Travel guides seem to be a bit controversial in the traveling community. I gotta be honest… I love a good travel guide, but I’m not married to them. When I pick a destination, chances are I have a pretty good general idea of what I want to do and see, but having never been there for myself, really have no clue. Travel guides help me choose decent places to eat, less well-known museums or sites that I would have likely walked passed had I not read they were there, and whether or not I should listen to people when they tell me that, as a woman, I probably shouldn’t wear shorts in France.
In the planning and preparation stages of my travel prep is when I tend to spend the most time with these travel guides. I like to get a general feel for the things I’d like to see and develop a very general itinerary as to when I’d like to see them, but it’s more of a rough draft than a finished product, and if it changes no big deal. My husband, on the other hand, uses the guides a lot once we’re at the location to figure out how we get from Point A to Point B and where we can grab some delicious food nearby.
Our trips usually include a combination of a 1 or 2 short, preplanned tours, and a lot of free time to wander (with a basic idea of which direction we’re headed). For instance, when we were in Ireland we scheduled a bus tour from Dublin to see the Cliffs of Moher (which got canceled due to what a New Yorker would consider a pathetic amount of snow); we scheduled a day trip around Tuscany tour when we were in Florence; A Vatican tour in Rome, etc.
For Germany we’re discussing plans to take a tour out of Munich to see Füssen and Neuschwanstein Castle; In London we’re discussing plans for a day tour out to Stonehenge…
We are spending a little over four days in each location, and lending one day each to a tour is hardly a concession. We still have three full days (and trust me, they will be FULL days) to explore on our own.
Sure, you can access these places on your own, and sure, you might have more time to spend at each place. I just prefer the tour format. It gives you a chance to meet someone who is much more familiar with the area than I will likely ever be just by reading about it, a chance to meet other travelers, and possibly a chance to see things (again) I would not have known about otherwise.
I guess it boils down to the word “tourist”. I don’t mind it, and I don’t mind being one. I know that I exhibit cultural sensitivity and respect for locals wherever I go, and therefore actively try to combat the image of the “ugly American” and intrusive tourist. I know that other countries and people are not put on this earth for my entertainment and I don’t expect them to be. I’m just an observer who’s trying to see something new and learn about the world beyond myself.
One negative strike or perception against travel guides is that they take the element of spontaneity out of travel and adventure, but they don’t need to completely, and frankly to be 100% spontaneous makes me a little anxious. I do seek authentic cultural experiences when I travel, and I do not in any way believe that the use of travel guides have prohibited me from these, and in some cases have led me down some pretty amazing paths toward great encounters with wonderful people.
I’ve met some really amazing people while on tours in other countries, I’ve also met some amazing people just meandering about. My point in saying all of this I suppose, is that everyone has their own process and comfort level with traveling. If you’re the traveler that tosses a pair of shorts, a rain coat, and a scarf in a backpack and throws a dart at a map and heads off without much more planning – great. If you’re a traveler that needs to fill every single day with an itinerary – great. Traveling is personal and how we learn about and experience new places is entirely up to us.