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.