An inside look at travelers' Information Suitcase



Each year, a large number of Americans hit the roads and travel for various purposes. According to a report released by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics in May 2006, Americans take 2.6 billion long-distance trips per year, for a total of 1.3 trillion person-miles (Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2006). People usually pack when they travel. They may bring things they think they would need, e.g. clothes, money and toiletries, and pack them in suitcases. Travelers may also gather relevant information before and during their trips. Information Suitcase refers to the collection of information and pointers to information travelers gather for the purpose of their trips. Similar to Personal Information Collection, Information Suitcase is a subset of Personal Space of Information (Jones, 2007). This short paper takes an inside look at travelers' information Suitcase, and explores what Information Suitcase is like, how it differs from Personal Information Collection, and how travelers pack their Information Suitcase. The amount and quality of information travelers pack in their information Suitcase may influence or transform the experiences of people taking the trips.

Literature Review

Traveling is an information-intensive activity. Travelers need to search for information to plan their trips, and make various decisions. Most of the studies that examine travelers' information behavior are found in tourism research, which defines information search as the “motivated activation of knowledge stored in memory or acquisition of information from the environment”, or external information sources (Engel et al, 1995, p.494).

Four basic categories of external sources have been noted in the literature. They are (1) personal sources of information from family, friends, or other social networks; (2) commercial or marketing-dominated sources, including salespeople, brochures, or advertisements; (3) public or neutral sources such as newspapers, travel guides or travel agents; and (4) experiential sources accessed by direct observations or inspections (Beatty & Smith, 1987; Kotler & Armstrong, 1994; Hawkins, et al, 1995). Snepenger and Snepenger (1993) for instance, found that travelers used family and friends, destination specific literature, media and travel consultants when planning their trips. Tourism literature also noted that the use of different types of external information sources may vary based on the type of trip, distance traveled, expenses, and the composition of travel parties (Snepenger et al,. 1990; Gitelson & Crompton, 1983; Fodness & Murray, 1997).

Due to the wide spread use of the World Wide Web, many travel-related online resources become available to travelers. Spink et al. (1998), for instance, found that travel was one of the popular topics for search by Excite users. Five percent of searches were related to travel, i.e., hotels, resorts and tourist information either in general or about a particular city or locale. Studies also found that people use Web forums to share experiences or ask questions related to travel (Prestipino, 2004). Some tourist researchers have considered online resources as a fifth unique source of external information. Others have assigned Web pages to marketingdominated sources or public sources depending upon their purposes (Crotts, 1999).

It needs to be noted that tourism literature many times treats traveling as a kind of consumer product, and travelers' information search is framed as part of consumers' pre-purchase decisions. The current study moves away from a marketing perspective and focuses on travelers themselves. Tourism research defines information search as ‘motivated’. However, travelers may engage in information search in the absence of purchase deliberations. They may also encounter or acquire information accidentally and unintentionally (Erdelez, 2004).

Research Method

Episodic interviewing was used in the study to learn about travelers' information behavior before and during travel (Bates, 2004). The study reported here focuses on travelers taking long-distance trips by personal vehicles.

Fourteen participants who recently completed road trips were recruited and interviewed in the study. Nine of them were recruited through two of the largest general mailing listservs at the researcher's institution. The other five were recruited by approaching people outside the Undergraduate Library and Student Center. These are the places where students hang out, employees dine, or outside visitors pass by and rest. The study participants included undergraduate and graduate students, university staff and faculty, and people not affiliated with the researcher's institution.

The average length of interviews was 30 minutes. During the interviews, study participants were asked about general background of their most recent road trips, information sources and tools they used to plan for the trips, and their evaluation of the planning process.

Preliminary Results

Preliminary findings from the study on Information Suitcase include:

  • Information Suitcase takes different forms. Participants reported using bags in briefcases, or little backpacks with mesh pockets to store maps and directions. Other participants mentioned folders with files, or scattered paper and documents on the passenger front seat in their cars. Many participants had bags devoted to store travel-related information.
  • Some Information Suitcase extends into part of the travelers' personal information collections at home. One participant maintained a shelf of travel materials “arranged alphabetically by state and then by country”. Another participant also mentioned that he had a drawer at home to store guidebooks, maps, personal notes or other files on certain cities and states.
  • Preference toward openness and structure of trips influences travelers' packing of their Information Suitcase. For instance, participants favoring unstructured trips packed lightly for their information Suitcase, and kept open and flexible itineraries. Participants who preferred well-planned and structured trips, however, packed heavily for their information Suitcase. They reported that they did lots of research ahead of time, consulted various sources, developed detailed itineraries, and double checked things.
  • If one travels in groups, he or she may need to find out more information beforehand. Due to coordination among different travel parties, several participants mentioned that more time and effort were needed for the planning of their trips, or the packing of their Information Suitcase.
  • Travelers employ a variety of sources to prepare for their Information Suitcase. Local people and online resources such as various websites were two of the resources participants consulted the most before and during their trips.
  • Types of information travelers pack in their Information Suitcase may include: directional information, local place of interest, hotel and lodging information, traffic and weather. Dynamic information such as updated local transportation information, or traffic/construction information was most needed yet hard to find for participants. Sometimes travelers might not even know they needed the information until they got there!
  • Electronic devices as points to information can be an important part of travelers' Information Suitcase. This may include global positioning systems (GPS), cellular phones, or laptops. Surprisingly, devices such as GPS or laptops were used by only a few participants. Many participants brought cellular phones with them for travel, though. The phones provided pointers to information when in need, and helped keep participants connected with family members or fellow travelers.

Significance and Future Study

The study reported here is the first of a series of studies that examine how travelers gather and use information or electronic devices for their trips. The results may provide knowledge for follow-up studies that examine different groups of travelers, and offer guidance for specific areas of interest, such as the issues of interface design for electronic devices, or the process of sharing and conflict resolution in travelers' decision-making experiences.

It is believed that knowledge gained in these studies can be used to provide better information services for travelers. Better electronic devices can also be developed to help enhance travelers' experiences on the road. Findings and experiences learned from the studies may also benefit researchers investigating information seeking in everyday life, personal space of information, and contextual factors of information behavior.