Google these travel SERPS blow

This morning I googled “Temple Lodge Agoda”. Temple Lodge is an iconic property here in Bali and I wanted to quickly check if they were listed on Agoda (an online hotel reseller). Here’s what Google gave me.

Roll that up and smoke it.

Roll that up and smoke it.

Despite “Tripadvisor” not even being in my query — and believe you me I am not a frequent TA user, so personal preferences shouldn’t be coming into play — Tripadvisor has:

6 of the top 10 results
15 of the top 20 results
25 of the top 30 results
35 of the top 40 results
43 of the top 50 results

The official site comes in at a paltry rank of 55.

As you may have gathered, Temple Lodge is not listed on — but I’m not sure why Google felt compelled to tell me that while it wasn’t listed on Agoda, here are 43 links to a site (which you could argue is an Agoda competitor) I didn’t even search for.

Something very broken here.

While I’m at it, Temple Lodge is glorious. One of my alltime favourite hideaways on Bali – check it out :)

Hot seats, wrong planes and security concerns flying with AirAsia

This morning (I’m actually writing this story on the flight) I flew Indonesia AirAsia QZ 8391 from Bali to Kuala Lumpur. I didn’t preselect a seat so the kiosk check-in assigned me 26C, an aisle seat towards the rear of the Airbus A320. As the flight departed at 06:00 I wasn’t too surprised to see it was barely half-full and so as soon as they closed the door, I moved to a window seat.

AirAsia has a preferential seat booking system where the first few rows and the two emergency rows are called “Hot Seats”. The former are closer to the front so you’re first out of the plane, the latter have considerably more legroom. Both cannot be booked without paying a premium.

On my flight, while a few of the front hot seats were taken, all six seats at the two emergency exits were empty.

As the crew readied for takeoff a flight attendent came and asked me if I was travelling alone — no she wasn’t trying to hit on me — rather, once I confirmed I was alone, she asked would I like to take an emergency exit seat. Sure, I replied and moved up.

I was then given the standard “what to do when everyone is about to die” spiel and settled in. When another passenger, eyeing my new legroom width, went to grab one of the other emergency seats, the same attendent asked him to move back to his assigned seat.

British travel writer David Whitley has previously written about this somewhat unusual emergency seat policy. At the time I disagreed with him, but upon reflection I do think it does raise some serious questions.

Here I am, at 37,000 feet and I’m the only passenger on the entire plane who is (a) sitting beside an emergency exit door and (b) been instructed how to and under what circumstances to open the door.

That doesn’t strike me as being all that safe.

I thoroughly enjoy flying, but it scares me terribly. Indonesia has far from the best air safety record and a couple of people we knew have been killed in air crashes here. I once knew a guy who had survivied three plane crashes. Two of them were light aircraft crashes that didn’t involve fatalities, but the third was a commerical airliner crash where many of his fellow passengers were killed. His advice based on his experience of the commercial crash was to sit near the exit and be prepared to push other people out of the way to get out of the plane (and survive).

There’s little point pushing your way to the emergency exits only to find three of the four doors still closed because those seats were unoccupied due to the pricing policy of the airline.

I don’t begrudge AirAsia charging extra for these seats — they are more comfortable and the extra legroom is welcome. But I think a better, and certainly safer approach, would be for at least four passengers to be moved up so that all four doors have a passenger assigned to them.

Because I tell you, I’m a nice guy and all, but if we crash, I do plan to only open one door before getting the hell out of Dodge!

A second issue with the flight was that as the passengers were still snaking on board, two backpackers were getting off the plane. They had thought it was the Singapore flight (which I think leaves at a similar time) but had ended up on the Kuala Lumpur flight. This happened to me once, in Bangkok years ago, but then, as now, I couldn’t really understand how it happened as your boarding pass is checked (in this case) before you get a bus to the flight.

I assume the guy checking boarding passes before directing people to the buses didn’t notice they had boarding passes to a different country — one assumes passengers are generally intelligent enough to queue up for the right flight.

