'Before the internet, it felt more spontaneous' - Was travel better 20 years ago?
Travel is easier to plan than ever, but has technology decreased the thrill of discovery and anticipation?
It may be better to travel than to arrive, but it can also be just as much fun to plan to travel.
Those of us who can’t afford the time or don’t have the budget to escape the winter weather can at least settle down and spend the long, dark evenings in front of a glowing screen, researching next year’s holiday.
In fact, perhaps the most radical way that travel has changed in recent years is that it has become so much easier to plan than ever before – and to a level of detail we could never have imagined.
Not so long ago, the idea of being able not only to see 360-degree images of the rooms in your chosen hotel, but to explore the streets around it on Google Maps, check the menu of a restaurant nearby, do a virtual tour of the museum you want to see, then choose and book your seats for the opera – all weeks or months before you have even left home – would have seemed the stuff of fantasy.
Now you can do all these things and more.
That’s all great if you are risk-averse and like to have maximum control over your plans. But for many of us, travel is also about the thrill of anticipation and the excitement of the unfamiliar, about discovering places we have never seen before.
Does the level of insight and control we get from our computer screens increase that anticipation or diminish it?
The answer varies from individual to individual, but sometimes I feel nostalgic about the days before the internet, when much more of my travel felt spontaneous. I would book flights or rail tickets well in advance, but that was all. I would usually find somewhere to stay only once I arrived – especially if touring by car, train or ferry.
As long as you avoided high season, it was a perfectly feasible way of organising things. I became a bit of an expert at spotting decent, good-value places to stay and eat. If you were uncertain on arrival, hotels and B&Bs were perfectly happy to show you a room. And if you decided you didn’t like it after the first night, you just moved on the following morning.
Some places – the Greek islands (above), for example – had a special tradition of their own. The owners of village rooms would gather on the quayside when the afternoon ferry arrived and try to recruit disembarking guests. It’s a while since I’ve ferry-hopped, but Greek travel experts tell me that particular culture is much diminished because those once-spontaneous backpackers now book online.
Of course, it isn’t feasible to go back to the old ways. The world is so much better organised (and so many more people are travelling) that if you want to be sure of staying in a decent hotel, or dine at the best trattorias and restaurants, you really have to book or others will.
But to hold on to that old air of anticipation, I avoid websites with lots of pictures and videos and keep to the practicalities. One tool I’ve never found, incidentally, is a reliable “what’s on” site listing the most interesting forthcoming events around the world. In the meantime, here are the four websites I use most often to plan my trips.
This provides the most comprehensive and most detailed information on climate and weather around the world, so you can work out the best time to visit different destinations. The pages about monthly climate averages give information on everything from sunshine hours and daily highs to humidity levels and sea temperatures.
I find this excellent for checking the location and surroundings of your accommodation, working out walking distances and – using the “popular times” panel on Google search – avoiding crowds.
This is by far the best price comparison site for tracking down competitive short-haul airfares, and for finding the best-value dates and airports from which to travel.
If you’re planning complex itineraries anywhere using different modes of public transport – from flights to ferries, as well as driving routes – this website is hard to beat.
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