Harsh Truths in the Travel Industry

This is an article on setting expectations. Many articles you’ll read across the points and miles community — and in travel publications in general — will describe everything with rose-colored glasses, either glossing over negative experiences or explaining them away.

Instead of that, here are some harsh truths you should always keep in the back of your mind so that you maintain a fresh perspective on what traveling IS and ISN’T.

Everything Is Awesome! (Even When It Isn’t)

“Oh my god! It had the best beaches EVER — I mean EVER!” says the friend who just got back from Uruguay. “The people were so nice. It has to be the nicest culture on earth!” Turns out both tourist agencies and travelers collaborate to totally oversell every last square inch of the planet.

It makes perfect sense. Nobody worth their salt in marketing is going to say “Topeka! It’s Average!” or “Trat: We have the 47th largest Buddha on Earth.” There will always be caveats and creative embellishments. Tourists are obsessed with seeing the sights, even when the sights are not that interesting.

Tripadvisor calling Lonely Planet out on overselling - this is all too common

TripAdvisor calling Lonely Planet out on overselling. This is all too common.

Travelers who have visited that destination will also collaborate in the scheme. Find someone who has traveled to most of the world (they do exist) who gushes about every single place and I’ll show you a liar.

Like almost anything in life, most destinations are average, though people seeking the novelty of travel are going to disproportionately view them in a positive light. And even if their experience was fraught with problems or boredom, they’re going to speak positively to justify why they went in the first place. There are no shortage of “How I got mugged in Bangkok, but it’s still amazing!” blog entries.

That being said, the positives often do outweigh the negatives, and we want to take home good memories over bad. Just take a grain of salt when you hear words like “best,” “amazing,” or “perfect.”

You’ll Always Care More Than Your Travel Provider

Your room isn’t ready. No late check out. That extra water you ordered at the Parisian coffeeshop is “not possible” (many things in Europe are “not possible”). Or the perpetual hunt for WiFi.

These things will really, really annoy you.

But they are regular, commonplace occurrences in the travel industry. The hotel won’t check you in because they won’t check you in. This is how they do it every day. The little pain on their part isn’t worth the effort of pleasing you, another faceless customer (who probably won’t tip well).

This often provides a good chance to check your expectations. You may be on a trip of a lifetime, but most people you encounter will be going about their business like it’s a typical Wednesday.

Demand Often Far Exceeds Supply

Some of these denials of service come from people traveling with a sense of over-entitlement. Want to know how often the Andaz Maui hears someone asking for an upgrade “because it’s [their] honeymoon?”

Seven to eight times a day.

Turns out, if you want to be special and get those last-minute tickets or an upgrade, then you should pony up or shut up. Lines and waiting are a fact of life in travel. We can dream up more efficient systems and write lengthy analyses online, but putting that in practice is ten times harder than venting your frustrations and instructing an entry level employee that you know better.

Sure there are ways of playing the game with airlines and hotels — but you really need to reset your expectations and understand where you stand in the customer value pecking order. You’re likely not in the 1%. Hell, you’re likely not even in the top 10 or 20%. Staying at an expensive hotel doesn’t put you higher in the pecking order against the other customers paying $700/night for the same experience.

As an alternative, take pleasure in the simple things that ARE free. A community rose garden. A river walk. A cute little cafe baking fresh bread. Taking yourself out of the stressful situation and doing some planespotting will do wonders for your blood pressure.

Nobody Wants to Hear about Your Increasingly Unique Experiences

People are experiencing more of their vacations behind a viewfinder and more travel porn is cropping up on social media. You may even spend the better part of your day searching for WiFi because you think you NEED to make a post.

Yet nobody actually wants to hear that twenty-minute story about how you caught the last boat to swim with the sea turtles.

More and more people want to seek out “less touristy” places and shout about them to the entire world thinking that everyone is just like them and wants to do exactly what they did. Instead, consider sharing experiences only with friends and family who share a mutual interest. Bring some local spices back for your sister in culinary school. Do some research for a friend who is going to visit the same place in a few months and connect them with your guide.

The Anthony Bourdain Effect

Some voices are heard louder than others — and everyone is leaving their trips less up to chance, spending more time researching in their hotel or hostel room than actually experiencing a city.

Certainly it helps to have a local or friend who knows your tastes offer assistance curating your journey. But locavore foodie tours and hole-in-the-wall eateries don’t scale, particularly in countries or destinations where the tourist dollar is a significant portion of local income. Businesses will adapt to press and attention, likely not in ways that future travelers will appreciate.