Anyway, once they were off I mulled over the security issues of something like this happening. With all the attention given to people packing nail clippers and jars of Vegemite, here we have a case where two passengers get on board with who knows what carry-on luggage and then are allowed to leave the plane again — with what bags? Did they stow bags in the overhead locker before sitting down and realising they were on the wrong flight? Did they take those bags with them? (In the US, such a security mishap and the ensuing hold up to check everything is as it should be would rate a news story.)

What checks and balances are involved in a situation like this? One assumes the most thorough response would have been for AirAsia to have completely emptied the cabin and all the luggage, then reallow passengers who actually had tickets for the plane to get back on. Good luck with that one.

Perhaps I’m overthinking it — they were just two backpackers who got on the wrong flight — but these can be paranoid times.

I fly AirAsia regularly and for many years they were a substantial sponsor of, and I do continue to recommend them to travellers who are looking for an affordable point to point low cost airline.

I do think, nevertheless, that there is scope for some basic improvements in the safety and security/training involved in their flights.

On “verified” hotel reviews

A thread over on my favourite travel news site Tnooz is (once again) discussing the ins and outs and debating the value of having a system of verified guest reviews. Given guest reviews are a small part of I thought I’d go over a couple of the reasons I think the whole topic is a bit of a waste of time.

The wheelbarrow is being driven primarily by hotels who feel they’re being badly done over fake negative reviews (oddly nobody seems nearly as bothered by fake positive reviews). It seems SOMETHING MUST BE DONE.

The basic premise is that in order for a guest (or potential guest — more on this later) to submit a review they need to supply proof of stay to whatever review site they’re submitting a review to. In doing this one could argue that the review is based on a real stay.

A few problems lie with this approach, a handful of which I’ve outlined below.

Problem 1
It disenfranchises any small, family-run guesthouse that doesn’t have the technology infrastructure to be able to verify a stay.

Result 1
I’d wager at least a third to a half of the places I have stayed at in Southeast Asia have not even offered a receipt. Many of these do not have a fax, email or website. Some (admittedly very few nowadays) don’t even have a telephone number. This forces small businesses to face considerable costs to get “verifiable”, or, far more likely, cements the influence of the larger, corporate hotels who can.

Problem 2
A number of hostel booking platforms take their cut up front and the balance is paid on checkin/checkout with no interaction with the online travel agent.

Result 2
A dodgy hostel needs only make fake bookings across a range of IPs and emails and pay the deposit in order to plant an amazingly positive review into the system. Where dorms are going for just a few dollars a night, this becomes a cheap way to push up your score.

Problem 3
A verified fake stay

Result 3
You own a guesthouse in Hanoi. You want to put the place across the road out of business. You pony up the $20 and get your Crazy Aunt to book a stay. After the stay, she submits a review. The review is a load of hot cobblers, but rather than being a full rant, is just enough to worry people. Mention a few bedbug bites that you think you got there, the smelly toilet, the traffc noise, the pubic hairs on the pillow case and the used condom you found on the floor. Crazy Aunt took photos of the pubes and condom (planted of course), so now she has PROOF and the review is VERIFIED. Now post to TripAdvisor, with pics. In three weeks, repeat with Crazy Uncle, a month later, Crazy Neighbour. (As someone who deals on a daily basis with crafty Vietnamese travel agents, this is not a sophisticated ruse as it might sound — trust me.)

Problem 4
No stay? No review.

Result 4
Hotels appear to be aghast at the concept that one shouldn’t be allowed to review a hotel unless they stay there. I disagree. Some places are so awful there is nothing to do but turn around and walk out. By banning this style of review you’re letting the very worst offenders off the hook.

My example of this has always been a very well known hotel in Chiang Mai that I walked in to at 1am, hoping to check-in, only to find the desk clerk receiving oral sex UNDER THE FRONT DESK!

Problem 5
Fam trips.

