The Soul of a Traveller

Mom’s motorcycle driver’s license, 1951.

My mom was an adventurer.

Growing up, I never thought of her that way. She was just my steady, reliable mother, always taking caring of me and the rest of the family. Standing over the stove, hanging laundry on the clothesline, washing floors and walls (does anyone actually do that anymore???), ironing my father’s hankies (really), pinching pennies, making sure the household ran smoothly. I’m sure she saw that as her role in life and she took it very seriously. She almost never played with us kids, even when Dad sat down with us to play a board game once in a while, she invariably steered clear. I now suspect she was happy to have an hour or two of time when we were all otherwise engaged and she could do something else. On the other hand, we never went hungry, ran out of underwear, or missed a dentist appointment. She saw to that.

In her essay “The Household Zen,” (published in High Tide in Tucson—highly recommended, by the way), Barbara Kingsolver wrote:

“A generation of…women served their nation by being the Army of Moms, and they spent their creative force like the ancient Furies, whipping up cakes and handmade Christmas gifts and afterschool snacks, for a brief time in human history raising the art of homemaking high above the realm of dirt….(T)hey left a lot of us lucky baby boomers with strong teeth and bones and a warm taste of childhood in our mouths.”

As a stay-at-home mom, she was around the house pretty well all day, every day, and between chores, she listened religiously to CKNW’s radio quiz “Are You Listening?” Her favourite topic was geography. She wrote down the answers and kept lists of them taped to the inside of her cupboards for quick access. I’m reminded of Kingsolver’s insightful observation: “If you work in the kitchen and have the mind of a rocket scientist, you’re going to organize your cupboards like Mission Control.”

But aside from being a four-star general in the Army of Moms, my mother also had a daring and intrepid side that I’ve only come to recognize as I grow older.

As a teenager and new wife in the early 1950s, she earned her motorcycle license so that she could share the driving with Dad as they roared around Germany on a shared bike. When the two of them decided there was no future in post-war Europe, she held her two tiny children (my eldest brother and sister) by the hand and watched Dad sail off to the wilds of western Canada. For six months, she held the family together while he found work and then wrote for them to join him. She packed up what she could take, gave away what she couldn’t, and hugged her mother and everyone else she knew goodbye.

On the voyage across the Atlantic, high waves made almost everyone aboard the ship seasick. Mom looked after my brother and sister and a couple of other children whose mother was incapacitated.

She spent her birthday on the ship, and the official ship’s photographer snapped pictures of her and my siblings at the party. Later, he suggested he would give her free prints as a keepsake—if she would welcome him to her cabin when no one else was around. She told him to hand over the prints or she would tell the captain what he was up to. Long before #MeToo, Mom was fighting back against sexual predators.

One of the photos taken at my mother’s birthday party on board the ship to Canada. Mom, my brother, and my sister, sitting at the table.

The ship was blown off course by a storm and instead of docking in Halifax as planned, it put in at a U.S. port. Without U.S. transit papers, the passengers were treated like illegal aliens, kept under guard without food, and finally loaded aboard a train to Canada.

My parents were ultimately reunited in Vancouver, whereupon the family was whisked away to a series of remote camps in the wilderness of British Columbia. Dad worked a variety of jobs, including as a surveyor for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, and the money was better in places far from city life. In Porteau, the only access was by small boat and Mom would order her groceries and other necessities with a list sent with the boatman. They lived in rough shacks with no conveniences and few other families. There were bears in the backyard and “Indians” around the corner, neither of which my mother had ever seen before coming to Canada. She spoke very little English when she arrived, but made it her lifelong goal to learn the new language and use it correctly. She never spoke German to us kids; we were Canadians and would speak English.

After a few years, and now with four children, my parents moved to a nice neighbourhood in Port Moody where my mother could finally fulfill her destiny as SuperMom. She was the perfect suburban housewife—yet her taste for adventurous experiences didn’t leave her.

Our summer holidays were always spent camping. Mom could have dug in her heels and just refused all the extra work that involved, but she loved the outdoors. She braved rain, bugs, pit toilets, snakes (she was terrified of snakes), and more bears as we wandered campsites across BC. We travelled to Barkerville, Terrace, and the Pacific Rim when this entailed long journeys on pot-holed gravel tracks. Perhaps this is just my childish misremembering, but it seemed that we were always driving along some narrow logging road that hung on the edge of a precipitous cliff dropping far below to a distant river valley.