While we are tempted to minimize the downside and carefully manage all of our experiences, consider taking a day or two so you can simply explore without a plan. You’ll wander into new and interesting places that never made it to that blog or guidebook — and that will be truly the unique experience you were looking for!

If You’re Traveling, You’re Wealthy — Likely More Than Most around You

I’m sure many people on the road don’t FEEL wealthy and will proudly declare that they’re staying in hostels for $6 a day and teaching English to make ends meet. But anyone with the means to travel, even on a shoestring, is still disproportionately well-educated, very adaptable, and doesn’t have obligations to work 80 hours a week at a crappy hourly job to pay rent and feed the kids.

You’ll see this naïveté among kids in Southeast Asia where beers cost “only a dollar” eye to eye with locals who make that much in a day. The locals are almost always unfailingly friendly and nice (because most of humanity is), but they also keenly recognize the imbalance of the situation more than you.

To put it in perspective, imagine a billionaire landing in your neighborhood and asking you to show them around — amazed that a pint in the local pub “only costs six dollars!” Where would you take them?

You asked for a taxi, the local kid heard "Fetch me my Maybach!"

You asked for a taxi, the local kid heard “Fetch me my Maybach!”

Even if you don’t have a lot of money in the bank account, the fact you’re traveling suggests you likely have an earning potential that exceeds those around you. You could nail a service industry job interview with no prep. It’s great that you have options, but remember that most people don’t.

Understand that if you travel then you live a very privileged, comfortable life. Take time to listen more than talk. Try to understand what moves life around you in other parts of the world and how that can influence your thinking about inequality at home.

Your Understanding of Geography Will Severely Lag Your Drive to See It

Name a city in the Czech Republic that isn’t Prague… Go on, I’ll wait. Tell me any country that borders Burundi… The blank stare on your face is the same reaction you’re going to get from anyone abroad when you say you’re from Cleveland, or anywhere more than 100 miles from an ocean. Don’t take it personally.

I remember seeing a guy hassling a local in Bali because they never heard of Alaska. Yeah, point out Sulawesi on a map (given that it’s right next door). It’s pretty big, too.

This is Sulawesi. It's a giant island next to Borneo. It's home to 17M people, about the same as New York.

This is Sulawesi. It’s a giant island next to Borneo. It’s home to 17 million people, about the same as New York State.

Most Europeans care very little to visit anywhere in the US except New York, San Francisco, and maybe Miami or Hawaii. Just try selling them on Chicago. Though many have romanticized dreams of driving Route 66, so maybe you shouldn’t tell them about the various world’s largest “landmarks” along the way.

When you travel, you get this inflated sense of worldliness and a Hiram Bingham sense of adventure. Hitchhiking a train in Sri Lanka is how MANY people ride trains in Sri Lanka. Hiking a mountain is many Peruvians’ morning commute.

While it’s a decent gauge of how much they value traveling, reducing someone’s entire travel experience to how many countries they’ve visited really cheapens what it means to experience new things and continually put yourself outside your comfort zone. Instead of trying to ratchet up the number of countries visited on your online tracker, consider spending more time in just one country. Make local friends, and get an apartment with a lease. Perhaps even take up a job. You’ll learn so much more.

Keep Unreasonable Expectations in Check

I see a lot of people complaining about the lack of free WiFi or cell phone coverage even though the locals are complaining about the lack of clean running water and political leaders who run off with boatloads of cash. Take inventory where you are. A cell signal in Manhattan is valid expectation. In Suriname, it’s a miracle.

This extends to people’s understanding (or lack) of geography and global politics. I’ve had many friends that would love me to help them plan a trip to Asia or Australia, but then quickly lose interest because the flight is overnight, perhaps longer than two hours, and requires that they transit an “evil” country like China or the UAE — something they’ll never do out of “principle.” Right…

The solution is simple: just keep your expectations low and be pleasantly surprised!

Some Harsh Truths Are Endemic; Others You Can Actively Work to Improve

Next time something gets you down, be pragmatic and constructive. Offer to write a better translation of a misleading sign. Write a guide online. Report scams to a government agency. Don’t book a hotel with a 3 pm check-in if you’re arriving at 8 am — or use Airbnb instead.

Certainly travel more. And travel longer. When travel is a “make or break” experience, the pressure is on for everything to deliver. It becomes an emotional roller coaster with huge ups and downs.

