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What’s the Big Fuss Over Guidebooks?

2010 December 8

Courtesy of

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. December 8, 2010

    Lonely Planet is some kind of scam, though I haven’t gotten anyone to admit that yet. They never tell you the cheapest hotel. I have been places and found a hotel for literally 25% of what LP claimed was the cheapest option. And it is a lot more fun to just figure out a path yourself, rather than follow some plot as if you’re doing a reenactment. Everything in Lonely Planet is touristy, because it is in Lonely Planet.

    But your point about schedules is correct. In third world countries, it can be absolutely impossible to find what day a boat or train leaves on the internet, and the people working for the companies that run these things usually don’t even know. So if I can fit a copy of LP in my bag comfortably (I like less than 7 kilos, as I do a lot of walking, and usually don’t have a hotel room to put my crap), I do, if not I just rip out all the pages with the schedules on them – which doesn’t work that well, because they mix a lot of the basic travel info, such as which city has transport to which other city, in with the bulk of the thing. Someone needs to start making slim guides. Everything I need to know about a country can be summed up in 20 pages.

    • December 8, 2010

      I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a scam but there are definitely other options than what is listed in the book. A lot of the places in LP are priced higher, just based on the fact they are in the book.

      I’m glad you agree with the schedules. It can be nearly impossible to find them in some countries!

      As for weight, I’ve found the “On a Shoestring” series to have the most value because they cover multiple countries in one book. Sure it’s a little bigger but way better than carrying 10 books for 10 countries.

      • December 8, 2010

        Yes it certainly wouldn’t take a hotel owner long to figure out “hey, there are a bunch of white people staying here – that means I can triple my prices”, but when you buy newest edition of the book it usually has the correct price. It is just far from the cheapest. Which gives me the idea that it must be some type of conspiracy, because there is usually a taxi/tricycle/whatever driver who knows a better option, and you have to wonder why the guys writing the book didn’t ask them. Maybe the guys writing this stuff simply don’t understand the concept of “I only want to spend 20 dollars a day, and I want to be able to spend 15 of that on vice”.

        Speaking of asking local transport for advice, I guess the phonetic pronunciations of certain phrases provided by guidebooks can also be helpful to memorize before you arrive in a country (knowing how to say “how much” generally makes things at least 700% cheaper, as I’m sure you’re aware), but that is something that is widely available on the internet.

  2. December 10, 2010

    Interesting post. I recently wrote one about how I am a guidebook junkie. But I definitely don’t rely solely on the guidebooks – I use them as a starting point. I have discovered places in guidebooks that I probably never would’ve thought of without them – I visited some tombs in Egypt that my local guide wasn’t even aware of, but they were mentioned in my Rough Guide and I was intrigued. I had to show him the book to convince him they were open and accessible to the public! I also probably never would’ve thought to hike the Colca Canyon if I hadn’t read about it in a guide to Peru.

    • December 15, 2010

      Totally agree with your approach. And I wonder if that guide actually knew about them but didn’t want to take you there…

      Guidebooks are also pretty good for warning about scams 😉

  3. December 21, 2010

    Tools are ok when you need them. But most of them they are bought just in case to keep the fears at bay. For me, it was always a good read when stuck in a boring job, wrong climates, feeding my coming excape/trip/holiday. Never use them on the road though.

  4. December 21, 2010

    Well said, Paul. I also relied too much on guidebooks at the beginning, but I agree that as you travel you more you gain confidence and the book only comes out for occasional reference. I end up reading mostly pre-trip or on planes/trains.

    And like Katie said, there are lots of great places I never would have found without the guidebook’s help.

  5. February 11, 2011

    Figured I would chime in before I read the article. 🙂

    Guidebooks. They are priceless as travel …ideas and opinions. I would recommend to anyone to read as many as you can before going to a particular destination.

    BUT. There are a few things to know before reading them:
    – they are, for the most part, opinion.
    – they can be outdated before they are even released.
    – even information that is presented as “factual” can be wrong.
    – the further you get off the “tourist track”, the more of a chance the guidebook is wrong.

    That said – guidebooks can show you things you never knew existed. They can lead you to new restaurants, hotels, monuments and experiences. Priceless. Just use common sense.

    Everytime I see one of these articles, and as I’m writing this, all I can think of is Lonely Planets New Afghanistan book. Not only totally useless but downright dangerous. If anyone wants to take a look, mine is in the library of the Serena in Kabul.

    Now to read the article…

  6. February 11, 2011

    Good article.

    “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.”


    By the way …I used an 18-200 throughout the Middle East and Africa but have mainly changed to just the 35 1.8. It’s a fantastic little lens.

    Also, when you do go through Africa – the poorer and less “stable” the country is, the more the guidebook becomes more and more of a “looser” guide. You probably know that but …just in case.
    Nice work,
    Haps recently posted..Welcome

    • Paul permalink*
      February 12, 2011

      Thanks for the comment! I don’t doubt that guidebooks for Africa are pretty loose one bit.

      A good book about Africa that I recently finished is “Dark Star Safari” by Paul Theroux. He traveled from Cairo to Cape Town. It looks like you’ve been through a good amount so you’d probably be able to appreciate it.

      And yes, the 35 1.8 is MONEY.

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