It’s one thing to hop on Priceline and book a flight, car and hotel, but how do you really know what you are getting into once you get there? Why limit yourself to what the machine tells you when you can strategically become the captain of your own ship! Now, my siblings will tell you that my planned itineraries are akin to a Swiss train schedule, but what they don’t know is that the secret to optimizing your vacation is being organized and meticulous – with, or course, an allowance for wiggle room – in order to reach your fullest photographic potential when visiting a new location.
Though there is something to be said for landing in a spot and exploring it sight unseen, it is extremely helpful, and in some cases safer, to do your research and know the type of location you’ll be landing in, much less where the photographic potential lies rather than wandering around blindly and missing those things that are what you really planned the trip for in the first place.
The Timing & The Booking
The thought of waking up one morning and saying, “You know what? I think I’ll book a trip for the end of the month,” freaks me the heck out because it doesn’t leave a lot of time to scout out where I’m headed. I am all about adventure. However, I believe as much consideration should be given to the cost of the tickets, as it is to a host of other factors. Not the least of which being the timing of when you book the trip.
For the last several years I have done my level best to avoid taking vacations during the summer months or – more specifically – when kids are out of school and popular destinations are crawling with other tourists. I find, for myself, that in addition to the elevated level of tranquility which comes from vacationing in the off months, the prices are often lower, the selection is greater and pretty good deals can be had! That said, I usually book everything about six months in advance to optimize prices, availability and seasonal visual appeal. Although, I do start initial my investigation up to a year in advance.
My first order of business is the flight. I weigh the cost of choosing an airport close to where I will ultimately end up versus something nearby which may be cheaper. Sometimes, an hour or two drive provides a lot of scenic opportunities in addition to cost savings. Similarly, I am all about maximizing the time I have off, so the earlier the flight better as far as I am concerned. I can always sleep on the plane and be refreshed when I arrive, yet still have some daylight left to wander around until sunset or later.
A quick note about Airport parking – avoid it like the plague, is it obscenely expensive. However, do investigate the possibility of reduced rate parking at hotels located near the airport. Here in the Chicago area you can park at some of the area hotels for a flat rate for the entire length of your trip, often for less than the cost of cab fare to and from the airport. Whereas a cab from our house to the airport has often cost upwards of $75 (one way), we have been able to secure reduced rate airport hotel parking for as little as $75 for the entire trip AND they offer a shuttle to the airport and back as well, which is a huge bonus, not just for the cost, but the time and convenience as well!!
Once I have booked the flight I look for the cheapest car rental possible. The good thing about booking car rentals online is that you usually don’t have to pay in advance, so if you lock in a good price, keep checking to see if a better deal comes along and then book it and cancel the first. I once booked an SUV for 10 days for about $375 just from monitoring the prices – there are good deals out there, you just have to look for them!
The last thing I book is the lodging. This is where you will need to be on your game and really shop around. More importantly, booking as far in advance as possible with lodging is the best route because a lot of popular destinations book very quickly and often months in advance, so for the best selection and price, the sooner the better. I have a tendency to go fairly cheap on lodging only because I am usually out and about so much all I really do there is sleep. So, for me, how a place looks is secondary to cost. That being said, I would not likely go with anything that has a 1-2.5 star rating – even I have some standards!
I don’t limit myself to hotels either. I will check out B&Bs as well as rental properties to see where I can get the best deal. Each has their own appeal, so you have to weigh where your priorities are. I like the anonymity of a hotel situation, but I love the homey feel and good breakfast afforded by a B&B. However, because most mornings I am up and out the door before the sun rises I miss the free breakfast which is kind of a waste of money to stay in some cases.
With regard to vacation rentals, I tried this for the first time when we went to Ireland and it was an exceptional deal! It was a small one bedroom flat in the downtown Dublin area and was within walking distance of EVERYTHING for a price far below that of any of the local hotels or B&Bs. Again, you have to shop around! Be careful, however, when it comes to paying for your rental property stay. Make sure you can pay with a third party service such as PayPal. On one failed attempt I mailed a check for the deposit (at their request because they didn’t have PayPal) and it was “lost in the mail.” A month later I had three incidents of ID theft crop up, so buyer beware!
