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Step Away From the Lonely Planet: A Requiem for Travel Guidebooks

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This addresses is something which I’ve touched on before, the need for guidebooks when traveling. The impetus for this was spurred on by a Twitter discussion with Leif Pettersen who declared:

I declare that smugly claiming to be too cool or savvy to travel with a guidebook is officially passé and open for ridicule.

Leif is a guidebook writer. I’ve met other guidebook writers while traveling. I have nothing against guidebook writers. After a 19 months on the road, however, I can say with 100% certainty…

You don’t need a guidebook to travel, and getting information online is better, cheaper, and more convenient than what you will find in a book.

Here is why:

Timeliness

I have used one guidebook on my trip. Prior to leaving, I purchased the Moon’s Guide to the South Pacific. The author, David Stanley, is probably one of the foremost authorities on travel in the South Pacific. He’s been traveling the region for decades and knows the area very well. I subscribe to his website to get news of the region.

Nonetheless, for reasons which were totally beyond his control, much of the information in the book regarding flights was out of date. Pacific Blue had canceled their flights to Tonga. Air Nauru no longer existed. Several other transportation issues made me have to change my plans based on information I got online or on the ground. The problem wasn’t with the author, it was with the medium. He is very diligent about providing updates to airlines on his website, but that same information might take years to make it to print.

The publication cycle for guidebooks means that the moment a new guidebook hits the shelf, the information is probably a year out of date. The schedule for putting out new editions can range from 1-5 years and for little visited places, perhaps even longer.

Sites such as Hostelworld.com will have much more timely information. You can usually find reviews from people who have stayed at the hostel within the last two weeks.

Transportation schedules are the things most likely to change. You can find up to date train information at Seat61.com. You can find up to date flight information at any number of flight sites like Expedia, Orbitz or Kayak. You can get bus schedules from most places you stay. I know here in SE Asia, bus schedules are easy to find at any hotel or hostel, and they will have the latest information.

Most places you will have an entire industry built around tourism. Most guidebook authors get their information about attractions by picking up brochures, and you can do the exact same thing when you are there. If attractions have been closed for any reason, you can more readily find that out online than in a guidebook.

Quality

To address the quality of the information you get from a guidebook, I will not even address the controversy surrounding guidebook author Thomas Kohnstamm and the allegations of fraud (because there really was no fraud). It isn’t necessary.

Leif’s main contention is that you don’t know what your source is online, but you do in a guidebook. I contend the exact opposite. I have no idea who most guidebook authors are and I have no idea what went into the research of the guidebook. I’m sure most guidebook authors are honest, but I’m equally sure that some aren’t. They might have fudged some information or taken freebies from hotel/restaurant owners. I have no way of knowing.

There is huge demand to be a guidebook writer, because of the glamor associated with travel writing. Most guidebook authors are paid very little, and are required to cover a lot of places in a short period of time. I met one guy who was working on the Australia book for Let’ Go. We were both in Coober Peady, SA. He was there for a day, and I was there for four days. We both had access to the same information. He was gathering up everything he could before he had to take off and go to the next place. I probably experienced more of Coober Peady, but I wasn’t trying to catalog as much information as I could.

Guidebooks are not reviews. Guidebook authors do not visit the vast majority of restaurants, hotels, and attractions they write about. They can’t tell if you if a place is good, just that it exists and contact info. If you want reviews of place, you have to go online. Do I trust the collective wisdom of hundreds and thousands of people, or a single person? I’ll take the mob. If a hotel is consistently getting rated poorly online, that is level of information you’ll never get from a book.

The mob also does a good job with sites like Wikitravel. I have personally updated some of the entries on the Solomon Island and East Timor, which I found to be out of date. You have no way of knowing that I was the person providing the information of course. Can wikis have incorrect information? Yes. So far, however, I’ve found them to be reliable. (Prediction, Lonely Planet or someone else will eventually use these user created information banks to gather information and publish books using this content, bypassing individual authors completely. This will totally remove biggest cost associated with information gathering.)

Most importantly, it really isn’t that hard to get information once you are at a location. The more popular the place is, the easier it is to get information. In somewhere like Bali, you will have people falling all over themselves give you brochures, which is the exact same information which goes into a guidebook.

Finally, all guidebooks are second hand information. Online you can get primary information. Via the web can you get hotel, park, or airline information directly from the source.

Cost and Weight

Guidebooks are expensive and heavy. If you buy in a bookstore, you can easily spend $20-40 on a book. (much less at Amazon). Some of the thicker books can weight over a kilogram (2.2 pounds). That is not trivial when you are traveling. If you are going to many different places, that can all add up. Given the amount of money you spend on a book, you could spend hours at an internet cafe getting the same information (and of course, it will cost nothing if you get it before you leave).

Ultimately, guidebooks sell because of fear and uncertainty. When you go someplace you’ve never been, you want to have some certainty about where to go and what to do before you show up. I still feel the same thing before I go somewhere new. However, I have come to learn that I can get by just fine by asking questions on the ground and doing some research online. I’ve arrived in many places with no accommodations booked ahead of time and had no problem finding a place to stay.

