Smoke and Mirrors: The Problem With Some Online Travel Articles

New Orleans

A few months ago I had planned to pen a piece called “Lies Travel Writers Tell” or something to that effect. The goal was to highlight some common techniques travel writers and bloggers use in order to get an article together on time or to create the perfect link bait post. Although the post itself wasn’t going to be all that negative, I decided that the overall tone was and so I scrapped it. Then last week I noticed an odd headline that begged me to click on it: “Queens crowned America’s No. 1 travel destination.” Absolutely no offense to Queens, but I honestly thought it was an Onion parody of Top Ten lists when I first saw it. But no, it wasn’t, instead it was the lede for a new Best of 2015 list offered up by one of the biggest names in travel, Lonely Planet. I have significant problems with the list and the inclusions, which I want to talk about now but the issues at hand are about so much more than the cities named on the list, it’s about the current state of online travel writing and how bad some of it is. (Note: I have MANY friends who write for several prestigious outlets online. This is not an indictment against ALL writers and most likely certainly no one I know.)

Lonely Planet’s Best in the US 2015

About this time every year, everyone feels the need to come up with a series of articles chronicling either the best of 2014 or what they think the best of 2015 should be. I can’t criticize it too much, I do it and plan on writing one along these same lines, but from my own personal point of view. So, this isn’t a rant against list posts or roundups; I like them and I think that they have their place. From an online readership point of view, they’re also quick and easy to digest, which is also important. No, when it comes to the Lonely Planet list the problem is the list itself. The top inclusions for the destinations they think everyone should visit in 2015 include:

  1. Queens, New York
  2. Western South Dakota
  3. New Orleans
  4. Colorado River region
  5. North Conway, New Hampshire
  6. Indianapolis
  7. Greenville, South Carolina
  8. Oakland, California
  9. Duluth, Minnesota
  10. Mount Shasta region

Of this list only New Orleans and maybe, MAYBE the Colorado River region should actually be on it. The rest? No way in hell. So why are they on there? Well, that would involve a lot of guesswork. More and more people are moving to Queens and like Brooklyn a few years ago, are in the process of changing the look and feel of the Borough. Perhaps some of the staffers live there and feel the need to highlight it; perhaps Lonely Planet wanted to be sure to grab some free publicity for their 2015 list from New York based media or perhaps they just want to be different from all of the other lists? Whatever the reason, placing Queens anywhere on this list, much less at the top does a disservice to the traveler who WILL use this as a checklist of places to go and things to see and do. Is Queens a pleasant place to live? Yes. Is it the top attraction in the United States? Um, no. Do they honestly want people to plan their one big trip of the year around this list? No, it’s a hipster-y way to try to look cool in the travel world and/or to give the industry the middle finger.

And you see that desire to stand out from the pack throughout the rest of the list: Duluth and North Conway? Really? I’m sure they’re pleasant places to visit, but in no way should they be prioritized above all other cities and towns around this great country. No, Lonely Planet chose them and came up with reasons to like them because the choices are different, they’re unusual and that in itself makes headlines. Mission accomplished.

I realize by writing this post, I’m giving Lonely Planet exactly what they were looking for in the first place, attention. Like a cranky toddler, they are standing on top of the table, throwing crayons and yelling, hoping that someone will notice. I should ignore them, but I can’t. Maybe if I had the patience of a parent I’d be able to, but alas I do not and so yes, I give them the attention they crave so dearly, but in doing so I hope some lessons may be learned.

Llafranc, Costa Brava Spain

Take Away Lessons

First, this is not an indictment against list posts as I said from the outset. Even some major outlets have done Best Of pieces that I think are worth their salt. Frommer’s for example did a fantastic one highlighting locations people should visit in 2015 that are both well known (London) and not so well known (Chaco Culture National Historic Park). They wrote the article as it should be written. These Best Of lists should be the opportunity for those of us who live, breathe and eat travel to reflect on current and emerging travel trends and then to translate that into a practical article for readers. The article should be useful, interesting and thought provoking. Frommer’s accomplished that and Lonely Planet did not.

This gets back to that post I didn’t write a few months ago. Consumers and readers need to be careful when digesting travel related information. Instead of accepting what they read as gospel, they should always be somewhat skeptical. All the time I see web sites highlight destinations based on dubious sources; opinions that aren’t necessarily always based on personal experiences. I don’t usually have a problem with these practices, but the average reader certainly doesn’t know about them. The major outlets don’t do anything wrong per se, but it begs the need for a healthy level of skepticism by readers. The fact remains though, the pressures and timelines of online writing are such that many major outlets don’t always take the time to put together thoughtful, well researched online posts.

My partner frequently comes home and asks, “Did you read that post on about the best cafes in Europe? We should go to them!” And in the back of my head all I can think of is that I know for a fact that writer just pulled those names out of thin air to put together a small bit of link bait. Was it a well researched list based on personal experience? No, it was the result of a few Google searches or queries of friends. Some outlets do a great job of producing strong online content, but so many are devolving into the BuzzFeed model and it makes me sad.

This is quickly turning into a blogger versus mainstream post and that is NOT where I want it to go. Bloggers are guilty of irresponsible writing practices too, it’s just a fact. But those of us who write and publish online have a responsibility, we owe it to our readers to always publish the best and most useful content regardless of how clickable or not the title is. Financial pressures for the big outlets are very real, I get that, but ultimately quality will always trump quantity, or at least it will in my little universe.

