Deciphering travel advice

Long-term travelers and travel bloggers and writers are in a unique position. They tend to see a lot of places, explore them in different ways, and therefore can be great resources for people who are planning trips, considering their options, etc. But is all travel advice equal? And is it even worth it?

travel advice

Travelers

Obviously, I know a lot of people who are incredibly well traveled. They all have different experiences, have different travel styles, and different resources. All of those things come into play when they give advice.

Naturally, I’m going to lean more toward someone’s advice who has a similar style as my own. Someone who thinks paying $150 a night is a bargain is really not going to be able to give me lodging recommendations that will work within my $30/day all-in budget. Likewise, I won’t be of much help to them.

They’re just totally different worlds.

Recently I found myself in a city I really wasn’t very fond of. Tigger was in complete agreement, and we began searching for our next destination.

When evaluating places to go, one friend advised I go to a certain town as it was their personal “Shangri-la.” Another person immediately joined the discussion and pronounced that city as absolutely “dreadful.” So which is it? Paradise or horrible, awful, no good place?

travel advice

It can be difficult to assess some of the advice. Are you into tourist attractions or do you prefer to try to find examples of local life? Are you into the party scene, or do you prefer a place that is quiet and calm?

It’s important to get to know your own style so that you can more effectively act on recommendations. It’s okay to not be the type of person who is happiest in an all-inclusive. And if you can’t stand staying anywhere that has less than 4 stars in its rating, that’s okay, too.

Just be honest with yourself and seek out like-minded travelers. And keep in mind their experience may not be yours.

Typical resources

Guide books have long been a staple for planners. I don’t care for planning, so I don’t usually find them overly helpful. However, they can be great for finding decent accommodation (such as in La Ceiba, Honduras), getting tips on dealing with public transportation, or finding alternate trips and ideas.

When I was in Cusco, I asked lots of locals how to get to the ruins of Saqsaywaman, and every single one of them told me to take a taxi or pointed in the direction of a travel agency. I didn’t want that. I knew there was a way to get up there on foot, and that’s what I wanted to do. I checked out the guide book I had brought with me, and sure enough they had specific directions on how exactly to walk up there.

But if you’re one of those people who walks around a place with your nose in a guide book, you’re missing out in my opinion.

travel advice

TripAdvisor has become quite popular. While it can be a great tool for getting past the high gloss, professional images and the glowing write-ups of a hotel that turns out to be nothing like its ads, one has to exercise some caution as well. Some people’s reviews have ridiculous objections. And, we all have different likes and dislikes.

When reading the reviews, I try to pay attention to a few things:

  • When was the review written? If it was a year ago or longer, well, a lot could’ve changed since then. I try to find write-ups that are within 1-2 months if at all possible.
  • Common threads. In 4 out of 6 comments, people mentioned the same thing. I’m going to pay attention to that. Whether it be about how nice and wonderful the staff are or how you could smell sewage all the time.
  • If there was a problem, did Management respond appropriately? Things happen, but if the response was good and quick that’s meaningful to me.
  • Many of the review sites will show you the person’s country of origin. That can be helpful because different cultures view things differently. As a Westerner, my view of comfort of a room could be quite different from someone visiting from southeast Asia just because of what we’re used to. Having only a squat toilet is going to make me run, whereas someone from Thailand may be thankful they didn’t have a Western throne.

travel advice

Travel advisories

These generally make me roll my eyes quicker than a teenager during a parent’s lecture. The US State Department’s warnings tend to be the most histrionic and therefore the least valuable to me. Recently, they issued a rather chilling warning against Americans traveling to Machu Picchu because of alleged kidnapping plots. I know people who avoided the area and others who cancelled travel plans strictly because of this advisory.

The real kicker was when they later removed the advisory after discovering there was no such plot. How many businesses and tourists were adversely affected by this!

I understand being cautious, but some agencies are better at being realistic and rational than others. As I advise in my book about visas, I prefer to follow the UK’s FCO advisories. They seem to be much more reliable and not nearly as histrionic. Even then I still don’t rely 100% on what they’re saying. I use it to inform me but don’t rely on any site as being the final say in my decision making.

Locals

This is one of my favorite ways to discover things. I like to ask locals where would they take visiting family members, and sometimes I emphasize “no tourists.” I’m usually looking to experience something different, something unique, something cultural that isn’t usually available in the tourist zone. I’ve had so many good experiences from this method that I rely on it almost everywhere we go.

I’m not knocking tourist attractions. I’ve been to Paris twice and have visited the Eiffel Tower at least 5 times. But overall my personal preference is to avoid those areas.