Result 5
So it’s okay for a hotel to lead a bunch of junket-bound hacks and agents around their hotel on a five-star, this-is-why-we-are-awesome tour, but no stay is required. The recipients will go on to recommend your hotel to their customers and newspaper readers. There’s no problem with this apparently — just as long as the hacks don’t post about their stay on TripAdvisor. Okayyyyy.

What’s the solution?
If you’re a guest and user reviews are an important part of your decision-making process, ignore the most glowing and the most ranting and go with the average.

If you’re a hotel, do your best to provide the best service you can and work on the assumption you’ll never please everyone. That’s life.

Oh, and have firm rules regarding oral sex under the front desk. inventory up for grabs

All good things come to an end, at least temporarily, and we’re sorry to say that AirAsia and Thai AirAsia’s long-running campaign with has wound up — for the time being, at least.

So we’ve now got a whole lotta inventory up for grabs.


AirAsia had been running campaigns with us since June 2008 and we reckon we probably put quite a few bums on their seats. If you’ve got some seats that need bums, perhaps you should get in touch.

Traffic: 1,500,000 – 2,000,000 page views per month (depending on month)
Top countries: UK, Thailand, US, Australia, Vietnam

We’ve an exclusive arrangement with, so if you’re a hotel reseller or OTA this isn’t for you, I’m sorry to say. However, if you’re an airline, tour company, travel gear provider, noodle magnate or some other random brand who wants to reach tens of thousands of independent travellers to Southeast Asia daily, perhaps you should think about getting in touch.

What’s it going to cost?
We’re looking for a bare minimum of A$5,000 per month for six months, which buys you multiple placements, creatives and targetting across — we won’t bore you with the details now.

Want to get bored with the details?
Contact Stuart at

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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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:”


“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 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.

Kill your travel brand with PR

British travel writer Jeremy Head has a solid piece titled “Is PR helping kill travel writing?” where he asks if PR is actively helping to kill the trade by essentially offering lazy and/or slim-budgetted travel editors reams of copy to fill their pages at no cost.

I agree with Head, but I’d go further and say the situation is exacerbated by publications that don’t disclose that the material is advertorial fluff. Essentially the professional writers (other than those in the employ of PR companies of course) are getting done out of a job while the readers are lied to.

And people wonder why I don’t read the travel section anymore.

There’s one point in Head’s piece though that I want to bring attention to and relate to three experiences I’ve had recently.

In his opening par he says “A Public Relations (PR) company is there to ensure that its clients get maximum positive exposure – often at the expense of their client’s competitors (either intentionally or otherwise.) That’s what they are paid to do.”

While I understand this, I do think that the means some PRs use to achieve this are disappointing. Three examples:

1) Not our fault there was no disclosure
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a story tweeted by a Vietnam-based travel agent that I know. It linked to a piece in a local paper that was a neat historical wrap on some of Vietnam’s colonial-style hotels. I thought it was interesting, so I retweeted it, posted it to the Travelfish Facebook page and put it in the list for inclusion in that week’s newsletter.

Nowhere in the story did it suggest the piece was advertorial.

Shortly after I tweeted it, Steve Jackson, a Hanoi-based writer, pointed out that the piece was actually written by a Vietnam-based PR agency (who he had briefly worked with) and the properties mentioned in the story were all represented by the agency in question.

I felt badly mislead, deleted my initial tweet, removed the Facebook page listing and it didn’t go into the newsletter.

The PR subsequently got involved and said something along the lines of disclosure is the editor’s/newspaper’s responsibility. I guess that kind of buck-passing is strictly true, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Being a big fan of one of the hotels in the piece, next time I read something about them I’m going to treat it with considerable more caution and check the author name versus the agency. Or, more likely, as I’m generally fairly time-pressed, I just won’t link to — or read — it.

How is that good for the hotel? It’s true I’m in the industry rather than just a consumer, but I’m also a publisher — and their move means I’m unlikely to be disposed to publicising them (by tweets, FB etc — I’ll use my own discretion and consideration for our readers when it comes to listing them).

