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.
There 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 What’s more, keep in mind that ALL guidebooks are out of date: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 future 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.