The guidebook – the all-encompassing bible for travel enthusiasts – is what has united travelers across the world in their search for adventure. Even though we travel to see new places and gain new experiences, we often find that our own experience mirrors many other travelers’ experiences.
This comes as no surprise with the plethora of guidebooks out there (Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Frommer’s, and Rick Steves, to name a few), which means everyone ends up traveling the same roads, eating at the same restaurants, frequenting the same bars, and staying in the same hostels.
Our reliance on these guidebooks has contributed to a fundamental shift in the way we travel. Gone are the days where we fly by the seat of our pants. Instead of being open to the unexpected and the endless amount of possibilities at our fingertips, we’ve become what Hemingway calls “over-itinerized”, in which our main goal in travel is to mark off everything on the “Highlights” checklist. Thus, we spend our time running from one place to the next without fully experiencing the moment or our surroundings.
There is nothing more obvious than burying your nose in a guidebook and following the tourist trail to show that you are, in fact, a tourist. And, there is nothing I despise more than looking like a tourist (even if I am one).
So I’ve thrown away the checklist because when it comes to exploring new places, I’ve found that less is more. It’s far more interesting to get to know the history of the town and talk with the people who live there than it is to figure out the most popular bar to go to or the best party hostel to stay at. These are the things that are important to me and it has always made my experiences more enriching.
So, I encourage you to stop treating your guidebook like the bible. Instead, devote your time to the one or two things you find most interesting about the country you are traveling to. In France, I would spend my time in the Loire Valley sampling their world-famous Valençay and Crottin de Chevignol cheeses and pairing them with local wines. For my friend who has a love of art, he might be content to stay in Paris and casually explore the Louvre over a full week so he can explore all of its treasures.
In Italy, I would savor the best pizza and pasta and pastries in the country. I would ask the locals what their recommendations are and that is where I would go, not even caring as I watched my waist line grow. For my parents who are wine lovers, they’d spend their time in Tuscany in a perpetual state of tipsy-ness.
In Spain, I would learn the Flamenco and eat tapas, then take a siesta and eat more tapas. My adventurous friend would run with the bulls and another who is deeply religious would hike the El Camino Santiago from beginning to end.
In Ireland, I would revel in Irish music and eat Irish food and drink Guinness and sit by the sea and explore the Irish countryside. And, when I actually went there this past month, this is all I did. I spent hours in pubs listening to Irish jam sessions. I ate beef and Guinness stew and bangers and mash and seafood chowder and Irish soda bread. I stayed in a cottage by the sea and collected sea shells. I hiked 14 miles through the country side and climbed the Connemara Mountains where I got to see the formation of a rainbow from start to finish.
I missed a lot. In particular all the popular and famous tourist attractions that every other traveler I met was going to or had already been there. I missed the Blarney Stone, New Grange, Dingle, the Burren, Cork, the Wicklow Mountains – pretty much everything the guidebook said I should do. And you know what? I had the best trip ever. I may not be able to relate to many other people’s experiences of Ireland but I did experience a part of the country that many of them didn’t, which I think is pretty unique and cool.
My point here is that you should do what interests you. And, if you stumble upon something that is completely different from what you set out to find or do, be willing to change it up. Because when you finally throw away that guidebook and itinerary, you will undoubtedly have a more authentic and rich experience.