Defending serendipity

Paper versus paperless?

One of the major differences between holidaying as a childless couple and doing so with three young kids is the increased level of organisation involved – and the corresponding decrease in spontaneity.

Take our big summer holiday in Tuscany (about which you can read more here and here). The planning for this started at least six months in advance. We agreed the timing, booked the villa and then sorted out flights which, as we were flying with Ryanair, meant declaring months in advance how many pieces of baggage we wanted to check in, their approximate weight, plus how many car seats we wanted to fly with. Not to mention what clothes we would be wearing and what we were planning to eat for breakfast on the morning of the flight. (Okay, I jest.)

I can live with that – it’s part of the rigmarole of flying with a budget airline. (Although exactly how £1,200-plus for four seats on a pair of sub-two hour flights qualifies as ‘budget’ is beyond me.)

What troubles me more is how the benefits of enabling technology reduce the joy of serendipity – the happy little chance events that surprise and delight the adventurous traveller.

Paper versus paperless?
Paper versus paperless?

Then & now

Here’s what I mean.

In the good old days – before 2007, pre-family – we would set out with a minimal itinerary. Long driving holidays would have a sketched-out but evolving schedule where we would pitch up somewhere random every evening and find an available motel room. City breaks would have a handful of must-sees, no more. In both cases we travelled with no more than a Rough Guide, perhaps a map, a few printed web pages and a couple of scribbled recommendations from friends. The rest we would make up as we went along, meaning every trip we would have a series of off-the-cuff, serendipitous experiences – some great, most good, a few not so good – that made our holidays uniquely meaningful to us.

For instance, there was the death-cab taxi ride in Xi’an, where we struck out from our tour group to find a random restaurant and ordered dishes blindly from a Mandarin-only menu. (It was the best and most authentic meal we had in China, rather than the tourist-friendly stodge we were served elsewhere.) Then there was the pitch-black back-street stroll back to our hotel after perusing the night markets in Chiang Mai, which with hindsight was terrifyingly stupid but gave us a view of real life and real people behind the city’s tourist trade we would never otherwise have seen. And so many others.

Nowadays there are hardly any happy accidents. Before we booked our villa, we had access to detailed specifications, photos and user reviews, so we knew exactly what to expect. Day trips, which used to be planned with crossed fingers on the basis of a few Rough Guide paragraphs, are now thoroughly researched via Tripadvisor and other apps/websites and backed up by online reviews and ratings. Even choice of restaurants is now better informed (with menus and prices often visible online) and more reliable thanks to Tripadvisor’s crowdsourced ratings. And once we’re there, there’s no more fumbling around town with inadequately detailed maps: firing up Foursquare on my phone allows us to get on-screen directions via my Maps app in seconds.

No fuss, no muss. With today’s technology, it’s possible to put together an itinerary of things to do and places to eat with no knowledge of the local area, based on the ratings of hundreds of other people. And it’s then easy to get from A to B by the quickest and most direct route. (Well, as long as you can get a decent signal, that is.)

No more getting lost. No more dodgy restaurants. No more kids complaining about boring cathedrals or the fact that mummy has misread the map *again*.

This progress, much of it fuelled by the explosion in social media and smartphones, can only be a good thing, right?

The cost of progress

Yes. And no. For all the obvious and tangible benefits we’ve gained as a result of social media and other online tools, in a few vital respects we have lost something intangible. That may not matter to many people. It matters to me.

Some of it is my oh-so-last-century sense penchant for the tactile. Despite their limitations – bulk, lack of detail, key locations always being smack bang on the bloody fold – I love maps and guide books.

But my greatest fear is that a growing reliance on the device in my pocket means we are moving closer to ‘holiday homogeneity’, where our choices are influenced and shaped by those who have trodden the path before us. What happens when our experiences become the same as everyone else’s, as if the entire world blindly travels only by guided tour? They stop being unique, they stop being personal and everyone’s holiday stories become the same, that’s what.

Ultimately that means the only path is the beaten track, where our choices are driven solely by what has the best ratings or the most ‘likes’. No more stumbling down the wrong back-street and discovering that friendly little trattoria which serves the most delightful home-made fettuccine. No more discovering ancient hillside towns which live in the shadow of bigger, more hyped neighbours. No more diving off the motorway to discover a winding, scenic coastal road. We do A, B and C rather than experiencing the full range of the alphabet because that is what we are conditioned to do.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. I love the depth of information which is available at the touch of a button. But at the same time it’s important to recognise that convenience and a greater consistency of quality do not come without a cost. We lose the variety and unprocessed nature of individual experiences. Finely minced beef is all well and good – but it lacks the texture and taste of rare steak. Even with three kids, there should be room in everyone’s holiday for a little serendipity. (And steak.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I just need to go online to plan next summer’s holiday …