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October 13, 2007

Is Wikitravel more useful than a guidebook?

When you want to know what the capital of Tajikistan is (Dushanbe), or why the Saved by the Bell gang had two senior proms (blame Tori), you check Wikipedia. Following that same belief in the “wisdom of crowds,” four-year-old site Wikitravel is a “project to create a free, complete, up-to-date, and reliable worldwide travel guide.” Because many travelers’ choices in lodging, restaurants, and activities are largely determined by the recommendations of others, Wikitravel seems like a wonderful idea. But it’s also an idea that may be more appealing in theory than in practice.

Back in April, Slate’s Tim Wu recounted his trip to Thailand in which he jettisoned his Lonely Planet: Thailand, a decision he compared to “packing no underwear– potentially liberating but a little unnerving.” Instead, he tried to rely solely on the Internet to guide his trip, especially the site Wikitravel. He describes the results of this experiment as “very nearly a disaster,” and he particularly faults Wikitravel’s “Be Fair” policy, which requires that contributors to the site be non-judgmental about the places they review. This policy, Wu writes, ensures that reviewers are unable to offer even the slightest criticism about a place, which results in reviews that are vague, bland, and generally unhelpful. Wu also points out that the accomodation reviews are sparse, as no one wants to spend their trip in an internet cafe rating their hostel on Wikitravel.

That, in my opinion, is the main problem with sites like Wikitravel: who wants to spend so much time of their trip on the Internet? And what to do when, as so often happens, Internet access is not available?

That’s why a good old-fashioned guidebook is usually a better option. Its sections on history, language, and culture are invaluable for providing a country’s background and context. But most importantly, its portability– the fact that it can be taken on a bus, or read on the beach, or studied over dinner– make it far more practical than reliance on websites.

Of course, for the more adventurous type, take Stephen Colbert’s advice: chuck the book altogether, and trust your gut. It may not make your trip better, but it will certainly make it more interesting.

Posted by | Comments (5) 
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind


5 Responses to “Is Wikitravel more useful than a guidebook?”

  1. João Almeida Says:

    Wikitravel is a fine resource, but I see it as something useful before traveling to gather information, as an alternative to other more commercial websites. I don’t see myself using Wikitravel while traveling.

  2. Jim Says:

    Wikitravel is the “coffee table” book of the internet.
    Great to sit around and plan and dream and relax. But once you hit the road its back to the regular guides.

  3. "Sapphire" Says:

    You seemed to have missed this, but Wikitravel guides will soon be transformed into guidebooks – http://www.wikitravelpress.com

    Also, Mr. Wu’s experience cannot be solely blamed on Wikitravel. He failed to recognize that we have “district” articles, which describe districts of cities. If he had known this, or paid closer attention, he would have been able find the hotels he claimed we did not provide. To solve the problem, we instituted a new “template” which tells readers off the bat that the particular page they are looking at is for a “huge” city and the reader should look at the district articles.

    Also, Mr. Wu seemed to have completely misunderstood the “Be Fair” policy. I’m not entirely sure that you understand the policy either. That policy means – be fair – if a hotel is crappy, then we say so.

    However, if someone else disagrees we try to find a “consensus” and accurate description, but we never lie to travelers and tell readers a hotel is nice and cozy when it’s not and a hotel owner tries to change the entry.

  4. Aaron Says:

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Wikitravel didn’t serve a purpose, though it may have come across that way. It can be great for researching a trip, but, in my opinion, its usefulness ends once you get on the road. Even if all the reviews of restaurants and lodging are accurate, I don’t want to constantly check Wikitravel to find out where I should stay or eat.

  5. Paul Says:

    Wikitravel can be hit or miss; obviously, the more popular destinations tend to have more in-depth information.

    I’ve found that Wikipedia is great for travel research. Articles on cities and countries tend to have a fairly good history section, and as we all know, knowing a town’s past makes travel there so much more enjoyable :)

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