Travel writer Bill Bryson has made a career out of examining the follies and foibles of different countries and regions, including Australia, the Appalachian Trail, his home state of Iowa and his adopted country of Britain. Few authors have as much insight into how tourists behave as he does.
Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor at our sister site Cruise Critic, caught up with Bryson last month on a cruise aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. Bryson discussed his travel pet peeves — including the phrase “bucket list” — and how you can get the most out of a trip to even the most well-documented cities.
IT: After a fairly normal 1950s childhood in the Midwest, did you ever expect that you’d spend much of your life traveling?
Bill Bryson: Not at all. But I grew up with a really powerful urge to see the world, and the thing I remember very clearly is looking at National Geographic when I was a kid. My dad always had a subscription.
Now, the classic thing for little boys to do is look at the bare-breasted ladies in Africa or Tahiti, but what I was looking at was France and Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Everywhere in the world looked so attractive and exotic. I just wanted to go off and see the world.
IT: Are certain places still on your bucket list?
BB: I don’t like using that term “bucket list” as I get closer and closer to being in bucket territory. But no, there are a lot of places that I’ve never been where I’d like to go, and there are a lot of places that I’ve never been with my wife where I’d like to take her, and then there are a lot of places that I would like to go and possibly write about. But they aren’t all the same places.
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IT: What is your biggest pet peeve when you look at other travelers?
BB: There are so many people who are so obsessed with their job and their career that — no matter where you send them — they seem unable to enjoy the experience of travel. I think that’s a great shame, not only because travel makes you a better person but because it also makes you better at whatever business you do.
I know a man whose business took him all over the world but especially Sydney. And every time he’d go to Sydney from America, he’d stay at an airport hotel and meet his Australian colleagues at the airport hotel, and as soon as he possibly could he’d fly out again. He’d never seen Sydney Harbour! I don’t care how ambitious I was or how tied to my job I was, if you sent me to Sydney, at the minimum, I’m going to have a day to enjoy the experience.
IT: How do you think the Internet and smartphones have changed the way that we travel?
BB: People are so busy reporting their experiences that they aren’t actually having the experiences. I don’t travel with a cell phone in America because my cell phone from England doesn’t work in America. It drives my publishers crazy that they can’t phone me! I tell them, pretend it’s 1995 again and you don’t have a cell phone. They want instant access. So many people email you and expect an answer within minutes. You don’t have that entitlement to expect me to respond immediately.
IT: What else have you noticed about how travel has changed?
BB: There is so much more of it happening now. Just a year or so ago, I went to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. It was out of season, but [the bridge] was so full of human beings you couldn’t walk across it. It was physically impossible without fighting crowds. It’s a shame that there are so many people who are trying to have the same few experiences.
IT: So how can a traveler who wants to have a unique experience do so?
A: Well, if you just go another 200 yards, you can have it all to yourself. [My wife and I] walk away from Trafalgar Square or Place d’Concorde. We usually end up going to some residential area or some park or follow the river. Then you very quickly shed all the tourists.
If you want to experience Paris or Rome or London in an authentic way, it’s still really easy to do. Go where people live, not where the tourists hang out. Walking is the way to get a full three-dimensional experience where all your senses kick in. You’ve got the smells and the sights and the wind in your face.
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— interview conducted by Chris Gray Faust