A post or two back, I wrote about Patrick Leigh Fermor who, amongst his many other varied achievements, walked from London to Constantinople as a nineteen year old in the 1930’s. Recently, Ben Macintyre wrote in The Times :
Reading Leigh Fermor’s obituaries, I wondered how that same journey would be tackled today. The books would have been downloaded electronically. The largely self-taught knowledge that Leigh Fermor brought with him would be fossicked out of Wikipedia en route, and the world he revealed could be googled.
On his trek, Leigh Fermor met shepherds, peasants and nobles and spoke to them in German, Bulgarian, Greek and Romanian. Today, English would suffice; the people he met would wear Nike, eat hamburgers and might well know that Wayne Rooney has had a hair transplant. The flight from Amsterdam to Istanbul takes just over two hours.
The world is simply too small, too fast, too well trodden to admit of such leisurely, civilised wandering. The jumbo jet enabled any traveller to reach the four corners, quickly and cheaply. The internet brought the world to your room. There are no spaces on the map to be filled in, no places to see that Google Earth has not seen already. The empty quarters and forbidden cities are full of tourists, and open to all.
And so it is changing with even the most modest of journeys. I experienced this recently whilst trying to arrange a short weekend break to Dorset. Once upon a time you would have picked somewhere to go and stay off a map or be influenced by a recommendation of a friend, a passage in a book or magazine. Where you stayed would be a similar leap of faith, pot luck, the pleasure of a discovery you alone had made (and no ill feelings if you subsequently discovered a better place down the road). How you reached your destination would be a test of skill and experience, salted with the ability to read a map and some local knowledge.
Now, not much more than a decade later, we have Trip Advisor, Late Rooms, The AA and RAC route planners, Google maps ( and their reviews) local travel directories and every last little place has its own website.
Far from helping the discerning traveller, it seems all this “support” is making the job harder and adding to the stress. It is now necessary to have at least four browser windows open simultaneously. Find somewhere you like, check it’s rating on Tripadvisor, decide if the reviews are genuine (and not some deranged ” Basil Fawlty” hotelier making them up or some equally deluded guest who has marked them as “poor” because they don’t serve mushy peas with the Lobster Thermidor), then it’s on to the prospective accommodation’s own site to get further information and make another value judgement based on the quality of the web design. All that done , and the room rates compared , it’s try Late Rooms to see if there is a better deal (or confirm just how much commission LR takes). Finally send off an email, or fill in the enquiry form or use the hotel’s unique online booking system. Wait, consider calling, wait some more and then watch as your favourite option replies to say “No Vacancy” . One sodding booking site informs you that there are no vacant rooms and then rubs your nose in it by announcing that the last available room was booked 2 hours and 33 minutes previously. That’ll teach you!
What should be a help is now something of a hindrance, a classic case of information overload and everyone has an opinion. If degree course costs were not becoming so prohibitive then surely the Humanities faculty of the University of North Rotherham would be considering offering an option of a BA in Trip Advisor Review studies. Deciphering them is undoubtedly a necessary life skill, up there with Ebay sniping, organising a facebook group or contributing regular posts to Mumsnet.
A final thought on all those sad aforementioned proprietors of small inns and hotels who are writing their own reviews. It has reached epidemic proportions in some places where obviously competing establishments participate in the same pathetic deception. Just stop it – it is obvious to even the most inexperienced reader. The same misspellings, the pointless information given , the constant use of the owners names, the similar styles of each review: ” X and Y are perfect hosts, the car park is extensive and the breakfast buffet without parallel, the linen is changed every hour, the bathrooms have Molton Brown products and its only a 5 minute walk into the pretty town centre…” The big giveaway of course is that each “reviewer” has only ever made 1 review. Spend your time improving what you are there for and the good reviews will come of their own accord. Of course if you are providing a poor product…