One website you’ll want to save

MapHappy

It’s not often I’ll blog about a specific website but every now and then I come across one that’s really good and has a lot of useful information for travelers.

map happy is a travel website that’s full of interesting and useful information. It seems to be run by three women (there are three mentioned on the “About” page) but they have a lot of contributors. The site is one where you can spend a lot of time getting lost while browsing the many interesting and informative articles. It’s all good information, tips and tricks, gadgets, and general tech geekery. They aren’t selling anything, either. Also, I think it’s American based so some of the tips are geared towards Americans traveling but for the most part, anyone will find a lot of useful and interesting reading there.

The range of the topics is quite broad, varying from practical advice on passports, public transportation, hotels, rental cars to the mundane but entirely useful like how long a travel sized shampoo bottle might last you, how to say basic numbers in a half dozen or so languages, or how to get Amazon packages delivered while traveling.

You can create a login but that’s really only necessary if you’re going to want to comment on articles. You can read and browse all through the site for free. Note, I don’t work for them and I don’t write for them, and I gain nothing by plugging them, either. I have just spent about an hour happily clicking from one article to another when I should be doing other stuff!

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Worst Travel Advice

London from a different perspective. Looking up!

London from a different perspective. Looking up!

I read an article this morning written by a Lonely Planet journalist called “The World’s Worst Travel Advice”.  It was actually published a few months ago but I hadn’t seen it before. In a nutshell, the list goes like this:

1. Women shouldn’t travel alone
2. Don’t eat the street food
3. Take traveler’s cheques for emergencies
4. Italy has the best pizza in the world
5. Plan everything/Don’t plan anything
6. You can’t get on Facebook in China
7. Bringing more clothes means less laundry
8. Bring enough contact lens solution/sun block/tampons/over-the-counter medicine for the entire trip
9. Bring a knife for protection when you travel to (xxx)
10. Don’t bother with a travel guide, you can find what you need online.

The author goes into a bit of explanation on each one. Some of these are common sense, some are myths busted, and the one about Facebook and China doesn’t even seem like terrible travel advice at all, just a statement of more or less fact.

Is this the “worst” travel advice? I probably wouldn’t classify it as such though number 9 might be kind of sketchy. Bringing weapons anywhere in this security conscious day and age will probably bring you a lot more trouble than safety. If you’re worried about your safety somewhere, don’t go!

My own opinions of most of these:
1. I would travel alone to places where I think I’d feel comfortable. I don’t tend to go out at night when on my own though could if it’s a bright, busy place like a tourist area. You take precautions no matter where you are, with or without someone else.
2. I would be cautious about street food as well but apparently in most places, it’s perfectly fine. Maybe I’ll bend on that one a bit. As the author pointed out, you can get sick from food in perfectly good restaurants just as easily.
3. I don’t take traveler’s cheques with me anymore. I take my ATM card and two different credit cards. If the ATM card doesn’t work, one of the credit cards will and most banks will give you cash advances on credit cards like Visa and Mastercard. If you make a payment before you go, putting the card into a credit amount, you won’t pay interest on the cash advance. It’s an option.
4. Does Italy have the best pizza in the world? Maybe, and I’ve had some pretty good pizza there. I’ve also had some “meh” pizza there. It’s like anywhere, I’d say.
5. Now this one speaks to me. I do a lot of planning. I like to know where I’m staying. I like to make sure the rental car is booked and I like to pre-book things like theatre tickets. I know reservations and bookings can still be messed up but at least I’ve got the proof I made the booking. I make lists but I’m also willing to jump off them if something interesting shows up as far as things I want to do.
6. China is bound to be very interesting, even without Facebook. Seriously. Yes, the government there has cracked down on internet access. That shouldn’t stop you from going.
7. It stands to reason, the more you bring, the heavier your bags are. Soap weighs a lot less.
8. Yeah, I agree with the author on this one, you can get most of your basic needs and over the counter meds most places you go or you’ll find something similar. It might not be a familiar brand but a pharmacist won’t steer you wrong and it’s an adventure trying to cross the language barrier. Now that sounds like it adds an element of risk but if it’s really something you need to be careful of, see a doctor.
9. Knife? No, If I feel that uncomfortable, I won’t be visiting there.
10. The author does have a bit of a conflict of interest here. He writes for Lonely Planet, after all. I do love travel guides, though, and I like to buy them for new destinations. There’s so much information, history, hints and tips and it’s all in one place. Scouring the internet can be pretty overwhelming sometimes. I generally use both.

