While on a 15 hour train ride across Thailand from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, we decided to kill some time by writing a blog post. We were going to write about another of our adventures, but then something on the train caught our eye…Travel Guidebooks. As we looked down the aisle, Lonely Planet, Frommer’s and Fodor’s were in the hands of nearly every backpacker on board. We’ve discussed our dislike for guidebooks before, but at nearly seven months into our RTW trip, our pent-up emotions about these over-hyped stacks of bound paper has reached critical mass.
To all our fellow globe trotters out there, we wish to inform you that despite what you may have heard, Lonely Planet is NOT the Bible. Yes, both books are ridiculously thick and claim to have all the answers to life’s questions, but one has served as the basis of a religion for millennia while the other has a new edition every year (we know the Bible has many editions too, but you get the picture). We are constantly amazed at the number of travelers we see who won’t dare do a thing without consulting their holy book. “Better not stay at this hotel, looks great but it isn’t listed here on page 163.” “Mmm, this street food smells delicious, but the book says that it may cause traveler’s diarrhea.” If you only do what the guidebook says, you’re missing out on a whole lot.
Travel guides claim to be a great resource for the independent traveler, but how independent are you really if you’re reading the same damn book as everyone else? Like our friends at UNESCO, guidebooks have a way of massively publicizing truly special travel destinations, which in turn, leads them to become nothing more than a check mark on people’s bucket lists. “This restaurant is a hidden gem amongst the bustling streets of Tokyo.” Well now that you just told the whole world about it, it’s probably not too secret any more, is it?
While they all include sections titled “Best Of” and “Top Picks,” what guidebooks really give you is mediocrity. Do you really think the writers have the time to visit every hostel, hotel, and guesthouse in a city? They pick a few places, check them out (maybe), and if the place isn’t lethal then it’s good enough for their publication. Their one saving grace may be that when we see a restaurant with a big sign that says “Recommended by Lonely Planet” we know to steer clear. What that sign really means is “we know Lonely Planet is sending a bunch of mindless zombies our way; time to jack up our prices, lower our quality, and give crap service.”
We are not quite done yet. Do you have any idea how much a guidebook costs? If we bought one for each country on our RTW itinerary, we would be out nearly a thousand bucks. We used to think college texts books were the biggest rip-off around; then, we decided to travel the world and found out who the real crooks are. Why pay so much for information that is out of date before it is even published? We find that online forums provide much more accurate and useful information. The cost of these: FREE.
Perhaps it’s our desire to travel the unbeaten path that makes us hate guidebooks, or maybe it’s that we don’t want to see all of the same faces in every city as we make our way around the world. Either way, it’s not hard to realize how empty guidebooks’ suggestions are. Just pick up a copy of Lonely Planet for your country, flip through to the section on your hometown and read it. You’ll notice how much they’ve left out.
So now you have it. That’s our two cents on the guidebook industry. However, unlike the producers of these texts, we don’t think that our opinion is the only one that matters. We want to know what you think! Please take our poll below and/or leave a comment to share your thoughts about guidebooks.