Who are the real travel experts?

Local Experts

At a recent travel bloggers’ event a speaker declared to his audience “You are the travel experts!”

I was immediately uncomfortable when I read this statement and it got me thinking about the term ‘travel expert’ and where, if ever, it is an appropriate label to use. Is there such a thing as an expert to whom we should turn for our travel advice, or is it just a meaningless phrase that sits on the profiles and biographies of a few ambitious folks in the travel business? Who can I trust for information when planning a trip?

Local Advice

A commonly accepted piece of wisdom for travellers is to seek local advice. This is very sensible in many respects, for example when searching for the trendy new restaurants, or knowing where is safe/unsafe to venture at night.  Local advice tends to slip up however when suggesting accommodation (who checks out the hotels in their own town?) or in trying to avoiding crowded sites (locals will often avoid the most popular locations that as a visitor you’ve come to see, touristy or not).

Travel Blogs

Another group where there is a wide variation in quality and trustworthiness is the travel blogging community.  While many travel blogs provide inspiration to visit a destination with great photography, reliable objective writing is harder to find. I’ve seen this from both sides and have to admit that on the handful of press trips I’ve been on, it’s been very hard to get to know a place well. Local arrangements are often made on commercial or political decisions between businesses and trip sponsors. Breaking away from a trip itinerary is essential in order to get a real flavour of a place but this is often not easy. And when everything is laid on by the hosts it’s very hard to make an objective judgement on whether a hotel, restaurant, museum or activity is actually worth the money.

I’ll always look at whether a trip is sponsored. Rightly or wrongly, I’ll instinctively pay closer attention to the advice offered by someone who has paid their own way.

There are great bloggers who manage to produce consistently high quality posts that provide both inspiration and reliable practical content, but as an independent traveller it can be difficult to find a blog that provides the type of information that I am searching for.

Guide Books

A good guide book provides a professionally researched pool of useful knowledge for the visitor. Hotels, restaurants, things to do and local practicalities help me to plan and enjoy a trip. The key word here is ‘good’. I’ve used guide books where I got to know the author’s likes and dislikes and developed a firm trust in their recommendations. I’ve read others where by the end of the first week I’m wondering whether they’re writing about the same place I’m visiting.

Decent guide book authors can make a good claim to being travel experts in that they have spent a solid chunk of time visiting the same places that you are planning to see and have offered their recommendations on what is worth visiting. It’s up to the reader to make their own judgement of how good the guide book is and whether the author’s preferences match their own; not always an easy task.

Travel Agents

For those who make their arrangements through an agent or tour operator there should be expert advice on hand before making a booking. Staffing a good travel agency is not about training the staff to know how to read destination information from their monitors. It’s about finding people with a passion for travel and helping them if necessary to gain first hand knowledge of the places your customers will be asking about. I’ve been most impressed when I’ve called companies and quickly been connected with someone who has been to the place I want to go and can chat about the different options available to me that suit my preferences, but this is too often not the case.

 

Who do you consider to be travel experts and whose advice do you trust when planning a trip?

 

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

35 Responses to “Who are the real travel experts?”

  1. Different strokes for different folks.

    For instance, I like to ask for restaurant (food stand/truck, etc.) suggestions from small shop owners, housekeepers, maintenance staff, safety workers (police, fire), and librarians. Others do well by asking visitor center staff, hotel front desk, and taxi drivers. Neither is right or wrong. It depends on what you are looking for.

    So, the right travel expert for me may be different than the best travel expert for someone else.

    It also depends on the destination, length of trip, who traveling with (solo, with spouse, with family).

    This is a great post, Andy. Nice to have the subject available so that travel consumers can see that there is no one solution for all travel situations.

    April 25, 2012 at 1:25 pm
  2. Andy your post illustrates that there isn’t one quick, easy solution to finding reliable travel information.

    My aim on the Europe a la Carte Blog is to write “real” restaurant/hotel reviews versus advertorials, mentioning the good and bad points. I now write in the first paragraph of my reviews if I’ve eaten/stayed on a complimentary basis, so the reader can bear that in mind as they read through the review.