I don’t think I’ve ever been given terrible advice aside from someone once telling me not to eat pasta when I went to Italy. Their reasoning had to do with my taking a bus tour, and the garlic in the pasta would recirculate through the air system on the bus and offend others. My reasoning is that everyone else on the bus would be eating the same thing! Problem solved!

Have you ever been given advice for travel that turned out to be unfounded or untrue? Mythbusting? Or given great advice? Pass it on!

Adding interest to travel photos

Feeding the pigeons in January in London’s Green Park.

I had a comment on a recent post regarding this photo of a woman feeding the birds in Green Park, London. She said that she loved to watch people feeding birds in parks and watching the reactions of children. My response was “It’s for moments like this that I try to keep my camera in my hand as much as possible even when just walking through a park or down the street. These are the photos that add more memories and more interest to the travel photos than just buildings or famous sites which I take in abundance, of course, and I realized I had a good topic for a blog  post.

I take lots of photos of lots of things when I travel. I like to take photos of the famous things I see like the Eiffel Tower or the canals of Amsterdam or the Colosseum in Rome. I take photos of nice buildings or beautiful landscapes. I also like to take photos of close up details like doors and windows, carved moldings and details on statues, the overall and the in detail views. My trips are full of memories of architecture, gardens, landscapes, sometimes people.

But the thing is, people do add so much to a photo. It can really help tell the story. Most photographers that give you tips on how to take great travel photos advise you to take photos of local people and ask first, of course, offering to give them a copy if you can. I have done it but rarely. I have to admit, I’m a bit shy to ask to take a photo of a person in a shop or a market stall or other similar situations. When I have photos of people in my travel pictures, they’re generally taken from a distance, an angle or from the back, with the zoom lens rather than as a portrait face-on. I don’t take too many photos of children where their faces are identifiable because I know parents aren’t comfortable with that.

Travel photos of buildings and statues or landscape vistas, etc, are only half the story. The random photos of something in a market stall, or a shop window display, a funny sign, an odd looking vehicle, the night lights, or of someone feeding the birds in a park, people flogging merchandise to tourists on a bus, those are all travel memories, too. Performers, someone demonstrating a craft, a guide, people in parades, all of those expect their photo to be taken and I do. I do try to take photos with people in them, even if just anonymous crowds on the street. I’d love to take portraits of a colourful market stall owner, or a friendly restaurante server, but I never seem to have the nerve to ask them outright. Thus, the clandestine shot from 20 or 30 feet away which isn’t always as good, even cropped in closer.

The other thing I do is try to keep my camera, a point and shoot style, in my hand or in an outside pocket as much as possible when we’re out walking around. Moments like the bird feeder shot come up quickly as you stroll by. P&S cameras can take a pretty good photo quickly rather than  having to stop and fuss with the exposure and focus and lose the moment. If at an event with action like sports or a fast moving street performer I will sometimes put my camera on the setting that will take multiple shots in a row. You might get a lot of motion blurry ones but it can also get a shot of something that you might otherwise miss. And having a bit of motion blur in the photo can add to it, not take away from it. Don’t discard it just because of that.

Here is a gallery of some of my people shots. Some are street performers or craft demonstrators and thus were aware of the camera. Some were candids. The one of the lady serving tea outside the church in Lostwithiel could have been so much better had a asked her if I could take her photo. She would have been looking at the camera and, one would hope, smile, surrounded by her tea cups and silver urn and cakes. Maybe next time.

Hotel Ratings and a Grain of Salt

Smallest hotel room yet (Amsterdam). Barely enough room on either side of the bed, TV on the wall. But it was clean and comfortable. Breakfast was not included.

