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You Do Not Need A Guidebook To Travel

Wrong Way Sign

Guidebooks often have out of date information

If you have been reading the news the last few days, you have probably come across the “scandal” about the Lonely Planet writer who wrote parts of the Colombia guide book without ever traveling to Colombia.

Actually, it is a non-story. He was never supposed to go to Colombia. He was just supposed to write background material, not get on the ground data for hotels, restaurants and attractions. You can read an interview with him here and it all sort of makes a lot more sense. (that being said, the reviews on Amazon.com are critical of ALL the authors)

But I really don’t want to talk about him. I want to use the story as an excuse to talk about the general use, and over use, of guidebooks by travelers.

Here is your travel hint of the week from this long term traveler: you don’t need a guidebook.

I see backpackers all the time who pour over their guidebooks like it was the bible. They treat it more like a user’s manual to a country as opposed to what it should be…a guide. I’m hear to tell you that for your next trip, leave the book at home or better yet, don’t even buy one to begin with.

Restored 4 - Easter Island

My guidebook had poor information about the internet cafes on Easter Island

Timeliness

Since I started my trip, I have used a grand total of one guidebook, and that was for the first leg of my trip. The book I used was the Moon’s Guide to the South Pacific. It was a fine book (if a bit heavy) but much of the information was out of date, even though it had been published only two years before. Much of the early planning I relied on the book for was thrown out the window because flights which no longer existed and airlines which had gone bankrupt.

This was no fault of the guide book. The author of the book, David Stanley, is an expert on that area of the world. A book however can’t keep up with changes in the world. I ended up carrying around this heavy tome for a good chunk of the time I was in the Pacific, but ended up using the Internet to get most of my information anyhow.

I purchased the book before I left for my trip and really used it more as a wish book than a guidebook. It was the adult version of the Sears christmas catalog. People who dream of traveling can page through the book and dream of all the places they want to go. There is nothing wrong with that, but there are probably better books you can drool over than a glorified white pages. Go buy a photography book or a compilation of travel writing. (…or follow your favorite travel blog :)

Family at Blowholes - Tonga

Flight information in the Pacific was very different than what was published in my guidebook

Quality

Killing Batteries is a website I read on a regular basis. The author, Leif Petterson, is a fellow Minnesotan and a travel writer. He did a lot of the research for the Lonely Planet guide to Romania. The way he describes doing research for creating a guide book isn’t much different than what you would do when traveling on your own. When I move from point A to B, I ask other travelers for recommendations, check the internet, and read the brochures which can be found in most hostels and hotels. There is little in the way of magic when it comes to researching guidebooks. It is mostly grunt work on the front end, and sitting down and condensing it into a compact form on the back end.

Lonely Planet and their ilk are not in the business of providing reviews. They aren’t like Michelin or Zagut’s. They don’t have secret reviewers checking into every hotel and restaurant in a country. They just compile data. If you want to get reviews, get online and check what other people have to say before you go. Or, if you are traveling like me, ask other people you meet who are going in the opposite direction. Taxi drivers are also good sources for information. When I arrived in Bali I told my driver to take me somewhere good and cheap. The place he took me to was great and a block from the beach. I have no idea if he got a kick back, but I also don’t really care.

Koala 1 - Tasmania, Australia

I don’t believe you can adequately cover a country as large as Australia with one book

Depth

Lonely Planet has a guidebook for the United States. The whole country. Likewise, they have a guidebook for Western Europe. I cannot fathom how you could possible cram everything you would need for such large areas into a single book. At best they are leaving lots of information out. At worst, you aren’t getting the information you would need.

Lonely Planet also has separate guidebooks for Australia, New South Wales and Sydney. Each in some respect is just a subset of the other. They wisely charge less for whatever the smaller geographic area is, but it is still just sort of a scam to get the maximum bang out of each guidebook. I don’t blame them for trying to make a buck, but as a consumer, you should be wise to what they are doing.

Remember that no matter where you go, there is an entire industry built around getting you the information you need so you can go see and do things. This industry exists because they want your money. I have literally shown up in a strange city with no idea where I was staying and managed to get by. The process of getting information you can personally collect is no different than the process that guidebook writers go through. Throw away your book.
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  • 5 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. Mark Evans says:

    I think travel guides do have a place but mostly as pre-trip resources to give a better idea about where you’re going. As you mention, one of the biggest problems with travel guides is too many travelers look at them as the gospel of what they have to do and see – as opposed to being a travel resource along with Web sites, advice from friends, travelers, and, most important, you own sense of adventure.

  2. Nomadic Matt says:

    I don’t often use guidebooks for anything other than basic information and maps. For food and hostels, I usuaully just find them on my own or ask other people. But guidebooks can be helpful with maps and to give you a general idea of the city.

    I just wrote about the airlines in the states. stop on by and take a look! How long are u in OZ for?

  3. Austin says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I think that the information you could gather on the Internet before a trip, combined with what you get from fellow travelers and locals is all you need for a fantastic trip.

  4. Arjun says:

    so true, ive been to india tons of times and often the guide books SUCK! Better to travel without em!

  5. kevin says:

    I don’t like Lonely Planet that much anyway. I’ve read a few dozen, and most of them seem oriented towards traveling the cheapest way possible, from the cheapest lodgings to food to activities. Though I have flipped through travel guides in a library before traveling for some ideas, I wouldn’t buy one (I guess I am cheap after all).

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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