In defence of guidebooks
comment 23 Written by on June 18, 2009 – 7:19 pm

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I’ve been thinking a lot about guidebooks recently. When I say a lot, I mean all day, every day, for the past four months.

Ok, I’m exaggerating slightly (but not much). The reason for this apparent obsession is a job of putting together a 400-page guidebook to Argentina and Uruguay. It’s going to be a good ‘un, believe me, but more of that another time. In the meantime, I’ve been having a general think about the hard time we give guidebooks. Myself included. 

Not that long ago I was close flinging a guidebook out of a window in disgust. Why? Because it failed to point out that there were no ATMs in a small Uruguayan beach town called Punta Del Diablo. Ok, "small Uruguayan beach town" should have been my clue to engage some common sense, but I was at the beach dammit! I don’t expect to use my brain when I go to the beach! What a presumption!

Actually, I still think this example was an oversight on their part, as they should know how many of today’s travellers are reliant on using bank cards. But, nonetheless, it was hardly a throw-it-out-the-window, denounce-all-1000-pages-as-garbage offence.

Worse is when you turn up at a restaurant that no longer exists, when a museum is not free on the first Wednesday of the month after all, or when you get a nasty surprise with a bill.

But are we too harsh? Are we too reliant?

I can’t think of a decent editor who wouldn’t be mortified about an error slipping in. I would certainly be pained. Yet even though all efforts are made to keep things accurate on going to print, changes will happen and we’re being too molly-coddled if we think they won’t.

Yesterday a friend asked me if I use guidebooks myself. Absolutely! I rarely travel without one, and I don’t consider myself a routine or lazy traveller. (Uruguayan example aside. Hey, we all have our blips.)

The key is how much you rely on them. They shouldn’t be treated like a religious testament. (I’ve had a dig at this type of traveller before on my blog and I probably will again.) They should be less life-raft, more springboard. And much more of the latter, if you’ve got time at your disposal.

The guidebook camp will always be polarised between the devotees and the refusers. I think the all-out refusers can be more annoying – or certainly more smug – than the devotees. They also tend to have the luxury of time and, although I’m all for a spot of footloose wandering, it can be harder if you only have two weeks off work.

The key is finding the book that’s right for you. Someone recently told me how they’d looked a particular guidebook up on Amazon.com and found its reviews ranged from one to five stars. You clearly can’t please all travellers all of the time. And who would want to? We all pick our newspapers and magazines to our own tastes, the same for guidebooks. That’s why I’m anti WHSmith deciding to make that decision for us. They’re doing as a favour, they say, to now only stock Penguin guides in its airport and train station stores.

Of course, some will retort: "Guidebooks? Who needs guidebooks when we have the internet?" Fair enough, but aside from the fact I don’t think the internet is immune from being out of date, I personally still like to have a condensed hard-copy. Not only for flinging in my bag when there’s no internet around, but also before the trip – to read in bed or over breakfast – to get in the holiday mood with some downtime away from the computer screen. Guidebooks are also a good place to start to get those initial bearings.

Being on the guidebook side of things for the last few months has certainly been interesting. The other day someone suggested doing a blog with a bit of insight into the whole process. I’ll get back to you on that one. Until then, if anyone wants to share some thoughts on the pros and cons of guidebooks, I’d love to hear them.

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23 Responses to “In defence of guidebooks”

  1. I like to think of myself as an impromptu and adventurous traveller but I would NEVER be without a hard-copy guidebook. Why? Weeks of reading on the internet about Hungary, which isn’t really that far away, on my first visit there could not have prepared me for the million times I thought “what on earth is going on?”. Hungarian is a very difficult language to learn, lots of people there don’t speak English and it’s not that easy to just pop into a tourist information point and hope they will have a clue what you’re on about. I think there’s a difference between being unwilling to try anything that the Rough Guide doesn’t recommend and maximising your travel opportunities by reading what other people have to say on the destination.

    I love nothing better than reading a guidebook on a plane or train. I love the smell of them, I love the shiny pictures of places I might see and I love the language guides in the back (of some of them). There’s no substitute for a REAL book and for someone for whom books have always been the first port of call in crises, I wouldn’t ever travel without one if I could help it.

  2. Thanks Hazel. I think that’s a very good point about the difference between being unwilling to try anything off their pages or just taking opportunity to “maximise your travel opportunities by reading what other people have to say”.

    I don’t think travelling with a guidebook is an indication of being unadventurous, but every so often you meet one of those refuser types, who seems to think so. The type that’s extra keen to tell you they never use one and seem v superior about it.

