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Instagram and TikTok for Travel:

Why You Shouldn’t Be Using Them

Social Media Isn’t Your Best Travel Planning Resource

woman scrolling social media; why you shouldn't use TikTok & Instagram to plan your travel

We’ve all done it. Found ourselves using TikTok and Instagram to plan travel – or even just find inspiration. Aesthetic images and picture perfect scenes hypnotize us and we are soon convinced that Mykonos (or Koh Phi Phi or Positano or…) will be a travel dream come true. Who doesn’t want a perfect vacation in an exotic location? Whether you’re drawn in by cities drenched in amazing architecture and history or sweeping vistas in the farthest corner of the world, the fantasy spins quickly.

Let me show you why using TikTok and Instagram to plan travel is a recipe for disaster – and what to do instead.

It’s easy to forget all those Instagram vs Reality posts that also abound. Those iconic bright blue domes in Santorini – often topped with an influencer in a dramatic dress? They are mostly private property that aren’t even accessible. Others are the roofs of churches, with signs specifically telling people not to walk on them. Obviously plenty do, which is a whole other post on the subject of basic tourism etiquette. Not to mention the hordes of other vacationers with the exact same photographic fantasies.

example of why you shouldn't use TikTok and instagram to plan travel blue domes of santorini dress shoot
Search results after Googling “blue domes of Santorini Greece dress” – tempting isn’t it?

On the opposite end of the spectrum are pot-stirring posts taking a cynical view of a popular place. While many of these are genuine, others are either flat-out click bait or some really poorly managed expectations. It wasn’t long ago I saw one fussing over Rome not being a quaint postcard destination like Lake Como. I’m not sure how that expectation was set, but it’s certainly not realistic. And yes, I was compelled to make a response TikTok to hopefully help other travelers. 

These pitfalls are why I say you shouldn’t use Instagram or Tiktok to plan travel. While great for travel inspiration, making these your primary, or sole, travel planning resource is a risky idea. Both platforms tends to push visually stunning highlights reels and the same destinations over and over. As travel rebounds with surprising speed in a post-pandemic world, learning the skills to plan your vacation abroad are more important than ever. Whether you travel regularly or on more rare occasions, no one likes the sting of wasted time, money, or just being let down.

So how can you successfully use social media like TikTok or Instagram in your travel planning process? And what other tools and tactics should you incorporate to take a fantastic vacation no matter where you go? It doesn’t have to be complicated or hard, but it does take a bit of patience and time. Let’s get started!

How to Use TikTok & Instagram to Plan Travel?

I’m not saying that TikTok and Instagram don’t have their place in your travel planning process. Personally, I still use both platforms as jumping off points! However, I use them much less than I used to. They’ve become saturated with actual or wanna-be influencers who are primarily focused on growing or monetizing their accounts. It can be both misleading and consfusing – who to trust?

Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to grow, but it can definitely lead to a conflict of interest. If a destination is blowing up in popularity, they may be reluctant (even subconsciously so) to go against popular opinion. Plus, views go to popular topics so it means lesser known destinations often get less coverage.

Santorini and why you shouldn't use TikTok and instagram to plan your travel
Screenshot of Santorini photos on Instagram – looks amazing but you may be in for a dose of Instagram vs Reality

You may come across breathtaking photos of spotless and uncrowded beaches. In reality though, those beaches may only be accessible if staying at a pricey resort. Or they’re crowded during the most ideal time of year to visit a beach. Simply by virtue of winning the travel popularity contest, a destination can quickly suffer the devastating effects of mass tourism.

So how on earth do you go about getting the complete story about a particular travel destination? After all, many resources (bloggers, tourism boards, resorts) depend at on making a place seem perfectly irresistible. Lucky for you, I’m a colossal research nerd with years of practice under her belt!

How to Use TikTok and Instagram to Plan Travel: The Right Way

Using Instagram for travel discovery

example of using collections in instagram to help with planning travel inspiration
I have multiple collections based on either destination or interest

With Instagram wedging into the TikTok-style video market, there may be some chaos as creators figure out how to present their visuals. Currently you can still follow hashtags – choose very specific ones. Don’t just follow #italy or even #italytravel, but choose ones that are specific to your interests. Niche hashtags aren’t just for creators! If you are into hiking, follow #hikingitaly for example. 

