How to travel without a Lonely Planet. Really?

Every now and then a bit of link bait gold presents itself and today a glorious piece on MatadorTravel filtered into my Twitter stream. Titled “How to travel without a Lonely Planet”, author NOELLEJT (I can’t figure out how to discover the author’s real name without becoming a site member) explains why you don’t really need a guidebook.

While I suggest you first read the full story here, as I did with a very special Bali piece last year, I’d like to go through it par by par.

“If you’re going backpacking for a few weeks or around the world on an open-ended trip, you don’t need to lug around a Lonely Planet or a Frommer’s. Two weeks into a seven month stint in South East Asia, I threw mine away – left them in a hostel somewhere in Chiang Mai – and never looked back.”

Good for you!

“Guide books make great doorstops”

I agree.

“(and can be handy to wedge your international-plug-adapter into the rusty-socket that it doesn’t quite fit)”

I never tried that, but I’d imagine a LP India or SEA Handbook would make for a smacking hammer.

“but they’re far from necessary. They’re heavy, take up space in your backpack, and there’s a good chance that they’ll already be out of date by the time you get where-ever you’re going.”

Yes, that’s been the case since around 1904 (but, ok, they didn’t start to get really heavy till the late 1980s).

“I can’t count the times that the “hostel” listed in a guide book turned out to be a restaurant, to have a dozen clones (it’s disturbingly common in some places that, once a hostel gets a nod from the backpacker’s bible, a dozen more open up with the same name) – or didn’t even exist.”

A dozen clones. Really. Fancy that. Concrete examples please.

“Not to mention, there’s the times that you catch someone reading up on a place as they leave it. Suddenly, you have a list of “sites” to feel guilty that they’d missed.”

Yes, there really is more to Udaipur than bang lassis.

“Without a guide book to depend on, you’ll have to take an extra step to find out about interesting places yourself. And that can be half the fun.”

Yes. It’s called travelling.

“Instead, get yourself a blank journal and fill it with your own travel tips and plans. If you’re a pen-and-paper writer, make sure you bring an extra journal along that just for travel tips – no journaling in this one! (Make sure you get one with a pocket for loose slips of paper, subway maps, and business cards that you’re going to collect along the way – and a built-in elastic bands that keep them closed can be a life-saver.)”

Generally agree with this. Personal diaries are fab to look back upon (unless some scumbag thief in France steals it).

“Do some homework before you leave: The internet has all the information you need. I’m willing to bet you were already researching your destinations – so write down what you find! (Plus, you can just go into a bookstore, pick up a guide-book, and copy things down to your heart’s content. Just don’t tell them I suggested it.)”

Write down travel notes. Awesome advise. I’d have never though of that. Thankyou MatadorTravel!

“If you’re the color-coded, page-tabs, highlighting type, you can type out a word doc, print it, and paste it into your new journal.”

This is a far more cash positive way of using your time, compared to say buying a guidebook*

*Based on you earning 20 cents an hour at the cardboard box factory.

“If you’re a back-of-an-envelope in crayon type, you can clumsily scrawl stuff down on whatever page opens. (My advice: start out as organized as you can because by the end, you’re going to find every page written on in five different directions and there are times when you need to find just that one thing, right now.)”

But I’m a painter. Should I cut up the canvas, or maybe scan it, then print it off smaller so I can paste it in? What do you think?

“You don’t need to copy down everything.”

Phew!

“Just the stuff that gets your heart pumping – the places that are the whole reason you wanted to go on this trip in the first place – and a few things that, well, they might not sound like you, but who knows, might be fun for a change of pace.”

Awesome!

“Museums and historical sites: You’ll want to know the opening hours, entrance fee, and location. Try to find the official web-page (and make sure you check for the time of year, since summer hours are often different) for the most recent info – and there’s a good chance they’ll have a “how to get here” page that tells you subway stops and/or landmarks.”

So, while most of the above can be found in a guidebook, ignore that and surf the web to garner the information from 12,234 different websites. Don’t forget what time of the year you are going.

“Restaurants and bars: It’s worth writing down a nice place to treat yourself to. Or that really indie place your favourite blogger said makes great cappuccinos. Or that bar that has live jazz bands on Tuesday nights.”

I don’t know about you, but I get all my coffee recommendations from travel bloggers. Mostly they suggest Starbucks or McDonalds, as they have free WiFi.

“Tourist Information Center: Get the phone number. Mark the location on a map. (You’ll thank me later.)”

Phone number? Really. When was the last time anyone made a phonecall?

“Hostels: I try to make sure I have a couple of names, addresses, and numbers for places before I hit a city. I might not go to them – I prefer to wander around and find a place on my own – but it’s nice to have the information, just in case the bus pulls in at 3am in a sketchy part of town.”

