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 travel book.
Here is why:
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for reasons which were totally beyond his control, much of the information in the book regarding flights was out of date.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cycle for guidebooks means that the moment a new guidebook hits the shelf, the information is probably a year out of date.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.
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.