Schmap! Or, why online travel guides are still kinda crappy.

Very randomly, a photo I took, of shiny pink doughnuts, is now included in a rather nifty-looking online travel-info operation called Schmap. Here’s the specific page, a review of Baltimore’s Lexington Market.

I’m not sure how I feel about Schmap. There’s a whole range of travel-planning services online that don’t quite nail it, mostly because they have good structure but ho-hum content. Or even no content: I just today got an email touting Outalot, with a gorgeous interface for what is really glorified directory assistance–at least until all those clever Web 2.0 users show up and write the content themselves.

With Schmap, you get map-based travel planning, so you can see just where everything is at once. But its actual reviews of sights, restaurants and hotels from Wcities is probably uneven (I haven’t checked out more than Baltimore). Wcities provides those little blurbs for a lot of online travel services, so it’s not particularly opinionated, so as to please the most customers. The writers who do it are certainly not well paid, and I’m sure there’s very little attention paid to keeping the information actually up to date. Fortunately Schmap publishes the copyright date along with the review, so you can at least get an idea when it was written. So Schmap is probably great for major sights that don’t change much, but for discovering bars and restaurants, it might get a little long in the tooth.

Schmap points to the impasse we’re at in moving travel info online. Except for a few really devoted and specialized websites (such as Turkey Travel Planner and Luxury Latin America; I write for the latter), the best research and writing still goes into standard guidebooks.

Don’t be fooled by user-generated content: most people on TripAdvisor saying “this is the best resort in the Riviera Maya” don’t know jack, because of course they haven’t been to all the other resorts. (Only I have.) They’re really saying “this is the best resort I’ve ever stayed at”–and what does that mean for you? There’s no way to tell. Apply the same skepticism to readers’ polls in magazines–overexcited travelers, on perhaps their first vacation in years, and maybe even on a paid-for trip to a convention, can launch a perfectly average hotel like the JW Marriott in Cancun onto the top of the Conde Nast Traveler Gold List.

But of course guidebooks lack all the snazzy mapping features you can use on the web, and they take forever to physically print. As everyone knows, even if you get a book hot off the press, the research for it was done at least nine months before. (Or everyone should know–I’m looking at you, the reader who wrote to Rough Guides complaining about lack of coverage of major hurricanes in the Yucatan guidebook that arrived on the shelves just three months after those storms.) With an update cycle of three years, info can get pretty stale.

Lonely Planet has made an effort to speed up the editing and printing time, sometimes shaving off a couple of months on its city guides, and it even updates many of its better-selling guides every two years (with full on-the-ground research, I might add–not phone calls). Meanwhile, Rough Guides now actually take a couple of months longer to be published than they used to, since parent company Penguin decided it was more cost-effective to move all printing operations to China. One company gets it; one company might, but can’t do anything about it, thanks to the smothering print conglomerate it’s part of.

Following its sale of a majority stake to BBC Worldwide, Lonely Planet is actually making a big push to move its content online. Whenever that happens, that’s when we might begin to see something nifty and Schmap-like, with actual content written by reasonably well-paid experts (and not as a filler side gig, as a Wcities commission would be). It should also be kept up to date, if LP continues to invest in its writers.

But I’m still not holding my breath. I feel like people were promising me this kind of stuff back when I was working at a tech magazine in 1999. I gave up on my Palm, 3G mobile phones never really took off, and we still don’t have flying cars. And we still certainly don’t have good travel content online. Somebody text me when the future gets here, please.