The walls in the hotel we’ve been staying at in Hoi An for the past seven weeks are paper-thin. We can’t help but hear our neighbours’ conversations and note the many hours they waste in their hotel rooms discussing what to do, which destination to head to next, how they should get there, and where they should stay, that it has us thinking about how much planning you should do before you travel so you don’t waste precious time when you arrive.
If our neighbours aren’t in their hotel rooms reading passages out loud to each other from their guidebooks and (it sounds like) Trip Advisor, they are on the computers downstairs, doing research and making bookings online. Or they are at the reception desk quizzing staff about train timetables and tour prices. We can head out to dinner and drinks and the same people will still be on those computers when we return.
Travellers here seem to spend more time at the hotel planning their next moves than out on the streets discovering Hoi An. And no doubt it will be the same when they get to their next destination. It’s obviously not a great use of their time while they’re actually on their trip. For the travellers we’re seeing here, travel seems to have become not about the journey or the destination, but the planning of the journey to the next destination.
It’s very different to how we used to travel before we became travel writers and before the rise of the Internet as a travel research tool. I remember our first overseas trip in the early ’90s to Mexico. We bought our air tickets and bought a guidebook (the first edition of the Berkeley students Mexico Travel Guide, which was brilliant – whatever happened to that series?). From that guide we selected a hotel and telephoned Mexico City from Sydney to book our first few nights accommodation. That was it.
Once in Mexico, aside from asking hotel staff for eating tips, we used the guidebook to book onward accommodation, calling up hotels one or two days in advance. Or if we couldn’t decide which hotel we preferred from the guidebook reviews, we’d arrive in a town and one of us would wait with the backpacks at a café while the other went to look at rooms. The guidebook was all we used for choosing sights and museums to see, finding bus stations, buying tickets, negotiating public transport, and identifying restaurants to eat at, which we’d then cross-reference with local tips.
We didn’t waste a lot of time discussing plans or making arrangements – just as we don’t now. We just made them. It was easy and it freed up our time to focus on having a great time, scrambling about archaeological sites, shopping at local markets, lazing on idyllic beaches, and devouring Mexican food. If we read any guidebook passages aloud to each other, it was on the history and culture of the place. And we had an amazing time.
I remember before the trip when I was in a Sydney bookshop trying to decide which guidebook to buy, I skimmed through a couple of chapters of each of Let’s Go and the Berkeley guide. I can’t even remember if Lonely Planet had a Mexico guide back then, but I remember the bookshop staff recommending the two American guides as the best options for Mexico. Fifteen minutes flicking through the books was enough to tell me we were more in tune with the Berkeley kids than the Harvard students.
And that’s the key, no matter what sources of information you use – whether it’s a guidebook, travel site, a forum, or travel blog – finding a source of travel information that you trust, not only because it’s current, but because you share a similar outlook and similar taste. I very much doubt we’d travel with the Berkeley guide now, but as late 20-somethings, it suited us just fine.
A problem these days is that, firstly, people have it in their heads that the Internet – and specifically Trip Advisor – is where they should be doing their research. The thinking is that print is dead, all guidebooks are out of date, and all the information a traveller could need is online, at their fingertips, just a few clicks away, and it’s obviously more current and accurate because it is online – or so they believe. Although of course we know that isn’t always the case, especially when it’s user-generated content created by ordinary travellers who don’t know places as intimately as destination experts do.
Plus, just because information is online doesn’t mean it’s current and is updated regularly. In many cases, information from print has just been uploaded to a site. Travel bloggers may be continually on the road, but how many make multiple trips to destinations or have the time to continually update their blog posts. Just this week a couple of people on Twitter pointed out that a restaurant in Saigon we’d written about had closed, along with a shop in Siem Reap. We’ll be back in both cities soon, so we’ll update those posts.
And then there are the issues of outlook and taste. The way we perceive the world and our preferences guide the travel decisions we make. I have friends with whom I share a similar way of seeing the world and a similar taste in food, films, music, fashion, and so on. I trust their opinion more than I trust the opinion of a friend who (as much as I might love and respect her dearly) has a very different viewpoint and different sensibilities.
It’s the same with travel writers, magazines, newspapers, guidebooks, web sites, and travel blogs. For information on cities and places, I love Monocle, Guardian Travel and DestinAsian to name a few, but I don’t trust or share the same taste of every single writer they publish. After decades of reading I know which travel writers or restaurant reviewers I relate to and whose opinions I respect, and which writers have their fingers on the pulse.
My point is just because you have all this information online at your fingertips – this monumental, mind-boggling amount of information – doesn’t mean you need to use it or trust it. Whether you do it before your trip or as you travel you are wasting time by spending hours online every day searching and collating information from a wide array of different sources and reading pages and pages of Trip Advisor reviews. In the same way, you’d be wasting your time if you just walked up to a stranger on the street and asked where the best lunch spot was or where you should go see some live music.
So how much planning should you do before you travel so you don’t end up spending all your time at the hotel? Well, once you identify those trusted sources of information – and that’s what you should be spending time on if you don’t know them already – use your pre-trip research time to book your flights, some of your accommodation, and perhaps some tours and activities.
If you’re on a tight schedule or tight budget, by all means create an itinerary and book all of your accommodation in advance so you don’t have to worry about it as you go. If you love a place so much you want to stay longer, you can change your plans on the way, or if you can’t, plan to return one day.
If you have all the time in the world, then simply book the flight and first few nights’ accommodation, and then simply consult those trusted sources along the way – whether it’s a flight or hotel booking site, a guidebook, magazine or travel blog, so you’re not wasting your time on the web.
For instance, if I’m booking, say, a flight to Sydney, I’ll go directly to a site like cheapflights and, as we mostly stay in apartments, one of a handful of holiday rentals sites we trust to book accommodation. Maybe I’ll also book a few restaurants in advance. Once we land, apart from consulting local experts, I’ll use just a few other sources I trust, like Time Out Sydney, Feast and the Good Food Guide. And that’s all. Life is too short and travel too much fun to waste time online and in hotel rooms.
How much planning do you do before you travel? Do you research widely or go directly to a tried and tested site or two? Do you also spend a lot of time on the road doing research and making bookings? And is this because you’re searching randomly, looking at anything and everything out there, or do you refer to just a few trusted sources? We’d love to know how and when you plan your trips – pre-departure or on the road?