Chris Columbus can be forgiven for not having a gander at his Lonely Planet, Rough Guide or Real Tenerife guidebooks (why not include our own? It’s better than the RG guide) before setting off on his travels.
But modern travellers who don’t carry out even the most flimsiest of research before they travel because they want to have a pure experience (or whatever the reason is) are delusional if they think they’re going to wander up a seedy side street, in part of a city outsiders don’t venture into, and discover the lost city of Atlantis.
All they’re likely to discover is a greasy spoon café, too mediocre to make it into any guidebook, which they will then declare the best place ever because it is filled with those most exotic of creatures – locals.
There are some who seem to view research, especially the use of guidebooks, as almost a corruption of travelling. It’s a bizarre and skewed way of thinking.
In good businesses it’s common to keep up to date with ‘best practices’ implemented elsewhere. Basically, don’t waste valuable time re-inventing the wheel. If someone’s done it before, learn from them. It’s the smart thing to do.
Travel is no different.
I’m thankful that someone else has been there, done it, and given me some ‘guidelines’ (that’s all guidebooks are – hence the name) to refer to so I don’t waste time wandering aimlessly. The highlights of any destination are the highlights for a reason. The best restaurants are known because they’re the best restaurants (whether cheap and cheerful or Michelin star). Some crackers might sneak under the radar. But Johnny Traveller who touches down and starts wandering cluelessly is unlikely to stumble up an alley, randomly knock on an anonymous door and find that he’s in the best cheap restaurant in town. You know, the one the locals have successfully kept secret from every other visitor for the last three decades.
Additionally, most people are on a time limit. When you don’t have some sort of plan you might get lucky, then again you might spend 48 hours in a city and see nothing. It happened to us in Kuala Lumpur. We didn’t research enough and my memories of the place amount to a snake on the pavement. It was an exciting moment admittedly, but it was a waste of a visit and we learned from our lack of preparation.
Similarly I read a travel blog where the author criticised Amsterdam (a wonderful city, but we all have different tastes). It turned out he didn’t carry out any research at all before visiting. When I read the account of his meanderings around the city it was clear that he’d totally missed the best of what Amsterdam had to offer. This was no wet-behind-the-ears traveller either.
In case anyone thinks we’re ‘do-it-by-numbers’ sort of people, we’re not. As well as travel writing, we check and design walking routes around Europe. We’re no strangers to getting lost. It’s an occupational hazard. Guess how many times the ‘getting lost’ part has resulted in a better experience than following the tried and tested path? On occasion it has led to memorable experiences. Being trapped in the middle of a river as it swelled around us is one. But you know what, I could live without those.
The bottom line is that carrying out research doesn’t mean you have to follow a set route, doing the same things that everyone else has done a zillion times before. It simply means you’re prepared so that you can plan your time effectively… and then you can explore at will.
We might have different experiences but none of us are Christopher Columbus, David Livingstone or James T. Kirk boldly travelling where no person has gone before. It’s not a weakness and it certainly doesn’t make someone less of a bona fide traveller (whatever the hell that is anyway) to learn from what others have seen or done.
Incidentally, know who else don’t carry out any destination research? Tourists who only view locations as places where they can lie on the beach all day.
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+