Basically: I make it up as I go (nothing wrong with that) but I like to have some post it notes for hotels, you know, for the times when a guidebook would be useful.

“Plus, reading up on hostels is a great way to get a feeling for a town and the ethos of the travelers it attracts.”

Really?

“If it’s got a rave review, or an stunning view, or fantastic breakfasts, or you have to book a couple of nights in advance, or your cousin stayed there five years ago and wants you to give a photograph to the owner for him – doesn’t hurt to write it down!”

Agreed. Or, buy a guidebook.

“Keep gathering information while you move. Don’t worry if you don’t know everything about where you’re going before you get there.”

Agree.

“As great as the internet is, there are some things that are just easier to figure out once you’re on the ground. Keep an eye out for:
Maps: Print them off the internet, grab the free ones at the airport or the tourist center downtown or the front desk of your hostel. (Or do what I did, and rip them out of the guide book you were leaving behind.)”

But I thought you said I don’t need a guidebook?

“Tourist Information Centre: If you’re in a big city, hit that place first. It has maps and pamphlets and all sorts of wonderful information about public transportation.”

Really?

“That place is your friend. (At least the first week.) If you’re in a small town (or have made it to the countryside), then don’t worry. You won’t need a map.”

But how do I find the tourist information centre?

“Phone number for a good taxi: A good, reliable taxi driver is a prince, a legend, a man among men. A taxi driver who won’t leave you stranded on the side of your road (with all your bags and a tent and extra gear), or drive you the long way around town to hike up your fee, or take you to his friends’ hostel instead of the one you asked for – and who might even help you catch the bus on the road that you missed at the station, or help you buy a cellphone on a Sunday after business hours – this is a guy whose number you need to save, even if you think you don’t have plans to go back to that town. Ask people to recommend their taxi driver (any long-term expat, volunteer coordinator, hostel keeper, or business man has one). A good taxi driver is all the more valuable the further away you get from civilization.”

While I agree it’s great to have a personal recommendation for a driver, the above, really, is complete bollocks.

“Ask other travelers for recommendations.
Other travelers are your single best source of information. I can not emphasize this enough. Get a few backpackers around a table and they will naturally start giving out travel tips (along with stories about their digestive tracts).”

Agree 1,200% with this. Note to editor, please delete previous 1,200 words.

“You barely even have to ask – and if you do, it’s all the better to make friends. Don’t be afraid to pull out your notebook – ask them to repeat the name of that place (ask them how to spell it). Places to avoid are just as important, as well.”

Yeah, agree.

“And what other travelers can tell you about polite customs and ettiqette can be far more useful than the stuff in the guidebook.”

Absolutely a traveller who arrived in the country 10 days before you has far more insight into the customs etc than a guidebook writer who lives incountry.

“Of course, you have to take some of the advice with a grain of salt – especially if the mood gets competitive and everyone is swearing that their place is the absolute best (or worst). But if you get someone one-on-one (say, the guy next to you on the bus or waiting for a flight), it’s a great way to start a conversation.”

Whoever gets the least pissed on lao lao knows the most, otherwise, person sitting nest to you on the flight will do.

“The best hostels I ever stayed in were on the recommendation of a stranger – and some of the most most interesting cities I’ve visited happened the same way – and one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. (Come to think of it, the whole reason I went to Burma was because of a guy next to me on a bus.)”

That’s cause the guidebook author isn’t a stranger right?

The whole reason you went to Burma is because some guy on the bus turned you onto it? I hate this phrase, but can see how it happens. Think just unfortunate phrasing.

“Don’t be afraid to change your plans on the spot.
I’ve heard people refuse to change their plans because they don’t have the guidebook to a certain city – but, more often, it’s the man excuse they have for clinging to their guidebook: what if I want to go somewhere I hadn’t planned on?”

So go.

“These days, the internet is never far away. Want to go to Laos instead of Vietnam but you’ll have to go to another town first and spend the night? Hit an internet cafe. I bet you that you can manage to find the bare basics (is the bus station in town or out of it, three hostels, and where’s the main tourist attraction) for where-ever you’re headed in less than 40 min.”

Agree.

“Never commit to a hostel for more than one night when you first arrive.”

Why not?

“If you know nothing about a place before you check-in (you absolutely had to crash at the first possible place, or the taxi took a wrong turn, or you got lost in an alley, or everywhere else was sold out), don’t pay for more than one night.”

Why?

“I could tell you to check the room (the lights, the fan, the water, the amount of bugs) before you pay, but there will come a time when you forget – and there are some things that a cursory once-over will miss.”

Light broken? Go down to reception. Say, “Light broken”. They come up and fix it.

“(Like the prostitute working out of the rooms around you. Or the loud disco downstairs. Or the weird smell after dark. It happens to all of us.)”

