This page contains some of our general travel advice. While general travel advice can be found on innumerable websites across the internet, our advice is specific to nature travelers, and if you read further, you will see that we cover topics that are often omitted from commercial travel sites.
Here we cover topics including:
How to make effective web searches to find reliable information
How to distinguish useful info from advertising hype
Good sources of reliable travel advice
Safety while traveling
Group tours versus independent travel
Finding unbiased information on the Internet
This subject has become very topical since the recent concern about “fake news”. The subject of how to find reliable information requires some knowledge of how money is made on the internet and how popular sites become “popular”.
The website extension (.com .gov .edu etc) can give a useful clue to the reliability of a website’s information. But not always. The vast majority of websites visible on the internet are trying to sell products or services. It may be a very “soft sell” – perhaps like our website. For example we hope as many people will read our site as possible – we would like the entire world to be passionate nature explorers. If that were the case, perhaps some of them would then send us emails asking if we could help them with travel planning etc. Although some educational websites operate altruistically, most don’t and have a place for “donations”, or other ways to support them.
Wikipedia is an information source that almost everyone uses. But it is a secondary source of information and a compilation of many individual edits by (usually) different people. This is good and potentially bad – consensus is not always right. Most people in Galileo’s day thought the earth was the center of the universe…
How do we search? I use Google and enter key words to obtain the kind of information I want to find. For example, let us consider that we are planning a trip to Kenya to see wildlife, especially birds. But we also want to see succulent plants. What would we google?
Consider some options:
- Kenya wildlife safari
- Kenya birds safari
- Kenya succulents tours
- Kenya succulent and birding tours
I can almost predict the outcome of these searches. The first two, because the have the word “safari” in the search will return hundreds of sites trying to sell you a safari in Kenya. Most of these will not have anything specific about birds – much less succulent plants. Then the third item will probably not return much, simply because there are few commercial firms specializing in succulent plant trips to eastern Africa. But what you find might be more related to what you are really looking for. The last search will probably get you closer to what you want to see, though again, you won’t find much about succulent tours.
If you really want to see succulent plants in Kenya you will need to plan your independent travel with the aid of a company that will take you and your group where you want to really go. But you will have to determine the places you want to visit, based on specialist forums, trip reports from other people, or technical articles about flora of Kenya. If you had Google Street View (like in South Africa) you could peruse the road imagery, looking for suitable habitat. (Note 2022: Street View now is covering many parts of Kenya – when this material was originally written it didn’t…)
Here are a few red-flag words that should warn nature travelers (I took these off one Google search page):
luxury or luxurious: You are traveling to see nature in the raw, not to spend time around a pool or fine dining. Luxury is not what you want. As the old Model 6 ad said, most rooms look pretty similar when you turn the lights out (you should be tired enough to sleep well).
Award-winning “experts”: True experts know how little they really know and are usually modest for this reason (they don’t like to use the term “expert”). People who don’t know that much but think that they do often call themselves experts – this is a well-known phenomena (exhibited by a recent US President).
hidden secrets: In this age there are very few hidden secret locations. Those that do exist are because most people don’t care to see them, or they are too-far out-of-the-way to see them. If your tour operator is going to them they are likely leaving out something else that many people probably value more.
best-price guarantee: There are usually so many options and middle-men in safari tours that there is no easy way to know what is the best price. Do you really want the best price tour – if the quality is poor?
holiday: A naturalist is usually on an expedition or tour, not a “holiday”. It may be your time-off and technically a holiday, but the term holiday suggest pleasure/relaxation/vacation. A sure measure of the success of your nature travels is that you should return home to take a rest!
unforgettable: This term can mean either something very good – or very bad.
budget: another meaningless term. All travel is done on some kind of budget.
action-packed: This can refer to rafting down a whitewater river (positive experience for most people) or spending hours in a bus swerving at high speeds on narrow mountain roads (unpleasant experience for most). By itself action-packed doesn’t say much.