When we traveled to Ireland, we planned to have a rental car only part of the trip and were going to rely on public transportation while in Dublin. As luck you have it (how appropriate), after we turned in the rental car we happened upon this tour bus stop called Hop-On-Hop-Off. Basically for a flat fee you have unlimited access for several days to all stops along the circuit this bus made (which was pretty big) so we were able to tour the city for several days and not worry about paying every time like we’d originally assumed we’d have to do. The lesson is that it pays to research even the smallest of details, such as local transportation deal – we got lucky in this case, but imagine what we’d have spent were we not so lucky!
I am a huge believer in being prepared for anything – within reason of course. While we generally know what to expect in our own areas during any given season, it can be wildly different depending on where you are headed. Not only can the temperature vary, but the type of weather conditions as well. For example, Glacier National Park can see snow every month of the year. Knowing where (and when) such weather will occur is extremely important, not only so you know how to pack, but for safety reasons as well. While Death Valley may be hot as blazes in the summer, it can still be extremely cold at night. Be prepared!!
I just made a trip to Oregon in May and was driving the loop around Mount Hood. I had intended to drive up to Timberline Lodge and do some hiking. However, as I drew closer to the mountain it became evident very quickly that I would not be venturing off the main highway, as the snow was still piled fairly high (several feet) along both sides of the road. Similarly, we went to Glacier National Park the last week of July in 2011 and, upon our arrival, learned that they had just gotten a foot of snow the week before – IN JULY!! Consequently, the main road through the park (Going to the Sun Road) remained closed until shortly before we got there.
This brings me to another important point. Not only investigate what kind of weather to expect for the time of year you are planning to visit, but make sure that there are no road restrictions tied to such weather conditions. Some roads are closed during winter months and some winters are longer in places than others. Similarly, we are going to Rocky Mountain National Park in a couple of weeks and my research revealed that part of one of the main roads through park is currently closed as it washed away due to some recent flooding. Again, do your research as your safety may depend on it!
Locations, Times and Fees
While you may want to head to a location before the roosters are up, you might not be able to get in. For the locations you plan to visit, make sure you find out if they have seasonal or daily hours and if there are any fees associated with admission. You would think a giant place like Garden of the Gods would be open all the time. However, such is not the case and the hours change depending on whether it is winter or summer. Other locations may have restricted access, such as sites on Native American Reservations, so find out not only the hours and fees but whether special permission is needed and how you go about access them in the first place.
I am reminded of an adventure my husband and I had a few years ago. I was extremely gung-ho to shoot the Point Conception Lighthouse (I think that’s the one) in Lompoc, CA. I planned the time of day, mapped out the route, packed my gear, dressed for the time and weather and off we went. It was going to be epic. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the access road, it was obstructed by a chained and locked gate with signs stating it was private property and no access was permitted. Had I done my research a little better (I later found out) I would have known this from the start.
Likewise, I grew up in Santa Barbara, California and never once had to pay to access a beach. You just got up and went, parked your towel on the sand and staked out your spot. Boom, done. However, years later, when I had just moved to Philadelphia, my ex-husband and I decided we were going to the New Jersey shore for some salt water taffy and a day at the beach. You can imagine my shock (and disgust) at having to purchase (for no small fee) a day pass to access the beach. Forewarned is forearmed!
Planning The Adventure
Being a photographer, my trips are very visual-centric, so where I go is largely dependent on where and what there is to photograph. But if you have never been to a location, how do you know where to go? By surfing the internet of course! It pays to do your homework and the internet is the best resource for scouting any location. Not only can you find locations you’ve never heard of, but you also determine how to get to them, whether you need special skills or equipment or if they’ll even be worth your while to begin with!
A good starting place would be with the boards of tourism for the city or state where you are going. That will give you a good idea of major attractions like museums, historic sites and other such places. However, don’t be afraid to dive deeper. For example, when I went to Ireland, I did a search for “castles” and “ruins” and came across an incredibly long list of locations to investigate. Think about the type of place you are going or what you are interested in seeing there and let that be your guide.
