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.

 How 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?

 This 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 their trip?

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 these reasons.

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.


From 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.