Look for the who behind the where

The who behind the where: El Albergue

Here’s a small hotel in Ollantaytanbo, Peru where the people were as nice as the rooms

Want to make planning a trip easier?

Sometimes I am most lost on a trip before I ever leave.

Whenever I start planning to visit a new place, particularly a new country, I go through a three-step progression.

  • First, I get excited by the possibilities of what I think might await me there.
  • Second, I get informed through guidebooks, friends and websites about what actually awaits me there.
  • Third, I get overwhelmed by the first two.

The result? I end up playing possum with the details. Sure, I’ll book my flight and make any other reservations that require advance notice. But after that, I sometimes do nothing until the looming departure date requires action.

But lately, I’ve rediscovered a new approach or rather, a more intentional utilization of an old approach: Let someone else take care of things for you.

No, I’m not talking about a travel agent, though good ones can be invaluable (which may explain why there’s a surprising growth in that field). Nor am I suggesting you pass on the planning responsibilities to another member of your traveling party, though sharing the task can be rewarding on a number of levels.

Instead, I’m recommending you find a local resource. Someone in-country who knows what’s hot, what’s not and what’s just off the beaten path but not so far off that you’ll never find your way back.

Sounds great, right? But how do you find such a person?

Find the who behind the where

Ironically, they out there just waiting for you. I’m referring to the friendly owner, manager or employee of a hotel, B&B or apartment where you plan to stay. Unlike tour companies or guides who may have vested interests in you booking other travel services, most small hotels or B&B’s are busy enough with managing their own properties. Their entire focus is on making their guests happy.

As a result, if you find the right who behind the where, the person behind the place, they can be a wealth of valuable information.

I uncover the helpful ones by emailing various places where I’m considering staying. I ask a few questions about their place. See how they respond, how friendly they are and how good their English is. I also look for how responsive they are: Do my questions seem like a hassle to them or do their responses indicate an enthusiasm and genuine desire to help?

The who behind the where can make all the difference

It’s been a revelation for us to find truly helpful owners of small hotels from Scotland to Peru to Belgium who go out of their way to answer questions not just about their hotel or B&B but to ensure we have a great overall experience in their country. Many have connections with other hotel owners across the country (like the secret concierge society in The Grand Budapest Hotel). Thus, they can recommend from firsthand experience other places to stay, which routes to take, the best time to visit certain places, as well as hidden sights to see and local restaurants to consider.

Sure, you risk not knowing if their place is any good since you haven’t yet been there, but usually you can determine enough from online reviews to figure that out. And even if it isn’t (which has never been our experience — the most helpful hosts tend to run the best properties) you still win by gaining all their insights before you even arrive.

So try it. Next time you’re planning a trip, pursue the who behind the where. Start with a search for a more personal accommodation in one city or area on your itinerary. Large chain hotels won’t work for this nor will locations where language is too much of a barrier (though never underestimate the power of using Google Translate in your emails!). But hunt around. Focus on finding not only a great place to stay but a great host. And then listen to what they have to tell you.

You may end up making a new friend and having not only one of the best vacations, but one of the easiest to plan.

 

Get the most out of a guidebook

How to get the most out of a guidebook: Rosserrilly Friary

Only one guidebook out of a half dozen or so for Ireland mentioned this hidden gem we had all to ourselves (and the sheep and the cows)

How do you get the most out of a guidebook?

In today’s interconnected world, you wonder if the guidebook itself is becoming an anachronism, a throwback to a time when people read actual newspapers and a social network usually involved a potluck. So I’m less concerned with the medium in which the information is presented – books, printouts of PDFs, downloadable e-books, podcasts, phone apps or live access to Web sites while traveling. The question to me is this: Is the content of value to the traveler?

I know of some travelers who say no.

The case against guidebooks

Those who oppose guidebooks say that such aids:

  • Prevent or at least hinder personal discovery
  • Lead you to the same places everyone else goes and reinforce stereotypes
  • Err on the side of the safe, tried and true international hotels and restaurants rather than local ones, or, when they do come across an indigenous find, they ruin it by telling everyone. That hidden gem then becomes as private as a Royal Wedding.

How to get the most out of a guidebook

I agree with those points to some degree. But to me, it all comes down to how you use a guidebook. Here are some thoughts on how to get the most out of a guidebook (the written kind of guides; we’ll save the subject of live tour guides for another time).