Those hashtags will lead you to accounts that frequently use those hashtags. Look for the ones that have in-depth content in addition to their beautiful photos and videos. Do they talk about pros and cons? Tips and tricks unique to the destination or interest? Those are ideal accounts to follow, and many will also have a blog or youtube channel with more in-depth content. Don’t ignore smaller accounts either – follower count no longer serves as a reliable indicator of quality.

When you search, whether by hashtag or destination you can choose to view results by recent or top. I find searching by location less useful as it doesn’t guarantee travel related content. Use a hashtag with under 100K posts and sort by recent not just top. That will usually give you a more accurate reflection of what to expect in a destination.

When you come across a post of a place that intrigues you, create a collection and save it. I have destination-specific collections that I save posts to. This has lead me to interesting destinations, from less common towns to unique restaurants. The key is that I always do my research outside of Instagram. Often after digging a little deeper and getting a fuller picture, I learn that it’s not really that amazing or there are barriers that make it impractical to add to my itinerary.

Using TikTok for travel inspiration

TikTok still has a bit of a wild west vibe. You can absolutely find helpful content, but it takes training your FYP (For You Page) and intentional searching. You’ll likely need to wade through lots of aesthetic content (its main purpose is to look good) and expectation vs reality type videos. They can be a bit vague as many people aim for watch time by keeping videos short (less useful) or following trends to chase going viral.

The trickiest part is training the TikTok For You Page to show the content you really want to see. You can even create a separate account for this purpose. Follow hashtags using the same strategy as for Instagram. Don’t give any of your watch time to videos outside the travel categories you’ve selected. Like ones that fit your intent, and eventually you’ll train the algorithm.

As you start to like or follow more information based creators and detailed hashtags, your FYP will suggest similar content. Just like with Instagram, you can create collections so you can keep saved videos organized. If you see a place that intrigues you or see a tip (good or bad) save it so you can follow up outside the app. Also, like good ole IG, don’t rule out smaller accounts. Take a minute to scroll through their profile to see if they pass the vibe check.

What to do with your saved IG/TT content

So you’ve been carefully scrolling, following, & saving on social media. Now you have collections of places that intrigue you. Or horror stories that maybe have you second guessing your dream destination. Isn’t the point of this post all about why you shouldn’t be using TikTok and Instagram to plan your travel? What now?

To the search engines! Not just Google (or DuckDuckGo), but YouTube as well. But Ella, you might say, isn’t YouTube social media? My dear fellow traveler, not quite. While there is a social aspect [and they’re also chasing the TikTok phenomenon via YT Shorts], it remains a worthy research tool. In the category of travel content, it’s not completely saturated by aesthetic influencer content.

How to Research Your Travel Using Google & YouTube

I usually start with a simple search term like “summer travel in Italy”, then narrow down the results to longer videos. Pay attention to how recent a video is too. While older videos can still be helpful, ones posted within the last couple years will have more up to date practical information for your travels. 

Google is my personal gold standard because I can really refine my search and drill down. It has lead me to discovering some great travel blogs. It will also turn up relevant YouTube results, so don’t ignore video results. Several of these I continue using as a jumping off point. I’ll be listing some of these below!

Using Google to Research Your Travel

Alright, you’ve finally accepted that you shouldn’t use TikTok or Instagram to plan travel. Let’s say you’re thinking about going to Greece in June. You definitely want to island hop and swim, but also enjoy some cultural attractions. Maybe you’re not on a student backpacker budget but you’re not going to be renting a yacht either. 

Start your travel planning research with more detailed search terms like: 

  • Average hotel costs in Greece in June. 
  • How busy is Greece in June? 
  • Is June warm enough to go swimming in Greece? 
  • Best secret cultural activities in Greece
  • Exploring Greece by ferry in June

Narrow down search results to those within the last two years. Try not to get sucked in by beautiful websites. When on a blog or site read through several posts or articles. Look at the about and welcome pages. A hostel loving solo traveler with a thirst for adventure sports might not be the right source if you’re a couple after luxury, relaxation, and privacy.