One summer, we moved to Quebec for a couple of months for Dad’s job. Once again, Mom accepted the challenge of moving us all to a completely unfamiliar place with a foreign language.

When Mom was 41, my father was offered a job overseas in—of all places—Yemen. Yemen? No one had even heard of it and we had little idea what to expect there. His contract would be for a minimum of a year. Mom could stay home, or she could once again travel across the world. She chose to give up comfort and familiarity and expose two of her children (myself and my youngest brother) to The Unknown. She also left her two older children behind in Canada, which I believe was much harder for her, although they were both independent young adults by then.

Our trip to Yemen took us through Denmark, Germany, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas (aka French Somaliland or Djibouti), and Eritrea (then part of Ethiopia). As a child of 12, I was wide-eyed at the world that unfolded before me. Yemen itself provided a huge cultural shock. Donkeys and camels pulled watercarts through the desert, hideously deformed beggar children swarmed the streets, and women were swathed in black burkhas with only their eyes and fingers showing.

We moved into a whitewashed concrete block house in a small village four hours’ drive by Landrover through sand dunes from the closest town. My mother and I were the only “white” women in the village and the only women who went unveiled. (Although only 12, I was considered of marriageable age and should have been wearing a burkha.) There were cockroaches the size of Smart Cars on the floors, geckos of corresponding size on the walls (they eat the roaches), and no potable water. One room of our house was filled floor to ceiling with cases of Sohat bottled water.

In Yemen, 1972. Back row, from left: our driver and friend, Ali, Dad, Ron. Front row: me, Mom.

Suffice to say that my mother could easily have run screaming back home to Port Moody. But she didn’t give up, even after she suffered through a bout of kidney stones and contracted malaria at the same time. This was one tough, determined woman.

Through her life, she was fascinated with the sea and ships, and while others talked about luxury cruises, she always dreamed of hopping a cargo ship. At the age of 50, when her friends were spending vacations in all-inclusive resorts, she and my dad bought backpacks and headed off to Europe.

I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of travelling in my life, but I’m not sure I have the courage and spirit of adventure my mother had when she immigrated or when she packed us off to live in the Middle East. She always said all she ever wanted to be was a mother and she continually downplayed her intelligence, pointing out that she never went to high school and referring to herself as “pea brain,” yet, somehow, she managed to be the perfect captain of our family spaceship while still boldly going where few dared to go.

I think that takes a form of genius.

Happy birthday, Mom.

Why, United Airlines, Why?

On our travel nightmare journey from Vancouver to Cancun, our United Airlines flight departure from YVR was delayed by two hours due to wildfire smoke at our stopover, San Francisco.

Let me make it clear, I don’t fault UA for this. The smoke was “an act of God.” The issue is, how did UA handle this emergency?

We made up about an hour en route, but still arrived an hour late at SFO. The flight crew assured us that all flights in/out of SFO were being delayed, so we might still make our connecting UA flight to Cancun. We were told to “check the flights board” to see if our flight had gone, and if it had, we should then talk to a customer service rep.

Of course, our flight had indeed departed (without the 13 of us who were all delayed from that one flight. Hmmm…13…I wonder?) so we went in search of a customer service rep. We found two United Airlines “service” desks, both unstaffed, and tried two UA “service” phones, both dead lines.

We finally approached a UA employee at one of the gate check-ins, who told us where to find an open service booth.

Question 1: Since our connecting flight had long since departed, why wasn’t that info passed to the flight crew to pass to us on the plane so we wouldn’t waste time trying to find our flight on the board? I have seen similar situations where a flight delay caused a number of passengers to miss a connecting flight, and the airline sent a rep to meet the plane, collect the affected passengers and escort them to wherever they needed to go next to resolve their flight issue. Why didn’t UA do that?

Question 2: Since dozens of UA flights were being delayed that evening and thousands of passengers rerouted, why wasn’t every service desk and every service phone in operation?

