We got off the ferry in Rhodes, fought our way through immigration (amid a horde of Turks and Greeks who evidently didn’t understand how to queue) and emerged into Greece. I went to pull out my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook to review the map before we went in search of our guesthouse and realized I’d left it on the ferry.
As soon as I realized I’d lost it, I had an attack of separation anxiety unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. We were about to spend 25 days in a new country and I’d never traveled without a guidebook before. I could have left behind my wife or my camera and not felt so lost. Okay, I’d have freaked out had I lost my camera.
Kristi charmed her way back through immigration and had a look on the ferry, but alas, it was gone. Thus we embarked on an experiment: what is travel like without a guidebook?
Lonely Planet and other guidebooks are getting a bit of a bad rap nowadays. Cool travelers declare that they don’t look at them much and many blogs and websites claim to have knowledge or sites not listed in guidebooks. A few days before losing my guidebook, I myself had read a blog post entitled Is Wandering Dead? that asked if we are relying too heavily on books and the internet and not discovering on our own. I commented that I might try to go without a guidebook more.
I got my wish. It wasn’t pretty.
Let’s get back to the Bells at the port of Rhodes. We had a general idea where our guesthouse was and I have a 6th sense when it comes to directions that is almost supernatural. You could kidnap me, put a smelly canvas sack over my head, dump me in the slums of Calcutta and within 20 minutes I’d be at a cheap guesthouse drinking masala chai having found my way out without asking directions. I’m just that good.
So we took off walking through labyrinthian old town Rhodes. After a series of wrong turns and walking in circles, I stepped off a curb and sprained my right ankle. Luckily, my left knee absorbed the entire force of my body and 50 pounds of backpack as I crashed to earth.
The pain was blinding. I managed to drag myself to the curb where Kristi left the backpacks with me and went to ask directions. Another 30 minutes later, we finally found it.
We didn’t have a guidebook for Rhodes or Symi and I can’t say we missed it. We had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do in those towns, thanks to the aforementioned lost guidebook. I use it for pre-planning, reading through it over and over again before the trips.
But before going to the large island of Crete (where we spent eight days) and Athens, we downloaded the Lonely Planet chapters on our iPad. It would have been impossible to tackle Athens without help and although we already knew what we wanted to do in Crete, those chapters proved to be very helpful.
Fellow Oklahoman and former Lonely Planet editor Robert Reid has a great post on his blog entitled How to use a Guidebook. As a test, he researches an area of Italy he has never visited, comparing online sources and print guidebooks. Here is an excerpt from his post:
Then I gave 10 minutes each to research the area in Travel & Leisure magazine, the New York Times travel section, Trip Advisor, and a couple Italy guidebooks (I had Fodor’s and Lonely Planet handy). T&L and NYT only had a couple articles each from the period over the past 10 years, though I found them useful.
On TripAdvisor, I found the “where to go” so elusive, I spent most of my time navigating pages, and then only found limited reward. If you KNOW you need a hotel in Lecce, great, you can find it. But how can you find that Lecce is the place you want? What are you missing, beaches, scenic drives, rugged coasts, cave homes, farmhouse B&Bs. Who knows?
Here’s a sample of what I learned from my experiment:
In the same time period with the two guidebooks, I learned about all these themes/places. And of towns I’d want to visit like Madera, a town used for films like that Passion of Christ because of its timeless look. It’s a place that’s rising, but hard to reach without wheels. As are the masseria, the appealing farmhouse hotels that T&L and NYT talked about. One in particular caught my eye, where a guy with a vintage Alfa Romeo drives you around his farm. That’s fun. I found out how far the region (coasts, mountains, farms, cave villages) is from the popular destinations of Naples and the Amalfi Coast, and how you could add on four or five days…
In short, I had many of my first questions already answered. I made this whole destination feel REAL. I was deeper into “the boot.” And more inspired to go there.
Because of a guidebook.
He says that 80% of the usefulness of a guidebook is in planning the trip. I totally agree.
I use guidebooks to learn about new places, make maps of areas I want to go and get an idea of prices. I am a logistics guy: I want to know how I am getting from point A to point B and nothing beats the guidebook for that.
On our most recent trip, we made all our hotel pre-bookings exclusively through booking.com. All the listed hotels have photos, room choices and up-to-date reviews that are guaranteed to be from actual customers, unlike Yelp or Trip Advisor. Guidebooks are losing their usefulness in this regard.
The Lonely Planet Italy does a terrible job of listing places to eat. In many places the restaurant listings were very expensive with a lack of budget options. Some places listed in Rome had meals starting at 70 euros, which is okay if it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will blow your mind, but the reviews didn’t hint at anything special.
On our most recent trip, we went with the old standby for selecting restaurants – we looked for inviting places that were busy with customers. Somehow, that method works great.
Reunited (and it feels so good)
In Athens, we
robbed a tourist found a 2nd hand LP and used it in Meteora and Thessaloniki where it came in very handy. It was nice to have city maps, transportation info and descriptions of places at our fingertips. I even used it to find a place to eat in Thessaloniki!
I will never scoff at a guidebook again. I totally understand the usefulness, especially with the maps and pre-planning logistics.
And next time I am about to arrive in a new city, I’ll make sure I don’t leave it behind.
What sources do you use when planning a trip?
Do you use a guidebook?
If so, what do you use it for?
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