I don’t want to rain on any of the remarkable — sometimes breathtaking — work that much of the travel industry does to bring the world to you, but I think it’s important to take a pragmatic and balanced approach to all of it so that you can truly measure the good experiences and roll with the bad.

16 Responses to “Harsh Truths in the Travel Industry”

  1. Intentional Travelers April 20, 2024 at 5:02 am Reply

    Thank you for this post. We are strong proponents of the transformational power of travel. That’s why travel is awesome. But travel for the sake of escape or entertainment is completely different than slow, cross-cultural exploration. It’s not about checking things off a list, or posting to FB, or being entitled to things going your way. You are absolutely right: travel is a privilege that we should not take for granted. We should approach new experiences humbly, with flexibility, and with the intention to learn.

  2. I think Europeans would rather visit LA than San Fran. Probably Miami as well.

  3. This relates to a problem with the travel blogs (including this one, though it’s among my favorites). The focus on points and miles actually severely restricts the scope of available travel. I went to Nepal and stayed in a great little hotel owned by a local who spent a lot of time talking to us about the festival that was ongoing, etc. That was before I got into points and miles. There’s also a Hyatt Regency there where I could stay for free now that I have a ton of points. But having stayed at the other place, I realize how much more authentic the experience was (even staying in a tucked away corner off a side street, in a relatively residential area, unlike the Hyatt). Makes me wonder how many similar experience I’m missing out on now that I can stay for “free” at chains.

    Similarly, reading a lot of blogs, you’d think the point of travel is to sit in an airplane. Go around to most of the blogs, and read the trip reports. They go like this: airport lounge, airplane, hotel. If that’s why you’re traveling, ur doin it rong.

    • I’m generally a fan of booking independent guesthouses, hostels and Airbnbs and tend to stay at them far more than luxury hotels, though generally they are less “hackable,” which tends to be the focus of the blog and the main interest of the readership. So I’ll certainly buy a LCC ticket when it makes sense, but the outsized value by “doing your research” often isn’t nearly as noteworthy as it is with long-haul premium products, probably why you see more content skew that way.

      Feel free to reach out to me or Scott (or anyone else on this blog) - I think you’ll find us pretty pragmatic about travel choices and I’m sure we have plenty of stories “off the beaten path”

    • There’s a very important distinction between traditional travel blogs and the miles-and-points community. I was talking with some of those other bloggers just last week, and they generally agreed. We mix like water and oil.

      I’m not saying you can’t get good information on travel experiences from a miles-and-points blog, or that you can’t good information on rewards programs from a traditional travel blog. But each group does tend to focus on what they do well. For some people the point of travel really is to sit on the plane — that’s what they enjoy. Other people they don’t care if they fly coach as long as they have neat experiences on the other end. For people who want both, it may be necessary to read more than one blog.

  4. Amen. Thank you for a non-points related post that brings us all back down to earth.

  5. Thank you. Great post!

  6. Such a great post! Thank you for reminding me of the reason I travel. It’s not about the miles and points, it’s not about business or first, it’s not about the next great, ultra luxurious hotel or racking up popular attraction notches on my belt. It’s about the world itself and learning just a bit more about it with each trip. It’s so easy to lose sight of that. But just having a conversation with a local can be so cathartic, it can bring me back down to earth and give me a window into the human spirit that would have otherwise been lost if I was stuck behind my camera. It’s something to always keep in mind, the real reason I travel. And it’s not to show off to friends that I went to an “amazing” place for very little money. And it’s not to lord it over people who probably could never afford the food they’re serving me. I’ve lived in the states now for over 20 years, but I’m from Jamaica. And it always humbles me when I realize that had I still lived in Jamaica, I would have never been able to travel as I do. It’s really a very sobering thought that makes me so very grateful for every opportunity. And it helps me not to gripe when things don’t go as expected. Because it is, after all, a privilege.

  7. GREAT post - thank you!

  8. Wow, best post I’ve read all year, from any blogger. You touched on a lot of what I’m currently thinking about travel.

    IMO, this post is so good that I’d love to see you expand on the various ideas in a multipart series. For example, the whole “look at me” aspect of travel is getting increasingly annoying—it bugs me because I find that I’m now doing it too! It seems I can no longer just BE in the moment of a place but I’ve got to figure out how to take a picture I can share with others (is it to make the jealous? to show how cool I am? WTF am I doing?!)

    Anyway, great read!


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