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3 Good Reasons to Burn your Guidebook

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We often hear about the dangers associated with foreign travel. Just have a scan through the Dangers and Annoyances pages of, for instance, any Central American Guidebook and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Lonely Planet and Rough Guides devote pages to them, and insurance underwriters no doubt get their kids through college on them. But just how much of it is hype?

From the moment we set off we are left believing that if the earthquakes don’t get us, it’s inevitable that the robbers probably will.  The reader will be obliged to re-check the front cover to ensure they haven’t picked up a copy of Dante’s Peak by mistake. Read the Travel Guide to Indonesia and it’s exactly the same, but this time with The Poseidon Adventure.

Now, I must make it clear that whilst I’m not pooh-poohing or pointing fun at these guidebook warnings, or the devastating effect that the subsequent realisations have on those directly or indirectly affected by such misfortunes, we must endeavour to remind ourselves that just because the risk of crime or catastrophe may be higher in other parts of the world it doesn’t mean they aren’t a forgone conclusion, and it won’t automatically happen to us. It’s a sorrowful fact that bad things do happen, but their discharge may not be quite as pervasive as some of the travel guide warnings lead us to believe. Everybody wants to cover their own ass – this includes Guidebooks and, if you read the last sentence again carefully, me too!

When planning a trip it’s imperative that one does more in depth research into countries hazards than simply flicking through the dangers section of the associated Guidebook. By all means take note of them, but cast your net a little wider whilst researching. The internet is the best up to date resource we have, and it would be folly not to pimp it for all its worth. Here are a few resources to consider when in the search of the truth.

Personal Pages - A valuable yet often overlooked resource – we’re talking Travel Blogs here. Study entries for your targeted countries, and, of equal importance, glean what you can about the author. For this, it may well help to read any past entries about places that are familiar to you. In doing so the reader may gain a better understanding of the accuracy of this basic form of reportage. Does the author appear reckless? Is it all a little exaggerated or too flowery? Do they seem too easily pleased? Inversely, do they come across as incessant moaners? These personal influences are all factors that will give each blog its inevitable spin. If you see a trend emerging then either keep this in mind or simply move on to the next blog in your list.

When reading an entry, be objective. Look for indications of possible dangers. Do the authors give the impression of unease at any time? And, if so, what caused it?

Another important factor is the date it was published, so check post dates. For obvious reasons, focus where possible on the most recently written threads. They don’t have to be written in, say, just the last week or month, but clearly the most up to date accounts are preferable. Not dissimilar to our home countries, things change just as swiftly abroad.

The next two internet resources have similar things in common. They are both extremely current, both exceedingly useful, and both begin with ‘F’. Yet, in another way, they couldn’t be more different.

Forums – These long time traveler favourites see a meeting of minds like no other. Some surfers bring years of knowledge to the table, others bring enough hot air to successfully complete a round-the-world ballooning challenge. Despite the presence of these cockroaches they can still be a productive resource.

Many safety questions maybe already be answered within the Forum or at the very least have links toward appropriate sites. But, failing that, post your question and wait for the inevitable reply. Travel Forum surfers are generally a helpful bunch and even if they don’t know the answer they may be able to point you in the direction of someone who does. Again, like with all other internet resources, it’s still prudent to gain as many different opinions as possible to ascertain the general consensus. Just because one person ‘claims’ to have single-handedly trekked across the Darien Gap it doesn’t mean by any stretch of the imagination that it’s a safe or wise move to do so – remember to keep the bullsh*t detector switched to ‘filter all’.

If you can rise above the odd bit of bitching, backbiting and one-upmanship that does unfortunately occur in these places then you will have the world at your fingertips. Two good starters that receive constant heavy traffic are BootsnAll and Lonely Planet, with Fodors, Bug, TravelersPoint, TravBuddy, and TravellersConnected being worth a look too. There are plenty more worthy forums out there, so Google them up and make them work for you.

Foreign Office Website - The second ‘F’ word is noteworthy not only for the regularly updated information, but for insurance purposes also.

Be sure to check the small print of your insurance policy as you may well find that, unbeknown to you, your chosen insurance could be invalid for travel within certain countries.

A number of companies use the FO Website as their reference. If the FO advise against travel, for whatever reason, to a country then you may find that if something nasty happens during your time there that the insurers will have a custard pie - with your name on it - ready and waiting to be deployed. So, read the small print.

Of course, Travel Guidebooks do still offer some useful planning information, especially for those short on time, but we would do well to remember that they are just a guide - and not a holy scripture, or an unyielding authority that must be adhered to at the expense of all other resources.

Among other things, a big part of travel is about discovery, but just how much can we actually discover if we continually abide by each printed rule and recommendation in a Guidebook? One, single book. Even during planning, surely its better to gather as much information as you can – independently, and from the widest possible variety of sources – to help put you in the picture. If you don’t, you may just miss out on something special.