Rubbish recs



David Whitley sifts through the sort of tips from friends and family that are best ditched when you’re on the road 

Sometimes the best tips about where to go and what to do come from the people you know. Friends, family, work colleagues, the people you add as a friend on Facebook out of politeness more than anything else – they can all offer up some fantastic advice based on their own travel experiences. But that doesn’t mean that every personal recommendation is a piece of gold. Some, of course, can be rubbish. And any recommendations that sound a little like the ones below should be treated with the utmost wariness (and possibly contempt)...


  • Any restaurant recommended by someone who says: “We went there the first night, and it was great. And as it was so close to our hotel, we thought we may as well go there every other night too. Say hello to Luigi for us – he was ever so friendly.” The sort of person that does this is generally thoroughly undemanding, and will declare any old rubbish to be wonderful. And Luigi couldn’t care less about them.
  • Any bar picked out by a hotel concierge – unless you really want somewhere that only serves hugely expensive cocktails with a huge dollop of attitude on the side. Concierges are used to well-heeled guests wanting something sophisticated. They’re not so good with people who want down-to-earth and fun.
  • Any hotel picked out as “The best in town” by someone who has only visited the town once. They’ve probably only stayed in that hotel too – they’ve no real comparison point or idea what a reasonable price for a hotel room is in that city. The same applies to anyone proclaiming a bar or restaurant to be best when they’ve hardly seen any others.
  • Any advice on places to give a miss from people who then go on to admit how sick they were whilst there. If you spent three days in City X hunched over a toilet bowl or feeling like you’re going to die, you probably wouldn’t be too well disposed to it either.
  • “My friend’s bar/ restaurant.” This should be regarded in the same way as a recommendation for a friend’s band. It may be great, but there’s a high chance that close ties are leading to a vast overrating.
  • Any area described as “dodgy” by someone who is more than 20 years older than you. Sure, it probably is a bit dodgy – but such areas often tend to be the most fun and interesting as well. They’re probably no worse than some of the scruffier areas in your own town. Alas, people of a certain age have a tendency to get jittery on the first sighting of a hooded jacket or �?adult’ DVD shop.


 What are your tips for sifting through the tips of friends and family? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.


Guidebook mistakes



While in Venice last year, I took up a friend's recommendation to visit a bar called Paradiso Perduto. Away from the crowds of Piazza San Marco, the music was live and the wine was cheap, my friend assured me. I'd purchased Lonely Planet's Venice iPhone app especially for the trip; presumably was identical to the printed edition, but it was cheaper and meant less weight to carry. The bar was listed in the app and the address was only a few minutes from my hotel, at Fondamenta della Misericordia 2640. Perfect.

Except I couldn't find the bar. Not on my first attempt, at least - or the second. It was clear when I reached Fondamenta della Misericordia 2640 that the derelict residential property hadn't seen a wet wine glass in quite some time. So I checked Google Maps, which concurred with Lonely Planet. Maybe it was tucked away down a Venetian alleyway? I paced up and down them all, first those immediately around the address, then broadening my search along the street. Nothing. 

So I searched Google for travel websites with information about the bar, and the search returned pages from TripAdvisor, The Observer, Yahoo Travel, NileGuide, and TripWolf; between them and Lonely Planet, I had information from half a dozen travellers and professional writers, and all of them pointed to the same address - Fondamenta della Misericordia 2640. After an hour I called off the search until the following night, when I found the bar straight away, on account of it not being closed - the opening times listed in the various guides were incorrect. 

Opening times can change at any time; what was infuriating was that all the published information I'd read - from Lonely Planet, Google, TripWolf, from the review in The Observer - had placed the bar 100 house numbers from where it actually was - at Fondamenta della Misericordia 2540, not 2640. 

Think about it. It can't have been a simple typo, because multiple guides made the same error; the only reasonable explanation I can think of is that one source made a mistake and the others blindly copied it. Google have since updated their source of information; The Observer TripAdvisor and TripWolf all still list the wrong address online and continue to mislead travellers. NileGuide go one better (or indeed, one worse); their NileGuide 'expert' provides a photo of Paradiso Perduto is actually a building several hundred metres away. The same incorrect photo is also supplied by Google, but alongside the correct address. Thanks to the internet, a little misinformation appears to go a long way.  