We finally locate the one open service booth and, naturally, there’s a long line-up, so we settle down to wait. 30 minutes later, we finally get to the head of the line. The harried UA rep asks “Are there only two of you?” We nod. He sends us to another booth down the terminal, where we wait again.

Question 3: Why didn’t the first service booth just have a sign or a rep stationed at the line to direct people immediately to the other booth, so we wouldn’t waste 30 minutes waiting in that line?

At the second booth, we are told that we have been rebooked via Houston on a flight that is boarding NOW. Really? We’re already rebooked, but you couldn’t have told us that back on the plane, an hour ago?

“Run!” says the rep helpfully.

Indeed, as we arrive at the gate, boarding is in its final stages. The surly rep at this gate snaps that the flight is full and we won’t get on. So why did the last rep send us here?

Two minutes later, she recants and we have boarding passes. Hooray! But when we find our seats (in separate rows), it is clear that both our seats were likely originally left empty because they are located next to Really Big People, who are not thrilled to discover that two last-minute passengers are about to take away their extra space.

As I wedge myself apologetically in the center seat of the very last row (read: no seat recline), the man on my other side smiles…and coughs. And coughs. And coughs.

Which leads to the topic of a future blog…”Mexican Health Care for Tourists.”

Update: Gringo Trails blog

It appears that someone wrote a novel that may or may not be loosely based around the story of the Thai beach featured in Gringo Trails, the documentary I discussed in an earlier blog (Gringo Trails: Asking hard questions about travel). The book is titled The Beach, and it’s by Alex Garland.

I also discovered that the book was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Of course, the book came out in 1998 and the movie in 2000. Goes to show how up-to-the-minute I am.

If anyone has read the book or seen the movie, I’d love to know how the fiction reflects the reality. Also, whether either of them are worth searching out.

The Long and Winding Road

So you like long walks in the countryside, right? How about a really long walk in the countryside? Like, say, 800 km across two countries?

If that sounds like a walk in the park, how about trying it with a stroller and a toddler? Or maybe you’d like to do it with chronic pain in your feet and knees? And don’t forget your heavy backpack.

Walking the Camino: Six ways to Santiago is a documentary about six characters who each find their own reason for a journey along the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. And as the subtitle suggests, old or young, woman or man, of whatever nationality, each finds his or her own “way” of surviving the trek.

Whether they are Christian believers, wanderers who are searching for some meaning in their lives, or dilettantes who take up the pilgrim’s staff (or in this modern day, walking poles) on a whim, they all walk under the same rain storms, sleep in the same crowded hostels, suffer with similar blisters, and share the same basic needs at the end of each day: food, rest, shelter, companionship. Reducing life to this simple level for the space of 30 or so days makes them comrades in arms, each of them reluctant to see the pilgrimage come to its close.

One theme that emerges is how all of the walkers end up “shedding” something. Some drop physical belongings that begin to seem extraneous (and weighty). Some leave behind anger or sadness or their own expectations of themselves and others. Some find important things like the generosity of strangers or romantic love. But all seem to end up feeling “lighter.”

I don’t want to give away too much of the stories, because, as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, but you can add into the mix some beautiful footage of the landscapes along the way, enticing enough to make even a creaky body such as myself contemplate the pleasures of such an epic walk.

For a different view of the Camino, check out “10 Reasons Why El Camino Sucks.”

Calidris Reads: U.S. Virgin Islands

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Night of the Silent Drums

The true and gripping tale of
the St John, Virgin Island slave rebellion

 

John Lorenzo Anderson

Read for: U.S. Virgin Islands

3 knots Recommended

 

First sentence: “In the hush before this moonlit tropic dawn not even the gecko stirs.”

Have you ever heard of the slave rebellion that took place in 1733 on the tiny Caribbean island now called St John? Neither had I until I found this nonfiction book. It is not a happy or pleasant story, but it details the horrific place of slavery in the history of this seemingly idyllic island. Probably not what you want to read while relaxing on the beach; maybe tackle it before you go as a bit of background history to the sugar-mill ruins that are scattered around the Virgin Islands.