When it comes to risk assessment, though, locals aren’t always your best barometer. For starters, their experience can be much different than yours. When we lived in Honduras, it had 3 cities in the top 10 list of the most dangerous cities in the world. Would I live in San Pedro Sula, the murder capital of the world at that time? Um, NO! Would I visit? Yes!

Generally, a lot of violence in an area, like some areas of Mexico, is between drug cartels, gangs, and government agents. Locals get in the crossfire because of who they’re related to, who they did or didn’t support, etc. Most of the time tourists are left alone.

I’m not saying you should just ignore it all.

Just weigh things out, and listen to your gut. Just because your Aunt Josephine was mugged in [insert city name] doesn’t mean that will be your experience. I heard plenty of bad stories about Hanoi before we visited. While I was there, I did feel uncomfortable at times, but I can’t say I ever felt in danger. I’ve heard from many people who were pickpocketed in Madrid, Paris, Bangkok, Quito, and Hanoi, but I never had that experience.

Multiple factors can be involved. I hate to say it, but some people just ask to be robbed the way they walk, the way they handle valuable items, etc. It’s important to weigh everything.

I also don’t put a lot of credibility into advice given by taxi drivers. Aside from the “Oh, the Grand Palace is closed today” nonsense, they also may have a vested interest in you being afraid to walk around. Some may be giving you advice from a good place in their heart, but again their experience and your experience can be quite different. A tourist may not be safe in an area a local would be and vice versa.

Now, if I hear from locals, expats, and tourists that a certain area is dangerous, I’m going to pay attention. In Quito, we wanted to go to Panecillo, a very visible landmark in the city. Guide books said it was dangerous to walk up the hill and advised a taxi. When I mentioned to the hostel staff that I was going to Panecillo, the first words out of their mouth were: “Make sure to not walk up the hill.”

I took a taxi.

travel advice

Forums

This is another place I generally avoid. There are some good ones (like Lonely Planet’s), but a lot of forums are occupied by expats and tourists who never really left the compound so to speak. When I was looking at going to Ayutthaya directly from the airport, I did a Google search and some forums came up. One guy was thrilled because he was able to secure a taxi for $60 USD (but the printed fare card says about $40) after people advised against taking the very slow and uncomfortable 3rd-class train.

I stupidly bought into their derogatory comments and paid for a taxi. Had I not listened, I would’ve avoided the very challenging experience we had before we finally got the taxi, and it would’ve cost us about $2. The savings would’ve paid for more than 2 nights’ lodging!

We took the train on our way back, and it was a really wonderful experience.

So what’s the best resource?

Use all the available resources to inform you, but unless you happen to know a person’s style is very close to your own, don’t give any one person or site’s advice too much weight.

When someone tells you a place was “to die for,” ask them what they loved about it. If someone lists bars, restaurants, and hotels to me, I’m probably going to file that in the “less weight” section simply because those aren’t what interest me about a place. Tell me about the exciting street food, how the locals get together outside the shops and sing songs and play guitar, and how quirky the town was and you have my attention.

It’s always a great idea to ask more questions when you get vague recommendations. This way you can tease out if something might or might not appeal to you.

There is no wrong way to travel. Be honest with yourself about your likes and dislikes, preferences, and needs.

Find people whose style is like yours, but in the end the best travel advice you can probably get is your own gut. Yeah, there may be a valid reason why 50 people all tell you to go to a certain town, but that could also be 50 reasons why you shouldn’t. Your gut is your best final word.

What is some of the best travel advice you received?

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35 Comments

  1. I agree with you. I used to be a travel agent and was pretty good at it. Mostly because I didn’t really tell people what I enjoyed, I asked people what they enjoyed and tried to find a match. Most of my customers probably didn’t realize that I actually traveled at all because I didn’t talk about it unless our interests matched. College guys going to Mexico during Spring Break have different travel goals than anthropologists going to Mexico in March (unless the anthropologists are studying the male college student… but even then their goals are different.)

    For best advice, once it was on one of those free tours that are popular in European cities these days. The tour guide pointed a stand at the Easter Market and told us that stand probably had the most expensive ham in the whole country. They were right, but we found out a day too late. We already spent the high prices the night before. Blogs, forums, guidebooks, I think those are very useful in getting me excited about a place. Maybe get ideas for big “must dos”, but overall I like to kind of just walk around and see what happens. I’ve almost been stranded because of my relaxed attitude (on my honeymoon, no less!), but for the most part I’m pretty happy with my travels. It might cause stress in others, but that’s ok, they aren’t traveling with me!

