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Are Guide Books dead?

Are Guide Books Dead? We still love flicking through the pages of a good book

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?

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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  The tourism industry is changing so quickly, that anything in print is out of date within weeks.

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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.

Are Guide Books Dead? Finding good local food can be a challenge with a guide book
Are Guide Books Dead? Finding good local food can be a challenge with a guide book

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.

Are Guide Books Dead? Trust me, I'm a Travel Blogger!
Are Guide Books Dead? Trust me, I’m a Travel Blogger!

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).

Las Gachas Colombia - Are Guide Books Dead? I loved Guadalupe, Colombia which wasn't even in the Lonely Planet
Are Guide Books Dead? I loved Guadalupe, Colombia which wasn’t even in the Lonely Planet

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.

Are Guide Books Dead? E-Readers and Kindles are easier for E-Guide Books
Are Guide Books Dead? E-Readers and Kindles are easier for E-Guide Books

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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Are guide books dead? Travel blogs, review sites and social media have opened up a whole new world of travel planning resources.  So, does this overwhelming amount of information on the internet mean that good old-fashioned guide books are obsolete?  #Travel #TravelTips #Guidebooks #Travelguides #lonelyplanet #roughguide #travelblogs #traveltips

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Last updated: February 16, 2020

16 thoughts on “Are Guide Books dead?

  1. Louise W says:

    I’ve been a member of tripadvisor for 10+ years and it’s one of my all time favorite travel sites. It’s all in how you use it. Some of the best trip reports I find on that site. Now I will start researching travel blogs as well

  2. Deah says:

    I stopped using guide books almost ten years ago. For several years I used Turdus, an app on my phone that gave me offline access to wikitravel. It’s awesome! I still have the app on my iPad but it stopped working on my iPhone and now it’s not in the App Store anymore. Anyone know of a similar product on/offline?

  3. Ryan Biddulph says:

    Hi Claire,

    This is one reason why I publish a travel page to my blog daily and also publish so many eBooks. Each platform helps you send out helpful, timely information quickly. You can always update each when necessary to give readers current content. Not so with guidebooks.

    I recall reading a Lonely Planet travel guide to both Costa Rica and Panama 3 years ago, but the guides were each published some 10 years prior. Different universe in each country in many regards. You can use paperback guide books for some general cultural info; the timeless stuff, usually. But for all else, go with a blog and go with a Kindle, both of which can be kept current with ease.

    Great post!


  4. Megan Jerrard says:

    I agree that Guide books are great for initial planning, and are usually far more comprehensive than a travel blog ever can be. I actually really enjoy the DK Eyewitness top 10 guide books, as they’re small and leightweight though pack a lot of really cool information and colored photos in. And I agree that there’s something different about physically holding a book in your hands. I do tend to now travel with guide books electronically though and pull them up on my phone when I need something. So I agree with your conclusion that Guide books aren’t dead, but they are evolving.

  5. Paige says:

    You bring up some great points here. I agree that guide books are great for initial plans. I usually make out a rough outline based upon the things I’ve found in guide books, but I tend to rely on blogs the most. I agree that you get to know someone’s travel style and you feel like you can relate to their choices. I will still get a guide book if I’m traveling to a destination for longer than 3 weeks, but not for shorter trips.

  6. Jenna says:

    Such an interesting perspective and agree that blogs and social media have certainly changed the way we all plan and research travel. I love reading my favorite travel blogs for advice on a new destination. It is really great when you find a blogger that has a similar style of travel to you—it’s like getting advice from a friend! Like you mentioned, we do like guide books for initial research though, too—it’s nice to have a bunch of different perspectives on a destination. Great thoughts and happy travels!

  7. Kerri says:

    We were only just talking about this the other day….we too, used to lug huge books around with us. Usually, by the time I was ready to come home , I would leave it behind for someone else to use as I didn’t want the extra weight. Every now and then, I will grab a guide (usually a free one online from my library) to get some anchor points and general info. Largely now though I research online and avoid Trip Advisor altogether. Like you said, people seem to just complain about everything, almost as like they are doing an audit, and I found in the past it just wasn’t true. Also, TA have been known to buy reviews and force positive reviews so that just doesn’t do it for me. With online writers, I seek out those that I know are authentic and have actually travelled, preferring those to sites that write basic headline material to attract attention but have never actually been there or done that. Another sign of our changing world isn’t it and one worthy of reflection to think of how and who our info comes from.

  8. Val Wheatley says:

    I am in total agreement with you! I used to use guide books for every country I visited but never felt like I could really trust the important info like bus time schedules and prices. But I do sort of miss not having SO much information so readily available. lt made traveling a bit more exciting you know? Your article makes me want to pick up a guide book for old times sake!

  9. Mei says:

    To be honest, we don’t use guide books anymore. Just like you mentioned here, they get outdated pretty fast, and can sometimes be too heavy to carry around while traveling. Regarding hotels, we either book them before leaving, or we do it onsite when we walk past one that we like. So I think that the pages about hotel reviews in guide books have really become unuseful. The only guide book I use (and read before going) is the French guide bleu everytime we return to Greece, because they content lots of useful information about Greek archaeology and history written by University professors and researchers. E-books might be more interesting than paper guide books, but we’ve never bought one, because we are both book lovers (“real” books that we can smell, lol!), so we’re not so into buying or supporting e-books. Also, if we can, we prefer to avoid looking at a screen while traveling, because we all know that time flies when we get “caught” by whatever it is we’re looking at or doing on a smartphone , iPad or computer. 🙂 And it’s kind of a pity to waste time on that while traveling, no? To plan our trips, we usually browse through Tripadvisor for hotels, read other travelers’ comments on social media (you’re right: FB groups for travelers are quite good!), and of course travel blogs!

  10. Hazel Joy says:

    Good points noted here, Claire. There is more accountability and transparency in a published book so therefore more reliable source. Books are just one of the many resources I use for travel.

    • Claire says:

      Hi Hazel, thanks for reading 🙂 Books aren’t necessarily more reliable, as they go out of date if any information changes – they should be more accountable and transparent but guide books are also the opinion of the writer so that might not always be the case! Indeed, it seems using several different resources is the best way to get an accurate picture!

  11. Kate says:

    I carried my giant copy of South America on a Shoestring around the continent too! I personally love guidebooks but only for getting excited about travel. I like to see the lay of the land, identify which towns and cities I am interested in, and then go elsewhere for logistical information. It’s so hard for guidebooks to be relevant because the printed word can’t be updated on the spot. I know that I shouldn’t even bother with guidebooks but something about sitting down with a fresh one and exploring a country through words is so appealing to me.

  12. Nathalie Caty says:

    I haven’t used a guide since I went to Rome for the first time. The book was very useful and avoid a lot pitfalls for a first time solo traveler. Hopefully, they are not dead and we are using them for all of our adventures.

  13. Elaine J Masters says:

    I’ve done all this! Love planning by book and taking notes from blogs then with a basic itinerary (a vague route as you said) I feel grounded enough to get to a new place. From a base it’s easier to engage with locals and find out what’s what. Guess I’m a slow traveler who prefers that strategy.

  14. Hannah says:

    Ah, yes, I remember carrying my Western Europe Lonely Planet Guide with me in 1999… it was the version where they had accidentally titled it Westen Europe. Oops. I think I referred to it a handful of times, and it was massive! But then again, those first trips are made for making mistakes / find better ways. I downloaded some LP guides onto my kindle, which made it easier than opening a laptop. And I also use my phone to quickly tweet for advice, or read up on blogs. I also write a little moleskine diary every trip – so pre-populate it with info – sometimes a DIY guide is better 😉

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