Gringo Trails: Asking hard questions about travel

In 1981, I attended the fourth Vancouver Folk Music Festival. It was amazing. It was fun. It was (relatively) small and manageable. Everyone sat close enough to the main stage that we could all see the performers without a telescope. You could buy a snack without spending the entire evening concert standing in food booth lineups. You could actually get to use a PortaPotty before Daylight Savings Time ran out. It was a lovely festival.

Then it got Known. More and more people poured into Jericho Park each year. The daytime stage audiences got to be as big as the main concerts used to be. Finding space to park or sit down, getting food, going to the loo, moving between stages, all became huge efforts. The fences got higher. The crowds outside the fences got bigger. The lovely festival became a hassle. I stopped going.

This sense of being in “at the beginning” and then seeing something valuable and beautiful crushed under the weight of its own success is what fuels Gringo Trails, a 2012 documentary film.

I stumbled across it at the Vancouver Library (I love their documentary collection!) and found it riveting. It contrasts archival footage of popular tourist destinations from the 80s, 90s, etc. against recently shot footage of the same places, while discussing why and how these “hidden” gems became overrun with (mostly) young (mostly) low-budget travellers.

There’s the corner of the Amazon that became a backpacker’s Mecca after the publication of a popular book about a young man’s survival and rescue set in that area. And there’s the tragic tale of how a picture-perfect, pristine beach in Thailand evolved into a massive party site where tens of thousands of drunken, drug-sodden good-timers congregate regularly, leaving heaps of garbage on the shore and permanently displacing the original residents.

The solution to these destination disasters, the film argues, is locally based, “managed” tourism, where residents plan out how they want to control the onslaught of outsiders and receive the financial benefits. For some places, like Bhutan (profiled in the film) and Botswana (not mentioned), this leads to something called “high-value, low-impact” (read: “high-cost, low-volume”) tourism,” a strategy of deliberately keeping prices for travellers high.

In Bhutan, for example, visitors must spend a minimum of $250 per day, according to the film. High prices mean that fewer tourists can afford to come, but those few bring in the same amount of cash as a horde of backpacker types, who typically take pride in having the lowest-cost vacation possible. Smaller numbers of tourists are more easily controlled and their impact will be much less.

“We don’t really allow the backpacker here coming independent,” says the director of the National Museum of Bhutan during an interview for the film. “We get only multi-millionaires, retired professors, Hollywood, [which I take to mean “celebrities”], and those…who can afford to come.”

Keeping out the riff-raff, which is what this amounts to, may work, but raises its own set of moral issues. If only a certain number of people will be allowed to enjoy a beautiful place in order to prevent damage to it, why should it be only the rich who gain this privilege? The wealthy have no monopoly on respecting cultures or the environment; in fact, some would argue that they are more likely to feel “entitled” and act irresponsibly. Why not establish a test of cultural and environmental sensitivity to determine who gets in?

Well, because money is so much easier to weigh—and so much more fun to rake in.

Countries like Bhutan and Botswana want tourist dollars to preserve unique places, and to prop up the local economy. And that’s perfectly reasonable. But then don’t try to pretend you are on some moral high ground when you are really pandering to the world’s wealthy few.

Gringo Trails is a film for anyone who travels. It’s shocking, disturbing, and thought-provoking. In the course of my own years of being a tourist, I have seen deterioration in some of the places I’ve revisited, and I’ve known that my actions 30 years ago almost certainly contributed to that downslide. It’s a sobering realization.

Have you seen places or events that you loved go downhill as they became more popular? I’d love to read your story in a comment.

Atlas Shrugged

Dad in the 60s.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home where books were valued and cherished. My father had always been a voracious reader and he could read English, German, Danish, and French, and was working on Arabic and Uyghur. (Yes, Uyghur. I have no idea.)

When I was quite young, his library was not large and many of the books were technical volumes. I remember preparing a report for school when I was about 8, and using one of his books to read up about aluminum smelting, of all things. Another was called The Pugwash Monograph, a title that I found memorably hilarious. Only decades later did I learn that Pugwash is a place in Nova Scotia and the book related to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which, according to my friend Wiki, is “an international organization that brings together scholars and public figures to work toward reducing the danger of armed conflict and to seek solutions to global security threats.” Who knew?

One of the big atlases that mapped my childhood world.

