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Travel Guidebooks: To Use or not to Use

Travel Guidebooks: To use or not to use- Travel Tip #8 Guidebooks, guidebooks, guidebooks, a big question. Should a traveler use them? Are they really helpful? Are they worth their weight and cost? Is traveling more enjoyable without them? Can I travel without one? This long rant and more in this travel tip. Be sure [...]

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Travel Guidebooks: To use or not to use- Travel Tip #8

Guidebooks, guidebooks, guidebooks, a big question. Should a traveler use them? Are they really helpful? Are they worth their weight and cost? Is traveling more enjoyable without them? Can I travel without one?

This long rant and more in this travel tip. Be sure to leave your comments and opinions below These are only my impressions. Tell me what you think.

The Cons of Using a Travel Guidebook:

Travel guidebooks tend to be big, heavy, expensive, incorrect, out of date by the time they are published, often times not well researched to begin with, and they make you look like a ripe idiot every time you use it within sight of other people. What is more, is that you can travel the world without one. They are not necessities.

A guidebook is a clear cut sign that you have no idea where you are. I think most travelers feel a little bashful about digging out their guidebooks in a street full of people. It is a flashing sign that you have no bearings on your current landscape. I recently met a Norwegian traveler in Panama City who taped up the cover of his Central America on a Shoestring with a think coat of white medical tape because he was embarrassed of it. He did not want people to know that the book he was coddling reverentially, was, in fact, a guidebook.


Guidebooks also have another major disadvantage to the traveler: they guide you. As much as you want to travel your own path, if you use a guidebook, you will often times find yourself moving very near to most other travelers. This is alright if you want to speak your native language for a few nights or make some traveling friends, or just want to relax and let the book tell you everything you need to know. But it is also a drawback if you really want to interact with the people of the country that you are traveling through. Guidebooks pave the road for tourism, and tourism means that I become Money rather than human. Guidebooks keep you on this trail, as they seem to imply the message that they ‘have the country covered’ and that their listings of places to go are to be chosen from like food on a menu.







Monks in Laos and Chaya with Lonely Planet Guidebook

It is sometimes difficult to leave the realm of the guidebook. Well, if you carry one. They could often times be better used as guide to tell you where NOT TO GO rather than help to travel to where you want. If a place is in that guidebook, you may want to avoid it!

Another disadvantage to these books is that they essentially act as advertising services, even if the publishers deny the claim, as travelers tend to gravitate to the places that are mentioned in the guides. Therefore, a listing in a guidebook is the best advertisement that a hotel or restaurant owner can have, even if they are not worthy of the privilege. This often times has the impact of driving up the prices of the places that are recommended by the major guidebooks. If a hotel is advertized as being cheap, by the time you get there it may not be.

[adsense]One of my major problems with popular travel guides is that they are saturated with useless information. 70% of the bulk of most guides are full of information about shopping, nightlife, mid and upper class hotels restaurants, and other nonsense that I could never use. Why would I want to carry around junk that I can’t use? Why do I want a book that is 70% useless.
My final complaint is that the popular travel guides seem to be living off of their reputations and lack of competition alone. I believe that this is to the point that their quality has greatly diminished. Guidebooks are all too often wrong. The people who wrote them can not be trusted. Sometimes I truly believe that their margin of error is blatant negligence.

But oh well. What can I do? Shut my mouth and make my own travel guidebook? I know not of a more lamentable fate hahaha. Who would want to do that? But finances being what they are, I may have to one day put my nose to the grindstone and find out for myself if a good travel guide is a possibility.

The Pros to Using a Guidebook:

Given all of these drawbacks, when I ask myself the question: “Should I purchase another big, nearly useless, heavy, expensive, price-raising, incorrect guidebook,” my response is usually without much conviction. But for all their drawbacks, guidebooks do occasionally come in handy. And if you can get one for free they can sometimes be good tools. Get one for free???. . . hmm .. . maybe that hostel has a few that were left behind by past travelers??????

I think that the travel guidebook is a really good idea: they have maps, they have immigration information, advice on how to get to other places from where you are, and they also suggest areas of town where you can find a cheap bed and meal. In their ideal form, they are suppose to be nothing other than traveler tracks left for other travelers. I like the ideal of this.

Another great aspect of a guidebook is that, deep down inside of them buried somewhere, they have information to help travelers travel. This sounds very base, but sometimes it is a little difficult to find local people who can really tell you how to get from point A to point B if the distance is beyond their realm of knowledge, or where the cheap hotels are. Guidebooks are also helpful in big cities.

The travel guidebook is also not a new concept. On his monumental Vagabond Journey Around the World, which took place over a hundred years ago, Harry Franck makes references to using guidebooks for some the regions that he traveled through. I also once read somewhere that the Footprint Central America and Mexico guidebook is a descendant of an edition that had its advent in the 19th century. So the travel guidebook is nothing new, people have found them useful for a long time.

If guidebooks were really set up for the traveler rather than the tourist – or “tourists with backpacks” as Andy calls them – I would use them without a hitch. But they are generally not written for people who travel with little money. As the guidebook companies seem to be far more concerned with people who travel to shop and go on tours. I cannot blame them, these are the people with money. So if I do happen to use a guide, I do so with the fact in mind that they are published to be sold, and to sell other things. I know that I must read them and take their information selectively. I know that I cannot trust the information in the guides, and that there are usually cheaper and better alternatives to what is published.

