by Katie Hamlin
Reading trip reports from other travelers can be an invaluable resource for planning your next vacation. They're often great for gathering information on topics such as what to expect when you land, where to find top hotels and the best under-the-radar restaurants, and when to book ahead for must-do activities. Essentially, it's all about the experience of what worked—and perhaps even more importantly, what didn't. Thanks to our thriving community, we had more than 1,700 reports posted in 2011 to comb through for the best advice of the year.
1. Book that big family trip before it's too late.
The Report: Wayfinder45's The Highs and Lows of a Family Trip to Italy
Where and When: Rome - Florence - Venice | December-January
Lesson Learned: Wayfinder45 and her husband, high school sweethearts, returned to the scene of their first meeting 32 years ago—this time with their two teens and one tween in tow. A must-read for parents considering one last "family vacation" before their oldest moves out.
Excerpt: "Traveling with both teens and a young child was an interesting juxtaposition: my husband and I could barely throw a fact or two the teens' way before they knew ALL they needed to know, thank you very much. The little one was a wall of questions, none of which I seemed to have good answers to."
2. Take advantage of local expertise where it makes sense.
The Report: Rhkkmk's Why India, Part II, Thailand and Nepal
Where and When: Thailand - India - Nepal | October-November
Lesson Learned: Rhkkmk's trip to Asia with his wife is written in real time, which made each even more exciting to follow. If you've been on the fence about going to India, take a look; Rhkkmk nicely detailed what makes it so unique. He also gives plenty of credit to the local guides they hired that made the trip so seamless. Bonus: he includes many recommendations for restaurants, shopping excursions, and hotels.
Excerpt: "We finally arrived at our heritage hotel, The Rattan Villas. This lovely enclave is located right in the city...We relaxed a bit and went down to the courtyard for dinner about 7:30. The food was amongst the best we have had. I had a bowl of chicken lemon soup and my wife ordered the following for us to share: giant Kingfisher beer, Mattor mushrooms and peas in gravy (yum!!), lentils and spinach, white meat chicken rolled in egg and cashew flour and cooked quickly in the tandoori oven, water, naan and split a fruit salad and custard. 1504 Rs. Lovely setting and very reasonable. . .Room: 3250 Rs incl breakfast—less than $75."
3. Consider a home exchange.
The Report: Annetti's Home Exchange - Toronto - 5 Weeks
Where and When: Toronto | September
Lesson Learned: Annetti marked her 24th home exchange by swapping her Southern California home with a couple from Toronto. She posted updates while in Toronto, and locals offered up ideas and tips for nearby restaurants and events. The exchanges even resulted in an impromptu GTG (Get-ToGether)!
Excerpt: "We boarded the subway around 5 or so, hoping to avoid the evening rush hour, but it really was not terrible. No real crush. Torontonians are so civilized, people queuing for the buses, no pushing in the subway, people offering me a seat, I guess this baby boomer looked frazzled, but I declined, however my husband gratefully took the offered seat."
4. Don't get discouraged by personal challenges.
The Report: Edeevee's Everything I Need to Know (re Taking Mama to Manhattan) I Learned on Fodor's
Where and When: New York City | August
Lesson Learned: Edeevee started 2011 with this post asking Fodorites for their tips for making her 70 year-old mother's dream to travel to New York City a reality. She shared her desire to take this trip with her mother, her mother's best friend, and a good friend in spite of her own physical and financial challenges. And her fellow Fodorites came through! For months edeevee planned; and in the end her "Mama to Manhattan" reports detailed all of the trip's many small victories with a list of 56 tips. Making extensive use of the city's public transportation (primarily buses!), the foursome had a fantastic time. Just check out her profile to see just how much planning went into this one!
Excerpt: "From there it was just a couple more blocks to the Hop On Hop Off bus. A lot of folks on here seem to hate those things but, for two ladies in their 70s who had already spent a long day traveling, it was an excellent activity. Our tour guide was pleasant and knowledgeable. The weather was lovely, with a nice breeze blowing on top. We got a good overview of the city with landmarks that helped orient us throughout the week. And the ladies were able to both sit and be entertained for an hour and a half. At $44 each, I wouldn't say it was a bargain but you can save five bucks if you order your tickets in advance."