2) Forget using a PR, bring your spamming inhouse
I have two main sets of email addresses. One set are related and the other are on a completely different domain name that I use for personal correspondence and other projects. If you’re among the minority of people who spam and do have a brain, you should know which of these two sets is more appropriate.

If you follow the travel blogging scene, you’ll most likely be aware of a prominent travel blogger who has recently done a travel clothing sponsorship deal. I certainly was, as I’d seen it mentioned in their Twitter stream and on their blog.

I’d heard of the company before, but hadn’t paid all that much attention to it, but it would be fair to say this blogger had raised my awareness of it somewhat. That’s what sponsorships are supposed to achieve.

For the company, it seems that wasn’t enough.

Last week they sent me a press release, announcing the deal. It wasn’t to my Travelfish address, but rather to my personal, non-travel-related address.

Where did they get my email address from? Given I’ve never been to the company’s website, I assume they bought it off some crappy spam list. Nice.

There was no means to unsubscribe from the email. Even nicer.

I contacted the blogger and they apologised (not that they needed to), lamenting that they have no control over what the company does.

But what was the company thinking? Beats me, but what I do know is that you’ll never be reading about their products on

3) Using a PR to turn readers against your hotel
Best for last. A US-based travel PR company represents a five-star hotel here in Bali. We’re very good friends with the marketing manager at this hotel, and we go there very occassionally for sunset drinks and so on.

As with the previous example, this PR company spammed my personal account with releases pertaining to this hotel.

There is no way to unsubscribe.

In the end I complained to our friend at the hotel and they got in touch with the company and confirmed that my email address had been removed.

The emails kept coming.

I complained a second time and this time around the emails stopped.

While five-star hotels are not a core part of our coverage on, we do list a few, especially here on Bali.

We don’t list this hotel.

Only to reinforce the stupidity of this particular agency, last

week a short interview piece with me ran on the BBC. Among the answers I gave was I mentioned Uluwatu, a beautiful beach area in south Bali.

The same PR agency picked that up and added a blurb regarding it to our Facebook page, Digg and who knows where else. Why? Because they

rephrased the quote around it as a means to promote the hotel they represent (which happens to be a good 30-minute drive from the beach area I

mentioned), with a link to their hotel. I deleted the post from our Facebook page.

In each of these cases the actions of the PR company have worked to actively diminish the brand in my eyes, and I fail to see how that is a good thing for the properties and products involved.

And people wonder why I don’t link to PR driven pieces — at least, of course, when I’m aware that they are — on

Welcome to bat shit crazy land. BTW it isn’t safe here

Stuart Lodge of RoundTheWorldFlights has a followup piece on Tnooz to an earlier piece regarding the state of travel advisories given out by governments. He’s bringing attention to a new “traffic light” system that the British Foreign Office is testing out. As Stuart rightly points out, and as he quotes me as saying, it’s a grossly misleading way to do what, for all intents and purposes, should be fairly simple.

Naughty bus.

Naughty bus.

The “traffic light system” has five “states”

1) No restrictions in this travel advice
2) Avoid all but essential travel to part(s) of country
3) Avoid all but essential travel to whole country
4) Avoid all travel to part(s) of country
5) Avoid all travel to whole country

Nowhere (that I’ve seen) is a further explanation of each of these states given.

Three questions off the top of my head:
a) What do you mean by essential travel?
b) Which part(s)?
c) Does “No restrictions” mean it is safe?

I don’t want to get into the actual warnings as, to my mind, they’re often needlessly cautious and conservative, but rather to talk about what a travel advisory is actually supposed to do.

Give advice perhaps?

Stuart starts with the example of Yemen, which falls into a category 5 “Avoid all travel to whole country”, so I thought I’d compare it to Indonesia, which falls into category 1, “No restrictions in this travel advice”

Very first sentence in the Indonesia travel summary:

“Following the 15 April suicide bombing attack on a mosque in the West Java town of Cirebon, which left 26 people wounded, and a suicide bombing attack on a church in Solo, which left 20 injured, it is possible that further attacks could take place in the country.”