The truth is guide writers work under an insane amount of pressure, with hundreds of entries to review in very little time and with very little money. The problem is the reader doesn't care. Perhaps user generated content supplied by the likes of NileGuide and TripWolf should always be treated with caution, but consumers assume that travel guides published by household names will speak from experience. When we catch them taking shortcuts, that experience is called into question and their brand is tarred. 

I doubt I'll buy a Lonely Planet guide again - their mistake robbed me of my time spent in Venice. But was this an exception to the rule? Are such glaring errors few and far between? What's the worst mistake you've stumbled across in a travel guide?




"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.


A good tour guide


David Whitley reckons there’s more to being a good guide than getting people to follow an umbrella...

I’ve been on many bad tours in my time. The ones where you’re basically shunted round in a bus between photo stops, the ones where you spend 45 minutes in a relative’s gift shop, the ones where 80 per cent of the time is spent going round hotels picking people up.

Those ones are just bad tours; they’re pretty much irredeemable. But what can make or break an otherwise bog standard, mediocre tour is the guide. Tour guiding is a very tricky – and no doubt exhausting – craft. You’re often responsible for complete idiots – and idiots that you have to both inform and entertain whilst making sure they stick to the programme. In many cases, it’s a poorly paid and largely thankless task.

But some tour guides know this and just go through the motions, plodding through every day in order to pick up their wage and without any real care for what the customer experience is. What makes a good or bad tour guide isn’t absolutely black and white, but there are a few traits that a good tour guide has in common...

1. Being able to tell you things that aren’t in the guidebook.
It’s easy to just reel off a list of historical details. It’s less easy to put them in context. How does the present day population feel towards it? What part does it play in the national or local psyche? Why is it important?
2. Storytelling abilty
It doesn’t matter if a guide has all the knowledge in the world if they can’t make it seem interesting. There’s a massive difference between a ball of wool and a jumper, and it’s all in the weaving. How information is put together and presented is massively important – and the ability to turn facts into engaging stories is key in a tour guide.

3. Clarity
This is linked to storytelling ability, but it’s vitally important. Some of the worst tours I’ve been on have been when the guide has technically good English, but it’s so heavily accented, mispronounced, mumbled or monotone that it has been really hard to understand. Clarity of expression is just as important as knowing the right words. If customers are struggling to work out what you’re saying, then you’ve got something wrong.
4. Enthusiasm for learning
Often it’s not about how much they know, but how much more they want to know. I usually find the best guides are the ones that are throwing in details from books, essays or websites they’ve recently read. They’re the ones who don’t settle for just knowing the basics needed to do the tour; they want to know more about the topics they’re talking about, and spend plenty of time researching further detail. Similarly, a good tour guide is more likely to be brave enough to say: “I don’t know” when asked a curveball question, rather than bluffing an unsatisfying and probably incorrect answer.

5. Willingness to venture off script
The phrase: “I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but...” is a good sign. In a way, tour guiding is a little like stand-up comedy. Of course there’s a routine, but an element of improvisation and ability to change to suit circumstances and audience is usually going to be a good thing. The listening and observing are, in many ways, just as important as the talking.



Bad Tour Signs



A veteran of several rubbish tours, David Whitley reckons he’s learned a few ways to pick out a tour you don’t want to be on in advance




Picking the right tour to go on can be a tricky business. Pick the wrong one for you and it can prove a horribly expensive waste of a day or two. But aside from word of mouth and reading online reviews, how can be sure that your tour will be a good one? Well realistically, you can’t. But there are a few warning signs that should help you spot a potentially bad one. And these include...




Big groups


It’s not always the case, but generally, the bigger the group, the less satisfying the experience. Traipsing round with 50 other people all trying to see the same thing at once is not that much fun. There’s a reason that small group tours will usually advertise the fact it’s a small group (or will state a maximum number of participants). It’s because being in a smaller group usually makes for a better experience.




It’s suspiciously cheap


But what if it doesn’t state a maximum number of participants? If that’s the case, price should be a handy guideline. Look at the price you’re being charged and then multiply it by the maximum number of participants you’d realistically like to share the experience with. If that total doesn’t seem sufficient to cover guide wages, running costs (such as the bus and petrol), marketing, back room staff wages, entrance fees and tax, then chances are you’re in a much bigger group than you’d like to be.




Hotel pick-ups


This one isn’t a cast iron rule, but I find the tours that treat the participants with the intelligence to be able to get themselves to one central starting point are better than the ones that will pick everyone up from their hotel. Call it a laziness filter if you like, but this approach also cuts out the tedium of having to get up an hour earlier than necessary, then sitting in a bus as you troop around another eight hotels before setting off. And the same rigmarole when you get back.