Smugness has nothing to do with it. Guidebooks may have made sense back when Lonely Planet was founded in the 70’s. Today, they are a vestigial reminder of a pre-internet era.

Be the author of your own guidebook and leave the Lonely Planet at home.

  • 57 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. ruby says:

    I use guidebooks to get background information and to inspire me. I read LP India for 10 years before I had the guts to go. My book was well worn, as I would climb into bed with it and open it to a new place and imagine myself there. When I actually went, I carried it around for comfort, but I checked my facts on line.

  2. Krabi says:

    IMHO, information on travel blogs have outperformed travel guide book a lot due to more real and fresh content.

  3. Wow, this topic has caused quite a stir! Might as well put my 2 cents in :)

    My partner and I have been on the road for 1 year now – we’re travelling and working in a motorhome in Europe. For the first half of our trip we didn’t use a guidebook – just online research. For the second half of our trip we’ve used a mixture of the two. So, there are a couple of points I’d like to put out there:

    First of all I don’t think this is an either/or debate – we’ve found using a bit of both is the way to go as they’re good for different things. Guidebooks are great for getting a general overview but when I want detailed and up-to-date information about a specific place or activity I’ll go online.

    Naturally, we’ve also found both have drawbacks. We use Lonely Planet and have often found their descriptions of a place descend into gushing hyperbole! They do seem to be a very excitable bunch! The problem I’ve found with using online sources? All tourists seem to go to the same place, do the same thing, and take the same photos. if you’re going to use your every-day tourist as your only source of travel information you’re going to have a lot of information on very few places. Be prepared to wade through a bazillion journal entries on the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel and The Forum if you’re looking for something to do in Rome! Of course, Lonely Planet doesn’t cover all possible places or activities – how could it!? – but as someone who’s spent months in the one country whilst travelling and had more things on the to do list than I could get around to I think it’s safe to say it’s fairly comprehensive!

    One last point and then I’m done :) To talk about all guide books as if they’re made equal is oversimplifying it a bit, I think. If you don’t like Lonely Planet maybe you’ll like Rick Steves! They each have a different focus and are good for different situations and different people. For example Rick Steves is brilliant for short trips but absolutely rubbish for those of us staying in one country for months at a time.

    Ok I lied – one last point! We have about a dozen guide books because our trip is so extended and they don’t weigh a thing – it’s a little thing called the iPhone :)

  4. Mariellen says:

    There’s another reason to be wary of guidebooks — terrorists may be reading them. When I was in India this winter, I read an editorial in the Times of India, written after the Pune German Bakery bomb blast, which suggested that terrorists were reading Lonely Planet and targeting sites based on their recommendations (e.g. Leopold’s in Mumbai). They want to hit foreigners and draw international attention. Yikes.

  5. Rebeccius says:

    Great article. Although I am still in the planning stages, and can’t really comment one way or the other as far as the practical “on the road” validity of your stance…..I have to say that I have found myself referring to online sources 95% of the time (over travel guides picked up from the local library) when researching various places.

    I think the hard copy guides are particularly limited when it comes to accommodation, restaurants, and transportation….probably the three main concerns for a traveler!

    I do think that the Lonely Planet mini-sized phrasebooks are great however, and well worth packing around.

  6. John says:

    To be honest I’ve never traveled anywhere outside of North America without a guidebook. I’ve used Let’s Go for Eastern Europe and Mexico, Lonely Planet for Korea, Fodor’s for Japan (big mistake, I only bought it because it was cheaper than the alternatives) and some independently published guide that I picked up at a used book store in Budapest for Tunisia (again, big mistake). I agree that you don’t actually need them but I kind of like having them for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, they tend to have handy maps that highlight the main sights and transportation infrastructure. It’s certainly true that that information is almost always available online but it’s nice to have it in your pocket in case you can’t find an internet cafe. Nevertheless, you’re absolutely right that they’re not really necessary and if you wind up with a bad guidebook, as I did in Japan and Tunisia, it can really mess up your trip.

    Nice blog, by the way, I’m really enjoying it.

  7. edi n says:

    I agree, with you Gary, pooling of many people would show the actual quality. Don’t believe only from one source.
    Nice blog! I like it.

  8. Fair enough. You’re absolutely right – an expert can’t tell you what you like.

    You have a perfect right to say what you do or don’t like – but then the expert can tell you whether what you like is good or bad compared to everything else available. That’s the key skill professionals have – wine writers & travel journalists alike.

  9. Any professional travel journalist – and, I’d say, the huge majority of professional guidebook writers too – would be able to put together a more meaningful, informative, sharp, clear and useful review of any single hotel on their patch without having to spend a night in it than a regular punter who stayed there for a week and wrote about it on TripAdvisor.

    It stands to reason. I drink maybe one glass of wine a month. Give me a bottle of wine and I could describe it, sure, in my own terms – but it’s just the opinion of Mr Joe Schmo who barely knows anything about what to look for in a wine, or what’s important, or what the background context of that bottle is, etc etc. Give the same wine to someone who samples wine professionally, and they could not only understand more about what it is and where it came from, but would be able to communicate more about it as well.

