As you are reading this article from my blog, I am glad you chose to research more into your travels than simply buying a guide book. Travel blogs, review sites and social media have opened up a whole new world of travel planning resources that weren’t available ten, or even five years ago. So, does this overwhelming amount of information on the internet mean that good old-fashioned guide books like Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and the rest are obsolete? Are guide books dead?
The Trouble with Guide Books
Before I went travelling to South America, I bought the Lonely Planet guide book ‘South America on a Shoestring’. I carried that huge book around the continent with me for 10 months. And I wasn’t the only one; at least every other English speaker I met had the same book, and I saw versions in French, German and Dutch too.
The trouble was, my book was published two years before I left England. Bus timetables had changed. Some of the restaurants recommended in the book had closed. Other new ones had appeared, and the same with hostels. The tourism industry is changing so quickly, that anything in print is out of date within weeks.
Another thing I disliked about Lonely Planet was that it so often recommended American and British food; pizzerias, burger joints and ‘typical’ food from back home. Granted, after travelling long term you begin to crave reminders of home, but there were comparatively few recommendations for local restaurants serving traditional dishes from wherever I was. I wanted to get an authentic experience, which is hard to do when you’re eating cheeseburgers and falafel every day.
And of course, given that so many people had this book, any establishments recommended in it were full of other backpackers and travellers, so the chances of finding a really good restaurant that is authentic and not full of gringos was pretty slim.
The Future of Travel Guides?
That is where the new generation of travel guides come in. User-generated review sites like TripAdvisor and Google maps, or online accommodation booking sites like Hostelworld or Booking have much more up-to-date information, so we can see if a new, better restaurant or hostel has opened since our guide book was published. Multiple reviews help us weigh up the positive and negative reviews to try to build up an accurate picture of what the destination is really like, instead of relying on a couple of sentences in a book.
However, these sites too have their problems. Some sites, like TripAdvisor, are not regulated for accuracy, so you have no way of knowing if the person who left that five-star review really stayed or ate there, or if they might be an owner or employee. Similarly, that one-star review might have been left by a competitor, or a disgruntled ex-employee. Without knowing who the reviewer really is, take the reviews with a pinch of salt. Read them, but also read between the lines. Sometimes you can spot fake reviews yourself, and other ratings which just have one or five stars without any extra information can be ignored. Furthermore, even if a review is an accurate description of a person’s experience, we may have totally different opinions to them – there are plenty of people out there who love peas for example, so how could I ever trust the opinion of someone who is so wrong about that??
Perhaps then, travel blogs are a more reliable source of information. It is our job to break the mould, to use guide books for advice, but not rely on them. To be brave, go the extra mile and seek out those authentic experiences and share them with our readers, before the hoards find out about them. There are still hidden gems out there, we just have to find them before anyone else!
Blogs are great because you can get to know the writer, read various posts and understand their style – and their likes and dislikes. That is what makes us all different, we all like different things – what might be amazing to one person could be horrific for another. Take the time to find a blogger who you think you will get on with in real life. Someone who knows the place where you’re going, and who’s opinion you can trust.
You can find travel bloggers who travel in a similar way to you, for example luxury travel, family travel, backpacking or solo female travel, so you know that their experiences will probably be much more similar to yours than an unknown Tripadvisor reviewer.
Yet again, bloggers might not be as honest as they seem. Some bloggers have been criticized for writing sponsored posts for money when they haven’t tried the product or tour, or for raving about something that might only be average. Ethically (and in some countries, legally), travel bloggers should disclose if they received payment or goods or services in exchange for a review, and even so, they should still give an honest review. For example, when I work with a tour company or a hotel I always tell them that I write honest reviews, and in my articles, I always include the positive and negative aspects of my experience.
When to use Guide Books
Guide books are great for initial planning, to help you decide on a rough route and itinerary – and find those unmissable attractions that simply have to be visited. Guide books are far more comprehensive than a travel blog ever can be in terms of volume, they have to include so much more information about a country, and include every ‘worthwhile’ destination to visit. But in the case of South America on a Shoestring, they can’t possibly hope to include all the information necessary to fully explore thirteen countries. Travel blogs get down to the nitty gritty, they tell you what it is actually like in a destination, and for me the great joy is discovering somewhere that Lonely Planet hadn’t mentioned at all – like Guadalupe in Colombia (which will be included in the next version).
Although sales of guide books were decreasing dramatically in the last few years, in 2016 there was a glimmer of hope, and sales picked up again. There is something I think we all still love about having an actual book in our hands. Although the convenience for travellers of having less to carry is a definite plus, nothing beats flicking through a good book, making notes on the pages, scribbling in the margin and curling up in bed to read it. Luckily, I still come across guide books in hostels along the way, left by other travellers who are heading home, or who simply ran out of space in their backpacks. Even in the age of unlimited information at the touch of a button, we still like to read books.
For Lonely Planet to become a review site like TripAdvisor would be a disaster. People do want to hear from fellow travellers, but sometimes I get the feeling that Tripadvisor reviews are written by people who clearly have nothing better to do than complain about every little detail. Guide books aren’t dead, but they are evolving. Lonely Planet has introduced its Pathfinders initiative, inviting travel bloggers to contribute articles to their website, and its Thorn Tree forum has questions and answers from people asking for specific information about a location, a bus route, or advice about things that sometimes we just need to hear from an individual, not read from a book or article. Facebook groups also help members to get specific, up-to-date information from fellow travellers who have recently visited a destination, and several people usually respond to your query to create a balanced picture.
I tried something new on my last trip, Lonely Planet’s e-guide books. Instead of carting round a huge book, I bought the electronic version of the guide book to Central America, Mexico and Cuba. It also helped that they had an offer on at the time, so I got all three titles for a bargain price. I still used them to plan a vague root, but the inconvenience of having to turn on my laptop and open the large file has meant I didn’t use it as much. Perhaps with a larger memory in my mobile phone I would have used them more. I think next time I’ll get the paper version again and go back to the old way of doing things. Combined, of course, with reading reviews and travel blogs, and asking fellow travellers and local people too. For me, this is the best way to travel – get as much information as you can so you can sift through and decide what will work best for you. Although every now and again I love to just wing it, and wander around to get a feel for a place, and all of the planning I did goes out of the window!
How do you plan your travel? Share your tips in the comments below.
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