    I did see some tweets from that recent travel blogger’s event suggesting that you should only publish positive reviews, as PRs are monitoring what you’re writing. I took that to mean that if bloggers write negative reviews further press trip invitations may not materialise. However these type of fluffy reviews are of no use to readers looking for help planning their travels.

    April 25, 2012 at 4:40 pm
  3. I’ve found to my peril that a lot of professionals don’t always know what they are talking about. My worst experience on that front was years ago when an agent told me that going to Europe at Easter time was low season for travel. I don’t think that she had ever even been to Europe.

    I think it’s best to balance each positive review with the negative and try to extract commonalities, especially on sites like Trip Advisor. Otherwise I’d prefer to talk to someone personally who has been to the location and ask them what they liked and disliked to compare it with how you see yourself in the same situation.

    April 25, 2012 at 5:05 pm
  4. I love this article and agree with it 100%. I also realize it may take more than one visit to a place before a person gets a real sense of what it is all about. I just came back from my third trip to Jamaica and now I feel like I finally know enough about the island to give good advice and recommendations for people going to visit.

    April 25, 2012 at 7:52 pm
  5. Locals can probably tell you about restaurants, but usually have nothing to say about hotels or attractions.

    I never visited a hotel in the cities I lived and most locals never bother to go to the tourist attractions.

    April 26, 2012 at 8:59 am
  6. The Man in Seat 61 – now there’s a real travel expert!

    April 26, 2012 at 9:00 am
  7. Great post Andy and I agree with the view that there is no easy answer where there’s one ring to rule them all.

    There can be good and bad aspects to all potential sources. Ultimately it lies in our own abilities (as consumers) to be able to identify authoritative advice over the seriously subjective type (TA), or information that is as shallow as the average puddle.

    One area which I think is over-rated is advice from ‘locals’. What makes a local an expert about where they live?. Ultimately we are all herd animals and most of the ‘locals’ where I grew up ate in the same restaurants (when they actually ate in restaurants) and frequented the same bars. I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest that it’s different anywhere else.
    Years ago I got press-ganged into acting as a tour guide to show a group of English pensioners around the island that I’d grown up on. I didn’t know a thing about it and had to make everything up – locals shmocals : )
    That doesn’t mean there aren’t some who really are excellent sources of info. The knack like all other sources is in being able to identify them.

    April 26, 2012 at 9:09 am
  8. Good piece as per Andy

    Local Advice
    Will take (some) mates advice on restaurant reviews. Use them as a liver really. Filter out a lot of the duff stuff from Time Out.

    Travel Blogs
    Good (occasionally) for general information or slightly off piste take on a place. I suppose in the evolution of trip planning they are in the inspiration stage. All too often they wouldn’t cross my mind.

    Guide books
    Still the Daddy for me. Especially the maps. Do find that a lot of other tips have been culled or curated from Guide books. A good tip I like is take two guidebooks. Then compare. Got me out of a jam more than once.

    Travel Agents
    Apparently you need to be niche, a specialist, and online. But some high street knowledge of bucket and spade is astounding. The best of the new breed of travel agents (IMO) employ graduate level, real travelers, and know what they’re talking about. I’d also say there should be a culture of life long learning and expertise about a particular sector. But I’m biased on that one. I also believe they could learn a lot from bloggers, but I’m a bit out there on that one.

    April 26, 2012 at 9:19 am
  9. ‘Most locals never bother to go to the tourist attractions’ – is that really true or just a travel myth?

    Growing up I used to go to the highland games where I lived – very popular with tourists.
    When I lived in Manchester I never thought twice of hitting the same attractions as visitors.
    And now I live on Tenerife and I’ve never tired of visiting Mount Teide and Las Cañadas – the biggest tourist draw on the island.

    It’s a sweeping generalisation that is in danger of become a travel blogging cliché.

    Maybe it’s just me though… and all the people I know who do exactly the same :)

    April 26, 2012 at 9:28 am
  10. Thanks to all for the great comments.

