Kids on a RTW

 

 

I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting when I wandered into the headmaster's office at my son's London primary and told him I planned to take my spawn travelling for a year.

But it certainly wasn't a big smile and the off-the-cuff observation, “That sounds like a great idea! He'll learn much more doing that than he would do staying here!”

One of the things that can leave families planning a RTW trip tied up in knots – yes, even more than the question of what to do with the house – is what to do about school.

The legalities are, in fact, remarkably uncomplicated. In the UK, it is legal to homeschool your children, and there is no compulsion to follow the National Curriculum.

All Local Education Authorities have homeschooling coordinators and most large primary schools will have a homeschooling coordinator on the staff.

The key thing that is required (not by law but by common practice) is that parents show their children will be getting a good, well-rounded education as they travel.

Which is, most of us find, easy enough to provide, at least for children who are not in the throes of exams.

 


A visit to a turtle sanctuary is a hands-on lesson in biology and ecology; rock-climbing and learning to surf make excellent PE; scrambling inside a pyramid is, of course, a history lesson; while activities from currency exchange to haggling to calculating a bill, including taxes, can make good practical maths.

One great panacea for nervous parents, or those with nervous grandparents to convince? Make a list of the school subjects your children learn at school and break down what they will learn on each subject as you travel. The answers will reassure.

The prospect of teaching is one thing that scares many parents silly, despite the fact that most of us have successfully helped our children learn to walk, talk, brush their teeth and use the toilet inter alia.

Most travelling families land up in one of four teaching – or learning -- styles, which I'll call School, Home School, World School and Unschool.

 



In a schooly approach, parents follow the children's curriculum schedule for the year and endeavour to replicate the school content and experience as they travel. At the opposite extreme, unschooling families allow the children to lead their own learning, following their own interests exclusively and writing and reading as much or as little as they'd like.

Most parents, in my experience, end up somewhere between these two extremes, whether that's building their own curriculum and following that at levels tailored to their different children, an approach I'll call Home School, or letting their children learn from what they discover as they travel but adding in consolidation activities or occasional compulsory elements, such as maths, an approach I'll call World School.

Best of all? With specialists in subjects from music to maths now teaching over Skype, and kids classes, from silver-smithing to yoga, available the world over, it doesn't even have to be parents who do the teaching all the time.

Which is all to the good. Since a RTW is supposed to be a holiday, after all.

 

 

To blog or not to blog

 

David Whitley wonders whether the modern day travel diary is worth keeping

When friends (or people that I once met and mystifyingly haven’t blocked on Facebook yet), go off travelling, there is one thing I see time and time again. “We’re off!” they will cry with unnervingly overzealous enthusiasm and an unnecessary exclamation mark. “And you can keep up with our adventures on our new blog.”

What then happens is that you get about three weeks of dedication to keeping said blog maintained, often with exceptionally tedious recollections of events that are interesting only to the writer and his or her mother. Then there’s silence. And four months later comes the follow up. “Oh no, has it really been four months? Sorry! I guess we’ve been having too much fun!!!” It’ll then descend into a cursory re-cap, spilling exclamation marks around as if there’s a barrel-full of them that has to be used before the world can have another ration. And then there will be a couple of months of silence again.

I understand why people decide they’re going to blog about their travels, and everyone has a slightly different reason. Some are under the deluded impression that they can make money from their blog and that said money will fund their travels. If this is you, give it up now – nobody makes a good income from a travel blog. If they did, everyone would be doing it and the world would come crashing down because everyone’s travelling and writing about it rather than doing real work.

Others blog to keep people at home in touch with what they’re doing. A noble aim, but flawed, as no-one will read the blog beyond the first three posts unless it’s really good. The folks would much prefer a phone call or personal e-mail. The third reason is that people use blogs in a way that their ancestors used diaries in the old days. Blogging regularly about your travels is a way of recording the moments and thoughts for the future. The blog is something you can look back on to bring the memories back. It’s subtly different to a diary – it’s for the world to see rather than just yourself, so you may hold certain information back – but the basic premise is similar.