I have been in the process of researching a hotel for a weekend in London in October. Like most people these days, I check the prices on various hotel websites and compare to the many booking sites to get the best price. I don’t decide until I have nearly driven myself mad with indecision. If it were solely based on price, it wouldn’t be so difficult. The confusion arrives when you add the user ratings and reviews into the mix.

Some people tend to prefer the name brand chains and you are fairly sure of what you are going to get with these guys. Most of us have a budget so we try very hard to get the best deal for it and hope for some where nice. User reviews do help. If a hotel gets overwhelmingly negative feedback you know to stay clear. If it is at the top of the heap of excellence, it’s probably too expensive (for my budget, anyway).

There has been a fair bit of negative publicity in recent years suggesting that hotels get allies to post  excellent reviews and enemies are known to try to sabotage a business with savagely bad ones. The truth is somewhere in the middle and they are all very subjective. What one person finds acceptable in a hotel room or in the demeanor of a staff member, someone else will be highly offended. And some people just like to complain.

A normally good hotel can still provide an occasional bad experience so deciphering the reviews can be a minefield. You have to remember the deal breakers on your list and be willing to compromise. Decide if the complaints are something that would bother you. Try to judge if the reviewer sounds like they are someone who is never satisfied. Try to read between the lines, in other words.

So, for London, I am not tied to any particular hotel. I look at where we want to be with regards to what we want to do and how easy it will be to get to train stations for arrival or departure. This time, we will be arriving at Euston. I will be flying home and he will be taking the train back to Manchester from the same place. Do we get a hotel near there or near Paddington Station where I can easily get the train to the airport? In the end, I decided on Euston area because it’s a short cab ride to Paddington and easy for my fella to get to the train for his return journey. I found a pretty good deal on booking.com, a site I haven’t used before but which seems to be reliable.

The deal I got includes breakfast and free wifi with a laptop sized safe in the room.  I prefer to have a room with free wifi these days but in this instance, as I would be on the way home, it wasn’t a deal breaker but the hotel had it anyway. Breakfast, too, isn’t always a deal breaker because in London there’s usually somewhere cheap to buy it but again, it had it anyway. The rooms appear to be small but that doesn’t really matter to me. It’s good for transportation links with several Underground stations within a few minutes’ walk as well as the big bus terminal at Euston station should we want a bus.

Reading the reviews, the small room size keeps coming up but as I said, I don’t really mind. I do find it stressful trying to decide, because I don’t want it to turn out to be awful. London hotels aren’t as hard to choose because I know the city well enough to know the various areas and am comfortable with the transportation system. In a new city, like when we went to Rome or Copenhagen, I found it very difficult. If I asked someone that had been there, their choices were either not in an area I wanted or they were more expensive than my budget. You see the problem with word of mouth!

For this one, overall, the reviews seem good. I guess we’ll find out! I won’t say what it is until I’ve been there and done that and decided on the t-shirt!

Post-Holiday Blues

Loch Maree, Scotland

Loch Maree, Scotland

Have you ever come back from a really great holiday or vacation and felt down, felt in a slump, suffering from that lingering feeling of “I want to go back”? Of course you have. Even if a vacation turned out badly or had some things happen that spoiled it or some of it, once you’re home, you can at least relive it by telling stories, turning the stress into something you can learn to laugh at or at least gain the sympathy of everyone you know!

*Touch Wood* I’ve not had disaster trips but have had some that have not turned out very well overall. Still, they all offer something to look back on and remember.

And it’s tough getting back into your normal routine when you still have hazy memories (or the scars) to remind you that you’ve been away. How do you handle having to get up at 6 a.m. to catch an early bus to work, handle getting back into the after-work workout at the gym, paying bills, buying groceries, doing housework? It sucks, doesn’t it? All you really want to do is go back to the beach, hotel, campground, tour bus, or cruise ship.  You eventually forget about the sore feet, the pickpocketed wallet, the food poisoning, the lost baggage, the flat tire. You saw wonderful things, breathed fresh air, swam with dolphins, found an amazing bargain at a market, discovered a new artist, saw the world from the top of a mountain, ate food that was strange, tasty and wonderful and watched the sunrise/sunset somewhere that wasn’t your own backyard.