    Locals and their tourist attractions – I don’t know the truth here. I’m the same as you Jack, but wonder if we’re in the minority. I’ve lived in around a dozen places for at least a year and find that I very quickly get to see (and know) more about my new environment than the people with who I work/socialise. After 6 months in NYC the folks in my office were asking me for tips about where they should go at weekends and where to go for a walk. Similar experiences in this country. I suspect that those who are curious enough to travel are also those are curious enough to explore their back yard.

    Charles: “So, the right travel expert for me may be different than the best travel expert for someone else.” Exactly right – one person’s expert will be of no use to someone else with different interests or tastes. Even the same person will use different resources for the same destination, depending on the nature of their trip. Sophie’s tip of the Man in Seat 61 might be my no.1 resource for a rail trip to Poland, but of little use if I’m going to hire a car.

    Stuart, like you a travel blog might not be at the front of my mind for researching a destination (not least for the reasons Karen mentions) – interesting your hint about TAs learning from bloggers. You’ll have to tell us more.

    April 26, 2012 at 10:19 am
    • Vi #

      I agree – different people need different advice. I you met local travel guide, it doesn’t mean it give you information you need.

      May 21, 2012 at 10:17 pm
  11. pam #

    We do like to throw the word expert around, don’t we? Check your Twitter followers and see how many social media experts are in there.

    Telling a room of travelbloggers that they’re the travel experts is like telling a room of food bloggers that they’re the cooking experts. Yeah, some of them may very well be. Some of them just started. Some of them are actually better photographers than cooks. Some of them started to cook last week because their doctor told them they needed to lose a few and they’re documenting the journey. None of this makes them experts by default, and fallacies make me cranky.

    I’d apply expertise in categories, anyway. What’s a travel expert an expert IN? anyway? Travel agents understand industry and booking ins and outs. Expats tend to be experts in navigating the cultural barriers travelers confront. Backpackers in finding cheap places to sleep and Irish bars. (Save the hate. I kid. Sort of.)

    Some bloggers are making deep, service orientated, destination or topic focused content. Family Travel. Italy. Experts, mmmm, okay. Many other bloggers are sharing stories about their adventures.Each day they learn to travel again, because each day is different, so I’m going to say, nope, not experts. Local bloggers tend to know where to eat and what to do, but I know I never know what to tell people when they ask me where to stay in Seattle, so I’m not exactly a travel expert for this city, even though I’ve lived here for almost 20 years.

    Blogger as travel expert by default? No.

    April 26, 2012 at 3:14 pm
    • Pam, the difference between travel and food is that you can’t consume travel without traveling, but you can consume food without cooking.

      April 28, 2012 at 9:48 am
  12. Talking about travel blogs… That’s why I push the Blog Ville – Travel Blog Apartment, as there the bloggers gets a place to stay & explore the city free & untroubled.

    Activities are offered by the tourism board, but not a must.

    April 26, 2012 at 3:21 pm
  13. Talking about Guidebooks. I’ve heard some bad stories there. Guides just call the accommodation to get the newest prices or if there is something new. Guides who cover the “planet”. Damn… I wouldn’t call them experts, but lazy.

    Getting to travel agent, being one myself for many years. Agents get a lot of pressure to sell specific tour operators or hotels. Not a good expert as well.

    I stick with friends who travel the way I do as well & many of these are bloggers. :)

    April 26, 2012 at 3:26 pm
  14. You see that you got me with your article? 3rd comment in a row! hahaha

    The best would be if the travel industry realizes about the value bloggers can provide and support them with prices for banner ads etc., which they would also pay other huge sites or for the print media.

    I’m sure that the bloggers who does it for a proffession would travel many more times on their own costs.

    April 26, 2012 at 3:30 pm
    • Yes, I suddenly saw a glut of comments from you!

      Thanks as always for your insights, both as a blogger and travel agent. I’m sure, in defence of guide book authors, for every one who does what you suggest there are a lot more who work very hard to make sure they source the most accurate and useful information.