Check out maps! There is a link on Google Maps which I cannot live without – Terrain (if you hover over the search box a drop down will appear and the “Terrain” link is at the bottom in the “Getting Around” section). I am pushing 50 and I have had a number of orthopedic surgeries, not the least of which being ACL reconstruction to both of my knees. Therefore, it is very important for me to not only know what type of terrain I will be venturing into, but what conditions getting there are like. It also helps to know this before booking you trip! If you are debilitated in some way you don’t want to end up in the Rockies!
Not only will you get an idea of the nature and extent of the hills, valleys and elevation but you can also find markers for things like state and national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and other points of interest. More importantly, if you zoom into these areas you can also sometimes determine whether there are hiking trails so you can understand where access roads and parking are, not to mention how accessible the area you are interested in is once you do find a place to park.
Once I have generated a list of potential locations which appear to be easily accessible (including distance from base and travel time) I will go to any one of a number of image sites, such as 500px.com, and search for terms that relate to my trip, including the name of the state, city or country I am visiting or the specific locations of interest I have written down and see what pops up. Not only can you scout out locations that you have already found, but you can learn of other locations that you never knew existed!
Furthermore, a lot of times the image descriptions or the “Tags” will give you the names of other places to investigate or where something is located. In some cases, if you click on an image (in 500px) and scroll down to just below the image you may see a link that will show you the location. By clicking on that link a map similar to Google Maps will appear where the artist has tagged where they shot the image. It is important to note, however, that not all locations are 100% accurate. Some people don’t like to share the exact place where they took an image, but you’ll get a general idea and know where a good place to explore might be.
When to Shoot
One of the most useful tools in my arsenal when preparing for a trip is an iPad App called The Photographer’s Ephemeris (or TPE). In a nutshell, this app has an integrated satellite map over which you can place a pin in a specific location to determine the direction of the sun/moon at sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset during any given day of the year as well as the civil, nautical and astronomical rise/set times. Furthermore, it can tell you the type (waxing or waning) and percentage of the moon and the optimum time to see it. This app can be used globally where, of course, there is Wi-Fi or cellular service.
Another really useful tool is the companion app to TPE, which is The Photographers Transit (or TPT). This application also has an integrated map and can show you, for any given camera and lens combination, the angle of view as well as the vertical field of view and the elevation allowing you to set the distance on the map between your camera and your subject. This app can also be used globally where; again, there is Wi-Fi or cellular service.
If you are interested in knowing the angle and position of the sun for a given location on a given date and time, there are apps for that as well. The one I use is SunSuveyor. This app has an integrated 3D compass with an overlay for the sun and moon positions, a map with a fixed diagram of the angle and position of the sun and moon and a feature which tells you, for a given location, date and time, the optimal shooting hours (blue, sunrise, golden morning, solar noon, evening, golden evening, and sunset as well as the civil, nautical and astronomical times. Wi-Fi or cell service is needed for field use.
For those interested in astronomy and night photography, you should also consider an app to map out the constellations and whatnot in the night sky. The app (free version) I use for this is called Night Sky 2 and will let you search for specific constellations, planets, stars, etc. This app is also dependent on either Wi-Fi or a cell signal. If you are planning to do some night shooting I also recommend a website called Dark Sky Finder which has a zoomable map and overlay showing the degree of intensity of city lights which will affect your ability to see the stars, planets and constellations for a given location.
Finally, if you are headed to a beach, it is likely important to know the times and heights of the tides. For this, I turn to the TideTrac app. Similar to the aforementioned apps, this allows you to choose a date and time as well as a location, based on the previously loaded tide stations. Unfortunately, they are only loaded for the United States coastal areas and not around the globe and, as with the other apps, will only work where a cell or Wi-Fi signal can be had.
In conclusion the big take away should be to plan ahead and do as much investigation and research as possible so you are not only spending your money wisely, but your valuable time as well. I really hope this helps you plan your next epic photographic vacation. Happy travels!
 For National Parks I will just order an official map (usually off Amazon.com) which provides far more detail and information than Google Maps.