Another great advantage of carrying a guidebook is that they allow you to feel as if you are a little more prepared. They have maps in them that would be difficult to obtain in other ways, they have the addresses of hotels in case you arrive in a city at night and want to take a taxi, and they have information that allows you to orient yourself to your surroundings. Just knowing this, the travel guidebook can help you navigate the world with a little more confidence and in a little more comfort.

I know that if I allow a guidebook to just be a little helper on my journeys then they really do come in handy. But I do not wish to be ruled by them. If I used them only when I have exhausted other methods of obtaining information then they serve as a real good backup device. But I do not like planning my journeys around them. If I can come upon one for free, then pride will be my only barrier to using it.

The best part of having a guidebook is that it is a sure thing guide of where NOT TO TRAVEL.

Do I need a Guidebook?

So when I am pondering if I want to pick up a guide or not I keep the following questions in mind:

1. Can I communicate in the dominant language of the countries that I am to travel in? The ability to ask and understand directions is clutch to removing the need of a guidebook.

2. Have I traveled in this region before? Previous travel experience is an obvious factor in choosing to carry a guidebook.

3. How easy do I think traveling is in the region where I intend to go? Am I going to Western Europe where the traveling is relatively straight forward or Central Africa, where the going is a little more complicated and the assistance of the information in a guidebook could be of a little more use (or not)?

4. Do I have, or can I obtain, good maps for the regions that I intend to travel through? A good road map and supplemental city maps can be a good substitute or accompaniment to a guidebook.

5. Do I have time to do a little preliminary research? Do I have a month of down time before I travel to a region, or am I always on the road at the expense of internet cafes? If you have a solid, cheap internet connection with a printer, the need for a guidebook becomes a little more obsolete.

If I can answer ‘yes’ to most of these questions, then I usually will not use a guidebook, unless I just happen to come upon one. But if I plan on an extended run of travel in a country where I cannot speak the local language and English, Spanish, or Chinese is not a usable option then I may consider obtaining a Lonely Planet Shoestring guide if one is easily available.

Lonely Planet Shoestring Guides:

For the most part, the only popular guidebooks that I can really recommend are the Lonely Planet Shoestring edition. They make no pretense at fully covering countries, and are basically just rough sketches of the regions they cover. I think this is good. They come in handy where they are needed most- in big cities – and they seem to keep quiet about everywhere else. Even though I think that they are not as good as they could be, and in actuality, I am unsure if they are worth their $30 price tag, I find them far better than the rest of the guidebooks out there. Regular Lonely Planet guides are so full of useless information about shopping and upper class nonsense that the quality information for the back-packer or traveler is severely diluted, if not non-existent. Regular LPs are pretty bad, and Rough Guides, Footprints, and Lets Gos are far worse in my opinion.

There is definitely a big market open for someone to make a good, make sense, guidebook.

To Remember:

The following are some ideas that I have found useful to keep in mind while traveling.

1. Guidebooks are often researched and written by people who have money, rental cars, and are living far beyond my budget. It seems to me that a person who is able to travel without much economic restraint is probably not going to put up with the hardships of finding the cheapest and best traveler options. They probably will not even know of them. So there are many more cheaper hotels and restaurants than what are represented in the books. I think that guidebooks are written by people who genuinely wish to share quality travel information, but, I suspect, that they can not be considered in the same economic league as most travelers.

2. Use a guidebook as something that helps you travel rather than something that tells you what to do. The information in a guidebook is just what the researcher happened to come upon; there are usually way more other options. Allow a guidebook to help you to find a cheap part of a city, in which you can select your own options, rather than lead you to the doorstep of any particular hotel or restaurant. If I use a guide, I just consult it when it is needed (as I know that all too often it is wrong).

3. Talk to people. Listen to what the people say who you travel amongst. Share tales and yarns, take notes. Go beyond the guide. Guidebooks tend to not even slice the cream off of what is out there.

Alternative to a Guidebook- Make a Travel Notebook:

Write your own friggin’ guidebook, that is what I say.

The internet is so full of good travel information that I feel as if the guidebook is becoming obsolete. If you have the time to make a “travel notebook” then I think this is the best, and most open, way to travel. Just grab an old school notebook, divide it into sections, paste maps into it, and write down any helpful information that you think you may need. Ask other travelers, hotel owners, tour operators, anyone about the road ahead, and record it all in your notebook. If you get stumped you can always just ask a local, another traveler, or do an internet search to fill in the blank spots. Remember that you can always borrow and take notes from the guidebooks of other travelers that you meet along the way. I think that this is a much more fun way to travel. You are in control of your direction and you can change and alter your notebook as needed.

And when you are finished with it, you can send it to me to put up on Vagabond Fieldnotes Hehehe.

So this is my advice based upon my experiences. As always, take it or leave it.

Walk Slow,

Wade from Vagabond Journey.com

Filed under: Travel Preparation, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3706 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • della Strada November 10, 2011, 11:39 am

    I fall somewhere between “backpacker” traveler and your style / Andy’s style of travel. I hop around, taking random trains to anywhere and travel essentially without a plan beyond seeing whatever parts of the country present themselves to me. [Travel is about people after all, so I don’t really care much about location].

    For me, the only part of the guidebook that I really NEED is hostel addresses/phone numbers, because that’s the only specific thing you need to know if you arrive in a strange city in the dead of night. [Assuming you’ve already researched general in-country scams, rip-offs and safety issues]. But why pay for it, when you can go to a book store, copy down 3 hostels for every major train stop/location you might consider, and travel that much lighter?

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard November 11, 2011, 3:41 pm

      Right on, photocopying the pertinent sections of other people’s guides is a good tip.

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