Pride of place in this eclectic library was given to a very special set of atlases. They were the biggest books I’d ever seen, looming far above the lesser tomes: The Times Atlas of the World in five “royal folio”* volumes. When its individually cloth-bound pages were laid flat, you could pretty well land a small plane on the frozen lakes of northern Canada. It had gigantic fonts inside and enormous Roman numerals on the front pages, all of which delighted me.

Best, of course, were the coloured and detailed, large-scale maps inside. Other atlases showed Australia as a paltry thing, maybe 2 inches across. These devoted a full two-page spread to northeast Australia alone. I vividly recall poring over the Gulf of Carpentaria, wondering what was there. Could one paddle across it in a canoe? How long would it take to walk the shore line all the way around?

My favourites were the maps of the natural world showing climate, ocean currents, and topography. It was fascinating to see the Earth without political boundaries and more questions buzzed around my child’s brain: Why were there so many little nations in Europe when Australia was just one big country? And why were some borders straight lines imposed without regard for the natural terrain, while others clearly followed rivers and mountain ranges? One thing was very clear: all those manmade boundaries were completely arbitrary, so why were countries perpetually fighting over them?

When my father began travelling for his job, he would show us in the maps of the Middle East where he would be going: Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia.

Back in Germany, Dad had been a math teacher, but when he immigrated to Canada, he no longer had the credentials to teach, so he started working his way up from the bottom of the work ladder. His first jobs were in logging camps, doing hard physical labour on the “green chain.” Later, he worked as a surveyor on the Pacific Great Eastern railway near Porteau and Squamish, British Columbia. Eventually, he began to study for a degree in engineering, working full-time days and taking classes at night. Although I was too young at the time to know it, he must have felt like Atlas sometimes, carrying the weight of all that on his shoulders.

Dad with his model of the bulk-loading facility at Roberts Bank that he helped design.

When he finally graduated, he bought the Times atlases as a rare gift to himself, a quiet celebration of his new status and better salary. He now qualified to have his own official professional engineer stamp—the one that he would use to certify drawings and documents—and, in a proud yet whimsical gesture, used it to stamp the blank back of every page in the books.

Today, I can flip through these atlases and catch a glimpse of 50 years ago when a middle-aged family man enjoyed a hard-won victory over life and circumstances. He and his atlases set me to dreaming of far-away lands and I wish I could share with him stories of the places I’ve now travelled.

Thanks, Dad.

*Royal folio = 20” x 12 1/2”

Calidris celebrates a milestone: one year of weekly publication! Thanks to all my readers and to those who take the time to comment.

Calidris Controversy: Carrying On

Is helping someone else with their carry-on showing common courtesy or merely enabling people who feel entitled?

A travel Facebook group I follow recently showed a post from a woman who said that if you can’t lift your own carry-on bag into the overhead bin on the airplane, you have no business bringing it on and you should check it. I’ve never seen such a flurry of vehement comments; dozens upon dozens within a couple of hours. Obviously something that a lot of people feel strongly about.

It wasn’t just the original rant that was interesting, but the associated tangents that popped up.

One person wrote that if you can’t lift your own bag, you should check it, and if you can’t afford to check it, you shouldn’t be traveling. That’s pretty harsh.

Then there was the woman who vented about people who use the space above her seat for their bag. How dare they? She stated smugly that if she finds the compartment above her seat full, and discovers that the bags don’t belong to people in that row, she will remove the bags to make room for her own.

Many years ago, I read an informative and amusing book titled something like Guerilla Flying. The first and crucial point that the book made was this: Your interests and those of the airlines are fundamentally at odds. You want to travel economically and comfortably. They want to make money, which means cramming as many bodies as they are allowed into the smallest space possible. In addition, they basically don’t care about your comfort; they know you often have no choice in whether or not to fly their airline, which is why they can get away with outrageous behaviour like physically assaulting customers while forcing them off the plane to accommodate “bumping” due to overbooking.

The issue of luggage is a case in point. In the good old days, checked bags were free. People were sensible and put heavy items in their checked bags. They put valuables and things they needed for their flight in their carry-on.