    Professional travel journalists – and most decent guidebook writers – stay in dozens, perhaps hundreds of hotels a year. Joe Schmo stays in, what, three? Five?

    Anyone can invest in the stock market, but not everyone can offer a meaningful opinion about the macroeconomic climate. It takes a professional to do that. Anyone can watch a football game, but it takes a professional to be able to write intelligently and meaningfully about the action, the result and the consequences. Anyone can watch Barack Obama on CNN giving a press conference at the White House and then offer an opinion about what they think it all meant – but, well, you get the point.

    Anyone can stay in a hotel, but there’s a big difference between professional opinion and the rest.

    • Gary says:

      You don’t need to be an expert to know if you had a good time or if a room was clean.

      Bob: “did you like your hotel?”
      Sam: “I don’t know. I haven’t visited enough hotels to be able to voice an opinion”.

      That is absurd. Anyone can know if a room was clean, if the service was good or if the amenities were as advertised. You don’t have to sleep in hundreds of rooms to have an opinion on what you experienced.

      All your examples have nothing do do with travel. Travel isn’t the macroeconomy. It is travel. You don’t need a PhD in travel to stay in a hotel room. Furthermore, there were a whole lot of “experts” in economics who had absolutely no clue what was happening to the economy over the last few years. Their expertise consisted of nothing more than regurgitating conventional wisdom.

      As for wine, I’d point you to Gary Vaynerchuk. You like what you like. You pallet is your own and an “expert” can’t tell you what you like.

    • I could care less about how well travel facts are written. Professional writers should stick to actual travel stories if they want to show off their craft, not travel guidebooks.

      Guidebooks are about facts, average people don’t care how well it’s written. It could be the best written guidebook in the world, but if the information is a year old, it’s worthless to me. Cheap, timely facts from the internet are better than expensive fluff from someone with an English degree (in my opinion).

  10. Tragically misinformed and misleading post, I’m afraid. Guidebooks matter because they are written by professional travel journalists who know their industry, know their market and know how to write. Good writers do a heck of a lot more than just pick up brochures, as you claim! They are specialists in their area, and know far more than any amount of ordinary travellers posting and blogging…

    By contrast 99% of online travel info doesn’t matter because it’s written by Joe Schmo. 100,000 Joe Schmoes don’t make TripAdvisor reliable; in fact, the opposite. As for Hostelworld, it is hopelessly misleading and unreliable.

    So the Moon South Pacific guidebook you talk about lists a defunct airline. Big deal. If the author is a leading authority on the area then his information (where it matters) will be streets ahead of Wiki or anything else, regardless of whether he’s eaten in every restaurant or not. (Of COURSE he hasn’t; duh!)

    The trouble, I think, is that lots of people (maybe you too) take guidebooks as gospel truth. They are not – they are GUIDE books. They are meant to give you some pointers to help get below the surface. They are written by travel professionals and people who make a living as communicators. I would ALWAYS take the opinion of a professional guidebook writer over a commercial travel site.

    Buy a guidebook, take it with you, read it inside out, then leave it in your hotel room while you go out.

    • Gary says:

      You make a blanket claim that ALL guidbeook authors are authorities and experts. That is not not true. Most I’ve met in the field were college students or other part time people who were sent to gather data, usually in the form of the very brochures you criticize.

      There is noting wrong with the average person saying what their experience was at a hotel. It was what it was. As I noted, guidebook authors do not say at every hotel. At least in TripAdvisor people are actually staying in the hotel, where is for a guidebook they are just getting information about the hotel without staying there. Who is really the expert when they haven’t even experienced what they are writing about?

      What good is being an expert if the medium in which you convey your expertise is prone to being out of date??

      You seem to take the view that expert = good, everyone else = bad, and that everyone associated with a guidebook is an expert. They’re not. Reality is far from what you are describing.

  11. Jon says:

    Be careful, sites like Hostelworld can be gamed. Hostel operators can create accounts, book books stays at their own hostels, and give themselves glowing ratings.

  12. Good post there..
    I can say that when I’m traveling, and I’m traveling a lot, I never use only one source for information about the place.
    I’m always looking on 5-10 different trusted guides and creating my own opinion..

  13. Phil Stewart says:

    Although I mostly agree with your points, I still travel with guidebooks, because I feel like for the type of travel I usually do, they still make sense for me.

    I could see two types of trips where I wouldn’t need/want a guidebook:

    – a carefully scheduled and planned itinerary, with a finite amount of time. This is the sort of trip I do for work, and I rarely bring guidebooks on these trips. Because I’m not making decisions on the fly (aside from maybe where to eat) I can sit down with the computer and plan it out, pulling resources from various places together as needed.

    – a long, unstructured trip with few time limits. If one can manage it, this is the ideal way to travel. You basically just go wherever fate leads you, and if it turns out to be lame, you just go somewhere else the next day. One could really do this sort of trip without either guidebook or any other resource, though some degree of homework would be helpful to give you an idea what to look for.

