There’s a right way and a wrong way to ask the internet for travel tips

Ask your bartender for his tips, too.
Ask your bartender for his tips, too.
Image: Reuters/Claudia Daut
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The surest sign that summer travel season is upon us? The proliferation of Facebook posts from friends who are crowd-sourcing recommendations for their upcoming trip to Lisbon, Reykjavik, or insert-popular-destination here.

Of the many ways social media is used (and abused) in modern life, it’s a totally reasonable use case. Your friends have been places you haven’t—and perhaps they have a similar taste in activities or restaurants—so it’s worth asking them where to go. Plus, happiness researchers say that taking time to plan and look forward to a trip will increase the total enjoyment you get out of booking it.

But as a strategy for having the best experience on your upcoming adventure, it’s not always the ideal approach. If you’re going to do it, how you ask the question makes a big difference.

Here’s the problem with the ubiquitous (and ever-so-slightly ostentatious) “Where should I eat/stay/go in Lisbon?” post. Firstly, perhaps with the exception of a few longtime expats, serious travelers, or people actually from the place you’re visiting, your friends are likely not experts on where you’re going. Relying on the trip recommendations of someone who visited a foreign city for a few days three years ago gives you a false sense of security; in reality, they know little more than you do. They likely hit the most famous attractions, of the type listed on travel sites’ “Top Ten Things To Do in Paris”-type lists.

Second, this pre-travel agenda-setting has a real downside. The internet gives us more information than ever before about what to do when we get to where we’re going. Whether it’s these crowdsourced posts or Instagram geotags, travel blogs, or TripAdvisor reviews, there is virtually nowhere we can’t research extensively before we go. That’s great for finding a hotel that has reliable wifi and AC, or figuring out if you can take a ferry on a Sunday, but not so great when it comes to embracing the wonderful kismet that travel has to offer.

The more recommendations we collect before we set out, the less likely we are to ask the bartender for his favorite place to eat breakfast, stumble upon a tiny museum, or skip our dinner reservation because we’ve made friends with some locals who want to take us to their favorite dive. Or, god forbid, use our intuition instead of our phones to find a place to eat lunch.

So what’s the fix? Instead of asking your friends for a rundown of everywhere they ate, slept, and trekked on their trip, ask them for the one thing they recommend you do in a given location. Even better, if there are a few people you know who have a particular knowledge of a place—perhaps they live there, have family there, or are just an exceptionally good traveler—reach out to them directly and ask for their singular pick. Keep in mind, locals generally are stumped when it comes to what tourists should do in their city, but when it comes to a stunning new exhibit at a national museum, or an unmissable breakfast spot, they’ll almost always have a recommendation to share.

Though your resulting list of must-dos will be shorter, you will get a higher caliber of quality recommendations—and you’ll leave some room for serendipity.