Then airlines began charging large fees for checked bags. Now people had strong motivation to try and “get by” with just carry-on. They began stuffing everything into their little bag. They began trying to sneak over-size and over-weight bags through as carry-on. The more carry-on there is, the more passengers must “compete” for bin space. I have been on more than one flight where I was one of the last passengers to board and, as a result, the bins were full. That was annoying and inconvenient to me, but I accepted it without complaint. When it comes to space on a plane, it’s a dog-eat-dog world and I had come out unlucky on those occasions.

If I had been the woman I mentioned earlier, I would have hauled someone else’s case out of the bin over my seat. But what would then prevent that person (or someone else) from hauling my bag out? There’s no law that says the bin above your seat belongs to you. Sure, it’s nice when you can have your bag near you, but if not, you take what you can get.

What I find ironic is how often these days the flight attendants end up begging for volunteers who will give up their carry-on and allow it to be loaded below. I can’t help but reflect that if the airlines didn’t charge for checked bags, more people would check their bags in the first place, and there wouldn’t be as much carry-on, avoiding the whole problem. Duh.

As for the issue of people not being able to lift their own bags, I’ve never seen anyone blatantly abusing the good will of others by demanding that they assist. Although I’m a woman neither particularly strong nor tall, I am still taller, stronger, and abler than some people. If I see someone struggling with their bag, I try to help. And I have been, on occasion, the beneficiary of similar assistance. I think it’s common courtesy, like holding the door for someone who is carrying packages. I have never seen anyone thus aided who did not show genuine gratitude.

One surprising thing that I picked up from the Facebook posting was that flight attendants are not supposed to help passengers lift their bags into the overhead bins. I had no idea—I always assumed this was part of their job. But apparently, it’s a worksafe issue. I’d be curious to know whether this is true, and if so, is it true across all airlines?

Do you have a pet peeve about carry-on? Are you a “try-to-get-by-with-only-carry-on” person or do you check a bag and take minimal baggage into the cabin? Let me know in a comment.

 

Calidris Compares: A Tale of Two Cities

London’s Tower Bridge. Photo by Marian Buechert.

I’m not really a city girl. I prefer natural spaces, quiet, and fresh air over crowds of people, noise, and bustle. But given that cities are hubs of transport, culture, and history, passing through them is nearly inevitable. Two cities that are always worth a stopover are The Big Apple and The Big Smoke. So how do they compare? Let’s take a look.

London New York
Shopping London wins on quaint, curious, and antique. Prices are prohibitively high on most things. New York wins on sheer quantity, diversity, and affordability.
Song Streets of London, Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner New York, New York, On the Town

 

Transit The Underground: Even well-dressed, apparently well-to-do Londoners take The Tube. The subway: Not so much.
Longest-running show The Mousetrap The Phantom of the Opera
Cabbies World famous for rigorous training & vast knowledge of the city. World famous for attitude and language.
Monarch’s residence Buckingham Palace Trump Tower
Live theatre Wow. Helen Mirren live on stage; what more do I need to say? Wow. Dustin Hoffman live on stage; what more do I need to say?
Local lingo #1 Rubbing: Something you experience in an ancient churchyard and which involves a granite headstone, a sheet of paper, and a stick of charcoal. Rubbing: Something you experience in an aging massage parlour and which involves a pillow, a sheet over the table, and a scantily clad person.
Policing Bobbies: Authority without guns. NYPD: Not so much.
Street signs Not so much. Clear & logical.
Local colour Pearly kings & queens dressed in button-encrusted duds. Times Square guy dressed in a diaper and cowboy hat.
Attitude Tourist opens a map and looks around. Local stops to ask if he can help. Tourist approaches information desk in giant department store and asks: “Excuse me, is there a restroom?” Local responds: “Why?”
Urban wildlife Pigeons & rats Pigeons & rats
Local lingo #2 Rubber: Something you use to erase mistakes. Rubber: Something you use to prevent mistakes.
Woman with a crown Queen Bess II Lady Liberty
Museums London all the way since three of the top museums in London—V&A, National Gallery, Museum of Natural History, all world-class—are all free. The Met suggested admission donation is $25, MoMa and the Guggenheim are a flat $25 each. Come on, NY, get with the program: museums need to be accessible and FREE.
Fine dining Forget it; you can’t afford it. Forget it; you can’t get in.

