Are popular guidebooks like the Lonely Planet worth buying anymore?

by | Jun 25, 2015 | English, Travel

Buying a guidebook used to be a prerequisite before heading off on a foreign adventure. I invested heavily (both in terms of money and the additional weight in my bag) in the past on many of the top names in the travel advice industry.

Some of the publications that graced my bookshelf were the Lonely Planet, Let’s Go, Rough Guide, Le Petit Futé and Michelin amongst others.

I was never a big fan of them but 10-15 years ago, it was difficult to have travel information at hand without a bulky guidebook.

Nowadays, the dynamics of traveling have changed dramatically. All the information you need is accessible via a smartphone and recommendations featured in leading guidebooks have a habit of being overrun by tourists. So it actually worth buying a guidebook today?

Lonely planet backpacker

An all too familiar sight when traveling: tourist with a Lonely Planet – but for how long?

So what information is in a guidebook anyhow?

Guidebooks normally feature standard information about travel destinations, e.g. maps, hotels, restaurants, sights, travel options both to get there and local transportation and the history of the city or region. Today all this information can be found quickly via your smartphone: for maps see Google Maps, for restaurant tips see Tripadvisor, for the sights try a quick Google search, for flights type your destination into Skyscanner, for an overview of the history look at Wikipedia etc. So in terms of general information, a guidebook is pretty much redundant.

Also the information available online is more likely to be up-to-date as guidebooks are only updated periodically (like every 5 or 10 years – a huge time lag!). There’s even a website called Wikivoyage that acts as one big free guidebook. So far it’s not looking like the traditional guidebook industry has much of a future …

Can guidebooks successfully innovate?

As many guidebook publishers already have a strong brand name surely they could develop mobile apps with the same information as in the paperback versions? Yes, this is a trend that we are now seeing with many publishers offering city or country guides on smartphone apps. However a fundamental problem remains: why pay for the guidebook app when all the information is available free online in any case? I certainly don’t recommend doing so.

Girls Blumenau Pomerode Festa Pomerana

Me in Pomerode, Brazil – superb trip sans guidebook!

But how about the recommendations? The guidebook authors have checked everything out so I don’t have to, right?

Guidebooks normally provide their authors’ recommendations for restaurants, bars, clubs, hotels etc. so perhaps they could be useful to save you time on your research. While it’s true that I do spend a lot of time researching my trips either before leaving or en route, there are some major disadvantages to relying on the ‘tips’ from major guidebooks:

1. Millions of other tourists are probably reading exactly the same 5 tips and so anywhere recommended is likely to be packed with tourists during the high season especially.

2. Do you really trust the opinion of the authors? Do you know anything about their tastes and preferences? I normally read the short bio at the beginning of the guidebook but that’s not much help and even more so when there are several authors writing.

So is there any future for publishing guidebooks?

Hemingway for whom the bell tolls

One of my favorite books and what I foresee for paperback guidebooks

Despite what might seem to be my pessimism, I do believe that travel writing and guidebooks have a rosy future. It’s just clear to me that the business model needs to change to address some of the problems that I’ve highlighted.

While the generic information is easier to access free via the internet, I still believe that there is a market for individual travel writers who provide real additional value to their readers and with whom their readers can identify.

Thus, I foresee the market becoming more fragmented with readers willing to pay for premium guides from their favorite travel bloggers.

This solves the two problems I’ve outlined above. Firstly, it’s unlikely that an individual author can dominate the industry like a big publisher such as the Lonely Planet. With a blogger’s premium or even freemium guide, you are more likely to get real ‘tips’ that millions of tourists won’t know about.

Secondly, if you regularly read the same authors, you will get a good idea of their tastes and how their preferences correlate with your own. This way you’ll be sure to pick the right travel authors for you personally. This is actually what I do. I always check my favorite travel authors to see if they have already been to my new travel destination to get an idea about what to expect.

Some of the travel blogs I read include Nomad Revelations, Nomadic Matt, Mil Viatges (in Spanish and Catalan) and The Blonde Gypsy.

Should we lament the decline the decline of paperback guidebooks?

I, for one, never had much affection for the traditional guidebooks. They were cumbersome to carry, generic in their information and an essential tourist accoutrement, like ill-fitting shorts, awkwardly hanging cameras around the neck and heavy sweaty backpacks for hostelers.

These unseemly sights are hopefully going to become a less visible occurrence in major cities going forward even if not entirely as extinct as the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Personally, I will not shed a tear upon hearing the death knell for the 20th century’s paperback relics.

Tell me what you think of the Lonely Planet and other major guidebooks in the comments section below!

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