You have your souvenirs, your photos, your travel blogs, your memories. You can only tell your stories to your friends and family for so long before they begin to avoid the subject. You continue to throw that little phrase “When I was in…” into conversation as often as you can. You realize that nobody cares anymore and they think you need to move on.

So be it. When is the next holiday? Start planning it. Trust me it’s the only way to get over the holiday blues. Even if you won’t be going for a few years, you can still start thinking about it, where to go, what to do.  Research is at your fingertips.  We are always looking forward to the next trip and often have already decided on the one after that, possibly the one even further out, or, at least, put a few things on a list of possibilities.

Our next trip will be a road trip around Scotland in October. We are going to do something that I have never done. We are not going to prebook any accommodation. That’s scary for an uber-organizer like me but it makes sense. We don’t necessarily want to be tied down to being in a certain location on a certain day. We want to drive the roads, explore if something takes our interest, stop and enjoy the spectacular scenery. It will be off season and though some places might be closed, there are always hotels or Bed and Breakfasts or pubs with rooms for rent. We’re making a list of things we definitely want to try to see. The rest of the things are movable targets.

As will we be.

London: Getting around

London cabs are great. But they aren’t cheap

London is enormous. It’s very much spread out and though it’s walkable and fairly flat, it’s quite a long way from the Tower of London to Big Ben and Westminster and all points in between. What’s the best way to get around London?

Everyone talks about the Underground or Tube and it is indeed efficient and fast. It’s also crowded and hot and sticky at times. The bus system is quite good though can also be pretty crowded sometimes.

Obviously the Tube is faster than a bus which has to contend with traffic. The underground network  has a lot of stairs and not that many of the stations have elevators or are a combination of stairs, elevators or escalators. If you have mobility problems or are just like me, not that fit for stairs, the bus is better and you get to see more. The underground network is really good and it’s not difficult to use.

It’s not cheap, however. You really *really* should get at least a day travel card/pass. It pays for itself in 3 trips on the tube.  It will be a bit more expensive if you include all types of travel but if you decide just to take the busses everywhere, it’s cheaper.

For stays longer than a few days, get an Oyster card which is a smart card you can load up with a travel pass for a few days or a week. You then just tap it on the big yellow pads on the underground gates or on the busses as you get on. You never pay more than the cost of a one day travel card each day you use it, no matter how many times during the day you tap it. I have two cards that I got when my mom and I were in London for a week. We’d loaded them with a bus pass each and that was great for us. I have kept the cards and use them with a “pay as you go” top up whenever my partner and I go to London and I’ve lent them to friends as well who have used them.

I think you do have to pay a deposit on the card but when you leave London, you can take it to a transport booth in the train stations and they will refund your money and any funds leftover on the card.

The Transport for London site has a good map with the bus routes on it for all the tourist attractions.You can find that at the bottom of this page, and it’s got a good visitor guide included in the PDF file.  Also on that page are links to other useful maps and services.

There are so many diverse areas and neighbourhoods in London, walking around always finds a new shop or pub to discover.  I like walking in London because you can always find little hidden spots like a park built around the remains of a bombed out church behind an office building in the City (the old original part of London near the Tower of London).  Covent Garden is wonderful to wander. There are lots of little squares and narrow streets with little shops to discover. One of the oldest pubs in London, the Lamb and Flag, is tucked up at the end of a little alley. They do a nice Sunday roast lunch!

Most of London is fairly flat, too.  That makes it easier to walk distances.

And what about taxis? The traditional black cab may or may not be black anymore but the style is instantly recognizable. You can flag one down if it’s roof light is on. Black cabs are not altogether cheap but they’ll get you where you need to go.  If you can, phone a ‘mini cab’ which is a private cab company. They generally have cheaper rates. This is useful if you are booking a cab to go to the theatre at night. It’s not always easy getting a cab after the theatre. Though there are lots of them around, there are also lots of people looking for one. Prebooking might be a good  idea.

