Beyond Guidebooks

Be skeptical of glowing travel reviews.If not a guidebook, then what? Your best guide might be an article or video.

When you see an article about a place you want to visit, clip it or bookmark it. Check the travel section of newsstands for cover lines mentioning places that interest you. Magazines such as Afar, National Geographic Traveler, and Travel & Leisure are all good sources, in their own ways. Some in-flight magazines have surprisingly good travel articles, too. The Life section of the Reuters website has interesting city guides written by local correspondents, and CNN’s website has beefed up its travel coverage in recent years.

Be skeptical of glowing travel reviews, though. Many magazine and newspaper articles are subsidized by the destinations featured in them; tourist agencies often organize expenses-paid junkets for travel journalists to show off the local sights, hotels, and restaurants.

Part of that is simply economics. For publishers, sending a writer to a destination can be costly when they factor in airfare, hotels, and food. It’s even more cost-prohibitive for freelance writers who might be traveling to a country on their own in hopes of pitching an article to a publication. The most helpful articles tend to be written by authors who live in the featured city or country and can bring local knowledge.

The great array of travel blogs provides diverse and highly personal perspectives on travel planning, destinations, and activities. There’s probably someone who’s gone where you want to go, or who has a similar approach to yours. And those writers might answer your questions about where they’ve been and what they did.

Videos are a tremendous source of information because you can see what places are like. They are especially good for picking out potential destinations. Even shows that aren’t about travel might stimulate your interest. I started jonesing to go to Scandinavia when I took up watching a cooking show based there.

Anthony Bourdain’s shows are interesting and entertaining but aren’t really meant to be travel guides. They are more about the food and culture — and having access to the sort of local expertise that most of us don’t have. I’m a big fan of the Globe Trekker series on public television, which is aimed at younger independent travelers and typically mixes bigger travel sights with some off-the-beaten-path adventures. The show sometimes gives you practical planning tips for its destinations. Back episodes of the series can be purchased online, and the DVDs may be available at local libraries. Rick Steves’ PBS show is a little better than his books. The Travel Channel is basically useless.

But be realistic. Life isn’t like television. You’ll have to find your adventures on your own.


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