Are These 5 Things Ruining Travel?

ruining travel
A selfie stick and a duck face, all in one photo! (Photo by Marco Verch)
Awhile back, "Ask The Pilot" writer Patrick Smith labeled the selfie stick the scourge of global travel. I get his point: hordes of people waving metal poles, so intent on showing people that they were There that they forget to enjoy Being There. I like a few self-produced travel memories, but I don’t want to document so much that I forget to do.

Patrick got made me think a bit about what I consider the scourges of travel. To be clear, they’re not ruining travel for me, but they could be screwing yours up. (If I’ve left something off the list, set me straight in the comments.)

Ridiculously Doctored Travel Photos

I’ve been to some photogenic places. I have some beautiful photos from travels hanging in super sizes on my walls. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen photos similar to mine processed beyond all reason into cartoonish facsimiles of themselves.

I’ve seen more than a few travelers post these photos and say "that’s where I’m going!" No – you’re going to a real place, not a rip in space and time where the scenery looks like it’s been abused by a cheesy photographer who plays with high dynamic range too much. These photos set up expectations that are hard to match.

ruining travel
I have almost no relevant art for this post – so enjoy this photo of kitties in South Korea.

Time for Some "Best" Control

Go to just about any travel discussion forum online. Count up the number of threads with the word "Best" in the title or subject line: "What’s the best food truck in San Francisco? What’s the best underrated cosplay-themed hotel in Belgrade? What’s the best miniature golf course in Sheboygan that caters to cross-dressing dwarves who work as assassins?" (Blame Bill Fitzhugh’s book Pest Control for that last one.)

Look, anyone with a functioning brainstem should know that nobody will ever agree on "the best" of anything. What’s wrong with asking for 5 of your favorite recommendations for -- well, whatever category you’re interested in?

Giving the Plot Away

ruining travel
I hope you like dogs, too.

When it comes to their entertainment, people are terrified of spoiler alerts. But when it comes to travel? It seems like people want to iron the surprises out, that anything not scheduled is ruining travel. Sure, a certain amount of research helps people get the most out of their travel – that’s the entire reason this blog exists! But do webcams, drone footage and virtual reality tours not suck the anticipation and surprise right out of the experience?

My advice: Do your homework, but leave room for spontaneity, for surprise.

Extreme Cheapskate Antics

I love a good deal. My specialty is scanning air travel routes and prices, mulling a huge list of variables (airline, alliance, aircraft type, schedule, reputation, etc.) and distilling that into a good deal. Not the cheapest, but a perfect intersection of value that fits my budget. It’s a beautiful thing. Sarah applies this same thinking when she digs for hotels and activities.

ruining travel
First cats, then a dog … now a baby. And yes, she likes to travel.

But when I see someone from a prosperous nation posting online for tips on free things to do in Mumbai, the blood vessels in my eyes feel like they’re about to burst. That’s another frequent topic – name the location, and people are looking for the cheapest, free-est things they can do; I half-expect someone to post about fun things they can get paid to do while traveling.

My friends, travel costs. Experiences cost. I have never regretted a penny I’ve spent on travel. I have, however, regretted money I didn’t spend. I have a list of things I should’ve done, but cheaped out on. That’s what I regret. And if you really, absolutely, positively must do something for free when traveling abroad -- simply walk around with your eyes open. I promise you’ll enjoy it.

Oh, and there’s a special hell reserved for travelers who pull all sorts of antics to save the equivalent of 25 cents when bargaining with someone who makes a 20th of their income. I’m not saying be a sucker – I’m saying “don’t be a cheapskate.”

Local Living

"How can I experience Place X like a local? How can I eat in Location Y like a local?" These are some of the silliest questions to ever take up 1s and 0s online.

You experience a place like a local by becoming one, or tagging along with one. And that last one is even questionable; your local will probably show you the cool stuff, not the routine places she actually frequents. Locals like to put their home’s best foot forward.

And here’s something else to remember: Locals eat at Applebee’s, too. They go to chain restaurants and drink over-roasted, over-sugared, vaguely coffee-flavored confections at Starbucks, too. That’s why there’s a ChipotleSmashPizza everywhere short of Olympus Mons.

Am I Just Getting Cranky?

I sound grumpy. Shit. I’m glad that people travel abroad at all. But it would be great if the people we send to each others’ countries might be more than walking travel cliches who exist to do something more than share their photos online.

Go forth and travel, people. But try to think about it a bit, eh?

