What’s the Big Fuss Over Guidebooks?
One of the more interesting debates I’ve heard on the backpacking trail is over the use of guidebooks. I’m talking about the Rough Guides, the Frommer’s, the Moons, Rick Steve’s and, of course, the ubiquitous Lonely Planet. They are everywhere these days it’s rare to go into a hostel without seeing one.
Although the books have similar, if not identical content, the way people use them is as varied as the countries covered by the guides. We’ve all seen the people who follow “the book” by the tee: only eating and staying at the recommended restaurants and hotels, seeing all of the sights listed, and walking around with their noses buried in the book.
On the flip side, there are people where even mentioning the word “guidebook” will cause them to turn up their noses in utter disgust. They’re the ones who are searching for the “real (insert country of choice)”, constantly critiquing others’ travel plans, “really” getting off the beaten path (at least in their minds) and “truly” getting in touch with the locals.
– – –
Over the years, I’ve racked up a decent collection of Lonely Planets. The current count stands at six. Looking back, the first time I left on a trip by myself, I fell squarely into the first category. Tattered and frayed by the end of my trip, “Europe on a Shoestring” was a familiar friend in an otherwise unfamiliar place. I held on to it like a priest holds a bible and probably read it three times over. But as I’ve become more experienced and taken longer trips, the way I use guidebooks has changed.
What a lot of people forget is that travel guides are called travel GUIDES for a reason. They are merely a tool to help us. Here’s an analogy. If you were hungry and you didn’t have a fork, would you still eat? Yes. Now say you are hungry and you have a fork, does the fork make eating easier? Yes.
The guidebook is the fork. Not having it doesn’t mean we can’t travel but having it makes traveling a lot easier.
– – –
The problem with the first group is that they let the guidebook dictate where and what they are going to do. This causes them to miss out on a lot of stuff that isn’t mentioned and can even lead to undesirable situations. Many times I’ve been to guesthouses/hostels that were featured in LP but had raised prices or lowered service dramatically since the publishing of the book. They had been “Lonely Planetized” and knew that backpackers would head there first, even if cheaper and better alternatives existed. On the plus side, I’ve eaten at countless hole-in-the-walls that had some of the best prices and food that would never make it in a LP because they didn’t even have a name! It’s always good to put the book down for a few hours (or days) and follow your instincts (or nose)…
…but don’t throw it away completely. The people who refuse to use a guidebook are only kidding themselves when they say they are getting a more “authentic” experience. As much as I love roughing it and going without a plan, having to run across town to find a bus schedule is not my definition of “authentic”. Not only do guidebooks contain all these mundane details, they also let you form a rough sketch of where you want to go. Trying to get your head around the highlights of a country is hard, even with the internet. Having a LP handy lets you do that pretty quickly.
These days, I mostly use guidebooks to figure out the main sights and activities of where I’m going. Having general bus schedules and travel times really come handy, as do the maps. But for more qualitative info and on-the-fly decisions, I usually turn to my fellow walking, talking human beings.
– – –
Some think that guidebooks hold the answer to everything and others believe they are worthless. They are neither. Guidebooks are merely tools to enhance our traveling experience. We shouldn’t rely on them blindly nor completely ignore them because like all tools, there’s a certain place and time to use them.
Don’t fall into one of the categories above and you’ll find the true value of our silent traveling companions.