The first time I ventured abroad, I approached the planning process like a college assignment. My nightstand was stacked with Lonely Planet guides, and I created an iron-clad itinerary based on glossy features in travel magazines. I thought I had it all figured out—until I arrived at the destination. Beaches that appeared isolated in photographs were overrun with tourists while picture-perfect landmarks looked totally different in reality.
It wasn't until years later that a fellow traveler let me in on the secret to planning a flawless trip. It turns out, seasoned travelers use one of the most popular social media apps to inform their itinerary: Instagram.
The more travelers I spoke to, the more I realized that I was using Instagram all wrong. Rather than simply sharing snaps with friends at home, travel pros use the app to find real-time data about destinations. Think about it: Instagram is an ever-growing resource of true-to-life travel images that show what an attraction actually looks like, the best time of year to visit, whether a beach is swelling with crowds, and even what a top chef or celebrity does on vacation.
Forget guidebooks. This is how travel pros use Instagram to create the best trip itinerary, without fail.
Find Accurate Photos
Thinking about visiting the famous white cove in Milos, Greece, or the startling pink-sand beach in Mexico? Before you go, use Instagram's hashtag search function to scroll through real, unfiltered images of the destination. Granted, professional photographers and bloggers often manipulate the color and contrast, but you'll also find a ton of images by travelers. It'll help you decide whether the destination really lives up to the hype—before you waste time, money, and effort getting there.
Curate Your Packing List
Unsure what to pack on vacation? Scroll through your destination's hashtag results to find out what other travelers packed. When I ventured to Marrakech, Morocco, this simple hack prompted me to bring a sheer scarf to wrap around my shoulders, as women are encouraged to cover up, despite the heat.
Discover Insider Tips
Ever wondered where a top chef dines in Paris or which trails a celebrity trainer hikes on vacation? Curate your Instagram feed with experts you trust for the best insider tips, direct to your phone.
Choose the Best Time of Year to Visit
If you're venturing to a country with a specific activity or attraction in mind, use Instagram to double-check the best time to visit. For example, days before I ventured to Cappadocia, Turkey, I used the app to make sure that the famous hot air balloon rides were operating. I discovered the rides were canceled due to strong winds and changed my travel plans to suit. When you're exploring a country with limited Wi-Fi or are dealing with tour operators who are slow to respond on email, that kind of information can make a huge difference.
Have you heard about another great travel planning hack? Share your tips with us in the comments.