    Like I say, it’s a personal choice. If you don’t use one, fair play. But I could do without the smugness.

    By Vicky Baker on Jun 19, 2009 | Reply
  3. That is a really nice and interesting article! I always travel with guide books and won’t change that. There isn’t always internet around the corner or at the beach or on a safari or wherever you might be and that’s really good!

    Othersites, there is soo much more to see what a guide book offers. Example: there is a hostel recommended. This hostel will get overrun and can even charge higher prices. Another hostel with the same or better service & atmosphere might have big problems, even if they are cheaper. But a lot of travelers keep with the recommendations of a guide book. That’s why I’ve started my site, to give even more informations & tips – for travelers, by travelers.I’ve made the experience that travel tips from locals & other travelers were really good!

    When we got to Jodhpur in India. We had a recommendation that the Lassivalla bar was a must go place. When we got there, we found 4 of them! All next to each other with the same name! The same happened in Vietnam! One hostel was recommended and there were 3 with the same name!

    I think guide books are really important for general informations (like atm’s) 🙂 , but not that good for travel tips & recommendations.

  4. It’s an interesting point, and despite the rise in non-traditional sources of travel information & guides, the good old paper based guides are still going strong – as the WH Smith/Penguin hoo-ha goes to show.
    I made a short comparison of different sources of travel info, based on Lima, Peru, but bottled out of coming down for any particular side: I agree with you, they all serve their own purpose and “guidebooks are better than the net” style arguments are a bit daft anyway…
    http://latinamericaforless.com/blog/2009/06/10/calling-in-the-south-america-travel-experts/
    Matthew B,
    Latin America For Less

  5. I like using guidebooks for things like historical information, little walking tours of areas, that sort of thing – the Blue Guides are among the best for those, unfortunately only available for a limited number of major cities. I virtually never look at them for “current” things to do, places to go, prices, hours, etc. – so much of that stuff is out of date by the day it’s published that I gave up on it long ago. Almost everywhere I’ve ever traveled I’ve been able to find some sort of local publication – be it a newspaper or weekly mag – in a language I can fathom, and that’s up to the moment with that sort of stuff. Plus, so much of what’s in a guidebook in that vein is subjective rather than objective – favorite restaurants, clubs, art, things of that nature – that I find I rarely enjoy the same things that the writer did.

  6. Like so many travellers, I have never been anywhere without a guide book. I’ve never even planned a trip without extensive research first, let alone just arrived somewhere and hoped I’d find the things that interested me, particularly when I’ve only got a couple of weeks in which to explore.
    I don’t think guide book vs internet is an either/or thing, I think they both have their role to play and the more sources I can check out, the better.
    But the real reason I buy a guide book is to get the insider stuff, the stuff only ‘those in the know’ can tell me. Like where to eat that’s going to give me a real taste of wherever I am without ripping me off for the privilage; where to see the best sunsets; which beach is the most beautiful; when and where to see festivals etc.
    What really p’s me off is when an internet page or a travel atricle has been written by someone who’s patently never stepped foot in the place and is just re-hashing info from other sources or has spent a week in some 5 star AI hotel and taken an organised excursion. That’s no go to me, I need someone who knows the place like the proverbial back of their hand. Guide books are not infallible and they’re almost guaranteed to be out of date by the time they hit the streets but if they can give me an insight into the heart and soul of a place, they’ll always be in my rucksack.
    Oh, and SHAME on WH Smiths!

  7. This is a very thought-provoking piece, Vicky – so much so that I’ve taken time out from completing the work I still owe you for your 400-page guidebook to Argentina and Uruguay, to respond to it.

    You’re quite right to say that travel guidebooks should not be compared to sacred texts. The latter tend to be rambling, ill-informed, fantastically long-winded screeds that are poorly fact-checked, highly partisan and at least two thousand years out of date. Good luck getting from Egypt to Canaan using Exodus! Moses is no Frommer: he’s very vague about the location of oases, is constantly taking the reader up and down mountains for no apparent reason, and seems to think the average backpacker has 40 years on his hands. There are a number of useful tips for the subjugation of women, casting of graven idols, and sea crossings on foot – but that’s about it. As for Leviticus and Deuteronomy, I think they were cobbled together by an intern under severe deadline pressure.

    Rather, a good guidebook should be like a good biography. Let’s say I decide to write a new biography of Winston Churchill. There are dozens of books about Churchill on the market, some wonderful, some rotten, so the success or failure of my effort largely pivots on its originality. What do I have to say about Churchill that hasn’t been said before? Is there any new scholarship I can mine? Do I achieve a good balance between primary and secondary sources? Most importantly, does the way I approach my subject make the reader think about Churchill in a fresh way?