Plitvice Lakes don't use Instagram or TikTok to plan your travel without more research
These strategies ensured my summer visit to Plitvice Lakes in Croatia was a success!

This is also where you’ll look for practical information like what to avoid or how things work. Since you’re interested in island hopping, learning how the ferries work would be a top priority. A good search term for this might look like “how to use the public ferries in Greece” or “getting around the Greek islands in summer”. Including the month or season in your search terms will help you get more accurate information. 

Official sites are also important to look over. This way you can check for restrictions or requirements for entry (depending where you’re from you may need a visa for example), transport schedules and costs, and learning local laws that you won’t want to accidentally run afoul of. Simply enter a search term like “Greece official tourism website”. Similarly, when looking at transportation (ferries for example) aim to find the official site. It’s wise to book directly whenever possible, both for best price but also security.

Using an app or browser extension like Pocket to save and organize results. You can refer to this throughout the planning process.

Facebook Travel Groups

Utilizing Facebook groups in this process is a bit of expert-mode. It can be overwhelming, so proceed with a bit of caution. Look for specific Facebook groups to join. Not just “travel lovers” or even “solo travelers”, as those are often mobbed with generic content or spam. Pages focused on specific destinations or travel styles are typically much more helpful. 

Even if you haven’t 100% decided where you’re going, look for groups in every place you’re considering. Check to see how active the group is and once you join just spend some time reading posts and replies. You’ll be able to do a vibe check. Do people seem genuinely helpful and well informed without being know it alls? I find really large groups – 100,000 members or more – can be chaotic.  

Also, be very specific when you do post. Not just “I’m going to Greece in June” but “I’m going to Greece in June. Which islands do you recommend that I can reach by ferry and aren’t too expensive? What towns would you suggest for cultural exploration besides Athens? Is a budget of $150 per day for everything reasonable or should I adjust my expectations? 

Including some of your specific preferences will also help fine tune the advice you receive. If you have zero interest in hiking more than 100 feet, be sure to include that! Need peace and quiet when you sleep? Include that when asking for lodging recommendations. Otherwise you might end up sleeping above a busy street that keeps you up all night.

Always double check info you receive in a group. The more shocking (good or bad) a claim, the more you should dig in to check. If it’s a service (hotel, tour guide, service) check for reviews and visit the relevant site directly. As you spend time in a group you’ll begin to see which members are not just helpful, but experienced in ways that relate to you. Avoid giving out exact itinerary dates or details and make sure you have your own Facebook settings as private as possible. Scammers and phishers love these groups, so maintain a healthy amount of caution.

Recommended Websites to Plan Your Travel

Proper disclosure: I now include the occasional affiliate link in my posts with the hope of being able to at least buy some nice cheese. Since I’m much pickier about affiliates than cheese, there are very few on my site.

Checking Weather:

Not sure what to expect from the weather? My gold star go-to is Weather Spark, and you can look at seasonal averages for temperature, rain, hours of daylight, and more. This helps when trying to decide dates for your trip. If your dates are fixed, it can rule out a destination if you discover it’s rainy season when you’re able to go.

Finding Flights:

Even though I have preferred airlines, I still check Google Flights almost every trip. This gives a really good overview of price ranges and options. I love the multiple ways to see how little changes can save a ton of money. You can also narrow down results by number of stops, bags to check, specific airports for layovers, and more.

screenshot of flight price calendar on google flights
Google Flights price calendar: my preferred method for choosing the dates and route to save me as much as possible.
Google Flights price grid example
Option 2 is the price grid. Similar to the calendar, you can see how small date changes can save money.
Third is the price graph – it’s great for a quick visual representation of price fluctuations across about a 30 day period

You can also join a program like Scott’s Cheap Flights, especially if you travel often or are really flexible about where or when you go. They have free and paid versions, so you can try the free one for a while before deciding if the paid option is right for you. The Premium plan is $49/year and Elite (best if you fly Business or First but still want to save) is $199. Both are available to try for 14 days before committing, and they do occasionally send discounts on plans when you’re a free member.