 

 

To me, this third reason is the most valid one for keeping a blog on the road. But you have to be the right sort of person to do it. It’s something that takes a fair bit of dedication, regularly pulling yourself aside from what’s going on to sit in an internet café or hammer away at the laptop. It’s something that suits people with a more reflective nature, or who enjoy the craft of writing it. That’s not everyone, and there’s one key question you should ask yourself before setting up a blog to chart your travels. That is: “Am I doing this because I want to or because I feel I ought to?”

If the latter, forget about it – go out there and enjoy yourself. The memories will still be there in years to come, and you’d probably never look back at what you’ve written anyway.

*Photo courtesy of Mark Eveleigh

By David Whitley

Planning vs spontaneity

 


 

David Whitley tries to work out when to plot ahead and when to go with the flow whilst travelling 

Being on towards the OCD end of the anal scale, I tend to like to know what I’m doing before it happens. I’ll usually have all my flights and hotels booked before I leave, and most tours and activities too. I write up itineraries that are generally readable only to me, so full they are with booking reference numbers and airport codes. This is partly because I’m travelling for work, of course, but it also tends to happen when I’m travelling for pleasure as well. I do like a good plan. Give me a couple of days that have nothing pencilled in, and I’ll try and fill them with something.

This, to some (OK, many) people, makes me an absolute nightmare to travel with. Strange concepts such as ‘relaxing’ or ‘milling about’ or ‘making it up as we go along’ scare me. In my experience, making it up as you go along tends to lead to doing absolutely nothing and then regretting it later. This sort of travel also seems ideally suited to people whose idea of a good holiday is sleeping in until one or two in the afternoon as if they’re half man, half lion.

However, I do have to concede that many of the best memories and experiences come from going with the flow and tackling what the world throws in your way. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for “why not?” – it’s an excellent principle to live by. If you can’t think of one compelling argument not to do something, then go do it and see what happens.

I also concede that some of the most enjoyable days I’ve had are ones where I’ve essentially put the guide book down and just wandered aimlessly, poking my nose into whatever I encounter.

 

 

But advocates of such laissez-faire approaches tend to forget one thing – for every time you strike gold this way, you’ll probably strike mediocrity another five. It works rather like the idea of going out to a bar on your own, talking to strangers and getting some rent-a-friends for a thoroughly excellent night out. Occasionally it works, and when it does, it’s brilliant. More often than not, however, you’ll just look like a loser.

But it is in the evenings that I feel the spontaneous approach does work best. This is when you’re not as hampered by museum opening hours and tour departure times. Going to see or do something specific during the day requires at least a bit of research and working out of logistics. In the evening, it’s a lot easier to roll with it. There will only be one Museum of Magic Beans; there are scores of bars and restaurants. It’s actually rather enjoyable to not aim for any in particular, but wander around until you find one you like the look of or one where something interesting is happening.

It’s very much horses for courses, but I’d suggest that the big switch over from careful planning to spontaneous exploration should come with the first beer of the day. Because, as we all know, beer doesn’t half endow people with excellent, previously unconsidered ideas...

 

 

 

 

 

Which guidebook

 

 

David Whitley looks at the bricks of information we pack in our bags, and tries to work out which are the best bets for a big trip

 

 

 

Despite so much information being online these days, a good guide book is invaluable whilst on the road. You don’t have to use it as a bible – a mistake that many people make – but it does tend to be multi-purpose. For a start, it is (or at least should be) a great introduction to the history and culture of the place you’re travelling in. It’s also good for ideas of what you want to do, plus accommodation and eating options. Then there’s navigation – it’s incredibly useful to have a map already in hand when you arrive at a destination rather than wandering around lost.