      The travel industry relationship with travel bloggers will be interesting to watch in the next few years. I suspect for many people in the travel industry (and I’m talking about the ones with the budgets that bloggers have their eyes on) it’s not about them realising the value of bloggers – it’s more about bloggers proving that spending money on them is a wise move. There’s still plenty of work to be done on that before the cash is splashed.

      April 26, 2012 at 4:08 pm
  15. Combination of sources – triangulating on the things that often come up for the most part, following up on the really odd/ interesting only mentioned by one for the rest. There’s no right way of doing things, and expertise is usually limited. Even someone who writes a site and guidebooks on, say, Barcelona, probably has their Barcelona blind spots (ie. clubs, shopping, spa treatments etc).

    April 26, 2012 at 3:33 pm
    • Triangulate! I have not heard this term since writing my masters thesis BUT it is so true.
      I am part of a company that helps the independent traveler add a local experience to their trip (and hence travellers do receive a local’s advice before & on trip). We can’t/don’t pretend to offer the ideal way of achieving the perfect holiday, just another valuable piece to add to the mix.
      In fact we urge our travellers to use various sources when making trip decisions as they go along – agents, bloggers, friends, concierges…

      Ps. I agree re: locals giving advice on accommodation. I would not in million years be able to tell you were to stay in my hometown – most likely I would simply be repeating what I read on a travel blog/review;)

      April 27, 2012 at 11:11 am
  16. Everybody is capable of giving a good tip, you can be in a town for half a day and luck on a great cafe, done. But to give personalised advice (by which I mean that you might tailor your advice depending on whether you are talking to a 60 year old first time visitor or a well travelled young professional) requires exhaustive research effort that does not simply happen by chance.

    This is what good travel guide book writers do and excuse me for plugging, what a good tour op / travel agent will do. To give you an example, yesterday I inspected 8 different hotels in an area, in the 2 days before I took pretty much every trail option and detour on a trek route trekking for over 20hrs over a 2 day period, to make sure I’ve seen them all myself. It is only this kind of research applied over a period of time, refreshed constantly that can confer ‘expert’ status. Admittedly there are many tour ops and travel guide book writers that take short cuts, but there are many who do a bloody good job.

    So yes, occassional visitors can give a good tip, but that is a far way from being expert. And of course, no expert can possibly know everything about a destination, its like painting the forth bridge.

    April 26, 2012 at 4:18 pm
  17. Agree with pams observation: “What’s a travel expert an expert IN”
    Given the vast number of variables and decisions involved in any given trip, there is no way any person/resource can cover for all of them WITH consistent quality across the board.
    By definition then, you have to use more than 1 person/resource for any and every trip.

    Whats popular is not necessarily the best and vice versa.
    So whatever person/resource helps me make the best decision is the “Expert” for that decision.
    This is why travel planning is so much fun and a pain in the behind at the same time!

    April 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm
  18. One source of advice that is often over looked is to use social media to locate expats in whatever whatever area you are planning to visit. They are a strange mix between locals and tourists.

    April 27, 2012 at 4:26 pm
  19. Great post, Andy!

    David – thank you – & Rebecca – yes, I love to triangulate also. Too many years at university are undoubtedly too blame, but my husband (and co-writer) and I triangulate practically everything when researching a destination.

    We tend to go to experts for expert advice, i.e. chefs, waiters, sommeliers, bar tenders, resto owners/managers for tips on restaurants and bars; boutique owners and fashionistas for shopping tips; hotel PRs and hospitality pros for other hotels (they tend to go and snoop as soon as they open, some even do anonymous stays); tourism orgs for attractions (little else); art gallery owners, artists, curators, etc, for galleries and museums, and so on. At the end of every interview we do, we’ll ask “so where do you like to eat/drink/sleep/shop (etc)?”

    But still we triangulate. After consulting the experts, we’ll get online. But after years of writing guidebooks, I rarely use them these days (sad to say; love them for history, background, culture, orientation, attractions, but rarely for listings for hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, etc), but I will check travel magazines and newspapers, especially free local papers, like music/gig guides and fashion papers – you can’t get much more up-to-the-minute.