Now, just a little aside info:

When  you get on the bus, enter from the front, but get off at the back door, not the front one if you can as others will be getting on.

When you are on an escalator, stand to the right. Chances are very good that other people will be climbing the escalator stairs and want to get by you. If you stand in the middle, you’ll definitely get scowled at and rudely nudged aside. There are many tube stations with escalators so you will definitely run into this if you travel underground.

A travel pass is also good on the rail within the same zones that the pass covers. Most tourists will only need a zone 1 and 2 pass; that covers the central part of London but you could also get a commuter rail train to Greenwich which is on the edge of zone 2. A travel pass is cheaper to buy if it’s not going to be used in the morning rush hour. What you want to ask for is an off-peak travelcard which you can get for one or seven days. You can’t use it before 9:30 a.m. You can also load the travelcards onto the Oyster card. A regular travelcard covers the tube, busses, DLR (light rail) and National Rail within the zones it covers. You can get passes for busses only.

You can get travelcards at news stands as well as in the tube and rail stations. I think you’ll have to get the Oyster cards at the stations.

Oh. And if your travel agent tries to sell you the travel cards before you go, double check the prices. In some of the package tour brochures I’ve seen, they charge you 1o or 15 percent more than if you bought them in London. It might be convenient but I don’t see the point in paying their fees on top of the regular cost.

The Tube stops running at night about 11:30 or midnight at the latest. There are busses that run all night though you may or may not find that comfortable as they are often filled with people coming home from clubs and pubs and can be a bit rowdy.

London: What is there to do?

Recently I wrote about thinking about the prices you see in London as the same as at home (for North Americans, anyway) and not calculate in your head how much it really costs with the exchange rate. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be careful about how much you pay for meals, shopping or attractions. Some things just aren’t worth the extra money. Some things are.

Some of the attractions are very pricey but they might be worth it to you if it’s something you *really* want to see. The Tower of London currently costs almost 21 pounds for an adult!! That almost takes my breath away. But you know? You can spend all day in there looking at things. It’s a lot more than just the Crown Jewels. Maybe it’s worth the price in that case if it’s something you will be interested in. The London Eye is almost as expensive and you might not think that’s worth it for a 30 minute ride with the spectacular views. The Zoo is also hugely expensive but you have to remember you’re supporting the upkeep of all those animals.

Other high priced tickets include Madame Toussaud’s, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Dungeons, Hampton Court, Kensington Palace, Westminster Abbey, all starting from 12 pounds and up. That really adds up! Most of the major musuems and galleries are now free for the regular exhibits, with a fee for special and temporary exhibitions. Some, like the Dungeon are out and out rip offs. The London Aquarium has higher prices during school holidays and summer. Most have cheaper prices for children, students and seniors.

You have to pick and choose according to your interests and evaluate whether it’s worth it *to you*. As always, your mileage may vary.

Major museums and galleries that are free:

British Museum
Victoria and Albert Museum
Natural History and Science Museum
Imperial War Museum
National Gallery
National Portrait Gallery
Wallace Collection
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Museum of London
Tate Britain and Tate Modern
More free London listings here

Types of rail tickets you can use for the 2For1 Deals

In addition, if you have a rail card, there are two for one deals and coupons you can download and present along with your rail card. And that *includes* the Tower of London or the Zoo. You can get a travel day pass at a train station and it will look like a rail card type ticket even if you haven’t traveled to London by train but you can’t use the electronic Oyster card. In the photo above, you’ll see one that has orange stripey borders, that’s the most common one. Check out the 2For1 website to get more details and find the coupons you want.

London usually has a lot of free things to do, like the many street festivals, concerts in the parks, street entertainers and the traditional Speaker’s Corner always has an entertaining budding opinionist or two. On Sundays, along the fence of Hyde Park on Bayswater road, artists set up their paintings and crafts for sale. It’s like having a free gallery set up for viewing. You can buy food in a market or grocery store and have a picnic in one of the parks and you can even take alcohol if you wish, something that’s frowned on here where I live.

