In John Updike’s short story “Twin Beds in Rome,” Richard and Joan Maple elect on a whim to holiday in Rome. Upon arrival at the airport in the Eternal City, the American couple are whisked onto a tour bus and toward an expensive hotel by rapacious Italians, who sense an opportunity. Venturing into the city streets the next morning, they clutch a dog-eared Blue Guide and wander indiscriminately, eating watery hamburgers and overpaying sidewalk vendors eager to exploit their ignorance.
The Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele bewilders them with a historical significance they can’t quite grasp: “‘What was so great about him?’ Richard asked. ‘Did he unify Italy? Or was that Cavour?’” Without plans, without knowledge, the Maples merely drift, in hopeless thrall to the tourist economy. They can’t even manage to get a single bed.
Updike’s vision of a spontaneous vacation seems as unrecognizable to us in 2018 as a voyage across the Atlantic on an ocean liner. The Maples visited Italy in the early 1970s: before the internet, before smartphones, before budget airlines, before Yelp or Airbnb. An extravagant European excursion then meant a visit to a travel agent; it meant an overpriced coach-class flight and a raft of costly taxis; it meant consulting volumes of sightseeing guidebooks, unwieldy paper maps and tips from the hotel concierge.
A visitor uninitiated in the local language and customs could scarcely hope to experience their destination from an authentic vantage — and mired in the vulgarity of tourism, even the keenest-eyed traveller was doomed to merely glimpse the parts of a foreign city reserved for out-of-towners. So they ate bad American food and ambled up to popular attractions, trying to get a feel for the place like someone groping through a room in the dark.
If one should like to holiday in Rome this summer, a vast range of tools on the cutting edge of technological innovation are at the would-be tourist’s modern-day disposal. A transatlantic flight can be booked at the lowest possible price for the prospective dates of travel using any one of several websites equipped to chart and track fluctuations in the cost of airfare by the minute. Skyscanner, a Montreal-based Hopper app that can alert you to deals for certain routes whenever they happen to materialize, will advise you based on trend whether fares are likely to soon increase or decrease as the case may be. Upstart airlines such as Wow, Primera and Ryanair, meanwhile, offer cut-rate tickets for international travel in exchange for the usual airline amenities like single-use linens and complimentary beverages — an exchange of comfort for bargain that in the realm of air travel is an entirely new phenomenon. Booking a cheap flight has become so easy that it has, for most consumers, rendered travel agents obsolete.
Accommodations are even more easily arranged. There are innumerable sites designed expressly to facilitate discount hotel bookings: services such as Hotwire connect hotel chains looking to fill last-minute vacancies with customers searching for a deal, while full-scale travel companies like Expedia offer huge markdowns on ordinary hotel rates in conjunction with airfare promotions and car-rental options. So prevalent are these online budget boarding solutions that there’s simply no attraction or advantage today to making reservations with a hotel directly — let alone walking into an old hotel and asking for a room off the street. A cheap room can be negotiated by smartphone in seconds. Given the expedience and value, why find a hotel room any other way? Most of these sites, moreover, provide reams of photographs, user reviews and star ratings, reducing any risk of disappointment reassuringly close to zero. One could, for further peace of mind, look up the hotel’s location tag on Instagram, scouting out first-hand impressions from travellers already on the ground.
Nor are hotels the only option any longer: Airbnb has dramatically altered the modern travel landscape, affording vacationers the latitude to forgo costly upscale hotels and dilapidated motel alternatives in favour of clean, comfortable homes and apartments, available to rent at a considerable savings in the short or long-term. The impact of this change extends beyond the cost and style of the accommodations. Staying in the furnished house of another ordinary civilian plunges the visitor more firmly into the local terra firma, helping to cultivate temporary roots almost by proxy.
In cases where the renter of the home is present and on-hand for consultation and conversation, the neighbourhood is laid suddenly bare and made more exhaustively accessible to the otherwise unfamiliar tourist, who may avail themselves of their host’s expertise and thereby cleave closer to the experience of a native. Indeed, one of the most invaluable side effects of the rise of Airbnb is this narrowing of the gap between visitor and local: it makes possible an instant affinity between a stranger and a strange land.
Once one has actually arrived in Rome, of course, whether staying in a hotel or borrowed home, the city may be navigated rather more smoothly than the Maples found they were able. Consider the variety of information available to the traveller today that would have been sacrosanct arcana to travellers of old: rather than merely wandering the streets in search of something reasonable to eat, one can consult Yelp for recommendations and reliable reviews; rather than stumbling toward the best-known tourist destinations with a blind conviction based only on common interest and name recognition, one can find detailed intelligence on not just which sights are worth the effort and which ought to be skipped, but also ideal times to visit and the pitfalls anyone informed should avoid.
A galaxy of amateur guidebooks and blog-borne travelogues exist to point those new to a city in the appropriate directions. What’s more, anything you see and don’t grasp can be illuminated instantly, on the spot — such as that Vittorio Emanuele did in fact unify Italy, which the Maples could have confirmed with Google.
We use the term “tourist trap” to denote the places in a city where anyone who knows better would never go — all those expensive, mediocre bars and restaurants whose livelihood relies on the ignorance of visitors drawn there by convenience and not deterred by the resident’s homegrown insight. But the modern traveller is more than ever before empowered to protect themselves against this kind of touristic exploitation and corporate mendacity. Warnings are easy to find. So are many superior alternatives.
With the most meagre effort of research, one can determine that, for instance, restaurants and cafés in Italy tend to charge a substantial fee for seated service that is waived for diners who order standing up. They can learn that fresh fish is priced by weight, and that less than scrupulous waiters may elect to furnish the table with the largest fish in the tank for a bill heftier than anticipated. It’s easy to avoid the Americanized café on the water that adds an outlandish bread surcharge for tourists; it’s easy to hear about the world-class speakeasy near Chiesa Nuova that boasts the city’s best cocktails.
One’s instinct in light of such readily available guidance may be to lament the loss of true discovery in travel — the feeling that gems can be merely happened upon by luck and serendipity rather than research and the internet’s expert counsel. It’s true that, if a vacation is investigated, planned and mapped out painstakingly, the range of possible experiences may in some sense be narrower. You’re limiting your freedom to explore, and therefore stumble upon for yourself and yourself alone. But the direction and information furnished by the internet is at the same time wildly liberating to the tourist — for while it imposes structure on travel, it also plunders the city of mysteries and secrets that would have been beyond the reach of the uninformed.
Insider knowledge doesn’t spoil a city by divulging these discoveries. On the contrary, it reveals them, thrillingly, and makes uniquely possible once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for delight. This is the most crucial respect in which travel itself has been transformed by these technological leaps.
Instead of drifting like the Maples, we can unearth hidden joys.