    As much as I enjoy certain blogs, we’ll rarely rely on a blog, but if the author is an in-the-know food writer or cookbook author, for example, then that would be one source we might compare to others for restaurant reviews, say, but would never rely just on that source alone.

    Contacts are everything – as they always have been in journalism – and once I’ve established solid contacts in certain destinations, I’ll always go back to those individuals for specialised advice. But the key word is *specialised*. For me, they’ve got to have expertise. I’m not going to rely on a taxi driver for restaurant tips.

    April 28, 2012 at 12:45 pm
  20. I love this post Andy. I like that you question the idea of ‘travel expert’ and break it down into various groups of people that can be considered that as you weight the pros and cons.

    I agree with Karen that no single source should be considered an expert. If I had to pick, I would go with locals because they tend to know a place better. However, they also have their own biases. And from my experiences, there is so much about my own town that I miss because I can take things for granted.

    I do admit I love guidebooks because they give destination information as well as history. I also love a good book so I am a bit biased there. Bloggers give recent and timely information on places from their point of view. The honest perspective is refreshing because not everything we want to read about a place is from an objective point of view.

    May 3, 2012 at 8:44 pm
  21. What a well written and introspective post.

    I agree that the proliferation of the title “experts” and “gurus” has greatly devalued their meaning.

    I think we have come to a tipping point where there is not one source of information we should rely on to be our travel expert. And it most certainly shouldn’t be just “you”.

    With the spreading of online discussion forums for every niche and the rise of like couchsurfing, it is now easier to get in touch with a location before you get there.

    Add that to the already crowded field of guidebooks, hotel/airline review sites, travel bloggers and we are getting close to full information.

    I do not think the consumers are travel experts but they have more resources than they ever have at their disposable to solicit help for their travel plans.

    Personally I scrutinize anybody’s opinion, if it is an iPhone app or in a book, because I know that their vague label of an “awesome” and “peaceful” may be completely different than mine. I come from NYC where “peaceful” is to get me somewhere that I don’t hear police sirens every 15 minutes.

    I try to condense the noise created by our internet age into something I can use to help guide my trip planning strategy.

    May 4, 2012 at 7:58 pm
  22. The consensus is: a combination of all the available material, blogs, websites, guide books, and local knowledge.
    Dont depend on a single recommendation…most of us dont ..

    Mary Jane (expert in central Italy, Civitavecchia, Viterbo, Roma, cruise lecturer)

    May 4, 2012 at 9:33 pm
  23. Abi #

    I’m not sure he said travel bloggers were “the” travel experts (implying better than everyone else.) I thought he said travel bloggers were travel experts (implying along with all the other useful sources mentioned here.) And the speech did then go on to discuss Pam’s points about what they were experts IN.

    Andy, you wouldn’t be trying to stir up a naughty bloggers vs the world debate, would you? ;-)

    For my part, I find travel blogs useful sources for either teeny tiny minutiae (eg exactly where to buy your entrance ticket to the Vatican and what you need to wear to get in) or the sweeping, overall picture (travelling long term with a baby, house-sitting, travel as a conflict specialist etc.)

    For medium range information, I tend to use guide books and magazine articles. And then I always try to speak to as many people as possible – either online or off.

    May 7, 2012 at 11:05 am
    • Thanks Abi (I could have chosen a dozen more direct approaches if I had wanted to start such a debate) :-)
      I think the comment when I read it tweeted live from the event (lack of context I know) had me immediately thinking of those bloggers’ profiles that do actually use the terms ‘travel expert’ and ‘expert in travel’ (I won’t embarrass anyone).
      As you, Pam and others has eloquently written, many folks have expertise within a narrow area and it’s up to us to seek out multiple sources to get the most reliable information.
      And let’s not forget that while more information might lead to greater accuracy, we shouldn’t plan our travel to such a level of detail that we leave no room for spontaneity and adventure.