    But none of the above matters if I get my facts wrong. If I present the publisher with a stylishly written, tightly argued first draft that kicks off with the line ‘Winston Churchill was born in October 1874,’ my manuscript will quite rightly find itself in the recycling bin. I’m only a month out; but it’s a colossal snafu. It’s my ‘ATM in Punta del Diablo’ moment, revealing me to be either a bungler, a charlatan, or both.

    Sadly, the bar is set a lot lower for writers of guidebooks than for writers of biographies. Many guidebooks are neither original nor accurate. For a long time this was mitigated by the fact that readers of guidebooks were less demanding than readers of Churchill biographies. This is no longer the case. On a more positive note, Vicky, the sneak previews I’ve had of your guidebook suggest that it meets the criteria I’ve vaguely sketched out above.

    So let’s recast the question. Instead of asking ‘What makes a good guidebook’ let’s ask ‘What makes a good non-fiction publication?’ This will unnerve many current guidebook writers; I think that’s A Good Thing.

    By the way, I don’t really buy into the argument that guidebooks are full of sloppy work because the contributors are underpaid. First, there’s no evidence that the writers of good guidebooks are any better paid than the writers of bad guidebooks. Second, nurses are underpaid. I don’t suppose I need to flesh out *that* analogy.

    By Matt Chesterton on Jun 19, 2009 | Reply
  8. I agree with you. You can find loads of information on the internet but nothing beats a hardcopy guidebook in hand! When I was on my world trip, I used the internet for info for Southeast Asia and Australia because I knew there’ll be lots of information in English. For South America, I was glad I had my Chile and Argentina LP guidebooks with me.

    Cheers,
    Keith

  9. Interesting stuff here.

    I will always carry a guidebook, or to be more exact, read up before I go. I frequently get most of my guidebook time before I arrive — like the Hungary post above. When I go, I turn to it for the map, opening times, the location of the cave bar I remembered reading about, and transport details. Nothing whets the appetite, gets the travel dream going more… for me anyway.

    Researching online is good too. But sometimes it’s hard trusting the source — a TripAdvisor for reviews etc. Who, but travel writers, ever visit more than one hotel? Or all the of them museums to say which two are justified in their legend (Loevre, Orsay) and which you didn’t know about it a classic without the crowds (Paris’ Sewer Musee) etc.

  10. Thanks all. Great to have some many thoughts.

    Picking up on what Melvin and Dan said – I wouldn’t say guidebooks aren’t good for tips and recommendations. It depends which ones you use though. The places recommended in Wallpaper won’t necessarily please someone who usually reads Bradt. Sometimes it comes down to find the ones that suit you. Subjective? Yes, they are. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Can give a guide personality. Although not so good if that personality is poles apart from yours. If you want to be truly ahead of the game though, yes, nothing beats backing the books up with the local papers and websites. I agree 100%.

    Funnily enough, Andy says here that he likes the subjective lists. Just proves the point that we need all sorts of guides of all sorts of travellers. These lists can be great starting point and can lead to good things. And when they don’t, well I kind of like that in a way too. It’s always good to disagree with the guide from time to time and back up their places with our own finds. That’s what makes our trips our own trips and not just rehashes of someone else’s.

    Dan – I’ve never read a Blue Guide. Sound good. I will seek one out. Do they cover S America?

    Matthew – I love that blog! I keep meaning to try Localyte. I’ll let you know how I get on. True what you say that guidebooks are limited on space. In places like Lima and BA covering all barrios would be impossible. Some places do get totally ignored. But in a way that’s also good: tourist get some focus when on a limited-time frame, and residents get to explore the outlying places without the tourists. And, of course, there’s always a hip, emerging place that keeps us all on our toes – residents, tourists and writers.

    Matt – bible and biography analogies – never heard either before! V interesting (and hilarious) way of thinking. I do agree that there are a lot of lazily pitched guidebooks out there, churning out the same old stuff. Same goes for travel websites though.

    Ultimately, we can’t really lump guidebooks all together really, can we? In praise or in criticism

    By Vicky Baker on Jun 20, 2009 | Reply
  11. Agreed. I used my guidebook as a springboard when I went on my trip a couple of months ago. I didn’t take it with me, but while I was doing my research, I definitely thumbed through it more than a few times. I also brought along some photocopied pages (particularly the maps, and the guide to the Angkor temples) which I promptly tossed out once I was done with that city. I certainly don’t treat the guidebook as my Bible, but I use it for its intended use: As a *guide*.

