If you want to go see the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon, there are tons of well-written travel guides to help. If you want something a little more offbeat, you're probably on your own. Luckily, there are a ton of resources to help you plan a more interesting, original trip without winding up wishing you never went.
Illustration by Tina Mailhot-Roberge.
After all, there are plenty of places that are worth visiting that don't necessarily have their own tourism departments. Maybe you'd like to see the gates of hell in the middle of the desert in Turkmenistan, or the Q'eswachaka, the last Incan rope bridge in existence. In that case, you have excellent taste in unique destinations, but you'll need to do a bit more planning before you go. Here's what you should know.
Find A Destination That's Offbeat, But Accessible
Atlas Obscura is a great place to start if you're looking for offbeat, interesting, and otherwise obscure travel destinations. Some are more difficult to get to, while others are very accessible and easily visited. The site has tons of great options all over the globe (and you can see many of them through their YouTube channel.) If you really do want to see the Gates of Hell (video above), or maybe head to Tashirojima, the famous Cat Island off the coast of Japan, they can help, or at least give you a preview of what your experience will be like when you reach your destination. If you're looking for something a little closer to home, they probably have you covered there too, and you can always check their events page or join the Atlas Obscura Society mailing list to get involved in events in your area or travel to Atlas Obscura museums.
In every case, you want a destination that's offbeat and interesting, but accessible to you. How "accessible" is a personal choice — some people will want ample parking or public transit between their hotel and the curiosity they want to see, while others won't mind hiking for a few hours to see something of which there's only one left in the world. It's up to you and the kind of vacation you want to plan. In every case though, go for the right reasons. Don't just visit an offbeat place to go to gawk at the locals and how "different" they are, go to experience something new, mind-opening, and life-changing. Push the boundaries of your comfort zone. It's not too hard to broaden those horizons though, and it all starts with picking an offbeat destination where you can have a more intimate, personal travel experience.
Connect With Locals Before You Go
Once you've chosen a destination, your next best bet is to connect with the people that live there before you even go. You could always opt for a cultural exchange program, or if you're travelling abroad, reach out to the embassy or consulate for that country for travel tips and suggestions. If you're travelling to an offbeat destination in the US, check out the City Data forums, which are packed with useful information — and locals who live in the communities you'll likely visit. Doing so will give you a cultural lay of the land, and probably more than a few tips and suggestions.
Beyond that, this is the beauty of the internet: it lets us connect in a truly human way with people across the globe in a way we've never been able to before. Sites like With Locals and previously mentioned Trip4Real allow you to actually schedule time, tours, meals, and other activities with the people who live in the communities you want to visit before you go.
Similarly, Vayable and Like a Local offer tips, tours, and suggestions written by locals for people interested travelling to their communities. They're great for research, and in many cases you may see someone's suggestions and reach out to them directly to talk about your trip. In fact, we discuss this a bit more in our guide to having a "local experience" when you travel.
Do Your Homework On The Logistics
From here, you have to do the same logistics everyone has to do. The kicker for you though is that you have to make sure you have as much locked down as possible before you leave. Like we've said, some of the most quirky places are in locations that aren't necessarily tourist-friendly.
It's not universally true, but you may need to do a bit more homework on the hotel or hostel in town to make sure it's up to your standards. Maybe the only hotel in town is booked solid, or has tons of bad reviews. Instead, consider booking something further from your destination and venturing out to it. Or book a room in a family-owned bed and breakfast nearby instead of a hotel. Any traveller has to make sure they find a safe place to stay, but you might have it tougher if there's only one place in the area.
Similarly, make sure you know how to get around when you're there. If you're travelling abroad, learning a bit of the language never hurts, and the farther afield of big cities or common tourist destinations you go, the less likely you'll run into someone who speaks your language. Learn enough to get by, communicate in emergency situations, and carry a phrasebook with you. Before you go, try your hand at reading local news, or try an app like TripLingo to teach you what you'll need to know. Smartphone translators are awesome, but don't rely on data availability or a healthy battery just to communicate. If you're travelling domestically, you might want to keep a paper map on-hand (or offline maps on your phone) in case you get lost and you're without GPS.
Finally, if you are travelling abroad, make sure you have all of your travel documents and papers in order long before you go. Depending on where you're going, you might need special tourist visas, entry documents, or to file special paperwork with the embassy of the country you're visiting. You don't want to get turned away at customs because you thought you could just waltz into a country like Russia.
Make A Game Plan For Contingencies
Next, plan for the unexpected. If there's ever a time to pack a little heavier in case something happens to your clothes, stash a little extra cash in case something happens to your wallet, research a backup hotel, or memorise the address of an embassy or consulate, it's when you're travelling to an offbeat, semi-obscure destination. When you're doing your homework, check sites like TripAdvisor for your destination (it might be there, even if it's really obscure) and Google around for travel blogs or other people talking about their experiences at your destination. If there's a serial problem, you might find out about it through other people's posts, and you can plan for it accordingly.
We're not saying plan an entire second itinerary in case something bad happens, but we are saying you should take more care than you would otherwise. Tourist traps and major destinations almost always have tons of resources for visitors who are lost, have been pickpocketed, or just need help — even if they don't speak the language. When you're setting out on your own, you'll need to be confident and make sure you can handle yourself no matter what happens.
If It's All Too Much, Work With A Travel Agent
Finally, if all of this seems like too much trouble for you, then you do have a way out: Work with a travel agent. Yes, part of the fun of going to someplace amazingly offbeat is actually planning the trip. It can be thrilling, and really connects you with where you're going before you leave the house. That said, with some destinations, it can be daunting. You might have trouble finding good, viable resources to plan your trip. That's when a travel agent — specifically one who works on offbeat trips — can come in handy.
In the age of Internet travel search and price-competitive booking sites, it might seem like travel agents are passe, but if you find a good one, they can get you as engaged with the planning process as you want to be. They can also make sure you have everything you need before you go, get and stay there safely, see what you want to see, and come home with great memories. They also act as a lifeline if something goes wrong — someone you can call if you get where you're going and everything's messed up, or you miss a flight or connection and need a rebook. If you like the sound of that safety net, seriously consider hiring one.
Beyond that, have a great trip! If you limit your travel thinking to "places where travel shows have been filmed," you wind up missing out on a bunch of great places to visit, amazing people, and world-changing experiences. You should definitely see those places, don't get us wrong, just don't miss out on some of the other wonders of the world that don't have signs that say "line starts here" a mile away from the door.