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Thoughts on Travel Guidebooks

Thoughts on Travel Guidebooks

Old Apr 21, 09, 10:06 am
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Thoughts on Travel Guidebooks

(I wrote this on my blog last Friday, thought I'd post it here to get other thoughts/comments):

I’m on a plane in transit to Panama City, Panama now with 2 college friends. None of us have been to Panama before, and our collective knowledge of Spanish probably won’t be enough to even order a full meal or negotiate a taxi to our hostel. The legwork we’ve done prior to this trip amounts to the 10 minutes it took us to book our tickets, followed by a 5 minute discussion last night about what we are going to do once landing. Enter the travel guidebook.

I used to be a religious adherent to guide books, trying to follow suggested itineraries and mapping out each day to ensure I was seeing all the key sights and not wasting any time. Back in college, being a travel writer even seemed like a dream job. Now, I view guidebooks in an entirely different light. My key issue with them is they standardize travel experiences by turning people into “tourists.” I don’t like the connotations associated with “tourists.” Maybe this is because the image I associate with the word is a 40-year old couple, cameras around their neck, guidebook in left hand, map in right hang, fanny pack with the “weird foreign money” on their waist, all while trying to order a cheeseburger at McDonald’s from a clerk that doesn’t speak English.

When people travel, they should be experiencing something more authentic by breaking free of their comfort zones and preconceived notions about whatever culture they’re visiting. Try having a discussion in broken English/Spanish/Turkish with locals. Order food you’ve never heard of before in restaurants. Get lost walking through the city streets, heading down whatever road looks most interesting. Actively seek out new things that aren’t available in your home country. Needless to say, these are not the kinds of activities often mentioned in guidebooks.

Most guidebooks (Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, Rough Guides, etc.) map out the exact same key sights/restaurants/hotels/tours in each country. Consulting any one of them for a rough outline of what to see is fine, but this is easier done on the Internet. As far as dining/hotel/tour recommendations—avoid them like the plague! A great way to know if you should avoid a restaurant in a foreign country is if it has a “Recommended by _____ Guidebook” hanging in it’s window, as that’s a sure sign the authenticity of the restaurant is gone and they are now in the business of catering to foreigners.
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Old Apr 21, 09, 10:12 am
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i would still say that having a good map of an area you are new to is essential. while it may be fun to wander and get lost, it's not so fun if you have limited time, its late or raining. and i still find it more convenient to have a summary of major sights in a guidebook than printing pages and pages off the internet. In New York (my hometown), the Metropolitan museum is in every guide book, yet as a local i still go there several times a year. same for central park and some other "tourist sights". there's a reason why some sights are popular with locals and visitors alike. avoiding them just because it's "touristy" is just stupid.
i never pay attention to restaurant recommendations in guidebooks. either find something on my own or ask people i know.
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Old Apr 21, 09, 10:37 am
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Originally Posted by joker545 View Post
Most guidebooks (Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, Rick Steves, Rough Guides, etc.) map out the exact same key sights/restaurants/hotels/tours in each country.
This is ultimately the problem that I've run in to. Yes, there are differences among those brands, but not enough. This limitation is why I've started to produce more travel guide-type information than to consume it. I may not have a recommendation for the "best restaurant" in PTY, but I can say with certainty that there are a few worth considering, local or tourist alike. And I can say with certainty that there are absolutely "tourist" sites, such as the Miraflores locks, that you should see on a visit to PTY, even though it is a "tourist trap."

The key is to understand your own personal style of travel and what it takes to have that experience in any particular destination, and then to adapt and assimilate the vast quantities of information available to make such a trip happen. And getting lost is a big part of that for me, but I'm glad I didn't "get lost" in the slums between Casco Viejo and Calle Central. I had done enough research to know that was a bad proposition, even if I did speak Spanish fluently.

