There’s More to Instagram Travel Than #BearSelfies

Instagram is a world-class trip-planning tool—if you use it right.

Instagram and travel: It’s complicated.

It’s human nature to share— especially photos of our vacations. Fifty years ago, a half dozen friends from the neighborhood might have been coerced into watching a 15-minute slide show (with actual slides) before coffee and cake. Now, millions of us share billions of #instatravel shots—and the consequences range from the defensive (selfie-stick bans) to the ridiculous (Lake Tahoe wilderness officials implore visitors to skip the #selfiewithbear). De facto photo shoots set up by enterprising bloggers clog the rim of the Grand Canyon, the streets of Paris, the beaches of everywhere. Also problematic: What’s best for your photo is quite possibly not what’s best for your vacation. Is that fish really going to taste better 50 shots—and five minutes—later?

That said, if you’re traveling for Instagram because you work for Instagram, we say go for it. #Hashtag every mountain, #nofilter every stream. Organizing your trip around the magic hour, choosing your cafés on the quality of their unicorn lattes and even hiring a local photographer is just as legitimate a choice as organizing your trip around other deeply personal fascinations, from wine lovers’ tours of Napa to furry conventions. #You #do #you, #traveligers.

For everybody else, use Instagram as a tool—for planning travel, rather than broadcasting it. Below, find 10 travel-centric tricks for getting the most out of Instagram, along with a half-dozen, super-inspirational feeds from globe-trotting pro athletes—the ones who know the best mountain bike trails, surf spots and rock faces around the world.

1. See where athletes go—and take notes.

Pick a sport and a place, and you’ll find a community, whether it’s surfers in Sydney or mountain climbers in Nepal. No one’s going to know the superior trails, morning cafés and local spots better than they do, which is why scoping out their feeds is a must-do before heading off. They don’t need to be famous—Laird Hamilton’s probably not giving out any secrets on his Instagram. A better choice might be a dedicated local.

Say you love rock climbing, and you’re going to San Francisco. Just Googling “rock climbing” and “S.F.” brings up Mission Rocks, an indoor climbing gym. Here’s its Instagram—but what you’re looking for are the members (and ideally members who use location tags). Within a couple clicks, we found this athlete’s great feed—and with it, a whole bunch of ideas for side trips to places like Buttermilk Boulders and Happy Boulders.

2. Study your destination with the geolocation tool, not the hashtag.

Type “Paris” into the Instagram search tool, and you’ll see options for “top,” “people,” and “places,” with the last item marked by a map pin. That’s a good choice for the most accurate, on-the-spot take on the city.

3. Use it for real-time information.

Wondering what the weather’s like at the beach? Trail conditions following a storm? Or the state of the line to get into the castle at Versailles? Check before you head out.

4. Follow locals.

If you’ve already seen the big sights, follow locals for a more refined take on what a destination has to offer. Instead of searching #bucharest, look around for the city’s Instagrammers’ hashtag (like #igersbucharest), and then sift for locals. You’ll get different takes on big destinations (like Bucharest’s Spring Palace). Take Paris: Visitors might stop at Monet’s garden in Giverny. Locals might instead focus on a less iconic—but still spectacular—garden, the nearby Le Jardin Plume, because locals first saw Giverny on a high school field trip and don’t need to go back.

5. Think local in language too.

If there’s a difference, try searching the local equivalent. The results for #bucharest and its Romanian-language name, #bucuresti, are not the same.

6. Looking for a day trip from your destination?

There’s no better way to get a sense of the best side trips. If you’re headed to Dublin, follow a crew of local Instagrammers, and check in with them over the weekend to see where they’re going. Macgillycuddy’s Reeks may not be on your list — but it was on this Dublin photographer’s.

7. Use it to evaluate safety.

Does a beach clear out at sunset? Are the crowds overwhelming? Are visitors comfortable wearing jewelry? Location search your spot and you’ll know.

8. Separate marketing from reality.

Hotels and destinations spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year presenting a pristine image to the world through their marketing and social media efforts, but all it takes is one teenager with a smartphone to present a more nuanced picture. If your hotel has an Instagram feed, give it a glance, but also use the location search to see what guests are posting on their own.

9. Follow the photographers who shoot your favorite sport.

Photographers specialize, which is why “surf photographer” is a job. For a regular stream of destination ideas, follow them as they follow their sports around the world. For surfing, look at feeds like Corey Wilson. If you’re not sure where to start, pick up a magazine that covers your sport, and see who shot the best pictures, or check out the photo editors on the masthead.

For example, this story from “Outside” magazine on mountain bikes sized for women might lead you to the photographer who shot it: Sven Martin. And his Instagram might lead you to mountain biking in County Wicklow.

10. Use the tools Instagram provides.

The bookmark feature, released in December 2016, lets you save photos to your account, which is a better way to remember a certain bar than sorting through hundreds of likes. In April 2017, Instagram supplemented that feature with a new one, called collections—basically, it’s Pinterest for Instagram, allowing you to save all those images to a selected theme (like “Hiking trip to Iceland”). See here for details straight from Instagram on how to set them up.

Below, check out inspirational Instagrams from a half dozen pro athletes—with enough travel ideas (and hotels and beaches and more) to get you through a couple years’ worth of vacation days. Just keep an eye out for the #sp (sponsored posts).

Surfer Sage Erickson

What could be better than following the Ojai-born world champion to destinations like the Tavarua Island Resort in Fiji or to the beach in Saquarema, Brazil’s chief surfing destination?

Mountain climber Kevin Jorgeson

This travel-heavy feed gives us a glimpse of climbing gyms where Kevin Jorgeson has made an appearance, bouldering in Las Vegas and his path through Yosemite.

Mountain biker Katie Holden

If you’ve wondered what mountain biking through Jordan might look like—or Puerto Vallarta or Galbraith Mountain in Washington State—Katie Holden’s feed will show you.

Yogi Caitlin Turner

It’s heavily styled, but Caitlin Turner practices yoga in some very beautiful places, like Palm Springs, Hawaii and Sayulita.

Whitewater kayaker Dane Jackson

Pro kayaker Dane Jackson’s Instagram gives us a look at rivers from Quebec to Idaho to the Columbia River Gorge and Hawaii.

Snowboarder Forrest Shearer

Use snowboarder Forrest Shearer’s Instagram as an ideas book for planning your winter getaway—and since it’s almost winter in Chile right now, you’d best take a look ASAP.

Photo credits: paff, Stocksy; Phase4Photography, Adobe Stock; Ekaterina Pokrovsky, Adobe Stock; leekris, 123RF