Years ago, my approach to traveling internationally was terribly conventional. I would buy the most popular guidebook for my chosen destination, and then use it as a travel bible. That method worked great. For a while.
One day I realised that despite eating at the recommended restaurants, staying at the recommended accommodation, and seeing the recommended attractions, at the end of the day I was feeling really unsatisfied. It took some time for me to realise that – for the sake of my own happiness – I needed to stop doing the things other people said I needed to do, and to start doing the things I actually enjoyed doing.
To be honest, it took a while before I was comfortable saying ‘No, I didn’t see that’, or ‘I didn’t eat there’ to other travelers, and still not feel like I’d missed out on something.
For me, things have changed a lot since then, however, I would never return to that old way of traveling.
In this article, I want to use the metaphor of the ‘Long Tail’, in order to describe the changes that have taken place in the travel landscape over the last decade, and how that has changed the way we travel.
Introducing the Long Tail
The concept of the Long Tail in business was sold to the masses several years ago in a popular book of the same name.
(Since I’m not recommending the book or the theory, I won’t link to it. At the risk of opening a can of worms, using a pop-culture business book to structure your business, or a personal development blog for ideas on how to run your life, is not much different to how I was using the guidebook to outsource all of my travel decisions. That’s not what I’m trying to teach on this website. To give a practical example. In the context of my recent article on the best iPhone travel widgets, if, after reading that article, you end up with a selection of widgets that look exactly like mine, then I’ve failed in my teaching. In six months time, when my widget selections would likely have evolved, you’d still be using my old workflow. If, however, my article helped you discover and explore iPhone widgets, and you now have a collection of widgets that you love – one that reflects your own unique needs and circumstances – I would be very happy. I would be equally happy if you tried iPhone widgets, and decided they weren’t for you. That is the way I love to teach. It is a method that empowers you, and makes you more resourceful, rather than reliant upon the teacher or other expert.)
Let’s get back to the Long Tail.
In the context of that book, the basic idea was that when you organise products into a statistical distribution based upon sales, the ones that sell the most (or are most popular) can be found in the short ‘head’ of the distribution. For books, think of the blockbuster titles available at Amazon.com by authors like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Then there are millions of other books that don’t sell very much, but cater to very specific tastes or niches. These are the ones that form the long ‘tail’ of the statistical distribution. These might include books on quilting, South American rainforests, or 101 different taco recipes. In aggregate, Amazon.com sells more of those books every day than they do the blockbusters. Catering to the ‘Long Tail’, is a core part of their business success.
Lets look at this idea as applied to a travel context.
At the small head of the distribution, you have guidebook publishers like Lonely Planet. For many destinations, Lonely Planet sells some of the most popular guidebooks you can find. In the body of the Long Tail, you have brilliant niche guidebooks like The Islands of Taiwan by Richard Saunders. Because it is mostly uneconomic for the big players to publish these kinds of guidebooks, they don’t. Similarly, at the head of the distribution you have generic mass-market tours; international hostels like YHA or chain hotels; and the highest-rated restaurants in the city. In the Long Tail, you’ve got custom day trips like a Kayak, Swim and Picnic trip on Sydney Harbour; accommodation in someone’s apartment or a private villa; and dinner at a suburban organic vegetarian cafe. None of these are popular enough to regularly attract thousands of customers, and without access to the Internet and the services that aggregate these places, you couldn’t even find most of them. However, these days, you can.
This makes ‘traveling in the Long Tail’ a vastly different experience.
In some ways, the difference is akin to traveling like a local rather than traveling like a tourist.
There’s a difference as to whom is considered the expert, too.
In the old paradigm, the guidebook author or travel agent was the expert, telling you what you should do. In the new paradigm, the traveler reclaims the central role.
Generally speaking, guidebook publishers are struggling with this new reality. That said, guidebooks and similar services still have a valuable contribution to make, its just a slightly different role than they have traditionally played.