Another thing to watch for is the one evening a week that an attraction stays open late. Sometimes you may get a bit of a discount then and there’s usually not as many people either. Check that out for both free museums and paid ones.

Wander the neighbourhoods, find hidden corners like the remains of a bombed out church behind an office building in the City of London, a quiet little oasis in the midst of chaotic traffic. Or find a quiet churchyard or park off a side street. If you have a little pocket map, you won’t get too lost. I wandered a bit through some back streets in Pimlico and did get a bit turned around. The little map I had only showed the main streets and I wasn’t sure where I was. But I knew once I saw the smoke stacks of the power station across the river that the Thames was in that direction and once I was on that main road, I knew in which direction I wanted to head.

London Pass

London Pass:

London has an attraction “pass” called the London Pass. I’ve never taken advantage of that. I have always found for myself that passes of this type, available in many cities for attractions or just museums, are not worth the cost. I’m not the type of person that can cram a couple of attractions in every day, for 3 days in a row to make the pass profitable for me. I just don’t have the stamina!

If you plan out your sightseeing like a military operation, and I know people that do, and you do have the stamina to run from one to the next during the daytime opening hours, it will be worth it for you. Check out what the pass covers and decide from there. They’re usually only good for sequential days, so you can’t work on a three day pass over a week.

They do have the advantage of being able to skip the lines or queues sometimes and it comes with a transport pass as well but you can always get the transport pass separately anyway. Buying tickets online is an increasingly popular option and that often will give you a bit of a discount.

London has things to do and see for all budgets. Most hotels have small brochures for what’s on in London each week. TimeOut London is a good magazine on the news stands to find out everything too. It lists everything from theatre to clubs to concerts to festivals and special exhibits and Time Out has mobile apps for your phone or tablet.

Set your budget, decide if there’s any of the big ticket items you just can’t miss and look for discounts or deals.

You’ll love London! I keep going back and there’s lots of good reasons for that. Everyone’s London is different, you will find yours.

London: The first post

Camden markets, one of my favourite parts of London

I haven’t been to a huge number of places but of all the places I have been to, London is my favourite city. The history of the city pulls me there and the vibe of the city keeps me coming back. I have friends and acquaintances in the city as well so I’m always happy to catch up with them.

I’ve been to London eleven times so far. Though that sounds like a lot, it’s probably only been a total of about 40 days in all. Some visits have been only a day or two, most for about an average of 3 days and a couple of times my visits have lasted a week.  I have a lot of memories of London and have gathered a lot of tips from my own experiences over the years. You should expect to see London related posts from me periodically!

I’ll try to focus on doing London on a budget in most of my London posts. At least, the kind of budget I generally keep. I have done London with a very limited budget but these days I’m a bit more comfortable. That’s not to say I don’t watch my pennies. I certainly don’t splash out on high cost hotels or fancy restaurants. I keep an eye out for deals, buy things like tickets online when I can find discounts, and usually take the less expensive route for food and entertainment as a rule.

The thing is, you see the prices of things in pounds and the same number seems to be the same as what you’d pay here in Canada but obviously, it costs you more in  your own money. i.e. in a pub, a burger and fries on the menu might cost you, say, £8.95 and in a pub in Canada, may also be around $8.95 but when you convert the price, you’re paying nearly $15.00 Canadian. You just can’t think about that. You have to think of the prices you see on the stickers and menus as the same as if you were home. You’d never buy or eat anything otherwise.

Food? Lots of ways to eat cheap. Transportation? Take the bus, it’s cheaper than the  underground though it takes longer. Or walk. Most of the big museums and galleries are free so you can splurge on one of the pricey things to do like the Tower of London or the London Eye.

Shopping? Avoid places like Oxford Street and Covent Garden and hit the markets or neighbourhoods like Notting Hill that are a bit out of the way. Those cheesy London souvenirs are cheaper if you look up Queensway off Bayswater Road. Same items, half the price. There are half price theatre tickets available from TKTS in Leicester Square.