Also, suggesting that one avoid restaurants simply because a guide book recommends them is borderline treasonous without taking into account the guidebook in question. After all, the Michelin guide would qualify as such, and skipping on the restaurants it recommends in NYC would mean giving up a half dozen of my regulars. Not gonna happen.
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Old Apr 21, 09, 10:41 am
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Guidebooks are fine - if people use them as guides, not Bibles. As lerasp said, many of the sights that are listed in guidebooks are places that the locals go to as well. As an example, every guidebook that includes the city of Bologna will tell you to go to Piazza Maggiore. If you avoid this because it is a 'tourist site' you are missing one of the key aspects of this city from a local's perpective as well. Taking a 'passeggiata' around the Piazza is a classic way the Bolognese spend a Sunday afternoon.

This concept also applies to many restaurants and hotels as well.

I checked a couple of cities I know well in Frommer's online, and most of the restaurants listed would be in the same list that a local would provide, although they might include others that the guidebook wouldn't.

There is nothing noble about staying in a flea-infested hotel which any local person (if you could communicate with them) would tell you is a disaster, nor eating in a restaurant that has been shut down by the local Board of Health three times and survives only on tourists who don't talk to locals or read guide books. Guidebooks can help you with that.

The problem is that you have to look past the guidebook and also do things that many tourists don't do. I love going into stores when I travel that sell things for residents rather than travelers - grocery stores, home furnishings, hardware stores, etc.

Originally Posted by sbm12 View Post
The key is to understand your own personal style of travel and what it takes to have that experience in any particular destination, and then to adapt and assimilate the vast quantities of information available to make such a trip happen.

sbm12 has the jist of it here. Don't substitute a guidebook's judgement for yours and you will be fine. Running away from a guidbook's advice solely because it is in a guidebook is just as bad as slavishly following it. Gather information from many sources and use it to 'guide' your travels - and leave enough time to adjust to new information that you pick up while you travel.

Last edited by You want to go where?; Apr 21, 09 at 10:53 am
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Old Apr 21, 09, 11:13 am
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I always buy at least one - or more - guide for each new place I will visit, always ignore recommended places to stay or dine ... and always leave the guidebook home when I go. I make up a list of potential sites to visit and might Xerox a particularly helpful map or two but have done the research I feel is necessary before leaving for the airport. Books take up space and weight in my carryon, which is all the luggage I ever take.

I think the best use of the guides is to whet the appetite and figure out generally what I want to see and do. I post frequently in one of the area-specific subforums here on FT. One of the most frequently asked questions from first-time visitors is "I am visiting for the first time, have X days, what should I do?" Since there is far more to see and do than can be accomplished in X days, our most frequent response to this virtually unanswerable question is to look through a guidebook for general ideas and come back to the group for specific advice. At least then the newby has some idea of what is available and what might interest him/her.
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Old Apr 21, 09, 11:40 am
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I appreciate the comments here. I completely agree there are sites that should be seen in every city like the major museums, monuments, etc. Had never really thought of the Michelin guide as a "guide book" -- if I had I would have refined that sentence a little bit!

One of the reasons this topic piqued my interest is because of how big the travel guidebook business is, and yet how little value I see it adding.
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Old Apr 21, 09, 12:05 pm
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Originally Posted by abmj-jr View Post
I always buy at least one - or more - guide for each new place I will visit, always ignore recommended places to stay or dine ... and always leave the guidebook home when I go. I make up a list of potential sites to visit and might Xerox a particularly helpful map or two but have done the research I feel is necessary before leaving for the airport.
This seems like a very expensive way to do research and acquire a map or two. If that's your target amount of info why not start with the websites of the travel companies instead?

And I have definitely stayed in properties recommended by guides and had phenomenal stays, but they generally have not been the major chain ones. On that front I actually find the DK guides to be the most helpful.
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Old Apr 21, 09, 12:22 pm
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I'm a Lonely Planet junkie. As others say, use your eyes and brain too, but they have a good range of price points; mix up easy/must see sights with some more adventurous expeditions where you don't meet hordes of fellow tourists; they point you in the direction of good food; they offer some basic phrases in foreign languages that can break the ice with local people; they have maps; they have top tips on avoiding scams; they have typical prices; and the list goes on. Whilst I would avoid a restaurant that claims to be listed in Lonely Planet, most of their listed restaurants don't advertise the fact. They just get on and do what they do best.