Lack of focus


General highlights reel overview tours can be great if you’re somewhere for a short time and all you want is a general highlights reel overview. But these tours generally cover the things you could easily get to anyway, and often skim over with an annoying lack of time and depth. The better, more memorable tours tend to focus on a set subject in detail.




It’s all see not do


Be wary of any promotional material for a tour that just lists things you’ll see. It might be little more than a series of photo stops. Ones that promote a half hour walk as a selling point, say what you’ll be doing there or use phrases such as “learn about the history of” tend to be better. And that’s because there’s a focus on the experience, not just a list of sights to tick off.




It’s in multiple languages


There are few things more tedious than listening to a tour guide say the same thing in German, then English, then French all day. And the more languages the same thing is said in, the more scant on detail and fun than thing is likely to be.




It promotes opportunities for photo stops and shopping


That should tell you all you need to know about the target audience...




The stars and stripes on a website


OK, this one might be a little unfair, but it’s something I’ve noticed fairly regularly. Usually on a website, you have to click on either ‘En’ or a Union flag for the English language version. Rightly or wrongly, they’re fairly universally recognised symbols of ‘English’. Most English-speakers around the world will recognise that, even if they’re not from the UK. Some sites, however, use the US flag to symbolise the English language version. 

To me, that says “we’re targeting a mass market American clientele that might not be bright enough to realise that the British flag is a symbol for English language”. And from my experience, any tour targeted at the American mass market is likely to be massively disappointing.


NB. This obviously doesn’t apply in the US itself – I’m thinking more in Europe, Asia, Africa etc.

Do you have any other tips for spotting a bad tour in advance? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below


In praise of the holiday

David Whitley picks up the mini-golf putter and realises that things that were fun on childhood holidays can still be worthwhile additions to an RTW trip

There are some massive differences between going on holiday for a week and going travelling for a few months. The two types of trip are approached with very different mindsets (let alone packing priorities). A holiday tends to be about enjoyment, longer-term travelling about experience and exploration. But that doesn’t mean you can’t mix and match a bit. 

In fact, sometimes it’s good to abandon po-faced attempts to travel ‘properly’ and just revert to what you’d do on a childhood holiday. It can be amazing how a day of shameless fun can end up more memorable than a visit to a must-see temple or worthy cultural experience. If I look back to when I was a kid, a rough approximation of a perfect day would consist of going on a boat, petting an animal, eating an ice cream and a game of mini golf.

And you know what? If I’m being honest, that’s probably still very close to being my idea of a perfect day. I don’t care how touristy and pointless the boat ride is, it’s still fun. And ice creams are still tasty.

Similarly, I may be in my thirties, but I still secretly love going to the zoo. I’ll often find myself writing such attractions off in favour of doing something I ought to be doing, however. Alas, no matter how good the museum is or how staggering the temple may be, if I analyse it truthfully, I’d probably have enjoyed watching monkeys or seeing an elephant being fed more.

Then there’s mini golf. I’ve never played had a game of mini golf that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. I don’t care if I’m three times older than anyone else going round the course – it’s fun. And the more absurd the theme (there’s an excellent pirate mini-golf course in Santa Cruz, California, by the way), the better. Bring on the ludicrous ramps, obstacles and windmills – but not those awful ones where the hole is basically on a mountain at the end of the green, and unless you miraculously get it exactly right, the ball just rolls down the other side again. They’re rubbish holes.

But the problem with such delights is that I could be anywhere. I don’t have to leave the country for boats, ice cream, zoos and mini-golf. That’s not the point of travelling, is it? It’s a pathetic waste of time, yes?

Well I’d argue it’s not. You’re not getting marked out of ten for how well you do it. There’s no prize for being best at travelling. And sometimes it’s best to just go and do what you’ll get most enjoyment out of at the time rather than worrying about losing mythical traveller points. If you like rollercoasters, there’s no shame in going to a theme park. If your inner child loves trying to win a teddy on the arcades, there’s no harm in indulging it. Bowling alleys, waterparks and fairground waltzers shouldn’t be off limits just because you’re doing grown-up travelling. A bit of harmless holiday fun every now and then can do wonders for your disposition.


What traditional holiday activities do you still secretly enjoy? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.