    Really great advice, by the way.
    Ann recently posted..National Mill DayMy Profile

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    • So very true! I have a few traveler friends whose advice I will almost always take just because we tend to enjoy the same types of travel experiences. Anyone else asks me, and I do the same as you: What kind of things do you like? What’s your budget? and so on. If their budget is way more than mine, I have some sites or contacts I can recommend. Or if they’re party people, I have to refer them on as well since I prefer to mix my drinks at home where it’s cheaper and I don’t have to yell to be heard. LOL

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    • Very true about learning from a variety of resources! The more you use and experience from, the easier it is to sort through things that may be irrelevant or less useful to you.

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    • Thank you! Sometimes it’s hard to get a photo of an iconic monument from a perspective that isn’t always shown.

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  2. I agree with you about getting advice from the locals Talon. While plugging his own travel destination, I think that long time Kauai resident Joe Sylvester does a really good job of letting people know about the local culture and what is worth doing on the south shore of Kauai. He is also a trained agronomist so lots of interesting details about plants and sustainability. He writes at TurtleCoveSuites dot com.
    Linda Sherman Gordon (@LindaSherman) recently posted..Best Present for Dad is a Visit From DaughterMy Profile

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  3. Great post…You’re right, it can be tough sifting through all of the advice. Plus, I find it equally stressful when I’m asked to give advice. Oftentimes I know the budget, traveling style, etc. of the other person doesn’t match my own, so I struggle to give them what I feel would be right for them. Still, I take it as a compliment when anyone asks…
    D.J. – The World of Deej recently posted..Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando – Check-In FloridaMy Profile

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    • It is a very big compliment for sure. And I hear you about being stressful. Sometimes after I’ve encouraged someone to go somewhere after absolutely RAVING about it, I think “Oh man, I hope they like it now.” LOL

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    • Thanks, Adam! Yep, I generally agree. I learned early on to take people’s advice with a grain of salt, as you say. So often I’ve been to places that others couldn’t stop talking about and absolutely didn’t like it at all. I also know I’ve been to places that I just can’t say enough nice things about and someone else will think “What the hell did he see in this place!” LOL

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  4. That’s the joy of traveling, isn’t it? There’s no right or wrong way to do things, it’s all about your own personal preferences. You learn to take a little from every source but to trust your gut more than anything. Maybe you’re right, maybe not. Heck, I thought spending Christmas Eve in Bethlehem would be an unforgettable experience but it turned out to be unforgettable for the wrong reasons. I’m still glad I had the experience (and without it I probably would not have made it to Egypt or to Iraq, of that matter!). As for local advice, I tend to hold that in the highest esteem. I know for myself that my favorite parts of NYC aren’t what tourists would see by default and I expect to get the same sort of advice when I travel. This is where I find CouchSurfing to be a great resource too!
    Aaron @ Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures recently posted..Zion National Park: A Hiker’s ParadiseMy Profile

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    • Yep, locals usually rule for recommendations. Especially if they understand you aren’t wanting the typical tourist thing. When I’ve lived in touristy areas before, I’ve always had my faves for escaping the tourists, so I know they have them, too! LOL

      Wow! I would’ve thought the same about Christmas in Bethlehem!

      You’re right about CouchSurfing tips, too. That’s one part of it I really enjoy.

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  5. Great advice! Peoples’ experiences can differ for so many reasons, such as a rude taxi driver, crummy hotel or inclement weather, which can skew your opinion. But also, people just like different things. I always try to keep an open mind when I visit somewhere, especially if I’ve heard negative things about it from others. You’re not going to love every place you go and it’s only natural to want to share your opinions and offer help. But really it’s up to the individual to figure out what they are looking for in a destination. Sometimes they will find it and sometimes they won’t. That learning process is all part of the journey.
    cosmoHallitan recently posted..Baisha Village and China’s Famous Medicine ManMy Profile

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    • So far I’ve never allowed inclement weather to influence my opinion, but I recently experienced just how much crummy taxi drivers can really affect things. My first time in Bangkok, I had HORRIBLE taxi experiences twice in a row on the same day. As much as I tried to not let it affect things, it absolutely did. Thankfully, I went back to Bangkok for a second shot and had a MUCH better experience. It’s surprising what can affect your judgment of a place sometimes.

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  6. When people ask me for advice in Seville, it often takes much more work on my part to find out what they actually want to do, see, eat, experience. Most give me the, “Oh, just all of the important stuff,” but for someone who has been living in Seville for six years, the important stuff is often much different for me than it is for the next one. As a marketing student, I often have to consider my audience – when on a trip recently with my family, I had to take into consideration how far we’d be walking, my sister’s need for a nap and a very picky eater with no desire for anything else but a hamburger and beer.