5. Give back.
The Report: Hopefulist's Central America Travelogue - Guatemala & Honduras
Where and When: Antigua - Guatemala - Honduras | July
Lesson Learned: Hopefulist and her husband's trip to Central America combined adventure (hiking to waterfalls, diving, and fishing) with a visit to the San Pedro, Guatemala school served by the small non-profit they began in 2009. The Beca Project matches promising students with scholarships to cover secondary school costs provided by sponsors. Their trip was made richer because of friendships with local families who benefited from their non-profit's work. In her report, you'll also find recommendations and prices for several comfortable (but very inexpensive) places to stay.
Excerpt: "The market was buzzing on Thursday; we devoured it with our eyes and picked enough produce to last us days. We checked out Nim Po't as though it was a museum and I bought another watercolor from artist Byron González who sets up some days under the arch. We visited the Cathedral ruins, sat people watching in parque central, and lucked into a Señorita Antigua parade complete with dangerously overloaded and top heavy pickup loads of teenage boys chanting the names of their favorites."
6. Don't be put off by solo travel.
The Report: Atravelynn's North & South Tanzania Report
Where and When: Tanzania | September
Lesson Learned: On her member profile, atravelynn says her favorite travel tip is "the price you pay for not going can never be recouped." If you've always dreamed of going to Africa, specifically Tanzania, you must read this longtime Fodorite's report of her recent trip to North and South Tanzania. Atravelynn travels with one major priority—to see as much wildlife as possible. Making use of the expertise of local guides and tour companies (which she lists and recommends in great detail for those researching a trip), atravelynn covered a lot of ground, including a visit to Mahale for three chimp treks.
Excerpt: "To put the abundance found in Tarangire into perspective, I had as many photos from my 3 days here as from the rest of the trip. Lions, cheetahs, a leopard, elephants in the mud, in the river, nursing, sparring, thundering herds of running buffalo, the elusive lesser kudu, huge flocks of water birds in the Silale Swamp, Egyptian Geese in the trees—Tarangire is one happening place!"
7. Traveling abroad with a toddler is daring—but doable.
The Report: Tara3056's BA with a Toddler - A Little Crazy, A Lot of Fun
Where and When: Buenos Aires | December
Lesson Learned: In September, Fodor's member Tara3056 asked other members in the South America forum if they thought that traveling with a 14-month old to Buenos Aires from Iowa was crazy. No one balked at the idea and one member pointed to a past report posted by another traveler who braved Buenos Aires with a 4-month old and a 22-month old. Proof it could be done! Tara3056's trip had its hiccups (primarily caused by incredible jet lag), but overall she, along with her husband, proclaimed it a success.
Excerpt: "In the end, we are still glad we took our son to Buenos Aires. It was either go to Buenos Aires with him, or not go at all. And we got a really cool experience out of it, so even with the negatives, it was still worth it. But make no mistake: this was a trip, an epic journey. It was no vacation."
8. See more of Europe.
The Report: Julia_t's Sarajevo in the Springtime
Where and When: Sarajevo | April
Lesson Learned: Have you ever started planning your next trip in the middle of your current one? Julia_t traveled through Bosnia & Herzegovina in 2010 and realized that she had to return to spend more time in the capital of Sarajevo. Julia_t's report captures what it's like as one member, annhig, noted, "to travel and see places that aren't aimed at tourists." She tells us about drinking coffee like a Bosnian, lucking into a last-minute tour of Kraljeva Sutjeska, a small Bosnian village with a 14th-century monastery, and even shares mini-history lessons (of the non-dry variety) for those less familiar with the country's past.
Excerpt: "After an hour we arrived in Kakanj—which we would not have known had not the nice young law student sitting across from us told us! The station platform was tiny, but the train did not stop at it—we had to get out by jumping literally 3 feet down from the train directly onto the tracks—and then cross a good few more sets of tracks to the road!"
9. Travel to remember. Travel to make new memories.
The Report: AnselAdorne's Susan's Paris
Where and When: Paris | February
Lesson Learned: Paris was a place that one of Fodor's longtime members, AnselAdorne, and his wife, Susan, loved; they traveled there together several times. Sadly, Susan passed away in 2010. AnselAdorne returned this past spring with his daughter, brother, and sister-in-law; they rented an apartment in the 1st arrondissement for 2 weeks. His report is really two reports; he describes his most recent trip, while also flashing back to his last trip there with his wife. It's the kind of report that will have you reaching for tissues and googling restaurant names at the same time; it's personal, while also being incredibly informative.