  12. I actually enjoy guidebooks as part of the “getting excited” phase of preparing to travel. I use internet travel websites and forums for really important information, but the guidebooks, if written well, can serve as good preparation for knowing the history of the place. And if the pictures are pretty, then better yet! 🙂

    I think it’s great that you’re going to write a guidebook on Argentina and Uruguay! If you have any questions about Buenos Aires, particularly on tango, feel free to ask! I’ll bookmark your page so I can read your future posts.

    Nice to “meet” you – found you on twitter via @SlowTrav

  13. I typically travel with a guide book with the traditionals such as Rough Guides, Moon (sometimes) and some LPs being my favourites. Saying that, I don’t use them for accom, food or prices at all but find their maps, checks for services (laundromats, info centres etc) useful, things to see (as a check to see if anything sounds special that I can go and check out) and history/culture (useful after seeing something during a day to get more explanation as to why). The internet adds to that info but most of the time, the info is dubious at best unless from a trusted source. Wandering a town and generally experiencing a place if you have some time goes a long way and you don’t need a guide book for that. After all, they are called guide books for a reason – they are there as a GUIDE, not a bible. Interesting article.

  14. I’m in the “with guidebooks” pile, and I’ll even stick my oar out as far as to say I only buy Lonely Planets. Are they more accurate? No. I just like the layout, but that may be because I’m used to them.

    The internet’s great, but as someone else pointed out it’s so much fun just sitting with a proper book and flicking through it, marking things in pen, folding the corners over (I *never* do this with other books) and making the damn thing look *used*.

    Sure, they’re out of date at times. I tend to use mine more for “what to see and do” than “where to eat and sleep”. Travel advice in some countries rarely changes, but in others it’s a very fluid beast – you have to take train schedules, bus times and the like with a pinch of salt.

    It’s a *guide* book after all – it guides you in the right direction. It doesn’t necessarily get you there in one piece and do your laundry for you on the second day. If you want that kind of treatment, go on a package tour.

    They’re also a great souvenir. A friend of mine has a Lonely Planet from almost every country he’s been to. He’ll buy them locally, if possible, use the hell out of them and then post them home once they’re taking up too much space. I’ve started doing that, but I still only have about a dozen of them.

    I’m slightly biased, though. Besides being an internet addict I’m a huge lover of books and I don’t believe you can beat the “feel” of sitting and flipping through a proper paper tome.

  15. I think that guidbooks are just like all other books- it depends on the author behind them!

  16. I agree: guidebooks do get a bit of an unfair rap. For all the information you can get on the internet, it’s bloody useless when you’ve not got a wireless connection, phone signal or your battery needs recharging.

    But it’s not just that reason that I always carry one – it’s great to get a relatively concise overview of an area in one relatively easy to carry book.

    It’s great for planning a rough itinerary (which you can change if something better comes along) and getting an idea or two of places you might enjoy drinking or eating in. You don’t have to follow it to the letter, or at all if you don’t want to. I consider them as being a bit like Wikipedia – an excellent first reference point that should never be taken as gospel.

  17. Thanks Vicky for this thought-provoking article. I think that the decision to use or not use a guidebook comes down to two things: time, and travel philosophy.

    For someone with a one-month Interrail ticket for Europe, who wants to see as many of the continent’s sights as possible before returning home, and who wants to do it on the cheap and meet other travellers in the process, a guidebook is pretty indispensable. This kind of travel is for fun, visiting specific locations for specific reasons.

    This is no more or less worthy than its antithesis, which I should say is what I’m doing at the moment. I’ve sacrificed stability and (on some levels) social acceptability for the freedom of unrestricted travel. I do it by travelling on a bicycle and camping out every night. In two years I’ve never carried a guidebook, and I long ago gave up on carrying maps.

    Why? Well, it just fits. Since travel is my way of life, rather than being a time-out from my ‘real’ life, things are going to be different. I relish the tingle of crossing a border and arriving in a new country with my mind a completely blank slate. It sounds ironic, but not having a map has increased my ability to navigate, and not having a guidebook has taught me how to find what I need. Above all, it means that my experience is untarnished by any preconceptions.

    If I couldn’t develop like this, I doubt I’d have the motivation to keep doing it. A guidebook and map would take away the lure of the unknown and the lessons of the getting-to-know.

