Research

Virtual Travel Research: 4 Easy Ways to Start Planning An Awesome Virtual Weekend

Here’s the beauty of virtual travel. First, think: Where have I always wanted to go?

(Still haven’t figured out the beauty part? See Get Started.)

research the head roam way

How do the seeds of these dreams get planted? Maybe you saw a picture, or a movie, or read a book or an article. Maybe you were a kid. Maybe not.

Want the seed to take root and bloom?

You gotta do a little research.

But Headroamer Nan, virtual travel research does not sound fun.

Au contraire, my wanderlusting friend. Research, done right, will transform your virtual travel experience.

In fact, without research, you might as well just buy a stale baguette and watch Emily in Paris. I mean, seriously.

But if you want to embrace this whole thing, then follow us.

1. Pick Your Destination

Head Roam is brand new as of December 2020. And as of right now, we—that’s the royal we, meaning Nan—are working like mad to get as many destinations as possible up and running.

So feel free to grab one of our Ultimate Virtual Travel Weekends. At launch, we’ve got Morocco (so make that “all one of…”).

Marrakech tour guide Hicham Missaoui from Marrakech led tours on foot in Morocco. Now, he leads them online.

We’re working on Buenos Aires, Dublin, Jaipur, and Atlanta.

But if none of those places tickles your fancy, pick anywhere. Any time. Outer Space. Kazakhstan. Shakespeare’s London.

You can go anywhere. There are no limits, other than your imagination and how much time you want to spend prepping.

And PLEASE: Leave us a comment down below and let us know your dream destination. We are continually looking for both inspiration and ways to make you happy.

2. Pick a book or a movie.

(Don’t have the attention span for a book or movie? Skip to Tip 3.)

virtual travel research
A monster load of books that I snagged, mostly from the library, for our trip to Peru last year.

For each destination, we’ll be adding a Top 5 list: a couple of books, a couple of movies, and….something else. Sometimes an album or musical artist you should try to track down wherever you track down albums and/or musical artists.

Sometimes, the number 5 spot will go to a YouTube channel, or a website.

What we try to do is curate the good stuff so you don’t have to wade through oceans of not-so-good. We also, as time permits, will have back-up lists of books and movies in case you either don’t see anything that interests you in the Top 5, or you really want to deep dive.

But it’ll take a while. So until we have a decent catalog of posts (we’re guessing about the end of 2021), here are our favorite sources.

Virtual travel research at your local library.

Do you have a card? If not, get one. Now. Many libraries in the US have simplified the process for online registration due to COVID. (If you’re outside the US, let us know about your own local library experience. We’re book nerds. We LOVE this stuff.)

Many more local libraries have significant, completely free online offerings. My library system in Jackson, MI, offers both Hoopla for electronic books, and Kanopy, which has a huge selection of video. Through Kanopy, you can access The Great Courses, multiples series of lectures on tons of topics. You also get a big slate of just-released movies, everything from remastered classics to documentaries to new international and domestic features. Below, a screenshot taken as I write. World cinema!! Hooray.

A small selection of Kanopy offerings in December 2020

But beyond these added perks (which your library may or may not have), they do have tons of stuff. On your local library’s website, simply enter your destination of choice in the search field. See what comes up. Most libraries now also have, in addition to books, giant DVD and CD collections.

At our local branch, I just order what tickles my fancy. Sometime between a couple of days and a week later, I get an email telling me it’s arrived. I go to the library and shoot them a text. They put whatever I ordered in the lobby. I put my mask on and pick it up.

Easy Peasy.

Virtual Travel Research at the Best Online Library EVER

If instead you want a massive online library of audiobooks, ebooks, sheet music, and magazines, sign up for Scribd. This service has an insane amount of books. Sometimes the newest titles are audiobooks only, but many, many times there are ebooks as well. You pay a monthly fee and get unlimited titles.

They have TONS of cookbooks, btw. Which, unlike so many food blogs—as a food blogger myself, I can attest to the fact that we don’t necessarily test recipes—have, in general, been written by true experts in a particular cuisine.

Your monthly subscription also gives you free access to MUBI, a wonderful movie streaming service with an interesting gimmick: While a new movie arrives every day, it’s only available for 30 days. So a movie comes in, and the movie in the 30th position leaves at midnight. I love it. Lesser-known classics show up on occasion, but MUBI’s true genius is its explorations of a particular theme or cinematic artist. This screen shot shows a recent smattering of what’s on offer; by the time you get there, it’s likely to have completely changed.

The partial slate from MUBI, as I write in December 2020

And there are tons of other perks: free Pandora Plus and Curiosity Stream, an awesome documentary channel. And more. So just do it. If you use my link, I get a free month, but I don’t really care one way or the other. I just hope you get to Scribd, sign up, and love it.

OK, So How Do I Even Know Which Book or Movie to Choose?

Until we have more lists, I will tell you what I tell Steve when he asks me some question I can’t answer: That’s what Google’s for.

Still, some lists are better than others.

