Prepare to Unprepare


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Michael Coghlan.

“This isn’t a typical guidebook,” reads the introduction of world-traveler and author Emily Flynn’s new book. “It’s not filled with top ten lists or gear reviews or travel itineraries. It’s not going to tell you the ‘best’ way to travel.”

Flynn tells BTR she hopes the words offer an open invitation for every reader to individually interpret and be encouraged by her advice in whatever way suits them best.

“It’s about finding meaning in any and all travel you do,” she emphasizes.

Her aptly named This is Not a Guidebook: Unconventional Travel As Norm combines personal memoir, inspiration, how-to, and stories from friends Flynn has met on the road. It eschews “traditional” guides that tell readers about the popular spots in an area but offer little in the way of personal knowledge, opting instead for a narrative that provides the framework for distilling the most out of travel anywhere.

The book’s focus is apropos to the shifting mechanisms of the travel industry. The current share economy makes peer-to-peer transactions easy and privileges authenticity of experience over commercial travel. In other words, people want to “go local.”

As such, Travel + Leisure stated that AirBnB is blurring the line between rentals and hotels. Books like Flynn’s will no doubt continue to crop up as the need for guidebooks only offering hotel suggestions dies out completely. What’s more, as is evidenced by the popularity of websites like Yelp and Travelocity, consumers now prefer aggregated reviews from fellow travelers over advice from a single person touting themselves as an “expert,” such as the once heralded Rick Steve or Frommer.

Taking that evolution a step further, companies like Spotted by Locals and Vayable are cutting out traveler’s advice entirely and tapping people that live year-round in popular destinations for their recommendations. From midnight street food crawls in New York City to wine tasting in the heart of Paris, the experiences curated by locals on Vayable, for example, are far more niche and personalized than anything offered in Streetwise or even Lonely Planet.

With organizations like PurpleDinner and Kitchen Connection, travelers are now even able to dine in local homes instead of restaurants while on the road, or learn to cook traditional cultural dishes inside someone’s kitchen.

Clearly, it’s no longer enough just to, say, visit the Eiffel Tower. Tourists want to stumble across the purveyor of a one-of-a-kind single-vineyard bottle of wine by chance underneath the Eiffel Tower, buy it, then drink it with the penniless artist living in a Seine-houseboat nearby while witnessing the beginnings of their latest masterpiece.

Doesn’t that sound lovely?

A step-by-step guide on having that kind of experience isn’t going to be in any book. Ever. Rather, to cultivate “authentic” travel there must instead be a focus on laying the foundations for natural immersion: learning how to interact with locals in a way that is respectful, curious, outgoing, and spontaneous.

To sum up: leave the guidebook at home.

That’s not to say preparation before you leave home isn’t important, especially when it comes to money. Creating a financial infrastructure that takes the unplanned into account is the only way to afford them when random opportunities arise.

Photo courtesy of Emily Flynn.

“When saving for a trip I’ll live like a monk for months,” Flynn says. “I’ll skip beers with friends because I know that when I’m actually [traveling], it will be worth it.”

If you’re still unconvinced, there’s one final problem with traditional guidebooks, and it relates to finances: they may make you feel as though you’ve missed out on a place if activities on the “top 10” lists were prohibitively expensive.

That is the wrong mindset because you’ll end up regretting your entire vacation.

“Don’t have a rigid idea of what a trip looks like,” Flynn suggests, “tell yourself you’re just going to go and wing it and, you know, pay attention.”

She advises the next time you’re planning a trip, look into some local blogs to give you an idea of what the area has to offer. Come up with a few loose guesses of what you want to do or see, then wander. While you’re wandering, talk to people, ask them questions, get personal.

After all, you’re not going to come across that painter on the Seine while shuffling single-file around a national monument.