.
Sightseeing: I prefer getting recommendations from local friends; concierge desks also know opening hours and tricks of reserving admission. Guidebooks give good overviews and sometimes identify unusual attractions that are fun, but can miss details. I always try to pick up a local event guide or ask the waiter in restaurants about special events. Generally have no interest in shopping guides, escorted tours, or out of town excursions, although if a boat is involved I can be tempted.
Madrid has good local tourist sites on the web that are worth consulting. The big museums and monuments like the Prado or Reina Sofía are pretty straightforward: the key is to know something about what’s in the collection before you go. Museums tend to scatter the great works around to draw visitors through the museum, leading to a lot of footwork if I don’t have a plan. I also like the smaller themed rooms that can introduce me to related artists. My discoveries were Flemish painters Joachim Patnir, left, and the Abraham van der Hecken, right.
My biggest fear is that I’m going to look like “The Philosopher” within a few years…