What do Chinatown buses, independent hotels, and back street restaurants have in common?
Well, once upon a time, I was fortunate enough to see a speaker/author named Roger Von Oech talk about creativity. He has published some neat books and even a pack of cards that help you break your brain out of its complacency and make it come up with those coveted “aha!” moments. Fittingly, the books are called A Whack on the Side of the Head and A Kick in the Seat of the Pants. They’ve both been out for a long time, but are pretty timeless.
One of his rules that is especially applicable to travel is, “Look for the 2nd right answer.”
In travel, the first “right answer” is what everyone does. Go to Europe in the summer, stay at the Sheraton, take a taxi everywhere, eat where all the other tourists eat. But if you want to really get more bang for your buck and have a more meaningful travel experience, you need to continually look for the second right answer. Because doing it another way isn’t wrong, it’s just different. Most people shy away from what’s different, which is why you can make out like a bandit if you don’t.
I was reminded of this today when I saw a mainstream US newspaper article about the Chinatown buses that travel between New York City and other cities in the northeast. Backpackers coming from other countries have known about these for years. The buses are nothing fancy, but they can get you from New York to Boston for less than $20. Fast. You can bet that most people living in New York City don’t know about them, much less travelers coming to the city from elsewhere. Lots of companies would rather you didn’t know about them: Greyhound, Amtrak, and Hertz for a start.
The big mega-chain hotels also like it when you just go for the obvious. That’s why they bombard you with ads and try to buy your loyalty with frequent stay points. It’s why their results are highlighted first on the online booking sites–they’ve bought the real estate. But in international cities, you can usually find a much better value by choosing an independent hotel. It’ll often be half the price, be in a better location (for tourists anyway), and have less of a cookie-cutter feel. It takes more work to find the second right answer, but it’s rewarding.
Tourist restaurants also want you to take the easy route. They’re invariably more expensive and almost always more bland than their less famous competitors down the street. But they perpetuate their crowds (and their margins) by partnering with hotels, partnering with tour bus groups, and making sure they’re wooing all the right guidebook writers and article writers. After a while, the places are institutions and they make it into every mention of the area. Going there becomes the obvious answer, but not the best answer.
Next time you’re taking a trip, look for the second right answer each time you make a decision about where to stay, where to eat, and how to get around. Heck, do it before you even decide where to go. Try Panama instead of Costa Rica. Budapest instead of London, Morocco instead of Spain. It won’t be the obvious choice, but it will probably be the right one.
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