One you have read enough travel magazine articles or blogs you will start to recognize “content” from “filler”. There are a great many travel writers and bloggers who rehash content that they can find on the web, add a few of their personal experiences, and present it as “authoritative”.
Returning to the type of website extension, we should expect .gov (government) and .edu (educational) sites to convey relatively unbiased information – since they are not directly selling anything. We expect the opposite with .com sites (commercial). Such sites are selling something, and we should not expect entirely impartial perspectives. Of course, some state sponsored websites may contain considerable misinformation – we would not expect impartial news from a North Korean or Russian state media outlet.
The sites with .org (organization) have been relaxed recently and individuals can have a .org site (the website you are looking now is .org. We chose .org to give the appearance of a less-commercial site, though we suspect few people will notice this detail.
Fake News and fake advertising
A great many websites make money by displaying advertising. They don’t select the advertising, it comes when they select the option to use advertising. Any website that contains advertising does so either because 1) they don’t want to pay to eliminate it or 2) they want it, so they can generate income. You have to have a great many hits on your website to really make any money this way.
We pay to avoid advertising on this site because we feel it “cheapens” our message. Very few people like to see ads. We want people to concentrate on our site’s content, not the ads.
There are tricks to encourage people to click on your website, and most of us see these daily. Ads that have text like “Elvis seen near…” or “The best experience you will ever have is at…” , “You wouldn’t believe what this Elephant ate…” illustrated with “photoshopped” images, are all examples of “clickbate” that are intended to provoke you to click on the site. Your click brings up advertising along with a usually lame article that says little related to what you thought it would.
“Adventure tourism” versus “ecotourism”
In many countries, and among many tour operators, adventure tourism and ecotourism are similar. A recent article on the BBC website discussed the best sites to visit in the US and it included the Grand Canyon. However, it mentioned zip-lines for the more adventurous travelers. There are no zip-lines in Grand Canyon National Park. There is one in the Hualapai Indian Reservation, and there are many, many other “attractions”. The Grand Canyon itself is large and not all of it is contained in the Grand Canyon National Park. This is an example of misleading (though not strictly incorrect) information. Entering the National Park is relatively inexpensive (staying there in a lodge is not), but there are no commercial attractions that charge a separate fee once you are inside the park. The Hualapai attractions are almost endless, but are not focused on nature – only “thrills”. And they are expensive.
Surrounding many US National Parks are commercial attractions that offer “thrills” that the National Park Service would not allow. Be aware that when you Google a park, try to be specific to quickly get to the site you want. Google for example “Yellowstone NPS.gov” and the first site to appear (excepting the paid “Ad’s”) should be the official site. The .gov is a fairly strong filter, and will exclude most commercial sites. And the “NPS” (National Park Service) appears in the web address as well.
Another example is worthwhile. We have heard people tell us they went to the Everglades in south Florida. When we asked them if they liked the Anhinga Trail (just about the best place to see and photograph wading birds)… it turns out they didn’t go to the Everglades National Park at all! Yes, they went to the “Everglades”, but they went on an airboat ride… which the Miccosukee Indians offer on their reservation land near Miami. There is so much advertising for these rides, along with petting baby alligators etc, that the average tourist (coming to Miami for the winter sun and warmth) cannot distinguish the National Park from the commercial attractions on the border of the national park. Both are part of the greater “Everglades”.
Safety while traveling
A great deal has been written about this subject and is available on the Internet, for all parts of the world. The US is generally free of wars, terrorist attacks (with obvious exceptions) and similar dangers, but it is not free of gun violence and petty crime. It is probably much less violent than many foreigner’s may think from reading the international news and much of the crime that occurs (like anywhere else) is related to crimes of passion, the need for money to feed addictions, and opportunistic theft. Gang violence occurs, but is usually in impoverished inner city regions of major metropolitan areas. In the countryside, where most nature travelers will be spending most of their time, crime is relatively infrequent. Having said this, there are common-sense activities you should do to minimize the chances of becoming a victim of crime. These apply almost anywhere in the world.
