Travels May 2008

Weni, Widi, Wiki

Our correspondent visits Seattle with only the hive mind of the Internet as his guide.
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Where to go on the Web for travel advice

A light rain was falling when I arrived in Seattle late at night after a long flight from the East Coast. A shuttle driver collected a half dozen of us by calling our names off the tiny screen of his pager. In the damp, woolly-smelling van, a GPS unit on the dashboard issued directions to downtown in a soft and soothing female voice, at least up to the point where she said, “Three hundred feet, turn right on Seneca.” The driver ignored her advice, going straight and muttering, “What the hell?” The GPS lady retaliated by endlessly repeating, “Recalculating, recalculating,” in that bland, passive-aggressive way GPS units have, until the driver reached up and shut her off. We then circled the block three times in silence, looking for a hotel that refused to appear, the neon signs of Seattle beautifully pixelated through windows spattered with raindrops.

To travel these days is to plunge into an information cloud that, like a real cloud, can look more substantial than it really is. Booking travel online was among the first popular applications of the Web, to the great annoyance of travel agents. Now, with Web 2.0 and the ubiquity of user-generated information, someone setting off on a trip can dredge up all manner of suggestions and insider tips online, to the great annoyance of professional travel writers. Travel bees everywhere, it seems, are gathering nectar and bringing it back to the hive.

Which leaves one to wonder: How sweet is their honey?

Curious, during a four-day trip to Seattle last fall I relied solely on user-generated information. Seattle seemed the perfect destination for this experiment—I was unfamiliar with the city, and I figured that its hypercaffeinated, digitally literate residents (the region is home to Microsoft, Amazon, and Expedia) should make for a complex online ecology. I’d leave guidebooks at home, ignore the racks of tourist brochures in hotel lobbies, and not so much as make eye contact with a concierge. All my decisions would be based on advice from TripAdvisor, Yelp, Chowhound, Wikitravel, and other online travel communities.

In Seattle, I would depend on the kindness of strangers.

The van eventually let me off at the Sixth Avenue Inn. I had chosen this hotel after reading through exhaustive user write-ups on TripAdvisor, which has more than 2 million reviews posted by everyday travelers. It piqued my interest not because the travelers raved about the place—it was ranked 80th out of 115 Seattle hotels—but because the conditions some described were so colorfully deplorable. (Also, one review was titled “Stinky and dirty, but otherwise great,” which appealed to me with its koan-like quality.) I was curious whether TripAdvisors could be trusted to know a bad hotel room when they saw one.

Reading through the reviews was time-consuming—by my count, there were about 5,000 words, or nearly three times the length of this article, of commentary about just this single hotel. But the reading wasn’t particularly burdensome. Clicking through the reviews is a sort of guilty pleasure, like leafing through magazines that have only unkind things to say about celebrities. Reviewers seem most inclined to log on when they have complaints, and they almost always mention small, novelistic details of the sort you don’t find in traditional travel guides.

Of the Sixth Avenue Inn, for instance, one reviewer reported that the guest rooms smelled of “a mixture of smoke and various bodily odors that apparently mixed into the establishment over the years.” Another wrote, “I mistook a bath towel for a hand towel because the towels were so small.” On they went: “My first night I awoke to water pouring through the ceiling in my bathroom”; “I slept fully clothed and wore socks at all times. The shower was gross”; and “If Todd happens to be your waiter, you’ll also get entertainment” (it was unclear whether this was a good or a bad thing). A reviewer also noted that the pillows were “uncomfortably flat.”

The information online is often piping fresh—some of these reviews had been written just days before I arrived. (Indeed, I had decided against another hotel based on a recently posted account of a child sneezing lavishly in the whirlpool, “using the water as his tissue.”) What’s more, the site allows you to post “candid traveler photos.” Future historians will be pleased to discover that no hotel carpet stain has gone undocumented.

I opened the door to my room with mild trepidation. But it turns out that the Sixth Avenue Inn is absolutely fine. Not fancy, but fine. The shower was not gross. I could detect no unfamiliar bodily odors. The pillows did not strike me as unusually flat. I met no one named Todd. And the end of the toilet paper was even folded into a crisp equilateral triangle, the international symbol of hygienic attention. I slept well.

The next morning, I opened my laptop and fired up Google Earth, punched in the address of the hotel, and parachuted down from outer space. If you watch a dog in an unfamiliar place, it may loop around in expanding concentric rings, sniffing at everything, to orient itself. With some variation—less sniffing, more fretting about where to get a good cup of coffee—that’s pretty much how I explore a new place.

And that’s why I love Google Earth. A traditional travel guide—as heavy as a brick and requiring tedious consulting of an index—feels like 15th-century technology, which, of course, it is. Once you put yourself in the crosshairs on Google Earth (it always looks as if you’re about to be hit by a guided missile), you can explore what’s nearby simply by toggling various overlays. Click on dining, and the map is suddenly aclutter with knife-and-fork symbols. Click on coffee shops, and little coffee cups bloom like algae. Then dig deeper: click on the symbols, and brief reviews pop up.

