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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 here to tell you that for your next trip, leave the book at home or better yet, don’t even buy one, to begin with.
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 It was a fine book (if a bit heavy) but much of the information was out of date, even though it had been published only two years before.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 :)
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 Zagat’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.
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 the information you can personally collect is no different than the process that guidebook writers go through. Throw away your book.