On the other hand, I remember being in a couple of places without a guidebook, and you end up just wandering and wandering, aimless and bored. Or you just land up in a bar, drinking to kill time. Tourist information offices just send you to the very, very touristy places (as do most local people). They won't show you the hidden gems, or explain what you are seeing. Restaurants that you chance upon might be good, but IME they might equally well be dreadful.

I had my eyes opened when a friend came to stay here in Edinburgh and brought a Lonely Planet. Reading about my own city, I discovered all sorts of places I never knew existed.

And I've just got back from a week's holiday in Algeria.

In Algiers, I stayed in a hotel I found on the Internet, but used LP to help with food and an excursion on local buses to Tipaza. Without LP, I couldn't have done this - the locals all told me to get a taxi. Not that I'd have known about Tipaza anyway without LP.

In Ghardaia, I stayed in a great place listed by LP and wouldn't have found it (or anywhere else) as Ghardaia isn't really on the web.

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Old Apr 21, 09, 1:07 pm
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Note from a guidebook junkie

Yep, I love 'em. Many previous posters have made some great points. My next trip is Shanghai in 2 weeks, and my Lonely Planet is already dog-eared. I've ordered the DK and Frommer's too. Got the Pimsleur Mandarin scratch-the-surface course, and a phrase book. Been to the forum here, TA, bootsnall and thorn tree. Does that mean I'm going to walk around Shanghai with my nose in a guidebook? No. But I think I'll have a much better time as a result of the preparation I did. And, as important, the preparation itself was a lot of fun, at least for me. A major consideration for me is the short time I have available for each trip. I just don't have time to bumble around getting my bearings.

Did the same on my trip to Panama last year, still managed to have several unplanned, unanticipated experiences. Knowing the ropes does not preclude spontaneity.

buen viaje
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Old Apr 21, 09, 2:31 pm
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I also find guidebooks to be useful as they provide a nice introduction to an area and point out what the highlights are. Does that mean I follow the guidebook slavishly down to the last page? Of course not. But since I tend to take short weekend trips, a guidebook helps me plan out a rough itinerary and figure out things like the best way to get around town so I can hit the ground running when I get in. But I'm also not afraid to get off the beaten path and explore a bit away from the touristy places. I've found gems in both the popular places and in unexpected ones.

I've also never bought a guidebook. My local library has a whole section devoted to guidebooks around the world so I just check out whatever I need for my next trip.
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Old Apr 21, 09, 2:52 pm
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I find the DK guides terrific for quick orientation. What I like is that they contain unique neighborhood maps containing pictures/drawings of buildings, which makes it really easy to find something. I think they're also excellent for getting a sense for which neighborhoods would be fun to explore, which sights we'd particularly enjoy, which we can ignore, etc. These days, we'll research hotels on the internet, but we find the restaurant recommendations in the guide books far more reliable than the local hotel concierge.

As for getting around, we've never had much trouble relying on local transportation, though we'll generally take cabs because (1) we can afford them, and (2) when we're tired, the last thing we want to do is traipse around on buses and trains.

Best of all, the DK guides make great souvenirs, as well as resources to jog our memory for what we'd like to see when we return.

And, no, we don't wear fanny packs, NEVER eat in fast food joints, whether in the U.S. or out, and don't think of it as "weird looking money." I am in my 50s (and my wife is in her 40s), we do carry cameras (what's wrong with that? I'll stack my well-edited travel videos against your memory (or your journal) any time), be were consider ourselves travelers, not tourists, and travel to be in another culture, not to see another culture.