I hate staying in brothels with a nighclub on one side and an abatoir on the other. Happens all too regularly.

“They’ll want you to commit to longer – fight it. If the place is fine, they’ll always let you stay longer – and if it isn’t acceptable, you can get out in the morning.”

If the accommodation you selected isn’t satisfactory, leave.

“Find the “backpacker ghettos” and “expat zones”.
There’s a Khao San Rd in every major city – they might not be pretty and they might not be your cup of tea – but they’re there for a reason, and they can be pretty damn useful. You can buy painkillers, toothpaste, phone credit, batteries, a fresh t-shirt, check your email – and then get the hell out of there in a day. (You can do all of the above while drinking a cold beer and complaining to other grizzled loners like yourself about how much you hate the fake, tawdry, tacky, hedonism of the backpacker ghetto in question – and probably get some great tips while you’re at it.)”

I really am not sure what to make of this par.

“Don’t forget: Emergency information.
Obviously, phone numbers for your parents and grandparents and best friend should be on the front cover of your journal (and save a few pages for people you meet on the road to scribble down their email addresses, too). But, if you’re traveling for more than a month, it is a question of when, not if, your bank card (or camera or laptop or entire bag) gets stolen or lost.”

Best solution then is to write all details onto the inside cover of your Lonely Planet – cause nobody want’s that.

“Information about your insurance: Maybe you’re a better grown-up than I am, but without it written down, I have no idea who my health or travel insurance providers are. “

Really? Do you remember the name of your airline?

“You shouldn’t write down any any pin codes or passwords, but make sure you have a policy number or the specific title of your plan with you.”

Because policy numbers and pin numbers are far easier to remember than the name of your travel insurance provider.

“Phone number for your bank to cancel your card: Having this number handy could be the difference between losing a week of your time or losing your entire savings. (Trust me, you want this number. Because when you realize at 4am that your wallet’s been stolen yet again, you don’t want to have to call your mother, yet again, to google the number for you.)
Local police number: I program this into my phone when I arrive. Hopefully you won’t need it, but… You want a sense of security? Here it is.”

Totally agree with this. Not sure quite what it has to do with Lonely Planet.

“Let’s be honest:”

Yes, GET REAL!

“The real reason that we carry guide books is security – not information. We do our research ahead of time – or make up our minds on the spot. Guide books are safety and backup. They allow us to to triple-check the (incorrect) opening hours of the train station and stand on a corner staring at a (totally incomprehensible) map.”

I had a guidebook once and the opening hours of the train station were wrong and the timetable was difficult to read.

“Don’t get me wrong – I love guidebooks.”

Some of my best friends are travel guide writers.

“I love reading them at home and I understand just how much of a good idea they seem at the time, when you’re preparing to head off to a country you’ve never been before (where no one you know has ever been before) and you’re not sure exactly where you’re going to end up.”

Yes, they can be useful.

“But after the first week on the road, you’re not going to go a hostel just because its name jumped out of the page at you, and you’re not going to spend hours trying to track down the “affordable, authentic yet welcoming” restaurant from page 304 when you’ve been walking for five hours and the place around the corner smells absolutely amazing.”

That’s why it is called a guidebook, rather than a dobook.

“And the amazing place that everyone’s been raving about – the one nice meal you wanted to treat yourself to after three months of washing your laundry by hand on a rooftop – the pizza you’ve been craving after a month of rice and beans?”

Makes no sense at all. Was this story edited?

“You’re not going to miss those because you didn’t shell out to buy a a guide book or three.”

Oh, now I get it. My bad.

“Not when you can make your own.
Without a guide book, you’ll have to make your own decisions of what to see. You’ll chose what matters, you’ll figure out what you care about. Better yet, you’ll realize just how much you didn’t need it.And the feeling of having done it on your own? It’s amazing.”

Amazing indeed

On Pinterest

The more I think about it the more I think that if you want to “protect” your images while still being able to place them online, you need to not only join Pinterest, you have to be real active. I don’t necessarily think it’s “right” that you have to join a site you have no real interest in to protect your work, but the online world is constantly evolving — and Pinterest seems to have reached critical mass — and I think it’s important creatives stay on top of things.

It’s true, Pinterest has released code you can ad to your site that will stop simple “pinning”, but all this will probably mean is that people who still want to pin your image, or worse, claim it as their own, will simply save the image off your site and upload it directly.

In doing this, you’ll lose the one tenuous link between your image and your site, as if users pin the image from your site, not only is your website URL displayed on their “board”, but also, should people click on the image, they’ll be taken to your site.