Excerpt: "Susan's Paris was all about food; rarely did I eat or drink without some recollection of her passion. She had a couple of rules about apartment food. The first was: keep it simple. Richard, Esther, and I shopped on rue Montorgueil every day or two and brought back celery remoulade, patés, ham (jambon à l'os, which was delightfully hammy), or rotisserie chicken. We added a salty Brie de Melun, an intense Bleu d'Auvergne, or a pungent Munster, and then stepped into a green grocer to get whatever we needed for another fresh salad. We added bread, wine, a bottle of Badoit, a few gherkins, and some olives from a stall at the market, and enjoyed a delightful lunch."
10. Don't assume you can't afford a destination.
The Report: Hawaiiantraveler's Kyushu & Honshu - Fall Trip
Where and When: Japan | November
Lesson Learned: By leveraging hotel points and carefully picking where to save and splurge, HawaiianTraveler and his wife were able to take their 10th trip to Japan without breaking the bank. As veteran travelers know, sometimes deals can be found in even the most notoriously expensive places; but be ready to research and plan! The couple traveled primarily with rail passes; he outlines their train experience in detail; his observations of the rail system are both humorous and educational.
Excerpt: "When you are leaving Yokohama station you want to be on the right side of the train to enhance your chances of catching a glimpse of Mt. Fuji just past the JR Odawara train station or about 40 minutes out of Yoko station. I like to be on the left side of the train out of Hakata to Nagasaki as you seen the sights coming out of the mountains and down to the ocean through into Nagasaki."
11. Don't forget your "bucket list" destinations.
The Report: Kathie's Still Wowed by Burma
Where and When: Burma | November
Lesson Learned: Many travelers have certain destinations on their "bucket list" of places they must go to eventually; keep in mind that destinations change over time for better or for worse. Kathie traveled to Burma for the second time in December; her first trip was in 2009, and she reports that the number of tourists were far greater this go-around. But Burma was as special as she remembered it being. Her trip report offers extensive detail and she reminds fellow travelers that a trip to Burma remains a real undertaking, as it's essential to understand the local culture, extensively research your options, and book with a reputable tour company.
Excerpt: "From there we went to Sagaing, our favorite of the three ancient cities. Sagaing has a lovely atmosphere. The area is green and lush and filled with gilded stupas and pagodas. There are lots of monks and nuns, as this is a center for monasteries and nunneries. We stopped at several interesting places, and it was apparent that there were many more. We especially enjoyed the 30 Caves Temple, Umin Thounzeh. It was lovely being at the top of Sagaing Hill and overlooking the lush landscape, with gold spire and white stupas scattered about. If I were to go back, I'd spend a whole day in Sagaing."
12. Consider what's worth seeing closer to home.
The Report: Melnq8's A Taste of Perth (and Vicinity)
Where and When: Western Australia | Ongoing
Lesson Learned: Melnq8 deserves mention for her ongoing "trip" report of her own backyard, Perth and just beyond. She began this report after moving to Perth in the spring of 2009. She started it as a way to share her discoveries— and more than two years later, she's still dispensing valuable advice and making recommendations. Her report has inspired some members to consider traveling to Western Australia instead of limiting their trip to the East.
Excerpt: "A stinking hot muggy Friday in late February. . .with illusions (or in this case delusions) of escaping the heat, we hop in the car and head north on West Coast Drive, planning to have a leisurely breakfast and then hide out in the aquarium for a few hours. As we meander along the coast we pass a steady stream of beachgoers, coming, going and generally wandering about. So this is where Perth goes on a Friday morning. . ."
13. Take a trip as unique as you.
The Report: Fredandgingermad's New York - Los Angeles
Where and When: Across the U.S. | June-July
Lesson Learned: Fredandgingermad's trip across the United Sates with her 4 year-old has all the quirks and merits of a script being workshopped for Sundance. It's not just any cross-country journey; the duo from Britain is traveling in the shadows of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers via Amtrak. That means hunting for photos at Jerry Ohlinger's Movie Materials Store in New York, viewing a bust of Ginger at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., locating Fred Astaire's birthplace in Omaha, and finding their handprints at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. This report is admirable—and a delight to read.
Excerpt: "There were some people already waiting who expressed surprise at the amount of luggage we were carrying, I quickly explained that we're visiting from 'Across the Pond' very quick understanding and comments that big suitcases are necessary for such big trips! One of the guys noticed my t-shirt (with Ginger on) and said there was no need for me to explain why we were in Independence it was clear from my shirt why!"
Want to read more great trip reports? Become part of the conversation on Fodors.com.
Photo credit: -Antonio- / iStockhoto