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The future of budget travel: Q&A with Benji Lanyado
We can come up with tips, talk about new stylish hostels, pass on information about fare sales, and strategize about how best to exploit a particular train pass, but the truth is that there is little among these subjects that is genuinely new.
But what about newer developments in personal technologies? How will they change the way we travel on a budget?
For some time now, freelance journalist Benji Lanyado has been pursuing these questions, mostly in articles for the Guardian. Lanyado has been writing for the Guardian since his last year at university, when the newspaper asked him to be their Budget Travel columnist. Among the most suggestive of his pieces for the Guardian are his TwiTrips articles, through which Lanyado submits Twitter to the on-the-ground challenges of traveling. Most exciting about this series is the ease with which its principles can be adapted for use by readers.
Lanyado also engages larger questions about the future of travel. See this recent article pondering the future of guidebooks for one example.
Q: How did the TwiTrips come about? Have they changed the way you travel in general? That is, when you're on different sorts of assignments or traveling for pleasure, do you instinctively turn to Twitter for information? On balance, how would you rate these TwiTrips against more conventional travel adventures in terms of obtaining local information and getting a sense of the destination?
A: At the beginning of last year, Twitter was approaching its "moment" in the UK. Jonathan Ross and Stephen Fry were scheduled to talk about it on the former's Friday night chat show. I'd been thinking about using it for some kind of live travel piece for a while, and had experimented with it while in Berlin to find some suggestions for what to do in between researching for assignments. I was walking down Oranienstrasse and asked my Twitter followers if they had any tips. Within a few minutes someone had guided me into a fantastic little cafe 100 yards away.
I ran the idea past the Guardian Travel editor, Andy Pietrasik, who was very keen for me to try a live Twitter Trip. We ran the first TwiTrip in February, to Paris, streaming it live on the Guardian website a few days after the Fry/Ross interview had aired, and the response was incredible. Over a period of 36 hours I received hundreds of tips, and various news outlets and TV programmes ran stories on it. Since then we've done TwiTrips to a dozen destinations across the UK. The last one was Liverpool this November.
I certainly now instinctively turn to Twitter for travel advice when I'm on the road. Compared to traditional media (guidebooks, etc.) I find that the information you can glean from Twitter is more specific, more current, and more personal. It's an incredible real-time link to the local public. That said, I don't think it's the only way to travel. Whatever works for you is great. And few things beat stopping a local, in the real world, and asking him or her what you should do.
I also have a considerable head-start on Twitter newbies, as I'm lucky to have over 5000 followers to help me on my way. As a journalist, I can amplify things to a bigger audience during the TwiTrips. But I still don't think you need lots of followers to get travel benefits from Twitter. Every major city across the world has scores of people tweeting about what to do when you're in town, and up-to-the-minute info on events.
The beauty of Twitter is that you can find time-specific ideas (i.e. there's a great band playing at this great bar TONIGHT) and be connected to the lifeblood of any destination.
A: Foursquare, primarily, is a lot of fun to use at home. Knowing where your friends have been and where they are is a very nice new frontier for social media. But on the road, the "tips" function really comes into its own. The idea of location-specific recommendations hovering in the air around you is one of the most important new standards in travel technology in years, and it is one of the strongest arguments for apps over traditional guidebooks. When you can have access to information about places within 100 feet of where you are standing, the notion of flicking through 500 pages to find a vaguely suitable tip written a year ago seems a little ridiculous. Foursquare aren't the first to harness the power of location, but their implementation with the game element is a very neat way to do it.
Q: One pitfall in relying on user-generated content is that it is often difficult to evaluate anonymous evaluators. (Do they share your values, your interests, your standards?) Do you see Twitter as providing a way around this problem? That is, by choosing your followers are you essentially curating information in advance? Or, alternately do you not see this user-generated content pitfall as a problem?
A: Increasingly, I find UGC a little too noisy. Tripadvisor is a good example of this. The service has gone so far beyond a critical mass that there's now JUST TOO MUCH INFORMATION on it. And yes, you're right, it's very difficult to ascertain the validity of UGC, as you usually have no idea whether or not the person reviewing is anything like you or shares your tastes. I don't really see Twitter as a form of UGC, as there is a lot more face involved. You can usually read about the people who are Tweeting at you, see the type of people they follow, read their tweets etc. You get to know certain people who share your tastes.
Q: Where, if anywhere, do you see social media failing against more traditional media in generating especially useful information for budget travelers?
A: The main problem is the noise. While guidebooks are inherently limited, they are also beautifully confined. For a lot of people, a couple of hundred pages of information is more than enough. The Internet, meanwhile, is seemingly infinite. It's difficult to know how far you should research into the provincial nooks of the web before you've gone too far and have too much information. There is also an issue over trust capital. Guidebooks might be old-fashioned but they are also a relatively safe bet, as they come with a reputation to uphold. That said, I think you are more likely to get crappy advice from a guidebook than from an individual through social media, as there is a lot less accountability with guidebooks.
Q: Do you have you eye on any newish apps or sites for their potential as budget travel tools?
A: I really like the look of the new batch of Time Out city guides, especially considering that they are built to be used offline, using only a GPS signal rather than relying on data roaming. Much cheaper that way. Yelp, Urbanspoon, and some of the augmented reality apps (Wikitude, Layar, etc.) are pretty fun too, although the power of AR is yet to be fully utilised. I'm very excited about developments in 4G (superfast mobile internet) and the apps that will be built around it, but this is a little way off yet.
Visit Lanyado's blog for musings on technology, soccer, travel, and other topics as well as links to published articles.
Check out Gadling's budget travel section for more budget travel tips, strategies, and information.
[Image: Elliott Smith | Guardian.co.uk]