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No matter where you’re headed — whether you’re bound for a tourist attraction just a few miles from your home or an exotic locale halfway around the globe, familiarize yourself with your destination before you pack your bags.

Even if it’s a place you’ve been to before, don’t skip this step. Things change. And you want to be sure you’ll be using your time in the destination as wisely as possible. You don’t need to spend weeks doing this, but make some effort to familiarize yourself with the place you’re headed. You’ll save yourself headaches and plan a more efficient trip.

Whether you already have a specific article idea (or ideas) in mind or you’re simply planning to seek some out while you’re in your destination, these five steps will serve you well:

*** Step 1: Contact a Tourism Office

A good place to start is with a city, state, or national tourist office — whatever you think will be most relevant to your story. You’ll find several online directories for these offices, among them, for example:

* Tourism Offices Worldwide Directory

* Assn. of National Tourist Offices in the UK

Another way to track down the right source is simply by going to Google.com and searching, for example, for “Bahamas Tourist Board” or “Bahamas Office of Tourism.” Most such sites have a “Press Room” or at least list a media contact. That’s what you want.

Request a “Media Kit” or “Press Kit,” which is simply a packet of information about a place that usually includes press releases, historical information, facts and figures, and so on. (Some tourist boards post their full press kit online, which means you don’t have to ask for one.) If it’s not online, get in touch with the media contact and ask him or her to drop one in the mail to you.

Tourism offices are also useful when it comes to photos. Usually they maintain an extensive library of professional photos of their destination, which they will lend to publications at no charge as long as the photo gets proper credit in print. Even if you’re not sure you’ll need these, make a note as to whether they are available. You can always let an editor know that you can supply them with your story — saves the editor tracking them down and makes you look efficient and professional.

*** Step 2: Visit a Library and a Bookstore

It’s also a good idea to visit the public library. You might want to take out a book about the history of your destination or even a novel set there or written by somebody from there. The idea is simply to gain a richer understanding of this place you’re about to visit. It’s a way to prime yourself so that, from the get-go, you’re traveling not as a typical tourist. Don’t feel you have to read an 800-page book about the history of France, but you might take the time to read the introduction.

*** Step 3: Do an Article Search to See What Else Has Been Written

Some publications let you access their travel content online for free, and so at those sites it’s easy to do a search for past articles. You may want to start with one of the larger newspapers, like:

* The New York Times Travel Section

* The Los Angeles Times Travel Section

* The Chicago Tribune Travel Section

If you subscribe to your own local paper, even if the online content is fee-based for visitors, as a subscriber to the print edition you may also get access to the online archives at no charge.

Many, many online publications and e-zines dedicated to travel offer free archives. Here are a few places you might start:

* Boots n All

* Travel Mag

* Travel Lady Magazine

* Specialty Travel

* Escape Artist

* International Living

Then, of course, it behooves you to look at back issues of print magazines, too. Perhaps you’ve kept around the house a few back issues of those to which you subscribe. Or, if you’ve been tearing out articles from them about destinations that interest you, then you’ve already got any relevant articles handy.

*** Step 4: Talk to People Who Have Already Traveled to the Place You’re Headed

If possible, talk to people who have traveled — or even lived — in the destination where you’re headed. These folks are great sources for hints about what to visit and where to stay or eat. Find out, if you can, about a little-known or maybe off-beat thing to do. Ask around in your circle of contacts — you may well find a connection that will prove helpful.

Also, check online at traveler’s bulletin boards where people post their thoughts about a place. Reading through a few of those notes can give you some insights, too. A few places you might start:

* Trip Advisor

* I Go U Go

* Epinions

*** Step 5: Set Up Any Interviews You Know in Advance You’ll Want to Conduct

Let’s say, for example, that you already know where you’ll be staying. You might want to get in touch with the general manager or owner of the hotel and ask if, while you’re there, he might show you around and give you some background about the place. This has the benefit of priming him about your arrival (a writer will be in the house) and showing your seriousness of intent. And if, in advance, you have any questions about the facilities or about the destination in general, you can ask. Hoteliers are great resources. Make use of them.

If you’re focusing your story on a particular specialty — let’s say it’s diving in Belize or maybe handicrafts in Ecuador — then you might want to find a contact who can give you some background information about that particular interest. It might be a dive master or the owner of a dive shop in Belize or maybe an expatriate who owns an art shop or handicraft import/export business in Ecuador.

Even if all you do in advance is introduce yourself and ask if you might have 15 minutes or half-an-hour of a person’s time while you’re in the country — you’ve made a contact ahead of time who will be expecting you. I’ve never once set up such a meeting and not been met with tremendous hospitality.

And, since you’ll be getting in touch ahead of time — go ahead and ask a few questions (you can do this by email). Any suggestions the dive master can offer as to a dive itinerary for you — the one thing you absolutely shouldn’t miss? Anything the handicraft woman wishes people “outside” knew about? Something special Ecuador’s artisans produce beautifully that almost nobody knows about?

In other words: Use these early forays to help shape your article and give more focus to the research you’ll do once you’re in your destination.

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]

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