  • If you have Scribd, they have all the Lonely Planet books available. Additionally, you can search directly on the Lonely Planet site. In either case, they provide good lists of books, movies, and music to check out.
  • If you have Scribd, you can access Reading on Location: Great Books Set in Top Travel Destinations by Louisa Moncada. If you don’t have Scribd, and you love to read, it’s an outstanding resource. I recommend that you order through your local bookshop or library. The Big Giant Bookseller That Also Sells Everything Else and Wants to Take Over the World doesn’t need your money.
  • If you just need some inspiration to get you going, this list “Around the World in 80 Sleuths” from the Independent in London is great fun. I find that a good mystery tends to immerse me in a place in a particularly interesting and subtle way. You’re not just getting to know, say, Venice with Inspector Brunetti. You’re wandering around the streets with him, sometimes sloshing through the freezing Acqua Alta, Venice’s miserable high tide season.
  • Mappittbills itself as a “collaborative mapping framework.” Their book project is pretty damned amazing for its sheer quantity of listings, providing dozens of reading suggestions not just by country but by city and region. Alas, it is not particularly discriminatory; you get a list for pretty much anywhere, often a long one, but not a lot of guidance. Still, for book nerds who are also travel nerds, it’s a fun rabbit hole to head down.
virtual travel research: my two favorite go-to inspiration books
Two of my favorite go-to’s for travel inspiration: The marvelous Jan Morris and Lonely Planet’s Travel Book.

For movies, try your library or any streaming service you may already have. (This is where Kanopy is awesome; they act as the online streamer for your library, and they’re FREE with your library card.)

If you’re not too picky, I recommend you type your term into the search box and see what they have. Some stuff may feel like a dead end, so bail. You’re an explorer. Some choices are awesome, some….not so much. No harm, no fault.

3. Find Your Destination: The Low Attention Span Version

The “36 Hours in….” feature at the New York Times is a great gateway to a bunch of world capitals, state capitals in the US, and big cities that aren’t capitals, like San Francisco, Barcelona, Casablanca, and a ton of others. Probably half of each feature is food, booze, and something called “clubbing,” and at least two of the places mentioned will be outrageously expensive. Still, the NYT “36 Hours” articles showcase lots of cool, less obvious stops. They also have nice shopping tips. I am easily overwhelmed when it comes to shopping pretty much anywhere, so I’m always happy to get pushed someplace.

Just googling “36 Hours [your destination]” is going to pull up a bunch of sites, though. Yeah, the NYT will be at the top, if they’ve done one. But they haven’t been everywhere. Through this search, you’re going to turn up some good finds, including travel bloggers who’ve spent a fair amount of time in a particular area. This is how I found the brilliantly funny Lia of practicalwanderlust.com; she helped us prepare for our trip to Peru better than almost any other source. The fact that we didn’t get to use too many of the trekking trips—hey, life happens.

You can easily go off on all sorts of tangents in this quest, so try to find a couple of voices you like. Subscribe to their blogs, click on their affiliate links and buy stuff so they get a little cut if you’re so inclined. (Bloggers are required to disclose whether they’re affiliated with the merchandise provider, and since no one pays you to write this stuff, I’m all for throwing people a little dough.)

Back to the NYT: The 52 Places feature has always been an interesting one. (The 2020 list may have you weeping at how innocent we all were back then. Sigh.)

Two people had the on-the-surface-amazing-but-in-practice-incredibly-difficult task of being “The 52 Places Writer”: Jada Yuan in 2018, and Sebastian Modok in 2019. Follow them both on Instagram, and absolutely check out their journeys for inspiration. Yuan, by the way, is STILL recovering physically from her trip, something you’ll learn about when you follow her feed.

The second wonderful one-stop-shop for travel info is Culture Trip. For pretty much any destination you can think of, you’ll find dozens of articles to get your imagination going. All easily digestible for those who find their concentration challenged.

4. Plan Your Menu and Shopping List

If you do nothing beyond make yourself a meal inspired by the place you want to visit, you will have done some pretty awesome virtual travel.

We’ll be offering detailed suggestions for menus, recipes, and cooking classes as we add destinations. Until we have the one of your dreams, we recommend these resources:

  • AirBnB cooking classes in the Online Experience section
  • Scribd and/or local library cookbook searches
  • Half Baked Harvest, probably my number one blog go-to for reliably interesting and easy recipes
  • Bon Appetit. The magazine has been working hard to create greater diversity in both its staff and coverage, and every issue highlights several unusual cuisines in one form or another. They’re also a source of good reporting on how we help restaurants survive—the ones that are left, as so many have closed for good. And, in the print version, Alex Begg’s monthly Q & A is gloriously funny, answering questions like, “

As for picking up a thing or two for your weekend that you can’t necessarily find, we will, once again, highlight great vendors as awesome as possible. In some cases, there will be an affiliate relationship which rewards me a wee bit monetarily. However, I do not take commissions from small vendors. We have to help each other, right?

I am a huge fan of World Market. When I was a kid, it was called “Cost-Plus”; I think the first one was in the Bay Area of CA where I grew up. I remember walking in with my older sisters, entranced by the lanterns and rattan furniture hanging from the ceiling, and the smells of spices which I thought, at the time, were weird and which I now love. On a recent trip to load up for a Marrakech weekend, I found all of these items for super cheap. I didn’t buy the tajine; it won’t work on an induction range, which we have. Also, though tempted by the tiles, I decided not to; there’s only so many coasters one family needs. But I grabbed everything else, along with some cool blue and white plates on sale.

Trader Joe’s is also awesome. Like World Market, it of course has an online version.

However, I completely recognize that you may not want to buy anything. We’ll always try to give a sense of how essential something is. Our hope is that anyone with internet access can put together what they need with minimal expense. (And our bigger hope is that the near future will bring free Internet access around the US and the rest of the world as well, as well as affordable and accessible equipment for every person who wants it.)

Virtual Travel Research: Ready, Steady, GO

So pick a country. Dive in. And please: Send us your own favorites, and your reviews of our recos. Virtual experiences—including if you offer one of your own!—favorite museums with cool online access, great YouTube videos, favorite books, movies, music—and anything else that transports you to the places in your dreams. Help us make Head Roam as accessible, comprehensive, and just plain fun as possible.

Happy Roaming!