Evaluating Travel Advice
by Edward Hasbrouck
A common problem with any set of
sources is conflicting advice or information of uncertain reliability.
Here are some general principles you can use to assess destination
information and other travel advice.
Recently Did They Visit?
Things can change overnight. People
often give undue weight to the experience of a friend, or someone from a
place, even if they visited or emigrated sometime ago. Ask someone what
year they were there. Ask an immigrant when they emigrated, and when they
last went "home" to visit. A further useful question in
evaluating what an immigrant says about their "mother country"
is, "Where is home now? Here or there?"
Disregard excessively vague answers.
Obsolete advice, delivered in an authoritative tone and relied on, can
lead to worse surprises than total ignorance. If the information is second
(or third) hand, discount it heavily and don't assume it is current.
"My friend was just there," may mean that they were there last
week or five years ago; you won't find out which, or if the intermediary
knows, unless you probe carefully.
How Long Did They Stay?
This is kind of a trick question.
You'd think that people who had been in a place longer would know more
about it, and they generally do. On the other hand, people who spent a
long time in a place—especially if they lived there, rather than just
traveling through—may have lived very differently than you will as a
transient. Things that were "no problem" for someone who knew at
least some of a local language, had local connections, perhaps had their
own car (and driver) and friends to stay with along the way might be very
much harder for a new arrival to arrange. If they were there a long time,
ask them how easy or difficult things were when they first arrived, and
how long it took them to figure out how to get things done and get around.
Don't assume that travel writers
(including guidebook writers) spend a lot of time getting to know each
place they write about. Professional travel writers are experts at
collecting the essential information about a place quickly, so that they
can move on to the next. Someone who writes a book about a country or
region probably spent at least several months there doing research and
probably had visited it before. But they may only have spent a day in a
provincial town, even a large provincial city if it's not especially
popular with tourists.
People who seem to have been
everywhere probably weren't anywhere for very long. If their purpose in
travel is to collect countries or sights, so as to be able to say,
"Been there, done that," they probably don't make it a priority
to hang around. Ask them specifically how long they spent in the
particular place or country you are interested in. They may have very
useful nuggets of practical information, but don't count on subtlety or
depth of understanding.
How Much Do They Travel Like You?
is probably the most important question to ask in evaluating why someone
else did or didn't like a place.
The experience of travel for someone
in a group, or on a tour, has little in common with that of an independent
traveler. How did they travel? If they liked or didn't like the hotels,
are they talking about the $200 a night hotels? The $20 a night hotels?
The $2 a night hotels? The $20 hotels are great value in some places where
the $2 and $200 hotels are terrible value. Did they stay in places you'd
want to stay? Did they do things you'd want to do? What was the purpose of
If they thought there was nothing to
do, was that because there were no beaches? No museums? No discotheques?
No street markets and bazaars? No air conditioning? What is their picture
of an ideal day of traveling? (If they take photographs while traveling,
they can probably show you.) If they loved the place, was it because of
the food? The conversations? The music? The scenery? The social structure?
The pattern of daily life? Even independent budget travelers with similar
travel styles may be interested in very different aspects of places, and
find the same place exciting or boring, wonderful or awful.
Every guidebook I've read describes
Tashkent, Uzbekhistan, as completely without touristic interest. It's a
big, industrialized city; a center of education, administration,
technology, and commerce; not a "living museum" of predominantly
medieval architecture like Uzbekhistan's tourist magnets, Samarkand and
Bukhara. Too civilized. Too modern. Not quaint. Too fast-moving. Too aware
of the rest of the world. Too much of an ethnic mix to give one a proper
sense of "pure" Uzbek culture. The descriptions in the
guidebooks are all accurate. Most tourists don't like Tashkent, for just
Reading the guidebooks'
denunciations, I knew immediately that Tashkent was the place for me. It
took me several years to get there, but when I did, I found it was
everything I had hoped for. I didn't find a mythic past in Tashkent, but I
wasn't looking for the past. Tashkent is the future of Central Asia, all
brought together in one bustling, cosmopolitan, accessible mélange: an
intellectual and ideological center; the largest and richest city north of
the Himalaya between Beijing and Moscow; a magnet for the best, brightest,
and most ambitious people of a dozen nationalities from a thousand miles
around. I should add that I took advantage of a short-lived loophole, and
it's since become very difficult for independent travelers to get visas
for any of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Today Tashkent is
only accessible on a budget as a tour on a side trip from Pakistan.
The reasons some people would choose
a destination are reasons other people would shun it, and vice versa. This
is one of the strongest reasons not to rely on experts, no matter how well
traveled and knowledgeable, in deciding where you
should go. Travel writers, unfortunately, like journalists, often adopt a
pseudo-objective voice that gives too little information about themselves
for readers really to judge whether they would prefer the places writers
love or the ones they pan. The perfect trip is different for everyone, and
there's nothing like travel itself for making one aware of the diversity
of humanity, and our multiplicity of tastes and styles. It's your trip.
Make your own choices.
The Practical Nomad: How to Travel
Around the World. Copyright © 1997 by Edward Hasbrouck. Excerpted by
arrangement with Avalon Travel Publishing. $19.95. Available in local
bookstores or click here.