It is now time to launch a tour company called know-where-you're-going.com, thinks E&T.
What's happened to our spirit of adventure? A few years ago, we'd risk waiting until the last minute before booking our flights and reserving our rooms. We didn't care if we hadn't seen a layout of our hotel accommodation or didn't know the exact route we'd need to take to get to it from the airport. We'd busk it. We'd find out how to navigate a new town on arrival. We'd be pleasantly surprised to find our hotel was more central than we imagined. And we'd be faintly disappointed that there wasn't enough space around our narrow bed to lay our suitcase flat.
But today we know more or less everything about a destination long before leaving home. We've taken a virtual tour of our accommodation, pre-booked tickets to see Botticelli's 'Venus' at a specific time slot and consulted online to find out where we're eating each night. If the Noughties was the decade of lastminute.com, the next decade promises to be entirely predictable in the world of travel. Perhaps it's time to launch a tour company called know-where-you're-going.com to reflect the current need to be completely informed about a destination before committing.
The most extreme example I've come across of this 'know before you go' trend is the 'book at home, dine on board' service just launched by Oceania Cruises. This enables passengers to make advance reservations for speciality restaurants on one of the company's three cruise ships from the comfort of their own front room. They can choose from a menu of grilled chops or tapas on the terrace for their forthcoming worldwide voyage while ensconced in suburban predictability.
But can we really decide what we want to eat months in advance? A hearty bowl of soup followed by steak and kidney pie may sound tempting when we're making a reservation for a starboard cabin in a snowy winter. But by the time we board in the height of summer, our palates may have moved with the seasons and may now desire a refreshing salad to munch on. Yet this book-ahead system even allows us to pre-book the exact time we'd like to dine.
Where's the spontaneity?
It seems there's no stifling the appetite to plan every moment abroad. More and more applications are being developed, including the recently launched 'Tripbod', an online service offering independent travellers access to a global network of experts who'll let them know the latest information and on-the-spot knowledge about the place for which they're heading. You can even pay extra to have a live chat with your particular regional expert via messaging, so by the time you depart you'll have a personalised itinerary and calendar, backed up by annotated Google maps.
Does no one sense the great damage all this inflicts on our journeys? The chance encounter with a stranger on a train can no longer happen. We'll have already met them on our Web-based planning document, and they'll have helped us draw up our itemised schedule of cultural opportunities. And, although this sort of travel is often presented as 'bespoke' ' a word that suggests some sort of old fashioned tailor-made suit ' it's not remotely exclusive. It's death by diary. It eliminates any possibility of that one great joy of travel ' a surprise. One experience the technology employed by this decade's travellers threatens to make extinct is the delight of the unexpected.
Okay then, we may be spared welcome surprises, but doesn't all this technology-enabled knowledge at least make us wiser? I don't think so. When we arrive in Dubai or Dhaka, we may have more apps on our iPhones, but I'm not sure we're any more acquainted with local customs or less stunned by the wonders around us than we were when the only foreknowledge we took with us came from the pages of a tattered Baedeker.
Travel can't be summed up in schedules, plans and Google Maps. There's an essential part of travel that none of this pre-planning can take into account. Here are just a few examples that have happened to me: the sting of the air in my nostrils as I climbed down the plane steps in Kano; the clatter of the pans in the market in Georgetown as two wizened old ladies with three legs between them fought over my custom; the wail of the singer on our bus from Marrakech to Casablanca grieving for the loss of his son; the time I ordered 'two chicken sandwiches' in Lilongwe and the waiter arrived, an hour later, with two cooked chickens and some slices of bread. You can't plans these things.
I'm as addicted to planning as anyone. I love my guidebooks and maps. I even like to search on the Internet and sometimes go on a virtual tour of my hotel before check in. But I also hope that I will always be surprised and perhaps even a little bit shocked when I dock in a new destination. And, hopefully, hungry for a dish I haven't already ordered from home.