In general, London can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be. You can window shop and browse in stores without spending money. You can walk and explore and people watch. You can buy groceries and have picnics or eat at the “all you can eat” Chinese and Indian buffet places. You can visit free museums and galleries.

I love London and I hope I can bring my memories, experiences and ideas of how to survive London to you all.

Defending Rick Steves

Waterlooplein flea market, Amsterdam

There’s a lot of criticism about the American travel guru, Rick Steves. Over 20 years ago he began with his guide Europe Through The Back Door, espousing off the beaten track visits to Europe. He recommended places, hotels, restaurants and talked about museums, gallerys, and all the must see sights for first time tourists. He gave tips on how to get around using local transportation. He highlighted his own favourites. He became wildly popular among American tourists who flocked to Europe and crowded into the “off the beaten track” areas and sights, creating mainstream locations out of them. For this, he’s been criticized.

I’ve been reading some forums about this, mainly on Trip Advisor and there are as many opinions and points of view as there are comment posters. Now I like Rick’s tv travelogues and have made notes of places I might like to see when I know I’m heading to a location he’s written about or featured on television. I never would have known about a hidden courtyard in Copenhagen where you can find colourful old houses, the oldest in the city, without his feature. He didn’t say where it was exactly, but I knew the general area and recognized the street and found it myself.

The thing is, I *am* a tourist. I appreciate tips on how to get from one place to another. I appreciate suggestions for hotels and restaurants. I will check them out, hotels especially, and though I have never actually booked any, I know they will be reasonably priced and well run.

Rick Steves has introduced traveling to a heck of a lot of people that probably never would have had the confidence to go otherwise and if they end up relying a little too much on the guidebooks, is that still such a bad thing? Guide books should be just that, a guide, not a bible, not the be-all and end-all strict rulebook and if some are wearing blinders and see nothing but what is in his or any guidebook, then they aren’t going to get as full an experience as they could have. But if they come home and say they had a wonderful time, then what difference does it make in the long run? If they decide the trip was too regimented, well they’ll know for the next time.

The balconies of Montmartre, Paris

I think a lot of people have discovered travel and found the confidence to go because of Steves. He’s become enormously popular and perhaps has become more of an institution than he ever thought he would be. Perhaps some of the lesser known neighbourhoods, attractions or restaurants are now clogged with American tourists. I still don’t think that’s a bad thing. I still think that whatever gets you on a plane or train or into a car to explore somewhere new is worth vying for space with other tourists.

In the beginning, he was espousing independent travel but his company now hosts group tours as well. I have taken some bus tours in the past, though not his, and have enjoyed them as an overview of an area. They  have their advantages and disadvantages but I believe they have their place and are great.

In one of the messages posted on one of the Trip Advisor discussions, someone wrote “Rick Steves is the set of training wheels that keeps you from ending up flat on your face on the sidewalk on your first trip to Europe. He does a very good job of telling people that yes, you CAN do this, and look, it’s pretty easy.”   I really like that philosophy, “training wheels”.  First time travelers to a foreign country need them in many cases. Training wheels give you the confidence to know you will be ok when they come off.

Rick Steves’ guides are updated regularly which many others are not. His practical information is second to none. You might not agree with his favourites and top things to see and do but everything is subjective, isn’t it? Even a hotel your best friend loved may not appeal to you. I’d rather use a guidebook that’s accurate regardless of what company produces it.

This really says everything I feel about Steves’ or any other company’s guide book. It’s a place to start. It gives you an idea of what there is to see. It details the practical information you need to know. It gives you some background and history. Guidebooks, websites, forums and tv travel shows all work together to give you things to put on all those lists you make to organize your travels. Don’t restrict yourself to what’s in a book. Use it as a stepping stone.  Ask questions in forums on sites like Trip Advisor or Virtual Tourist, both of which have busy forums and great fellow travelers that will given you excellent advice. These sites also have good travel guides and tips from people who have been where you want to go.

Now… I better finish this up. Rick’s new season is starting on PBS and he’s featuring Ancient Rome. Since I’ll be there in a month, I think I might make a few notes!
Rick Steves’ website

Trip Advisor forums

Virtual Tourist forums