“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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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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