Has the internet killed pioneering travel?

The internet has changed our travel experiences in many ways. The ability to book ahead, make arrangements independently and to share stories and images with other travellers has revolutionised the way we plan and execute our dreams of seeing faraway places.Yet with all of this capability now at our fingertips, have we lost something of the essence of the travel experience?

Travelling as a teenager, I was a pioneer. Not in the purest sense of the word. I was not in any way the first person to have been to Norway or northern Finland. I was however the first person from my immediate circle of friends and family to go there. I had no-one to tell me what it was like beforehand, nowhere to research the quality of the hostels or recommend to me the best places to eat, and no user reviews to check before making any arrangements. So I arrived in a series of small Arctic towns and villages and saw them with the complete absence of preconception.

And that for me was one of the most exciting elements of travel. Venturing into the unknown, and finding for myself the hostel where the showers only worked for one hour a day, or the town where the local kids entertained themselves by driving endlessly in a small circuit through the city streets. Nobody had written about these things beforehand, and my little guide book (mentioned in a previous 501 Places post) was factual to the core, not revealing anything about the character or quirkiness of a place unless absolutely unavoidable.

How different it is now. We can see what 57 people thought of the Paradise Hotel before we decide to book it. We find find the hotel on Google Earth and see its location relative to the town, its immediate surroundings and judge for ourselves how close it really is to the sea. We can read about the top 5 restaurants in any town and choose to visit one depending on our mood that evening, knowing that we should avoid the salmon or make room for the sublime cheesecake. We can even be persuaded to miss out a town altogether if some other visitor has deemed it boring, dangerous or unpleasant. I am an avid planner and tend to crave information on every place we intend to visit. It makes for a less risky travel experience: we can avoid fleapit hostels and stay away from the restaurants that have given previous diners an unwelcome take-away gift. But at what cost do we absorbe this information?

How much harder it is now to go to a town and experience it without some expectations of what to expect when we arrive. How much more difficult to blaze our own trail, at least in our own minds, and see places with an open curiousity. It can be done of course. But to visit a place without those preconceptions we need to put away the guide books, ignore Trip Advisor, and step back from reading all the blogs of those who have gone before us. And given that access to this knowledge can make our trip more comfortable/cheaper/cleaner/safer, how many of us are prepared to forsake this advanced information so that we can feel like a pioneer again?

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

23 Responses to “Has the internet killed pioneering travel?”

  1. Truth be told, the more info you have, the more you can see. If you have no-idea of what to see probably you will miss something. The authentic experience, may get lost due to find something cheap. For me, finding a place where to sleep in a city or another may change my next destination, so I think this is a cost I will pay. On the other hand, You can avoid all the info you want, and just go to the adventure, or travel having a vague idea of what you will find.

    November 24, 2009 at 12:02 pm
  2. Very good points you make. When I read books by pioneer travelers I so wish there would still be a place to discover and give me that pioneer feeling they had. On the other hand, we have tools that help us plan much better, and I think it depends on what kind of vacation I take. If I want a week just too relax – I am so glad I can check out all the hotels, read reviews and plan my itinerary carefully since I don’t have too much time and I want to get the best out of it. It’s no guarantee though, because we all experience a place different. Just read Peter Flemming/Ella Maillard’s book about their pioneering Asia exploration – you think they were on different trips.

    When I traveled for 4 month through SOA – I chose to travel with only Tiziano Terzani’s book: “A Fortune teller told me” and no guide book at all or the Internet. I had to relay on recommendations by locals, spent time in their libraries and tourist offices. It was the best experience I ever had.

    The good things is – we can choose and we always know that if or when we are stuck – the next internet cafe is never far away ๐Ÿ˜‰

    November 24, 2009 at 4:23 pm
  3. What an excellent idea for a post! Nicely written piece.

    November 24, 2009 at 7:22 pm
  4. I don’t know where I got the idea from Dave! Thank you for the inspiration, and it’s proved a very popular post.

    You make a good point Fida, about the safety cushion of the internet cafe. Maybe now we can travel as pioneers and ignore the guide books and review sites, with the knowledge that there is easy access to information if we need it. Your trip to S America sounds amazing. Have you written about it?

    Thanks all for your comments.

    November 24, 2009 at 8:36 pm
  5. I have to admit that it is getting harder and harder to find “undiscovered jewels” but perhaps this is also alleviating some of the fear of traveling so many people have. Very thoughtful post, Andy.

    November 24, 2009 at 9:37 pm
    • Very true Barbara. There are pros and cons to the information overload we now receive about each place we visit. I’m sure there are plenty of undiscovered jewels out there for us to find though ๐Ÿ™‚

      November 24, 2009 at 9:48 pm
  6. A fab post Andy. I use the internet to book flights, hotels and/or tours, as well as get some general info of the places I’m visiting. I prefer not to get too much info beforehand. Instead, I like getting more info at the local tourism bureaus or simply by talking to other travellers and the locals.

    November 24, 2009 at 10:00 pm
  7. Thanks Keith. Like you say, the information from local people is as powerful now as it ever was, and is the most up-to-date as well as well often being a great way to learn some unexpected stories about where you are. A tourism bureau can provide great info, although they are also prone to be spectacularly varied in their quality.

    November 24, 2009 at 10:57 pm
  8. I relate to this a lot, Andy. When getting ready for a trip I definitely suffer from “planner’s fatigue”. The sheer volume of info available on any one given place, especially if it’s popular, is downright overwhelming. I once sat around for 3 hours trying to find the best place to stay in Bangkok for 2 nights. It was my choice to do it but my better sense told me to utilize the resources available.

    And that 3 hours may or may not have even given me a better stay.

    After reading over message boards and review websites sometimes I feel like my sense of adventure is dulled by the knowledge of how many other people have already done what I’m about to do. Even though they’re simply offing guidance to give me a better time.

