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Getting organized before a trip can make your visit not only more efficient, but more enjoyable, too. I spoke with Lori a few weeks back, as I was preparing to leave for Porto and northern Portugal, and she asked me to share with you what I was doing to ensure my time on the ground would be focused, productive, and fun.

Here’s an account of what I did… and five tips to help you get the most out of every trip you take.

Tip 1: Make use of local contacts — and not just “officials.”

Don’t just contact the tourist board. You’re ahead of the game if you know a ‘civilian’ living and working in the place you intend writing about. Luckily I’d kept an e-mail from a Portuguese reader called Alvaro. He’s the director of a plastics company and lives in Maia, a suburb of Porto.

Obviously I wasn’t likely to write about Portuguese plastics, but the guy sounded respectable and his English was perfect. Was he willing to meet me? Indeed he was. In fact, he offered to collect me once I arrived in Porto. E-mails flew back and forth – I arranged to spend one day with him and his wife, a schoolteacher.

(Incidentally, Alvaro turned out to be a great contact. After a tour of the Maia area and an authentic fish lunch in his favorite local restaurant, he introduced me to the director of a local travel company who can arrange customized tours for individuals and small groups. My new friends didn’t just invite me to look around their home, and give lots of suggestions about where to go – they also came up with the names of some reliable real estate agents to contact.)

Tip 2: Plan on writing not just one story — but others, too. And dig around ahead of time to get some ideas.

Besides a full article, I knew IL would want postcards for their web site. I always try and identify likely topics for these postcards before I leave home. You don’t have to send away for tons of stuff from tourist offices. Most countries and cities now have informative web sites.

Find out if anything special is taking place during your visit. Any good fairs or festivals? You might not use the information for the piece you’re working on, but it may be useful for another article about the same event next year. Example: in December 2003, I was in Vienna — a wonderful place for pre-Christmas markets. But my short piece about the city’s best Christkindlmarkt only appeared in the December 2004 issue of International Living.

As my Portugal trip was also in December, I hoped to find something ‘Christmassy’ again. Unfortunately, Porto’s calendar of events didn’t reveal any gems. However, once I googled up the tourist office web site, there were two obvious topics for postcards.

Porto is the home of port wine — and a number of the centuries-old port wine lodges are open to visitors for tours and tastings. To me, port has always been something to drink with Xmas mince pies — so at a push I could bring in a bit of seasonality too.

But on what days and at what time did the port wine lodges open? Did I need to book a tour in advance?

Tip 3: Draw up an advance plan of action about where to go and what to see. Of course, you don’t have to stick rigidly to your plan. But nothing beats good preparation.

The information I needed about the port lodges was only a click away. Any weekday after 10am would do — and I didn’t need to book a tour.

Trawling around the Porto turismo web site, I also learned the city’s specialty dish was tripe…the lining of a sheep or cow’s stomach. It sounded utterly revolting — but writing about it would undoubtedly make another great postcard.

Tip 4: Maximize your traveling time and hit two destinations instead of just one.

You’ve been commissioned to write about a destination — and that’s great. But you should be able to get more than one article out of your trip. If it’s a city destination, where makes an interesting side-trip? Or side-trips?

From Porto, I found I could make easy day trips by train to plenty of other places in northern Portugal — and get back again. Being stranded somewhere in the dead of night is always a complete pain.

I almost always use public transport. OK, I don’t mind admitting I can’t drive on the right-hand side of the road, but the bonus about train travel is getting to meet local people. Plus if you’re trying to keep down expenses, it’s usually a lot cheaper than hiring a car. Incidentally, if you’re traveling by train in Europe, there’s no need to go to each individual country’s railway web site — some of which are headache-inducing. I use Germany’s ultra-efficient Deutsche Bahn web site which is also in English. This gives you train times and connections for every country in Europe. www.bahn.de

Next thing was to identify which places were worth going to. Barcelos sounded good. Just over an hour from Porto, it has a weekly market each Thursday — the biggest open-air market in northern Portugal. Another illustration of why advance planning is so important. No point in going to Barcelos on Tuesday or Wednesday when market day is Thursday, is there?

Tip 5: Look beyond the obvious.

I always like to pepper my stories with weird snippets from history. It usually involves a fair bit of reading and digging, but I really think it can color an article. Another side-trip I planned to make was to medieval Coimbra. Its big claims to fame are its university and fado music.

But the Coimbra story that captured my imagination went back to the 14th century. The grounds of one of the town’s convents were the site of an infamous royal murder. No space to relate full details here, but the corpse of the king’s lover was exhumed — and all the royal court made to kiss her decaying hand in homage. Exactly the kind of stuff I always seize on.

Final thought. Just because you’re on a working trip, don’t ever feel guilty about taking time out to enjoy yourself. 20 minutes from Porto, the seaside town of Espinho comes complete with a casino…

[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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