    Thankfully, I’ve learned to make relationships with other bloggers, travel professionals, etc., and this makes a world of difference. I often shy away from guidebooks for anything more than practical city information.
    Cat of Sunshine and Siestas recently posted..Seville Snapshots: Domingo de RomeríaMy Profile

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    • I feel the same way about guidebooks. I might get helpful taxi info, tips on entry/exit, seasonal info, etc. Other than that, I just don’t find them all that helpful.

      Luckily, I’ve never had that response. I wouldn’t know what to do with “all the important stuff.” My first question would be “Important to whom?” LOL

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  7. Great summary! And I totally agree with your assessment of being honest with yourself (and others) about your price range and what you like/don’t like–otherwise you set yourself up for disaster. Essentially, you end up taking someone else’s dream trip, not your own.

    On the flip side, when giving travel advice, I’ve learned to ask lots of questions before providing suggestions. And if someone’s interests don’t overlap with my own, I usually send them to a blog/website that might be more in line with what they are seeking.
    Larissa recently posted..Chapter 1: Gonna Fly Now (Part 1)My Profile

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    • Excellent advice! I especially love: “you end up taking someone else’s dream trip, not your own.” Amen!

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  8. Oh Talon — you’re always coming through with the wisdom.

    Wonderful advice on how to take in crucial information and make sure that it is personally relevant.
    I look at the “Top 10 Things in X Town” and avoid those like the plague – it’s a very easy way to ensure you stay away from high tourist prices, enjoy fewer crowds and capture moments that feel your own :)
    brandy bell recently posted..How My Kindle Made Me Cry… TwiceMy Profile

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    • I do something similar. The top 10 and “best of” lists are usually great guides of what I want to avoid. LOL

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  9. Both Franca and I know just what kind of travelers we are, and we’re more than fine with that.

    We love recommendations, but nothing beats listening and making a decision for ourselves based on the things we know we’ll enjoy.

    One of the reasons we didn’t go to Pai was because we’d heard it was great to relax and go to a bar – HORN – no thanks.
    Dale recently posted..Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park Dog ShelterMy Profile

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    • Precisely! When people rave about a place, I want to know why it’s so special to them. We may not enjoy similar things.

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  10. Yes – when people ask advice on where to go, you do really need to find out what their budget and likes are. If these are very different from your own then it is important to make this clear to them before giving them your opinion. Good reminder :-)
    Kathryn recently posted..Settling Into Our SubletMy Profile

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    • Most definitely! I just love when people gush about a place and tell me we should totally stay there, and “it isn’t that expensive at all!” only to find out it’s $150/night. That’s what we spend in 5 days! LOL

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    • Yep! Everyone is SO different. One thing I find with myself, though, is the more I have people telling me to go to a specific place the more likely it is I won’t go there. I don’t necessarily want to go where everyone else is going. :)

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  11. I’m sorry I told you DaLat was so dreadful, though I’m honored to get an anonymous shout-out in your post! ;) I maintain that DaLat was one of our least favorite places in Vietnam, but I can see how it would work for others who had different tastes to our own, and also who hadn’t already gone through our own VN itinerary. At the end of the day, you really just have to do what you feel is best because there is no substitute for first hand experience!

    We’ve also learned that there are certain travel blogs we like to follow simply because whatever they say to do, we do the opposite! Without fail, whenever they have loved a place, we’ve disliked it, and vice versa! If you ever needed more proof that I’m a contrarian, well, there you have it! ;)
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Confessions of an Adventurous Eater & An Apology to the PangolinMy Profile

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    • P.S. I totally know what you mean about being horrified by other people’s travel budgets, however! We routinely met people in Vietnam who kept claiming they couldn’t find hotels for less than $90 a night, and we were totally baffled. We rarely spent more than $10/night! Same for Thailand where we heard a girl “bragging” about her 6000THB/night hotel somewhere… We were like, “Uh, we spend that in a week, all in…”
      Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Confessions of an Adventurous Eater & An Apology to the PangolinMy Profile

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      • Hilarious! No apology necessary. Every place is different for every person. Things can also be drastically different if you stay even a few blocks away from where someone else did. We were in a complete, out-of-the-way, almost 100% locals area so we didn’t have the “Niagara Falls” experience or exposure you got.

        I’m not horrified by their budgets. I just don’t travel that way, so I can’t understand being excited that a place was “only $150 a night!” when that would be 5 days on our budget. We’re really going crazy spending money when we’re paying $30 a night somewhere. We spent $30/night in Nha Trang for an oceanview room and considered it a major splurge. LOL

        I hope this blog isn’t one that you watch so you know to do the opposite!

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