What? Sorry? Suicide bombings?

Second bullet point:

“There is a high threat from terrorism throughout Indonesia. Terrorist groups continue to plan attacks and have the capacity and intent to carry out these attacks at any time and anywhere in the country. “

Hang on, I thought you said it was safe?

Third bullet point:

“You should be particularly vigilant during holiday periods such as Easter, Christmas and Independence Day (17 August), which can be a time of heightened tensions in Indonesia.”

Fourth bullet point:

“You should exercise caution when travelling to Aceh, Central Sulawesi Province (especially Palu, Poso and Tentena), Maluku Province (especially Ambon) and Papua Province.”

Fifth bullet point:

“We advise you to avoid flying with Indonesian passenger airlines subject to the EU operating ban.”

Sixth bullet point:

“Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur regularly and tsunamis are possible.”

Seventh bullet point:

“Outbreaks of Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) in Indonesia have led to over 100 reported human fatalities.”

Eighth bullet point

“Penalties for illegal drug importation and use are severe and can include the death penalty.”

Ninth bullet point

“You should take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance before travelling.”

So just in case you missed it, the above means that Indonesia gets a green box highlighting that there are no restrictions at all regarding travel — which means it is safe right?

What the FCO seem to be saying is as long as you steer clear of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, don’t travel during popular public holidays, don’t travel to four of Indonesia’s 30-odd provinces, don’t fly most of the airlines, do avoid volcanoes and tsunamis, don’t touch anything with feathers, do just say no and do call World Nomads, then you’ll be set — go the green box!

Phew, now that’s what I call no restrictions.

It’s about ten pagedowns before you reach something that is relevant and highly useful to the vast majority of Brits travelling in Indonesia:

Wear a helmet when on a motorbike.

Ignoring that piece of advice probably results in more British deaths annually in Indonesia than all the rest combined.

Travel advisories don’t need colour coding. They need useful actionable advice that pertains to Joe tourist who’s never been out of their home country before.

Advisories needs to be easy to read and digest and they need to be relevant to the people who are reading them.

Advisories need a readily accessible change log so “advisory watchers” can see, at a glance, what has changed.

Most importantly, they need to inform, not scare.

A service I would absolutely pay for

2011 has been a very good year for us. We’ve now got a team of 13+ talented people writing for us on a regular basis and the site, despite a few hiccups, is on a trajectory we’re pretty happy with.

On the revenue side, things are growing nicely (which helps when you need to pay people!) but what I’m finding is forever eating up more of my time is throwing all these numbers together and preparing charts etc that compare year on year and month on month performance etc etc.

The problem is I have no idea what I’m doing.

I’m not from a business background (it took me three attempts to pass Accounting I — I switched to a BA to avoid Accounting II) and while I love making charts, I am making it up as I go.

I find over and over again that I’ve been summarising data in the wrong way and need to go back through 3,4,5 years of data and re-tabulate it. It’s great when you’re procrastinating, not so hot at other times.

Even when you get the data right, there’s not exactly a central respository of averaged out data that gives you some guidelines to benchmark against. There’s no point getting all excited about raising a conversion rate from 5% to 8% when the industry average for your niche in 19%.

So what I’m saying is a resource backed up with data that says ok, for hotel bookings you need to track A,B,C with moving averages over X & Y days. Track cancellations as a percentage, not raw numbers, chart time between booking and stay etc etc.

For other affiliate areas, serve up industry average conversion rates for a content site. For eg X for insurance, Y for books, Z for tours etc. Attach to this some templates for spreadsheets that you can pour data into so that now not only are you saving time but you’re looking at representations of data that fit some kind of “bigger picture view”.

I realise all sites are different and, especially in travel, there’s many variations and vagueries, but if I’d been able to get something like this five years ago, it would have saved me an awful lot of time. An awful lot of time.

So if you’re an “ebooker” looking for an ebook worth writing, there’s a new pet project for you :)

What would I pay? I dunno — $500 to a grand depending on level of detail and, importantly, how much time it would save me.