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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?