Let’s cautiously open this up for comments. What do you takeaway from the Lonely Planet list that started my diatribe?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

9 thoughts on “Smoke and Mirrors: The Problem With Some Online Travel Articles”

  1. Hi Matt, first off I just wanted to say that I have in the past written comments on your opinion pieces stating my polar opposite views to yours – and you have been good enough to publish them (hopefully as a mark of respect that we don’t all have to agree on everything).

    In this case, I am happy to report that I totally, absolutely, 100% agree with you – this is a scummy, crappy tactic that has been happening more and more frequently lately and it is a disgrace.

    Thank you for being brave enough to speak out against this. I used to have utmost respect for Lonely Planet (in particular) as a travel resource that was well researched and tested. These days it seems like they will publish anything, regardless of whether they have personally reviewed it, sometimes seemingly just because someone is willing to pay for it.

    1. Always happy to post comments from folks with a different opinion, I love a good debate! That being said, I’m glad I didn’t get you angry today :)

  2. I love Lonely Planet and usually buy their print guide book before a trip (I’m oldschool like that).

    However, that list is laughable.

  3. This list is honestly a joke. I’ve been to North Conway, NH because I lived within driving distance of it growing up, but I’d 100% not recommend someone fly from California to visit! I’m also a resident of Queens. The borough is definitely a cool place and a visit should be on the itinerary for visitors to New York. There are amazing food tours, the restaurant scene is really great (and affordable) and there are some attractions like the skyline view from Long Island City’s Gantry Plaza State Park, the MoMA PS1, and Citi Field. But would I recommend someone plan a weeklong vacation in Queens? Absolutely not. Even I, as a resident, usually go to Manhattan or Brooklyn on weekends as Queens is just simply not that exciting. Maybe if this list was named “top offbeat destinations” or “top side trips from big destinations” that would make sense, but top destinations of 2015 these are not.

  4. Mount Shasta I can see — it’s a gorgeous part of CA that is typically passed over for other more well known destinations. Oakland?? Really?? My thoughts are Oakland/East Bay over San Francisco…like the lesser-known step children of bigger well-known cities? I have no idea, but that might be some of the mindset in that LP round up. But, while there are some decent eateries in Oakland, the fact remains parts aren’t the safest — I believe it has one of the highest crime rates in the US.

    The top x lists and the best of this and that tend to drive my bonkers in most cases as they are not well-researched and yeah, just clickbait. I do some lists, primarily for other outlets, but they are based on my personal experiences. The titles are usually x great activities or something that doesn’t necessarily indicate they are the best as I really don’t know how you quantify that. What’s best for me, isn’t the best for the next traveler.

    I see the firsthand danger of these big publications putting out these top destination lists or best places to visit, etc. For two years in a row, the island I live on here in Belize has been rated ‘#1 Island in the World’ by TripAdvisor. What happens is now people come here expecting Bora Bora or Fiji and, when they don’t get it, they turn around and bitch…about everything. From the mosquitos and the dirt roads to no international chain hotels and McDonalds. Some people here get so excited to be included on these lists without really seeing the longterm effects. When the fanfare is over and the dust settles, the reviews are going to be more strikingly negative as these fans came here with a vision in their mind that was not fulfilled. This is my favorite place in the world, but it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and I’m happy about that. These top destinations lists have prompted a lot of starry-eyed people to want to uproot their lives and move here, without ever setting foot in the country. Would you move to China without ever going there first? Russia? Why should a small tropical island be any different?

  5. That was a silly list, and Lonely Planet lost a lot of creditability with me by publishing it. I, too, thought it was a Onion piece. I do have to say that Indy is an underrated destination, and NOLA should always be included on a list of great American cities for the food alone.

    Nice article, Matt.

  6. I just want to say that I live in Brooklyn, have been to Queens and there is not enough there to warrant it as a must see destination and I was quite shocked when it came in #1. Usually when this happens, I consult a different list. Thanks for the post.

  7. Hey, I faithfully read your blog but have never commented before. I have to say something though. I see zero difference between the LP list and the Frommers one you link too. They both serve the same purpose, to suggest interesting places for 2015. They both list a popular favorite or two and some outside the box ones. Hell, South Dakota is on both which by your reasoning should be egregious bc the Frommers list is for the entire world, not just the US. Nowhere do they say these are the top 10 places overall. Such a list would barely change from year to year. Who wants to read an article that lists New York, Washington DC, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone,etc. EVERY YEAR. The commenters above are merely taking your idea and running with it; no need to insult any of these places. To those above; Oakland is actually getting a lot of buzz these days. No one is suggesting is better than San Francisco, merely that it’s trending. North Conway is the gateway to Mount Washington, the most extreme mountain east of the Mississippi. But it’s funny that you think the Frommers one is somehow laudable; I actually think it is more deserving of your scorn. They list Cunard Line. A cruise ship company is one of the ten destinations in the world for 2015? Gee, I wonder if there is some money changing hands in exchange for that plug…Please Matt, I like your writing but you are WAY off base here.

    1. And that’s fine – I always am willing to be correct and I really appreciate you leaving a comment. It’s still something I’m thinking about to be honest and will think carefully about what you shared.

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