 

 

But which guidebooks should you take? If you’re away for a long time, you’ll probably have to ration them a bit otherwise the weight of carrying five or six in the bag is going to be a killer. It’s always possible to buy and ditch as you go, but some people (ie. me) like to keep the books as mementos and are loathe to discard them.

 

 

Therefore you’ll need to get the balance between detail and breadth right. As a general rule, I find multi-country guides (ie. South East Asia or South America) spread themselves too thinly to be great on any particular country, city or area. If you’re only going to Thailand, buy the book for Thailand. But it might not be practical to carry individual books on Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore.

 

 

 

The who and the when

 

Quality of book – even within the same brand – can vary dramatically from author to author as well. Some do an excellent job, some cut corners. It’s worth doing a web search for the author’s name and the area to find other things they’ve written about it.

 

 

Another important thing is how up-to-date the book is. Information dates very quickly, and the research is often done a year before publication. All else being equal, a 2011 guide book from a brand you’re usually not as keen on is likely to be more helpful than a 2009 book from your usual favourite.

 

 

 

Brand by brand review

 

Of the main guide book brands, each has its own qualities and quirks. An awful lot depends on what you want from the book – is it usability, quality and depth or research or background and cultural immersion? But, in brief, this is what I think of the main brands.

 

 

 

Lonely Planet

 

Often very formulaic, and a perhaps unfair reputation for out-of-date information (this is only because people carrying around 2008 books expect everything to be the same three years later). The formula is the weakness and strength simultaneously – LPs are arguably the best guides for quick reference. The structure is strong, the maps amongst the best if not perfect, and it’s generally easy to find the information you need.

 

 

 

Lonely Planet Encounter

 

These small guides are generally aimed at people going for a quick city break. The maps are really good, if not always covering as many areas as you’d like, but the books are poor on accommodation and detail for the major attractions. They’re brill as a pocket overview and good on bars and restaurants, but not aimed at people on big trips.

 

Travelfish

For travellers to Asia, small company Travelfish has superb app quality and coverage. You can also try out their lite versions for free

 

 

 

Rough Guides

 

The main competition for Lonely Planet in terms of scope and audience, Rough Guides are stronger on history and culture, but can be more of a read than a reference material. Apparently a big design change is imminent – which may aid the usability in future.

 

 

 

Footprint

 

Reputedly the best for South America – although I’ll admit I’ve never used one so I can’t really comment any further.

 

 

 

Moon

 

They only cover limited destinations, but the Moon guides do a good job on those they do cover. They’re good at finding oddities that other books gloss over and putting the neck on the line by picking out the best spots rather than just listing loads with equal weight. Maps are excellent, but poorly bound so the pages come loose. Which, needless to say, is very annoying.

 

 

 

Frommer’s

 

The Frommer’s guides are brilliant for suggesting itineraries, walking routes and the like. The key strength is prioritisation – a star system suggests which things to do, places to eat and places to stay are better than others rather than chickening out and making you read between the lines. The detail in the shopping section is particularly immense if you’re into that sort of thing.

 

 

 

Time Out

 

For cities, Time Out’s guides stand head and shoulders over the rest. The authors genuinely know their stuff, picking out local haunts, trends and cultural options that other guides don’t seem to be able to get near. The maps are good, but the only quibble would be a tendency to concentrate on higher end options and neglect the budget traveller.

 

 

 

Insight

 

Generally very good all-rounders, the Insight Smart guides (mostly for cities) do well in breaking things up by theme and interest rather than geographical areas. The full country guides are superb on history and background, but can fall into the same big chunks of text trap that befalls the Rough Guides.

 

 

 

DK Eyewitness

 

They’re often translated from the original language and thus concentrate on weird things that perhaps  aren’t of interest to the English speaking-market. Infuriating over-concentration on pointless photos and difficult to find your way around. They seem like they’re aimed at simpletons.

 

 

 

Thomas Cook

 

I could write reams here, but it’s easier to just say: “Shop elsewhere.”