    However, I generally fall somewhere in the middle when I travel for pleasure: trips of limited length, but little up front planning besides where I’m flying into. Time is sufficiently of the essence that a wasted day is a significant loss. Internet access is not always convenient once you’re actually on the ground some place, so a guidebook gives you the ability to direct your trip on the fly, without having to seek out an internet cafe in a strange city, time I’d much rather spend doing something else. There’s something to be said for a ready-made packet of information on your chosen country, even if it is an imperfect one. It also gives you an easy way to research your situation on buses, flights, or the middle of the desert.

    Guidebooks aren’t perfect, and overly slavish reliance on them probably doesn’t make for the best travel, but I think they’re still valuable.

  14. shophola says:

    I agree I book my vaction (hotels/rental cars etc) online. I also get mapquest directions and”guidebook” type info online as well. Great article

  15. Thanks,very interesting and useful post

  16. Dobbs says:

    Here is a comment for the travel writers reading this.

    I really believe travel writers instead of trying to disparage new media it should be embracing technology like the Kindle. It is important to remember that the Kindle will not put guidebook writers out of a job. The facts of the matter is that due to the nature of paper guidebooks, they are often out of date and impossible to update without reprinting an entire book.

    On the Kindle any updates of the books can be done instantly because of the digital format of the book. Theoretically no travel guidebook should be out of date when someone purchases it on the Kindle if the guidebook company is continuously updating their digital copy of the book.

    I fail to see how this new media is a threat to travel writers. This new media will in fact allow you to provide more up to date content to readers for cheaper prices. I have written more about this on my site, but I would like to hear travel writers' opinions on the Kindle.

  17. workrobot says:

    sorry Gary, one final thing here. You said:

    getting information online is better, cheaper, and more convenient than what you will find in a book.

    If this were true, guidebook publishers would not spend the time and money sending researchers to physically visit places. They'd just have teams of people scouring the web.

    And BTW, the only research on Colombia that Thomas Kohnstamm did was the research for the history section. You should know that. He didn't actually need to be there. All the rest is media hype.

  18. workrobot says:

    Interesting discussion. I write guidebooks for a living and I'm very passionate about the places I write about. I think you are doing a disservice to people like me who work hard to bring you decent and authoratative writing. The internet is full of garbage written by people who don't know good from bad, let alone how to write. Like any other guidebook author, I've seen thousands of hotels and restaurants in my time and I know the difference. And if you think Wikipedia is an authorative source of history and culture then you're sadly mistaken. I think this try-hard snobbery and nothing else. Don't cry when you get lost!

    • Gary Arndt says:

      1) if you are truly authoritative, leave your name.

      2) Why are you more authoritative than me? Because someone pays you? I've been traveling almost 2 years.

      3) I've never gotten lost. I have my head up and not buried in a guidebook.

      Just like the recording industry, TV, newspapers, I don't expect the old guard to go down without a fight. People with a vested monetary interest in getting everyone to spend money on guidebooks will always make these claims.

      • workrobot says:

        1) Gary – my name is Richard Arghiris.

        2) I'm not suggesting I'm more authoratative than you, only more authoratative than most people who post hotel reviews on websites. I've visited thousands of hotels and restaurants during my career and I've also read tons of books on my subject. I have also been travelling most of my life, for the record. So, I have training and experience.

        3) Apologies for the getting lost comment. I put a lot of love and hard work into my writing and I feel slightly insulted when you suggest that we guidebook writers simply knock together our listings from telephone books and other random sources. I take the time to visit all the hotels, check the rooms, prices and services, and also talk to the owners. I also make a lot of enquiries to get the best restaurants and tour operators too, which I also visit in person. I accept that there are bad guidebook writers who do a bad job with this, but many of us also take our work seriously.

        I'm glad you do not have your head buried in a guidebook. People shouldn't take guidebooks as gospel, but use them as inspiration and a tool to aid independent explorations. I'd hate to think people were following them to the letter – which I know some people do, particularly a certain kind of LP reader.

        Also for the record, I am not 'old guard'. I've done a lot of work with new media but I think you're deluded if you believe the electronic format is somehow going to supersede the paper guidebook. This is because technology fails – particularly with the robust lifestyle of travellers – and shiny gadgets attract the eyes of thieves. A book is solid and dependable. And usually written by people who know how to write.

        One final thing, if I was interested in money, I'd be doing something else. I do this job only because I love it – because I love writing and I love travelling. I don't care if people do or don't spend money on guidebooks. I don't make any profit from in any case. The only thing I want is for people to be inspired, informed and connected to the countries they visit. There's nothing worse than a traveller who doesn't appreciate the cultures and people of the land they're in. For that reason, I want to share my experience, love and knowledge.

        Cheers.

  19. Mickie says:

    A large portion of Africa, China, central Asia, nevermind russian keyboards.

    Mobile browsing is expensive, even with local sims. And not so fast nor easy. Take out the notebook to jot all down. (your should see my guidebook cover)

    Internet cafes – Well again, jotting down all the info, printing maps etc takes time and money. Having a guide book there is a great reference. Yes I use Hostel . coms and searches for my hotels hostels etc as once in the guide book they are only good for inflated prices, the mob en masse.

