Travel without a guidebook

travel without a guidebook

Sometimes when I’m writing a detailed travel itinerary, I ask myself, why should anyone listen to me? The answer is simply, they shouldn’t. When we rely too heavily on traveler reviews, blogs, and guidebooks, we lose a little bit of what is magical about travel.

Travel shouldn’t be a checklist

When you study every blog post and Lonely Planet guide before a trip, your trip becomes a long list of things you have to see. Then you’ll find yourself dashing from place to place just to check off all the cool things you read about or saw online. It can be tremendously disappointing if you don’t get to see something you were expecting to. And it can be exhausting to try to cram everything in, especially if your time is limited.

It also takes the fun out of exploring freely and discovering your own hidden gems. And those might be even more enjoyable and special to you. Because at the end of the day, every guide or tip you’ll ever see is someone’s opinion or personal experience. What I consider to be the best travel experience ever might be uninteresting or downright unpleasant to you. So why should your trip be a checklist of all my favorite things to do somewhere?

It might not be as good as people are painting it

Many traveler writers only highlight the good things about a place, because for one, that’s a better way to inspire wanderlust. Magazines, blogs, and social media users want you to see the fabulous pictures and read about the awesome experiences so that you’ll want to go there, too. Another reason is that travel culture in the era of social media is all about looking like you’re having more fun than you really are. Few people want to admit that they saved all their PTO to go somewhere for a week and that the trip sucked; it was too hot, the food made them sick, and they got mugged.

So you’re left with expertly edited photos and accounts of beautiful places that look stunning and sound inviting. And sometimes that creates a false expectation. If you go into something with no preconception at all, you’ll probably find it more enjoyable than if you’re expecting a “magical, transformative experience” and you end up in an overpriced, overrated, and overcrowded place. And even if you thought it was mediocre, you’ll probably add your own photos of it to the heap, just to say you were there. And because you don’t want to be the only person that doesn’t “get it.” (I’m pretty sure this is also why people watch Stranger Things.)

It might not be as bad as people say it is

Unlike a lot of other travel bloggers, I do like to highlight the bad experiences. I think writing about bad experiences makes them worth having. And I would hope that my stories or tips might save someone else a bad time, some money, or even potential illness or danger. The problem with reading about bad travel experiences is that it begins to close you off to the idea of going somewhere. You read about a backpacker getting raped in Delhi and you tell yourself you’ll never go to India. And perhaps that’s unfair to you and the destination. Because what a shame it would be to never get to see the Taj Mahal with your own eyes just because someone else suffered that fate.

Danger aside, as much as I love to rag on cities I dislike, I realize that many people actually love those cities. You shouldn’t let anyone’s opinion close you off to a potentially great experience. So don’t you want to see for yourself that San Francisco sucks instead of taking my word for it? I mean, it does, but you should decide that for you.

Discover on your own

When you rely too heavily on the path other people walked before you, you lose your sense of adventure. You end up going only to the “Best Places to See This Fall” according to Conde Nast with an itinerary designed by some stranger online. And when you do that, you give up the opportunity to discover things that you won’t find in a guidebook. You don’t leave yourself any time to explore freely and develop your own ideas and opinions about a place.

So take what’s in the guidebooks with a grain of salt. Remember that it’s not gospel; it’s merely a record of experiences and opinions that may or may not reflect your own. And maybe occasionally, ditch the guidebook altogether. Let your own instinct and sense of adventure be your guide. Then come back online and tell us all about it.