Some of these data sets are licensed from professional providers—the American Institute of Architects list of the 150 most-loved American buildings is one—but I stuck with user-generated data, mostly from Wikipedia, Google Earth communities, and Yelp. (I used the Yelp overlay extensively, only to discover two weeks after I returned that its cheerful Partridge Family–like icons had vanished from Google Earth because of licensing issues. They may or may not return, but the 1.7 million reviews posted to date are still accessible at www.yelp.com.) While toggling around the neighborhood, I discovered that I was a short walk from the proto-Starbucks, the very first in the chain. I set off and minutes later stood gazing at an un­assuming storefront, vaguely aware that something was amiss. Then it dawned on me: the original Starbucks sign was brown, rather than the ubiquitous green. Freakish! But isn’t this what travel is all about—discovering that the familiar is suddenly unfamiliar?

The biggest downside of Travel 2.0 is the surfeit of information—how do you sort through all this detail and random advice? The number of social-networking sites catering to travelers is staggering. Among them: Ning.com, VirtualTourist.com, IgoUgo.com, Wayfaring.com, and TripWiser.com. I visited many, looking for ideas on how to fill my day; most offered tidy graphics but little or no content for Seattle. Other sites—among them RealTravel.com, MyTripJournal.com, and 43Places.com—encourage travelers to post trip diaries, in part to keep friends and family apprised of their journeys. Feeling slightly voyeuristic, I looked at these for ideas, too.

After a mere three or four hours of clicking, I mapped out an itinerary, which included Smith Tower and its 35th-floor observation deck and the outdoor-equipment retail behemoth REI (“Your [sic] first greeted by an amazing waterfall that truncates next to the outdoor hiking trail that the employees and customers use to test out mountain bikes”). I caught a bus to the Fremont neighborhood, lured by the prospect of seeing a statue of Lenin, a Cold War–era rocket attached to a restaurant, and, under a bridge, a squat concrete troll crushing a Volkswagen. Everything lived up to its billing, and then some.

The most useful site was Chowhound.com, a discussion board for the food-obsessed, which I’ve used for several years. (A new interface added in 2006 makes it much easier to search past posts.) It was launched with an emphasis on cheap eats but now hosts a diverse, committed, and generally knowledgeable community of foodies, who post fewer maddeningly uninformative comments of the sort found elsewhere. (Like this one, from a review of a Seattle restaurant on IgoUgo.com: “The elegant decor tips you off that you are about to have a food experience.”)

For travelers, as for so many other Web users, the Internet is great for finding the needle in the haystack. But it’s not so good at finding the haystack—at culling infinite possibilities into a manageable list of options. What I like most about Chowhound is the propensity of reviewers to provide a cluster of choices—the five best seafood restaurants, the best bars for a cocktail. (The latter, incidentally, led me to Zig Zag Café, easily one of the best bars for a serious cocktail fancier that I’ve found anywhere—classic drinks, no attitude.) Chowhound, like many of the Travel 2.0 sites, is in fact best approached like a cocktail party: you can learn more by eavesdropping here and there than by tracking any one conversation. There’s rarely a consensus, so it’s best just to skim through. At the very least, you’ll come away knowing which restaurants have recently changed chefs and may be on unsteady legs, and which new places might be worth a gamble.

My adventures weren’t without glitches, of course. In Fremont, for exam­ple, I looked forward to lunch at El Camino, a Mexican restaurant that several of my virtual friends had recommended. But it wasn’t open for lunch. Nobody’s paid to add the essential minutiae on Travel 2.0, such as when establishments are open. Or even whether a place still exists—I came upon a few phantom restaurants, making me wonder whether amateur traveler sites will eventually become boneyards of failed enterprises unless paid updaters occasionally police the neighborhood.

Near the end of my stay, I wandered down to the Seattle Public Library, Rem Koolhaas’s 2004 glass-and-steel structure famous for its exoskeleton. Not only is it one of the AIA’s 150 most-loved buildings (OK, I peeked), but several travelers had suggested a stop there. (“I highly recommend visiting the library if you come to Seattle, even if you think libraries are big yawn-factories,” wrote Corry on Real Travel.com. “The reading room was rad because it was giant, beautiful, and every single desk had a multitude of outlets so you’d never have to worry about not being able to plug-in.”)

Outside, the building looked like a Transformer unfolding into something as yet undetermined; inside, it was a beautiful soaring cathedral of information, with sherbet-colored escalators and elevators and vertigo-inspiring interior vistas. “Rad” might even be an understatement.

I sat down at a desk, took out my laptop, and plugged in. It was as perfect a spot as I could imagine to set out in search of a place for dinner.

Wayne Curtis is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic.
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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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