Rental Cars

Kayak is good to get an overview of average prices and availability. I’ve used DiscoverCars a number of times successfully. It’s critical to read all fine print carefully. I find most negative reviews of car companies (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a car rental company with a high average review score) unfortunately are because the customer didn’t read instructions or conditions carefully. Read every letter in the rental contract before signing and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Give yourself plenty of time for this and to document any existing damage to the car before you leave the rental location. I also take detailed photo/video of the condition of the car upon return and keep those for a minimum of three months.

Recommended Blogs

There is definitely no shortage of travel blogs now. When you find one that aligns with your travel needs and style, sign up for the newsletter or bookmark it for future reference.

EarthTrekkers – especially good if you travel as a family, but as a frequent solo traveler I’ve found their content useful for me as well. It’s detailed, informative, and doesn’t try to make everything into an IG highlight reel. They spend a great deal of time exploring their chosen destinations actively.

NomadicMatt – generally a gold standard especially for budget travelers. The content is often updated, and there’s tons of practical information for destinations around the world. His site covers nearly every country in the world with lots of content for Europe and Southeast Asia in particular. The Broke Backpacker is also a good resource for budget and adventure travelers.

TripSavvy, The Culture Trip, & The Crazy Tourist – I tend to visit these early in the planning process when I’m deciding if a destination is right for me. Lots of detailed information for destinations worldwide for a variety of interests, budgets, and styles.

Atlas Obscura – great for finding quirky and unusual gems worldwide

Solo female travelers will find wise advice and relatable experiences on Adventurous Kate and The Blonde Abroad. Both have been traveling for many years, with a wealth of knowledge & experiences to share.

For unexpected or adventure destinations check out Wild Junket.

Last But Definitely Not Least:

Let me help you! Detailed travel planning is my passion. If you just need guidance or don’t want to be bothered with the planning process, visit my travel planning services and get in touch. I’m also working on a travel inspiration planner that will be available as a download to print individual pages, or as a bound book. If you’d like to know when it launches and receive a discount, sign up for my email list.

Have you been burned after using TikTok or Instagram to plan your travel? Share your story in the comments so others can learn too. Happy travels!

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18 Comments

  1. Fiona Mai

    Totally agree with you! I also only use Instagram and Tiktok for travel discovery and inspiration, rather than relying 100% on the information shared on these platforms.

    • Ella

      Exactly. It’s still useful as a starting point but definitely needs to go along with digging deeper. I’ve seen a place on IG/TT before and then upon research realize it’s not even close to what was presented.

    • Ella

      They either get up insanely early or are actually visiting in the off season when it’s easier to get photos without crowds. Or, in some cases, simply editing out people. Personally I think those are all fine for aesthetic/personal reasons but veers into irresponsible when giving travel advice as it’s not painting an accurate picture.

  2. Amy

    This is a great comprehensive post! There are a lot of good options for travel planning on the web and you’ve highlighted the best.

  3. Zara Aitken

    Wow, this is so true! I’m trying to get to more off-the-beaten-track destinations at the moment mostly because I’m so sick of the Insta vs reality hitting me when I get to places and see it’s a huge let down. For example, when I went to Germany in May, I decided to stay in Bonn instead of Cologne… for the very reason that I’d never heard of Bonn! And I absolutely loved it. Unfortunately, everyone heads to the same old locations they see on Insta and TikTok and then these places suffer over-tourism because of it.

    • Ella

      It’s hard because popular/famous places are usually so for good reason but can be hard to enjoy when swarmed. Plus including places that don’t get all the attention (in addition to often being more enjoyable & authentic) helps spread our valuable tourism dollars.

    • Ella

      I’m not sure either but hoping that if I keep banging the drum, folks will realize ya just can’t trust what you see on these platforms a lot of the time.

  4. Roxanne Reid

    I’ve never used Instagram or TikTok to plan travel, but I’m probably not young enough to be in this niche market anyway! I admit to getting inspired by other people’s travels on blogs but mostly I do independent research on Google.

    • Ella

      I do think they can be fun for starting inspo but they’re often misleading now. You’re definitely on the right track using blogs and good ole Google!!

    • Ella

      Positano is lovely but like so many places has in some ways become a victim of its own fame. Socials can work as a starting point but do need a deep dive.

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