Thursday, 27 November 2008

Travelling without a safety net

My Life Before Travel Guides
Before working for a UK travel guides publisher, I was well travelled and knew my stuff but I never fully subscribed to guidebooks. I did read them; for example, the entire Rough Guide to the USA, in preparation for my very first job in the travel industry. Prior to landing that job, I also spent a month lugging around two random inter-railing guidebooks, plus a copy of Thomas Cook's European Timetable. Those guidebooks were, for no particular reason at all Let's Go Europe and Katie Wood's Europe By Train. When I first started to travel, I wasn't loyal to any particular publishing brand, and to be honest the only reason that I read guidebooks was for background information and any pertinent destinational warnings.

My inter-railing trip didn't end in disaster just because we didn't follow the guidebooks' hints, tips and suggested itineraries. Even though we tried to call listed hostels, to book a bed in advance of our arrival in a new city, more often than not we either forgot to call (too busy having fun), the hostel didn't pick up or the published number was out of date. This was no worry. In the 90s, backpackers didn't arrange all of their travel in advance, online, so we simply rocked up straight from the station and always landed a safe place to sleep.

The main reason that we neglected our guidebooks on that trip was not because they sucked, but because it was more fun, and just as effective, to collect pointers and tips from fellow travellers as we arrived at consecutive train or bus station. Those waiting for the next train out of town were always more than happy to pass on where they'd just stayed, eaten, visited or enjoyed.

We weren't reckless inter-railers either. We just preferred to heed the warnings of less fortunate travellers that we met, rather than rely on the wise words of our printed 'bibles.'

Talking to other travellers has always been sensible
The popularity of user generated content strengthens the case for what every traveller knows in their hearts: that speaking to a person who’s just been in the same boat, plane, hostel or bar can't be beaten. It's fantastic that pages and pages of user generated travel content exists these day. But I do worry that it’s often irrelevant and out of date by the time you actually need to apply it to a real life travelling situation.

I'm still more likely to respect and act upon the opinion and recommendations of a backpacker who's sat beside me at the hostel bar - full of warnings after having survived a sticky situation - rather than the musings and rants of a faceless online reviewer, or a flippant online guru who aggregates travel ‘content’ for their site without editorial moderation. Such sites often smack of working more in the interests of their page rank than in the interest of circulating travel karma.

I’m not just a cynic, but a professional editor with a duty to question the source of published travel information. Readers should always question the source of any travel content and also the motivations of the contributor and site publisher. It’s so much easier to trust that the backpacker sat beside you in Amsterdam has actually visited The Red Light District recently. He/she has nothing to gain from sharing their insights with you, other than a warm glow inside and perhaps a friend for life. The online content provider may not have visited and may not really care how their content will now play out in your travels, as long as you've hit their page, stayed a while and improved their analytics profile.

Guidebooks can be really useful
Maybe we were just plain lucky on that inter-railing trip not to need the nitty-gritty health, safety, crime and medical information that differentiate guidebooks from travel literature and glossy travel features. Maybe we missed out on a myriad sights, memories and must-dos because we didn't plan our itinerary around an author's recommendations. But on the flip side, perhaps we made more of our time in Europe because we didn't join a bar-crawl at the base of the Spanish Steps like main other inter-railers do, or because we didn’t bypass Monte Carlo like many do because it's not the typical shoestring stop off.

Blissfully unaware of recommendations and guidebook facts, we just relaxed with our own agenda, followed our instincts and trusted in 'us'. Rather than be influenced by 'Best of' lists and 'Top Tens,' we spent nights in whichever bars looked and sounded like good fun, and we made a beeline for the major sights when we came across them.

Do travellers really need guidebooks?
Travel can be just as, if not more, rewarding when you don't take along a guidebook as a safety net. But travel publishers are in business because they do the hard work for you. They vet the writers (experienced travellers) and have procedures in place to ensure that details are as up to date as they can be. Travel guide publishers make money because the inspiring, informed voice of a travel writer can be just as valuable a travel companion as the great guy or girl you hook up with at the diving school in Dahab. You just have to interact with their recommendations in a different way to how you’d interact with an actual, physical being sat beside you.

Depending upon your destination, there’s always some background reading to do before hitting the road. And if I'm heading off the beaten track, I'd much more confident reading the succinct advice of an objective, experienced travel writer living in situ than the subjective snippets that are sprinkled across various blogs, review sites and online forums, or aggregated into a central site by a canny web guru.

Once the logistics of travel and transfers are behind you, leave your travel guidebook in your hostel room and just hit the streets, wander, talk to people and follow your own instincts. Perhaps put out a Twitter for suggestions once in a while and just play it all by ear. Take in the major sights by all means - I'm not suggesting that missing out on The Last Supper in Milan, for example, does you or the city any justice - but find your own sights too. Refer to your printed or electronic guide in times of absolutely boredom or desperation. Your memories will be more colourful and your post-trip conversation infinitely more interesting for it. And if you too are a travel blogger, your travel content will surpass generic, SEO ridden travel drivel in the quality stakes.

So, Sandwagon reads and respects traditional travel guides and travel writers, but also loves to go it alone and trust the recommendations of other travellers in the same boat. Meeting a traveller in a destination and learning from them is different to reading user generated content online. Without editorial moderation, online content may be out of date, totally fabricated or written by someone whose opinion you wouldn't trust if you met them in the flesh.

Are you cynical about online travel content?

Will we always rely on a travel safety net of some sort?

3 comments:

Ben Colclough said...

Great post, I want to come back and read in full. You remind me of something I've observed. Lonely Planets for US centric destinations tend to be more cautious about security etc. and they can make you hold back when you go to the country. For example the LP for Mexico is way more cautious than the LP for Cambodia. Ultimately, you can't beat face to face word-of-mouth recommendation precisely because you can infer the context. For example: is the person a paranoid obsessive on their first ever bpacking trip, or are they gnarly old travellers who were bumming around Afghanistan in the 60s on a permanent opium high (the latter may have a marginally lower tolerance for danger than I!)

Seriously though I subscribe to a compromise approach, a few planned cornerstones to a trip, and wing the rest of it.

Ben Colclough said...

I did get around to reading it in full and you've inspired me to write a blog of my own on the same subject. (http://trailbeater.blogspot.com/2008/12/travel-planning-in-advance-or-winging.html)

Spot Cool Stuff said...

I used to read travel guidebooks all the time too . . . until I got a job writing a travel guidebook. To write that book, to have my material be fresh, I had to travel without any other guidebook. And what I found was: I preferred traveling without guidebooks.

Funny how the world works.

I think it helps having a direction -- a great hotel to stay in, a small town you want to get to, a theme or activity to explore (like wine tasting, or whatever). It helps to have a few insider tips too, about that great hike or cool local restaurant you wouldn't just stumble upon randomly. After that, I'm with you. Ditch the safety net. Your trip will turn out just fine.