    While the Interwebs may be indispensable for a world of travel hurdles, I agree that it does take the edge off of a sense of discovery. Alas.

    November 25, 2009 at 1:10 am
  9. Thanks Nico. That’s a good point, and I’m often guilty of it. I might spend over an hour researching a one night stay, and all I use the hotel for is a place to lay down at night. Just because the information is there, we don’t have to go through all of it before we make a decision.

    November 25, 2009 at 5:22 pm
  10. I loved this post…and it has me asking questions about my incessant research of destinations before I depart!

    I’ve included your post in my recent blog on technology…you can check it out here: http://blog.travelfusion.com/2009/11/27/where-theyve-been-travel-technology-ideas/

    Happy Friday!

    Kathryn @Travelfusion

    November 27, 2009 at 11:10 am
  11. You have some very thought provoking and helpful posts. I love the blog!


    December 16, 2009 at 10:26 am
    • Thanks for all your comments Aaron. Much appreciated, and will reply in full on my return to full connectivity. Have a happy holiday!

      December 24, 2009 at 4:57 am
  12. One of my maxims in life: the more you think you know, the less you actually know.

    January 27, 2010 at 4:41 pm
  13. Wow – this has got me thinking! Admittedly my travel experiences have been mostly since the advent of the internet so I can’t really do a before and after comparison.

    One of my earliest travels was a skiing trip and I lapped up every bit of info I could find in the hard-copy travel agent ski magazines – now, it’s hard to imagine not being able to check recent snow falls, % of open pistes etc.

    I think that being able to read up on a place and read other’s travel experiences allows you to plan better – always useful if you’re visiting a place for a limited amount of time. If there’s a lot to see and do, a comparison on a website can allow you to prioritise – admittedly based on other people’s opinions.

    Even if you do read all the blogs, communicate in the forums and research on Trip Advisor, there is still going to be an element of the unknown – after all, you never know what might happen out there…..!

    March 4, 2010 at 6:57 pm
  14. Thanks Clare, and yes for sure where you are relying on weather conditions to go/not go on a trip you really need to have access to up to date news. I still wonder if all those opinions that we crave (myself included) before making a booking are really necessary? They take away a certain element of risk, but at what price? An interesting subject, but a trend that will only go one way I think.

    March 5, 2010 at 2:10 pm
  15. Tom #

    Interesting article. I personally side with the author and disagree with the first commenter. Having all the so-called ‘knowledge’ means that you arrive in a place and see what you’re expecting to see. Having none means that you see what’s actually there. Yes, you may miss a historic site or two, you may not eat in the best restaurant or find the cheapest hostel, you may never know the name of that town or dish or mountain. So what? There’s a huge lesson to be learnt in the absence of preconceptions; most of all, lessons of personal judgement and initiative. Trying to work out the ‘best’ way to do a trip before you’ve left home makes for a rather narrow experience.

    My last trip lasted for 6 months and took in most of the Middle East and North East Africa. I didn’t use a guidebook or map, I was alone, and I travelled only by bicycle. I met 13 other tourists in that half-year. Needless to say I had a lot to learn, and fast. No guidebook or online portal offers that. I’d recommend it to anyone in an instant.

    April 1, 2010 at 5:32 pm
  16. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Tom. You put forward a very powerful argument to travel without any guide book and just let the experience take you. I may follow your words this summer and give it a try. Although I use a book more in advance of travelling than during the actual journey, there is an additional sense of adventure to be gained from having nothing planned. Your trip sounds incredible!

    April 2, 2010 at 11:04 am
  17. Thanks for the post Andy, and the site!

    With travel (as with many things in life) balance is so important and such a challenge. Balancing risk and adventure with safety and comfort is a difficult task. I think re-framing one’s perspective on what actions can lead to a truly unique travel experience can be helpful. What I love about travel is that it offers the opportunity to seek adventure and pioneering experiences in even the smallest of ways. So you made a reservation in advance — you saved yourself potentially several hours of stress and aimless wandering. But, as one example, venturing out to dinner alone and striking up a conversation with the people at the table next to yours — that may seem like a small risk, but it does take courage (for most people). I did this on a recent solo trip to Italy and had the most incredible conversation with a man traveling from Norway — it was an exhilarating feeling. For me it is those small, unexpected experiences that always seem to find me when I travel that I relish, and often cherish as my favorite travel memories.

    April 9, 2010 at 1:44 am
  18. Thanks for the comment Emily. As you say, there’s a balance to be had, and you describe this perfectly. You can plan to some extent, and still enjoy the spontinaeity of the encounters that you have along the way.

    April 9, 2010 at 4:46 pm
  19. I always do some research about my next destination. Because you need to take (pre)caution with really dangerous things. Eg, if you look or talk in any way that you can offend certain people in certain places, you can avoid that doing some research. Happens the same with certain animals, plants, temperatures and stuff like that.

    There’s a thin line between being Pioneer and being stupid.

    The pioneer can do some research and then try to change the tourist route for the traveler or explorer route. Actually planning is compatible with exploring and taking risk, but at least you know when and where.

    June 17, 2010 at 12:23 am
  20. Hi Gus, thanks for the comment.You make a good point that some planning can actually enable more interesting (and safer) exploration

    June 17, 2010 at 4:22 pm
  21. Great article! I agree with you that the ability to do so much research online beforehand does take away a great deal of that pioneering spirit from our travels. It does though open places to those who are not as seasoned a traveler though. I know my parents for example are risk averse when it comes to traveling abroad. They either want to know every detail about a place and it’s people, or a fully guided tour.

    I guess the Internet can be a boon or bane depending on your travel style.

    August 4, 2011 at 12:00 pm