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A huge number of upvoted questions (<- 6 links) that ask for the cheapest and fastest way of transport between two points. Personally I take issue with this as:

  1. They are often looking for the 'best' (=subjective) option (a cheap and fast option, which might be neither the cheapest nor fastest), though this is not always the case.
  2. It makes answers totally ignore the criteria in the post and instead just answer with the 'best' option always (even when the post clearly specifies it's looking for the cheapest option only and answers giving the cheapest options actually get downvoted for not being 'best')

What should be done with this?


I am posting two answers myself proposing two possible ways to address which I think are both reasonable solutions. If anybody can think of a better way please do answer as well and I hope a consensus will be reached soon.

  • Regarding the question that frustrated you so much, we have already discussed that at length and I am belabouring a point that I already made but it's not fair to pretend the other answers completely ignored the cheapest options or failed to address the question. It's really down to how you interpret it and unfortunately the OP hasn't clarified it. – Relaxed Apr 7 '15 at 16:42
  • With just a tiny bit of effort, you might have avoided the downvote (now removed) and your answer might have been better received. It does feel a little bit as if this negative experience make you see all this as a huge problem when in fact it would not take much to make the whole experience much more positive for everybody involved. – Relaxed Apr 7 '15 at 16:46
  • @Relaxed Well, yes, I do see that as a huge problem, however I have been trying to focus on solutions rather than problems. Both with this proposal and the other one regarding location disclosure. – David Mulder Apr 7 '15 at 18:24
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I propose that those questions by default get edited to "the cheapest option in reasonable time" (or specifically to whatever the author actually meant if he specifies it somewhere in the rest of the post). This is less subjective than "best option", even if "reasonable time" still is a judgement call. Although I think this lines up perfectly with the authors intent 90% of the time and is okay in another 9.9% of the time there is a theoretical chance it might not at all (he might be actually only interested in an answer if the cheapest option is also actually the fastest option).

Out of the two options I was able to think of I personally prefer this one as it requires less community involved and will get the author his likely intended answer quicker, but one way or another a clear way to tackle these questions should be decided on.

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    +1 I think we shouldn't not be shy about improving questions ourselves, perhaps leaving a comment to invite the OP to react if needed. – Relaxed Apr 7 '15 at 8:53
  • @Relaxed Totally agree about it being a good idea to always leave a comment explaining the edit. – David Mulder Apr 7 '15 at 9:05
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Another solution is to provide an overview of the trade-offs involved, with some example routes and links to useful tools. It's just as likely to address the OP's question and will be more valuable to other users who may have a similar problem in the future. If you see some option missing or perhaps want to provide other details, you can also post another answer to complement those that already exist.

The platform is based on the notion that a single canonical answer should be accepted but travel.SE has always been a bit more open-ended. No need to treat this as a mathematical problem or a competition in which only one answer needs to be the right one. IMO, if several partial answers have been posted, it's also fine to post a summary building up on them.

In fact, we can easily do that for all questions, even those that merely about “cheapest” or “fastest”, perhaps with a different emphasis depending on the specific criteria mentioned. For example if someone asks for cheapest and said the train is too expensive, mention cheaper train fares and hitchhiking and focus on the bus or car-sharing services, if someone asks about cheapest and fastest with no comparison point, propose a reasonable trade-off and mention other alternatives like busses, etc.

As far as the question itself is concerned, we can some ways to reformulate it or simply do nothing and let it be. As an example, consider Cheapest and fastest land ways to travel from Cologne to Prague? On one level the question is less than stellar, it does not specify many requirements and you can't really find a single ‘optimal’ solution or basis to claim that “my answer is better than yours”. But we now have answers covering all the main options and the whole thing is likely to be very useful to future readers. Nothing to be ashamed of or overly concerned about.

We can always request more details or suggest improvement but agonising over details of the formulation (“cheapest and fastest” is not materially different from “cheapest in a reasonable time“) or nitpicking over the choice of words when the intent is clear is not constructive. It's a bit like the perennial “walk or hitchhike“ comeback when someone asks about the cheapest way to go somewhere. We can try to nudge people into spelling out their requirements more explicitly but it's not unreasonable to make assumptions, that's how language works.

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    Looking through the questions I do not feel like people are often "providing an overview of the trade-offs involved", especially as they tend to choose a balance they find best themselves. I totally do agree with you however that interpretation is a natural part of language, but the hard part of "cheapest and fastest" is that depending on personal wealth and preferences the trade offs in consideration look totally different. (cont.) – David Mulder Apr 7 '15 at 9:20
  • E.g. in the third linked question the 'best' choice is defined by the author being "a sucker for overnight trains" (his words in a comment). So I do think making the criteria more objective and respecting the question as given (without making too wild interpretations) would be a good thing. – David Mulder Apr 7 '15 at 9:20
  • @DavidMulder Whether the question seems ambiguous at the beginning or not, it does happen all the time that the OP reveals different preferences in comments after answers have been posted. It can be a bit annoying but I am not sure there is much we can do about this. For the rest, I edited my answer to develop my ideas a bit. To some extent, it's a work-in-progress, not necessarily something that I or anyone else does consistently. – Relaxed Apr 7 '15 at 9:22
  • Well, some SE's handle that by telling them to open a new question as answers aren't meant for them specifically but any future readers. But yeah, I definitely do see where you're coming from, I just feel like the wild answers generated by some of these questions without a clear "best answer" criterium is kinda bad. – David Mulder Apr 7 '15 at 9:24
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A second solution I have been able to think of is suggesting that those questions should be downvoted consistently and an explanation should be given to the post author asking what he actually meant. Additionally any answer that does not fit the criteria provided and does not include an option that is the fastest and the cheapest should be downvoted. Of course it depends on the criteria in the question what modes of transport are included (e.g. for a generic question it's impossible that the fastest option is also the cheapest one (private helicopter is quite likely the fastest option), but for one limited to public transport it's quite possible).

Once the post author edits his question with more generally usable criteria (no future reader is likely interested in unanswerable questions) the question can be upvoted again and appropriate answers can be written.

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    I don't think this is reasonable at all. The last paragraph in particular tries to rationalise the whole approach but does not really hold water: An overview of the main options is far more likely to be useful to others than a single narrow answer (e.g. “bus is 5 hours and €XX and train is 2 hours and €XX” is useful to readers who want cheapest, to those who want fastest and to those who want to consider potential trade-offs). – Relaxed Apr 7 '15 at 8:58
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    @Relaxed Just to be clear here, I don't think many users are looking for the actual cheapest solution (only students tend to be interested in those), but that's exactly why this approach would force the question to clearly outline what they meant. The alternative which might fit more with your line of thinking and might not be that bad is actually forcing questions to be open (and thus useful for future readers: "cheap and fast options" (options, not option)) and requiring answers to cover a lot of ground. Might deviate slightly from typical SE Q&A, but could maybe work. – David Mulder Apr 7 '15 at 9:28

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