    I am with Two Crabs on this one. Thorn Tree has been a life saver. New info is great if read correctly. I jot it down in my guide book and I am gone.

    But out in reality I like to have something in paper in case the lights go out, which they quite often do in the places I mentions. Least of all if my laptop/PDA/Phone went pop! And I couldn't afford or did not have access to a new one.

  20. Two Crabs says:

    Well, this is quite an interesting conversation. I, too, am a Lonely Planet guidebook author. And I actually agree with some of what you wrote. But as a veteran of traveling, living or working in 53 countries, I wholeheartedly disagree with you that the era of the guidebook is over. To all these people who are claiming you can get buy with just the Internet, iPhones, and Blackberry's, I ask: what happens when you go to a country that has no cell/mobile phone system? Folks who have only traveled to the safe confines of North America, Western Europe and Australia may be shocked — SHOCKED — to discover that many countries have no mobile phone network, or access may be spotty at best. In places like Northern Iraq, there is cell phone service but access is prohibitively expensive. I have also been to places where nobody has ever even HEARD of the Internet. What do you do then? Even in Europe, why would I want to spend time and money in an internet cafe when the basic information is readily available at my fingertips? I concur that information is often outdated in guidebooks; one of the dirty secrets of guidebook publishing is that information is 6-12 months old by the time the book hits the shelves. That's why many companies like Lonely Planet have online compendiums where we post updated information for the book. Information from readers and locals posted on our Thorn Tree forum has been priceless for my pre-trip research. When I travel for fun, I do it both ways: I take the most current guidebook, but also do some online research before I go to get the updated info. There are also days when I say guidebook-be-damned, shove it in the rucksack and wander aimlessly for fun. But for the most part, I do not enjoy being lost or uninformed. But hey that's me. Guidebooks and online travel research can and do co-exist. Bottom line: guidebooks are here to stay.

    • Gary Arndt says:

      While I haven't been everywhere (yet), I have been to some pretty remote places. I have yet to find a country without internet access or a mobile phone system. In fact, mobile phones are the fastest industry in most developing countries throughout Africa. I saw companies like Digicell all over the Pacific including Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guiena. I was able to get online in every country I've visited (which honestly, has surprised me)

      Yes, there are rural areas without any of those things, and you can find them in developing countries as well. That doesn't mean you should default to Lonely Planet, it just means you need to compile your research before you go there. I expect guidebook information to be the most up to date for heavily populated tourist locations like Paris, London or New York. I expect it to be the most out of date for exactly the places you mention: remote out of the way, infrequently visited places. The type that there have little demand for guidebooks, and hence, little investment in their research.

      We will always have guidebooks, I don't deny that. We still have AM radio. But like newspapers, magazines and other old media, its influence going to diminish and the business will fundamentally have to change.

      How information is compiled may move to user created content, or information sharing deals with flight/hotel and other websites. The notion of sending someone to a different country might get replaces by just finding a person in that community to compile the information. Information might be available for the iPhone or Kindle, or some yet unknown device.

  21. wandermom says:

    I can see my kids backpacking with nothing but the latest version of an iphone or blackberry (in 2020). The won't bother with guidebooks, because all the data they'll need will be available online. They won't get lost (ever) because they'll have GPS.

    I'll still probably buy guidebooks because I need to take a break from my computer. When you spend all day long in front of a screen, it's nice to sit on the sofa with a book.
    But I've found that for our last few trips, I use guidebooks for research and ideas and I cross-reference everything with online sources.

  22. Wow. And I thought the topic of travel writing and guidebooks was quieting down.

    If you have the aptitude and hours to spend; online; in cyber-cafés; programming, charging, and figuring out iPods and Kindles that is great. Good for you.

    I may be guilty of stereotyping, but it seems there is a reoccuring theme of rather young, techie-travelers with backpacks looking for the best hostel to bed down.

    There are many people who have neither the savvy nor desire to plan their trips utilizing those very legitimate tools of travel. So lighten up.

    Whether it is snobbery or not, you do come off as being very judgmental and somewhat narrow-minded as to demographics of the thousands of people who travel.

    A couple of points: First, I think if you find a guidebook with a “travel philosophy” you can relate to, then it's worth the money. On trips to Europe, my wife and I have greatly benefited from the information from Rick Steve's, and can rely on the recommendations.

    And we have been impressed with the honestly of books like Maui Revealed. The reviews were just that; and not just lists of restaurants and lodging.

    The challenge is to find guidebooks you are comfortable with for new areas of adventure.

    Also, I have a question. As a wannabe travelwriter, I am intrigued by the evolving paradigm of printed media. Everyone seems to want free online information in lieu of traditional books, magazines and newspapers. If no one is willing to pay for that information, why will writers continue to expend the effort?

    And please don't tell me that rambling blog posts on thousands of travel websites will serve the same purpose.

    While I may be old, I am not exactly a dinosaur when it comes to understanding the tubes that make up the internets. And I do spend considerable time using all the travel tools available. But, like I said earlier…lighten up.

  23. Dobbs says:

    I used to carry guidebooks as well when traveling until I bought an Amazon Kindle. There are guidebooks available for download onto the Kindle which are still in their infancy but I fully expect them to improve as the Kindle gets more popular.

