“Do you have any idea how hard it is to buy a guidebook for Albania?” I asked a friend recently. “I could almost hear the Amazon computers thinking, ‘Seriously? Why would you want to go there?’” A response I’d been getting a lot lately from various humans of my acquaintance.
“Albania I can understand,” said my friend. “It’s the guidebook part I’m having trouble with. You still buy actual guidebooks? Why not just download the Kindle version?” My friend, who is somewhere in her seventies, is a big advocate of new technology.
“I tried doing that on our trip to Portugal.” I shuddered. “Never again.”
I’d downloaded a popular Portugal guide, which had apparently simply been scanned from the print edition without any real attempt to adapt it for e-readers. Navigation was exceedingly awkward, and the photos and maps were inscrutable. Worse, the text was constantly interrupted by random factoids. I can only assume that in the original book this information was neatly corralled into shaded boxes discretely positioned off to one side. Now, it sprang into the middle of the text demanding attention, like a drunk gatecrashing a party, and I had to spend all sorts of time picking my way past it to get back to the topic at hand.
That’s when I started thinking about some of the old, low-tech travel tips that are still the best option.
1. Read guidebooks in advance of the trip. My Albania guide just arrived, and I’ve been flipping backwards and forwards through it, enjoying the photos, maps, and various tidbits of information that happen to catch my eye. An actual book lets you wander about poking into odd corners in a way that the Internet, with its direct links, simply can’t. I learned, for instance, that Albania’s driving fatalities are among the highest in Europe, and congratulated myself that I’d journey to Tirana, the capital, in the safety of a railway car. But later I read, “There are no trains to or from Tirana. The station has been demolished and the railway lines have been asphalted over to build yet another new highway.” Say it ain’t so! “Until recently,” commented another section, “Albanian roads were so bad that it was difficult to drive fast enough to kill anyone. Now, though…” Obviously the transportation piece of this journey is going to require considerably more thought, and possibly body armor. My point is guidebooks let you browse leisurely for info while planning (and re-planning) your visit. They’re far too bulky to carry on the road; you’re better off Googling destination specifics as needed. But for scoping out places in advance, books still have lots to offer.
2. Get a map of the region. Yes, I mean one of those folding paper maps like the ones you took on family road trips when you were a kid. Online maps are great for getting from Point A to Point B, but for an overview of how countries, mountains, roads, ferries, and trains meet up, you want a regional map. Go online to check for recent changes; my brand new rail map of Europe still shows a train line running right into downtown Tirana.
3. Don’t rely on a translator app for real-time conversation. It’s awkward to pull out an iPhone, open the app, type in a phrase, and ask cab drivers or waiters to read the tiny screen or listen while you butcher the pronunciation. And there is no way they’re going to take time to tap in a reply, let alone one that is spelled correctly enough for the app to translate it properly. You’re better off using a mixture of English, hand gestures, and a few key phrases written down in advance.
4. Carry a small notebook in your pocket. I know how old-fashioned this sounds, but writing is still the best way to ask unpronounceable questions in a language you don’t know. Jot down the name of your hotel, the bus you’re seeking, and local dishes you want to try. It works like a charm.
New travel technology can make your journey easier, safer, and more fun in countless ways, and I know people who claim they can’t wait until an iPhone can be permanently imbedded in their body. I’m a bit more selective. I love my e-toys as much as anyone, but it's comforting to know that you can still rely on time-honored, low-cost, low-tech solutions to get you where you want to go.
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You're right, so far there's no digital guidebook that matches a real book. If there's information in the guidebook you want to take with you, such as phone numbers, addresses, etc, you can snap a picture of that paragraph with your phone and put it in a file you create for that city. You don't need wifi to access your pictures, and you can delete the photo when you leave the area to free up space on your phone.
6/19/2015 07:49:12 pm
Great tip, Yvonne! A photo record is great, and as you say, you don't need wifi to access it. I also snap pictures of the signs in front of monuments and exhibits I'm photographing, so I can remember afterwards who or what it was all about.
6/19/2015 12:51:47 pm
Also, POINT books are fabulous. It's a very small book full of pictures of everything imaginable.... so you can pull it out and point to whatever it is you are inquiring about. Like a hairdryer or the bus station or an egg. Our Barcelona travel bookstore Altair sells them at the cashier. Obviously, useful in any country, any language!
6/19/2015 07:54:22 pm
Point books are terrific; they let you communicate without any words about simple stuff like finding a pharmacy and buying specific products, some of which really don't lend themselves to pantomime...
6/19/2015 11:45:20 pm
Since we've been back in Greece our desire to visit Albania has grown to a point of 'maybe next trip or at least next spring' so this post hit home with me. I hadn't gotten to the point of ordering a guidebook, thanks for the tips you provided! POINT books are completely a new concept to me!
6/20/2015 08:57:00 am
I grew up in an era when Albania was totally isolated and it was impossible to get into. So for me, it's always had a certain mystique. I suspect I'll find the reality a bit more prosaic, but I am hoping to go next spring and find out. If you get there first, be sure to let me know what you think of it, Jackie!
6/22/2015 05:58:44 am
I've always carried printed guidebooks till this April's trip to Spain & France, when I decided to take the plunge & download a couple of different guidebooks onto my Kindle. The best thing I'd ever done! The Kindle was light & easy to carry in my handbag and when I used the search option, I could find all the info I wanted. I guess it depends on the guidebook? I bought mine (Rick Steves, if you're interested) through Amazon, after reading the reviews.
6/22/2015 08:30:44 am
Trust Rick Steves to get it right! Thanks, Geeta, I will try his guidebooks next time. I'm glad someone had figured out how to make one that is Kindle-friendly!
6/22/2015 12:05:36 pm
Hi Karen, great post. I live in Germany and rent a car about once a month to explore the region. To be honest, I'd be lost without a GPS. I really don't see a downside either, gets you where you need to go, and saves on the arguments! (mostly)
6/24/2015 09:36:27 am
Kristopher, I am a huge fan of my GPS and use it constantly when I travel. And yes, it saves many hours of arguing and fretting! I use paper maps to plan and to reconfigure trips; often I like to change the route spontaneously. But for finding my way around, even just walking from a train station to a B&B in an unfamiliar place, electronic guidance is a must.
7/5/2015 11:23:52 am
I completely agree with you - maps and guide books for the overview, electronic equipment for the details. Our GPS literally saved our lives (only a slight exaggeration) when we got hopelessly lost in Kielder Water Forest Park in Northumberland when my son was about 9 months old. Hot, dusty, dirty, confusing walk carrying small boy, face full of flying creatures and poor mapreading and waymarking made me exceedingly grateful for the placemarker we'd put on the GPS as we'd left the car park. Not one of our finest moments! I went to Albania from Corfu about 12 years ago. Can't wait to read what you make of it and how it's changed in that time!
8/29/2016 02:52:48 pm
Paper guidebooks are wonderful, Anja. They give you a wide breadth of knowledge, great photos, and interesting tidbits to mull over. When it's practical to take one along, that is certainly the ideal.
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