Instead, today, there’s a whole group of new services that cater to this ‘Long Tail’.
What Are Long Tail Services?
The difference here, for example, is that rather than listing the top dozen restaurants in the city as would a guidebook, a service like TripAdvisor might list a thousand different options, covering all different tastes and budgets. Likewise Airbnb does the same for accommodation. For travel books, the Amazon Kindle Travel store is where you’ll want to start your research. There, you’ll find more than 70,000 of them.
I would also argue that apps like Google Translate, Google Maps, Skype, and a whole host of lesser known apps like BabelDeck are also about Long Tail travel, making it much more accessible and enjoyable.
I’m not saying these services are perfect. In fact, some are far from it. As they grow, they seem to move a long way from their roots. If you’ve watched TripAdvisor change in recent years, you’ll know what I mean. What tends to happen is they stop serving their communities, and start focusing on maximizing their revenues. And then everything changes.
However, that these services have changed the travel landscape is hard to deny.
Origins of Long Tail Travel
Long Tail travel probably began with the widespread adoption by the travel industry of the Internet as a platform. It made accommodation and other services all around the world accessible to anybody who had access to an Internet browser.
It progressed with the introduction of inexpensive portable, lightweight netbooks. Travelers could suddenly take their computer with them, and not have to go to Internet cafes in order to connect to the web.
However, the Long Tail really snowballed with the introduction of smartphones and tablets, and the thousands of apps that exploited that platform.
While you’d never whip out a netbook to navigate your way around the streets of a new city, you wouldn’t think twice about doing that with your smartphone. Likewise, if you were looking for somewhere to stay at the last minute.
Around the same time there was the explosion in social media; cloud services like Dropbox; and free, or low-cost access to Wi-Fi and 3G Internet. Suddenly, having access to everything, everywhere, is rapidly becoming a reality.
These are some of the tools of Long Tail travel. And they’ve totally reshaped the way most people travel.
Little more than ten years ago, we traveled with a guidebook, used travel agents, and carried physical currency. These days, its usually a smartphone, apps, and digital currency. At the airport, you’ll usually see more people lined up for a prepaid local SIM card than you will to change foreign currency.
Benefits of Long Tail Travel
The benefits of Long Tail travel for the traveler are many. While some might argue that the Long Tail enables us to indulge our every desire – and there is some truth to that – I would argue that it enables us to travel in a way that is far more self-loving.
In an expensive city, you can sleep like a battery hen in a 32-bed dorm, or, for around the same price, stay in a comfortable Airbnb apartment.
And, for the traveler that has allergies, it is now much easier to get those needs met in most parts of the world. Not too long ago it was a nightmare to even try traveling as a vegetarian in many countries.
If you value socially responsible travel or healthy eating, you can cater to those preferences, too.
Then there’s the ability to form new relationships. These days its easy to make lifelong friends with people who share similar personal or professional interests and live in the cities you visit. Pre-Internet, it would be very difficult to meet (let alone stay in contact with) such people.
There are many other practical benefits of this new way of traveling.
In summary, today it is much easier to travel in a way that suits your own unique values, needs, preferences, and budget.
And speaking of budget, you may think this way of traveling would be really expensive.
However, with the right knowledge and tools, (paradoxically), this way of traveling is usually significantly cheaper. So, its kind of win-win for travelers all around. In fact, I’m writing this article from a beautiful apartment in Ho Chi Minh City. My apartment here costs me no more than one of the many dingy hotel rooms available on the same street.
Exploring Long Tail Travel
In closing, I want to point out that the iTravel Life website and books are all about teaching you ‘Long Tail’ travel. My focus is all about finding the unique combinations of tools and workflows that are best for you.
I think it is an exciting time for travelers, as many of these services are getting better and better every day.
On a related note, I’ve just finished my new book. So, for the next few weeks, I’m going to write more here about one of my favourite Long Tail travel apps, Evernote. I’m looking forward to sharing my knowledge with you.
Image Credit: Kate Brady