    Also with the Kindle you can email documents, PDF, etc. to Amazon and they will convert and send the file wirelessly to the Kindle since it also has wireless internet. So whatever information you get online you upload into the Kindle for use when you travel. I have uploaded an entire PDF version of a guidebook onto my Kindle with no problems.

    Gary brings up a very good point about the weight of books when traveling. If you are traveling through multiple countries the guidebooks add up on top of whatever other reading material you are bringing with you. The Kindle has eliminated me bringing any books and most magazines on a trip. The Kindle is in its infancy but I really think this may be the wave of the future for not only books but travelers as well.

  24. Gary Arndt says:

    Fair enough. I didn't think that would really be controversial because no guidebook claims to do that.

    1) Logically, it is impossible, not to mention prohibitively expensive, to stay in every hostel and hotel and B&B in a country, eat in every restaurant and diner, and go to every tourist attraction. My guess is that in any mid-sized US city (Cedar Rapids, Iowa for example) it would take a few weeks to stay one night in every hotel. There are probably 30 guest houses within 4 blocks of where I'm writing this in Saigon. That would be a month to cover a single neighborhood.

    2) I've met guidebook writers on the road. They are there to gather information and are on a limited budget. They usually stay in cheap places to stretch their budget, and then scour the phone books, local tourist bureaus, and brochures to collect information. When guidebooks like Lonely Planet group hotels together, they do so by listed price, not by “stars” like the Michelin guide does. The listing aren't reviews, they at best are descriptions.

    3) Do some Google searches on Thomas Kohnstamm. He is the Lonely Planet guidebook writer who wrote a book on his experiences. He did research on Colombia from the US. You'll find a lot of guidebook writers talking about the process of guidebook writing. Nowhere did I ever read of a guidebook attempting to review everything they publish. They don't publish reviews. They don't claim to publish reviews. Here is an interview with a LP writer: http://travelhappy.info/travel-writing/how-to-b

    The money quote is:

    “It's a good job but let's be realistic: it's more a case of being paid to collect brochures and bus timetable info — and to crack the ice-cold nerve of concierges the world over. We are info dumps: much of the job is gathering facts and figures and updating perishable and non-perishable information.”

  25. Georgia says:

    Gary, you say: “Guidebooks are not reviews. Guidebook authors do not visit the vast majority of restaurants, hotels, and attractions they write about.”

    Really? Says who? I'd like to know what your sources are for that assertion. Thanks.

  26. Dongphuvieng says:

    Gary, it's 9am in Vietnam, shouldn't you be out doing some things or going to some places?

  27. Dongphuvieng says:

    Almost every post here mentions how expensive guidebooks are, and how using the net you can save money. But I wonder, is the cost of a guidebook really so prohibitive that it's worth all the hours online, both at home and while on the road, that could otherwise be spent actually seeing a place, meeting the locals, talking with other travellers?

    While I don't agree that everything in a guidebook is also available online (if you want examples, I have plenty), let's for arguments' sake say that it is.

    So for country X you can spend dozens of hours online, take lots of notes, try to decide which version of truth you believe, print out loads of maps and pages, and spend hours organising it into either physical or electronic files so it's reasonably near to hand while you're on the road. Then, when you do actually get on the plane and begin your trip/holiday, you can spend more time (not to mention money) sitting in an internet cafe to check if the opening hours have changed, or the price has gone up, or trying to work out where exactly is that restaurant you read about on that site you can't remember.

    I would be the first to say that guidebooks are not perfect. Far from it. And I often advise people to close their guidebook and open their eyes. But all the same, I'm comfortable enough with myself that I can open a guidebook when it's useful without feeling like I've somehow joined the uncool club or must, as Gary puts it, 'just fit in to be acceptable to other travelers'.

    I wonder, is the time, effort and money you spend (almost certainly more than the $20-25 of an average guidebook) really worth it just so you can feel cool and counter culture? I guess that depends on who you are.

    Gary said:
    If i have to pick between snobbery and buying something just to fit in to be acceptable to other travelers, then I'll go with snob.

    • Gary Arndt says:

      If it was that difficult to find information online, then I'd use a guidebook. It doesn't take hours and hours. The process is very quick. Furthermore, much of what mention isn't done online, it is done by asking people or reading a brochure.

      I really don't get the whole “cool” and “snob” thing either. I can't ever recall having a conversation about guidebooks. If something makes you cool, it is things you've done and places you've been, not a book you do or do not carry around.

  28. Francoise says:

    I agree with you 99%, though I feel that guidebooks still have their place and purpose, just like info from the internet.

    For the first time or nervous traveler, and for some countries, with little or no tourism infrastructure guidebooks can be useful. I've often left mine with nervous family members back home, so they could read up on where I was going and follow along. I've used a guidebook as much for recommendations as for tips on what to avoid.

    I disagree with the premise that knowing the source adds credibility. Information can still be dated and inaccurate even if the Pope authored LP's guide to the Vatican. All guidebook's have extensive disclaimers which kind of negates any expectation that they take full responsibility for the information they publish (“trust us, but don't blame us!”). It's no better or worse than travel information taken from the internet.