New York, from atop the Empire State Building. Photo by Marian Buechert.

NY or London: Do you have a favourite? Why? Let me know in a comment.

7 Tips for Reading Online Reviews

“Worst experience ever! I’ll never stay here again.”

“Cheerful staff, good pub-style food.”

“Slept like a baby. A real find!”

“Terrible. We waited an hour for our food and then they got the order wrong.”

Oh, those online reviews. TripAdvisor, Yelp, Urban Spoon, Google Reviews, Expedia, Airbnb, VRBO, blogs, and travel sites; there are more every day.

Every time I read an online review, I wonder what it’s worth. How can I allow anonymous opinions to influence decisions that may involve thousands of my precious dollars? But I do. It’s hard not to. In pre-Internet days, I relied heavily on recommendations in travel guides. I still read those guides, but the sheer volume of online reviews and the specifics of those opinions make them irresistible.

Is there any way to be sure that reviews are fair and accurate? The simple answer is no. You can never be sure. However, with a willingness to invest some time and basic common sense, I think those reviews can work for you. Here I’ve listed some ideas for sifting through online reviews.

  1. Don’t believe everything you read, bad or good. This is the crucial point. Read every review with a critical eye. Stilted, “bumpfed-up” language that sounds suspiciously like promo copy is a red flag that the review may be a fake posted by the business owner or her mother. On the other side, a review that runs down a business in vague terms and suggests you patronize a specific competitor instead may come from the rival (or his mother).
  2. Read between the lines. Is the reviewer complaining about a situation beyond the business’s control? Could it have been a one-time problem? Is the reviewer so angry about something that he or she is completely unfair? Sometimes a negative review is clearly based on a situation where any reasonable person would side with the business; e.g., I’ve read a review where the writer complained that the manager shut down their fun late-night party “just because” other guests were disturbed by the noise. This is not a legitimate basis for a negative review.
  3. Match your own expectations and standards against those of the reviewer. What you want from a hotel, restaurant, or tour may not be the same as what the writer wants. He might complain that meal portions are small, but if you’re a light eater, you might prefer small portions. She may be thrilled that an establishment allows smoking; you may not.
  4. Watch the numbers. The more reviews, the better. It’s unlikely that the manager will fake 50 reviews. Also, if there are 100 reviews and 97 say it’s great and 3 say it sucks, that’s significant. Read the ones that buck the trend: sometimes it will be clear that the dissenting reviews are unreasonable. Sometimes they will make a valid point.
  5. Notice the specifics. A long review with many details is more believable than a one-liner. In addition, the details can be very interesting. A review based on a visit during a specific time period could yield valuable information about what it’s like to be there during that time. If you’re planning to visit the Amazon during January, try to find reviews from people who went in that month. They may mention how bad the mosquitos were, what the weather was like, or how the humidity affected their electronic devices, great things to know in advance.
  6. Check the room tips, if they are included. Again, your preferences for noise/quiet, front street/back courtyard, clawfoot tub/walk-in shower may not align with the writer’s, but you can still use those room details to make a better choice.
  7. Flip through the photos. Photos can be faked, but for most people, it’s too much bother. Looking at photos can give you an idea how far the official business description veers away from reality. The classic case is references to “views.” Many properties will tout their “ocean view” or “mountain view,” but when you look at the photos posted by guests, you may notice that the “view” is a tiny sliver of distant horizon visible only when you stand in one corner of the balcony and lean way over the railing. This is the kind of truth-stretching that disappointed guests love to jump all over with photos revealing the actual picture.

Booking anything sight unseen is a risk, but it’s hard to avoid doing that when you travel. Reading reviews is just one way of reducing that risk. While reviews must be approached with a healthy degree of caution, ignoring the collective experience and knowledge of the online community would be foolish.

PS: Don’t forget to post your own reviews. It can be fun and certainly helps other people—some of my reviews on TripAdvisor have been read over a thousand times! It can even help the business in question if you provide a great review or point out a problem that they can fix. If you’ve used review sites yourself, it’s only fair to contribute to them.

Do you read or post reviews? Have you had a bad or good experience with an online review? Let me know in a comment.