Planning versus 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’s 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...


Books on the road



David Whitley looks into reading on the road, and tries to work out what sort of books enrich the experience.


I don’t regret many things (other than excessive alcohol intake the next morning) but one thing frequently hits me when I’m on the road. I’ll go somewhere surprisingly interesting, and the same regret strikes. “I wish,” I’ll think, “that I’d read up on this a bit more before getting here.” Everybody wants something different from their holiday reading. Some people want entertainment – page-turning crime thrillers that can be ploughed through in airports or on long, otherwise boring flights. I’m partly in that camp – anything weighty and worthy on a plane tends to be really hard work.



Other people want breezy escapism that they can read on the beach. To me, that’s a bit of an escapism overdose – you’ve already escaped, surely? One sort of book is almost a good investment however – one that is about the place you’re travelling through. These books come in many categories, of which novels are just one. Something set in the place you’re travelling through will often make that place more vivid, and you’ll frequently get a better understanding of what makes that place tick. The best examples of this I can think of are Dirt Music and Breath by Tim Winton. They are tremendous feats of writing, bringing the often empty stretches of Western Australia to life in a way that neutral description could never do. Don Quixote does this for La Mancha, the Bronte sisters do it for the Yorkshire ’s moorland.


Biographies are also great. Sometimes you’ll encounter a historical character on your travels that you just want to know more about. After visiting Hearst Castle in California , I sat thoroughly absorbed in a biography of William Randolph Hearst for a week as we travelled down the coast. Reading about Nelson Mandela in South Africa or Al Capone in Chicago will also enrich the visit.


Histories are another excellent choice, providing you get one that’s written with a bit of panache. I’ve travelled through Australia , South Africa and New Zealand reading engaging histories of the relevant country – they’re invaluable in getting an understanding of the people and the country’s past. Things start connecting together and making more sense.


The genre that’s most hit and miss – for me, anyway – tends to be the travelogue. These can often fall into the trap of being about the writer, not the place. The whole “wahey, I’m doing something wacky where foreigners live” schtick gets seriously tiring. A would-be comedian’s take on a country as a whole rarely offers that much real insight.


As a yardstick, it’s often best to go for something that isn’t trying to sum the whole country up – it’s focusing on something specific. For example, The Dog Fence by James Woodforf follows the giant fence that crosses the Australian outback in a bid to keep dingoes out of the grazing lands in the south. It’s a specific route, and focuses on the people along it, but it captures the country it passes through too.


The DIG Tree by Sarah Murgatroyd is a tremendous example of this too. It’s arguably the best book I’ve ever read, and it follows the trail of Victorian explorers Burke and Wills in their bid to be the first to cross the Australian continent from north to south. I defy anyone to read it and not want to take on the route as well.


The common theme of these books remains though – I really wish I’d read them before I went.


What sort of thing do you like to read on holiday? And what books would you recommend to travellers that give a great sense of a particular place? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.



The Hangover Dilemma


David Whitley wonders whether it’s ever justified to cancel travel plans due to overenjoyment of a city’s fine hostelries.

The few of us who are not due for sainthood will have been here before. You’ve got a limited period of time somewhere and want to make the most of it. And one evening you go out for something to eat and maybe a couple of drinks. 

Alas, that couple of drinks turns into a couple more. Then you get bored of beers and switch to spirits. Then some idiot goes and buys some shots. Then it all becomes a bit of a blur as you start bellowing down the ears of strangers and demanding a DJ plays Total Eclipse of the Heart.

Eventually, with the contents of your stomach resembling an out of control chemistry lab, you stagger back to your bed (or a handy park bench), possibly via a kebab shop. Conversations on the great white telephone are optional at this point.

The problem, as with all great nights, comes the next morning. If you’ve got something you absolutely can’t miss (such as a flight or a connecting train), then bad luck – you’re going to have to grin and bear it. But the big traveller’s dilemma is when there’s nothing absolutely urgent to do the next day, but there’s lots you’ll miss out on if you don’t do it then. Do you still force yourself up and get on that day trip? Do you take it as an opportunity to lie in, or do you trudge over to those museums and photogenic sights?

If, by strange twist of fate, you’ve not been in this situation, take it from me that going round museums with a blistering hangover is HORRIBLE. Getting up for a 7am tour after only a couple of hours’ sleep is also horrible. There’s no escaping it – if you do the noble thing and plough on with the original plan, it’s probably not going to be pretty.

So is it best to just sack everything of, stay in bed for as long as necessary and then just mooch around a bit feeling sorry for yourself?

I probably usually lean towards the military option. Fight through the pain, old chap, don’t let the buggers get you. Sometimes this pays off – eventually you’ll feel at least vaguely human enough to take things in. Sometimes it turns into a miserable, pointless box-ticking exercise. And, if I think about it, the times when the latter has happened have always been when I was going to things I felt I ought to go to rather than things I really wanted to go to. So, I think that’s probably the dividing line. If you can ask yourself “is this something I want to see?” or “will I regret not seeing it?” then it’s time to get out of bed and drink plenty of water...

Should you stay or should you go? When does a hangover justify writing off the next day on the road? Share your thoughts y leaving a comment below.




