You, dear traveler, have a not-so-secret weapon and it's time you started using it as such: Instagram.
As popular as Instagram is in the social media world, it's an underutilized tool in the travel world.
Travelers want up-to-date information from unbiased sources. That's often hard to find with out-of-date websites, old guide books and business-sponsored social media.
Before embarking on a recent trip to Hawaii, I used Instagram - the photo sharing network - to research hotels, restaurants and attractions. I tapped in to real-time images and tips from fellow travelers and locals, not year-old guide books, fake Yelp reviews, promotional websites and cluttered Facebook pages.
Though every social media platform seems to be a permutation of another, Instagram has unique characteristics that make it easy and fun to use. And with 150 million users and 55 million photos being uploaded daily, the commercial and business world simply can't compete against the power of the people.
Instagram won't provide you with details or in-depth stories, but that's not the point. Call it research or social media voyeurism, but Instagram's basic structure creates a confluence of real-time photography based on place, subject or user, or any combination thereof.
The result: an insightful, up-to-the-minute and reliable way to research just about any place or topic on your upcoming or current vacation.
If you're not one of Instagram's users here are the basics: The free application (for iPhone or Android) allows you to both upload your photos and view others'. It's basically just photos with a few lines of captions. Like Twitter, users can use hastags (#bigisland, #poi, #konacoffee) to link any other photos together from multiple users. It also has a geotagging feature that allows users to look at any photos shot at a particular location.
Finally, if you'd like to see more photos from a particular user, just click on their photo stream. If you really like what they are posting, you can follow them. No 'friending' needed.
Whereas Facebook is full of links, rants about political causes and kitten videos, Instagram is just photos and 15 second videos.
The quality of those photos depends on who is posing. Under 30-somethings are big on posting pictures of themselves - what for 150 years was called a self-portrait but is now known as a 'selfie.' That's not a bad thing. It's an insightful way to see the lives of locals whether you're in Hilo or Hungary.
Over 30-somethings tend to post more pictures of where they've been or what they've done.
Instagram was a hit with professional photographers from its earliest days and that doesn't seem to have diminished. Both pro and amateur travel photographers have popular Instagram accounts (see list).
MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU
How to start? First, you have to use those outdated books, promotional websites, Pinterest or just plain word of mouth to figure out what and where you're interested in. That includes attractions, beaches, national parks, restaurants, hotels ... pretty much anything you can think of.
Then, using Instagram's search feature, you access the constantly updating stream of images associated with those subjects. Instagram users are fond of hashtags, less so with geotags. But once you locate a geotag such as, 'Hawaiivolcanoesnationalpark' you can view all the photos made there.
I found that if a user posted a decent photo with an informative caption he or she was most likely to post more. So, I accessed that user's photostream and that led to other sites to see, restaurants to eat at, festivals to check out. Most Instagram users keep their accounts public. And, they'll never know you were viewing them.
I admit it's somewhat voyeuristic but, hey, it's in the public domain. I could see where locals ate, the 'secret' waterfalls they visit and island social activities. It gave me an insight to the local scene that no website or book could ever hope to match. And, it was happening in real time.
Yes, you'll have to wade through a tsunami of food photos, airplane wings and mai tais on the beach. But I used Instagram to find:
* Where the lava was flowing at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
* What fresh fish just showed up at Full Moon Cafe in Hilo.
* How much water was flowing at Akaka Falls.
* What the weather was like on Mauan Kea.
* Where the dolphins and turtles were showing up on the west shore.
* What fresh fruit was being offered at the Hilo Farmers Market.
You also can make interesting personal discoveries on Instagram. When I searched geotags for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the first photo I saw was of somebody who looked very familiar. 'Sierra' turned out to be a long lost friend I knew 20 years ago when we both lived in Reno, Nev. Another photo led to the account of a ranger who works at the park.
Instagram allows you to connect, in the real and the virtual world, with fellow travelers and post news photos. My flight to Hawaii was piloted by the father-son team of Capt. Paul Majer and First Officer Paul Majer Jr. It was the first leg of the senior Majer's retirement flight and there were a number of family members on board. I posted a photo of the two pilots and grandson Carter Ciccone to Instagram after landing at the Kona airport.
Instagram has several 'filters' that can change the look of a photo. I use them sparingly, just to increase contrast or saturation - darkroom processes long used by photographers. They can turn even the most inept photographer into a semipro.
There are, of course, the insufferable Instagram braggers. Like any social media, it has its fair share of 'look at the great time I'm having and you're not' photos.
Come to think of it, I posted a few of those myself when I was in Hawaii.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 firstname.lastname@example.org