Let’s imagine you’re planning a trip to a beautiful, exotic location – you’re going to a country very far away that you’ve never been to before. One of the first things you do when you are doing research for this trip is to go online and read the experiences of others, but whom can you listen to? Oh gosh, I remember back in the 1990s, way before the culture of online peer review totally took off, most travelers relied on guide books like The Lonely Planet, Time Out or Rough Guides. But thanks to technology these days, hardly anyone needs to buy a book like that anymore as you can download almost all the information you need onto your smart phones. Such guide books were reliable in that they were well researched and written by knowledgeable writers – the problem with the internet these days is that anyone can publish a review, no matter who misleading or misguided it may be! Yes, such is the way the internet has revolutionized the way we access information – even idiots can get online and spread information that is just plain wrong. So if you are researching for a trip, how do you make sure you access reliable information?
1. Wikipedia is your friend
Wikipedia is a great place to start because it is not designed to be promote a travel destination – what you get are just the bare facts, laid out in a very logistic, systematic manner that is easy to digest. Most of all, it does not try to hide the less pleasant aspects of your destination. Have a look at this Wikipedia report on crime and law enforcement in Nairobi – now clearly, it is not a particularly safe city but most tourist brochures would not give you such information because they are afraid that you might be discouraged from visiting Nairobi if you knew about the crime statistics. The key is to be aware of the potential dangers and take the necessary precautions; rather than just read a glossy travel brochure and believe that you’re heading to some kind of perfect tropical paradise. Wikipedia will give you all the information you need about any country you’re visiting: from the climate to the culture to the cuisine to the languages to the history of the country. It will give you a good idea of what to expect and help shape your itinerary.
2. Go with the average, ignore the extremes
The solution with having so many reviews to choose from is to go with the average. Let’s take this hotel on Tripadvisor for example: Tune Hotel KLIA 2. It is a budget hotel you would book if you had a very early flight from KLIA and I would be quite happy to stay there given the average ratings of the hotel are overwhelmingly good. Sure there are some ‘poor’ and ‘terrible’ reviews, but out of nearly 1000 reviews, these are only 78 bad reviews – that is pretty good going. So the chances of you having a bad experience in this hotel are pretty low, given that the vast majority of the reviews are favourable. Sites like Tripadvisor are really good in this aspect because you are taking the average of hundreds, even thousands of reviews, rather than judging the hotel on just one person’s experience.
3. Beware of sponsored writing
In Singlish, we call this a ‘lobang’. This is how it works, some hotels and tourist attractions want to raise their profiles and one subtle way to do so is to invite an established travel writer to review it – this usually means that the travel writer gets a free holiday, sometimes with generous travel expenses thrown in. In return, the travel writer will write an excellent review for the hotel or tourist attraction and even if things go badly wrong, the travel writer will be obliged to omit those details from the review. Travel writers who are too honest during a sponsored piece will find that they are no longer invited to review anything this way. When you read a piece of travel writing, ask yourself if you are reading a sponsored piece.
4. Beware of travel writers with big egos
There are travel writers who will not be totally honest with things that have gone wrong in their writing, not because they are sponsored by anyone, but they want to maintain the image that they are experienced globetrotters. Admitting that they got lost, robbed or fleeced may make them sound more human, but they don’t want their readers to think, “ha, what an idiot, that would never happen to me.” Some readers will be sympathetic – others may be downright unkind, as in the Jimbaran Villa in Bali case. So they write pieces that make their trips sound absolutely perfect, like a dream holiday where nothing could possibly go wrong. But in the real world, we know things can go wrong and they will go wrong – personally, I would rather read a more honest, realistic travel story so I will know what to expect when I get to my destination.
5. You get what you pay for
Let’s get real here – when you read a travel story that describes a wonderful experience, you rarely get the price tag that goes with the piece. Oh such little details are omitted but are very important when it comes to your planning process. You get what you pay for – the more you spend, the better your experience. Hence it is important to be realistic with your expectations: for example, if you were to opt for a one-star hostel, don’t be surprised if you get disturbed in the middle of the night by noisy, drunk backpackers. Don’t get me wrong – some of the people who run these budget one-star establishments are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met whilst on my travels; it is just the kind of people who stay in such places who are usually the cause of the problems. You are really paying more to have a better class of neighbours when you stay at a 5-star resort or hotel. Such is life: the more you spend, the better your holiday experience.
6. Who is the writer?
Many of us just rush into a piece of travel writing because we are attracted by the title or maybe an interesting photo – but how many of us actually pause for a moment and think about who the writer is? If it is an American writer, he may be writing for a very north American audience who may find certain things exotic and challenging – things, that may be totally ordinary and everyday for a person from Singapore. Are you the travel writer’s target audience? Likewise, if the writer is clearly someone who travels a lot with work, then s/he is not paying for the flights and hotels and thus money is not an object – that is quite unlike the traveler on a budget who has to go onto Skyscanner or Kayak to try to get bargain flights. Likewise, a writer who has been to Paris many times may find the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower boring, but a first time visitor would probably enjoy visiting those attractions very much.
7. Be careful whose advice you take.
I think it is crazy how some people would take the advice of anyone and everyone on the internet – some people would ask a question on an internet forum or on social media. It could be a perfectly valid question like, “I am going to be in Rome for work next month and am thinking of extending my stay there for a few days, do you think it is safe for a woman to travel around Italy on her own?” Now the kind of person who is qualified to offer a useful response to this question should be someone who is either Italian (or a long-term resident in Italy), or someone who has traveled to Italy many times before. But oh no, this is the internet and you have people who have never set foot in Europe (never mind Italy) trying to give you all kinds of advice – it is quite frankly, ridiculous. They just can’t help themselves – they have no practical experience or relevant information, but they feel the need to have their say just because it is social media. Avoid asking questions like that – either google the answer or approach an experienced traveler for his/her advice.
8. If you cannot find what you’re looking for, ask a local (not another tourist)!
Sometimes we just can’t find what we’re looking for – it may be something quite specific, that’s time to ask a local! I was once in a situation whereby I had about 90 minutes between my flight landing at Helsinki airport and making it onto a connecting ferry at the Helsinki ferry terminal. Google told me that the journey was possible in just 56 minutes but I was feeling very nervous about missing my connection – so I asked a local tour operator and a Finnish friend of mine, both of whom told me that the journey was only possible if the flight landed on time and there was absolutely no guarantee that my flights from London would not be delayed. So in principle, yes it was possible but in reality, even a delay of 20 minutes could mean missing my ferry, so even a local would rather not try to make that tight connection. I found the Tunisian national tourist office in London particularly helpful. In fact, practically every country will have some kind of tourist board and they will always have someone there who speaks English – they are usually incredibly helpful when answering email queries and you know you can trust them. Other people I have received helpful advice from range from hotel staff to local managers at travel attractions.
So there you go, that’s it from me on this issue. What about you? What kind of research would you undertake before going on a trip? Do you use websites like Tripadvisor to check ratings for hotels? Have you approached local tourism boards for help? Do you trust travel writers or do you take their stories with a large pinch of salt? Let me know what you think, leave a comment below. Many thanks for reading.