Spend more time in the countryside and small towns and less in large urban centers.
Drive through large urban areas on freeways to the extent feasible.
Don’t frequent bars and nightclubs anywhere, and don’t stay out late unless you are in a park or other natural area and are looking for nocturnal wildlife.
In many parking lots in parks there will be signs telling you not to leave valuables in your car, but this is unavoidable for many travelers. It may not be practical to bring all your camera equipment, binoculars, laptops or smartphones and other expensive gear on the trail with you. You should cover or hide any valuables – ideally before pulling in to such a location (you could be watched by thieves at the lot). Needless to say lock your car – double-check it to make sure, but in an inconspicuous way (otherwise onlooking potential thieves will think you do have something valuable inside).
In crowded, urban areas don’t wear an expensive camera with a long lens around your neck with a neck strap. Nothing says you are a tourist more than this. Carry your gear with a wrist strap and in your hand, or bury it in a photo vest or birding vest or daypack. Get one with pockets large enough to put your binoculars or camera or ipad in it if you have to. When you need to use it, pull it out and shoot, then put it back. Or use a cell phone for photos in cityscapes. In the countryside, on a nature trail, or along an empty forest road you can dispense with most of these precautions. Expensive cameras are common in the US, so they are not something really unusual to see.
Passive security steps: Dress appropriately for field activities (this includes city walks) and wear boots or other field shoes. Don’t wear fancy jewelry and don’t show purses while in the field. Look like a ranger or semi-official person – without trying to impersonate such people. Why? Because thieves or muggers will target weak and easy targets in a crowd, not the most likely to resist. So hide valuables from plain sight and look like you are “tougher” than you actually are. Hence the boots (not flip-flops or sandals), long pants (not shorts) and a vest (to hide your small valuables from slight and discourage pickpockets). And when lost in an unfamiliar city – don’t wander aimlessly, rather walk with determination for a short while, then stop inside a shop to ask directions – then return to the street and walk briskly with confidence again. Anyone trying to follow you will become much more obvious.
Most of the above security steps aren’t needed in the US; we have just mentioned them here because they should be part of any traveler’s basic “instincts”. In all of our US travels we have not been victims of crime, though petty theft is aways a possibility anywhere.
Group Travel versus independent travel
There are advantages to both individual and group travel. These are discussed below.
Group travel: When you travel in a group you must follow the group/tour leader otherwise chaos will ensue. You have to be flexible, and cannot depend on having all the time you want at any particular location. The itinerary is not decided by you alone, but by a tour leader, in consultation (ideally) with the tour members. Perhaps the main advantage of group travel is that you do not need to worry about most of the logistical details like where to stay for the night, what vehicle you rent and who will drive, who pays for the entrance fees to parks etc. Another advantage of group travel is that the knowledge of the group will exceed that of any one person, so that you will learn from others. Also, many pairs of eyes will spot more things than just your own eyes. For example, this is valuable when climbing a hillside looking for cryptic plants, or when overturning logs looking for salamanders or snakes.
The downside for nature tourists coming to the US is that there are not very many nature tours in the US. Why not? It is because the nature tourism facilities in the US are geared towards independent travelers, using their own vehicles. Relatively few people travel to a national park, wildlife refuge, or camp in a national forest as part of a formal tour. This is very different from many countries in Africa or parts of Asia, where local language barriers or driving conditions may make self-driving tourism complicated or undesirable.
Individual travel: When you travel alone (or with someone who has similar interests) you can see just what you want to see. If you want to spend an extra day in some ideal location you can. Weather delays may force changes in your itinerary, but if you have enough time, you can rearrange your travel without worrying about what other people will say. If you want to skip breakfast to get to that ideal sunrise location you can, without upsetting others who need a breakfast. And, last but not least for many people – when you travel alone you don’t have the problem of having to travel with other people, some of whom can be unpleasant at times.