When it comes to travel, social media can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's a wonderful way to discover new destinations and indulge your armchair wanderlust. On the other, images shared by local hotels, venues and influencers are often designed to draw you in with a particular slant of glossy appeal. The result can be a gap between personal impressions and reality.

But when employed as a strategic research tool, Instagram, with its user-generated content and real-time images and video, can be a big help. Chelsea Martin, a luxury travel planner and the founder of the travel lifestyle brand Passport to Friday, says the platform often plays a role when she is researching for herself or clients. "To a degree, I'm using it as a vetting tool, to see what real travelers are experiencing," Martin says. "It also serves as inspiration and a way to find and bookmark restaurants or hotels for later."

So how can you put the platform to use in your own trip planning? Read on for expert advice. Photo / 123RF
So how can you put the platform to use in your own trip planning? Read on for expert advice. Photo / 123RF

Start with geotags

Knowing you want to go on vacation and knowing where you want to go on vacation are two separate things - something I discovered when my fiance and I were planning a honeymoon last year and waffling on which country we wanted to visit.

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One way to begin is by zeroing in on the hashtags for the places you're considering (in my case, #Greece and #Morocco) and saving inspiring images to your Instagram collections. Over time, you'll compile a list of what you might do during your own travels: sites to visit, shopping and markets, restaurants, activities and beyond. The aim is to start getting a sense of a place beyond polished influencer photos and "must-visit" recommendations from travel media.

From there, you'll have a clearer idea of what a trip to a locale entails, explains travel writer Erin Rose Belair, which means you can start targeting the particulars. For example: If you're planning a trip to the Greek islands but want to visit lesser-known spots in Cyclades, use the Instagram "places" search to zero in on specific sites. If it's a popular destination, you're likely to find a lot of slick influencer images. But consider exploring the feeds of regular travelers, which might align better with your own trip planning goals.

Once she's settled on a region, Belair starts looking for hotels, "which is really easy because they either have their own account or you can find them by location - I've found some of the coolest places I've ever been that way, and typically it puts you in a good area with lots of things to do."

Double down on the hashtags

Hashtags can be helpful beyond deciding on a destination; they can also help you dig in to more nuanced elements of your trip. Martin recommends getting specific. For example: If you're planning a honeymoon, you could search for #luxurytraveladvisor or #honeymoondestination. Those seeking child-friendly ideas should check out hashtags such as #travelingwithkids or #familytravelmovement. If being eco-friendly is a priority, try #slowtravel, #ecotravel or #sustainabletravel.

Other tags might help sync you up with companies and planners that specialise in even more targeted traveling styles. For example, searching #transformationaltravel might lead you to a company such as Explorer X, a platform that plans custom itineraries with a goal of travelers' personal growth. Those planning a trip on their own might find it helpful to follow hashtags such as #solotravelstories or #solotravels.

Belair, who hosts international writing retreats under the moniker "Trust and Travel," adds that Instagram can help people develop the courage to strike out alone. Instagram "can encourage global travel because you are just literally less alone," she says. On a trip she organised last fall, many of the women arrived solo because they knew they would have community when they got there. Some people even continued onward together.

Let the feed be your guide

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"Consumers in general have become more skeptical about the traditional authority that once defined what's hot and what's not in the travel space," explains Sean O'Neill, a travel technology editor at Skift, a travel industry media company. He has observed Instagram users seeking out other travelers who could serve as surrogates for their own travel as well as aspirational accounts. "Sometimes you want the 'people like me' experience and then other times you might want the fantasy - the Greek yacht and feeling fabulous."

Lia Garcia, who, along with her husband, runs the blog Practical Wanderlust, points out that although Instagram has a way of over-glamorising experiences, "it also leads to honesty, vulnerability, and representations of people and experiences that aren't always depicted in traditional media."

"If you're scrolling and scrolling, usually you can get an accurate portrait of what a place is like," Garcia says - including standards of dress and seasonal attire.

Another element she is particularly attuned to is accessibility, a concern that comes up among her followers. "A lot of my readers are asking questions like: Will I fit in this seat? Do I need a seat belt extender?"

She adds that travel accounts like Fat Girls Traveling not only provide practical information but also can enable people to go for an aspirational destination they might have ruled out otherwise.

"For those of us who have difficulty fitting into the stereotypical traveller mould, Instagram can be a source of powerful and inspiring representation," Garcia says. "When travel content is created by marginalised people, such as from the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, differently-abled people - or just plain regular folks who look like you - it is even more inspiring and motivating as the photos of the destinations they're visiting."

While you're scrolling photos, don't forget to check in on Instagram stories, says Tara Cappel, the founder of trip planning start-up For the Love of Travel, pointing out that they can be more revealing than carefully composed imagery. "You can edit a photo," she says. "But there's only so much you can do to stories."

When it doubt, reach out

While an account with a massive following might not swiftly respond to your direct message, many handles - especially small hotels, travel micro influencers, bloggers and everyday people - might get back to you swiftly.

"You can use [Instagram] to connect with travelers who have recently been there and can give you an extremely honest, transparent opinion," Martin says.

Direct messaging can also serve as a quick way to connect with businesses on the ground. "You can just DM the hotel," Belair says, adding that it's also a good way to build a relationship with people on-site before arriving.

Garcia regularly communicates with fellow travelers who post comments and ask questions - interactions that often help people find the confidence they need to book their own trips. "It's a platform designed for connection, after all," she says.