Daily Archives: 13 April, 2008

Guidebooks: neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so

Imagine having one month to track down information as broad as the prices at Laundromats in Seattle, the details of the Tijuana border crossing, where to find a decent sandwich in Bakersfield, an overview of LA’s nightlife, hiking trails in Yosemite, museum hours in Portland, bus schedules in San Francisco, and the location of a decent tourist office in Boise. Now imagine trying to do that in a place with no reliable transportation schedules, dial-up Internet connections (when there are Internet connections, or even phones), thousands of miles of unpaved roads, and heavily accented Northeast Brazilian Portuguese as the language of choice (Thomas Kohnstamm – Former Lonely Planet contributor)

In light of the Lonely Planet shemozzle I thought I would get round to writing a post I’d had in mind for a while. Guidebooks – the good, the bad and the unnecessary.

RomeThere are a multiplicity of guidebook series – Transitionsabroad.com has a decent run-down of the characteristics of some of the major players, in it particular highlights the drawbacks of each, which correspond almost exactly with my thoughts.

Personally I am drawn to Frommer’s when I am planning a trip by the ‘Best of’ lists and the uncluttered layout. I dislike the (admittedly handsome) DK Guides with a passion – at least for anything practical – and avoid the Let’s Go guides because of some glaring errors I have come across. I have found Moon Guides excellent for on-the-road reference where available, but have generally relied on LP’s as the most reliable (!). I haven’t had a chance to check them out but I have a grudging fondness for Rick Steve’s guides which contain no extraneous material – a country guide may concentrate on only a handful of cities or areas – opininated reviews and charming hand-drawn maps of questionable utility inviting you get lost. This almost directed approach creates a Rick Steves’ trail not unlike the more infamous LP trail.

If you are in the market for a guidebook remember they vary drastically in quality within series – try to find experiences of people who have actually used the book, then spend time in the bookstore browsing those you are interested in (or even better check for it in your local library). What’s more, keep in mind that ALL guidebooks are out of date:

Sure, there’s a disclaimer that says the information was accurate as of some date, but truthfully, the guidebook is only accurate during the time that the harried researcher/writer is standing on site at the open attraction/airline gateway/hotel/etc. Guidebooks are out of date before they’ve gone to print (Why Your Guidebook Is Wrong).

Wikitravel and World66 are noble attempts to create free, up-to-date, travel guides which are coming into their own which I urge you contribute to (although relying soley on them may still be unwise). This article in The Atlantic point to the fIbn Battutahuture relying on a diversity of internet sites – no travel guide can match google maps, the sheer number of reviews on chowhound and traveladvisor, not to mention the various travel blogging sites give you an incredible diversity of perspectives.

Guidebooks are still incredibly useful for planning and for giving you the lowdown on a particuar place. Ultimately, however, perhaps the best travel guide to take with you isn’t a travel guide at all. Why not ditch the LP or Rough Guide and try to recreate the footsteps of a great traveller, say Ibn Battutah, or if you’re heading to Europe try a specialist archelogical guide like the Oxford Archaeological Guides. Or travel light and just leave them all at home.

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Scandal at Lonely Planet – Colombia guide written in San Francisco!

Lonely Planet ColombiaScandal is engulfing Lonely Planet after the revelations by an employee, Thomas Kohnstamm, that slabs of the South America guidebooks contributed to were anything but well researched. In a new book entitled Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? Kohnstamm admits to having plagerised and invented information. He claims he didn’t even visit Colombia to write the LP guide ‘because they didn’t pay me enough’; instead, ‘I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating – an intern in the Colombian consulate’.

Khonstamm accepted free travel and his recommendations seem to have been anything but fearlessly independent. Here is one of Kohnstamm’s anecdotes from a restaurant in Brazil he recommended:

“The waitress suggests that I come back after she closes down the restaurant, around midnight,” he writes. “We end up having sex in a chair and then on one of the tables in the back corner.

” That performance earned a guidebook entry describing the restaurant as “a pleasant surprise” where “the table service is friendly”.

According to reports another LP author, Jeanne Oliver, wrote to management regarding this scandal ‘Why did you (management) not understand that when you hire a constant stream of new, unvetted people, pay them poorly and set them loose, that someone, somehow was going to screw you?’.

Apparently Mr Kohnstamm’s books are being ‘urgently reviewed’.

The Telegraph & News.com.au (The Sunday Telegraph)


KohnstammAn interesting article from the New Zealand Herald published a week ago with some more quotes from Kohnstamm:

“They [Lonely Planet] know the book is coming out,” he says. “I’ve been contacted by a number of other Lonely Planet writers and everyone who has bothered to be in contact said, ‘Good on you, it’s a story that needed to be told.’

“But the book is fundamentally about my personal experience and not intended as an expose on Lonely Planet. Nor do I attempt to shoot it down. Obviously, when the book was written, it was given a full legal review.”

Kohnstamm notes in the interview that ‘Lonely Planet pays on average less than the minimum hourly wage, often does not support its writers in the field and makes demands almost impossible to meet’.

12 Travel Sites EVERYBODY should know (and love)


You may well already be familiar with many or all of these sites, most are very popular – and with good reason. These are websites that you will find yourself returning to again and again.

1 ) Lonely Planet’s Thorn tree

The granddaddy of internet travel forums – not the very best for every country or every topic but no other forum has the breadth, readership or so fully embodies Lonely Planet’s ethos of independent travel. If you have a travel question to ask then there’s no better place to start. The FAQS for each thread can be chaotic but contain a wealth of basic knowledge and useful information.

2 ) Center for Disease Control’s Yellow Book

The first and best reference for travel health -tips for avoiding mosquito or tick bites, FAQs for traveller’s diarrhea, suggestions about what a traveller’s first aid kit should contain as well as information on specific destinations that should be consulted before arrival.

3 ) Onebag.com

Travel with one carry-on size bag. Ditch the ballast: no excuses, no regrets. This site, which has become the most popular online packing resource provides all the packing information you could ever need.

4 ) The Man in Seat Sixty-One

Route details, maps, photos, timetables, prices and anything else you might need anywhere in the world that passenger trains run. Terrifyingly exhaustive and irreplaceable when planning a trip.

5 ) Trip Advisor

Reviews of everything travel related, especially hotels. The sheer number of reviews are likely to give you the details travel brochures leave out and guidebooks overlook, even if I would treat the ratings with a pinch of scepticism.

6 ) oanda.com

There are any number of sites which provide currency conversion, but Oanda’s FX cheat sheets, which can be adjusted to account for a margin to represent conversion costs, lift it above the pack for the traveller.

7 ) Whichbudget.com

There may be prettier alternatives but, in my experience, the most up-to-date listing of budget airlines and where they fly. Not beautiful, but wonderfully functional.

8 ) SeatGuru

The easiest way to ensure you have one of the best seats (and possibly more importantly avoid one of the worst), short of flying at the pointy end. Plans of planes colour coded to allow you to check at a glance where you’ll be seated.

9 ) World Electric Guide

Plugs and voltages worldwide. Never be without you travel kettle again.

10 ) World Airport Guides

Check airport services and transport options before you arrive, but if you’re planing on catching some kip the venerable Sleeping in Airports is your guide.

11 ) MasterCard Global ATM Locator

Find MasterCard, Maestro and Cirrus ATMs in over 210 countries. Far from comprehensive but worthwhile to give an idea of ATMs around your hotel, airport or attractions.

12 ) How to: Use a Squat Toilet

Prepare before you go – don’t learn, well, on the job. Trust me, the first time you come across one of these beauties you’ll be thankfull.

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