Being a traveler doesn't mean living out of a backpack and not having a plan, nor is someone a tourist based on age, hotel preference or guidebook choice. Frankly, the stereotyped-assumption is insulting.
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Old Apr 21, 09, 8:09 pm
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I'm also a real fan of Lonely Planet and have a number of back-of-book credits there (nice to see your name in print, even if with a thousand other names) and several freebie books piled up. The key thing with LP is the level of detail with maps and other info that'd let a single, independent traveler get along.

Usually it pertains to mundane stuff like finding the bus station or some other important location. LP can be essential, though, if you're trying to be a budget-traveler in a very budget-hostile location, like Tahiti or (10 years ago) Brunei. Anyone can travel on the cheap in a place like Thailand, but going around the South Pacific and trying to do it can be more challenging.

It took a couple of independent trips to really build my confidence in it. Bali in 1996 was a breakthrough, then Cambodia in 1997 (glad I saw Angkor then!), then Nepal, then Maluku/Irian Jaya, Sri Lanka, etc. Felt like learning to ride a bike.

I definitely have the male trait of hating to ask for directions, so LP guides help cut down on that. Do the due diligence, then ask only if still stumped. In some cases there are also predatory types who try to exploit asymmetries of information (taxi touts in BKK airport, people at the Grand Palace who try to tell you it's closed, etc.) They definitely don't represent the population as a whole, but they do try to be among the most visible. LP guides are a good defense against that.

The stock phrases also can make you at least semi-functional where English really isn't spoken. Many places in non-English-speaking countries get enough tourism that many people speak English, but sometimes you can go far enough off the grid that few people you see do. I found that out in Venezuela and in Indonesia east of Bali.
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Old Apr 21, 09, 10:49 pm
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Great topic.

I am one of those who buys a couple of different guides books with different takes on a particular city/area. I find them invaluable in making sure that I remember not only the big spots but also remind me that there are other things that are nice to see. However, I highlight and take notes from them and use my notes to plan my days. The only things I usually carry for the day is a small point and shoot camera, maps that fold into my pocket, my wallet (tucked deep in my front pocket), and a desire to know more about where I am going.

I am headed to Edinburgh, London and Paris next year and have already been taking notes from some guidebooks. While I know that I will want to visit the Eiffel Tower and see the Victoria and Albert, the guidebooks often provide me with a little something more. For instance, one guidebook mentioned that Westminster Abbey has Evensong every night but it is actually sung (except on Wednesdays when it is spoken). A nice tidbit of info since I would love to sing Evensong.

Information from guidebooks, like any information has to be taken with a discerning eye. (No, I am not interested in going to some tourist laden restaurant near Edinburgh Castle.) By the same token, popular guidebooks often have given me some great insight and a few very good recommendations (one Montreal guidebook I had mentioned a small, out of the way cheese shop in a residential area... it was absolutely fantastic and that tip was worth the $12.95 cost of the book).

Of course, I also am not afraid to buy older, cheaper guidebooks because the prices for things listed in any guidebook are out-of-date 10 minutes after the book is published.
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Old Apr 21, 09, 11:02 pm
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Out of curiosity, any thoughts on Lonely Planet vs. Rough Guide?
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Old Apr 22, 09, 7:16 am
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Originally Posted by uavking View Post
Out of curiosity, any thoughts on Lonely Planet vs. Rough Guide?
In general, I think Rough Guide is better on background info (history, culture, etc.), which is one of the things I use guidebooks for. And I detest LP's maps. However, LP publishes guides to a lot more destinations.

But my actual preference is not for any single company. LP tends to be pretty good in Asia and their European city books are actually pretty decent (with infinitely better maps than their other books). Bradt is the best for much of Africa. Footprint is excellent for South America, though some people hate the thin paper they use. Moon and Cadogan are other companies that I think publish good guidebooks. Fodor's and Frommer's are a little more mainstream but have good walking tours.

I usually go to the library and look at several guidebooks there, as well as downloading info from the internet. When purchasing a guidebook, my primary criterion is how recently it has been updated.

And, yes, one of the things I've learned over the years is that the most famous tourist attractions are generally famous for a good reason.
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