From our point of view, aside from quite enjoying Pinterest, the promise of traffic is what we’re focused on. So far, that traffic has been extremely modest – a couple of visits a day. To be fair, on our humble Pinterest page, we only have 30 people following us and have pinned just shy of 100 pics — not all of which are Travelfish.org pics (so there is zero traffic benefit there). With a bit of time we could probably pin 1,000 images and the traffic would grow — especially if we were to work a bit harder growing our audience there. I remember when Facebook sent us just a couple of visits a day — it’s now our number two source of referral traffic.

Some photographers are rightly concerned about the prospect of losing control of their images, or the concern that within Pinterest’s terms they claim the right to resell the image. Two thoughts on this:

1) Don’t post or pin high-res full-size images. Set your images at a maximum of say 600 pixels. It looks all nice in a web browser but it will make for a crappy postcard.

2) Check your contracts with magazines you license images to. Do they have the right to post them to a 3rd party site like Pinterest? If so, bear in mind that if they do, the image will be linked to their website — not yours. That is a problem.

In participating on Pinterest, you’re in a position to establish your board(s) as the authorative Pinterest site for your work and I think, longer term, this will become very important.

As Pinterest continues to grapple with the obvious copyright issues, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to expect some kind of algorithmic solution, where when an image of yours is pinned by someone else, Pinterest somehow determines your image is the “original” and the source links are changed accordingly.

Not convinced?
Then you need to add <meta name="pinterest" content="nopin" /> to your site to make it more difficult for people to pin your images. Then as people continue to do so anyway (though as there won’t be a link back to your site, I’m not sure how you’ll even figure this out) file DMCA notices as detailed here. Enjoy your Sundays ;-)

I think it is all a bit early to flog them to death over this — the affiliate thing for starters turns out to have been a bit of a non-issue — but they’ll need some kind of income stream down the track and I’ll take skim links over Google Adsense thanks!

On wrong shoes and river drownings

Ben Groundwater who runs the Backpacker blog on the Sydney Morning Herald has a linkbait piece (yes, we’re biting) today discussing the dangers of travel in Southeast Asia, declaring “Dangerous? Yes, but don’t try to change South-East Asia”.

Groundwater turns it around into an argument against foreign governments pressuring Laos (or Thailand/Cambodia who also indirectly get a mention) into regulating activities like tubing in Vang Vieng or the full moon parties on Ko Pha Ngan. After all, Australia is so over-regulated “bouncers won’t let you into bars with the wrong shoes”.

I do agree whole-heartedly with Groundwater that Australia is over-regulated — often to a seemingly insane degree — but I don’t agree that the polar opposite is any more desirable.

The thing is Southeast Asia isn’t the polar opposite. There are laws against riding a motorbike without a helmet, driving drunk, and taking or selling a wide variety of drugs. Sure you can go ahead and ride your bike home drunk and high without a helmet in your swimmers and, should you get pulled over, pay your way out of it — but it’s misleading to say Southeast Asia is the freewheeling, anything-goes destination Groundwater paints it as. Laos is a Communist-ruled nation for God’s sake.

The thing is, often the local governments are no keener on these shebangs than the hand-wringing Australian mob. Following full moon parties on Ko Pha Ngan there is often an outpouring of opinion in the Thai press demanding they be shut down, or at least better controlled. And changes have been made. There are in fact sniffer dogs at the parties and the places swarm with both undercover and in-uniform police trying to get a handle on things. Despite this people continue to die — drugs, drownings, motorbike accidents, boat sinkings, shootings — they have them all there, and it’s sometimes difficult to outwit Darwinism at work.

In the mid-noughties I remember talking to Lao tourism activists in southern Laos who were putting together tourism development plans for Savannakhet province. They used Vang Vieng as an example of exactly what they didn’t want to happen; surely that says something. Yes, even in the mid-2000s Vang Vieng was a disaster area and people were dying every year, month in, month out (in 2011 there were 22 reported deaths there).

I’ve done my share of stupid things in my travels — hell I was almost murdered in northern Laos two years ago when I put myself in a situation I probably shouldn’t have — but I was lucky and, as Groundwater did, escaped unscathed. Yet, as someone who visited Vang Vieng before tubing — when there were just a couple of guesthouses and a single restaurant — seeing the transformation from what was a sublime location to one of the best examples of all that is wrong with tourism in Southeast Asia deeply saddens me.

Nobody is suggesting that Vang Vieng be shut down to some how return to its earlier incarnation — that’s never going to happen. Nor should the shoe police get an invite, but even small changes could help to make the circus slightly safer.

Here are three off the top of my head: Stop tube hire after midday; “close” the top of the river where people jump in and/or transport to it after 3pm; stop doing the free drinks.

I’m not sure how workable any of them would be, but if enough people made useful suggestions perhaps tubing would become somewhat safer and lives would be saved.

It’s easy to trumpet freedom of choice and personal responsibility — right up to when it’s your son, daughter or old friend they find stuck under the tree roots.