  • Realize that all discovery is personal. Just because a million people have been to the same place before doesn’t make it any less meaningful for you the first time you go there.
  • Use the guidebook as a starting point. Use it to identify places and events that sound interesting to you and to avoid those that don’t. The primary value to me of a guidebook is that it saves me time. Think of it as a filter, not the final word on what to see.
  • Don’t settle for just one perspective. I always go to the library and check out as many guidebooks as I can. I’ll usually end up buying one or two to take or photocopy (or more recently, download onto a Kindle or my smart phone), but I only purchase the one that most aligns with my style, needs for this particular trip and travel sensibilities. Look over several and find what works for you.
  • Focus on both the similarities and differences. Most guidebooks will overlap 80-90% in what they cover, at least in terms of the sights to see. That 90% will include the popular, touristy places. But read carefully for the other 10%. In the details listed in only one book, you often encounter some of the most interesting finds, places you’d never discover on your own.
  • Cast your guidebook aside once you get your bearings. Guidebooks serve well to provide you with background, an initial orientation and some possible places to consider you might never find on your own. But once you get there, you’ll experience more meaningful encounters through talking with locals and other travelers and making your own discoveries.

All of the above points matter, but here’s how I get the most out of a guidebook and why I use them: They prime me for openness.

That may seem counter-intuitive because if anything, you may think that guidebooks close you by pointing you toward the same old sights and foisting someone else’s perceptions on you. But to me, by having a greater background and familiarity with the popular sights and even other people’s opinions courtesy of the guidebook, I’m actually free to look around more on my own without worrying about what I might miss.

What about you? How do you use guidebooks? Or do you? Do you just show up and wing it? Has your use changed over time? Do you have a favorite? Share your thoughts on what works for you.

Unnecessary trips and why they matter

Untanum TracksSome of the best journeys are the ones you don’t need to go on, the seemingly unnecessary trips.

I’m referring to the unplanned, spontaneous kinds. The ones with no worry about reservations or itineraries, no concern for what you’ll see or do. They are the trips that just happen, not out of necessity, but just because you can.

Don’t get me wrong: I love planning trips. Oftentimes, anticipation is one of the best parts of travel. However, along with the preparation and forethought can come unnecessary expectations of the place you’re visiting, the people you hope to meet or the ones with whom you’re traveling (including yourself!).

Sometimes the unexpected trip is better: You just show up and take whatever comes your way.

The value of unnecessary trips

My family and I did this a while back. We knew we had to be in Ellensburg, Washington on a Saturday for my oldest son’s performance at the State Finals for high school musicians. That was the “necessary” trip. However, we stayed overnight and took off Sunday morning to hike a nearby trail (Untanum Creek Canyon) I had once heard about.

The only planning consisted of making the decision the night before to go there and then asking for directions the next morning. The rest was a spontaneous, totally unnecessary trip on a gorgeous day that included crossing over a suspension bridge, under some railroad tracks (pictured above), hiking along a creek past beaver dams and seeing a herd of bighorn sheep on the walls of the canyon that surrounded us.

Untanum Creek Canyon

Would the day have been any different had we planned it out and made it an intentional destination rather than one of many unnecessary trips? Who knows? But by not thinking much about it before we got there, it added to the surprise factor of the day. It made our explorations feel like more of a discovery despite the dozen other people on the trail. These were people who clearly planned out their adventure more than we did (the backpacks were a good indicator…).

Fishing on the Yakima River near Untanum

Unnecessary trips and living your life

I’ve recently been reading Paul Theroix’s book, The Tao of Travel. He doesn’t address unnecessary trips per se, But the book does contain quotes from his own travel tales and insights from many other traveler writers over the years. One quote of his I read last night applies here:

“Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about your reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.”

When you incorporate little surprise trips within your daily life, both are enhanced. Sure, you have to carve out the time for even the short trip. But too often I find I use lack of time as an excuse to do nothing.

Instead, this recent family hike reminded me of how much room there is in this world: room in my schedule if I make it so, room in the places around me to explore and room in my life for growth and possibility.

When I consider it this way, maybe these small, spontaneous adventures – these so-called unnecessary trips – aren’t so unnecessary after all…