 

 

 

Bradt

 

The Bradt guides go where others fear to tread – often covering parts of the planet that other guide book series don’t go near. There’s a big emphasis on history and culture, and they make for excellent pre-trip reading. Usability is poor, however – the maps are shocking and the presentation makes for a big wordy trudge. The content often leans wildly towards the author’s individual interests – and they’re often written by people with a passion and connection for the place rather than neutral outsiders who are perhaps stronger writers and researchers.

 

 

 

Odyssey

The Odyssey Guides aren’t that well known, and cover some rather odd spots across the planet. Like the Bradt guides, they’re especially dependent on the skill, dedication and abilities of the author. They vary from other guide book series in that they’re designed to be read before the trip, rather than used as a continual reference during the trip.

Good guidebooks

 

David Whitley looks at how to select the right guide book – and find whether the author knows what he or she is talking about
 

Different guide book brands have different strengths but guide books within the same series can vary wildly in quality. Even books within the same series to neighbouring parts of the world can be infuriatingly inconsistent.

There are a few general rules for picking the right one, however. The first thing to bear in mind is what you want it for. If you’re a free-wheeling type who is happy to take things as they come, then it’s not going to matter all that much – you’re barely going to dip into it. Some people, however, are always clutching the book and referring to it.

For the latter, the more specific a guidebook is, the more useful it is likely to be. If you’re spending a long time in Sydney, for example, a Sydney guide book is going to lead you to more interesting places than an Australia guide book. Similarly, you can’t expect a South East Asia or South America guide book to cover any one place in particularly helpful detail.

I find the way that most people buy guide books astonishing. They pick the brand they know, then get the book that best covers the area they’re going to within that brand’s collection. Even if the only one available is a general guide to the region and another brand has a far more detailed guide to the specific country. This is, almost always, a daft approach.

Another thing to consider is when the information in the book was researched. Nobody ever seems to look at this. Again, they’ll just pick the brand they know. But even if you love Lonely Planet, surely a Frommer’s or a Rough Guide published in 2011 is going to be better than an LP published in 2008? Given that the information is actually researched roughly a year before publication, is it any wonder that you see hordes of idiots wandering around Asia, complaining that their Lonely Planet has got the prices wrong?

Some details – such as prices and bus times – are always likely to change. NEVER take them as gospel in a guide book. You’ll also find that hotels refurbish and restaurants close down – you can’t blame the book for that. But it is often possible to tell whether the author knows what he or she is talking about. Some, it has to be said, get lazy with updating from edition to edition.

The first place to look is online reviews on sites such as Amazon. Star ratings aren’t particularly reliable, as people will often give a zero for bizarre things such as late delivery or not having enough pictures of a particular temple, but it’s a start.

Secondly, have a look at what other books the author has written, and what articles they have written, via a web search. Are they consistently on the same countries? Can they legitimately be regarded as an expert on certain parts of the world, or do they just flit about writing about whatever they get the job for?

Finally, once you’ve actually got the book, you can test it with a few things. Do the sports teams actually play in the stadiums the author says they do, or have they moved to a new home and no-one’s bothered to check? How well is the current music scene covered – do they suggest bands you’ve never heard of but are currently big in the destination, or just list someone who had an international hit twenty years ago?

Then there’s the history. Anyone can do the old history – the formation of the country, what happened in the Second World War etc – but a well-researched guide has detail on what has happened recently. What have been the big changes of the last couple of years? What are the current political hot potatoes?

There’s also a final check to see whether the book you’ve got is a duffer or not. Flick through to see if any bars and restaurants are listed as hidden gems, local favourites or best-kept secrets. If you find a couple, check them out to see if the descriptions hold true, or they’re just one of the least touristy bars/ restaurants in an strip full of touristy bars/ restaurants. If the latter, the author clearly hasn’t bothered to check further afield and has just thought: “This’ll do”.
 

 

Can you think of any other signs of a good – or bad – guide book? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.