Bucket List & Beyond: 6 Gag-Worthy Travel Writing Clichés

As much as I like travel, I dislike most travel writing. Publishing is easy these days, and that allows a lot of hacks to get their voices heard. You get lots of overwritten descriptions and ludicrous praise, all leaning on the same old clichés.

Many decent writers have compiled lists of travel writing clichés. They’re poked fun at them, skewered them, begged other writers to just please stop. But new ones abound! These are some of the latest I’ve spotted floating in the travel writing toilet.

Staycation – The first time I saw this, it was a clever commentary on an American economy that made it hard for many people to travel. Now it’s just a tool for hospitality-industry marketing stooges to entice people in a given city to take advantage of some sort of deal at their properties. Take Phoenix: It has no leisure travel during the summer, so hotels chirp about discounted "staycations" to put swimsuit-clad butts into their pools. And now the travel writing industry is continues to ride it hard.

Bucket list – A movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson inflicted this morbid phrase on us. Now it’s ubiquitous as "My Big Fat Greek (Whatever)”. Not only is it a sign of a creatively bankrupt writer, but it’s also a great excuse to procrastinate. Instead of a bucket list, make yourself a "next trip" list. It’s far more motivating. And you won’t sound like another woolly voice bleating about your bucket list.

Explore – I shudder everytime a travel article exhorts me to “explore” a destination. Look, I don’t care how remote or off the beaten path you travel: If it has signs posted or a travel article about it, someone else discovered, explored, mapped and catalogued it. Not you. “Explore” is a slab of self-aggrandizement marinated in ego. You’re not Admiral Byrd or Sir Edmund Hillary. Get over it.

Top/Best/Most Lists – I’m guilty of making lists. And I’ll own up to using Top/Best/Most/Whatever. But then I realized something: There is no legit way to quantify the best of anything. You might be able to get away with most popular, best attended … or something like that if you have the data. Otherwise, just tell me about 10 great glacier hikes or your 5 favorite themed hotel or 7 overnight hikes I shouldn’t miss.

Savvy traveler – Google this term. You’ll get 217,000 results. “Savvy” means you’re in your comfort zone. Put me anywhere in Asia, and I am not savvy. I’ll get by. But I’ll stumble and bumble and gain some humility. You can’t earn that perspective when you’re in a place that allows you to be “savvy.” And another thing: No travel article can make you savvy – only going somewhere, getting lost, digging your way out and connecting with the place will make you have a clue.

Guilty pleasures – I hate the idea that anyone should conceal what makes them happy for fear of being judged. That defines a guilty pleasure: “If my hipster fans find out I’d rather listen to old Warrant ballads than The Antlers, they won’t think I’m smart and cool.” Bollocks to them, then. If you love going to Las Vegas or going on cruises … well, you and I probably won’t be travel buddies. But that’s OK – there are all sorts of destinations and activities for all kinds of people. Go have fun and don’t worry about what I or anyone else thinks about it. Well, unless you’re making your bucket list and checking it twice …

Travel-Writing Cliche – “Exploring”

Iceland, hiking, Wandering Justin, Landmannalaugur
Remote, rugged, even dangerous. But not unexplored ... the interior highlands of Iceland.

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s when my blog reads like some half-baked travel brochure. I’m trying really hard to watch what I say here to guard against it.

One of the sacrifices to the cause: the word "explore."

It’s become a mindless cliche. And I’ll admit I’ve used it carelessly.

Look -- I’ve been to some rugged, remote and super-cool places. But I haven’t explored jack. Every place I’ve been -- someone’s beaten me to it. By a long shot.

So I’ll leave breathless exhortations to "explore our pristine forest preserve" to the silly travel magazines.

And travelers: we do the same thing. We’re a self-aggrandizing lot, we are. We peck at our less-traveled friends, colleagues and relatives. We tell them to take a closer look at the world beyond them. We tell them to ring up some frequent flier miles. And we tell them to "explore." As if they’re going somewhere that doesn’t have electricity and flushing toilets.

I suppose you could argue that people can explore any spot that’s new to them. But damn, that is really weak sauce. It dilutes the mystique of exploration into a thin, lite-beer gruel.

And really, there’s nothing wrong with not being a true explorer. Just ‘cause you’re not first doesn’t mean you’re last (right, Ricky Bobby?). I don’t mind a well-marked hiking trail. A trail with a system of huts with water? Freakin’ bliss. Amenities like that mean someone else got there first.

Look around. Check the world out. Push your limits. But just remember: You’re no explorer.