David Whitley stands up for the cowards who don’t want to jump, and asks whether the likes of bungy, rafting and skydiving are worth it 




I have no plans to do a bungy jump again. Once was more than enough for me. That I ended up doing it twice can only be written off as a bewildering mental aberration. The truth is that bungy jumping is in no way enjoyable. It’s terrifying from start to finish. You walk jelly-legged up the steps to the platform, have to wait for seemingly an eternity while other people jump and they get ready for you to take your turn. All the while, you’re looking out at the horrendous distance you’ll cover while you’re falling. It’s not pretty.


Then, when you finally get to go, it’s all about will power. The whooping chaps who work there, with wacky Spin Doctors beards and caps saying: “The Greatest Rush!!!”, aren’t allowed to push you off. You have to make the conscious decision to jump. Or, in my case, lean forward in cowardice until you lose balance and fall off the edge. Now this is where some people start bandying around words like “awesome” and “gnarly”. It is not awesome or gnarly. It is horrible. You feel like you’re going to die. And then you bounce back up. And down. And up. This merciless flinging around feels a bit like being a defenceless child in the mouth of an ogre who’s showing inbred villagers just how evil he can be if they don’t keep bringing him sacrifices. Then someone catches you and pulls you down. Or, if you’re really unlucky, you’re winched back up to the top by your ankles, wanting to do a big cry.


A skydive, however, I probably would do again. That’s actually rather good fun. It’s in two stages – the freefall where you plummet through the clouds, cheeks flapping around like a shaken hamster, and then the float. Once the canopy has opened, it becomes genuinely pleasant – a scenic meander towards the ground. I’d also have another bash at canyoning, although preferably a slightly less hardcore version than the trip that left me a quivering wreck in the Scottish Highlands. I’m also well up for a bit more white water rafting and river tubing, while I’d love a go at the luge. So what does this prove? Well, absolutely nothing. And that is surely the point. Travel isn’t about ticking off a list of ways you can discolour your underwear. It’s not a competition to see who can leap from the highest height, stay aboard over the roughest rapid or tolerate the most G force.


Yet travel around for long enough – particularly in Australia and New Zealand – and you’re likely to get swept into a big bout of peer pressure. You’ve got to tackle some sort of adrenalin activity while you’re here; it’s just what you do; you’re not scared are you? Well of course you’re scared. That’s the point. But not all fears have to be conquered. I’m scared of putting my head in a Bengal tiger’s mouth. I’m not about to do it just to show a bunch of strangers that I’m not scared. Only one thing should come into consideration when weighing up these opportunities to imperil yourself. And that’s whether you want to do it. You don’t have to try everything once when all the evidence points to it being a thoroughly awful and unenjoyable experience. And if that’s the case, save the bungy jump money for something you’re more passionate about.




What’s the best/ worst adrenalin activity you’ve done, and what would you like to have a go at? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.





David Whitley looks at the advantages and disadvantages of online reviews



In many ways, the web has unquestionably made the world a better place. Where on earth, for example, did we go to see hundreds of pictures of dogs dressed as bees before? One of the web’s greatest achievements, however, has been in opening up great mines of information and opinion. In travel terms, in particular, this has meant that travellers can see what thousands of other travellers thought before they book.



Restaurant/ bar sites like Yelp and Urban Spoon are tremendous if you’re wanting to find somewhere to eat or drink – the reviews are usually posted by locals who have been there, and you can get a fairly reliable groundswell of opinion in regards to what the place is like. The same applies to a certain extent with hotels. Tripadvisor and reviews on hotel or hostel booking sites should in theory give you a great idea about what a place is like. But you should be wary about totally relying on such online reviews.



For a start, marks out of five or ten can be dangerously simplistic. Some people will take five out of ten as a strict average, others will only go below eight if something was badly wrong. Then there’s also the issue of who’s reviewing. Put someone who usually stays in grubby hostels into a mediocre three star hotel, and they’ll probably regard it as the most wonderful place they’ve ever stayed. Put someone who usually stays in swanky resorts into the very same three star hotel, and they may regard it as a total grothole. Similarly, people want very different things from a romantic break than they do on a business trip. One person’s “in a seedy area” might be another’s “handily close to the station for my train early the next morning”.



There are often huge differences between nationalities too. To go into sweeping generalisations, travellers from Asia are often mildly obsessed with having a separate bath and shower. Ask a hotelier and they’ll probably say Asian travellers prefer the two single beds pushed together set-up rather than a double – something that’s also rather common in Germany/ central Europe.



Americans tend to be more facilities-focused. It’s all about the big list of what’s included and the size of the room rather than character. Europeans have a tendency to lean towards the homely, ‘boutique’ side of things, often at the detriment of some things others may regard as standard. Of course, these are broad brushes I’m using and can’t really be applied to every single traveller from a continent. But it does show the importance of reading between the lines and assessing whether the person writing the review has anything in common with your personality and needs. It’s worth checking a few other reviews they’ve written as a gauge.



The more background and considered criticism there is in the review, the more reliable it is likely to be. Anyone ranting about one thing in particular (“the breakfast sausages were beef rather than pork! This is political correctness gone mad!”) or using the opportunity to take up a minor grievance with a member of staff can safely be ignored, whilst it’s also wise to treat the most gushing reviews with a pinch of salt too. Just remember - it’s not about finding the best place to stay as a consensus of the people who can be bothered to write an online review. It’s about finding the right place for you.



What are your tips for reading between the lines on review sites? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.