      May 7, 2012 at 12:27 pm
      • Abi #

        Hah! Yes, you could and I certainly don’t want to goad you into trying :) I know I’d get sucked in and there would go my productivity for the day ;) Thanks for the reply – and to the others who left comments that reminded me just how enjoyable the word “triangulate” is. Happy travels, however you like to do it.

        May 8, 2012 at 11:12 am
  24. Andy, guess that is why I created this Twitter profile for a post in 2009:

    http://twitter.com/#!/tweetrant

    Shame I’ve forgotten my password and the email account with it no longer exists. :)

    Isn’t “triangulate” lifted from surveying? It wasn’t that much fun when I used to do surveying. Anyway, I thought we use GPS to find out where we are now. Oh wait! they use triangulation to determine position as well. That’s why you need readings from at least three satellites to get a fix.

    Travel is not an exact science but is very subjective? One traveller’s heaven is another’s hell. How can anyone be an expert? OK, they can tell you that the summit of Mont Blanc is 4810 metres above sea level, or at least they could if the snow depth up there didn’t fluctuate with the weather conditions. They could tell you that a hotel has 120 rooms but only the hotel reservation system will be able to tell you if there is a double room available tonight and even that can get it wrong. They can tell you that you can ride down the Vallée Blanche from the Aiguille du Midi but unless they can show you where the hidden crevasses are what use is that?

    Scientists, guides, travel bloggers, travel guide writers etc all have expertise in certain areas. The ploy of praising an audience at the start of a presentation is age old and has been employed by many great orators. I’ve seen some in action and seen the effect they have on their audience. Personally I’d like to think I’m not taken in by such methods.

    By why do we need experts anyway? Most of the stories tour guides tell are a mixture of made up funny stories, myths, legends and the like. They are lapped up like a cat finding milk after being accidentally locked in the cellar for three days.

    May 8, 2012 at 10:56 pm
  25. Tracy Marescia #

    Great post Andy… The concept ‘travel experts’ and your breakdown is very interesting. I suppose I have never really thought about who I would define as a ‘travel expert’, though I do find when planning a trip I tend to stay on the safe side and ask a travel agent, as well as family and friends who have already been to my desired destination. Though I would also have to agree with Karen that there is no one actual ‘travel expert’ in which someone can get advice on everything you may want to know, there are many sources.

    May 9, 2012 at 10:34 am
  26. Social Media is as good as anything for gettin expert advice!

    May 9, 2012 at 9:46 pm
  27. Who you should ask depends on what you need. Locals may not be the best bet for hotel advice as its probably outside their realm of everyday experience. On the other hand they are great for advice on things to do that you might not have thought of. Other travellers are good to get information from when it comes to finding places to stay and guides. Guide book give a good general overview. Travel agents, taxi drivers and other professionals can give good advice and be helpful but it should be taken with a grain of salt as commissions are an important motivating factor.

    May 10, 2012 at 9:08 am
  28. Very interesting. There are some invaluable blogs out there but then again there is some absolute dross and so one must tread carefully. As the owner of a small hotel/hostel we obviously rely on guidebooks and bloggers and good press, but all too often we do get a “blogger” or two in the house who do nothing more than plug themselves into their laptop and refuse to leave the house. So, whatever they write is based upon their conversations with me and with other travelers in the house. If for example in my town you ask for the advice of a taxi driver he will inevitably swing you by the hotel which pays him a commission and likewise with local guides. The overriding problem with guidebooks is that there is no money any more in publishing and those writers get a lump some to work with and so “fringe” destinations get short shrift. So, as with everything, you need to check out the writers you respect and the publications that appeal to you and make an educated decision.

    May 10, 2012 at 5:00 pm
  29. I think travel experts are probably just pretty comfortable with their type of travel. For instance, I travel a hell of a lot, but a travel expert’s advice won’t help me. I’m a travel expert for anyone interested in hoofin’ it, in vagabonding, hitchhiking and playing around with extreme tourism. But I can’t give good advice about hotels and and good bus and train tickets and all that jazz. So, am I a travel expert? I don’t think so!

    May 27, 2012 at 8:10 pm
css.php