“You’re not that cutting edge on your advice. It’s pretty run of the mill. You also are very obviously biased toward thirtyish, white, upper-middle-class Americans who want to pretend to be bohemians.”
This quote is from last month’s reader survey. It cut deep. I stared at it for a while, pondering its implication. I looked for an email address to see if there was a way to follow up with the person who wrote it, but they opted to be anonymous.
Yet, after eight years of writing about travel, I have to say I agree with this critique (except the bohemian part — perish the thought!). My website probably isn’t that cutting edge and revolutionary to you if, like me, you have to keep getting your passport stuffed with new pages every few months. I bring this comment up because it’s actually something I’ve been thinking about for a while so to see it in the survey was mind blowing.
I’ve covered travel in-depth over the last eight years. How many times can you write about packing light or stress the fundamentals of budgeting, eating local, and staying in hostels? Not many. After a while you begin to rehash the same old stuff.
If you’re a new traveler, you’re going to read a TON of tips and advice that is going to blow your mind and change how you think about travel. It’s going to open you up to a world you never thought possible and have you running out the door before you know it.
But, for old hats like me, while we may pick up a few new tips here and there, rarely is there anything that makes us go “HOLY F***! THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING!!”
Why cutting edge is an illusion
Unlike other industries, where giant shifts in technology or thinking fundamentally change the industry, travel is basically travel. There’s no major discovery that makes us rethink life, the universe, or how nature behaves, like there are in medicine, history, technology, or science.
Travel simply has microshifts. For example, cruise ships may be bigger, have more features, serve better food, and recycle more, but cruising is still essentially the same as it was 100 years ago: for one all-inclusive price, you get on a boat, sail around, make a few stops, get back on the boat, and head home. The ships may have changed, but the general purpose hasn’t.
The biggest shift in travel over the last few years has been the rise of the sharing economy, in which websites like Airbnb, Vayable, EatWith, and Couchsurfing break you out of mass, commercial travel by helping you connect with residents, save money, and tap into local insight.
But while a lot of local and obscure sharing economy websites make the “how” easier, they don’t change the fundamentals of budget travel: pack light, stay off the tourist path, eat local, use local transportation, avoid bank and credit card fees, and be frugal. It’s much the same today as it was when I first started traveling in 2006 — and when my father did so in the 1970s.
That is because the why of travel never changes.
If you read Walden, The Innocents Abroad, On the Road, Travels with Charley, or any of a dozen other travel books set decades or more ago, you’ll see the same wanderlust and desire to connect and understand the world as we have now.
It’s why we still read these books — their themes still resonate with us. These old stories express humanity’s innate desire to explore and search for deeper meaning. That desire to learn, explore, and see the world is timeless.
And improved tools to make that happen don’t fundamentally change that meaning. Horses and caravans turn into trains, planes, and automobiles. Trains get more efficient, planes become safer, and cars can go further. Wooden ships that became giant steamers are now massive cruise ships and fiberglass yachts. Star charts became maps, which turn into GPS-based Google Maps. We don’t need the Pony Express; we have instant messenger. We can book a room with an app on our phone! (Note: The argument about being too connected is one for another day.)
And, even with a new technology, the essential way we travel on budget is still the same.
Yes, travel has never been easier and technology forever changed how we plan and take trips, but we still go for the same reasons. Our why has not changed even if the hows have made it easier. We can see that whenever we pick up a historic book or talk to travelers of any age about their trips — what motivates us is primal and universal whether you’re spending a year backpacking or a week at the spa!
Yet there’s always something new to share
The information I (and that thousands of others) have shared about travel was always there but hidden away among travelers and locals, or buried in guidebooks and forums. It wasn’t easily found, but it was there. When I started traveling in 2006, there wasn’t that much information available on travel. I read countless guidebooks and spent hours looking at forums, searching for tips that I would only discover through experience.
But the Internet and growth of blogs made all that “hidden” information much more accessible. They pulled out of the shadows all the stuff most people (like myself) don’t inherently know without traveling — the information not beforehand shared in mass media. So this information may have seemed “cutting edge” at first, but the knowledge and tips were always there.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing new to learn. I read countless blogs to stay abreast of the latest industry trends, unearth some new tips, and discover interesting places I never would have known about.
Travel does change all the time: new attractions, hostels, and restaurants open; hip places become uncool; and new blogs, services, and companies are created to make our lives easier.
So there is always something new to learn about the latest travel trends and tricks. Some new how to get you on the road better, cheaper, and longer.
But, most importantly, there are the stories about people, places, and hidden activities you might not have known otherwise.
That’s what keeps travel so interesting – not learning some revolutionary how but finding a story that reminds of us the why. A story takes us to a new place, teaches us something new, reminds us to dream big, and inspires us to finally take that trip we’ve always dreamed about.
And that’s more powerful than any new cutting edge tip.