    Like you and other posters mentioned, once on the ground, my #1 source of information are other travelers and locals. It doesn't get more up-to-date than that.

  29. cchiovitti says:

    Not necessary, no. But, on my very first trip to London, I picked up a travel guide before I went and it was very useful. Even though I'm very confident there now after several trips, I still tuck it in my bags. A well organized and easily toted book can be a great asset, especially for people who don't roam around the city with a laptop or blackberry. It's easy to pull out to find the closest family-friendly restaurant or the nearest tube stop to a site. Plus, even with all of the amazing amount of information available now online, the book did inform me of several cool places that I don't think I would have discovered any other way. After almost 11 years, I think I've got my 15 dollars or so out of it.

  30. Hi, I'm Barbara Hudgins, author of “Crafting the Travel Guidebook.” Yes, certain types of guidebooks will always exist. The problem is that every nomadic, globe-trotting backpacker thinks he's the perfect person to be the Lonely Planet updater. Maybe that type of guidebook will dwindle. The types that will remain are:

    1. Really local guidebooks. No big publisher is going to bother with Mystic, Conn, but there's a little guide you can find in every store there that is quite reasonable.

    2. How-to-do-its: Whether it's how to exchange homes across continents, how to pack your suitcase expertly, how to wheedle the best rates at the loca hostelries, how to find low season fares, these books offer tricks of the trade.

    3. Special audience/special interest books. Art lovers guide to London, monasteries that provide lodging, the best wedding destinations (and how to book them), the wine-lovers guide to Tuscany, the Black guide to New Orleans, etc.

    4. Travel memoirs. Unfortunately there are too many writers in this field, but when they are filled with great writing, or coupled with a transformational theme (like eat, pray, love) they will sell.

    Anyway, I go over a lot of this stuff in my book. check out http://www.woodmontpress.com

  31. Joy says:

    I don't know why it has to be so black and white. I use certain guidebooks vociferously, AND I do most of my pre-trip planning using the internet. I don't have a laptop to carry around with me when I travel, so a guidebook is the next best thing. A few guidebook authors are VERY thorough and update their books every year. Some aren't worth a sneeze, like Frommer's and Fodor's. Savvy travelers know the difference, and they know how to cross-check information too. I've met too many goofballs on overseas trips who don't know basic information about the culture they're in. I wholeheartedly suggest they try picking up a guidebook before they leave home so they don't look SO stupid. And also, being “anti-guidebook” makes one come off as a terribly pretentious travel snob. Travel snobs, food snobs, music snobs—they're all equally dull to get stuck in a conversation with. I believe the more you read and research about a place, the better off you are, period.

    • Gary Arndt says:

      I agree that the more you read the better off you are. Most guidebooks offer nothing but a Cliff Notes summary of culture and history. Maybe a page or two if you are lucky. Most Wikipedia entries will offer a more in-depth explanation of culture and history than a guidebook does.

      I just can't see the logic in lugging around a heavy expensive book that doesn't provide very good information. If i have to pick between snobbery and buying something just to fit in to be acceptable to other travelers, then I'll go with snob. My views on guidebooks are fueled by pragmatism.

  32. Joe says:

    I both agree and disagree. I think that actual paper-books as a medium is worthless in this subject matter, however, a “happy compromise” may provide just the right tool for the job. For instance, the ECTACO jetBook now provides the Fodor's Travel Guide in electronic format; one that can be downloaded, updated, edited, etc.

    jetBook also offers advanced translation options with a choice of bidirectional dictionaries that let you read and learn without having to carry around additional resources.

    Check it out: http://www.terracurve.com/2008/10/28/fodors-tra

    • Gary Arndt says:

      I've stated in the past that my favorite travel item is my iPod Touch. I'd be more than willing to access data from my iPod Touch (and when I have wifi access, I often do). I have downloaded web pages to view offline later.

      Many of the problems I have with guidebooks could be eliminated by moving to digital publication. If I could put an up to date version of a guidebook on my iPod, I'd strongly consider it.

      If anyone ever topples Lonely Planets, it will be by offering an alternative to the paper guidebook.

  33. jamie says:

    Guidebooks have entertainment value for me (pretty pictures! descriptions of places a little too far off the beaten path for me!), and I often use them in places where I have no internet connection. Plus, I'm a tactile person. The feel of paper on fingers soothes me.

    Funnily enough I don't use them much while planning travel though, for exactly the reasons you cite.

  34. John Doe says:

    You are absolutely right about guidebooks when it comes to your audience on this site. However, if somebody like my grandmom, or my uncle who thinks going to the US Gulf Coast is great travel, were to leave the country they would feel lost without a thick authoritative-sounding guidebook. There are still a lot of people out there for whom the guidebook is useful. In 30 years that may not be the case, but I'm willing to bet they will always have some audience. I don't generally use one, but I'll admit that Lonely Planet really saved me once at a Central American border crossing.

