Travel Guide Books Lost Their Edge

January 6, 2013 Travel 4 Comments 17,227 Views

Why (Most) Travel Guide Books Lost Their Edge.

The first time I went on a trip overseas dates back 35 years: A journey by truck from Vienna to Lagos in Nigeria. It was around the time when Maureen and Tony Wheeler started their first adventure through Asia, down to Australia. Travel guide books were not really ‘invented’ yet. This is what the Wheelers started soon after completing their trip.

Back in the Old Days.

So, this first trip through lots of African countries happened without a single guide book, and my friends and I managed to find restaurants, petrol stations, hotels and directions all by ourselves. We even didn’t miss the villages on our way through the Sahara desert. And you have to keep in mind: Those days, modern electronics, like GPS, were also not invented; we simply relied on a compass and the only available map we had, the “Michelin Map” (nowadays still good for travelling through Africa).

Soon after we finished our trip, the travel guide book hype started … with Lonely Planet on the forefront. On one of our next trips, the LP book “Africa on a shoestring” was in our possession. It was all a lot easier now. Sure, we would have found restaurants and hotels, but why bother with the extra time when you had a reliable guide book at hand?

So on it went for a couple of trips and we (and many others) totally confided in these bibles. Until we met a person somewhere on the road without such books. “No, I don’t need any travel guide book” he said. At first we thought that he might have been travelling on such a low budget, that he couldn’t even buy a guide book, but he had absolutely no intentions looking at our copy…

Lost Edge.

After years of travelling by car/truck, we planned a trip by plane – of course with a guide book in tow. On the plane, it was useful as reading material and with the description of the place we were flying to, we already knew everything beforehand. But this was wrong… The desired hotel turned out to be a very noisy place with the nearby mosque as a wake up call at 3 am. Didn’t the author of the book stay there? Was he deaf? This should have been mentioned, or the hotel should have been skipped at all… But never mind. We checked out the next morning and found another place to stay at – better, nicer and quiet, and not even mentioned in the book!

And this is the thing with these guide books nowadays. Things change so fast; places close down, new ones open and therefore, keeping a guide book up to date can be very tricky. Especially when the author, who should update a new edition, is a bit of a bored fella, who’s rather up for drinking holes then checking on the changes. The guide book won’t be accurate any more, and with every new edition it will only get worse…

When we decided to drop (most) guide books.

The encounter that really made us realize that (most) guide books couldn’t be ‘trusted’ any more, was during a trip to North-East India. When travelling East beyond Kolkata, it seemed that the Lonely Planet India guide book hasn’t been updated since the colonial era. Except the maps with the cities and villages marked, almost nothing was up to date. We really had the impression that the authors didn’t visit the area at all since the first edition. The LP India guide book is pretty heavy, and as there was no valuable information in it, we disposed it at a train station on the way to Darjeeling.

And then we were ‘on our own’, without a guide book, and had to find a place for the night. Miraculously, after driving around for a bit with a tuk tuk driver, he brought us to a very nice hotel which had just opened a year ago. And even without 20 outdated restaurant suggestions, we didn’t starve because we found some really great local street vendors who sold nice and decent food. And we didn’t miss the bus station for our next destination either… Finding it the day before our intended departure, we bought the tickets, asked for the departure time and were on our way the next morning.

The point of this post is simple: if you’re a smart person, you better gather some general information via the internet before you start your trip or in the local community at sight. Ask around, get in touch with the people around you, buy a local newspaper and look for other travellers. Rather than sticking your face in an outdated guidebook, communicate.

When reading the local newspaper in India last year, I came across this article below. After this, I thought to myself that I’ll send Lonely Planet an e-mail asking them, why their guide books have become more and more inaccurate. Until today, I never even got a reply. Mistakes can happen and times are getting tougher and tougher – also in the guide book business -, but when one is altered by loyal readers, a statement shouldn’t be too hard…

A 'minor' mistake...
Lonely Planet gives Assam a ‘makeover’ – Just a ‘minor’ mistake…

Of course, there are exceptions, because there are well researched guide books out there. It’s not all about quantity but much rather quality. Rather than having a bunch of unreliable guide books from every country on the planet, stick to a few accurate ones and start expanding slowly… but that’s just my opinion.

What about you? Any bad/good experiences when it comes to travel guide books?

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“Why (Most) Travel Guide Books Lost Their Edge.”

  1. I always take everything in guide books with a pinch of salt – after some of the things I’ve read about my native England and the rest of the UK in guidebooks I can’t do anything else. And afterall, the Cambridge Dictionary definition of “guide” is “a person or thing that influences what you do or think”, but you’re right – even though they shouldn’t be intended to be gospel some more accurate information on occasions wouldn’t go amiss.

    Maps are always useful, but sometimes I’m not sure whether or not to use a guidebook or even research a place. When I haven’t researched a place beforehand I’ve been amazed by some of the things I didn’t know about, but other times I’ve missed out on amazing things I would have known about if I’d done some research!

  2. Nisa

    Hi Alex!
    I think the most important thing is to just go with the flow a little bit. I mean, sure, one wants to see as much as possible when travelling but we just need to face the fact, that the world is too big for us anyway. I feel like guide books sometimes forget that and just want to fill the pages…
    Take care! Nisa

  3. Anuradha Rao

    I am quite convinced that ‘travel guide books’ should be renamed as ‘tourism guide books’ Anyone who likes to travel in the true sense of the term will go with his / her gut and instinct. The travel is the flow with the road, the instinct, the adventure. Following a guide book is like learning to operate a washing machine… the wash gets lost in the lather….

  4. Nisa

    Hi Anuradha Rao!
    Thanks for your great comment. The last sentence really made me smile :)
    Take care!
    Best, Nisa

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