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Keepicks: In Guides We Trust

Serendipity, the joy of chance discovery, is a wonderful thing. It can also be overrated. I’ve always loved travel, but my worst experiences have almost all been when I was young and foolish. 

I’d land in a foreign city with little in the way of a plan or hotel booking. It’s left me wandering the streets of Florence in the rain, until out of desperation, I collapse in a hovel run by Norman Bates’ Italian cousin. Or, in San Francisco, finding myself at a B&B next to a flophouse in the Mission District.

I’ve also had amazing spontaneous moments, like the time I was led by a monk through the back streets of Kyoto to a three-Michelin-star restaurant, but in travel, as in life, it’s best not to leave certain things to chance. The discovery of travel guides I could trust – Time Out in the 80s, and the likes of LUXE, Louis Vuitton and Monocle in the 21st century, coupled with a network of in-the-know contacts, transformed my travel experiences.

For time poor travellers, guides – whether in print or digital format – remain the easiest and most reliable way to know where to stay, eat, drink, shop and more. As anyone who has spent days randomly trawling the internet for information knows, the web is a minefield of flotsam and jetsam, and guides can save you time and headaches.

More people, it seems, are again cottoning on to this and if recent reports are to be believed, travel guides, after years of gloom and doom, may be making a comeback. According to the latest Nielsen BookScan Travel Publishing Year Book, 2015 was the best year for the industry of the past decade. UK sales of world travel guides increased nearly 5%. In the US they were up 1% after a drop of nearly 7% in 2014. It’s partly due to increased traveller numbers, and also a reaction to the clamour of uninformed blogs and crowdsourced reviews. Not just any guides, but thoughtful products with a clear voice and point of difference.

It’s recognition that travel has become a tragic popularity contest and so-called best hotels, restaurants, sights and attractions are too often decided by lowest common denominator. Expert advice challenges recent trends of following the herd, which is anathema to quality. After all, thousands of people can be wrong.

How else to explain, for example, the number one hotel in Singapore on Tripadvisor at the time of writing – a functional four-star with poky rooms and cliched decor. Or the number two restaurant in Hong Kong, a Brazilian all-you-can-eat joint with a salad bar. A legion of Clueless Crystals and No-idea Nates is leading the world down the path of mediocrity with their dumb opinions, and I’d rather take style tips from North Korean dictators, thank you.

That’s not to say I don’t use Tripadvisor. Guides and crowdsourced information are not mutually exclusive, and I use all sorts of tools at my disposal when researching destinations and hotels. It’s especially useful for knowing crucial details. Will I be the morning show for office workers across the street? Do I have to cover my ears and hum when my partner goes to the loo? Is the pool a fetid swamp?

But it lacks the rigorous benchmarking of a good guide. As the ex-editor of LUXE City Guides, I know how much quality control is involved. In addition to using a network of clued-in contributors across art, culture, design, fashion and hospitality, someone from LUXE HQ (very often me) flew into a city after the groundwork had been done by a local team.

I’d visit nearly every potential listing and walk every itinerary to ensure they were LUXE-worthy. I could benchmark what’s good not just in that particular destination but internationally. Duds were dropped, and occasionally, the resident editor, too. It ensured that we were pithy, witty and on the money, and as good as having a stylish local in your pocket or handbag.

Whichever guide you choose, and there are some good new ones, too, start with one that covers essentials and balances choice with curation. In LUXE speak, they should find the fab and ditch the drab. If it’s an app, use the handy features, from customising itineraries to mapping your trip.

Possibly better than having a guide in your pocket is to hire a local one. Even if you think you know a place well, the right tour guide can be a revelation. I’m not talking about some idiot who hands out a sticker and tinny earphone then asks all 50 of you to follow their swizzle stick. Rather, small or private affairs with a specialist who can enlighten you on the difference between a Brunelleschi and a Brunello, or a Peroni and a Peronist. Personal guides might seem expensive, but it’s money well spent for some expert local insight.

A caveat, though about local knowledge: a lot of it stinks. Not all locals are equal and just because someone lives somewhere doesn’t mean they know a thing about what’s happening in their city. Or what’s good beyond their suburban shopping mall. It’s not for me, and not for you, either. But with the help of your clever travel guide, you should be able to find the right person, someone who knows what they’re talking about.

Follow Kee on Twitter and Instagram @keepicks

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