  35. Anil says:

    Agreed – however online you have to sift through much more crap. But it's free crap, granted :)

  36. Most people don't travel continuously like you Gary but plan a one off trip with limited time to get the most out of their holiday. I'm one of these and for me part of the pleasure is the researching what I'd like to see when I'm there.

    I use Travel guidebooks (preferrably free from my library) before I go to get an overview and feel for the atmosphere and culture of a place and the main things to see and do when I get there. I will normally also take my guidebook for a quick and easy reference when I get there. Even if they're not completely up to date, they give you an idea of typical opening hours, means of transport etc.

    Once I've used the guidebook for my initial research I will also seek out websites, blogs and podcasts that can give me an insider's view of some of the more offbeat or current things to see and do. However, when I'm there I don't normally have time to keep checking things out on the internet when I could be out seeing things.

    I could do without a guidebook but I feel I get more out of my trips to have one with me.

  37. gil says:

    Your are right. Travel book is not necessary. A simple map is more than enough and the best information is on the people at the street that you will meet. If you are street smart you can tell the people you can trust.

  38. Global Gal says:

    I don't use guidebooks. I live in a small city in China and it is impossible to find anything like that here. If I order them from the US, there is a real chance they will either never arrive or cost me a small fortune in shipping fees. I have found that with a little patience and diligence, Internet research (forums, travel blogs, expat blogs, travel websites) produces more than enough information for my trips. I have traveled parts of China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Spain without guidebooks. I would probably read guidebooks in a library if I could access such a thing, however.

  39. josie says:

    Having done a good deal of travelling myself, both with and without a guidebook, I agree with everything you said. However, there are a few caveats that for me at least, find a certain kind of guidebook most useful. I pretty much detest guidebooks that cover “how to get around” and “where to stay,” as they are woefully outdated and cannot compete with the internet as a much better resource. But especially in historic cities, smaller pocket guidebooks can have worthwhile information, namely informative tidbits on monuments and sites and history of a city you'd need a tour guide for, highly detailed maps (like the Lonely Encounter guides, which are more like Not For Tourists Lite books) that show more than just motorwans, and popular walking tour routes. There are many cities where the local residents don't even know much about the history, or what the major tourists walks are. Then again, I would never touch down in a place with a guidebook and NOT consult the locals on what's worth checking out.

    In short, I agree that guidebooks are overrated, but not entirely pointless.

    • Gary Arndt says:

      I should clarify what I mean by a “guidebook”.

      History is timeless. There isn't much new to add about Roman ruins. When I was at Angkor Watt two weeks ago I purchased a book on the history of the Angkor Empire and the architecture of the ruins. The book was a great resource. I don't consider it a “guidebook”, even though I suppose you could carry it with you as you visited the temples.

      I'm not anti-book. I own tons of books (almost literally). Timeless resources like a history book are in a totally different category than a “visit by numbers” which is what many guidebooks are. I've seen people who literally think they need a guidbook when they go to a new country, like they were getting a program when they went to a football game.

      Books (like newspapers) are very poor media for information which is frequently updated.

  40. Good story, but to quote Mark Twain, “The rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”…

    I'd agree that some people certainly don't need a guidebook and the information is sometimes better online. But I wouldn't agree they're a “vestigial reminder” of an era now passed.

    For many, guidebooks are ideal. For those on short trips, those who are not internet savvy (or don't have countless hours to research online), those who crave a more “authorative voice” than what may be found online — to name a few off the top of my head.

    Sure for others, the internet is an ideal medium, and it's the one we're trying to tap into at Travelfish, but the internet is far from the perfect solution. Fraud, advertorial copy and just plain bad information are major issues on many travel websites. Simultaneously, readers often demand/expect more from a website because of the perception that it is all as fresh as the coconut that fell from the tree — the reality is a good deal more complex, and while you may think that “it really isn’t that hard to get information once you are at a location”, rest assured it isn't always quite as easy as you may think!

    Each medium has pros and cons and a keen traveller, looking to get the most out of a trip, would be well served to leverage the knowledge out of both.

    • Gary Arndt says:

      The “authoritative voice” is really nothing more than a brand. Almost always, the actual author is totally unknown to the reader. To the extent that a guidebook can act as a security blanket, I agree. I don't think that guidebooks are going away anytime soon, just like newspapers and magazines. Nonetheless, like those other print resources, they can totally be bypassed online.

      And I do think it is pretty easy to get information on the ground. The bigger the city, the more popular the tourist attraction, the easier it is. The places which require planning are those which are very remote and don't have a tourism infrastructure built. Those are also the places least likely to have guidebooks.

  41. DenverTravelChick says:

    I'm with you … sort of. I get travel guides at the library, but I don't travel with them. From them, I get the feeling for a particular place. I pay no attention to the hotel or restaurant recommendations. They help me decide where I want to go next, but I don't figure out the specifics from them.

    I really appreciate your blog since it's helping me narrow down my travel locations as well!

    • Caitlin says:

      I think that it is really great that travelers can post their experiences online and help inform others of the best decisions to make when traveling. It's hard to know what to expect when arriving in a new place even with the aid of travel guides. Talking to others and learning about their experiences is the best way to go.

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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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