    When I meet short-term travellers, they usually arrive already knowing where they want to go and what they want to do. The locals know this as well, and they take full advantage of it. Every hotel owner knows when he’s listed in Lonely Planet. I guess this is more of an issue when we’re talking about somewhere less-visited, like Sudan or Yemen or Armenia. It serves both parties well in this situation.

    Incidentally, the other reason I don’t use guidebooks is because there it is only rarely that I find myself somewhere that it would be useful. I don’t stay in hotels or take much interest in sightseeing, so a guidebook which fills me in on the details of two towns 50km apart but doesn’t mention anything about the villages or the road between them – which is where I’m going to be for 99% of my time – is of limited use.

    All of that said, it’s just been my personal preference, and one I continually question but have ended up sticking to for the reasons above. Next year I’m planning to spend all spring and summer exploring Central Asia by bike with my wife, and since we’re going to take it more slowly, take more time out for exploring and visiting places in more detail, and occasionally stay in the odd hotel, I expect a guidebook will come in handy. I’m not a guidebook-resister – they are indispensably useful to many travellers – but they’re not for everyone.

    I think the danger comes when they are relied on too heavily (your ATM story maybe!). Change happens. Some trips can become little more than the ticking-off of to-do lists. I think (hope) this is a minority. I encourage people to take risks and to test themselves against the unknown – in moderation at first – because there are some really valuable lessons to be learnt by simply not knowing where you’re going – especially alone.

  18. What a great story, Tom. That’s the sort of attitude I like – you know the way you like to travel but that doesn’t make you judgment of the choices of others. An amazing journey too! Good luck.

    By Vicky Baker on Jun 22, 2009 | Reply
  19. Very interesting article. I´m currently writing a guide book for Paraguay and have struggled with similar questions about guidebooks. How much information does a guidebook user need – where is the line between not enough and being so detailed you´re doomed to be out of date before going to print? I spoke with a guidebook writer recently who just finished an assignment and said it would be at least eight months before it went to press. A lot can change in eight months!

    As is obvious by the responses to your post so far there is a wide spectrum of guidebook useage – some people use them as a starting point and others almost as an instruction manual. Paraguay is a country with a lot of potential, very little tourism infrastructure and, either a bad or non-existent reputation, depending on who you talk to. I wonder who I have to write for and who other guidebooks write for. An experience traveler? A backpacker? A business man? Someone with no experience in Latin America? Sometimes the experience of writing a guidebook can be even more interesting than the subject of the book!

    Regarding print vs. virtual guidebooks I have heard people say they would never use a guide in e-book forms and others say “I can´t wait till I can carry all my guidebooks on my iphone!” Each has it´s pros and cons. Books are heavy. A virtual guidebook can be updated more easily but I would imagine that whipping out your iphone might be an issue if you are touring an underdeveloped area of the world. In terms of the process of writing a guidebook I decided to stick with old school tools – pen and paper – instead of a digital recorder for conversations. Paraguay is very poor and pulling out a fancy device can break the level of intimacy during an interview or friendly conversation.

  20. Thanks Natalia. Definitely got yourself an challenging (and fascinating) task there! I discovered your blog the other day actually and tweeted it. I was quite excited to find it as there’s little info out there on Paraguay. Looking fwd to reading your book already. When will it be out? Is it a publisher I’d know? I would love to speak to you about the country sometime. I’m heading over there in the next month or two. It’s the only country in S America I don’t know and I’m really looking forward to seeing what it has to offer.

    By Vicky Baker on Jun 22, 2009 | Reply
  21. Hi Vicky. It is quite a task! Sometimes I feel like I’m in terra incognita. You are correct, there is very little information on Paraguay, even within the country itself. I depend heavily on people’s willingness to share information and experiences with me. Fortunately Paraguayans are about the nicest people on the planet! Trying my best to learn Guaraní so I´ll be better prepared for venturing deep into the countryside – less Spanish is spoken the further you go. Email me at natalia@guidetoparaguay.com and we can figure out what you want to see. Perhaps you’d be up for accompanying me on an information gathering adventure?

    I do not have a publisher yet. I’m hoping to be done with traveling by December and will then have time to concentrate on finding a publisher and ironing out the rest of the details. My goal is to have the book available for purchase by next year.

    Nos hablamos pronto!
    Natalia

  22. I believe guidebooks are good for getting a person started in a new country. Pick out the key points of what you want to visit, and use the guidebook for that. But for the rest of the trip, leave that sucker in your bag, and just breath in the sights and sounds of your foreign environment. You’ll have more fun that way, and the trip won’t be as rigid and structured.

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